We live at a time when capitalism has entered one of its periodic crises. Throughout the world, employers are retrenching workers, unemployment is on the rise and governments are imposing severe austerity packages to cut spending on vital social services. As always the working class and the poor suffer through rising unemployment, deepening poverty, and widening inequality.
Last November the World Bank reported that, South Africa’s Gini coefficient (which measures inequality in countries), was a shocking 0.77, the highest of any major country. In an attempt to make this look better the World Bank office in South Africa claimed that the Gini can be reduced to 0.59, if social spending was taken into account. In a hugely unequal society, suggesting that poverty and inequality are in any way alleviated by the paltry spending on social services and grants, is to add insult to injury of the poor.
In the current crisis, two other important developments have occurred. We have seen the biggest ever mass migration of people from the poorest and most war-torn areas to seek a better life in the wealthier parts of the world. At the same time, the reserve army of labour has been globalised, as workers, desperate to escape the effects of the capitalist crisis in richer countries, although workers in those countries already also suffer from rising joblessness and austerity spending cuts. This has led to the emergence new radical, left-leaning parties, and of new more socialist leaders of existing parties in several South American countries, and now in Europe.
While all Marxist socialists welcome such developments, and see them as a significant indication of a growing impatience of the working masses to transform their societies, they inevitably spark a debate which arises whenever capitalism enters one of its downward cycles. There are, on the one side of this debate, the revolutionary Marxists, who argue that no permanent solution to the workers’ problems will be found without the destruction of capitalism, and the building of a new socialist, workers’ democracy. On the other side of the debate are those who argue that capitalism can be reformed by progressive governments and civil society, implementation of policies to reverse the effects of the crisis, create jobs, alleviate poverty and reduce inequality.
As part of this debate, the Daily Maverick in April 2015 printed an article written by Mark Heywood of Section 27, entitled, “The future can be better for all”, which raises arguments that need to be challenged. Heywood hints at one important question: Why have 35 million expectant South Africans, who came over the finishing line to freedom in 1994, not been able to change their lives for the better?
The truth is that already in 1994 the writing was on the wall. Despite reforms to rid us of the worst features of apartheid, the policies of the government almost from the beginning were in support of capitalism. The apartheid debt was to be paid off, wealth, with a little tweaking, would remain in the same hands, and we ran full tilt into all of the capitalist clubs we could find.
Only in passing does Mark mention the nub of the problem that “the elites have been unwilling to share the wealth, mainly accumulated from the labour of the wretched”. Thomas Piketty, the acclaimed economist who claims to understand Marxism, echoes this kind of idea with his wealth tax concept. This is a demand which should be supported, but the question has to be who, would, in fact, be taxed! As Mark points, out wealth is created by the working class. Their surplus value is divided into the unequal amounts that form profit and wages, but all money being taxed belongs to workers in the first place. Employers will attempt to force wages down in order to recoup the tax!
Where is the redistribution? None of it goes back to workers because you don’t control what you don’t own, and that includes your own labour power. The part that you do own is to be determined by a poverty line, a median wage, and a national minimum wage. This too must be supported, but with no illusions that it will change the underlying inequality within a capitalist society. This is not a debate about the moral high ground, or acting like a good person. Mark quotes from King Lear, who suddenly found a common humanity with the poor of his former realm, and cried out:
Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?
Then, in agony at realisation of the inequality and indignity he has been complicit in, Lear lamented:
Oh, I have ta’en
Too little care of this!
Must we wait for capitalists, themselves, to be stricken with such guilt, to realise the inequality and indignity they have been complicit in, and change their ways? Would it make any difference?
Capitalists know full well, as did King Lear, that their own existence depends on the inequality and indignity of the masses. The South African government is not an unwilling participant in keeping capitalism in control of the economy; it is the system of which they are part and parcel.
If I were to look for a literary allusion I think I would prefer the wonderful exchange between the peasants and King Arthur in Monty Python’s film The Holy Grail.
Here are the masses not looking for charity or good works from the King, but challenging the power of the state.
King Arthur: I am your king.
Woman: Well I didn’t vote for you.
King Arthur: You don’t vote for kings.
Woman: Well how’d you become king then?
King Arthur: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. THAT is why I am your king.
Dennis: (interrupting), Listen, strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.
A little aside, but it does set out the relationship of the ruling class to the masses!
The United Front can and must play a central role in bringing together civil society and organised labour into programmes of action. The Front can also play a pivotal role in the struggle for better education, a comprehensive social security system and social justice, but with no pretence that we can win all this from the capitalists.
In the social democratic countries of Europe, all the biggest reforms in education, healthcare and social services came into being after World War II, at a time when capitalism was growing rapidly. Demand was growing, and they had access to all the wealth of their colonial possessions. Now we see the opposite; attacks on the welfare state, reductions in grants and de-industrialisation.
How then are quality jobs going to be created? People are protesting about their lot and rightly demand more of government. I have no problem with that, but to pretend that any government will throw up its hands and say: “yes we were wrong; let’s do what the masses want” is laughable.
A far better attempt to answer the questions Mark raises can be found in remarks by Neil Coleman, at a Social Dialogue Forum with Thomas Piketty on 2 October 2015.
After an excellent analysis of Piketty’s arguments and the economic catastrophe facing South Africa, he agrees that:
“In the 1990s and beyond, a series of decisions were taken, by both economic and political actors, which effectively hobbled the capacity of the democratic state to meaningfully tackle apartheid’s economic legacy.
“These decisions denied the state access to resources to address the massive challenges our society faces”.
As Neil points out the question is: in the face of this co-ordinated strategy to leech economic assets from South Africa, how can the state act to reverse this situation?
Neil offers some possible solutions, many of which have been supported by NUMSA, who have a demand to transform the apartheid wage structure to address the huge wage gaps, and combat working poverty. Without any illusion, we have fought for a national minimum wage which included a social wage component, and for the closing of the huge gap in income.
Neil then tells us that us that “The choice is clear: We either take these challenges seriously, and implement radical measures to redress current and historical injustices; or we will rapidly slide into social fragmentation and implosion, violence, and extremism of different varieties. This is the lesson of Marikana. The second option is in no-one’s interests, least of the all those of the working class.”
The use of the word “we” is instructive. It suggests that we have a common interest with capitalism. That together “we” must solve these problems. If we don’t, the working class might take to the streets! No socialist would oppose any of those demands, but Neil begs the question of how they will ever be achieved within the framework of a capitalist society in which those with wealth and power would fight to prevent each and every one of them. There is a huge chasm between support for reforms and reformism. Unfortunately from their writings it would appear that both Neil and Mark have fallen into it!
The capitalists and the state, in the form of armed bodies of men, the civil service and the judiciary, do not just surrender to popular demands. It would signal their demise. This is the lesson that Marikana teaches us. Striking workers were massacred for being on strike, and for nothing else. For doing precisely what Neil wants, trying to better their conditions.
Even if capitalism could deliver some reforms, the fact remains that it is only giving back what it does not own in the first place, the stolen wealth made from the blood, sweat and tears of the working class. The demands which both Mark and Neil call for will only ever be fully realised in a socialist society. This is often dismissed as a utopian solution, but socialism is not “impossible”; it is the only future mankind has. That requires in the long run not crumbs from the capitalist table, but that workers radically and democratically control their own government and that wealth is returned to those who create it by ownership and control of the means of production. It is not socialism that is impossible, but the idea that capitalism can still play a developmental role in the era of its death throes. DM
Norma Craven, Former Numsa Legal Officer, is now Head of the Office of Numsa’s Movement for Socialism and a Marxist.