Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party general secretary
“Biggest fall in living standards for a generation.”
“Sharp rise in child poverty as cuts bite.”
“700,000 young people and pensioners join ranks of Britain’s poor in four years.”
“Stoke proposes £1,000 fine for homeless using tents.”
“Budget signals longest squeeze on living standards since 1950s.”
“OECD: Britain state pension is worst in the developed world.”
“Nursing ‘in peril’ as number of student applications falls below 18%.”
“Food banks stock up as reforms to welfare add to fears of cold winter.”
These are just some of the recent headlines gleaned from the capitalist press, as they regale us daily with a blizzard of facts, which unconsciously indict their profit-driven system and their callous political representatives, the Tory government of Theresa May.
It is also a fitting testimony to the failures of capitalism in 2017, in Britain and worldwide, as well as a pointer of what is to come unless this system is seriously challenged in 2018, laying the ground for system change to socialism.
Worldwide capitalism is still in the grip of the enduring economic crisis, resulting from the meltdown of 2007-08.
Sure, the capitalist soothsayers seek to reassure us that the ‘worst is over’, that a ‘recovery’ is underway which they claim, if not guaranteeing a return of the economic sunny uplands of yesterday, indicates significant improvements in the position of working people.
It is true that some countries have experienced an increase in the number of jobs – such as the US, here in Britain and a few countries in Europe.
But contrary to the propaganda that the future looks rosy, this recovery is not broad-based and certainly has not significantly improved living standards.
They have been largely concentrated in low-paid, part-time and precarious jobs. In Britain this means that the working poor are so low paid, increasing numbers are forced to resort to food banks – a confession of bankruptcy by capitalism.
It is also a criticism of right-wing trade union leaders in particular, who still fail to effectively fight for desperately urgent, substantial increases in wages.
It is no accident that retail trade has been flat – spending is therefore down – because of the limited purchasing power of the working class, in turn due to chronically low wages.
In other words, the working class cannot buy back the goods that it produces, one of the inherent contradictions of capitalism that Karl Marx drew attention to 150 years ago.
The capitalist economists and their institutions – the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank – are actually bemoaning the lack of ‘demand’.
They are ‘theoretically’ urging the bosses to increase wages and, in some instances, even urging the trade union leaders to fight harder for increases.
But individual and groups of capitalists and governments resist this ‘advice’ and continue to viciously oppose workers fighting even for small increases. Witness the ferocious resistance of Serco, one of the numerous ‘privateers’ who leech off the NHS, to Unite hospital workers in the Barts Health Trust for an increase of 30p an hour!
They are not likely to respond to the demand of the unions in the public sector – including nurses and other hospital workers – for wage increases beyond the 1% ‘limit’ without trade union mobilisation and effective unified action.
So it has always been and will always be under capitalism. Even a wage increase of 2%, given the remorseless rate of increase in the cost of living, will leave most working people with continued reduced living standards.
This requires bold and decisive leadership from the trade unions, which is unlikely to be forthcoming from right-wing trade union leaders.
Their policies amount invariably to ‘compromise’ and endless postponements of struggle, in the hope that the anger of low-paid workers will be dissipated and resignation will set in.
Yet the anger of working people is at boiling point – as the rash of small strikes indicates. These include civil servants in the PCS, RMT rail workers and more.
They have brushed aside the recent anti-union legislation by taking action after record turnouts and majorities in strike ballots.
This can mean that if the union tops are not prepared to lead, then they can be pushed aside to make way for those militant leaders who are prepared in this urgent situation to fight the government and the employers.
Crisis of system
However, this struggle – as with all the other battles on housing, education, etc. – is closely connected with the current crisis of capitalism.
In the past, the capitalists were prepared to give reforms – crumbs off their very rich table – to the working class. But those days have gone, with boom conditions having been replaced by an organic drawn-out crisis of capitalism.
In order to safeguard their profits and interests they have conducted an offensive against all the gains of the past. The capitalists and their governments do not resist demands for change just because they are greedy and cruel – which they are.
They see no alternative but to savage living standards in order to safeguard their system. This means endless poverty – disguised by the anodyne word ‘austerity’ – which will be inevitably resisted by the working class.
May herself, in the honeymoon period after she became leader of the Tories, appeared to sympathise with the ‘left behind’ and with poor families, and promised an end to austerity.
But the demands of those she represents, the capitalists, dictate otherwise even if she did ‘sincerely’ want to lessen misery and suffering.
This is a system based upon production for profit not social need. It is founded on inequality by virtue of the fact that, individually and collectively, the capitalists exploit the labour power of the working class to create what Karl Marx called ‘surplus value’ – which is then divided among the different exploiters into rent, interest and profit.
The struggle over the surplus between the capitalists and their governments on the one side and the working class on the other drives the class struggle and is the key to understanding history.
Historically, the capitalists used this surplus value to reinvest in industry, create new means of production – the organisation of labour, science and technique – and drive society forward.
This is largely what happened in the upswing of capitalism, when it was a system which was relatively progressive in laying the economic foundations for a new social system of socialism.
This, Marx wrote, was the historical mission of capitalism – to drive forward the growth of the productive forces. But today it is betraying this ‘mission’, failing to invest. The capitalists are now more interested in piling up their own personal wealth through the massively inflated salaries of CEOs, stoking up ‘shareholder value’ rather than retooling and investing back into industry.
This also undermines productivity – which is static, if not falling, in Britain and throughout the advanced capitalist countries.
In the US for instance, a colossal total of $2.7 trillion from investments abroad is kept ‘offshore’ – outside of the US and not invested in US industry itself. Following Trump’s so-called ‘tax reforms’ – a bribe to big business, together with the loosening of some state supervision of the banks – some or all of this could be ‘repatriated’ to the US.
But it is unlikely to be reinvested into industry and therefore will not reward Trump’s base of unemployed industrial workers and others with improved job prospects and living standards.
It will inevitably go into the pockets of the rich, pushing up shareholders’ wealth, the loot of the 1% and, in particular, the fabulously rich 0.001%; the plutocrats who ultimately call the shots under capitalism. Eight individuals control the same wealth as half the world’s population!
This indicates the increasingly parasitic character of modern capitalism in Britain and worldwide. The earlier Panama Papers and now the aptly named Paradise Papers – which means hell for the rest of society and heaven for the super-rich – have revealed this in great detail.
The Financial Times aptly described such tax havens as “getaway cars” for the super-rich. And capitalism has demonstrated beyond all doubt that it is incapable of taking society as a whole forward.
Another economic crisis in the manner of 2007-08 – which only genuine Marxists, like the Socialist Party and the Committee for a Workers’ International (the international organisation that we are part of), fully anticipated – could take place at a certain stage.
The timing of such a crisis is impossible to predict but the inevitability of an economic breakdown is inherent in capitalism. Moreover capitalism has not fully recovered from this crisis which, we should recall, resulted in the loss of ten million jobs in the US and Europe alone and the wrecked lives that flowed from this.
As Jeremy Corbyn said at the Labour Party conference – echoing the analysis of the Socialist Party – 2017 was the year when this crisis saw a delayed political expression of the crash.
The political earthquake of the general election, as well as many other recent upheavals such as the Scottish referendum in 2014, Brexit in 2016 and Trump’s accession to the US presidency, were rooted in this.
Developments in the US
Subsequently, Trump has rampaged on the US and the world stages, breaking the crockery of world capitalism in the process.
Rather than the usual ‘official’ role of US presidents as an international ‘stabilising’ force, he has acted as a firebug, fanning the flames of already inflammatory situations. His ‘recognition’ of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel promises to reap a whirlwind in the Middle East and worldwide among Palestinians and Muslims in particular.
He has proved to be a disaster for the American ruling class as he bypasses the normal channels of capitalist democracy, preferring to rule by tweet in a special expression of US parliamentary bonapartism.
Even the New York Times has used unprecedented language by describing him as the “liar-in-chief”. The growing opposition to Trump has resulted in an open discussion about his removal from the US presidency, similar to that which preceded the overthrow of Nixon in the 1970s.
Even a right-wing commentator like Anne Coulter can write: “Who isn’t in favour of his impeachment?”
The Republican Party is split, which may result in a complete cleavage between Trump and his outriders like Steve Bannon on one side and the Republican establishment on the other.
This could lay the basis for a new right-wing nationalist Trump party and the increasingly alienated ‘moderate’ Republicans organised in their own party.
The Democratic Party may also itself split between the right wing and the supporters of Bernie Sanders – the ‘Berniecrats’ with their ‘Our Revolution’ movement – resulting in a new mass radical left formation.
Socialist Alternative, our cothinkers in the US, has played the role of a catalyst for the left. This was shown by the electrifying effect of the election and re-election of Kshama Sawant – the first socialist councillor in 100 years in Seattle – and now with the spectacular performance of Ginger Jentzen in Minneapolis, who led among working class voters after the first round of the recent election.
Therefore, the US could be faced with an unprecedented four-party set up, which would have colossal repercussions not just in the US but worldwide.
The ideas of socialism are spreading like a prairie fire among young people in the US in particular, at a faster rate than even in Europe at this stage. The earlier emergence of Podemos in Spain, the Corbynista surge in Britain, a similar movement around Mélenchon in France, and the Sanders revolution in the US are all part of the political awakening of a new, radical generation.
In Britain this is tending to fuse with the reactivation of older layers of the left who were discouraged by the previous move towards the right within the labour movement. It represents a rejection of sell-out Blairite ‘social democracy’ and is potentially a powerful agent for socialist change.
However, programmatically it has not yet reached the same political awareness, consciousness, as the 1980s Bennite left within the Labour Party – which Militant, now the Socialist Party critically supported – with its demand for the nationalisation of 25 monopolies.
If implemented, Benn’s programme from that time would make serious inroads into the power of big business but would not completely eliminate it. It would provoke the capitalists to mobilise to bring down a left Labour government, similar to the events in Chile with the Allende government in the 1970s.
We therefore proposed the nationalisation, with minimum compensation on the basis of proven need, of the top 200 monopolies and the implementation of a democratic socialist plan of production. But Corbyn’s programme does not even go as far as Benn’s proposals for large-scale nationalisation.
Betrayal in Greece
Unless economic and political power is taken out of the hands of the capitalists, they will use this to sabotage any threat to their system.
Is this not the lesson to be drawn today from the experience of Greece, where the Tsipras government raised expectations with the clarion call that “hope is coming”? Instead, all the hopes of the Greek working class were dashed on the rock of the Troika (IMF, European Commission and European Central Bank) and its demands for a further round of savage austerity – cuts in wages and pensions, mass privatisation – which the Tsipras government is presently implementing.
This retreat is comparable to the infamous betrayal of the German social democrats with their support for their own ruling class and the bloody World War One.
The Syriza government had a clear choice. It could bend the knee to capital or break the hold of big business and move towards a democratic socialist Greece; at the same time appealing to the Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and European working class to join Greece in a great socialist confederation of the region, linked to socialism in Europe as a whole.
This same dilemma could be posed before a Corbyn government, maybe as soon as this year, 2018.
An immediate collapse of May’s Tory government seems to have been averted through the recent negotiations on Brexit.
There were congratulations on all sides of the Tory party when May returned from Brussels with the latest deal consisting of ‘studied ambiguity’ on key issues like the border between Northern and Southern Ireland and the single market. This represents a colossal fudge.
May has stolen some of the clothes from Jeremy Corbyn, who on all the fundamental issues relating to the EU – the single market, migration, etc. – appeals to both those opposed to the EU and those who wish to remain in it.
The Socialist Party believes that it would still be possible to appeal to both with a class and socialist approach.
This would involve clear opposition to the neoliberal aims of the EU by emphasising trade union rights and opposing policies like the posted workers directive, which furthers the process of a capitalist race towards the bottom for all workers in all countries.
We stand for a socialist united states of Europe as the only lasting solution to the problems facing working people.
The strategists of capital – such as Lord Heseltine – were seriously considering support for Labour and Corbyn, despite his programme, as an electoral alternative to May and the Tory Party, which seemed wedded to a ‘hard Brexit’.
They were prepared to consider this despite their fears that a Corbyn government, once in power, could be propelled under the pressure of a politically aroused working class to go much further than the mild social democratic programme on which Corbyn successfully fought the the election.
These issues have not been solved by kicking the can down the road, which is what the latest agreement amounts to.
They could return once more and May could yet flounder, with splits within the Tory Party widening and breaking out, resulting in a general election being forced. Labour is ahead in the polls and could be pushed into office this year.
Moreover the radicalisation which we have witnessed internationally will be fuelled further by the underlying continuing crisis of capitalism – more like a series of crises, rather than a sudden collapse, although a repetition of the 2007-08 crisis cannot be completely ruled out.
2017 represented an important stage for the labour movement, for the working class and for the Socialist Party.
In November we had the largest Socialism rally yet – Socialism 2017. We continue to draw some of the best fighters for socialism and the working class into our ranks, particularly of young people and workers.
This has allowed us to forge ahead in all fields, in the trade unions and the daily battles of working class people. 2018 promises to be an equally successful period for the struggle for socialism in Britain and worldwide.