Friday, October 16, 2015

Paul Mason and Socialism (2015)

From the Socialism Or Your Money Back blog

Paul Mason (economics editor at Channel 4 and author of the recent book Postcapitalism: a guide to our future) has reported (Guardian Weekly 02.10.15) on a paper by the Morgan Stanley economists Charles Goodhart, Manoj Fradhan and Pratyancha Pardeshi.  Their argument goes that global demographic trends have resulted in a glut of labour that has exerted a downwards pressure of wages for the past three decades (the result of a baby boom in developed economies, urbanisation in the industrialising economies and the entrance of millions of women into the workforce).  As urbanisation peters out and birth rates fall, it is suggested, a labour shortage will develop leading to a rise in the bargaining power and wages of the labour force.  This will counter the predictions of rising twenty-first century inequality by the likes of Thomas Piketty.  We will find out in good time who is closer to the mark.

 In practice any gains by workers will depend not only on global economic conditions (the vagaries of the business cycle) but on the balance of class forces (improvements in pay and conditions need to be maximised by a strong trades union movement) and on the economic, political and cultural conditions in different localities.  Mason, however, regards the report as grist to the mill for his ideas as to how a post capitalist world may materialise.  Faced with the possibility of a higher paid labour force, Mason asserts that the stimulus for businesses to introduce labour saving technology will be increased.  He uses the example of McDonalds, which he says are introducing touchscreen technology to replace that portion of its labour force currently taking orders and payments from customers.  The pursuit of flexible labour markets over recent decades has led to a substantial increase of employees on temporary and informal contracts (a section of the workforce Mason calls the ‘precariat’).  Mason cites another recent report by economists (at Delft University) that such flexible workforces come at the expense of expanded management and limited incentive to increase productivity through technological innovation.  Hence the reason that “it’s common to hear politicians of all stripes say that wages need to rise.”  Mason is concerned that these politicians succeed in tackling the presence of the ‘precariat’.  The theory goes (see his recent book) that continued increases in productivity will see the value of goods reduce to the point where they become virtually free heralding a transition to a postcapitalist era, a sort of lengthy and convoluted transition from capitalism to a kind of communistic society. 

Capitalism undoubtedly does demonstrate a tendency for the price of goods to fall over time due to the development and implementation of labour saving technology.  This drive to reduce labour costs (to maximise profits) is a basic feature of capitalism and not just when wages are rising, after all the touchscreen technology being introduced by McDonalds is being carried out despite its labour force consisting of the ‘precariat’.  The drive to innovate may well be stimulated by rising wages but it is doubtful whether the trend for increasing productivity will reduce the value of a significant amount of goods to the point where their value is negligible at any point in the next 50-100 years, despite the fact that some goods can or could do (digital technologies).  Such developments certainly do highlight a major contradiction of capitalist production - an increase in material wealth (more goods) leads at the same time to a fall in the value (per unit) of those goods.  However, waiting for this trend to result in a postcapitalist world will probably be like waiting for Godot.

 There are contradictions enough in capitalist production for workers to see the necessity in ending it, not just following through the logic of its development.  Just as the transition from feudalism to capitalism entailed political struggle, battles over different visions of the future, of different ideals, so will the transition from capitalism to socialism.  The difference is that now the struggle is not over one group of owners, of rulers, supplanting another in a struggle in which intentions and ideas were often veiled (by religion) and unconscious.  Marx has some interesting things to say on this when he writes about the fetishism (veiled appearance) of commodities: “The veil is not removed from the countenance of the material process of production, until it becomes production by freely associated men, and stands under their conscious and planned control.” (Capital, vol.1, p.173)  In other words, the transition from capitalism to socialism, by necessity, has to reject capitalist social relations (appearing as a society of free and equal exchange but based on exploitation and the extraction of surplus value from workers) and establish a new society of free association and conscious and planned control of economic activity.  In other words, the transformation of a society based on commodities and value (buying and selling) to one based on the free exchange of use-values, the establishment under democratic control of the means of living (nature, factories, transport, etc.).  A transition between capitalism and socialism must therefore have to be conscious and clear-sighted and involve a relatively short period of rapid social change, a revolution, a break from one kind of society to another.

 The contradictions within capitalism of the kind that Mason cites, that make some goods effectively free (as examples of different social possibilities), may be part of the story of how such a revolution comes to pass.  However, there will, at some point, need to be conscious process of social change and not, as Mason suggests, a lengthy opaque and semi-conscious process where various policies are advocated that would encourage the digital revolution in order to transfigure capitalism rather than end it.
Colin Skelly

Without distinction of sex (1979)

From the December 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

If women's bodies are used to sell everything from mustard to motor cars, this is an expression of their peculiar oppression under capitalism. Whether we examine the family, women's sexuality or women's employment opportunities, we find the same kind of story.

Young girls are systematically trained for the role of wife and mother, with dolls and toy Hoovers as playthings. Throughout their school years too they are conditioned to accept that the highest - indeed only - calling for a woman is the servicing of a man's needs and the bearing of "his" children. By the time such girls enter the employment market as young women, they are less qualified than their male peers and are taken less seriously by their employers, who see them as a pool of cheap and docile labour. Their comparatively low wages and even lower prospects at work then serve as yet another inducement to leave the labour force and take up the role they have in fact been prepared for from birth.

And so, under capitalism, a woman has become the biggest-bargain-ever package-deal to hit the market. With an attractive wrapper to please its owner, this package-deal includes sexual services, baby production line, household servant and general comforter-cum-ego-booster for a bargain price of board and lodging only, with the occasional lipstick thrown in to smarten up the weary wrapping paper.

But it is not only capitalism that has oppressed women; the history of women's oppression is also the history of property society in all its forms. In property society a woman's sexuality and child-bearing are not under her control or subject to the widest interests of the community, but must be subordinated to the needs of the patriarchal family and ensure "legitimate" heirs. The nature and extent of women's oppression in different phases of property society can vary a great deal, but can be understood only when seen as part of the development of the system of social relations of production, together with the ideological forms of that society, such as religion. So, for example, to understand the position of women in Iran today, we have to look both at the development of the social relations of production of that country and the religious teachings of the established Muslim church.

In linking women's oppression to property society, we differ from those who argue that women's enemies are men. This view has led some sections within the Women's Liberation Movement to dissociate themselves from men both in personal life style (for example women's communes and political lesbianism) and, in political activities (women-only demonstrations and "consciousness-raising" meetings.)

But the force behind women's oppression is given ultimately by the property basis of society. Under capitalism, women's oppression can be understood in terms in the needs of capital and the amassing of profits. And where profits are made by selling commodities on the market, there will be a tendency to also put a price on all those goods and services traditionally located outside the market. Consequently, sex itself has become a marketable commodity on an enormous scale.

Sometimes it is in capitalism's interest to bring about reforms which are also in women's short-term interests. In periods of labour shortage, for example in times of war, positive steps are taken to encourage women to enter the labour force through provision of child care facilities. When capitalist planners feel that the population is growing too swiftly, contraception is more readily available and may even be provided free of charge. As industry requires a more skilled workforce, so women too may have greater access to increased educational facilities. However, there are other ways in which the interests of capital run counter to women's interests. Commercial exploitation of women's sexuality has been increasing over a number of years and it is difficult to conceive of personal relations not being exploited in some way as a result. Access to the employment market and the economic need for married women to take a job outside the home has resulted in double shift working for many, who effectively have two jobs to run.

Hence we come to the question of whether it is possible to put an end to women's oppression within the framework of property society and whether the aims of the WLM can be achieved within a capitalist framework. On the one hand, women are being drawn increasingly into the labour force and some women (and some men) are questioning the validity of gender-based roles. But on the other hand, more subtle forces of sexual exploitation are resulting from the increased commercialisation of all aspects of our lives.

But there is one aspect of women's position under capitalism that we have not yet considered. So far, only women's oppression as women has been discussed; but the majority of women are also members of the working class and are therefore dependent on the sale of labour-power, their own and their husband's, in order to buy food, clothing, housing - the things they need to live. And, as workers under capitalism, there is no way that women's (or men's) problems can be solved within a capitalist framework. Even with adequate childcare facilities (are any facilities adequate under capitalism?) and abortion on demand (what standard of care under a creaking National Health Service even without harsh Tory cuts?), women would still be subject to all the pressures and material deprivations of working or housekeeping under capitalism. This is the reason why it is in all our interests—as women and as men and as workers—to struggle for socialism where human needs will be put first.

This may seem an attitude similar to the "socialist feminist" within the Women's Liberation Movement. However, the "socialist feminists", in spite of their recognition of the role of capitalist and property society in the oppression of women, focus their energies on trying to secure improvements for women within capitalism, rather than struggling to achieve a socialist consciousness among the entire working class in order to overthrow capitalism now. In this they are representative of the left-wing generally who, in spite of their revolutionary rhetoric, dissipate their energies in pursuing ameliorative measures within capitalism, and, in so doing, reinforce both capitalist ideology and capitalism itself.

Instead of equal or "fair" pay, socialists emphasise the necessity to abolish exchange relations altogether. Socialism will institute free access to the goods we need, in the complete absence of commodity or property relations. This is the only guarantee that every individual, as part of a caring community and irrespective of gender, age or colour, will have the  means to live freely and fully. Thus the answer to the charge that women are still oppressed in countries such as Russia and China is that, yes, women are oppressed there, but this is because these countries are state capitalist.

Socialists share the WLM's distrust of leaders and rejection of hierarchical political structures, but for quite different reasons. While their objection to hierarchical structures is based on their perception of them as patriarchal forms of oppression, we argue that they are the result of the power relations deriving from the property basis of society, and as such are antithetical to a socialist organisation and a socialist society.

But if capitalism is to be overthrown then the working class must be united. Women and men, whatever their age or colour, have to work together in the fight for socialism. This is where we cannot agree with the Women's Liberation Movement; they are struggling for the liberation of women only, whereas the socialist struggle is aiming at the liberation of all, regardless of gender , age or colour.
Viv Brown