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A constant theme among leftists who regret the success of right wing populists is that the traditional left parties are responsible for their own decline in that they allowed themselves to become out of touch with … well, with whom? That’s never made entirely clear. Vague labels, however, are liberally sprinkled: working people, traditional supporters, working class, middle class, ordinary people, ordinary working people etc. The thrust of this approach is that the people they have in mind were there for the taking and the likes of Trump and the Brexiteers in the cases of USA and UK took them. Essentially it is an argument for some kind of left wing populism, i.e. tell these people something they want to hear so that they won’t be seduced by right wing populists.

The problem for a left approach like this becomes apparent when some of its advocates talk simultaneously of left parties returning to or sticking with their principles. Again, there’s no clarity, no attempt to discuss principles or indeed values. Without such discussion – without critical examination – a very important doubt is suppressed. The question that seldom, if ever, arises is this: What if traditional left values or principles are incompatible with telling those “ordinary people” what they want to hear? That is to say, there is a fundamental problem when “ordinary people” want, say, tax reductions, privatisations, more competition etc. etc. or even the impossible, say, the clock turned back and jobs, long-automated, restored.

However, there are just two groups being in touch with whom is fundamental to socialism.

Out of touch 1

The industrial working class was identified by Marx as having historical purpose because their values and progressive demands were universal and certainly not because they were a rabble easily seduced by leaders offering political baubles.* Their heirs are present today, more than willing to listen, more than capable of political argument, knowing well when they are being subjected to patronising bollocks or offered some factional, preferential crumb to be denied to others. No party in Ireland is addressing the working class. For sure, there’s no shortage of parties – sometimes with an upper class leadership – who think that raucous, rude, sneering, anti-establishment, ignorance and name calling is somehow working class but they ignore the real deal.**

A major preoccupation of the working class today is that their ambitions have now more or less been thwarted by the latest iteration of capitalism, i.e. I.T. and the disappearance of huge numbers of middle level, satisfying, well-paid jobs. There is no point in telling these people that those jobs can be resuscitated, or replaced in sufficient numbers by new similarly good jobs or that security in low paid, low-skill, low-status jobs will have to do. They are working class; they’ll see right through it. Anyone seeking their attention – never mind their support – better have a good argument or at least show that they live in the 21st century and understand the problem.***

Out of touch 2

Almost everyone who makes policy tends to be out of touch with the poor. There are two aspects to the failure. Firstly, economics based on rational choice either discounts or utterly fails to grasp the short time-scale necessarily of interest to those with immediate money problems. That is to say, those with insufficient money this week cannot seriously be asked to evaluate medium or long term possibilities. Secondly, well off activists and policy makers tend to sacrifice the poor to grand policy. That they could lose their income or that they are dependent on the state should be uppermost in debate but it seldom – if ever – is. Bluntly, the precarious position of the poor demands that they be the priority. Paradoxically, when it comes to this kind of neglect, socialists combine little excuse and a poor record. Their universalist and egalitarian thinking, together with the likelihood that they will know poor, working class people, should ensure that they be constantly aware of the poor and certainly of the different outlook of those with immediate money problems. The failure for socialists is most likely rooted in the revolutionary tradition and the commitment to grand schemes which subordinate the needs of a group – even the poor – to the greater project. However, in truth this is as right wing as it is left. When in the UK the privileged Jacob Rees Mogg spoke of short term deprivation over Brexit which would take perhaps 50 yrs to work out, he was not very different to the Irish anti-austerity leftists of some few years ago. They, when the Irish state had a mere three months’ money left to pay state workers and welfare recipients, wanted to reject conditions demanded by the state’s only lender. In that scenario they hoped something would turn up so that the poorest in the country could be paid; they wanted at best to gamble and at worst to sacrifice the welfare of the poor on a long term objective.

In touch

Having excluded the working class and the poor, there would seem now to be even less clarity on “being in touch”. Not so. In fact it’s pretty clear. What Irish socialists and in particular the majority in the Labour Party want is to be popular with those they see frequently either in media or in person. These could be the attendees at a large protest, a popular campaign waged by a civil society group to obtain a concession from the “political class”, attendees at a political clinic or those whose doors were selected for a canvass.

The common feature is that there is no intention to argue or convince anyone of anything. Indeed the only out-group seems to be the top 1% and they are usually to be sacrificed not for egalitarianism but to maintain the structure of inequality across the 99%.

A note to the declining Irish Labour Party

There are two possible routes to survival. Because they are incompatible a decision is required. Neither offers certainty of success.

The first is to engage along with every other party in the state – without exception – in the crowded, competitive market of “fairness”. Labour’s objective would be to get a slice large enough to ensure survival. While that course allows for marches and fists in the air, it’s a conservative, managerial position. It’s a competition in ideas and policies (which any rival can steal) aimed at issues. It’s a competition too to have one’s best issues accepted as newsworthy. There is no requirement to have an overall achievable objective and no requirement to argue for anything that would change the existing structure of inequality.††

The second is to look to the working class and universal values, and to argue for change in the conditions of the 21st century. This would put the Party out on a limb, i.e. unlike all the competitors in the fairness free-for-all. The doubt that absolutely has to be faced is whether or not there are sufficient voters open to that approach as would ensure the Party’s survival. The audience is comprised of the working class (In the meaningful as opposed to the polling sense) and others who might – sharing the participatory/republican outlook – be open to an argument for change.

In crude marketing terms it’s like this: When you’re on 3%, the choice of competing in the consumer market or of being more specialised and quality oriented is a difficult one.

The temptation is to do the familiar regardless of changed circumstances.

____________

These are links to my blog. Each expands a little on the respective points above

* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/04/20/no-karl-marx-was-not-out-of-his-mind/

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/07/31/working-class-has-meaning-it-should-not-be-twisted-misappropriated-or-trivialised/

*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2018/07/10/getting-a-firm-grip-the-labour-party-jobs-and-the-working-class/

https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/fairness-has-become-the-conservatives-shield/

†† https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/06/21/its-odd-in-ireland-all-the-parties-like-grass-roots-campaigns-and-no-one-is-in-opposition/

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A joke doing the rounds way back in the 1970s went like this*: The CEO of a car manufacturing plant was showing off his new assembly robots to a trade union official, “You’ll never organise them!”, he boasted. “And, you’ll never sell them a car!”, replied the trade unionist. Funny and true. So, we’ve been aware of the direction of production, work and capitalism for a long time. However, until very recently it was difficult to get people to pay attention. Even now it is probable that a majority would prefer to argue and make policy as if it were still the hey day of industrial capitalism and industrial workers. It may be that the significance of I.T. is lost on them but it could be that they are unwilling to change familiar, comfortable ways of thinking.


A long-standing trio is crumbling because the productivity of today’s technology i) undermines the working of industrial capitalism, ii) undermines state welfare systems designed to ameliorate the effects of unemployment and iii) requires socialists to rethink their basics.

The best way into the heart of the question is via Marx. (Yannis Varoufakis has been on about it recently.) It goes like this: it is labour that creates ‘value’. Work is the core; it transforms raw material into useful products.

In steps capitalism. Profit emerges in selling products but obviously selling relies on buyers. Bluntly, the supply of products makes no sense without demand. Demand depends on money moving about – circulating – but that in turn depends on people having incomes. Traditionally this has meant jobs paying wages and salaries.

It’s hardly surprising then that the history of industrialisation is punctuated by workers resisting new productive technology. The purpose of new industrial technology is to reduce the amount of labour necessary to produce the goods. In short, its purpose is to do away with jobs.

Of course there was a time when it wasn’t as simple as that because growth and new technology created other jobs, lots of them, with titles that would have meant nothing a few years earlier. Moreover, the new jobs tended to be dry, clean, quite well paid and prestigous. By the 1960s and 70s “ordinary workers” were not defying death by going to work but were relatively comfortable, educated, healthy, ambitious and many were buying houses. Certainly there were still dreadful jobs and piecework remained a curse but there was hope.

The hope rested on the unfounded belief that things could only get better, that because a generation was better off than the preceding one, it was now to be expected for succeeding generations, that education and a job meant comfort and a fulfilling life, and that the state would provide in the event of a life-changing catastrophe or a period of unemployment. Okay there were still fatcats, privilege and exploitation but overall the majority found the “trickle down” argument plausible.**

Things are different now. Forty years of neo-liberal economics coupled with IT development have produced a society in which ordinary workers cannot buy houses, cannot assume that they’ll be better off than their parents, cannot assume that a good background and education will lead to a satisfying career. There are baristas and carers with PhDs. There are people living hand to mouth on piecework which we choose to call the gig economy. There are people employed but living in poverty, dependent on welfare just to keep going. This isn’t part of an economic cycle. Those good jobs which made the mass of people prosperous are no longer required; they’re gone.

The naive response would be to cite capitalism for screwing down incomes. Sure, there are rich chancers making money by exploiting vulnerable people but there is more to this and a naive left response is much worse than useless.

The reality is that productive technology has reduced the cost of doing the bulk of those good jobs to zero; no labour is required to do the jobs that so many people thought were their future. Some of course do exist but work has been moving upmarket and downmarket, evacuating the middle. The need now is for high level expertise and for unskilled and semi-skilled workers. The process is in its infancy but these days the likes of doctors, accountants and drivers of all sorts find they are reading more and more about artificial intelligence – the latest manifestation of productive technology – and they are worried.

Here’s the thing: At some stage in this process capitalism becomes pointless. As technology – artificial intelligence – reduces to zero the labour required for most production, the owners of the means of production increasingly come face to face with the new reality. It dawns on them that they cannot realise value as profit. This is the end stage foretold in the 1970s joke and unless capitalism – or rather industrial capitalism – can find a way to accommodate the new order, it faces an existential threat.

Some years ago it was argued that the industrial jobs still existed but globalisation had allowed them to be moved to low wage economies. That did happen and it remains the case that where wages are sufficiently depressed, labour is cheaper than machines but machines today are utterly effective and efficient, and there’s a greater proportion of software as opposed to hardware production.

The welfare state whose mission for decades was to support capitalism by dealing with unemployment – paying workers temporarily unemployed, providing training, retraining and education to serve industry, providing all sorts of aid to investment – has to confront a fundamentally different problem: a shortage not of educated, skilled workers but a shortage of work befitting them. States and governments, having created an educated workforce and having made job creation a measure of success, are resisting change. Indeed for the most part they are doing as they’ve done for decades because the change required is as yet inconceivable.

While the modern liberal state finds it hard to adapt, many socialists – so theoretically and emotionally bound up with labour, the working class and jobs – may find it next to impossible. However, adapt they must because otherwise there will be no plausible counter to today’s and tomorrow’s forms of exploitation and structure of inequality.

In Ireland unemployment is at about 6% and the trend is downward. Allowing for those who don’t want a job, those who are between jobs etc., it will be said at about 3% that full employment has been reached. Even among socialists it is often still believed that a job is the best route out of poverty. Now, it may be the best available route but clearly it is not anything like a guaranteed route. This is because – yes, again – those mid 20th century rewarding jobs are gone and the 6 – 3% unemployment figure is achieved largely through the expansion in poorly paid, insecure, unattractive jobs.

Socialists and Trade Unionists will try to secure better pay, conditions and security for these workers but they cannot change the nature of the work itself. The work is what is left after the present generation of automation.

Already it is frequently argued that there is no point in educating masses of people for non existent jobs, that higher education should be concentrated on a smaller elite and that money saved would be better spent on training. Now, this is precisely what should be done if the purpose of the state and particularly education is to create workers for the jobs available. However, when meaningful work for the masses cannot be created, then leftists must demand that the purpose of the state change. Such a demand depends on an enormous change in the thinking of socialists because no matter who owns and controls the means of production, one thing is clear: machines, automation, I.T., artificial intelligence cannot be uninvented.

To be at all plausible socialist argument and policy must address not 19th or 20th century capitalism but today’s iteration.

__________________________

* https://www.robotics.org/blog-article.cfm/The-History-of-Robotics-in-the-Automotive-Industry/24

** https://www.thebalance.com/trickle-down-economics-theory-effect-does-it-work-3305572

The activists who organise resistance to the installation of water meters regularly put forward a contentious proposition in the media but journalists/presenters seldom – perhaps never – challenge them.

They contend that work within, passage through or policing of a housing estate requires the consent of the community. It’s a familiar concept in Northern Ireland but is new to this part of Ireland. Moreover, “community consent” is determined by activists not all of whom live in the particular community.

The model put forward is of communities under siege from something akin to an occupying force and dependent on cadres which know what’s best and will protect them. It is a model which has simply no relevance to Ireland today.

The protesters mount a token blockade to prevent water meter installers’ trucks gaining access and then they obstruct the installation of meters. They offer little resistance, however, and allow the Gardaí to push them aside. Given the small numbers of protesters and Gardaí, it might seem odd to treat this seriously. It may, however, be a growing phenomenon, beginning to border on dangerous. There are already activists who regard a residential area as their territory and will attempt to drive off rivals and those who belong to the political parties who generally support the state.

It would be easy to dismiss all this as the actions of fantasists in thrall to anti-state struggles which occurred and still occur in Northern Ireland but there is a component to this which reflects badly and damages the credibility of the left. It too attracts the fantasist but of a slightly different kind. Unfortunately it has roots in Marxism and makes Marx appear ridiculous at a time when his work should be relevant.

There is a tendency particularly among Marxists with middle class origins to both misunderstand working class and romanticise anything that seems popular. When, therefore, a significant number of people take up a position, there is an assumption that they are progressive as long as they can be labelled “ordinary working people”, that they need to be led and if they are opposing the state, so much the better. At its most benign this draws some leftists into the routine form of Irish populism. However, the romance of involvement in something that looks a bit like revolt draws them close to and into competition with the fantasists mentioned earlier, those who want to do battle with the state.

All in all, the notion that the Irish people are at war with their own state needs to be questioned and discussed publicly in Irish media. It is an abandonment of public service merely to report on or give coverage to a proposition so contentious. It is an abandonment too of citizens who do not think they are opponents of the Irish state.

Here’s Vincent’s piece marking Rousseau’s 300th birthday. http://www.politico.ie/irish-politics/8644-rousseau-distrust-representative-democracy-well-founded.html

There are two basic arguments for the move away from direct democracy to representative democracy. Firstly, there’s the numbers argument: The population is too large for everyone to attend the meeting, so we’ll elect representatives. There is a debate emerging on changes being made possible by the ICTs but I don’t want to pursue it here.

The second argument is generally forgotten. This is the argument that taking part in informed debate requires a level of education, absorption of facts and arguments, deliberation and judgement, and that all of this is so time consuming that we have to professionalise. However, representative democracy shouldn’t lock the masses out of the consideration of great issues because we have media to promote and relay the information and arguments to the citizens, facilitating a functioning public sphere.

The whole thing goes off the rails when the representatives don’t deliberate and argue, the media don’t demand deliberation and argument, and the citizens are generally content with political gossip.

It used to be possible to contrast the liberal notion of citizenship with its more participative republican rival. The liberal citizen would like to be left to a comfortable private life unconcerned – apart from voluntary work – with public affairs. The republican citizen would like to be involved in all matters of controversy concerning the republic. Something different has now emerged or re-emerged: the peasant.

Of course I’m being provocative by using the word “peasant”. I could come up with an obscure term that would offend no one and would hide the connection with a genuinely peasant approach to politics.

Peasant societies were characterised by inequality, acceptance and occasional revolts. Rulers knew that there were limits. Peasants made demands. A little change here and a little change there kept the system going until …    I could write a long essay on the emergence of the modern world but I’ll spare you.

The point is that we now have a considerable degree of acceptance that there is a “political class” which is seen to be essentially bad and all powerful but which can be frightened into concessions on “issues” organised and defined by “activists” who “work on the ground” or “in the communities” to “raise awareness”. This leaves the universal approaches of socialism, liberalism, conservatism and their derivatives seemingly irrelevant.

When someone says that they reject right and left, that the political class is all the same, he/she should be taken very seriously. It is an expression of post-political beliefs reinforced by media professionals who deride politicians, see no need for rigorous political discourse and treat all information and argument equally. That person who rejected left and right might be happy to be labelled, say, “a post-politics activist” but would very likely go ape at “peasant” or “peasant organiser”.

There is course another view: that what we are looking at is complex capitalism and again a whole other essay beckons. Suffice it to say that Marx knew a peasant when he saw one!