The current open financial crisis makes clear several economic truths that are more easily overlooked during ‘business as usual.’
Firstly, that there’s no such thing as a national economy anymore, if there ever truly was. The same forces are at work everywhere, as the ‘credit crunch’ bites across the globe. For the purposes of this discussion we will focus on the specifics of the UK, but it must be borne in mind that our ‘vision’ is necessarily internationalist and global.
Secondly, the economy does not exist to serve our needs, but instead our needs are shaped to serve the economy's. We are all expected to make whatever sacrifices are required to help the economy – so we face 'wage restraint', environmental damage, cuts to healthcare etc... because the economy ‘demands’ it.
Thirdly, it is clear that there is a real class divide, an 'us and them'. While everyone is a slave to the economy, this is experienced differently depending on our position in society. Thus while bosses and politicians experience the demands of the economy directly - under the guise of ‘market forces’ guiding their investment, redundancy or policy decisions – working people experience this lack of control over our lives through the daily activity of working for a boss.
These points are inter-related. The economy is based on a very simple process – money is invested to generate more money. Bosses call it profit, politicians economic growth. When money functions like this, it functions as capital. As capital increases (or the economy expands), this is called capital accumulation, and it's the driving force of the economy.
This simple imperative has far-reaching consequences, and doesn't just apply to for-profit private companies, but to economic activity per se (thus over the last year we have seen continuous attacks on the real wages and conditions of public sector workers in the UK). Those accumulating capital do so better when they can shift the costs onto others, so we see the proliferation of ecological and social ‘externalities.’ Thus catastrophic climate change and widespread poverty are signs of the normal functioning of the system. Furthermore, for money to make more money, more and more things have to be exchangeable for money. Thus the tendency is for everything from everyday items to DNA sequences to carbon dioxide emissions – and crucially, our own activity; our ability to work - to become commodified.
And it is this last point - the commodification of our creative-productive capacities - which holds the secret to capital accumulation. Money does not turn into more money by magic; capitalists are not alchemists! Rather in a commodified world we all need something to sell in order to buy the things we need. Those of us with nothing to sell except our capacity to work have to sell this capacity to those who own the things we need to work; factories, offices, etc. But therefore the commodities we produce at work are not ours, they belong to our employers. Furthermore, we produce far more commodities and products as workers than the necessary products to maintain us as workers, due to long hours, productivity improvements etc. This difference between the wages we are paid and the value we create is how capital is accumulated.
What this tells us is that capital is not just a thing, or even a process, but a social relation between classes. Now when we say class, we are not talking about a system of classifying individuals – who may after all fit somewhere in between these categories, having a waged job and running a small business in their spare time say. Rather the function of a class analysis is to understand the tensions within capitalist society, the fault lines along which it may rupture. Since the economy does not exist to serve our needs, it is necessary for us to assert them ourselves, collectively. Since the bosses and politicians are all but powerless in the face of ‘market forces,’ each needing to act in a way conducive to continued accumulation (and in any case they do quite well out of this impotence!), they cannot act in the interests of workers, since any concessions they grant will aid their competitors on a national or international level. Thus the struggle between our needs and the needs of the economy takes the form of a struggle between classes.
Therefore, our vision for the UK economy under capitalism is for us, as a class, to impose our needs over the needs of capital. In concrete terms in the UK today, this mostly involves defensive struggles over wages, conditions and the ‘social wage’ we all receive in the form of public services, notably the NHS. In particular one struggle which has been prominent and in which we have been involved has been over sub-inflation pay offers (i.e. pay cuts). There have been a wave of strikes over this issue, but so far workers, divided along union lines have been largely defeated by the combined efforts of the employers, the government and the unions, who have to varying degrees demoralised workers, witch-hunted militants, ignored strike votes and cut backroom deals.
However the story is not entirely negative, the struggles over sub-inflation pay continue, and are set to escalate as the economy stalls and prices of essentials continue to rise. There have also been (so far) isolated victories, such as Shell truckers winning a 7% pay rise (9% this year, 5% next, against a government pay cap/target of 2%). This small victory was only achieved after the dispute threatened to spread to drivers from other companies. These recent victories and defeats - as well as the long history of workers struggle - suggest those tactics which are most effective: struggles controlled by the participants themselves not union bureaucrats, and for struggles to spread beyond all divisions of workplace, sector, union…
When we say the economy doesn’t exist serve our needs and therefore we have to assert them against capital, we beg the question what a society that does exist to meet its own needs would look like. In other words, where does our vision of asserting our needs lead? Such a society, based on the principle of ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ is called libertarian communism. This society is at least implicit whenever workers assert their needs against the needs of capital, and has at times been made explicit as that struggle has exploded into revolutionary events. Historically struggles have only taken on this revolutionary character when they have sought to go beyond all divisions of sector, union, race, gender, geography, national identity etc. The struggle against these divisions is therefore a necessary aspect of class struggle.
Now communism has nothing to do with the former USSR or present-day Cuba or North Korea. These are capitalist societies with only one capitalist – the state (the current spate of bank nationalisations in response to the financial crisis has shown once again there’s nothing inherently ‘left’ about nationalisation!). Communism is a stateless society where our activity – and its products – no longer take the form of things to be bought and sold. Where activity is not done to earn a wage or turn a profit, but to meet human needs. It is also a democratic society, in a way far more profound than what ‘democracy’ means in its current parliamentary sense.
As there will be no division between owners (state or private) and workers with the means of production held in common, decisions can be made democratically among equals. As production is not for goods to be sold on the market, there are no market forces to pit different groups of workers against each other or compel social and environmental ‘externalities.’ We will work only as long as we decide is necessary to produce the things we need at an intensity we are happy with, not how long the boss demands of us according to the norms of the labour market. Thus production is socialised under our conscious control, and so the separate spheres of economics (where we produce) and politics (where we are governed) are abolished. There is only a self-managed, self-governing society which exists to meet the self-determined needs of its members. A libertarian communist society.