Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Cooking the Books: ‘Woke capitalism’: a contradiction? (2023)

The Cooking the Books column from the May 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘DeSantis and other prominent Republicans blame ‘woke’ politics for Silicon Valley Bank’s collapse instead of bankers miscalibrating risk’ was the headline in the Business Insider (14 March).

The claim is that the bank neglected maximising profits by promoting diversity and other ‘ethical’ issues like protecting the environment and so went under. There is no evidence for this, but attacking not just the Democratic administration for ‘wokery’ but capitalist corporations as well has become part of Republican politics.

In an opinion column in the New York Times (2 December) Jamelle Bouie examined why Republicans were criticising capitalist corporations when they have traditionally been staunch defenders of capitalism and advised, in the words of the title of his article, ‘Before he takes on “Woke Capitalism”, Ron DeSantis should read his Karl Marx’.

Bouie paraphrased the passage in the Communist Manifesto where Marx (and Engels) pointed out:
‘Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…’
He commented that, while Marx was writing here about pre-capitalist social and economic arrangements, this could be taken as a general tendency of capitalism and that capitalism tends to also dissolve the sort of conservative and reactionary attitudes and values defended by the likes of DeSantis. However:
‘There are even two competing impulses within the larger system: a drive to dissolve and erode the barriers between wage earners until they form a single undifferentiated mass and a drive to preserve and reinforce those same barriers to divide workers and stymie the development of class consciousness on their part.’
There is certainly a drive under capitalism for employers to be interested in the quality only of the labour-power they purchase, irrespective of the sex, skin colour, language, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, etc. of the bearer. What employers want is an efficient worker and for the pool from which to draw efficient workers to be as wide as possible. This drive works to end all discrimination on the basis of characteristics that are irrelevant from the point of view of working efficiency. In this sense, the logic of capitalism could be said to be ‘woke’.

The second drive has certainly, historically, been a feature of capitalism, sometimes to prevent trade union consciousness though more to promote nationalism. Politically, capitalism is divided into competing states whose ruling class seeks to inculcate and maintain in its subjects a sense of being a nation with a common interest different from other nations. Nationalism, then, is also a feature of capitalism. But this is a drive to divide workers of different states rather than to divide workers within a particular state; it is not necessarily incompatible with the first drive.

Because the first of the two drives Bouie identifies is the stronger DeSantis and the others are on to a loser. On the other hand, there is nothing inherently anti-capitalist or revolutionary in campaigns against discrimination as is sometimes claimed (more in the past than now). That doesn’t mean that such campaigns are not worth it, merely that they are not anti-capitalist. Capitalism and being woke are not incompatible.

Material World: Travesty on the high seas (2023)

The Material World column from the May 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

The high seas — the sea beyond the territorial waters of coastal states — and the seabed beneath them, belong to nobody. They are in effect a ‘global commons’, available in theory to everybody, but in practice only to private or state capitalist enterprises in pursuit of profits. Given capitalism, what happens is a classic example of the so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’ that has been advanced against socialism. This argues that, if there were common ownership, the individual common-owners would use it in their own self-interest to the eventual detriment of the overall interest of all of them, as fishers over-fish today. With free access to what they needed, people would grab what they could and the system would break down.

This has never happened to any historical commons since the common-owners have always followed rules, often customary, to avoid this. Under capitalism, however, the result is indeed the ‘travesty of the commons’. Capitalist enterprises do behave as presumed and put their particular short-term profits before the longer-term general interest of all of them. The high seas are a commons, but one currently effectively commonly-owned by all the capitalist states of the world. Somewhat belatedly (it was in 1970 that President Nixon proposed making the resources of the sea bed, in his words, ‘the common heritage of mankind’ – the capitalist states have realised that it is in the general interest of all of them to lay down some rules. The timid result is a Treaty, agreed to at the end of March, to protect the biodiversity of the high seas.

It is not common ownership as such — the absence of property rights — that has been the problem but no ownership rights within the context of the capitalist economic system. Common ownership — the whole Earth, land and seas, as a global commons — is in fact the only framework within which global environmental problems can be rationally and lastingly dealt with. But this has to be common ownership by the whole of humanity, not all capitalist states.

All over the world production is in the hands of business enterprises of one form or another – some private, some state-owned, some mixed (it doesn’t matter which) – all competing to sell their products at a profit. All of them aim to maximise their profits. This is not the result of the greed of the owners or managers, as some suggest, but an economic necessity imposed by the forces of the market. If a business does not make a profit, then it goes out of business. ‘Make a profit or die’ is the economics of capitalism.

Under the competitive pressures of the market, businesses only take into account their own narrow financial interest, ignoring wider social and ecological considerations. All they look to is their own balance sheet and in particular the bottom line which shows whether or not they have made a profit and how much.

The whole of production, from the methods employed to the choice of what to produce, is distorted by this drive to make and accumulate profits. The result is an economic system governed by irrational market forces which compel decision-makers, however selected and whatever their personal views or sentiments, to plunder, pollute and waste.

All these problems of pollution and the environment can be traced back to the fact that today production is carried on for profit, not to meet human needs. It is the profit system that is to blame. It, not the absence of property rights, is behind the high seas being a capitalist free-for-all. So, if we are going to solve these problems, it is the profit system that must go.

We have to restore to production its original and natural aim of providing things to directly satisfy human needs. But we can’t do this unless we are in a position to control production and we can’t do that unless the means of production – land, industry and natural resources – stop being the private property of individuals and states.

There should be no private property or territorial rights over any part of the globe. The Earth and its natural and industrial resources should not belong to anybody – not to individuals, not to corporations, not to states. They should simply be there to be used by human beings to satisfy their needs. Naturally there will have to be rules and procedures governing their use, just as there have been in all historical commons.

What is involved is the disappearance of the whole idea of property and its replacement by the idea of access and use. Use in accordance with democratically agreed procedures. Common ownership is the same thing as no ownership — the high seas are a commons because nobody owns them.

Private property and territorial rights over any part of the planet need to be abolished as the only basis on which the human species can organise production – our relationship with nature – in an ecologically acceptable way. The Earth as the common property of the whole of humanity.
Adam Buick

Life and Times: Winners and losers (2023)

The Life and Times column from the May 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘I was drunk when I wrote the messages below and I apologize for the troll-like nature of my comments’, wrote Pete from Texas, USA, after filling in the Socialist Party’s online membership questionnaire and receiving a reply from me. I was impressed by his confession and therefore happy to carry on the conversation with him and respond to the further, apparently sober comments he was now making.

Previously he had written such things as ‘socialist experiments end with a substantial portion of the population sent off to death camps’, ‘ the idea of no one being in charge and no money, and free goods and services means no wealth will be generated’ and ‘the party is a direct competitor to religion, as it takes a profound level of religious belief and suspension of rational capacity to convince yourself you actually believe what you say you believe and, when a Christian tells me that they believe Jesus ACTUALLY walked on water, I see the same glossy eyed intellectual vapidity I see when a socialist blathers on about the idiocy of your platform.’ Strong and some of it pretty insulting stuff, even if written in an alcoholic haze. However, having apologised and said he appreciated the far more respectful way in which his points had been answered, Pete then went on to make, in several exchanges – and respectfully this time – a number of further points.

He made no bones about the fact that he was a supporter of capitalism, especially of the ‘Nordic’ type, since he saw it as ‘capable of producing innovation and improving quality of life for the vast majority of the population’. With regard to the moneyless, wageless world system that we view as socialism, he did not see how ‘a relatively modern society can exist without money and with free goods and services’, since how would we know what needed to be produced and how that would be organised? And what if people wanted more than could be produced? So he wondered whether we were proposing a return to ‘a pre-technology society … working together in small groups, sharing with each other, having a leader that was chosen due to respect and ability’. He asked further: ‘How would the democratic process work in a moneyless, wageless, marketless society?’ And he also stuck by the idea in his previous message that ‘USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan, China’s Great Leap Forward, The Killing Fields of Cambodia, etc have to be regarded as examples of socialism’ and ‘resulted in the MOST extreme humanitarian disasters of the 20th century’. He went on: ‘My argument is that when such systems are implemented, reality very quickly proves that they don’t work. But the people involved are religious zealots to the cause and as such refuse to believe that their theory is the cause of the failure…In the end, the Marxists put on their own version of the Spanish Inquisition.’

In response to these entirely pertinent questions, I first made it clear that, while we might agree that ‘Nordic-style capitalism’ is arguably relatively benign as the system goes, it’s still based on money, buying and selling and the market and so has absolutely nothing whatever to do with what we are advocating. Nor were we advocating ‘living off the land’. In fact, we saw socialism as a world that would use the advanced technology developed by capitalism to give a decent comfortable life to everyone – something that capitalism fails to do. This would be possible because production would not be based on the profit imperative as at present but on human need, which would cut out much of the wastefulness of capitalism (administration of the money system, competitive production, weapons of war, etc.) as well as eliminating the insecurity of working for a wage to stay alive, the need to compete with our fellow human beings in myriad ways and the enmity between peoples living in different parts of the planet.

But what if, as Pete had conjectured, more people wanted a Ferrari or a Rolls-Royce than could be produced to go round? My answer to this was that, while in socialism you would be able to take freely what was reasonably necessary for a comfortable existence, you couldn’t have absolutely anything you happened to want just because you wanted it. And especially you couldn’t have something that society considered essential to its own fundamental collective wellbeing, where there wasn’t enough of it for free personal access. And this led me on to the essentially democratic nature of socialism. If it was clear that there was a social need for a scarce product or service to allow society to operate smoothly, efficiently and in the collective interest, then a democratic decision might be taken not to make it available for personal use. How would this be enforced? Well, socialism will be a free-access society but it won’t be a society without rules – democratically agreed ones – and also therefore the means of enforcing those rules (no doubt at the most benign level possible). On the matter of how ‘demand’ will be determined, I made no bones about the fact that this was a big question and I referred Pete to Chapters 4 and 5 of our pamphlet Socialism as a Practical Alternative. But I made the point that, first and foremost, demand will be real demand based on need not, as now, on ability to pay.

Finally, on to the question of so-called ‘past examples’ of socialism, the way I put it was that I don’t know what I’d need to do to convince Pete that Pol Pot, Mao Zedong and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan were as far away as they could possibly be from the moneyless, stateless society of free access that for us was socialism. I went on (perhaps a little rudely): ‘Look. Hitler called himself a socialist (a national socialist, ie, Nazi) and surely you wouldn’t somehow want to tar us with that brush? If you’re just looking at labels, you could of course. But if what’s in the bottle is piss, even if the label says whisky, you know it’s not.’

A further exchange between us got on to America’s ‘gun culture’ of which Pete was a moderate advocate with the argument that there should be as few restrictions as possible on people’s behaviour. My reply was that, in a sane society, it would just seem mind-blowing for a person to carry around a weapon which, if something went wrong in the mind of that person, could be used to cause lethal mayhem. But that was when our discussion seemed to peter out. And I somehow don’t think Pete is going to become a member of the World Socialist Movement any time soon. You win some, you lose some.
Howard Moss