Stranded on a dark, deserted road somewhere between reform and revolution
A comment on my last post makes three rather interesting and concisely formulated points:
“If activists want to achieve anything they need to be political and they need to have a program which places demands on the state. That is not a statement that the state or the capitalist economy can satisfy these demands in anything more than a marginal way. It is a strategy, and your contribution does not seem to indicate any strategic direction except for a maximum program.”
I think at least two of the three points cannot be disputed. Here is a response from my perspective.
First, it does not matter that, in theory, no demands on the state can ever achieve the goals of activists, activists will still make them. More important, the working class as a whole will still look to the state to satisfy their demands, even if activists do not. The class will attempt to act politically even if we could demonstrate this political action would not and could not be worthwhile. So what the working class believes and what it will fight for is not under our control.
Moreover, in their political action, activists only express what the working class believes. If the working class were to conclude political action is not useful, activists would likely reflect this opinion as well in their activity.
Second, in practice, activists are limited not by what theory tells them will work, but what the working class believes will work. It is not our job to substitute ourselves in place of the class or to reject its demands simply because we determine they aren’t realistic. The demands may not be realistic or effective, but the class as a whole has to learn this through their own experience.
But here we come to a matter on which we differ: It is easy to conflate the demands of the working class as a whole with specific proposed solutions offered by activists.
So far as I can tell, the working class has not specifically embraced the ideas of basic income, a higher minimum wage or a jobs guarantee. If anything, these measures are controversial among the class as a whole. A higher minimum wage aside, a lot of the working class regularly votes for the Democrats and the GOP, neither of which party supports these ideas.
It is not as though activists are championing the demands of the broad working masses specifically for a basic income; rather, activists are narrowly trying to sell basic income to the working class as a solution. But a solution to what?
The working class knows its subsistence has been declining for more than 40 years. Every worker opens his paycheck envelope and reads the numbers on the check with a sense of vague disappointment. People are juggling bills, making decisions about food or rent, wondering what a retirement will look like, how their kids will be educated and so forth. This is the sort of economic pressure every worker faces today.
Their demand is for an end to this state of affairs, not specifically for it to be solved by basic income or a higher minimum wage. Instead, some activists have proposed the demand for an end to the steadily worsening economic conditions of the class can be secured by a specific program like basic income.
However there is serious resistance to ideas like basic income precisely because it promises money for nothing. That money can only come from the employed workers taxes and it is vulnerable to this charge. If you think basic income has an uphill slog, just wait until Washington politicians start running pictures of young black men smoking crack with Toronto Mayor Rob Ford — carrying the message that, in the future, this will be paid for with basic income. Why would you walk into a political ambush like that?
While the state may only satisfy our demands in some marginal fashion, there is no reason for us to advance marginal demands; and this does not mean we have to limit ourselves to maximum demands for immediate realization of FULL COMMUNISM. It means we recognize the actual demand from the working class and propose solutions that move us in the direction of communism.
The actual demand of the class is to end the repression of its consumption, which has lasted 40 years, not a higher minimum wage, jobs guarantee or basic income. Our proposals should address this ACTUAL demand, not what we have already decided in advance is its ideal solution.
So the question is how do you propose to address the ACTUAL demands of the class in a way that is not marginal? And, to be very clear, there is nothing the least bit marginal about a demand for an end to poverty and inequality. I think the commenter hugely underestimates the innate revolutionary content of a comprehensive overarching demand for an end to the deliberate and ongoing repression of the living standards of the working class. The material living standard of the working class is being deliberately repressed by the fascist state because this is now a precondition for production of surplus value. This means demands to address this repression will have far-reaching effects.
But even a demand for an end to poverty and inequality can be made into a marginal demand by means that only attempt to address it at the margins. Since we all agree the state can only address our demands in some marginal fashion, some argue that we should limit our demands to the margins. While others propose we should formulate our demands in a way that has the potential to go beyond capitalism.
In fact, this question is already settled in practice: The advocates of basic income and a jobs guarantee defend those ideas precisely on the grounds these measures do more than create change at the margins. Both basic income and jobs guarantee advocates propose that the relation between the two classes — capitalists and workers — can be upset because basic income and a jobs guarantee will reduce competition within the working class and increase its ability to confront the capitalists.
This is an important reason both measures might be supported — beyond just seeking to address the economic strangulation of the class by giving a handout. Advocates of basic income and the jobs guarantee may be facing a state that can only satisfy our demands at the margins, however the demands themselves need not necessarily be limited to seek only marginal results.
There is another possible demand along this line that directly undercut the economic power of the capitalists: reducing hours of labor. Hours of labor reduction strikes at the economic power of capital by directly reducing their profits, forcing real wages to rise and by reducing competition within the working class over jobs. It thus accomplishes in a single measure everything that can be won by a higher minimum wage, basic income and a job guarantee.
Further, communism is all about realizing the productive potential labor for the whole of society, not just the non-laboring minority. It is, essentially, about breaking the monopoly on free time from the grip of the capitalists. Reducing hours of labor takes us beyond merely addressing the issues of poverty and inequality to address the central issue of our epoch: employing technology to free the mass of society from compulsory labor under threat of starvation.