Economic vision presentation: Socialism

The movement for another world was born just over three years ago at Seattle. Its significance lay in bringing together a host of movements, old and new, around individual issues – debt, third world poverty, environmental devastation, militarism, indigenous rights, unemployment, destruction of workers’ rights – and focussing them on a single enemy, a world wide system which went  under names such as ‘corporate globalisation’.

People quite rightly rejoiced in the unity that enabled us to create a movement quantitatively and qualitatively bigger and more international than any since the mid 1970s. It is this which enabled the movement to grow from Seattle to the first Porto Alegre meeting and then to Genoa. It was this which enabled it to recover from the shock of 11 September and to produce the gigantic demonstrations against the system and against war last year in Barcelona, Seville and then Florence and to spread world wide with the social forums in Lebanon, Palestine, Asia, Hyderabad and the Cairo conference.

But the very success of the movement means we have to begin, through friendly discussion, to clarify what we are for, as well as what we are against. This is particularly important now. On the one hand there is the threat of war and the reality of devastating economic crisis in whole parts of the world, most spectacularly over the last year in Argentina. One the other hand, there is the massive growth of the international anti-war movement and the swing to the left in Latin America with the Lula government in Brazil, the Guttierez government in Ecuador and the Chavez government in Venezuela.

In the discussions at Seattle and since there have been three broad ways of trying to define more clearly what we are against and what the alternatives are.


Globalisation and localisation

The first has been to focus on the problem as being ‘globalisation’. The alternative is then seen to be  a move to local production, with an emphasis on protection of local agriculture, local firms and local jobs – summed up, for instance, in the call for ‘a new protectionism’, as one British author puts its.

The proponents of this view have made very many powerful criticisms of the existing system – the waste and pollution involved in transporting goods which could be made locally from the opposite end of the world, the way in which the great agricorporations impose uniform crops and  agricultural techniques requiring vast chemical inputs right across the globe, regardless of local conditions and local knowledge, the devastation of people’s lives as a result.

But they cannot answer a whole host of important questions.

Reliance on local agriculture has always left people exposed to the vagaries of the climate – to the effect of  droughts, frosts, fungal infections and insect swarms on crops  There are many regions of the globe where it is impossible for people to get a balanced diet without some reliance on crops grown elsewhere.  There are also large regions which have been so specialised in certain crops aimed at much wider markets over the centuries (sugar, coffee, tea, wine, wheat, rice, mutton, beef etc) that a turn to purely locally directed production would cause immense; economic dislocation and hardship. The same is true where workers have depended on jobs in large scale industrial enterprises to get a livelihood.

What is more, even where locally directed production would be a step forward, it does not in any way deal with the constrains on people from the wider system – the burden of debt, the damaging to the environment of the whole globe by the Greenhouse Effect (making local droughts, storms and floods more frequent), It also does nothing to confront the drive towards war either by the great powers headed by the US., or by regional powers like India and Pakistan.

Finally, it does nothing to confront the destructive behaviour of medium and small locally-oriented businesses.  There is no evidence that such businesses care any more about the welfare of the population as a whole or about the effects of their actions on the environment than do big businesses.  In fact, they have often been in the forefront of right wing political movements and of anti-union drives. Occasional hostility to big business interests is all-too-often a prelude to doing lucrative deals with these interests.

For all these reasons, ‘localisation’ is not, in itself, a viable strategy for the movement to adopt.


Neo-liberalism and the state

The second approach sees the enemy as the series of policies in relation to the economy adopted by most states, big and small, over the last 30 years known as ‘neo-liberalism’ and embodied in the ‘Washington Consensus’.

The world economy and most of its component parts, the argument goes, grew much more quickly in the period 1945-1974 than it has in the three decades since. The first period was one in which the national  state intervened forcefully to direct, or even control, the national economy.    But contrast, the last 30 year has seen a massive reduction in the degree of state regulation, especially virtual abandonment of any attempt to control the massive daily flows of finance across national frontiers. Therefore the focus for the movement has to be pushing for state controls on finance –with the Tobin tax given priority in this respect – and on resisting moves towards freer trade though the WTO.

This approach  has the advantage over the localisation one of focussing on the big picture, on what the multinationals and the states that dance to their tune are doing. It raises central questions about the  distribution of wealth and income in the world economy as whole, the burden of debt, the impoverishment of whole regions, the growth internationally of unemployment, the commodification of people’s lives.

But it too has obvious weaknesses.  The period before the spread of neo-liberalism may have seen higher growth rates generally than at present, but it was certainly not a golden age for the mass of the world’s population. It was a period which saw a succession of military regimes installed in Latin America; two wars between India and Pakistan and the persistence of famine in parts of the subcontinent; massive expenditures on armaments by the ‘Keynesian’ governments of the  advanced industrial countries; a  series of imperialist wars (France against Vietnam and then against Algeria, the US against Vietnam, the Anglo-French attack on Egypt in to 1956, etc); dictatorship in South Korea, Taiwan and the other ‘tigers’; the massive famine in China of 1958-60 and then the destructive chaos of the ‘Cultural Revolution’; the continuation of oppressive Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and Russia.

That is not all. Neo-liberalism was not something imposed against resistance from  most of those running the economic model that went before. Rather, it took root as that economic model entered into crisis in one part of the world after another.  The world economic crisis of the mid 1970s occurred before the countries of Europe adopted neo-liberal policies. ‘Stagnation’ afflicted the Russian and East European economies before they turned to the market.  The import substitutionist ‘developmentalist’ model in Argentina showed signs of crisis all long before the military regime of the last 1970s turned to a form of neo-liberalism .

Neo-liberalism was a response to crisis which made things worse. It was not something that produced crisis in societies that were free from problems. This explains why the people who introduced neo-liberalism – the ruling parties and their supporters – were usually the same people who had backed state interventions before: people from the Populist governments and parties in Latin America , people from the social democrat and Christian democrat parties in western Europe, people from the old Stalinist nomenklatura in Eastern Europe and the republics of the former USSR.

Returning to a model that itself culminated in  crisis, impoverishment and unemployment  is not an alternative to the crisis we face today.

And there are dangers in the model. It emphasises the role of the existing state. But the existing state is as much an enemy of the things we stand for as are the multinationals –this was shown by the behaviour of the Italian state at Genoa and is shown by the behaviour of the US and British states today.

Combined with this, there is often a tendency to see finance as the enemy, not industrial capital. Hence the stress that is put on the Tobin Tax, which focuses almost exclusively on finance. But industrial capital is just as harmful as financial capital. The cases of News International (the Murdoch empire), Monsanto,  Microsoft, Boeing or the pharmaceutical companies show this.

Where people have tried a strategy of allying with industrial capital against finance capital or multinationals, they usually end up making compromises with finance capital and the multinationals as well as with industrial capital. This is because industrial capital today depends everywhere to a greater or lesser extent on its own alliances with finance and the multinationals.

One final, important, point.  Those who propose ‘national alliances’ with local, industrial capital invariably end up restricting the domestic reforms they promise. This is the price of buying the support of ‘national’  or ‘progrssive’ capitalists whose whose incomes are fifty or even a hundred times higher than those of the mass of people.  This mean that those who make such alliances offer the mass of people very little – and usually end up adding calls for ‘sacrifice’ to it. This is the classic social democratic or populist approach, that wore very thin even when the global system was booming. It should not be the approach of a global movement that is growing against a background of global crisis and war.


The genuine socialist alternative

If we are to overcome all these problems, we have to see it is not particular forms of capitalism that are at fault, but capitalism  as such.

The organisation of production by rival owners of the means of production seeking, in competition with each other, to gain from the exploitation of wage labour necessarily leads to inhumanity, poverty, waste and ecological degradation. This was true when state intervention was central to the way the owners organised themselves, it true today when they adopt a neo-liberal model.

So the struggle for a different world cannot stop with a quite correct rejection of neo-liberal policies.

We have to go further and to challenge the control by  ruling classes over the means of human beings making a livelihood.

We cannot conceive of this in the old social democratic, Stalinist or Populist fashion of the state simply moving in from the top. WE have to see it in terms of the mass of people who produce the wealth struggling to seize control of the means they use to do so – the factories, offices, docks, mines, computer centres, landed estates etc. 

They can then begin to organise themselves to carry through production for need, not for profit.

The precondition for doing so is taking control of the great companies that dominate the major areas of production. We are told  that planning is no longer possible. But all these great companies have intricate mechanisms for planning their own production at the moment – but they do so in order to compete with each other.

So for instance, there are now just four great supermarket chains that dominate the sale of foodstuffs in Britain, and through  their domination of the markets, also have a stranglehold over most of British agriculture and much of the food processing industry.  They literally plan, months or even years ahead, the production of certain types of food in certain quantities, but from the point of view of profit making not the welfare of the consumers. We can have to conceive of a revolutionary transformation, in which the control of the supermarket chains and their planning mechanisms passes from the top of society to the bottom, is democratised, so as to enable co-ordination across the whole industry instead of competition within it.

This notion can be generalised to all the major sections to the economy. This does not mean, as critics of the ‘impossibility of socialist planning’ claim, that someone tries in advance to calculate how many of every single industrial component will be produced – any more than it does for the individual giant companies today. But it does mean subjecting the overall investment plans of all the big industries to thorough-going democratic control, so as to ensure that their output it directed to human need.  Such democratic control should be exercised by elected, recallable representatives of those whose labour directly or indirectly produces the wealth of society as a whole. This, it should be said, is a very different thing to allowing democrat bodies only to decide on the division of residual revenues after big capitalists have made their decisions over expenditure and investment in a very undemocratic way and governments have guaranteed to pay them debt interest. There is an enormous difference between control over major economic decisions and participation in the implementation of decision made by others.

Once such major decisions have been taken, democratically run workers’ collectives in each productive unit would be able to come to agreements as to what their own output would be.  Pat Devine has outlined one way in which this could work.


Three things need to be emphasised about any such socialist model..


Firstly, it is the direct opposite of what happened under the so-called planning implemented by social democratic, Stalinist and Populist regimes in past. They never submitted their plans to any form of genuine democratic control. Those whose labour created the products of industry were the last to have any say over what products were produced and for what purpose. That is why these regime could oversee stagnating or falling living standards  at the same time as rapidly rising output of means of production. Karl Marx made the distinction in the Communist Manifesto between what happens under capitalism where ‘living labour is but a means to increase accumulated labour’ and what would happen under a ‘communist society’ where accumulated labour is  but a means to widen, to enrich, to promote the existence of  the labourer.’  On this criterion, the ‘Communist’, Keynesian, social democratic and Populist regimes existed within the orbit of  capitalism. What we aim at is something very different.

Secondly, it cannot be achieved by reform within existing parliamentary or state structures. It involves an assault upon the power of the main sectors of the capitalist class, and that is not possible without a mass upsurge from below which challenges all the existing levers of power in society. We see the potential for such an assault when we see workers occupying their factories and then resisting efforts of the state to evict them, as has occurred, although on a relatively small scale,  in places in Argentina over the last year.

Thirdly, it can only be fully successful when it spreads from initial victories in one country to other countries. The history of attempts at ‘socialism in one country’ show us that it is a blind alley. Capitalism, as an international system, has created an uneven distribution of resources internationally and, along with that, an international division of labour.  Taking over in one country alone can mean taking over a region that, by itself, will suffer a fall, not a rise, in its potential capacity to satisfy human needs.

This does not mean that no benefits can be gained in  the short term for the mass of people by action in a single country. In conditions of acute economic crisis, the actual wealth produced in a country can be far below its potential level. Under such circumstances revolutionary transformation, involving the redistribution on a massive scale of wealth from the very rich to the mass of people can produce a one-off improvements in living standards.  But to sustain these over the longer term requires the creation of a new international division of labour, involving more than one country. And that is not possible without the spreading of the revolution.

One of the truly great things about the movement since Seattle is that it shows how global is the opposition to the present system and how realistic it is to conceive of revolutionary change in one country triggering revolutionary movements elsewhere.


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