Why can’t communists be more “business friendly”?

by Jehu

This tweet came across my Twitter feed this week and grabbed my attention:

Buenaventura Parsons @Iron__Hammer: Joe Anderson determined to make Liverpool “the most business-friendly” urban environment in the country.  You know what that means.

The tweet itself is not all that unusual, but it struck me as interesting because it jarringly raises an uncomfortable question for communist strategy: Why is a business friendly politician politically LAF226.lgappealing to what are mostly working class voters in the middle of a crisis? What is the appeal in the term “business friendly”? How can a politician walk among the workers of a town like Liverpool and tell them he is going to make the town “business friendly”? Most of all, what does Joe Anderson know about how the workers of Liverpool think about economic issues that communists do not?

This is the most glaring example of a disconnect between how radicals think the world operates and how it actually operates. Although radicals explicitly or implicitly assume the working class is radicalized by crises, this bourgeois politician has no problem at all saying he aims to make Liverpool the friendliest place for exploiters in all of the UK; and he doesn’t get lynched for this, he gets elected.

The tweeter added this comment: “You know what that means.” As if we do, but do we? Do we really know what it implies for radical politics when a politician can promise — literally promise — to make a working class town friendly to exploiters in the middle of a crisis created by the exploitation of labor? How can communists even campaign against a politician who actually can win an election on the promise he will be friendly to exploiters of the working class?

Can we change the subject?

Two things are evident, it seems to me:

First, obviously, communists can’t win in Liverpool by promising to be hostile to business, because the voters clearly want someone who is business friendly. Radicals make a fetish of being “against capitalism” or “the 1%” or “the rich” — but this clearly cannot work in Liverpool. In Liverpool, workers are “business friendly” and want their politicians to be “business friendly”. Radicals, by contrast, want to kick out the “business friendly” politicians, but cannot do this by being naively hostile to business. I am betting no radical could get elected by promising to drive business out of Liverpool. (I cannot say this is definitely true because I know nothing of the politics in the city, but it’s my hunch anyway.)

Second, as a radical, you cannot credibly compete against bourgeois politicians by promising to be even more friendly to business than that politician. Who is dumb enough to believe that promise coming from a communist? Most communists don’t even have business experience. This politician, on the other hand, probably moves effortlessly from politics to business and back again. (Again, I don’t actually know that this is true in this specific case — Anderson might be a career politician — but he is at least comfortable with business types.) Radicals, on the other hand, only talk to “business leaders” (if at all) across a union negotiating table.

Can this be fixed with patient education of the working class by radicals as in the vanguard party model? Can it be finessed by talk of “market socialism”? Can radicals simply change the subject to climate change or the minimum wage? If being business friendly is expected or preferred from elected politicians even in the middle of a crisis and that can’t be challenged, is there another path to challenge it indirectly? I don’t have an answer to these questions, of course. If I did, I would not be blogging. But the problem still fascinates me.

Problem: The working class is absolutely subordinated to capital

Although I am terrible at politics, I want to give a stab at how this problem can be addressed. I want to break the problem down into pieces and (hopefully) do it in a way that is not weaselly or unprincipled. (If I seem to be going in a weaselly direction call me out on it.)

First, radicals have to admit that there is an element of rationality in the working class’s “business friendly” attitude. The ugly fact of politics at least in the most advanced countries is that it is possible to win even if all of your party’s reforms are at the expense of the working class. This is a rather stunning lesson of post-war history. The working class is utterly dependent on capital to survive. Every worker goes into the voting booth already knowing that her job is dependent on her company’s success. The working class’s experience is that whatever else happens, capital must thrive for it to survive. This places it at a distinct disadvantage in the competition between classes; makes it susceptible to arguments like the Liverpool politician. You can’t argue with that sort of empirical reality with cheap words about exploitation.

Second, this knowledge is often exploited by bourgeois politicians to support totally capitalist agendas, but it is there. And it makes complete sense: at the core of capitalist firms is social production or socially cooperative labor or whatever you want to call it. The working class is a social producer and this social production is mostly carried out in the form of capitals. Social production,which is the material reality of the social producers, is carried on within the shell of capitalist relations of production. Yes, we should change this, but we can’t unless the working class comes to power as a class. Once in power it can change everything, but it has to get power first, right?

Here is the thing: Radicals oppose capitalism, but they do not oppose social production and actually support and encourage social production. So, it turns out that radicals are every bit as pro-social cooperative production as bourgeois politicians are pro-business. We might not like the capitalist container, but the social production content is just fine. In fact, we want this content to develop even more rapidly than it is now! We want to do everything possible to encourage development of social cooperative production and to increase its rate of growth.

Capital is also social production

Why?

Because the more social cooperative production develops, the more rapidly labor can be reduced and ultimately abolished. Ignoring the capitalistic container for a moment, the fastest route to abolition of labor is the fastest possible development of social production. Which means, as radicals, we are not, as most people seem to assume, completely opposed to capital.

Capital has two parts: the forces of social production and relations of production. Communists have a very long history of being oddly conflicted by this combination: we oppose the latter, but not the former. We oppose the latter not just because it is exploitative — which is certainly is and I am not minimizing this — but most importantly because they are an impediment to the development of social production.

How do capitalist relations of production become an impediment to social labor: I think there are at least two ways. First, capitalist relations artificially constrain the consumption of the working class and thus the production of material wealth. We are all familiar with this impediment and it requires no explanation: profit limits subsistence, since it is produced by limiting it.

There is a second impediment, however, that most radicals — even most communists — are not familiar with: at a certain point even profits cannot be employed productively. This is why Apple is sitting on $180 billion or so of profits it can’t invest and it is also why the US is forced to run massive public deficits. Once surplus value cannot be productively employed, it tends to end up in crises, speculation and fascist state deficits.

Between limitations on the consumption of the working class that is inherent in the mode of production and huge masses of capital that can’t be profitably invested, social production halts. This problem, obviously, cannot be fixed by imposing greater austerity on the working class to increase the profits of capital, since profits are already too high and the subsistence of the working class is too low.

Communists are not uncritical anti-capitalists

Radicals should have no beef with proposals that favor capitalistic development so long as it advances the development of social production. Which is to say, we should CRITICALLY support measures that favor capitalistic production so long as they advance social production in general. What we do not favor are measures designed to either artificially increase profits or reduce consumption. There is no lack of profits in the world market today — the world market is awash in profits looking for productive investment. And there is not too much consumption among the working class — in fact, the working class is in a dire situation in most countries.

We should critically support proposals that favor capitalistic development. What do I mean by capitalistic development? I mean production for profit, of course. Capital is the production of profit, of surplus value. To the extent production for profit advances the development of social production generally, I think radicals should support this. However, this support must be critical: not every measure that aids production for profit advances social labor generally.

To give two simple examples of measures that do not advanced the development of the productive forces: When the state buys the excess product of a farmer at market prices and burns it,  this aids production for profit, but does nothing for social labor. To give another example, when the state buys steel and builds an aircraft carrier with it, this aids production for profit but does nothing to advance social production. “Support” obviously does not imply blanket support; we can fully support any measure that advances production for profit  so long as it advances the development of social labor and only to that extent.

This is where we depart from “business friendly” bourgeois politicians.

Debating bourgeois measures

This means we can now shift the debate from support or opposition to “business friendly” measures to “which specific measures makes sense and which do not.” The measures generally favored by bourgeois politicians includes those that further reduce consumption of the working class to increase the profits of capital. Or they include measures the state takes to prop up profits at the expense of development (agribusiness subsidies, military spending). These measures are favored by bourgeois politicians because they do not require the capitalists to reform their operations and  because they impose all the costs of reforms on labor alone.

Let me give a few suggestions, some of which have been floated elsewhere:

  • End all limitations on free trade: There should be no more barriers to the movement of capital and labor between the US and Japan than there is between Italy and Germany or New York and California.
  • End all deficit spending by the public sector: This is a hard one to get support on the Left, because many communists identify deficit reduction with austerity, when actually there is no relation between the two. Deficit reduction does not and cannot come from the subsistence of the working class. As bourgeois economists have known since the time of Keynes, the aggregate profits of capital equal the total of profits of private capitals plus the public deficit. Deficit spending only adds to the wealth of the capitalists; it does nothing to reduce inequality.
  • No bailout: Instead of bailing out GM, it would have been better to just buy out the owners and spin them off as worker controlled cooperatively managed firms. Let the workers elect their management and run the company. This could be applied not just to companies operating at a loss, but even to profitable companies. Since the excess capital within the world market must be lent to the fascist state anyways, why not just borrow it to buy them out. They cannot do anything with the proceeds of the sale but lend it back to the state — even at zero or negative interest. If, at this point, excess capital must be lent to the state, use the capital to progressively buy the entire national capital and place it in worker managed cooperatives. That is a fairly exotic use of measures to support the development of the productive forces. (Of course, this idea has it problems of coordination, but these should be solely settled by the workers themselves — not the state. How else do the workers learn to run the factories? No one can do this for them without becoming a power over them.)
  • Reduce all taxes on wage labor to zero: The working class produces all surplus labor, there is no reason for the state to take its portion directly from their paychecks. Does this mean higher taxes on capital or just more borrowing? Really, why should you care? Do the Koch Brothers worry about where taxes come from now? Did Reagan care about how his tax cuts would be paid for?  Did Dick Cheney worry about how the deficits for the war on terror would be paid? If the state cannot raise its taxes, it will just have to reduce spending. But the workers get a 20%, 30% or even a 40% raise.
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