Who Can Afford To Pay The Cost of a Communist Utopia?

Some comments on Subversion 21, especially 'Green Communism', the piece on Getting a Job and P's letter on the JSA.

A letter to Subversion, with reponse from them.

LETTER FROM PW

The Green Communism article rightly stresses that science and technology are not some sort of independent force unrelated to the interests of classes and individuals in present society. This is the mistake technophobes such as Green Anarchist (who regard science and technology much as the medieval church regarded witchcraft) and some 'revolutionary' groups (who imagine that a communist society could extend all the trappings of consumerism to the entire world) are all prone to fall into.

If the writer is correct that "it is just not conceivable that a communist society could base its transport on the mass use of individual motor cars" then this has important implications for the strategy and even the feasibility of a revolutionary movement in the 'developed' world.

In the UK there are some 20 million private cars, or roughly 2 to every 5 people. To reach this level of car ownership for the entire world would mean roughly quadrupling the present car 'population' (and roads and all the associated infrastructure). This is just not on under any economic system. Even if the resources were available the eco-system could never handle the resulting pollution.

This means that in the 'developed' world revolutionaries have a problem that few seem willing to face up to. The price of a communist utopia is, among other things, giving up the private car. Frankly, I can't see many car addicts being willing to pay this price. Since they and their dependents form a majority in the rich nations, this alone seems a massive obstacle to revolutionary movements in these countries. If we're going to be honest with the punters let's throw in the fact that they'll be lucky to have meat more than once a week and a foreign holiday once a decade or a life-time.

We are getting into the murky area of who is middle class and who is working class. What causes endless confusion here is the insistence that someone's class label be defined by their relationship to the means of production, i.e. what sort of job they do, if any. Most 'revolutionaries' think that anyone who is not in some kind of authority over others is part of the working class and hence potential revolutionary material. This leads some to feel that a landless third world peasant has the same class interests as a highly paid technician or salesman in the rich world. People work to live, not live to work. What matters to people themselves is their relationship to the means of consumption i.e. how much money they can get hold of. Anyone with a material standard of living which could not be extended to the whole of humanity under any circumstances is best defined as middle class, if they are not actually capitalists or powerful politicians.

This focus on consumption makes much more sense of the world as it actually is than the writer in no.21 who imagines that there are "key" sections of the "working class" able to "hold the country to ransom" and that revolutionaries can pick and choose their jobs so that they might concentrate in these sectors. Speaking as one of P's "unemployed proletarians", I would be only too happy to take a "cushy, well-paid, middle class job" if such were available to me, rather than "idling comfortably" on JSA at £47.90.

In fact the idea of the working class in countries like the UK is a delusion. Most people in the 'developed' world are middle class. Materially privileged compared to the impoverished majority of humanity, they have a vested interest in preserving the system that delivers these privileges (while they last anyway).

But there is a large, expanding 'underclass' (long-term unemployed, low-paid, most pensioners, single parents etc.) who have no material stake in the system. Our interest is in extracting as much as possible from the rest of society. Yes, they do owe us a living, because they debar us, by various means, from making our own.

Unlike the 'powerful sectors' (who seem to have had a run of hard luck recently) we have little or no labour to withdraw so we must find other methods of struggle which cannot be discussed here for obvious reasons.

Many will feel that this analysis is pessimistic, 'counter-revolutionary', 'capitalist propaganda' etc. It may be all those things but if we look at the real world, from the attitudes and actions of the people we know to the world-wide political scene and recent history, it explains the fact that no revolutionary movement has achieved anything like a mass following in recent years in the rich nations, and will at least help to avoid idiocies like believing that a JSA claimant can have a common class interest with their middle class interrogator on £11-14,000 a year (plus bonuses for stopping giros).

In conclusion I think that any effective revolutionary movement in the 'developed' world must forget this fantasy of the 'working class' and concentrate on working with the 'underclass', whose grievances can only be addressed at the expense of the middle class, pro-capitalist majority. This is why struggles like anti-JSA are important.

JW

REPLY FROM SUBVERSION

JW's basic thesis seems to be that in global terms, the bulk of the working class in the ‘developed world’ are wedded to the capitalist system by reason of their relatively high level of consumption of commodities compared with the impoverished majority of humanity, as a result of which they will never make a revolution.

In response we would make the following points.

1. Whilst the disparities in the geographical distribution of access to the basic requirements of a healthy and fulfilling life is undoubtedly a major problem which any new society would have to tackle as a priority, in a conscious and planned way, such disparities on their own cannot explain the way in which struggle against the present system develops and the possibilities for its overthrow.

2. JW doesn’t write off everyone in the developed world. Some, the long term unemployed, many pensioners, single parents and the low paid (how low?) apparently have NO stake in the system even though their material conditions of life are probably still much better than millions of others, waged and unwaged, elsewhere in the world. JW has a problem seeing better-off workers in this country as even potential allies, but many an impoverished ‘landless peasant’ elsewhere in the world might find it difficult to see JW as a potential ally on this basis!

3. JW doesn’t define the boundaries of the ‘developed’ world. It would presumably include Europe (East as well as West?), North America, Japan, Australasia. Then what about the South-East Asian rim, parts of South America, South Africa and the Middle East etc? It begins to appear that, to the extent that there is a division between developed and underdeveloped, this is certainly not on the basis of national boundaries, of "rich versus poor nations". The workers JW is writing off may not be the majority but they are a significant, widely spread, and potentially powerful minority. If they really are all going to be against revolutionary change for all time , then frankly revolution WOULD BE IMPOSSIBLE!

4. It is almost certainly the case that most ‘privileged’ and better-off sections of the working class are not going to be at the FOREFRONT of any militant collective action or revolutionary change. Equally there is strong evidence that the really impoverished (starving tribespeople in Zaire for instance?) are also unlikely to be at the forefront of any radical or revolutionary change, if only because their desperation prevents ANY possibility of organisation or awareness beyond the next meal.

5. In so far as levels of income and consumption are any guide to the likelihood of people engaging in struggle today, it is the relative levels locally which are likely to be most significant, for instance between the unwaged and low waged, high waged, and the rich. In practice however it would be difficult to find any direct correlation between levels of struggle and position in the hierarchy of income and consumption.

6. No worker, whether high or low paid, has material security in this system. Workers at all levels have come under attack and have fought back against redundancies, wage cuts, speed-ups, extension of hours, cuts in working conditions etc, and have often found common cause with each other in the process, a common cause which increasingly spans national frontiers.

7. Capitalism certainly tries to reduce life to the consumption of commodities, to reduce us to individual consumers rather than whole human beings. Outside of consumption, to the extent that capitalism acknowledges civil society at all, we are treated as individual citizens and voters, or ‘partners’ in the economy.

It may sometimes seem that we have all fallen for this and that our highest aspiration is a bigger and better house and a bigger and better car. Aside from the fact that capitalism, as we said earlier, cannot actually guarantee this continual access to ever increasing personal consumption, it seems to us that many people are deeply unhappy with the whole thing under the surface and cannot in fact be satisfied with a life of endless consumption. There is in the end a big difference between "quality of life" and "standard of living" in the capitalist sense.

This dissatisfaction often expresses itself in negative ways: the huge interest in re-invented and re-packaged religions for instance, everything from Islam and Buddhism to born again Christianity and the mysticism of sections of the Green movement; the desire for community and connection to ‘real life’ through the short cut of drugs - LSD in the 60s and 70s or ecstasy to-day; the continuing contradictory appeal of nationalism or racism in a search for some kind of communal identity not subject to the changing needs of the market.

All of these expressions are in the end fruitless in so far as they only reinforce the real material sources of alienation in the world, but they still bear witness to the refusal of human beings to be reduced to mere consumers.

8. The ‘normal’ everyday life of capitalism sees workers divided and isolated not only by their varying degrees of income and ability to consume, but also by a hierarchy of power often interrelated to other divisions based on differences of race, sex, culture etc.

As a result individual behaviour is often contradictory. The car owner you refer to for instance may at different times be opposed to motorway extensions because they are a lover of the countryside, support public transport because other members of their family need it, and argue for traffic safety measures which restrict car use because they have kids who are vulnerable, but in the immediate situation are unlikely to get rid of their car.

It is only in the PROCESS of an expanding collective resistance to the system that SOME of these divisions can be overcome and the contradictions in individual behaviour and between individual and collective behaviour be resolved.

9. Collective resistance can only work if it is grounded in the real interests of those involved. Since it starts in a piece-meal fashion from different sectors of workers with different IMMEDIATE interests, the starting point will rarely provide an immediate basis of unity with others.

So for instance, opposition to the JSA by unemployed workers will often initially be in conflict with workers in the Employment Service. In this situation abstract appeals for unity are at best futile and at worst could disarm the organisation of the unemployed. It is a fact however that ES workers along with other employed workers have an interest in seeing unemployment neutralised as a force for lowering wages and conditions (quite apart from the fact that they could all be unemployed themselves at sometime or another). So at another level there is a common interest between employed and unemployed.

Achieving a PRACTICAL unity in the light of this is inevitably a contradictory process, which involves developing and changing the balance of power between different sections of our class and creating new material situations in the course of struggle which make it both desirable and possible for those involved to join together.

The recent dispute involving Liverpool dockers - a formerly well-paid section of our class, but not through the function of their work exercising any particular power over other workers as compared with some relatively low paid ES workers! - shows on a very small scale how things can change in the course of struggle.

Firstly it is worthy of note how older dockers steadfastly refused for over two years increasing offers of redundancy payments and pensions, so highly did they value the feelings of solidarity and community of their fellow dockers and the wider working class and so committed were they to the future of younger workers. Payments that would have secured for many, their remaining lives in terms of home, car and holidays abroad!

Secondly, we have witnessed a growing mutual support between the dockers and other workers in struggle - most notably the very low paid, mostly Asian women workers at Hillingdon hospital, Turkish workers here and abroad, Magnet workers, and anti-motorway and anti-runway campaigners, amongst others.

10. Civilisation - that is class society in all its present and past forms – has always been divided into rich and poor, with vast disparities geographically in levels of wealth. Trying to define class in terms of income and consumption tells us nothing about how today's modern capitalist society operates as compared with previous tribal, slave, feudal, Asiatic, mercantile or other forms of society. It provides no clues as to how and why certain sections of workers and not others engage in collective struggle against the system at particular junctions in time.

Periodically, throughout the history of capitalism workers have, on both a small and large scale, joined together in common struggle irrespective of their differing levels of income or consumption. At high points of struggle, workers - employed and unemployed and from all walks of life - have found common cause against the capitalist economy and state. Underlying the variety of forms of struggle has been our common experience of exploitation and alienation through wage labour and commodity production.

In the long term this experience provides a basis for unified action internationally against the system as a whole. In the shorter term it is the progress of the struggle itself and the shifting balance of power which will define which side people are on at any given time. Our experience suggests that relative income and consumption levels will not be the most important factor in this determination.