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Critique Notes 78

Published: 26 July 2017

Critique held its annual conference this year in London on Saturday 6th May. The speakers and subjects, in the order in which the talks delivered were: Hillel Ticktin: The Russian Revolution in 1917 and today. Valério Arcary: Is a revolution possible today?, Savas Michael- Matzas: Europe in turmoil, Raquel Valera: Socialism is not poverty: revolutionary demands in XXI Century, Yassamine Mather: What happened to the Communist parties of the Middle East?

There were around 30-40 people present.

This issue has a substantial section devoted to the political economy of the current world situation, which was assembled by Raquel Valera.

A New Phase of Capitalist Decline

Class War in the UK

The world appears to be entering into a new phase in the decline of capitalism, reflecting not just the re-emergence of finance capital and its crisis but the underlying inability of capitalism to cope with its own measures to stabilise the situation. Austerity is failing, disintegration is threatening, and political forces on the left are beginning to emerge. As in the thirties we have had the emergence of the far right under nationalist, xenophobic and racist forms but above all class war threatens. The overall theoretical background is discussed in my aaticle in this issue.

The sudden defeat of the British ruling class in the British election was followed within 5-6 days by angry peaceful demonstrations among sections of the London working class at the nominally accidental, massive fire which engulfed a 24 story housing bloc. The clear expression of grievance in class terms has upended the system. Whatever the shortcomings of the Labour Party leadership, Jeremy Corbyn had called for a redistribution of income during the election, repeated when he demanded that unoccupied buildings in the area of the fire be expropriated, at least temporarily, to provide the necessary housing for those who had lost their homes in the high rise tower fire. Although, the terms discussed were very limited and did not change the nature of capitalism, the very expression of such demands did threaten the system for the first time in decades. The picture of the wealthiest homes in the country being appropriated to provide housing for some of the poorest citizens sent shock through the system. Not that it actually happened. The right condemned the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer for using the word ‘murderous’ referring to the way in which housing is so easily erected as cheaply as possible, without proper attention to safety, for ordinary people. Throughout the period of Corbyn’s leadership he has been criticised, insulted, excoriated and humiliated both by the right wing of the Labour Party and by the press, both written and broadcast. The Conservative Party led first by Cameron and then by May has been vicious. The fact that he remains standing is itself a tribute to him, whatever his exact views. He is effectively a class hero. Although he comes from a non-revolutionary tradition in the Labour Party, the condition of capitalism is such that his challenge to capital is regarded as dangerous in itself today.

The de facto victory of the Labour Party in not only holding its own under these circumstances but increasing its share of the popular vote by 9-10 percentage points to bring it within 2-3 per cent of the Conservative vote, with a 68 percentage turnout on a radical programme including nationalisation and increasing taxes for the wealthy has destabilised the UK, and threatened capitalism. The situation in London after the fire has re-inforced that situation.

In the meantime, the ruling class finds itself in an impossible situation, threatened by the workers by hand and brain that further action will follow if concessions are not made, while its own party is hopelessly divided. In reality the British situation is only the first to begin the process of crystallisation of the forces of the genuine left, and the Corbyn Labour Party is of course neither clear where it is going nor is it as radical as its direction demands.

The crisis in the UK is made all the more acute by the absurdity of Brexit, which after all, in its essence was intended to deal with the far right and was a referendum result which went wrong. There is no question that big business needs the single market, preferably as part of the EU. They did not want to leave1. Most of medium to small business are of the same view, but about 40 per cent of this group do want to leave. This group have combined with the old Empire Loyalists who hanker after the old Empire or Commonwealth. They do not seem to have recognised that the Empire is over. Britain not only has no colonies, where it can enforce rules of trade, but it has lost much of its industry with which it used to trade with the colonies, under strict rules favouring the UK. It has been left, in globally competitive terms, with Rolls Royce, which is in trouble, BAE, a defence industry, and pharmaceuticals. Its car industry is owned by German, Japanese and Indian firms. Part of the result is that the UK has very high trade and balance of payments deficits. Until very recently it had a balance of payments surplus, owing to its large investments abroad.. Today, however, the latter are offset by higher returns from investment in the UK.

If the situation were not so serious, one could make a comedy out of the situation where the ruling class got the wrong result by mistake and then they, a party of the rich and powerful, tried to make the best of a bad job by claiming that it was acting in the interests of the jobless and the poor by excluding EU citizens from entering the country. But then even that was denied them, when those poor and jobless voted for the opposition.

The situation is critical and not just in the UK, but the crisis is immediate in the UK. As part of the EU, the UK could fit into the overall European market, with a negative balance of payments, as do other countries. In the world market, outside the EU, the situation will clearly be to its detriment.

Global Change

In the present period the bourgeoisie is struggling to cope with the patent discontent of the population, throughout the world. Unfortunately, the left remains weak, but the bourgeoisie is providing their own forms of control. Nationalism has risen from the dead as a force nominally against the bourgeoisie to protect its historical beneficiaries: small capital, peasants, the so-called middle class, and sections of the working class. Elementary concessions as in Hungary have had an impact. There the government, inter alia, forced banks to convert foreign currency mortgages into local currency. The Polish government retreated on that front and with two other measures.2 Nationalism is particularly strong in Eastern Europe, replacing Stalinism in its role as a nationalist force. In effect, the bourgeoisie which is today globalist and not nationalist, has had to accept the rise of nationalism more generally, as in Brexit or in the election of Trump.

This is not a viable political strategy, as trade and finance capital is spread world-wide, but it was serving its purpose in avoiding a move to the left at this time. The alternative amounts to a form of repression of the lower to middle ranks of the working class, both blue-collar and white collar. Macron is its leader in Europe, and the battle is being mounted. Germany and France have decided to use the EU as a pole or alternative to Donald Trump’s United States.

It is clear that the election of Macron with only a third of the electorate in the first round of the elections and a high rate of abstention, over fifty per cent, in the second round is not a sign of strong support for his platform., even though he has a majority in Parliament. He has declared open war on the wages and conditions of work of the majority of the population. The battles will soon be under way. The CDU in Germany is expected to win that election and will assist Macron by providing the necessary investment in French industry, so raising employment. Whether Macron will be able to transform the EU itself by having an element of financial subsidy for weaker member countries, provided by Germany in particular, is not clear. Unsupported comments indicate that it is a done deal.

If Macron is defeated, and the UK working class continues to move to the left, Europe as a whole will be destabilised. Indeed all of Western Europe will follow. Italy, Spain, Portugal are effectively waiting for a lead. In Germany we have seen the sudden support for Martin Schulz when he said he would undo the Schroder reforms, and the equally rapid quick loss of support when he undid what he had said. It is likely that things will move there too. Unfortunately that is only the direction of travel and we have to see how it actually pans out. The ruling class can see the danger and is likely to plan to avoid the scenario. Merkel does not have to bail out Macron, and can raise German wages. Macron may win his fight with the unions or come to an agreement which preserves the status quo.

Trump, US Capitalism and Hegemony

The paradoxical, and in places absurd, even comical, policies followed by the Trump leadership in the USA are drawing out the effects of a decline on an imperial hegemon. Trump is acting in direct conflict with the real role of the United States ruling class over the rest of the world.. “In investment terms the United States ‘net international investment position decreased to -$8,108.7 billion at the end of the fourth quarter of 2016”.3 This is made up of US international liabilities of $32,642.3 billion less $24,871.4 billion of US assets. Yet, the USA managed to get a positive return on its indebted position because its foreign investments yielded more than the returns on investments in the USA. In other words the rest of the world is effectively supporting the United States. In earlier times, the USA got a positive return because its external investment was greater than the investment in the United States. This is obviously an indicator of the decline of the US economy in relation to the rest of the world, but also a tribute to its continuing hold over the global economy that it should be able to get such a positive result from its foreign investment, at least in relative terms. Internally, the situation in the US is probably exemplified by its debt crisis.

The global economy may be on a cliff edge. The world has the makings of a debt crisis” according to an article in the Financial Times.4 This is an apparent paradox given the huge sums being stashed away by finance capital, which amount to many times the debt itself. Such, however, are the wonders of private enterprise. It is argued that debt itself is building up to crucial levels and it could be brought to a climax by one or more of a rise in interest rates, the decline in commodity prices or low growth rates, all of which are either present or expected.5 The author of the article expects a crisis but the world may not go into a crisis as a result, just exhibit various aspects of instability. Governments can intervene if and when necessary, even if it contravenes right-wing instincts. There is a problem with Trump at the helm in that he or his cohorts may effectively unknowingly plunge the US and so the world into a crisis, without understanding what he is doing. This may be the effective message of the article.

After the Second World War the USA took over the Imperial role from the UK, by implicit and explicit agreements. It lent and gave money to the European powers and helped them re-establish their control over their spheres of influence, even as the US displaced them. It had occupied Japan and conquered South Korea and established total dominance in Latin America. In much of the rest of the world its role was more ambiguous, but there was no question that it dominated global trade and was the prime global military power. Unlike the British Empire, its imperial dominance did not take a direct colonial form but one of establishing military alliances like Nato and economic blocs, such as the EU.

In the period down to 1992, the Soviet Union appeared to constitute an alternative, if not in military terms then in political economic terms. Nor was it just the USSR, the ruling class appeared to believe that there was a realistic possibility that it could be overthrown in a series of countries, which might make capitalism itself unstable. The reality was quite different. Stalinism, as was often noted, was a status quo power. It was superficially strong but weak in reality. Centre right specialists were well aware of the real situation but chose to accept the official doctrine that the USSR was the evil empire bent on conquest, which had to be destroyed. The truer understanding of the post-war period was that it was a time in which there was no chance of revolution as long as Stalinism remained dominant on the left and in Eastern Europe.

Its ending meant that the United States had to maintain its hegemony on another basis. It needed another enemy but it had none. Putin’s Russia is much weaker than the USA, and is a market economy. The left until several years into the crisis, were no threat to the US ruling class,. The rise of Bernie Sanders in the USA, Corbyn in the UK, and left political parties in Southern Europe were not expected. However, the retreat of the United States from South America did lead to social democratic governments as anyone might have anticipated. What did undermine US hegemony was the failure of the wars in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the stalemate in Syria. As long as it is believed that there is no real threat to US global hegemony, Trump can retreat from wasting resources and personnel in other parts of the world. However, his attempt to protect some US workers from loss of jobs or downgrading is unlikely to work as many people have pointed out. 6In particular, Gillian Tett indicates, citing a number of authors, that over two decades some 400,000 workers have lost their jobs to robots.7 From this kind of evidence it would appear that industrial capital is apparently shifting in this direction. It has taken a long time to do so. The authors of the article cited indicate as much by referring to predictions, of rapid employment of robots, made by Keynes and Wassily Leontief 80 years ago. However, it does look as if it is speeding up. The reasons are a combination of technical and social factors. However, the issue remains controversial in general and in particular in the Financial Times, where Tim Harford argues that there is little displacement of workers, in an article a day after that of Gillian Tett. Harford refers to the low rate of growth of productivity.8 Real mass unemployment, often hidden in statistics, static or declining wages, the growth of soup kitchens etc are the reality. The attempt at denial is to be expected by supporters of the market.

Problems of Imperial Control

Trump appears to be intent on disrupting the current imperial form, on the ground that it is not serving its purpose, of supporting the United States. At one level, he is consciously or unconsciously saying that with the end of the Soviet threat the ruling class no longer needs the same institutions to run the world. Nato etc. is effectively redundant. After all, the far-right regime in North Korea is more of a diversion than a threat. China has a capitalist economy. The US ruling class needs a new set of international institutions to run the world in its interests.

There is another problem, however. In the post-war period, the USA posed as the global champion of democratic rights and a capitalism for all people. The failure of Stalinism both economically and politically appeared to support the US ruling class. Once the Cold War ended, however, the World began to enter a period of minor crises followed by a permanent crisis.

The EU itself in its earlier incarnations, of European Coal and Steel Community, the European Economic Community etc was part of the Cold War. The US all throughout wanted the UK to be part of it. In this regard, it has to be noted that Obama played a crucial role in the crisis of the EU, chairing its crisis meeting in 2011. He did his best in 2015-16 to urge the UK to stay in the EU. Effectively, the US ruling class is losing control of global capitalism, in that Germany and China in their own ways are developing a degree of independence.

Germany supplanted the UK in its power and influence after West Germany absorbed East Germany. It has become the central EU country, effectively an American competitor. Its machine tools and cars were often superior to those of the US. Indeed Germany as the powerhouse of an EU with 28 states, with a population of over 500 million, could have threatened US imperial hegemony. The German ruling class realised that it could not have the army or imperial status, and was content to play the role of junior partner, fitting into the American hegemonic structure without its costs. Trump is rejecting this situation. As the forces of production have gone beyond the nation state, and the super-profits of imperialism have diminished in order to accommodate rising national bourgeoisies, the form of US extraction of tribute from the rest of the world has also changed. It is the global banker, the central basis of finance capital, with the savings/investment of the rest of the world moving into its institutions.

This is not to say that its commercial/industrial companies are not critical in the world economy. Clearly, Intel, General Electric, Boeing, Automobile companies and Alphabet, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook etc are dominant or important to the world economy, but its not immediately threatened by the rise of China as an independent industrial country as the Chinese leadership is very conscious of US power. It acts cautiously and withdraws when the US challenges it. The Chinese are not allowed to buy critical Western companies. Germany, the USA and Switzerland have made this clear. More Western action is being proposed. Western capital, primarily US and German capital, are protecting their interests. Trump is not out of line with the needs and desires of the USA as imperial hegemon, in essence. He seems to be doing it very crudely and possibly in a counter-productive way. If China can reach the same or higher level of technological prowess as the USA, there will be a real problem for US capital. It is clearly trying to get there, but the odds are stacked against it. Trump’s actions are more likely to confirm the Chinese hierarchy in their perception of their need to achieve their object. They are a cruder extension of the controls already exercised over the transfer of technology.

Eastern Europe is an example of a different failure of US policy in this period. The decline and fall of industry in that area is important. In Poland, for instance, the extensive shipbuilding industry, an inheritance from Prussian times that continued and was extended during the Soviet period, was largely reduced to one of maintenance and repair by the time of the global crisis.9 One can interpret the change either as a successful adaptation to modern conditions or a considerable decline compared to its international fame in Soviet times. Poland receives considerable subsidies from the EU, and in turn has been forced to comply with instructions from the EU, which involved, inter alia, closing plants in the shipping industry. In general, the emerging ruling class in Eastern Europe orientated towards the free market, with the USA as its model, although it was in fact within the EU. The UK played a role supporting the shift to the market, taking part in its subsidization, as a net contributor to EU funds. In general, Eastern European Industry has been reduced to that of assembly industry, and repair and maintenance.

The governments of European and Asian countries have had to conclude that they will have to adjust their policies to deal with the withdrawal of the US from maintaining the global economy and policing. It.10 In reality, there is no real threat to US imperial hegemony, whether or not the USA brandishes arms or demands economic subservience.

Furthermore, it would appear as if the ruling class does not know its own interests. Trump appears unconscious of them, apart from the need for the USA to rebalance its budget and balance of payments. He wanted an end to Nato and then more money from other states for Nato. Although this sounds very odd, Nato has in fact lost its original purpose and its involvement in an anti-Russian scenario is doing more to support nationalism in Eastern Europe than stopping invasions.11 The ruling class appears divided in several factions. The overall viewpoint of maintaining or achieving a small state, with the market fully in charge of all economic matters, remains their common aim, but they differ on strategy, tactics and intermediate stages. The neo-conservatives have lost traction since the Iraq debacle and the end of George Bush Junior’s influence. Their fundamental failure lay in their inability to perceive the real limits of the market. Their economic successors have been those holding the flag of global austerity. The downturn or contemporary crisis has made government intervention essential to avoid chaos, and the austerity slogan is meant to hold the line on government intervention and turn history back.

There has been discussion of a downturn or crisis, or even a very deep crisis. One of the arguments is that governments have lost any means of revival, given that they have exhausted quantitative easing. This is in fact not true. There is no reason why they cannot nationalise bankrupt firms or print more money. It is true that interest rates are at low rates, but the fact is that huge surpluses of money are held by corporations, and they are held on their behalf in the banks. Of course, if the governments will not act, taking the view that private property is sacrosanct, the global economy could be at a standstill. The pressure from the left would make such an outcome unlikely.

Until recently, it looked as if there were no left with large scale working class support. The elections in the UK, the USA and elsewhere have shown otherwise. It appears to be true that a substantial part of the population has bought the idea that austerity is necessary to reduce the government deficit. This is now changing.

Austerity and its Limits

It is worth dwelling on this point. In the case of the UK, the government has been in debt for much of the last 300 years, not least because of the many wars that its ruling class fought. It dealt with the issue without much trouble. In the last great case, the period after World War 2, in spite of the debt owed to the United States in particular, the UK nationalised the health service etc, steel industry, the railways, utilities and built extensive public housing. It is true that one reason it could do so lay in its exploitation of the British Empire of the time but that does not alter the point. Britain today has extensive overseas holdings, its national debt is largely held internally, unlike Greece,. It is particularly absurd to raise the question of national debt when the Bank of England has had no problem in buying British bonds to the point where it holds close to one third of British national debt. The fact they could sell them at a very low interest rate is itself proof that the Government has no funding problems. In other words, it would make sense for the Government to invest in infrastructure or in nationalising the transport network etc in order to expand the economy. By so doing the extra initial debt incurred would be quickly wiped out and the deficit itself would be steadily brought to an end. This is a straight Keynesian argument, not a left wing one, but the Keynesians are too timid or too few to make an impact. The question is why are the ruling class continuing to maintain what is increasingly a suicidal line, and not just in the UK.

The same point applies in Europe and the USA, although the dogmatic insistence on austerity is different in different countries. The only possible answer to that question is that the ruling class feel threatened and consequently are applying a classic historical remedy. In Marxist terms it is the enforcement of commodity fetishism together with the maintenance of a reserve army of labour. In other words, the rule of money and enforcement of debt repayment combined with limited job opportunities and control over wages. This is all wrapped up with an ideology which says that there is no alternative to the market and such as might have existed was patently worse.

The fact is that wages have been kept down and a considerable section of the populations have bought the arguments. Otherwise we cannot explain why right wing governments have consistently been elected. Hence also the importance that the German government attributed to containing the Greek example. In fact, the German opposition has been next to useless in countering this propaganda. The capitulation of Martin Schulz shows clearly the influence of the German ruling class. What it also showed was the despair of much, often the majority, of the population. The alternative is to abstain from taking part in elections. This was clearly shown in the French elections, but not only there. In that respect the recent British elections have shown real change in that close to 70 per cent of the population voted, with the opposition getting 40 per cent of the vote. The left wing of the Labour Party has rejected the austerity programme but it is having trouble getting a full alternative growth programme generally supported. It is clear however that the world is moving in that direction.


The question remains as to how the ruling class can react to save themselves. They can move to the right as in the USA, with a nominal nod to a section of the unemployed. In the UK, a similar attempt to appeal to the working class through Brexit is still operating. In France the strategy is to go for a straight class battle expecting support based on the recent election. The Greek tactic is clever enough in that it is using a once left wing party to enforce extreme austerity. In Germany the ideological hold of social democracy has prevented the working class from acting. The political after effects of Stalinism remain and the surplus of workers from the East combined with the underdevelopment of that area are part of the problem.

On the other hand, the huge surplus on the balance of trade in Germany is explosive in the context of the EU, and cannot last.. Furthermore, a Corbyn type explosion within the broad realm of social democracy encompassing the left-leaning parties can be anticipated, though it is not clear how long it might take. It is clear even to the dullest member of the ruling class that an immediate alternative is necessary. Their existing ploys have a finite life.

This leads naturally to the question of the low rate of growth. Productivity remains below the level before 2007 crisis began.12 This is a worldwide phenomenon, which one business friendly commentator attributes to a downturn in investment and the speed in which investment in new technology is applied.13 This view, of course, is not news and the point is made again in my article in this issue. Martin Wolf puts the question succinctly in terms of corporate savings.14 Robert Shiller on the other hand argues that the failure to invest has to do with the overall pessimistic mood in the economy, which seems to mean consumers and investors. It is a psychological issue.15 Orthodox economists have always argued in terms of psychology and consumers rather than the objective reality underlying viewpoints and so actions. It does not require a genius to draw the. conclusion that there was an objective reason why the period down to the end of the Cold War in 1989 had relatively limited downturns and it was not general consumer optimism.

There is no section of the ruling class or its associated parties, conservative or right wing-social democratic which is calling for a return to relatively high growth rates. It is obviously in their power to start ploughing their huge unused money holdings in order to invest in a global boom. The dangers are too obvious. They cannot, therefore, go for more than a modest quickening of the growth rate, moderated, perhaps, by the usual capitalist so-called recession. That is unlikely to hold the fort, especially as such a recession might prompt quicker political action. Without higher investment in the economy, growth rates and productivity will remain low, ultimately affecting profits. While mass investment in robots may be limited it will be enough to increase the reserve army of labour and raise the rate of profit for a time. The further the decline of capitalism, appearing to the capitalist class as a lack of perspective, the more questions of investment appear to be subjective questions on predictions of the future, rather than objective needs to compete with other firms, or take advantages of a profitable new industrial or business climate.

As a result, Capital is limited to a low rate of growth, with an ultimate slowing in its rate of profit, and rising levels of discontent. Trump and the far-right regimes of Hungary and Poland have to be understood in this context. Indeed, the states of the former Soviet Union are largely under dicatatorial or semi-dictatorial regimes. All of them are, at the least, democratically deficient. Their bad luck was to have moved to capitalism after 1979, when US capital turned back to finance capital and had no room for competitors.

In short, the last century exhausted the strategies for Capital. Until the genuine left comes to power, the world will go through further trauma. Interestingly a recent (16th June 2017) opinion poll by Yougov showed that a majority in the UK supported a party standing for ‘genuine socialism’.16 Interestingly they used the words “genuine socialist”


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