Posts Tagged ‘The Left’

On the Marx Again

October 20, 2008

Good news from Germany, where sales of Marx have gone up 300% in recent months. One publisher has seen sales of Das Kapital rise eightfold. While this hardly means the Red Flag is about to be raised over the Reichstag once more (and more’s the pity), it does speak volumes about the extent of the crisis, and the fact that people are looking for answers. Certainly there is no more effective critic of capitalism, and no-one more ruthless at exposing the flaws of its boom and bust nature, or the effects of the relentless, restless search for profit that led to the extravagant financial speculation that has led us to where we are today.

So what use is Marx today? It is no good those of us on the left smugly saying see, we told you so, trotting (so to speak) out the usual quotes from Marx and leaving it at that. Marxism is a tool for analysing and changing society, not a set of sacred texts to genuflect before. The left likes to think it has a clear understanding of how we got where we are, but answers are proving harder to find. The parliamentary left everywhere is proving as useless as we might expect. So, as I wrote in one of my first entries, is the European Congress of Trade Unions. Isolated statements are popping up here and there, and Mark McGregor flagged up a very sensible statement from the President of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left in the European Parliament here that stressed the need to use governments’ powers to protect those on lower incomes and stimulate the real economy, including through the use of selective credit to encourage sustainable investment and job creation. This is the type of thinking we need from the radical left, creative and practical and focused always on concrete goals but with a longer term vision.

In Ireland, north and south, the left should be arguing for the state to focus its resources not on propping up the banks and their shareholders, but on beneficial investment – in houses especially, and in job creation. The Thatcherite mantras of the inefficiency of the state and EU competition rules have been cited by too many even on the left for too long against the state taking over or creating industries. These arguments look very hollow at the present time, when the power of the state could not be clearer, and the reality of the dependence on capitalism using the state to its benefit is equally clear. In southern Ireland, the consequence of an economy with an insufficient native industrial base is clear in a budget designed not for its own people but for foreign countries, while on Channel 4 news today a former chairman of a bank was pointing out that the UK lacked the export trade that enabled the Japanese to climb out of the collapse of their banking system in the 1990s. If we are seeing the return of Keynesianism as has been suggested, investment must go to the real economy, to real and productive jobs, not more call centres, and empty headquarters that transfer profits out of the country. It is time that not only the revolutionary, but the social democratic left found its voice, and spoke with confidence.

There is an assumption among many that the current crisis will lead inevitably to a swing to the left. This is not necessarily the case. On the contrary, we can see in the southern budget the swing to the right, while New Labour ministers have begun the rush to scapegoat immigrants. Left politicans, trade unions, political parties all have a responsibility here. We on the left must redouble our efforts to ensure that it is us and not the likes of the BNP that benefit.

Update: The Times has this piece discussing the renewed interest in Marx, which includes comments from Eric Hobsbawm, Martin Jacques, and various ex-Trotskyists and Alexi Sayle, an ex-Maoist.

Update 2: Eric Hobsbawm on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme here

Extra Marx: From The Guardian


Budget Follow Up

October 16, 2008

I thought it was worth following up on reaction to the southern budget, just to remind people what an utter bunch of callous incompetents are running the show.

“It was a Government decision” so stated Brian Leninhan about the decision to end automatic entitlement to medical cards for the over 70s. The government is removing the entitlement of the top third of pensioners, a huge number in real terms, and if we think of this in terms of taxpayers, we can see how far down the scale it will hit. All this to save about 100m Euro per year. Peanuts. Especially in terms of the sums the southern government has had at its disposal, and the amount being expended to shore up financial speculators. This also helps put in perspective the commitment in the Lisbon Treaty to constant spending and upgrading of military capability. And by the way, I would hope that decisions taken by any minister are government decisions. Doesn’t say a lot for the efficiency of the thing that this needed pointed out.

What of some of the other reactionary aspects of the budget? The INTO is warning that with the removal of substitutes for uncertified sick leave, children will probably be sent home from January, and that the removal of substitutes for teachers on trips etc will hit sport and other extra-curricular activities. The Minister for Education has confirmed that the government was aware of the particular challenges” this will pose to those running schools. Not often you hear a government brazenly admit it is too cheap to educate your child properly. And so much for the health of the nation’s children. Not so much cherishing the children of the nation equally as telling them to go take a running jump. But only metaphorically, as there won’t be any PE.

The ICTU has stated that it will seek those earning 23,000 Euro and under be exempt from the Lenihan levy, but David Begg continued to defend the pay deal, something a lot of those he represents will be less than pleased about in light of the budget.

World By Storm has a piece of the usual high quality over at Cedar Lounge Revolution mocking the squeals of the guilty, as the Irish Times bemoans the fate of the middle class under the budget.

I’m not really going to add a great deal to all this. Just to say that the southern economy has been in “negative growth” (a linguistic trick if ever there were one) for not that long, and already we are seeing the slash and burn instinct coming out in the government. What will the Budget of 2011 be like if we are still in recession then? A cheery note on which to end.

Fianna Fáil’s Eighties Revival

October 14, 2008

Quelle surprise. Economic difficulties rear their head in the Republic, and Fianna Fáil reacts in the only way it knows how – a reactionary budget that punishes ordinary people, amidst a great deal of talk of belt tightening, difficult conditions, the need for patriotism, and hard choices. We’ve heard all this before, most recently in the 1980s, while the late and unlamented Charlie Haughey was having his suits handmade in Paris, and his buddies were making fortunes from corruption – a house of cards brought down, lest we forget, by Tomás Mac Giolla’s exposure in the Dáil of the nature of the Goodman company. The south, through a combination of EU membership, a young, English-speaking, relatively well-educated and relatively cheap workforce, low corporation tax, and being in the right place at the right time, has as we all know been transformed in the last two decades. Oh yeah, and let’s not forget an unsustainable Thatcherite housing bubble. There has for a large number of the last fifteen years been a large budget surplus, and some good has come out of it – investment in transport and infrastructure (although of course with the usual incompetence and stupidity as over the Dublin Port tunnel, the trams, and the failure to deal with the gridlock in Dublin), investment in education, better services in some areas, more employment, and an undoubted rise in living standards. The liberalisation and secularisation of society has also been accelerated by these trends. Those who raised doubts about the extent to which the money being made was being transferred out of the country by the multinationals, or concern about the short life span of factories owned by multinationals, or the failure to develop a significant native-owned industrial sector, or the vastly uneven distribution of the new wealth, or the failure to tax it properly, were mocked as remnants of the past, economic illiterates, begrudgers, and fools who refused to recognise the profound transformation wrought by recent economic development.

Hmmmm. The arrogant assumption that the Celtic Tiger was a juggernaut impossible to roll back, and that the economic growth would inevibatly continue looks a lot more silly than the questions raised during the height of the boom. What has happened is that a problem centred in America has radiated out from there and is on the verge of wrecking the southern economy. Obviously, every country in the world will be hit, and hit hard, by serious difficulties in America, but the south is particularly vulnerable as probably the most open economy in the developed world, with a huge proportion of its investment coming from the US. That is all understood. The question is, what resources does Ireland have to fall back on when its main sugar daddy cuts the purse strings? The answer is simple. The money accumulated during the boom years has been frittered away, and a government that makes a great deal of its skills in economic planning through its much-trumpeted National Development Plans has done precisely sweet bugger all in creating and sustaining native industry that was not almost completely dependent on the goodwill of others. This was of course very much a consequence of ideology. Not I admit a word much associated with Fianna Fáil, for whom the famous quip “You don’t like my principles? Wait, I have others” could have been invented. However, Fianna Fáil for the last five decades has been committed to a policy of free market economics and reliance on foreign capital for economic development, as have the other main parties in the state.

And we can see the consequences of this in the Budget. Here we have the Minister for Finance:
“The Government is determined to retain and enhance Ireland’s reputation as a pro-enterprise economy and as an attractive location for foreign direct investment. The most important action we can take in this regard is to stabilise our public finances.” The budget speech also spoke at length about the importance of foreign direct investment, added to some references to indigenous industry. There was a great deal of discussion of cutting the debt, ensuring fiscal stability, and all the other buzzwords so beloved of the right internationally – except when it comes to bailing out multinationals and funding armies. So what does all this actually mean? It means that the budget is dominated by the interests of foreign capital, and the people expected to make the sacrifices are the ordinary taxpayer, the young, and the old. As usual.

Corporation tax will stay where it is. Irish government policy will continue to serve the needs of the multinationals. And the Irish bourgeoisie. A 1% levy is being added to incomes – to the gross of all incomes – up to around 100,000 Euro. 2% on anything over that. So much for all the talk of fairness. 1% of 20,000 Euro means a lot more to the person earning that than two percent does to the barrister or whoever earning a million Euro. Not only that, but child benefit is being restricted, numerous education grants – including to Travellers – are being cut, and automatic medical cards are being taken away from the over-70s. This last measure in particular is quite simply barbaric. And turning the clock back not so much to the 1980s, but to the Dark Ages. In a demonstration of how little has changed in government priorities since the creation of the Free State, farmers are getting a great deal of continued support and relief.
Let’s make no mistake. This is not far from the most reactionary budget thinkable in the current circumstances – a budget for the multinationals and the rich at home. A budget right out of a different era, despite the populist pay cut for Ministers.

At least in the 1980s, there was a vibrant movement opposed to the right-wing initiatives of government. The PAYE workers’ campaigns, a less pliable union movement, and a serious and committed left voice in the Dáil in The Workers’ Party, which was active in promoting an alternative set of economic priorities through its Research Section. And, as we have seen, exposing the corruption of the establishment. We lack that voice now. And we are going to suffer for it.

Trade Unions: Rubbish?

October 2, 2008

The European Trade Union Congress has issued this statement on the current crisis. The London Declaration comes from the ETUC summer school held on September 26 and 27. The document is a mix of strong and lilly-livered language. Attacking “Casino Capitalism”, the ETUC says that the current crisis must be a turning point, that the unfettered financial capitalism of the last 25 years has become unsustainable, and a threat to the real economy. The document rightly blames the greed and recklessness of senior executives at corporations for betting their future on high risk investments, and points to the costs to ordinary populations of the rescue packages across the world. “Never again can irrespnsibility by banks and hedge funds and the rest be allowed to come close to bankrupting nations.” All this is excellent stuff, especially as we can’t expect a social democratic formation to cut to the real heart of the matter, which is the very nature of the system itself.

What then of the recommendations the ETUC makes? After the opening, they are disappointing. More public influence in institutions that received public money – this is a far cry from nationalisation, or even a call for the public to become the dominant voice on the boards of the banks it has rescued. Influence is an extremely amorphous concept, and not a lot to ask for given the scale of the investment in these institutions. The ETUC also calls for European-level regulation, and help for affected workers, those threatened with eviction, pensioners, and entrepreneurs seeking investment capital, while also calling for public policy attention for income and wage inequalities, as well as government action to ensure that funds are available for investment in the real economy, for green jobs and sustainable development.

All this sounds good. But the average left-leaning person could have thought it up in about five minutes. Unlike the average left-leaning person, the ETUC represents millions of members, with thousands of workers, and vast resources. In short, this is a pathetic response for organisations that are supposed to be the first line of defence for workers. Why haven’t they got the facts and figures to back up what they say? Why do they not have more concrete proposals, costed and ready to go? It was clear that this crisis was coming, especially after the Northern Rock and other warning signs. What are the unions doing? A look at both the TUC and ICTU websites reveals very little beyond the London Declaration.

The bankruptcy of social democracy could not be clearer. This can be an historic turning point. But not without social democracy making clear demands to restore the role of the state in the strategic levels of the economy. Less talk about influence and ensuring capital is available. More marches and demands for higher taxes, nationalisation, and targeted public spending rather than giving blank cheques to bankers.

The God that Failed? Maybe Not.

September 26, 2008

Rowan Williams, the impressively bearded Archbishop of Canterbury, has once again demonstrated his flair for publicity and for alienating his own flock, by saying that the still more impressively bearded Karl Marx had it partly right about capitalism after all, in an article in the Spectator. In an often sharply-worded and perceptive article, Williams details how the trading of debt has been the motor of “astronomical financial gain” over the last number of years. But, even more than share prices, this wealth has been generated by a collectively sustained act of wilful self-delusion  – as he points out, the truth is that “almost unimaginable wealth has been generated by almost equally unimaginable levels of fiction, paper transactions with no concrete outcome beyond profit for traders”.

How has such a situation been allowed to come about? It is here that Williams turns to Marx – “Marx long ago observed the way in which unbridled capitalism became a kind of mythology, ascribing reality, power and agency to things that had no life in themselves”. In other words, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, the belief in the power of the (ahem) “free” market has become unbridled, and this ideological commitment has both underpinned and justified the massive expansion of privitisation and debt that has lain at the heart of finance capitalism for the last decade and a half. US foreign policy under Bush has provided a clear example of this millenarian belief in the power of the market, but we should not forget that it could also be seen under Clinton (in attitudes to South Africa, Yugoslavia, and of course our own wee country) and the consistent attitude of New Labour and other European states, especially in eastern Europe. 

Williams’ article raises a number of important issues for the Left. In some senses we have been here before. In 1998, the growing understanding of globalisation and the collapse of the eastern Tiger economies 150 years after the publication of the Communist Manifesto led to much comment about the relevance of Marx’ critique of capitalism. And now we see the same thing. The question for the Left is how to ensure that a serious critique of the systemic instability of capitalism can emerge from the current crisis, and not simply wither on the vine as much of the critique of globalisation did in the 1990s. The recognition of the power of Marx’ analysis must be extended beyond rather brilliant but eccentric prelates. In order to achieve that, we must make the point again and again and again that this is not simply the result of an accident, or of bad choices, or of poor regulation. Rather, it is a result of the predatory nature of capitalism itself. A system based on exploitation will always seek ways around regulation, and seek to exploit the vulnerability of ordinary people in the face of powerful corporate and financial interests. What some historians have described as the “gentlemanly capitalism” personified in the City of London has once again shown itself to be purely piratical, just as it did in the imperialist madness that preceded the First World War.

The struggle for social justice is – more today than at any time since the 1930s and possibly ever – also an ideological struggle. We on the Left must take advantage of the opportunity afforded us by this crisis to promote our message clearly, in the language of today. The Republican Party in the US, in its initial rejection of the Paulson rescue plan, has posed the question in stark class terms – why should Wall Street be privileged over Main Street? Why rescue those at the very highest echelons of the elite at the expense of the ordinary citizen? This is a message that we on the Left can certainly get behind, and giving it our spin, turning it to our advantage is essential. In the battle to stop the Tories being elected in the UK, the Labour Party has a golden opportunity to introduce radical progressive measures such as are (remarkably) being discussed in the States, for example a government-enforced ban on foreclosures. A new language and a new vision for new circumstances should be offered by the Labour Party. Electoral interest points towards it, as do the instincts of many of its members. The only thing that can stop is the belief in the necessity of the market that has been driving New Labour. In its own struggle for survival, we can hope that it will be driven back towards the left. We must consistently point out the reality of free market ideology, of corporations and merchant bankers – leave us free to profiteer when times are good, but bail us out when our own stupidity and the contradictions of our system overwhelm us. Arguments about the ineffectiveness of the state are no longer sustainable. We must push forward our message of the state as an agent of progress. The welfare state is a minimum for socialists, and now we have a chance to reverse some of the damage done to it over three decades if we act boldly enough.

That is the task for the Left. To mobilise our resources, physical and intellectual, behind not only a critique of the faults of capitalism, but a vision of a different future. We may not get a better chance for decades.