Friday, August 21, 2020

Obituary: Gordon Docherty (2020)

Obituary from the August 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

West London branch regret to have to report the death of Comrade Gordon Docherty in June at the age of 79. He hailed from Glasgow where he joined the local branch in 1964 after listening to Party speakers in George Square. He served an apprenticeship as a turner lathe operator at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Govan and was one of a number of Glasgow comrades who moved to London at the end of the 1960s.

As a skilled engineering worker he had no problem in finding a job, at the Lucas CAV factory in Acton where he was an active trade unionist and AEU shop steward. In 1974 he won a landmark court case – which the New Statesman called ‘the case of Mr Docherty’s furniture’ – which resulted in hundreds of thousands of furnished tenancies becoming unfurnished and so enjoying a greater security against eviction.

He was a regular attendee at branch meetings and other branch events till last year. Our condolences go to his family and friends.

Big Deal! (2020)

The Cooking the Books column from the August 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

When Boris Johnson announced the bringing forward of a modest package of public works, he remarked that,  ‘it sounds positively Rooseveltian. It sounds like a New Deal. All I can say is that if so that is how it is meant to sound to be’ (Times, 30 June). He was referring to the policies pursued by the Roosevelt administration in America in the 1930s.

When Roosevelt assumed office as President in 1933 the US was confronted with an unprecedented economic crisis – a huge fall in output, mass unemployment, a frozen financial system. To try to deal with this, his administration adopted a programme of public works (for which he is remembered) and of restricting production until stocks cleared (which is not remembered, but which is essential before capitalism can recover from a slump).

Re-elected in 1936, he expanded the public works programme. Capitalist production recovered to some extent but in 1937-38 there was another recession. As for unemployment:
‘When Roosevelt ran for re-election in 1936, the unemployment rate was 16.9 per cent, almost twice what it had been in 1930. (…) When Roosevelt ran for the unprecedented third term [in 1940], unemployment was 14.6 per cent.’ (LINK).
No wonder a Times sub-editor, in a note explaining Roosevelt’s New Deal to readers who might not have been familiar with it, wrote:
 ‘The extent to which it helped the US economy to recover from a deflationary recession remains a matter of debate. Some argue that FDR, as the president was known, did not spend enough and that it was the Second World War that finally put the US economy back on track as government spending soared.’
The ‘some’ referred to who wanted FDR to spend more are left-wing reformists, and currency cranks, who do not understand how capitalism works. The Roosevelt administration could in theory have spent more on putting people to work on infrastructure projects but this would have had to have been at the expense of private capitalist investment, a fall in which would have had the opposite effect of more unemployment. But it is true that mass unemployment in the US only ended when the government mobilised resources to fight a war.

The New Deal was opposed by some sections of the capitalist class who regarded it, as Johnson’s hero Churchill put it in an appeal to Roosevelt in 1937, ‘this war on wealth and business, this war on private enterprise’ (quoted in the Guardian, 29 June). Most capitalists, however, were more level-headed. Roosevelt himself was reported as having said, in May 1935, that ‘I want to save our system, the capitalistic system.’

By capitalism he meant private capitalism as production for profit by private capitalist enterprises. This survived as the dominant form of capitalism in the US. It was never really in need of ‘saving’. Nor was capitalism in its more accurate sense of production for profit on the basis of wage-labour, since those Roosevelt wanted to save private capitalism from – the fascists who wanted America to emulate Hitler’s Germany and the ‘communists’ who wanted it to emulate Stalin’s Russia – were merely advocating alternative ways of operating this.

Consumption – not the driver (2020)

The Cooking the Books column from the August 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Interviewed on the Andrew Marr Show on 14 June, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak stated that the economy was ‘driven by consumption’. It is understandable why he might think this since consumption (consumer spending) accounts for some two-thirds of GDP. But it does not follow that it is therefore this that drives the economy. In fact, it isn’t.

Apologists for the system claim that under capitalism ‘the consumer is king’; that, in other words, production is carried on – even initiated – in response to what consumers want as indicated by what they are prepared to pay for and do pay for. But this does not explain how consumers come to have money to spend in the first place.

Most consumers are wage and salary earners who get their spending money from the sale of their capacity to work at a particular job, their labour-power, to an employer. So, where do employers get the money to pay them from? It’s a part of the capital they must have to start up a business and keep it going. Marx divided the capital of a business into constant capital (plant, machinery, raw materials, power, etc) and variable capital (the money to pay the wages of the productive workers it employs).

Under capitalism production is initiated by capitalist firms seeking to expand their capital by making and accumulating profits. It goes like this. Capitalists invest in production, including hiring workers; workers exercise and use up their labour power to produce new value, including the value of their labour power; capitalists pay workers as wages the value of their labour power; workers spend their wages on buying what is needed (food, housing, clothes, entertainment, holidays, etc) to recreate their labour power to replace what they used when they worked; capitalists buy the renewed labour power; and so the circuit recommences.

Marx put it this way:
  ‘From the point of view of society, then, the working class, even when it stands outside the direct labour process, is just as much an appendage of capital as the lifeless instruments of labour are. Even its individual consumption is, within certain limits, a mere aspect of the process of capital’s reproduction … Individual consumption provides, on the one hand, the means for the workers’ maintenance and reproduction; on the other hand, by the constant annihilation of the means of subsistence, it provides for their continued re-appearance on the labour market’ (Capital, Volume 1, chapter 23. Penguin edition p. 719).
What this means is that what workers buy to consume is the reproduction of what variable capital is invested in. Capitalist apologists speak unashamedly of workers as ‘human capital’. Some Marxists describe workers’ consumption as variable capital. This is not strictly true (it’s only that both have the same value) but it gets over the point that workers’ consumption is a part, not the initiator, of the circuit capital goes through to increase its value.

What drives the economy is business investment for profit. This depends on the prospects for profit-making and goes up or down depending on whether these are good or bad. Less business investment means fewer workers employed and so less consumption; more business investment means more consumption. So, far from consumption driving the economy, it’s the other way round. Consumption is the tail not the dog.

Think about socialism (2020)

From the August 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard
In July, BBC Radio 4 ran a series of programmes on ‘rethinking’ things in the light of the experience of the coronavirus and lockdown. Here are contributions sent by two Socialist Party members.
If we want the world to change for the better, we have to change everything. Otherwise we’re just rearranging the deckchairs. And so far that’s what the ‘Rethink’ programmes have been about – slightly different ways of doing the same thing. By ‘the same thing’ I mean vast economic inequality with a tiny number of people wallowing in most of the wealth we all produce. I mean the market forcing its decisions on governments. I mean the whole buying and selling and working for wages system. What do I offer in its place? I offer using the world’s abundant resources to feed, clothe and house everyone to a decent level through a system of voluntary cooperation and democratic organisation with free access to all goods and services. People contribute their work and skills according to their ability and take according to need.It can be achieved by people in a majority getting together, deciding this is what they want and voting for it democratically on a world scale. What can be simpler? Give this system what name you like, it doesn’t matter – all it needs is an effort of the imagination.

 There’s never been a better time to ‘rethink’, but the rethinking has got to be truly radical. It has taken a blip in capitalism for millions of people worldwide to be thrown on the scrapheap and be plunged into despair, for people who never thought it would be possible to have to resort to foodbanks in this country and to face starvation elsewhere. That’s how precarious capitalism is for nearly all of us with its imperative to sell, sell, sell, to consume, consume, consume. Once something happens to prevent that, all hell breaks loose. But, if we don’t do something significant now, the regime we live under will just carry on and all the well–meaning attempts to make things better – for example the green movement, the feminist movement, the BLM movement – will just be co-opted by the system, absorbed into it and there won’t be that fundamental change that’s necessary. By fundamental change I mean looking beyond producing things for profit and instead producing for need via a collective, voluntary effort by humanity as a whole. In that sense the Covid crisis has pointed the way. It’s shown that we can get together collectively and help one another in a constructive organised way. The lesson we need to take from this is that we can and have to organise society in just this way. It’s the need we all have to make money to survive that has caused Covid-19 and that, even without any virus crisis, causes wars and poverty. If we don’t move to a rational, resource-based organisation of society where we are all economically equal, we can ‘rethink’ till we’re blue in the face, but it will be the ‘same old same old’.