. New beginnings | London Progressive Journal
A non-partisan journal of the left.

New beginnings

Thu 5th Jan 2012

The unions today need to be educating a younger generation about the bitter truth of the unreformability of capitalism and enabling them to develop new strategies. It is today perfectly feasible to reduce the hours of the working day and thus create more jobs and provide people with more leisure time, but who's making the demand? Unions and the Left in general need to look beyond the horizon of paid work; without free time, paid work becomes a hollow and frustrating state of restlessness.

The political institutions of capitalism in the present post-industrial phase have also changed. Parliament once formed the nerve centre of decision-making, the instrument of powerful hegemony, but has now become an empty ritualised instrument for rubber-stamping what has already happened, a mediation and administrative support for a power that exists elsewhere, in the citadels of finance and transnational corporations.

Today we have a whole range of organisations independently pursuing aims of social change, but each alone is weak and incapable of forcing through such change, yet there is little consciousness of the need, nor willingness to attempt, to focus on those goals through closer co-operation with others. A strong party of the left could perform that role, but it could only do so by reconstituting itself in a different way, sloughing off much out-dated traditional thinking and party political baggage.

Such a party, even more so today, would need to work openly inside the various progressive organisations, but at the same time recognising the other's autonomy; the party would need to engage with them, not just represent them. It would have to become a unifying force, an agent and organiser of society, whose role is to promote struggle and stimulate intellectual and moral reform. In the past, in many countries, the Communist Party played such a role.

Such a party would have to work with, and through, these many organisations, whether they be environmental, trade union, feminist, racial or social, not to impose its own ideology, but to listen and learn, to offer organising and ideological advice, to help promote consensus and effective action, to invigorate new generations of activists to take political action together as the only means of challenging the present hegemony of big finance and corporate power.

The very nature of capitalism (and this includes the subservient governments administering the political system) means that the necessary long-term decisions are not being made; everything is based on short-termism. This includes not only decision-making on a factory or organisational level but at the highest levels too. This is reflected in the prevailing model of consumption and the extreme concentration of powers in research planning, technology and growth strategies, which is in the hands of decision-making centres remote from the regions and populations affected by them. They are controlled by the companies and organisations whose priorities are short-term profit rather than social good. Reality shows that the choices of investment and location are not taking us in the direction we need to go if humanity's survival is to be guaranteed.

The environmental question offers good ground on which a Communist project could base its critique of the system and could also provide a momentum to transform and qualitatively enrich that critique, taking it beyond economistic or utopian ways of thinking. The environmental question needs a communist project and organisational form to unite the many different social subjects and interests, to identify the real roots of the problems and to assert a power capable of addressing them as a whole as well as helping to change people's minds.

Some growing social needs are of unquestionable importance - healthcare, education and urban planning - and can only be properly satisfied in the form of collective production and consumption. This is why government attempts to privatise these services at the behest of the big conglomerates is leading to chaos and seriously deficient services. The present attacks on the welfare state, benefits and pensions are reversing years of achievements won in struggle, and annulling post-war consensus politics. Despite strikes and vigorous campaigns, the unions have this time been incapable of reversing the process.

The great historical merit of capitalism has been precisely its ability to channel much of the surplus product into accumulation; this made it possible to accelerate the development of productive forces. But the history of capitalism has not been one of ever widening prosperity; indeed it has led, in many parts of the world, to forms of inequality and more brutal and widespread exploitation than before. We have seen how capitalism has led to the growth of mega-cities with sprawling suburbs in the less developed countries, we're also seeing a ghettoisation of city centres in the developed north, both leading to a chaotic degradation of life.

To view all these pressing social issues as manageable by a reformed or recuperated capitalism, or capable of being addressed by means of welfare and aid, is to misunderstand the depth of the crisis and the underlying, deep fracture in the system. However, on an 'ultra-modern' terrain there is a possibility of reviving communist thinking and struggle. There is an organic link between the large mass of the marginalised, impoverished and the traditional workers' movement and the new sectors emerging from the qualitative contradictions of post-industrialism.

At the peak of capitalist development, the workers' movement found favourable terrain for its struggles and managed to wring important concessions from the capitalists. That is now changing for the worse. Prosperity is diminishing and inequality is increasing. On a world scale, the gap in living conditions has widened inexorably between north and south. In the highly developed world, income differentials are widening again after a period of narrowing, and a significant fringe of society is once again falling beneath acceptable thresholds of minimum existence. The less industrialised south is now largely trapped between the pressures of increasing population and the break up of traditional forms of self-sufficiency; its economies are spiralling downward to below subsistence levels. The region is over-burdened with foreign debt and its environments have been degraded. The present forms of injustice and new poverty are expressed in the less developed world particularly as a cumulative process of marginalisation creating a broad social stratum without hope and being pushed towards degenerate cultural forms (e.g. fundamentalist fanaticism or racial conflict and barbarism).

Finally, in this whole context, the Chinese experience is illuminating. Faced with the implosion of the socialist world, after 1989, China realised that capitalism was the only show on the road, but its inherent contradictions and solely market-oriented strategies were incompatible with its population size and largely rural population. So what has arisen (something never envisaged in either Marxist or capitalist thinking) is a country led by a Communist Party with centralised planning and strict regulatory mechanisms overseeing a mixed, but largely capitalist economy. This has enabled the country to attract foreign investments and to rapidly industrialise; its population has experienced rising living standards and a broad satisfaction of consumer demand. It has meant that the ruling party has been able to direct, monitor and adjust investments and infra-structure projects, tightly control its own banking system and set the country's priorities with little outside interference. Of course, this transformation has not been a smooth one or without its problems: there is an increasing gulf between a small elite of super-rich and a mass of still relatively poor workers; there has been environmental degradation on a massive scale, and there is still widespread corruption and restricted democratic freedoms.

But it appears to be working better, in terms of stability, than the capitalist world elsewhere. Can this model be sustained? Is it one to emulate? It is undoubtedly too early to answer those questions, but it deserves a more intense scrutiny. Japan, too, has a system without political alternation, resting on a committee of all the country's major economic powers. It also has, like China, a high degree of conformism among the mass of the people. Its economy, despite recent environmental catastrophes and the world economic crisis, also appears to be weathering the storm. While I am not suggesting that either China or Japan offer acceptable solutions for every country suffering under the global crisis of capitalism, I do think their models are worthy of examination.

(This article owes a great debt to the writing of the late Italian communist Lucio Magri, whose historical reflections in his book 'The Tailor of Ulm' is a great source of ideas for the left)
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