Tuesday, June 22, 2021

What sort of state is Israel? (2021)

From the June 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

There appears to be more of an understanding that the state of Israel seeks to establish a form of religious apartheid but which supporters of Israel vigorously deny.

In our analysis of the South African regime of racial apartheid, we were perhaps unique in our hopeful anticipation of its dismantling because we considered that the capitalists running the country’s industry themselves found such a strict racial divide an obstacle to their profits. It was not because of any global boycott but rather the need to fully integrate the nation’s black population into the economy as productive workers and lucrative consumers.

We pointed out in one of our pamphlets:
 ‘Apartheid is essentially a pre-capitalist form of oppression; it is an attempt to impose the colour patterns of a frontier farming community onto a modern industrial economy. It will never work properly because what the government is trying to separate the economy keeps bringing together… South Africa’s big capitalists want to encourage this tendency of capitalism so that they can make more profits on the basis of a modern wages system and a stable, integrated urban working class. They recognise apartheid as an obstacle to this and oppose it’.
However, the situation in Israel is not the same. When the first Intifada in 1987 exposed the vulnerability of a reliance upon daily West Bank workers for Israel’s business, the policy of importing migrants from the Far East and Eastern Europe was adopted to bolster the labour supply, all hired on temporary contracts, denying them any chance of permanent residency. There are currently over 300,000 migrant workers in Israel who were described in 2003 by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network and the International Federation for Human Rights report as ‘contemporary form of slavery’ (fidh.org).

Similarly, the outright rejection of 35,000 or more, mainly African, asylum-seeking applicants demonstrates a bias against non-Jewish newcomers who are nevertheless employed in menial jobs replacing West Bank Palestinian workers who are increasingly superfluous to the labour needs of Israel’s capitalist economy.

In March 2019 we reported on how the Israeli government is displacing (to use the polite word for ethnically cleansing) its own Bedouin second-class citizens. How much worse it is for those who are considered captive civilians.

In 2006, former American president, Jimmy Carter, wrote a book called Palestine: Peace or Apartheid? and remarked in an interview:
‘When Israel does occupy this territory deep within the West Bank, and connects the 200-or-so settlements with each other, with a road, and then prohibits the Palestinians from using that road, or in many cases even crossing the road, this perpetrates even worse instances of apartness, or apartheid, than we witnessed even in South Africa’ (bit.ly/3f640f4).
In 2011, the Russell Tribunal on Palestine ‘found grounds to conclude that Israel’s rule over the Palestinian people under its jurisdiction, regardless of their zone of residence, collectively amounts to a single integrated regime of apartheid’ (ohchr.org).

Then in 2017 a report (bit.ly/3f640f4) was published by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) which described Israel as an apartheid state. The diplomatic pressure from Israel’s allies very quickly buried that report and it disappeared from the public discourse.

The Israeli human rights organisation, Yesh Din, published a legal opinion in 2020 where it argued that apartheid was being practised. ‘The crime of apartheid is being committed in the West Bank because, in this context of a regime of domination and oppression of one national group by another, the Israeli authorities implement policies and practices that constitute inhuman acts as the term is defined in international law’.

Another Israeli human rights campaign group, B’Tselem, issued their findings in January 2021, A Regime of Jewish Supremacy From the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. This is Apartheid. It said ‘B’Tselem rejects the perception of Israel as a democracy (inside the Green Line) that simultaneously upholds a temporary military occupation (beyond it). B’Tselem reached the conclusion that the bar for defining the Israeli regime as an apartheid regime has been met after considering the accumulation of policies and laws that Israel devised to entrench its control over Palestinians’.

The report describes how Israel systemically privileges Jews over Palestinians: permitting immigration for Jews only; appropriating land for Jews while crowding Palestinians into enclaves; restricting Palestinian freedom of movement, and denying Palestinians the right to political participation. The report also points to the 2018 nation-state law, which establishes ‘Jewish settlement as a national value’ and enshrines the Jewish people’s ‘unique’ right to self-determination to the exclusion of all others.

The international rights body, Human Rights Watch, in its April report is the latest to level the charge of apartheid against Israel. HRW stated that:
 ‘Israeli authorities use a series of policies and practices to methodically privilege Jewish Israelis and repress Palestinians. The severity of the repression carried out in the OPT [occupied territories] amounts to ‘systematic oppression’ by one racial group over another, a key component for the crime of apartheid as set out in both the Rome Statute and Apartheid Convention.’
Answers are not found in segregating peoples and enforcing separation by decree such as with the American Jim Crow laws. Nor do solutions lie in the creation of sovereign states, nor in retaining them, but rather in their complete elimination.

What’s left of Labour? (2021)

"Look away, look away."
From the June 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Labour Party suffered something of a defeat in the 2021 local elections. The Conservative Party gained 13 councils, 235 councillors, where Labour lost 8 councils, and 327 councillors. That a party which has been in continuous power for over a decade keeps making gains is surprising, to say the least. It seems the last year – despite promises of a new Labour (though, assuredly, not New Labour) – has been more of the same for the party. Why? Certain commentators have offered their speculations. Typically, they’re what you’d expect – Labour is still in the claws of the radical left (viz. trade unions, ‘Corbynistas’, and other public enemies), and unless Keir Starmer steps up and frees it, it faces an existential threat.

In an article about the leadership elections in May last year we wrote that the radicalism Starmer campaigned on seemed even then to be vacuous, but what was hard to foresee was just how harsh the crackdown on the Labour Left would be. The business press weren’t afraid then, and they certainly aren’t afraid now. So, if the explanation that Labour is failing because it’s trying to pander to the radical left is incorrect, what is happening? The facts of the matter seem quite clear: voters believe Labour has nothing to offer them. People have no idea what the party stands for, to say nothing about the leader in particular, and there has been little to no attempt to lay out any concrete policy, beyond flat-footed attempts to get votes, like flag-waving and ‘dressing smartly’ (Guardian, 2 February).

The new leadership
The shadow cabinet has taken a number of stances that represent (and they are keen to emphasise this) a break from what came before. A defining feature of the current opposition was characterised by Starmer himself in his victory speech: ‘Under my leadership, we will engage constructively with the government. Not opposition for opposition’s sake. Not scoring party political points or making impossible demands’ (Independent, 2 April 2020). The campaign slogan was ‘A New Leadership’, another attempt to emphasise that this is no longer the party of Jeremy Corbyn, who has been stripped of the Labour whip since the end of October 2020. Many MPs regarded as on the left of the party, like John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, have not been afforded the sort of positions they were earlier. A lot of that was to be expected. Rebecca Long-Bailey was briefly on the front bench until she was sacked in June. If there has been one thing that defines the Starmer shadow cabinet, it’s the repeated message that it is not a continuation of the Corbyn shadow cabinet.

Quite interesting is how the reshuffles and sackings have been treated. Jeremy Corbyn was often accused of ‘Stalinist’ purges (Times, 22 October 2015; politicshome.com, 24 March 2018), but the media response to Keir Starmer’s responses to the Labour Left does not at all call back to Red Scare smear tactics. On the contrary, one need only look at the sort of line taken by the London Times on the issues: Starmer must ‘face down the left of his party’ (11 May). The leading article goes on to admonish the leader: ‘He ought to have realised by now that the left of the party wants him to fail. That would allow them a perverse sense of vindication in believing that voters yearn for full-blooded socialism.’

Whether the left of the party wants him to fail or not, it seems he is doing so by his own lights. Starmer himself claims Labour has ‘lost the trust of working people’, and that he takes ‘full responsibility’ for the defeats (a day before sacking Angela Rayner). Much of the discussion is about ‘trust’ and ‘reconnecting’; very little is about the actual policies proposed, or the lack thereof.

The case is quite well illustrated by tax policy. Quite different to the Corbyn-era manifesto’s ‘harshest tax regime on business income among large advanced economies’ (FT, 22 November 2019), Labour said it would oppose any raising of corporation tax, and didn’t rule out voting against a windfall tax on supermarkets, though those were proposals by the Conservative Party (Independent, 24 February).

The platform Starmer ran his leadership campaign on was a radical platform – the 10 Pledges, still on his website, promise as the very first priority ‘economic justice’, including a reversal of cuts to corporation tax and ‘No stepping back from our core principles’ (keirstarmer.com/plans/10-pledges).

The about-face is far reaching. New Labour notwithstanding, the party has historically been intimately linked with the trade union movement – indeed, was once regarded as just the extension of the movement into parliament. Starmer refused Unite’s letter demanding an end to fire and rehire tactics (Skwawkbox, 6 May). This extends even to NHS worker demands: the Royal College of Nursing is preparing for a strike over the government’s promise of a 1 percent pay rise. They demand a 12.5 percent pay rise for all nurses, but Starmer has offered support only for a 2.5 percent increase (and promises negotiation ‘up from there’). Polling has reflected this. 32 percent of 1,843 healthcare workers intended to vote Labour in the 2021 local elections, whereas this figure was at 82 percent in polling for the 2019 general election. Other breaks include security policy – unions and campaign groups demanded the party vote against the ‘Spy Cops’ bill, which grants state organisations freedom to commit serious crimes, but the Labour leadership ordered abstentions. As a result, an amendment proposed by Shami Chakrabarti that would have denied undercover agents immunity was defeated 309 to 153 (Guardian, 13 January).

Speculative pieces
Mainstream commentary inverts the issues precisely. The BBC reports that ‘a prominent politician who spent some time campaigning in Hartlepool blamed the hollowing out of the party during the Corbyn era, with strong organisational, as much as political expertise and experience, lost’ (BBC, 7 May). The figureheads of political expertise and experience are speaking up, as it happens – both Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair have written extensive speculative pieces about how they think Labour should have acted and why it has faced yet another defeat. Mandelson criticises the ‘power of hard-left factions that abuse [the trade union link]’, such as Mick Whelan and Len McCluskey, who ‘use Labour as a political plaything to pursue their ultra-leftism, which is completely unrepresentative of both their own members’ and Labour members’ views.’ Blair’s reflections are equal in their force and content. On Good Morning Britain, he emphatically places the ‘Far Left’ seizing the leadership of the party as the cause for its defeat (Independent, 12 May).

To look at the more liberal end of the discussion, for commentators who don’t want to be quite as harsh on the party as Blair and Mandelson, another explanation has to be conjured up to deal with Labour’s defeat. Naturally, a new term is coined: ‘Pasokification’. After the Greek centre-left party, PASOK, haemorrhaged votes from 2009 to 2015, losing them to the left-wing party Syriza, the term was coined to refer to the decline of moderate social democracy. This has supposedly been ‘a continuing problem for Labour’ (Guardian, 8 May). There’s something to this, to be sure – there looks to be less and less room for centrism in politics, contra Blair. Yet it’s not so much the pursuit of centrist policies that voters are sceptical of, in this specific case, it’s more the lack of pursuit of any specific policies, easily confused with centrism. Blair and Mandelson are in a particularly apt position to make the sorts of claims they make, as they don’t have to come up with any concrete policies – none are mentioned or even gestured towards. Starmer’s problem seems to be that he touts this sort of rhetoric without any policies to back it up, and of course, unlike Blair and Mandelson, he can’t get away with that. And this is exactly what voters recognise.

Mandelson and Blair both make the claim that it is being out of touch, or unrepresentative, that led to Labour’s loss. Factual claims should be assessed as such: polling rules that analysis out conclusively. Based on a survey of 775 people, a lack of policies is by far the biggest reason people did not vote Labour in the local elections (jlpartners.co.uk/local-elections), and the biggest reason voters defected is the leadership itself. Unions were mentioned in the former survey but were as significant as the word ‘joke’, and less significant than the word ‘useless’, both quite low in the ranking. The most popular reason for voting Conservative was ‘job’, and one of the most popular reasons people didn’t vote Conservative was corruption. Those are all good indicators of where Labour went wrong.

There has been a lot of criticism of government sleaze, from flouting lockdown restrictions to simply handing over huge amounts of public funding to private power. Sir James Dyson simply needed to ask for no change in tax status for his staff, and Boris Johnson vows to ‘fix it’. Of course, this is nothing new – fresh allegations of lobbying in favour of financial services company Greensill have come out about David Cameron. Yet, what criticism Labour has made of Tory sleaze seems to be too much for establishment journalists. A column in the Times (4 May) warns Labour that ‘Starmer is making a big mistake on sleaze […] It could tarnish Labour, as antipathy rises towards politicians in general rather than the Tories in particular.’ There is an element of truth to that, but as mentioned above, the electorate is much more sensitive to Tory corruption than Labour’s. That may be partly explained by the fact that the Tories happen to be the incumbents, but it hardly amounts to an argument that opposition parties must tread lightly. This being said, the point about disillusionment with politicians and the democratic process as it stands generally is one worth pursuing, even if it is not seriously taken up by the commentators themselves.

As is often the case, none of the liberal discussion has any mention of voter turnout. In England especially, voter turnout for local elections is often low – as low as a third in many cases. The only concern is the ruthless drive for a higher vote share. People do not feel motivated, and especially so in local elections, to vote. And why would they? It’s been a well-recognised fact for a while that local government has been largely incapacitated for the last decade or more, and that this is a serious threat to a well-functioning democracy. To take one example, the LSE Democratic Audit reported in 2018 that ‘The cumulative adverse impacts of austerity [… on …] local government have rapidly increased since 2015. Civil service efficacy has radically declined, the quality of public services has significantly worsened, and local government has been hollowed out’ (democraticaudit.com).

The tack Labour has taken does little to change that. What strategies they have are pursued out of a narrow interest in increasing vote-share by appealing to aesthetics and emotion, viz. ‘patriotism’ and ‘dressing well’. A cynic might easily draw the conclusion that this is really a sort of condescension towards the working class, who are taken to be unable to differentiate substantive positions from mere play-acting. Whether one chooses to follow the cynic in that or not, the problem remains that a campaign that rests solely on the principle of ‘We aren’t Corbynistas,’ can’t work. It still can’t work if you add the principle ‘We aren’t the Tories’, either, especially when the rhetoric of the campaign revolves crucially around co-opting Conservative talking points about patriotism, traditions, so on.

Does Labour face an existential crisis? Perhaps something not quite as strong as that, but an identity crisis, certainly. It may end up turning back to anodyne centrism and wearing that on its sleeve – certainly if Tony Blair’s ideas are followed – and nothing said so far rules that out completely. However, it’s clear the immediate situation is that no one, including the party itself, seems to know what Labour stands for anymore. In some cases, it’s easy to tell what the party leadership opposes, but very little has actually been offered in terms of concrete policy proposals. It is losing funding from unions, and according to Andrew Fisher, the small donations, which poured in during the Corbyn era, ‘have dried up’ (iNews, 11 May). Perhaps the only option left is pandering to business, or turning back to Corbyn-style leadership. A good deal of the most important facts are left out by the commentariat. For instance, it is not that Labour simply is out of touch with its base – they genuinely do not feel like there is anything coherent in the programme as it stands (insofar as a programme exists). Vilification of ‘ultra-leftist’ unions and ‘public ownership of industry’ as outdated reflects a particular political stance more than it reflects public opinion, and claims that ‘All the evidence is that [Labour] can only [find a coalition] by building out from the centre ground’ are all well and good as spirited liberal discussion go, but ultimately amount to speculation from the armchair (despite the mention of evidence). Though the path that the opposition leadership will follow isn’t quite clear yet, it does seem that whatever is going to be left of Labour after this, it won’t be the Left.
M. P. Shah

Cooking the Books: Lights Out (2021)

The Cooking the Books column from the June 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Arising out of our review in February of Aaron Benanav’s Automation and the Future of Work, in which he mentions companies like Tesla ‘pushing toward “lights out” production, in which fully automated work processes, no longer needing human hands, can run in the dark’, a reader has asked:
‘How can a production facility without human labour power (variable capital), as the only commodity capable of adding surplus value in production, possibly be profitable?'
Although in Marx’s day a ‘lights out’ factory was not an issue, it is an extreme case of something that he did consider when, in chapters 8-10 of volume III of Capital, he dealt with the emergence of an average rate of profit which all capital would tend to make.

Our reader is correct. Labour power, when activated, is the only source of surplus value, and so of the profits capitalist enterprises make. Thus Marx called the capital invested in buying it ‘variable’ capital as its value ‘varied’, increased in size, in the course of the production process. The value of the capital invested in plant, machinery, materials, power, etc was transferred unchanged into the value of the product; so Marx called it ‘constant’ capital.

But there was a problem. Assuming that the productivity of all labour power was the same in that any given amount produced the same amount of surplus value, this would mean that industries using more would make a larger profit than those employing less.

To illustrate this point Marx compared five different industries with different average combinations of constant and variable capital. Two will suffice to illustrate his point: one 60 constant and 40 variable; the other 90 constant and 10 variable. The surplus value produced in the first would be 40 and in the second 10, meaning that, if each retained the surplus value produced in it, the rate of profit in the first would be 40 percent and in the second 10 percent.

However, this is not what happens. Industries with a lower proportion of variable capital do not make less profits and, if they did, there would be no incentive for capitalist enterprises to adopt the less labour-intensive, more technologically advanced production methods that is one of capitalism’s observable tendencies.

What happened, Marx explained, was that, as capital flowed into the industries producing more surplus value and out of those producing less, this led to changes in amounts produced and their price that meant in the end that capital of the same size invested in any industry would tend to make the same rate of profit. It was as if all the surplus value produced was pooled and shared out in proportion to the size of the total capital (constant plus variable) invested. In our example, with the total capital invested of 200 and total surplus value produced of 50, the rate of profit in both industries would be 25 percent.

As Marx put it,
  ‘However an industrial capital may be composed, whether a quarter is dead labour and three-quarters living labour, or whether three-quarters is dead labour and only a quarter sets living labour in motion, so that in the one case three times as much surplus labour is sucked out, or surplus value produced, as in the other, ….in both cases it yields the same profit’. (Chapter 9, Penguin edition, p.270)
The same would apply to capital invested in a ‘lights out’ factory. The fact that it would be composed of 100 percent dead labour would be irrelevant; it would still tend to attract the same rate of profit as any other industrial capital of the same size, despite not contributing anything to the pool of surplus value as it did not use any value-producing, living labour.

Capitalism and Automation: Progress Perverted (2021)

Book Reviews from the February 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard
We discuss two recent books on the effects of automation under capitalism.
Aaron Benanav’s Automation and the Future of Work (Verso) is one of a significant number of books published in recent years offering serious critiques of modern capitalism that tend to have one thing in common. While usually describing themselves as ‘anti-capitalist’, in the solutions to the problems they point to in the capitalist system they almost always end up with recommendations not on how to end the system but on how to improve it, how to make it run more ‘caringly’, more ‘fairly’, more ‘equitably’. Lacking a vision of a wholly different kind of world than the current one based on buying and selling, money and wages, and profit, these books advocate action to achieve various reforms, for example – in the most recent popular thinking among authors and activists – what is usually called Universal Basic Income. This idea has been discussed in this journal on a number of occasions and rejected for its inability to bring about any qualitative change in social organisation and for constituting at best a way of redistributing poverty and at worst a sure-fire way of exerting downward pressure on wages and salaries.

Now, however, we have a book that does something different. Not only does it offer an original and thoroughgoing critique of the current social system, but to the never-ending problems it throws up it proposes a truly radical solution: the abolition of the wages system and a ‘post-scarcity’ society of abundance. Readers of this journal will of course know that this is the very non-market-based remedy advocated by socialists such as Marx and William Morris towards the end of the 19th century and which the Socialist Standard has kept alive uninterruptedly since 1904. The author of this book recognises this idea’s pedigree in stating that the ‘vision of post-scarcity was what “socialism” and “communism” had come to mean before later identification with Stalinist central planning and breakneck industrialisation’, and, in his final chapter, entitled ‘Necessity and Freedom’, he describes it variously as, ‘the abolition of private property and monetary exchange in favor of planned cooperation’, ‘a world of fully capacitated individuals … in which every single person could look forward to developing their interests and abilities with full social support’, ‘a world in which democratic associations of women and men replaced the rule of the market with competitive production – and taking advantage of capitalist technologies – reduced the common labors of necessity to expand a realm of individual freedom’, ‘a new form of life that does not organize itself around wage work and monetary exchange’, a society in which ‘everyone can go to the social storehouses and service centers to get what they need’, and finally ‘for most people (…) the first time in their lives that they could enter truly voluntary agreements – without the gun to their heads of a pervasive material insecurity’. In such a society ‘dis-alienating community life – by taking that life under democratic control and collective care – becomes the way to ensure that individual freedom is shared by all’.

While consistently advocating just such arrangements, the Socialist Party has never sought to put forward detailed plans of how the new society of free access will be organised, since we would not seek to dictate now to the majority of socialist-minded workers at the time how to put into practice the plans they will have previously worked out about how to organise production and distribution cooperatively and democratically. Benanav, while not proposing detailed plans either, does, however, have some interesting insights as to how this could be organised or, as he puts it, ‘how the pieces of this defunct world can be reassembled into a new mode of social existence’. For example: ‘We would divide up responsibilities while taking into account individual aptitudes and proclivities. Some tasks would need to be performed locally, but many could be planned on a regional or global scale, using advanced computer technologies.’ Further: ‘The realm of freedom would be the one giving rise to all manner of dynamism: that is where human beings would invent new tools, instruments, and methods of accounting, as well as new games and gadgets, rapidly reallocating resources over time and space to suit changing human tastes (…). The world would then be composed of overlapping partial plans, with interrelated necessary and free activities, rather than a single central plan.’ He concludes, nevertheless, in a way that echoes closely the approach the Socialist Standard has taken in dealing with this subject over the years, by saying: ‘But these issues, as well as the related question of what counts as necessity and what as freedom, would be matters for a free humanity to resolve for itself, politically.’

Much of this follows from the ‘Future of Work’ element in the book’s title. Benanav’s argument about work in capitalism is that the ‘rise of the robots’ discourse common to those he terms ‘automation theorists’ is overblown and that the reason why workers of all kinds, whether in countries of advanced capitalist production or in less developed ones, are seeing increasing pressure on pay, job security and work conditions is not principally that the work is being done by automation (so-called ‘long-run technological unemployment’) but that capitalism in recent decades has experienced ‘deindustrialisation’, that is the number of jobs in the service sector consistently outstripping those in manufacturing side by side with global industrial over-capacity, ongoing wage stagnation, rising inequality and a proliferation of ‘bad jobs’. He sees this, together with the ‘angry ethnonationalisms’ it tends to bring with it, as an inevitable feature of the system’s trajectory leading to increasingly worse conditions for workers at all levels, incapable of remedy by vogue ideas such as Universal Basic Income and only capable of resolution by a movement of new social consciousness uniting ‘around a new emancipatory social project’ to bring in the kind of non-market post-scarcity society outlined above.

Theories of capitalist decay are of course debatable. Capitalism in its history has gone through numerous phases and crises and on the whole has managed, even if in an extremely uneven and irregular way, to improve living standards and conditions for large numbers of its wage slaves. What is not debatable, however, is that, under the current system, as the author puts it, ‘even in the richest countries most people are so atomized, materially insecure and alienated from their collective capacities that their horizons are stunted’ and that the kind of society he recommends to replace capitalism would be far superior to anything that has so far existed or that capitalism could promise in the future. In addition, though it would be, unlike capitalism and as socialists have always maintained, a society of abundance, it would not be – and would not need to be – a society of super-abundance, and this is something that Benanav captures effectively by stating that ‘a literal cornucopia is not required’. He goes on to explain that ‘it is only necessary that scarcity and its accompanying mentality be overcome’ and how ‘abundance is not a technological threshold to be crossed’ but ‘a social relationship, based on the principle that the means of one’s existence will never be at stake in any of one’s relationships’.

The sources drawn upon by Benanav in writing this book are wide and diverse with a good number of charts, graphs and tables and almost 40 pages of extensive documentation. Yet none of this weighs heavily on the reader, since both the thrust and the details of his arguments are laid out in a clear, engaging fashion making them easy, indeed pleasurable, to follow and take in, and causing the whole to hang together in a way that makes it a highly satisfying and persuasive read both for socialists and for anyone open to radical ideas about social development.
Howard Moss

Why no abundance or more free time?

One thing that has puzzled academic economists is why, given the spread in recent years of IT, AI and automation generally, productivity has hardly gone up. In Smart Machines and Service Work: Automation in an Age of Stagnation (Reaktion Books) Jason E. Smith offers an explanation which also challenges those like Paul Mason who see a society of abundance and leisure as in the process of gradually evolving.

Productivity should mean physical output divided by the amount of labour-time required to produce it. Thus, if output increases while the amount of labour-time remain the same or if output remains the same while the amount of labour-time falls, then productivity goes up. This works for a particular factory or industry producing the same product but can’t work for the economy as a whole because what is produced is so different. To get round this, economists measure productivity by dividing the money value of total production by the total number of hours worked. For them, productivity at this level is GDP divided by the hours worked by all workers; which is a pretty meaningless figure, not least because it does not distinguish between hours worked to produce the output and hours worked by workers paid out of the output. It is, however, how ‘productivity’ is defined in this context.

Smith’s explanation as to why the increase in productivity in this sense has been so sluggish in recent decades is that, while productivity has gone up in the sector of the economy producing material goods, it has not gone up by anything like the same amount in the service sector which now accounts for as much as 80 percent of economic activity in the advanced capitalist parts of the world. Most services are labour-intensive and involve personal attention and inter-personal skills that can’t be replicated by machines. In addition, many of these jobs are low-paid, which reduces the incentive for employers to automate them.

Automation since the 1960s, or ‘cybernation’ as it was called, led neither to the mass unemployment nor to the leisure society that was variously predicted but, says Smith, to the growth of the service sector, many of whose jobs are unskilled and low-paid. Smith expects this to continue to be the trend despite all the hype about AI.

That increased productivity in the sense of physical output per hours of productive labour worked should result in the growth of low-paid service jobs is a perverse outcome. Marx had already noted this in the 1860s as, in a passage, Smith quotes from chapter 15 of Volume I of Capital:
  ‘[T]he extraordinary increase in the productivity of large-scale industry, accompanied as it is by both a more intensive and a more extensive exploitation of labour-power in all other spheres of productions, permits a larger and larger part of the working class to be employed unproductively. Hence it is possible to reproduce the ancient domestic slaves, on a constantly extending scale, under the name of a servant class’.
Today the ‘servant class’ is composed not of domestic servants (these still exists and their number is growing) but of those employed by the state – the appropriately called ‘civil servants’ and others – some of whom are engaged in very socially useful work such as teaching and health care but who are nevertheless still paid out of taxes levied on the output of the productive sector of the economy.

Taking less and less time to produce material things and the means to produce them does open up the possibility of a world of plenty, better and more extensive public services and amenities, and free time for people to develop their talents or pursue what interests them. However, this is not achievable on the basis of the present-day class ownership of the means of life and their use to produce wealth for sale with a view to profit. It requires what Smith calls ‘a non- or post-capitalist society’ (and we call ‘socialism’) in which production is directly geared to satisfying people’s needs on the basis of the common ownership and democratic control of society’s productive resources.
Adam Buick

Marx vindicated (2021)

Book Review from the June 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Unlearning Marx: Why the Soviet failure was a triumph for Marx. By Steve Paxton, Zero Books, 2021

In August 1918 the Socialist Standard carried an article which made this argument about the recent revolution in Russia:
  ‘Is this huge mass of people, numbering about 160,000,000 and spread over eight and a half millions of square miles, ready for socialism? Are the hunters of the north, the struggling peasant proprietors of the south, the agricultural wage slaves of the Central Provinces, and the industrial wage slaves of the towns convinced of the necessity and equipped with the knowledge required, for the establishment of the social ownership of the means of life? Unless a mental revolution such as the world has never seen before has taken place, or an economic change has occurred immensely more rapidly than history has ever recorded, the answer is “No!”’
Following Marx, the Socialist Party’s contention that Russia’s revolution could not be socialist was twofold: that the number of people who wanted socialism anywhere was extremely small, and Russia being predominantly feudal was economically underdeveloped. At this time, anyone who regarded themselves as Marxist would have agreed that socialism was not possible in one country.

The Socialist Party went on to argue that the Bolsheviks oversaw the eradication of feudalism and the development of capitalism in what became known as the ‘Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’. The USSR was replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States in 1991. The Socialist Party has always argued that the best analysis of the former USSR is a Marxist one: it reveals its exploitative nature with a ruling class drawn from the ‘Communist’ Party. It was a dictatorship over the proletariat and it was always going to fail. It is a vindication of Marx and the position taken by the Socialist Party.

For some this will involve ‘unlearning’ or learning what Marx had said. Steve Paxton doesn’t mention the Socialist Party’s Marxist analysis of the former USSR. He bases his book mainly on GA Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence, first published in 1976. Cohen’s book has been accused of presenting Marx’s theory of history as a form of technological determinism, though Paxton rejects this interpretation. But when Cohen wrote in his book that ‘high technology was not only necessary but also sufficient for socialism’, it certainly looks like technological determinism. And in the final sentence of Paxton’s Conclusion he writes that he is:
  ‘advocating an overthrow of capitalism by changing the economic structure in the only way it ever really changes – slowly, and in response to changing circumstances, by utilising technological developments created within the existing system.’
So, we sit back and wait for the gadgets to overthrow capitalism. Paxton’s error (and Cohen’s) is in supposing that the socialist revolution will be like previous revolutions, such as the change from feudalism to capitalism. The socialist revolution will be crucially different in that ‘All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.’ (Communist Manifesto). The objective is uniquely different too: common ownership of the means of life, with the consequent abolition of wage labour and capital.

It’s a pity that Paxton has allowed himself to be misled because there is much here that is worthwhile. He provides a wealth of data on why Russia under Communist Party rule couldn’t be socialist. Some of it closely parallels arguments the Socialist Party has used for over a century.
Lew Higgins

Blogger's Note:
GA Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence was reviewed in the August 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard.