The post-war boom melted away decades ago. It produced a mass consumer society unheard of in history. This society was based on the colossal destruction and devaluation of capital in the Second World War.
Today’s waste society, where most people are immune to the dire environmental consequences of simply throwing away, or using up irreplaceable natural raw materials, is a direct consequence of the tremendous upsurge in commodity production after the war. This boom could not have happened without the war-time capital write offs. The destruction of value allowed a revival in profit rates and the start of an unprecedented period of growth and expansion of consumption (especially in the so-called Western heartlands of capitalism.)
Yet, capitalism remains capitalism. Almost everything used and consumed would not be produced at all if it could not be sold at a profit, largely to benefit the relatively few, but increasingly mega-rich. It is hardly surprising that most people who need to earn a wage in order to live, whose unpaid labour is the original source of all capitalist profits, but who have no control over anything except what they can afford to buy, should accept their role as consumers and ask few questions about the wider frame which is beyond their control. That is, so long as they are able to earn a wage; so long as that wage does hold out the prospect of being able to buy into a better “standard of living”. For a couple of decades or so, when unemployment was at an all-time low and workers were able to win real wage increases the working class, not just in America, could share this ‘more of the same’ dream.
But we are talking ‘capitalism’ and that inevitably brings economic crisis due to the inbuilt tendency for profit rates to decline. It’s a crisis with a long history which we’ve touched on many times before in Aurora. This crisis didn’t start with the financial crash a decade ago. The world’s post-war boom ended at the start of the 1970s.
Crisis and Globalisation
Way back then British industrial capitalism was slow to adopt the new technology needed to revive falling profit rates. This was due in no small part to resistance from the working class. Sector by sector, iconic battles were fought by workers desperate to hold on to what they had. They were not alone. Across the whole of the advanced capitalist world the crisis of profitability demanded radical restructuring in order to raise productivity per worker. If this was not sufficient within a given national boundary (as with the bulk of UK shipbuilding, for example), then new technology existed to be employed in another part of the world where labour power was cheaper. In the United States whole cities, once the backbone of US industrial capitalism, were relegated to the rust belt. So, on the back of mass unemployment, de-skilling, lower wages and reduced job security, the post-war trend towards workers taking a larger share of GDP went into quick reverse.
By the 1990’s, after the Russian state capitalist bloc imploded, we were told that ‘globalisation’ was the future, with the USA – the one remaining super-power with its currency dominating international trade – standing to benefit above all other states. Millions of assembly workers, and others, in China and beyond joined the ranks of the global working class. They now produced cheap consumer goods for the rest of the world. ‘Globalisation’ thus changed the shape, and arguably, the composition of the working class in the old capitalist heartlands.
With the biggest – and growing – part of the labour force now working in services of one kind or another, many wage workers were not even sure they were part of a class with different interests from shareholders, directors, managers … Plenty bought into the idea that the working class (traditionally defined as males who did heavy industrial work) no longer existed and began to believe that ‘home ownership’ and property speculation would provide them with a secure future, even as they were mortgaged up to the hilt and steeped in credit card debt. The financial crisis put paid to that. The state bailed out the bankers and financiers, and imposed an onslaught of austerity measures on workers to pay for it.
Real wages are still lower than they were a decade ago. No surprise to find then that workers now work longer hours than they used to. Moreover, massive state cutbacks in social services and welfare spending, postponement of the retirement age, and the prospect of declining pensions coupled with wage freezes and outright pay cuts, translate into a steady decrease in the quality of life. Meanwhile, capitalism’s global debt pile is higher than ever before ($247.2 trillion by March this year.) As for finance capital, the world’s top investment banks made more money in 2017 than in 2007, before the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
So this is where we are. Workers today should have no illusion that things are going to get better. The fact that they say ‘millenials’ are paying the price for the “riches” enjoyed by a previous generation of ‘baby boomers’ is really an admission of capitalist failure. Now the ominous international situation, with the threat of growing trade wars, and the possibility of worse to come, is fuelling more disenchantment with the present system. With no solution to the economic crisis it is no surprise that trust in established political set-ups is waning. Our rulers are losing their grip as witnessed by the British political establishment’s mess over Brexit.
On the world stage, the rise of Trump, Salvini and numerous other populists is the result, not the cause, of the crisis of world capitalism. Far Right supporters are deluded into thinking that kicking out immigrants or abandoning the Euro will lead to a shiny future. But pledges to revamp the existing set-up by the likes of the Labour party Left are equally deluded. Jeremy Corbyn’s speech to anti-Trump demonstrators recently was long on wind-baggery but short on any alternative beyond defending the United Nations, the Paris Climate accord and mealy-mouthed swipes at Trump whose name he did not mention. Of course we can’t disagree that the problem is “also about our planet, our world, and how we relate to each other” but to imply that there is a solution within the frame of the system that is responsible for the situation is absurd.
But the alternative is not to do nothing. The positive aspect about the present situation is that the idea that there must be a better alternative to capitalism is gaining ground. Sure, there are all kinds of confusions about what that means but more and more ‘ordinary people’ are recognising that progress means more than consumer capitalism. Yes, a new world is possible; a world where human beings freely relate to each other as equals in a human community where they are not just wage workers whose main decisions are what to buy or not to buy.
Instead we will be in a world-wide community of associated producers who take part at all levels in informed decision-making of what and how to produce, in the long term interests of humanity and the survival of the planet. Let’s imagine how the problem of plastic waste might be dealt with in such a world. After the scandal of whole islands of the stuff emerging in the Pacific Ocean, China stopped pretending to recycle other people’s plastic. So this year most of Britain’s plastic waste has been sent to Malaysia, Indonesia or Vietnam to be dumped in the sea by them instead. The bulk of the population in Britain, i.e. the working class, has no say in this matter: their role is just to feel guilty as consumers for buying stuff in plastic containers. How different would the solution be if there was a global community organised from the bottom up to decide on what, how and whether to produce on the basis of human need, optimum allocation of resources (including labour power) and environmental sustainability, where profit did not enter the equation.
This revolutionary alternative will not morph gradually from the decaying frame of crisis-wracked capitalism. While working class readiness to organise and fight on their own account is vital for the overthrow of capitalism, it is equally vital that the struggle avoids the tragic defeats of the past and takes up the communist programme. This programme has nothing to do with what passed for “socialism” in the old USSR. Its vision is of a world of ‘freely associated producers’ which has to be explained and fought for politically. This is why we need a revolutionary political organisation (ultimately international) which is clear and united about what it stands for, which will coordinate our scattered struggles and challenge the capitalist power structure everywhere. The CWO is committed to finding ways to work with other like-minded working class organisations in order to reach the wider working class. If you agree with the principles outlined here help to turn it into reality by joining in the fight. We have a world to win and a world to save before capitalism destroys the basis of sustainable human existence on the planet.
From the current edition (No. 44) of Aurora, broadsheet of the Communist Workers’ Organisation.