British social commentator, Mal Fletcher (On Line Opinion 7/11; and‘2020 Plus’) warns of the ‘dangers’ of a ‘Hard-Left’ Jeremy Corbyn and the spectre of Marxist and socialist resurgence. But what’s the reality behind this posturing? We’ll look at both the claims made against Corbyn and at the deployment of Marxism as a ‘political bogeyman’. From there we’ll look at social democratic and Marxist arguments around economy and society more thoroughly.
Firstly: yes, British Labour is turning Left after years of Blairite Centrism. Corbyn is bringing British Labour back to the ‘relative historical mainstream’ of ‘traditional social democracy’.
Still, Corbyn’s plans for limited resocialisation (eg: of railways and utilities) threaten a precedent whereby decades of privatisation are not necessarily “a one-way street”. Some on the Right – including so-called ‘Labour moderates’ appear quite frightened at that prospect. If anything, it is they who are ideologically-inflexible on the public sector; and cannot abide by its extension in any way, shape or form. But compare this with the 1970s when Labour thinkers such as Stuart Holland (in ‘The Socialist Challenge’) were demanding “Nationalisation of the Commanding Heights”. Considered historically, Corbyn is not ‘far Left’; but rather is suggestive of British Labour ‘returning home’ ideologically to ‘traditional social democracy’. (Although some in the Corbyn camp – and in the ‘Momentum’ movement which supports him – might be more ambitious over the longer term). In light of this, Australian Labor’s Bill Shorten’s ‘shift Left’ appears much more modest. Shorten will not consider resocialisations; but may pursue ‘a living wage’ (though has equivocated on prior commitments to raise minimum wages), and moderate progressive tax reform.
Other Corbyn signature policies include Free Education, preservation of the National Health Service, efforts to reduce inequality, and an investment in public housing. This also means a more-progressive tax system; improvement of wages – including for the working poor; a proper industry policy; and public investment in infrastructure. It suggests a Labour Party which treats social democracy seriously; not a ‘far Left’ Labour Party; but a Labour Party which refuses ‘Policy Convergence’ on neo-liberalism and ‘right-wing economic consensus’. The ‘shift to the Left’ is not ‘extreme’, but nonetheless it is the most significant development on the British Left in decades.
Fletcher seems to agree that ‘planning’ is inevitable; but poses the question “who does the planning?”. If planning is not democratic, here, do we suppose it is done by the corporates ‘behind closed doors’; with many politicians just taking it for granted that ‘the crucial economic decisions’ are not to be made democratically? That is: that the job of representative government is merely to ‘provide support’ to the corporates – who are the real economic decision-makers. Nonetheless, comprehensive economic planning by central government is not the answer either. Not least of all because it could result in unacceptable centralisation of economic (and hence cultural, social and political) power if implemented without safeguards. Arguably we need both ‘democratisation’ and ‘checks and balances’ in the economy; which also translate into political, social and cultural ‘checks and balances’.
That said: what are we to make of charges of ‘Marxism’; and is ‘Marxism’ really such a bad thing?
Capitalism is a real ‘mixed bag’ here: a mix of success and chronic failure.
Market economies involve corporations and businesses which can be driven by the market context to respond innovatively to the intricacies of consumer demand; and allocate resources as efficiently as they can in order to remain competitive.
On the other hand, there is the threat of monopoly or oligopolistic collusion; as well as planned obsolescence. Some areas (eg: energy markets) exist in a context where product differentiation is difficult; many consumers would just like to ‘take such things for granted’. At the end of the day many of them are simply fleeced by predatory corporations.
So, on the other hand while the traditional Marxist aim of ‘centralising the means of production in the hands of the State’ may seem archaic, great swathes of the Marxist critique of capitalism retain force. What Marx referred to (in Capital Vol I) as ‘the coercive laws of competition’ means that capitalists are constantly driven to revolutionise the means of production. Historically, this has led to relative material abundance – which Marx saw as ‘a good thing’. On the other hand, these dynamics result in inefficiencies, including duplication of cost-structures and premature obsolescence. To offset this capitalism is forced to adopt a posture of ‘perpetual growth’. This can have environmental and social consequences as ‘the economy’ is decoupled from human need; and instead the emphasis is ‘growth (regardless of actual quality) no matter what the cost’. Also, today’s capitalist economy is truly global; and arguably capitalism is ‘running out of new markets to expand into’. This could lead to serious crises into the future with insufficient markets to absorb capitalism’s ‘excess produce’.
Today, also, those ‘coercive laws of competition’ might result in ‘an unsustainable race to the bottom on tax’ or with regard wages – which means less consumer demand over the long-run. It can also result in privatisation of essential infrastructure and functions; which means the State abdicating responsibility for ‘what it does best’. Hence the possibility of nepotism and corruption in the context of ‘Public Private Partnerships’ for private sector mates; and/or full privatisations ‘at a relative discount.’
Privatisation of ‘Government Business Enterprises’ (eg: Medibank Private and the Commonwealth Bank in Australia) also means that those enterprises’ ‘social charters’ are lost. In many cases that included a responsibility to behave competitively. Reversion to privatisation can mean a return to private oligopoly; an inferior deal for consumers; and in the worst of cases damaging collusion.
At the end of the day workers, businesses, citizens, consumers – all end up paying for this. But many capitalists support the ‘neo-liberal status quo’ for Ideological purposes; or because they are fearful of “a foot in the door for socialism”. (More on that later).
Marxism also critiqued the tendency in capitalism to centralise ownership of most capital in fewer and fewer hands. That observation remains in force; and the consequence is “the translation of economic power into political power”. Narrow-neoliberalism is enforced with the zealotry of “an official ideology”; as are corporate interests. Unions are curtailed and vilified; the wage share of the economy falls; Media Moguls manipulate the climate of public opinion cynically. ‘Political Correctness’ is constantly beaten up to divide the constituencies of broadly-Left Parties by attrition. A return to the principles of social democracy is dismissed as ‘populism’. In Australia specifically, we have the Conservatives banning labour movement imagery in workplaces (eg: the “Eureka” flag); threatening charities who speak out on public policy; trying to shut down mass movements (eg: ‘GetUp!’) and prevent them from participating in elections (and yet at the same time they still talk of ‘liberalism’ and ‘free speech’).
Capitalist societies dealt with problems of distribution via markets and through the dynamics of ‘supply and demand’. This was ‘more efficient’ than the ‘waiting queues’ we once heard of in the USSR; and market forces also meant innovation and responsiveness. But ‘the market’ also ruthlessly excluded the poor on the basis of ‘capacity to pay’. In the West arguably, we had greater cultural freedom and innovation. (though perhaps ‘post-the-Cold-War’ the West does not ‘need’ liberalism and democracy as much as it used to for purposes of legitimation; hence liberties – and perhaps democracy itself – are under threat). But the ‘economic abundance’ we enjoyed existed in the context of a global economy where the [economic] ‘Core’ exploited the ‘Periphery’. For example, American economic exploitation and subordination of Central and South America; and the emergence of countries like Bangladesh as ‘the sweatshops of the World’. The ‘World Economic Order’ will also ‘be up for grabs’ with the rise of China and India; and continuing relative prosperity cannot be taken for granted.
But if a ‘traditional socialist economy’ (along the lines of the former USSR) is not the answer, what is?
Firstly in response to those specific issues just raised: again considering the Australian context; a socialist energy policy might provide micro-renewable energy for the poor, and for public housing estates (see: the former South Australian Labor Government’s policy as of February 2018), to reduce demand on the National Grid, and ensure that everyone can enjoy cooling in times of ‘peak-demand’ (eg: Heatwaves). The ‘leave it to the market’ response, however, would see vulnerable people (eg: the elderly) ‘opting out’ in the process of ‘supply and demand’ – despite the fact they are the ones who need the product most (and human lives are at stake!). Meanwhile importation of textiles from enterprises who ruthlessly exploit their workers – including unsafe working conditions – might be banned.
More generally: Probably the best Leftists can expect in the foreseeable future is to forge “historic compromises” which deliver security, freedoms, opportunity and happiness for the masses they represent. We should talk about Marxist ideas on socialism and communism honestly and not closed-mindedly. But if ever the world does approximate Marx’s ‘authentic communist ideal’ it might never occur strictly via the path Marx predicted. The industrial working-class might never return to the economic pre-eminence that Marx predicted, and to a significant extent as he observed in its early development. This also means the industrial working class might no longer be considered the ‘universal subject’ bearing ‘universal liberation’. The reality will be much more ‘messy’; and the task is one of building alliances; and indeed what Gramsci may have called a ‘counter-hegemonic historic bloc’. This is exactly why efforts to divide the Left’s constituencies against each other are such a threat.
A more ‘rational’ economy means – to begin with – setting the public sector free to do what it does best. Efficiencies arising from Natural Public Monopolies; and more competitive markets in the context of Government Business Enterprises with ‘social’ and ‘competitive’ charters; can mean a ‘better deal’ for everyone (workers, citizens, business). And ‘collective consumption’ (via tax) of essential social goods and services (eg: Health, Infrastructure, Education, Welfare Services) also results in a ‘better deal’. Extension of the public sector in this way does inevitably involve ‘planning’. And while central planning might not be advisable for an entire economy, there is a strategic place for it.
Most of the OECD is also far from emulating ‘the Nordic Historic Compromise’. In Australia, specifically, though, we are well behind the OECD average with regard our Tax to GDP Ratio as well. Extrapolating from the percentage gap between Australia and the Nordics, Australia would need to raise tax by around $300 billion/year to match Nordic tax to GDP ratios. (The current figure may be slightly lower: The OECD recently placed the Nordics at around 45% of GDP ; though Wikipedia suggests in the vicinity of 50% – with 54% for Finland ; Perhaps Wikipedia is somewhat out-of-date ; sadly the Nordic Model continues a slow retreat) And redistribution via tax remains an important lever to ‘grow the social wage and welfare state’. (Which are vehicles not only for redistribution and fairness, but also for ‘efficient collective consumption’).
But that kind of change ‘does not happen over-night’. A medium-term objective for Australia, then, might be to match the OECD average; and progressively raise an additional $80 billion/year (in today’s terms); or otherwise put: raise progressive tax by 5 per cent of GDP. In the rest of the ‘Anglosphere’ (USA, Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand) progressive parties could do to think on a similar scale over the medium term.
Beyond this Leftists could also think in terms of a ‘democratic mixed economy’. That is: an economy based on a strategic mix of competitive markets and planning; but also, promotion of economic democracy at a range of levels. Let the public sector do what it does best; and don’t necessarily be narrowly Ideological or traditional in determining this (for instance, strategic and limited public investment in print media may be a ‘cultural imperative’: where ‘legacy media’ retain great cultural power; are centralised in the hands of a few; and where the quality of journalism is declining in that context). But where market forces act more to the benefit of society than not – then democratise those market forces. This can mean State Aid in support of mutuals and co-operatives on both a large and a small scale. (both producers’ and consumers’ co-ops). That could also involve ‘public sector co-investments’ with co-ops to help them maintain the scale necessary to remain competitive. In specific contexts regions could also contribute: where local jobs are at stake. It can also mean policies for democratic collective capital formation, and also for (union-friendly) co-determination. (‘Democratic collective capital formation’ refers to a range of policies from Superannuation in Australia (less radical and democratic) to the attempted ‘Meidner Wage Earner Funds’ in Sweden (more radical and democratic) which aimed to compensate workers for wage restraint with collective capital share; resulting in radical economic redistribution. ‘Co-determination’ means structural corporate consultation with workers; including worker representatives on company boards.)
Critics could argue that such policies are ‘a foot in the door for [democratic] socialism’. And indeed, they might well be. But the ‘Keynesian Post-War Historic Compromise’ – which benefited workers and citizens – was in the interests of business as well. Resurgent social democracy and democratic socialism today might also (in some ways) be beneficial to business as well as to workers, consumers, citizens. We should be able to reach a ‘rational consensus’ around a robust mixed economy where the debate is focused on ‘where to draw the line’. This would mean Liberals, Conservatives, and the so-called ‘Social Democratic (Blairite) Centre’ ceding Ideological ground. It would result in a rebalancing of class forces; and for this alone it would be strenuously resisted by many. The Nordics show both the potential for delivering ‘a good society’ on the basis of similar policies; and also, the possibility of pitched struggles over ‘where to draw the line’ on economic democracy. Swedish corporates ‘had their way’ in defeating the ‘Meidner Wage Earner Funds’ in the 1980s. Again, there has been a ‘slow retreat’ since; but the overall historic example is still inspiring.
Today ‘Labour’, ‘Capital’ and other social forces could agree that a ‘robust mixed economy’ is pretty-much in the interests of all; but that what Swedish social theorist Walter Korpi called ‘the democratic class struggle’ will continue on many fronts; and in this process there are ‘no guarantees’. In this process we could envisage what Gramsci would call a long ‘War of Position’ or what Kautsky earlier referred to as a ‘War of Attrition’. They are different conceptions; but are similar in way ; and both are valid in their own sense. ‘War of Position’ assumes a long ‘counter-hegemonic’ struggle – not only a struggle for the state; but for society’s ‘common sense’ (the Ideological assumptions that are reinforced such as to be ‘taken for granted’ in a given society); and the way that Ideology is entrenched in the various institutions and social bodies of civil society. ‘War of Attrition’ meanwhile suggests a ‘wearing down of capitalism’ over the long term; through social movements, cultural, industrial and electoral interventions – but not a ‘War of Annihilation’ (another Kautskyan term) which assumes more of a ‘frontal assault’ to overthrow the capitalist state. Importantly, Kautsky supposed there were (rare) circumstances where ‘War of Annihilation’ made sense; but if pursued under the wrong circumstances this could simply exhaust the proletariat; see it demobilised or even suppressed or crushed. ‘Wars of movement’ (the Gramscian term for a ‘pitched assault’ against capitalism) are not to be ruled out in every circumstance; but where democratic processes could provide ‘a pathway to democratic socialism’, a strategy of ‘revolutionary reforms’ or ‘slow [democratic] revolution’ is preferable. Though the Left needs to be prepared for the contingency that the bourgeoisie could well ‘dispense’ with democracy itself (as far as it is capable) if its interests are seriously threatened.
Finally let’s remember the underlying human principles of Marxism; which were made a cruel mockery of under Stalinist regimes. Marx saw the material abundance produced under capitalism as creating the economic basis for human freedom. This could mean a shorter working week, as well as greater opportunity for cultural, social and economic ‘personal growth’ and participation. In Australia a reformed National Curriculum might also promote active, informed and critical citizenship, amidst a backdrop of tolerance and deep-seeded pluralism (though this is more in the spirit of Chantal Mouffe’s ‘Agonistic’ ‘Post-Marxism’ than the original perspective of Marx) Marx’s overall approach was not a mere ‘bread and water socialism’; even though socialists believe there are areas (eg: health and education, water and energy) which demand comprehensive socialised provision. Indeed, there are aspects of the Marxist vision which could be compatible with certain strands of liberalism concerned with personal growth, liberty and empowerment.
Marxism should not be seen as an ‘Ideological bogeyman’; especially where terms like ‘cultural Marxism’ are thrown around with abandon – but where few people understand what Marxism really means anymore. The fact that Jeremy Corbyn is experiencing such resistance to any return to ‘traditional social democracy’ (including substantial disinformation) provides some idea, also, of the resistance and ‘muddying of the waters’ we might encounter if we propose anything more-radical. But future convulsions in response to capitalism’s shortcomings (or what Marx would have called its ‘contradictions’) are inevitable. Somewhat ironically: in the ‘big picture’ socialists could well hold the key to ‘saving capitalism from itself’ even while setting the foundations for surpassing it with a far more democratic and free society much further into the future.
This article was originally published on the ALP Socialist Left Forum.