Friday, November 17, 2023

Material World: ‘Too old to work, too young to die’ (2020)

The Material World Column from the November 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

People are living a lot longer which should be good news but not so under capitalism. Ageing populations are viewed as a threat to prosperity, rather than a sign of human achievement and progress.
With a lower fertility rate (see last month’s article), the ageing of the population is inevitable. For the first time in history, the number of people aged 65 years and over will exceed the number of children under 5. With the ‘greying’ of the world’s population, governments are struggling to support the elderly.  As long as women are not willing to return to being baby-breeders to counter-act the trend, by 2030 there will be one billion more older people, accounting for 13 percent of the total population.

 While some of the developed nations are raising the age of retirement, making their old people work for longer, the increased longevity and the growing proportion of elderly are raising serious economic concerns. In particular, population ageing is resulting in growing financial stresses on retirement pensions, health systems and social care programmes. Reluctant to raise taxes on the capitalists, the state attempts to address the mounting costs by largely adjusting benefits, contribution rates, savings plans and raising the age of retirement. But socialists possess a greater vision: that we shouldn’t be aiming to extend the domain of work into old age, but to extend the domain of non-work into young age.

The current pension problems in the advanced capitalist countries will pale into insignificance compared with what is coming for the rest of the world  that has no welfare system, where the ratio of elderly people will rise faster than in the industrialised world, casting vastly more numbers of their old folk into poverty. An indication of the rate of this ‘population ageing’ is the time it takes for the proportion of people over a retirement age of 65 to double from 7 percent of the overall population to 14 percent. In France this process took more than a century. In China, it is projected to take less than a quarter of that time, perhaps just 25 years. In Vietnam ‘population ageing’ is set to rise even faster with the proportion of elderly projected to double over a mere 17-year period.

Centenarians represent a small fraction of the world’s current population of 7.3 billion, about one centenarian out of every 16,000 people. Over the coming decades, however, this rate is expected to increase rapidly and by the close of century is projected to reach one centenarian out of every 425 people. Other studies have been more optimistic about the chances of becoming a centenarian, estimating that more half of the babies in advanced industrialised nations can expect to live 100 years. Bringing more women into the workforce and lengthening the working years of older workers may well not be sufficient to solve the demographic problem. The other alternatives will be to increase productivity either by automation or with more immigration.

Many believe robotics can help a country overcome the handicap of a fast-ageing population and a declining workforce. The source of all unearned income is what Marx called the surplus value produced by workers over and above what they are paid. It is out of this unpaid labour that not only the rich but the whole non-productive superstructure of capitalist society (the armed forces, civil service, legal system, banking) has to be maintained. What allows capitalism to maintain an enormous non-productive sector is its high level of productivity in the productive sector. Pensioners too are maintained out of this surplus. Pensions are a transfer payment from the profits of the capitalists, even if ultimately these profits come from what workers produce. It is the increasing productivity that will determine how well society will be able to support the expected increased proportion of retired people in the population.

The data make the case that there requires a general increase in immigration. Migration can offset many of the adverse effects of an ageing population on the labour market, with the average age of migrants being lower than the host population. Immigration is a sensitive issue in numerous countries. Paradoxically, those countries facing dropping birth rates and increased ageing, are opposed to immigration. In addition to rising public opinion opposing immigration, many governments are tightening border controls, erecting fences and walls, adopting policies to significantly restrict immigration. And it’s not just about the numbers – migrants bring new ideas and a new dynamism to a society’s culture.

The Socialist Standard could fill its pages with articles about the appalling care given to the aged and infirm under capitalism today. Many charities strive to improve conditions for the elderly but ultimately they will fail because they try to reform capitalism instead of changing it. When workers decide to abolish the wages system and produce for human needs instead of profit, then hardship and insecurity in old age could become a memory of capitalism’s barbaric past. Join us and help to build a new system of society where young and old can live out their lives with respect and dignity in a world where the true meaning of community prevails. Socialism will abolish the concept of retirement and fulfil the promise of a world providing all the prerequisites of a good life, regardless of age or physical ability.

Engels, pioneer socialist (2020)

From the November 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Friedrich Engels was born two hundred years ago in November 1820 in what is now called Wuppertal in Germany. He was the eldest son of a textile capitalist. Engels was trained for a career as a merchant, but in 1841 he went to Berlin and became closely involved with the Young Hegelians, a group of left-wing philosophers with whom Marx had also been involved. While in Berlin he did his military service in an artillery regiment, and for the rest of his life he took a keen interest in military matters. Later on, in the Marx household he was known as ‘The General’ and in the socialist movement as ‘Marx’s General’. In 1842 Engels became a socialist – before and independently of Marx – and went to Salford to work in his father’s business.

In England he became interested in the struggles of the English working class. His research resulted in The Condition of the Working Class in England, first published in German in 1845 and in English in 1887. It recorded the absolute poverty of the families in Manchester and their degrading working conditions. Based on first-hand observation and local sources it is still an important primary source for historians. This book greatly impressed Marx and contributed to what was to be their life-long friendship. In a preface for the 1892 edition, Engels wrote that ‘the most crying abuses described in this book have either disappeared or have been made less conspicuous.’ This is why ‘in 1844’ was then added to the book’s title. Engels went on to say:
‘It will be hardly necessary to point out that the general theoretical standpoint of this book – philosophical, economical, political – does not exactly coincide with my standpoint of to-day. Modern international Socialism, since fully developed as a science, chiefly and almost exclusively through the efforts of Marx, did not as yet exist in 1844’.
‘Historical materialism’
Engels first met Marx in Paris and agreed to produce a political satire aimed at the Young Hegelians: The Holy Family (1845). Engels and Marx then began writing The German Ideology in November 1845 and continued to work on it for nearly a year before it was abandoned unfinished, as Marx put it, to ‘the gnawing criticism of the mice’ (teeth marks of mice were subsequently found on the manuscript). This work contains an attack on the Young Hegelians (the German ideology in question) and in so doing they set out the basic principles of their materialist conception of history:
‘The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity’.
These key concepts would provide the guiding thread for their researches of the past and present. Engels would later label this materialism ‘historical materialism’, but it should be noted that the materialism here is not a philosophy of knowledge, as it is usually understood in philosophy. It is in the practical sense of the word (not in its acquisitive sense) that socialists are said to be materialists in outlook. This may look uncontroversial now, but at the time it was a revolutionary way of thinking. The widely influential German philosopher Hegel, for instance, conceived human history as the unfolding of an idea.

In 1848 the Manifesto of the Communist Party (now usually known as the Communist Manifesto) was published. Engels was not involved in writing the Manifesto but in the 1888 revised English edition he claimed joint authorship with Marx, who had died five years earlier. The revised edition sometimes improves on the original as, for example, this classic statement of the socialist revolution:
‘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’.
Engels had a better grasp of the English language than Marx, and he put it to good use in the many newspaper articles he wrote, some of which were published with Marx’s name as author. In the short book The Peasant War in Germany (1850) Engels drew comparisons between an early sixteenth-century uprising and the recent revolutions in Europe. It could also bear comparison between those revolutions and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917:
‘The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realisation of the measures which that domination would imply’.
‘Scientific socialism’
In 1850 Engels re-joined the family firm in Salford, where he stayed until 1870, helping Marx financially and journalistically. Engels also developed his own lines of interest, especially in the natural sciences, and one result of his studies was his notes published in 1925 as Dialectics of Nature. According to Tristram Hunt, a few years previously the manuscript was in the possession of Eduard Bernstein, acting as Engels’ literary executor, who sent it to Albert Einstein for comment. Einstein thought the science was confused (The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels, 2009).

In 1878 he was able to retire and move to London. As Marx became less politically active due to ill health, Engels took on more responsibility for setting out what was becoming known as ‘Marxism’. In 1878 Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science (subsequently abbreviated to Anti-Dühring) appeared. In an 1885 preface, two years after Marx’s death, Engels claimed that the arguments used against the German philosopher Dühring were mainly Marx’s ‘and only to an insignificant degree by myself’. Engels then said: ‘I read the whole manuscript to him before it was printed’. However, Terrell Carver has flagged this comment as odd (Engels: A Very Short Introduction, 2003). The implication of Engels’ comment is that Marx agreed with everything in the book. But with a large, closely argued book like this it seems implausible.

In Anti-Dühring Engels wrote that the dialectic is ‘the science of the universal laws of motion and evolution in nature, human society and thought’. Marx’s scattered comments on science and the dialectic could never be construed as making such a bold claim. That there are universal laws of motion in physics and of evolution in biology may be conceded, but it is more contentious to say that there are entirely equivalent laws of motion or evolution in human society. Like some other thinkers of the time, Engels had difficulty in disentangling philosophy from science.

Populariser of socialist theory
Three chapters from Anti-Dühring were published as Socialism: Utopian and Scientific in 1880. This latter work proved to be immensely popular within the growing socialist movement as a general exposition of Marxism. In 1884 The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State was written and published. This was based on a synopsis Marx had written on Ancient Society, a book by Lewis Henry Morgan that was published in 1877. The Origin takes an historical view of the family in relation to issues of class, female subjugation and private property. It also contains Engels’ classic socialist position on the state:
‘The ancient state was, above all, the state of the slave owners for holding down the slaves, just as the feudal state was the organ of the nobility for holding down the peasant serfs and bondsmen, and the modern representative state is an instrument for exploiting wage labour by capital’.
In Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1888), Engels explained and defended his philosophy of nature. In his criticism of the German philosopher Feuerbach he wrote that a limitation of his ‘materialism lay in its inability to comprehend the universe as a process, as matter undergoing uninterrupted historical development’. Despite his claim to reject idealism, the universe as an unfolding of the idea is a return by Engels to the Hegelian philosophy of his youth in Germany,

After Marx’s death in 1883, Engels spent most of his time editing Marx’s notes for volumes two and three of Capital, published in 1885 and 1894, respectively. He devoted his last few years as an adviser to the parties of the Second International before dying of cancer in 1895. During their working life together, Engels always regarded himself as the junior partner. However, after Marx’s death and at a time of massively increased interest in Marxism, it fell to Engels to do the explaining. Most of it was done superbly, but he also produced a tendency towards ‘scientism’ – the belief that science also explains human political life. The term ‘scientific socialism’ is really just a philosophical viewpoint, and no less valid for all that.

From the twentieth century onwards, Engels’ political status has been raised to the equal of Marx. But there is nothing in the writings of Engels which justifies the existence of the political and social monstrosities erected in the names of Marx and Engels.
Lew Higgins

Engels’s Political Testament (2020)

From the November 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Engels died in August 1895. One of his last published writings was an introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France 1848 to 1850, a collection of articles written by Marx at the time. Its content is such that it can be regarded as his political testament.

Reviewing the political position that he and Marx had then taken up, Engels wrote that ‘history has shown us to have been wrong, has revealed our point of view at that time to have been an illusion.’

Past revolutions, he wrote, had been minority revolutions in the interest of some minority; after the initial victory the revolutionaries split into two sections – those who were satisfied with what had been achieved and those who wanted to go further, but whatever happened the end-result was minority rule.

The illusion, Engels explained, was thinking that, because during the revolutionary wave of 1848 there was already a minority, albeit a small one, which understood what was in the interest of the working class, there was a chance that this minority could draw the majority into carrying out a workers’ revolution:
‘[W]hat was involved here were not false representations, but the implementation of the most vital interests of the great majority itself, interests which, it is true, were at that time by no means clear to this great majority, but which were bound to become clear to it as their practical implementation proceeded, by their convincing obviousness. (…) [T]heproletariat grown wise from experience had to become the decisive factor — was there not every prospect then of turning the revolution of the minority into a revolution of the majority?’
Engels’s reply was unequivocal: ‘History has proved us wrong and all who thought like us’.

And later: 
‘The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of masses lacking consciousness is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must also be in on it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are fighting for, body and soul. The history of the last fifty years has taught us that. But in order that the masses may understand what is to be done, long, persistent work is required…’
He added ‘and it is just this work that we are now pursuing, and with a success which drives the enemy to despair.’ This was a reference to the use made of universal suffrage by the German Social Democratic Party, but that turned out to be another illusion as the party’s support was being built up for democratic and social reforms within capitalism rather than for socialism.

However, Engels was proved right when a revolutionary minority attempted to apply the tactics of 1848-50 in Germany after the overthrow of the Kaiser in 1918 and to push the revolution forward to socialism. They failed as the rest of the working class didn’t come to want socialism in the course of the revolution but remained satisfied with what had been achieved (political democracy).

As Engels correctly concluded, for there to be a successful socialist revolution the majority ‘must themselves already have grasped what is at stake’ and that, when they had, they could turn universal suffrage ‘from a means of deception into an instrument of emancipation’, but that to reach this point required ‘long, persistent work’.
Adam Buick

The full introduction can be found here at

Engels as Utopian Socialist (2020)

From the November 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Engels became a socialist some time in 1842 after coming into contact with supporters of Robert Owen in Manchester. He contributed to their paper The New Moral World and was interested in their scheme to establish a network of communistic colonies. He was also aware of other groups in France with similar ideas. He was what he himself would later call a ‘utopian socialist’, which was not meant as a criticism of their aim but of why and how they saw socialism coming about.

In February 1845 he took part in a campaign organised by Moses Hess to popularise the idea of communism in their native part of Germany, now the city of Wuppertal. As part of this campaign a series of three meetings was held in Elberfeld. Engels spoke at two of them. In the first, on 8 February, he set out the case against ‘present-day society’ and for replacing it by communism.

His criticism of the existing system, which he called ‘free competition’, was that it was based on ‘individualism’ in the sense that each individual was left to fend for themselves to obtain the money to buy what they needed to live; this led to a war of all against all in which everyone competed against everyone else. The alternative to this ‘individualism’ was communism (or what Robert Owen and the Owenites he had met in England called ‘socialism’) where, instead of people competing against each other to get a living they would co-operate to produce and share out what they needed. As he put it:
‘In communist society, where the interests of individuals are not opposed to one another but, on the contrary, are united, competition is eliminated. As is self-evident, there can no longer be any question of the ruin of particular classes, nor of the very existence of classes such as the rich and the poor nowadays. As soon as private gain, the aim of the individual to enrich himself on his own, disappears from the production and distribution of the goods necessary to life, trade crises will also disappear of themselves. In communist society it will be easy to be informed about both production and consumption. Since we know how much, on the average, a person needs, it is easy to calculate how much is needed by a given number of individuals, and since production is no longer in the hands of private producers but in those of the community and its administrative bodies, it is a trifling matter ‘to regulate production according to needs’ (his emphasis).
Hess spoke the following week and, besides dealing with the objection that communism was against human nature and the question of who would do the dirty work, made it clear that as in communist society ‘the aim of the individual to enrich himself on his own’ would disappear so would money:
‘We all have to peddle our life-activity in order to buy in exchange the life-activity of other men – and what is the sum total of all our faculties and of all our forces, which we throw on the market and which we must turn into money, but our own whole life? It is not our body, which we only touch from the outside, but its real force that constitutes our life. When we sell this force of ours we ourselves sell our very life. Money is the mark of slavery; is it not therefore but human value expressed in figures? But men who can be paid, men who buy and sell each other, are they anything but slaves? How can we begin to escape from this traffic in men as long as we live in isolation and as long as each person has to work for himself on his own account in order to gain the means of existence? Who gives us the means of life, the means of our physical and social activity if we don’t gain them by buying and selling our own life?’ (
At the time Engels saw a communist society as coming into being gradually and peacefully as a result of social reforms such as education for all workers and communist colonies for the unemployed paid for by a progressive tax on incomes. Later that year, as he and Marx clarified their ideas, they came to the conclusion that ‘present-day society’ was not based on everyone trying to exploit everyone else but on the exploitation of the ‘proletariat’ (the working class) by the ‘bourgeoisie’ (the capitalist class) and that a communist society would come about as the result of a political revolution in which the ‘proletariat’ would overthrow the rule of the ‘bourgeoisie’.

However, Engels never changed his view that communism was a society based on the common ownership of the means of life with production carried on directly to satisfy people’s needs and which by the 1880s he had come to call ‘socialism’.

The full speech can be found here: Speeches in Elberfeld, February 8, 1845
Adam Buick

Class Control (2020)

From the November 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

I am dangerous, apparently. School students need protecting from me and my ilk, lest they be seduced into thinking inimical to their well-being, perhaps undermining the very fundamentals of society.

Could it be that I’m stockpiling caches of weapons for armed insurrection? Is it my intention to poison their young minds against democracy? Maybe my intention is to persuade them to adopt some extreme ideology?

Actually, perhaps rather boringly, no!

It is certainly true that I espouse the replacing of capitalism with socialism. That it seems could be enough to have my ideas banned from the classroom for, ironically, being anti-democratic.

The Department for Education has recently issued new guidelines instructing schools not to use ‘resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters’. One such ‘extreme political stance’ is advocating the abolition of capitalism. The Department for Unwitting Irony goes on to justify capitalism as protecting freedom of speech. Opposition to capitalism is, it seems, an ipso facto denial of freedom of speech.

To be accurate, discussing an alternative to capitalism in the classroom is not forbidden by this guidance. However, using an article from the Socialist Standard, advocating such a course of action would contravene the guidelines.

The basic problem is that there’s no criteria established as to what an extreme political stance means. Examples are given such as, ‘. . . a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism . . .  to end free and fair elections, opposition to . . .  freedom speech . . . of association, of assembly . . . of religion and conscience’.

The implication is that all of the above are equally culpable. So, the overthrow of democracy is identical to advocating abolishing capitalism as both are extreme.

Whereas, defending an economic system whereby the vast majority must sell their labour power for less than the value they create, simply to live, to the few who accrue to themselves the surplus value produced by that majority, is, obviously, reasonable and moderate.

Perhaps the Socialist Party is dedicated to overthrowing democracy in order to engineer a socialist society. The Mandarins of Unwitting Irony either don’t understand, or deviously obscure, the absolute necessity of democracy in achieving socialism.

No democracy – no socialism. Such a society can only be brought about by the conscious action of the working class, the vast majority, acting collectively on its own behalf to bring socialism about.

Socialists most certainly have no desire to turn young minds against democracy, rather they want to enhance it to the point where it actually becomes effective.

In his column the journalistic commentator Daniel Finkelstein (Times, 30. September) took great exception to those who found the Department for Education guidance troubling:
‘All that’s being suggested is that organisations which advocate the abolition of capitalism are not suitable providers of teaching material for schoolchildren.’
Finkelstein begins his piece by referring to how, ‘Stalin attempted to starve my father to death in Siberia.’ He goes on to list, ‘ . . . more than two dozen attempts to build a socialist society’, from Albania to Venezuela, with all the main culprits in between.

Nor will he allow the response that none of these were real socialism. He has a point if he is referring to apologists for those regimes who find their hopes ultimately disappointed.

However, the response that none of those regimes exhibited real socialism is perfectly valid if they contravened the criteria by which socialism is defined from the outset. The Socialist Party has consistently denounced all such manifestations of supposed socialism for the travesty they’ve been from their inception.

Indeed, opposition to capitalism encompasses all examples of state capitalism and ‘free market’ capitalism no matter how barbaric or apparently liberal they may be.

It serves capitalism well to obscure what socialism actually means. Lenin and his ilk have probably been amongst the best servants to the prolongation of capitalism. As Finkelstein’s article clearly demonstrates, the popular perception of socialism is dull, poverty-inducing bureaucracy at best, homicidal totalitarianism at worst.

This allows the DfE and such state institutions to imply guilt by word association. This despite the fact that socialism is not extreme any more than capitalism was an extreme repudiation of feudalism, rather than a natural development from within it.

Socialism is not a denial of capitalism, socialists fully recognise the advances and benefits accruing from it. They also recognise that no economic system exists in perpetuity, but all must give way to the one that supersedes it.

Education has to deal with difficult issues. The transcending of capitalism by socialism is one such. Other issues around controversial topics are surely best addressed by examination and critical analysis of source material. This has to be the way democracy progresses.

It is not the origin of resources, but how they are used. As with all those elements listed as being ‘Examples of extreme political stances…’, simply excluding them, like disruptive students, does not actually deal with them or make them go away.

Democracy cannot be about banning ideas, and ‘freedom of speech’ is at best mere rhetoric if it is confined within safe guidelines. Difficult, hurtful, even dangerous ideas need to be confronted, exposed and effectively countered.

It is frequently argued that allowing what is often now referred to as hate speech, we suppose its textual corollary must be hate script, leads to acts of violence against those who are the subjects.

The point, though, must be that all acts of violence, whatever the excusing cause quoted – skin colour, gender, sexuality, sub-group, political persuasion et al – are unequivocally wrong.

 It also raises the question as to when hate speech becomes patriotic speech, when the media and politicians demonise a foreign nation in order to bomb it into ‘democracy’.

Amnesty International’s Head of Policy and Government Affairs, Allan Hogarth commented:
‘The only extreme view here is the one which suggests that it’s somehow illegitimate to even consider the validity of socio-economic systems other than the prevailing one – a system that has of course only been in existence for a comparatively short period of time.’
The threat to democracy is probably from those who view it as serving the interests of capital, that it should be limited to this end. Whereas true democracy is inimical to capital in that the world’s productive resources and means need to be brought under common ownership with democratic control to serve the interests of all.

From the perspective of the Department for Education this probably does appear extreme, but prescriptive guidelines cannot deny the necessity of socialism, even if they would deny school students the knowledge, if they could.
Dave Alton

Cooking the Books: The really big slump (2020)

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

We know that capitalist production moves in ever-repeating cycles of boom and slump and that governments can do nothing to prevent this. But they can produce a slump, either unintentionally through a mistaken policy or deliberately. The present slump is an example in that it has been largely government-induced rather than resulting from the normal workings of capitalism.

The lockdown imposed by the government at the end of March and maintained for the next three months led, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) at the end of September, to a fall in GDP during those three months of 19.8 percent, which they described as ‘the largest quarterly contraction in the UK economy since quarterly records began in 1955’.

This was a much higher fall than in many other countries:
‘Revised figures yesterday from Germany showed that its GDP fell by 9.7 per cent, less than half the UK’s decline, while the eurozone and European Union falls were 12.1 per cent and 11.9 per cent respectively … The United States recorded a similar drop to Germany, just under 10 per cent’ (David Smith, Times, 26 August).
Why this difference? Was the government-induced slump in Britain really twice as deep as in Germany and the US? If so, why? It turns out that it was mainly due to the different way that the ONS statisticians calculated the fall compared with those in other countries.

GDP is measured in various ways, one of which is to add up what persons spend, what businesses invest and what the government spends. With only key workers, as in the health service and food distribution, allowed to go to work during the period and the income of some 9.4 million reduced to 80 percent of their previous earnings, private consumption fell by 23.1 percent, manufacturing production by 16.9 percent and business investment by 31.4 percent. Government spending, on the other hand, went up by 14.1 percent. Calculating GDP in this way gave a fall of 14.5 percent.

This way of calculating the fall didn’t satisfy the ONS as, while the government spent more, it did not provide the same level of ‘service’. In calculating GDP, the government is regarded as providing various services – education, health care, ‘defence’, ‘justice’, administration,etc – which have to be priced.

Normally this is simply the amount of money the government spends on them. During the lockout, however, although the government spent the same amount on education, because schools were closed it didn’t provide the same level of ‘service’; similarly with normal NHS services.

Taking this into account, the ONS reduced government ‘output’, so increasing the fall in GDP from 14.5 to 19.8 percent. Other countries didn’t do this.

We don’t want to get involved in the arguments amongst statisticians as to the best way to calculate GDP except to point out that the concept of government ‘output’ is rather dubious. Governments as such produce nothing; everything they spend derives ultimately from surplus value produced in the profit-making sector of the economy and is obtained by them either through taxation or by borrowing.

So all its spending is as much a ‘transfer payment’ as are benefits and pensions.

In any event, whether the fall – the plunge, in fact – in GDP over the three months was 19.8 or 14.5 percent it was much more than in any slump caused by
the normal workings of capitalism. In the previous biggest slump since accurate records began, the one that followed the Crash of 2008, GDP fell by only 4.6 percent and that over a period of 16 months.

Not so alternative (2020)

Book Review from the November 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternative Present. By Yanis Varoufakis. Bodley Head. 249 pages. £16.99

At the inaugural summit of the ‘Progressive International’ (a new attempt to link up various vehicles for left-leaning politicians) Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister and the driving force behind the Diem25 portion of this new international, gave a keynote speech: ‘Why we need a Progressive International that must plan for today and for beyond capitalism’ (

The plan he proposes is actually banal, including targeted boycotting of companies such as Amazon and companies that engage in abusive practices in a ‘Day of Inaction’. There is no vision of co-ordinated democratic political action. He does say ‘while this is neither the moment nor the place to plan for postcapitalism, it is useful to imagine what a postcapitalist world might be like.’

As it just so happens, he has a new book out which addresses this very activity. Its conceit is that a group of radicals get access to their versions in an alternate reality, one in which the crisis of 2008 spurred radical action that dismantled the world financial system and abolished both the labour market and massive financial institutions.

In his Other Now (as his alternate world is referred to), the labour market is abolished. There are still firms, and jobs, but once someone joins a firm they can do whatever work they want within the firm, all pay above a basic share of the firm’s profits and a universal basic dividend (collected by taxing the revenue of firms, rather than profits) is democratically allocated by the workers of the firm based on perceived merit. This shares similarities with Michael Albert’s idea of Parecon. It is amenable open to the same criticism as Parecon, based on the Yugoslav experience.

Self-management of Yugoslavian firms fell victim to the inequality of the technological differences inequalities between firms: some were more productive and profitable than others, without any difference in skill or effort difference between those partner-workers and those of a different firm. The workers there would defend their relatively high wages by excluding other workers, and ultimately using the features Varoufakis describes for workers hired for a specific role (as opposed to employees/partners) to exploit the labour of other workers (he calls this the disjointedness criterion – where it is possible to measure an individual’s contribution, rather than value created by teamwork). This would create a situational logic and incentive for the restoration of exploitation. That said, his depiction of a firm without rigid division of labour is itself enticing and interesting to think through. He is savvy enough to note that unofficial hierarchies and prejudices may still linger in the Other Now, which is worth consideration.

More than a good deal of the book is given over to talking about banking. Given the massive expropriation implied in converting all firms to co-ops and abolishing the labour market, this seems redundant (and wouldn’t the banks themselves now be worker co-ops?). This is particularly the case, given he assumes an express ban on buying and selling shares. The workers own the firms, but cannot sell them. But, in great detail, he discusses creating public utility banking that would wipe out the commercial high-street banks, and form a means for handing out the universal basic dividend. He prefers a dividend to a fixed income, since this is then a share in the collective product of society, rather than being perceived as some sort of handout.

He still envisages a banking function, but one, given the ban on investment banking, where banks return to being simple financial intermediaries rather than ‘creating money.’ (In a slightly more intelligent sophisticated than usual version of the usual currency crank narrativestory, he avers that now banks can create money based on a claim of expected profits, and related to their interventions in the share markets). Of course, this would only exacerbate the inequality between capitals, since some individuals would be able to harvest interest profits from other firms. So much for ending capitalism.

Consciously, he depicts the continued existence of financial crises in this society: albeit that he adds that swift government action of creating money quickly resolves the matter. Again, this means that so long as there are markets, he accepts there is a situational logic for speculation/fraud and financial instability.

In the Other Now, all land titles have been transferred to regional authorities which operate as trusts (quite how this could happen through the sort of minority targeting of companies described in the book is mysterious, such expropriation would require a determined and organised conscious movement, that would surely meet serious resistance) which operate as trusts. The properties would be let commercially, with the community collecting the rent. A permanent auction system would be used to ensure people pay the right rent without excess bureaucracy (essentially, each occupier would assess the value of the property, with the threat that anyone else could ‘bid’ a higher value/rent to take it off them).

The central thread is that this saves markets from capitalism: and avoids the worse alternative of centralised allocation and rationing in a soviet style, which he rightly deplores. The framing device is of two radicals: Eva, a radical capitalist (who is won over by the workability of this market system) and Iris, a woman who could ‘ever conceive of a good market, a noble war or an unjust strike’.

In a strange detour via discussing ‘politically correct transactional love’, Varoufakis does discuss the idea of a society where people freely give, where commodities are ended. He refers to it as Star Trek Communism, but maintains that until Star Trek style replicators are available, money will remain essential. That does seem a limited outlook as, even where resources are scarce, there are alternatives to both money and centralised allocation that can be used.

The character of Iris is manoeuvred into opposing the Other Now, because its market system might hinder her preferred no-commodity society (opposing everything else which is something of a caricature position that some people falsely impute to us, and which, as far as we know, no-one actually holds or ever held). Further, disgracefully, the text also pathologises her position by stating ‘raging against the system was [her] only way of being, her loneliness vaccine’. What comes across, is that Varoufakis is wrestling with a notion of moneyless socialism, and finding the ideas attractive, he struggles to dismiss and contain them through an ad hominem dismissal of its proponents.

The book is intelligently written, and none of the characters are mere cyphers. That it opens the conversation to post-capitalism, and because it (unsuccessfully) wrestles with views like ours, it is a welcome addition to debate.
Pik Smeet

Socialism or Nationalism? (2020)

From the November 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

The left nationalists replace the principle of international class struggle with the doctrine of international struggle between states. As a result ‘socialism’ has become associated with militant nationalism rather than with the working-class internationalism it had originally been. The political struggle they present as a struggle is not between the working class and the capitalist class, but as a struggle of ‘patriots’ – workers and capitalists together – against foreign rule and domination. They call upon the entire population, employer and employee alike, to combine in a common struggle to achieve independence. Any supposed socialist who tells workers that they have more in common with their own ruling class than with the workers of other countries is a fraud. Any supposed ‘socialist’ who argues against the fundamental idea for the workers of the world to unite to overthrow all their exploiters and oppressors is not a socialist.

Nationalism has been a dangerous diversion from the class struggle and led to workers supporting the killing in wars of other workers in the interest of one particular state and its ruling class. The essence of nationalism is that when local businessmen are prevented from ‘building up their own wealth’ they may well build their own independent capitalist state. Nationalist struggles are class struggles under an ideological smokescreen, but not of the working class. They are either struggles by an aspiring capitalist class to establish themselves as a new national ruling class or struggles by an established but weak national ruling class to garner a bigger share of world profits for themselves. There is no reason why socialists should support independence movements.

Where is the link from the triumph of nationalism to the socialist understanding of the workers, that some left nationalists say should take place? A cursory reading of history shows that capitalism and the power of the capitalist have not been weakened. Has nationalism progressed the cause of the working class one inch over the decades? Or led it down many a tearful false trail?

For the socialist, class-consciousness is the breaking-down of all barriers to understanding. The concept of nationality is one of these obstacles. The idea that a geographical area controlled by a privileged elite who thrive on the enforced exploitation of that area’s producers, should grant to the latter the right to live there providing they accept their wage-slave status and defend the right of the privileged to live on their backs is offensive to any reasonably-minded worker. Those who promote such nonsense are enemies of our class.

Nationalism means merely that workers get new masters instead of the old ones. Capitalism does not change by a change of management personnel. Political control may well switch locations but multinationals will still maintain their economic stranglehold on the newly independent nation.