Sunday, August 21, 2016

Running Commentary: Strikers condemned (1980)

The Running Commentary column from the May 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

Strikers condemned
More than 5,500 workers were out on strike as a wave of industrial unrest spread to hitherto uninvolved plants. The week-long spate of walk-outs and go-slows affected 27 firms in five cities. A total of more than 8,700 people had stopped work since strikes started and more than 750 of them had been dismissed as a result. The dispute was over pay, a shorter working week and guaranteed pension funds. A spokesman for the employers’ association said he was “gravely concerned’’ and the trade union congress issued a statement expressing hope that the government would “respond constructively in solving the problem”.

These familiar events took place a few weeks ago, not in Britain or the industrialised West but in newly “liberated” Zimbabwe. The government’s response, however, was somewhat blunter than European wage slaves are used to. (Give them time and they’ll no doubt learn to refine their language.) Mugabe’s spokesman pointed out that all strikes were at present illegal; that companies that had dismissed their workers were within their rights; and that strikers were liable to arrest and prosecution. Any of the black population who remained in doubt as to the nature of their recent “liberation” had the position forcefully explained to them by the new Minister of Labour, Mr Kumbirai Kangai. Freedom, he said, did not mean that a worker could do or behave as he wished. “Discipline at work must remain part and parcel of the freedom we have attained” (The Times, 22 March). He told the strikers that his colleagues were deeply disappointed in them, and that by behaving in such a manner they were hurting themselves and the government. The new Minister of Mines echoed his remarks: “We believe in a competitive economy . . .  a lot of teaching of the people is necessary”.

We, however, did not need confirmation that African nationalism is the ideology of a would-be ruling and exploiting class. It is those workers, black and white, who dreamed that the election of Mugabe’s Zanu PF party would further their interests that have had an early and rude awakening. African nationalism may talk of democracy, but this is not its concern at all. The history of the continent’s independent states shows that any attempts of the working class to organise themselves have been resisted. One function of the new Zimbabwe State will be to hold down the working class in the interests of capital accumulation, to train the work force to become hardworking, obedient wage slaves. And as in all other countries, the important social division is that of class, not colour or race.

Marx and the monetarists
Some of the Chancellor’s best friends are monetarists, but you’ll be relieved to hear that Karl Marx isn’t among them. In his budget day television broadcast, Geoffrey Howe suggested that the government’s policy of restricting the “money supply” as a means of combatting inflation would have met with the approval of socialism’s greatest theorist. “It is a great pity”, he said, “that its (monetarism’s) practical, commonsense importance has been so confused by arid, theoretical dispute”, adding that “even” Marx had believed in it. The Chancellor had possibly picked up this, to him, amusing titbit from the guru of “monetarism” himself, Milton Friedman. Interviewed in the Guardian (1 March), Friedman declared:
“The quantity theory of money is a scientific proposition. It is not political. Karl Marx was a monetarist, because he believed that increases in the supply of money push up prices.” 
Sir Geoffrey has not exactly got it right. The Marxian explanation of inflation and the views of modern monetarists differ in important respects and have been discussed in our pages many times. Over the years, the Socialist Party has been alone in pointing out that inflation is the result of governments printing too much money, but this is not synonymous with Friedmanite doctrine and should not be confused with the present government’s views.

First, Marx only accepted the Quantity Theory of Money (which says, basically, that the level of prices is determined by the amount of money in circulation) as valid where inconvertible paper currency is in use; where the currency was gold (and/or a convertible paper currency) this was not the case. On the contrary, said Marx, refuting the ideas of the classical authors of this theory, Hume and Ricardo, it was the level of prices (and of economic transactions) that determined the quantity of money in circulation — and which, we might add with Marx, still determines the quantity of an inconvertible paper currency that should be issued to avoid inflation.

Second, by “money” Marx understood basic cash — notes and coin. He did not include, as most modern “monetarists” do, bank deposits in the “money supply”. Third, Marx was merely concerned here with analysing and understanding how capitalism worked, not with laying down a monetary policy for capitalist governments to pursue. He must not be regarded, therefore, as an advocate of a non-inflationary currency policy.

Cheap life and death
The News of the World of 23 March told of an elderly widow who got into serious debt paying for her husband’s funeral, even when the insurance she had taken out was added to the Government death grant. The latter was fixed at £30 in 1967, since when prices have trebled. The Labour opposition’s move to increase the amount to £45 (intended, no doubt, to show their newly-found “compassion”) was resisted by the Government in the person of Mrs Chalker, Under Secretary of Health and Social Security. She accepted that some people had extreme difficulty in meeting funeral costs but had “nothing but understanding for them”. As if to compensate for this, a group of Tory MPs tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the Chancellor to increase child benefit by £1.20 instead of the proposed 75p.

In the same week, five Civil Service unions issued a pamphlet criticising the proposed engagement of 1,000 extra inspectors to stop what the government considers to be £50 million in social security “fiddles”, and claiming that the same number employed on income tax evasion would save ten times as much. (Since, over a 20 year period, only one business in twenty has its returns investigated, the unions may well have understated their case.) The general secretary of the Inland Revenue Staff Federation remarked: “If we could get it all it would be enough to take 5p off the basic rate of income tax”. (Guardian, 20 March)

Two other recent articles in the Guardian emphasised yet again capitalism’s priorities, this time in the field of health. In one (10 April), Dr Alf Spinks, former director of research at ICI, stated that cost prevented the full testing of chemicals in daily use to see whether they could cause cancer. In the other (20 March), Dr Tony Wing o(the European Dialysis and Transplant Association remarked that many of the 1,000 kidney patients who die in Britain every year could be saved if money were available to give the treatment. We also had the Sunday Express (6 April) reporting, on its front page, the plans of American medical firms to set up in Britain and Europe “Buy your Blood” collection points that could also involve the purchasing of human organs for spare part surgery. The “British” blood would then be sold on what is a growing international market.

All these news items show capitalism for what it is: a system of society incapable of meeting the needs of its members; that employs cost-benefit analysis in the treatment of human suffering, as in all spheres of social life. The working class will be made the scapegoats for capitalism’s problems so long as they aspire to nothing better than “5p off” instead of “3p off’.

Still, there is some good news. The Daily Telegraph of 6 April reported the building of a factory at Old Buckenham, Norfolk, which will be producing veneered polystyrene coffins for workers at “half the price”.
Melvin Tenner

1 comment:

Imposs1904 said...

Note: There was a passage in the Marx and Monetarists which was amended because of a correction printed in the September 1980 Socialist Standard,