Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Market fundamentalism and political economy

Crisis caused by capitalism, not gov't policies

The excerpt below is taken from "So Far from God, So Close to Orange County: The Deflationary Drag of Finance Capital," a talk presented at a regional socialist educational conference held in Los Angeles over the 1994-95 New Year's weekend. The entire talk appears in the pages of Capitalism's World Disorder: Working-Class Politics at the Millennium. The excerpt can be found on pages 126-130. Copyright © 1999 Pathfinder Press, reprinted by permission. Subheadings are by the Militant.


Capitalism over the past couple of decades has at least doubled the official jobless rate that is considered "natural" in the United States, Europe, and most other imperialist countries. The numbers of workers no longer even counted as part of the labor force still continues to grow. At the same time, the capitalists have reduced unemployment benefits, held down the minimum wage, diminished the buying power of take-home pay, denied government funding for child care, and allowed welfare benefits to fall further and further behind price increases. Working people are being driven out of affordable housing, and medical and retirement benefits are being cut.

This is what capitalism is imposing on growing numbers in the working class today. And then politicians from both parties start branding those forced to live under these conditions as outlaws. They start talking about putting the children of the "underclass" into orphanages. They start denying workers unemployment benefits or welfare unless we accept jobs at a minimum or subminimum wage. They draw immigrants across the border to exploit cheap labor and then begin organizing to deny them schooling, medical care, and social benefits.

Workings of capitalism
In a long-term deflationary period such as we are living through today, the bourgeoisie does not even have to do anything for most of these conditions to worsen. It is not primarily a matter of government policies. Under such depression-marked circumstances, all the propertied families and their politicians have to do is let capitalism operate. As it does so, both economic and social conditions, and the relationship of class forces, shift against the workers and their allies.

We should never forget that for substantial periods during the initial years of industrial capitalism in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, conditions in factories and mills--and in the working-class districts of Manchester and London and Liverpool--plunged to such a level that fertility and birth rates threatened to fall below levels necessary to replace living labor. This was especially the case during the second quarter of the nineteenth century--a period of protracted deflationary pressures across Europe. As this devastation deepened, the first unions and working-class organizations began to agitate and fight for change. Under this pressure, sections of the bourgeoisie themselves began calling for reforms, fearing that the reproduction of the working class was being called into question. Marx and Engels describe this in detail in their writings.1

Propagandists for the "market system" tell us such things cannot happen again in industrialized countries as we approach the twenty-first century. But the bitter truth turns out to be that it cannot not happen. In fact, it is happening right now in parts of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, including in the eastern half of Germany--birth rates are declining, and mortality rates are on the rise. And more and more workers sense it could also begin happening in the United States, Britain, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, and other imperialist countries, as depression conditions deepen.

The battle has opened up around all these questions in bourgeois politics in the United States. And it should come as no surprise that the right wing is firing the opening shots. The street battles will come later, after a fighting labor movement has begun to take shape and threaten capitalist rule. But the political initiative, to begin with, lies with the rightist and fascist forces that emerge out of the right wing of the bourgeois parties themselves, linking up over time with elements within the cops and officer corps of the armed forces.

Working-class currents, on the other hand, do not come out of the radicalization of a left wing of the bourgeois parties. They come out of a sharp and sustained rise in working-class struggles. And class battles on that scale will only begin later in the crisis; that is what the historical experience of our class has demonstrated. So it is the radical right that gets the first shot, and whose nuclei begin to grow earlier and faster.

That is why in the mass media today we already hear the voices of ultrarightists--a Patrick Buchanan, for example--but we do not hear communists.

That is why Yeltsin leans on a fascist like Vladimir Zhirinovsky as the crisis deepens in Russia, while there are still no substantial revolutionary workers organizations there (and why when Yeltsin is replaced, even if not by Zhirinovsky, it will not be by forces to the left of the current government).

That is why an openly fascist party can be given a cabinet portfolio in the government of Italy, a NATO country.2 And it is also why that coalition can then receive the blessing of the president of the United States. On a visit to Rome in June 1994, Clinton said the Italian government "from top to bottom is unequivocally committed to democracy," adding that this remained so despite the fact that many parties "have their roots in a less democratic past."

1. In his early book The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, Frederick Engels pointed out that in the industrial and port city of Liverpool in 1840, the average life expectancy of urban workers was fifteen years, compared to thirty-five years for the middle and upper classes. In Manchester, a major factory center, 57 percent of children from working-class families died before the age of five, versus 20 percent for the upper classes. Engels's firsthand observations of workers' wretched conditions during an extended stay in England as a young man--as well as his experiences there with the Chartist movement and other forms of working-class resistance--had an important political impact in making him a communist for the rest of his life. (For Engels's description of health and sanitary conditions in working-class areas, see especially the chapter entitled "Results.")

Conditions improved in the wake of the capitalist expansion that began in the 1850s and the political results of the 1848-49 revolutions in Europe and stepped-up working-class organization and agitation in England. Nonetheless, nearly a quarter-century later, Marx wrote in volume 1 of Capital that "the consumption of labour-power by capital is so rapid that the worker has already more or less completely lived himself out when he is only half-way through his life.... Under these circumstances, the absolute increase of this section of the proletariat [those in large-scale industry] must take a form which swells their numbers, despite the rapid wastage of their individual elements. Hence, rapid replacement of one generation of workers by another.... This social requirement is met by early marriages, which are a necessary consequence of the conditions in which workers in large-scale industry live, and by the premium that the exploitation of the workers' children sets on their production." (For Marx's discussion of these questions, see especially chapter 10 on "The Working Day," chapter 15 on "Machinery and Large-Scale Industry," and chapter 25 on "The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation.")

2. Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi formed a coalition government in May 1994, appointing leaders of the fascist Italian Social Movement to head five ministries. The government fell at the end of December 1994.

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