Joseph Choonara, author of Unravelling Capitalism, started off my first Marxism festival, with his talk “The rate of profit and capitalism today”. He follows the Financial Times and other financial press very closely, and finds that mainstream debates are usually between austerians and Keynesians. Those in favour of austerity believe that cutting public sector spending is necessary, while Keynesians believe that austerity has gone too far and that public sector spending is needed. This is sometimes called “making capitalism work for socialism”. Joseph argues that, while Keynesian policies are preferable for the working class, neither positions deal with a fundamental global problem: low level of investment. Using statistics on US and European economies, he shows how the long-term tendency is for the return of investment to fall, and how stimulus (like that of 2008) or any other state involvement fails to restore profitability.
These problems are then related to the increase of ‘dead labour’ in ratio to ‘living labour’. That is, technology replacing the need for so many workers. A familiar example is one checkout assistant supervising six self-service checkouts, rather than six workers, each with their own checkout. This is an inevitability, not something that bosses really have a choice in. Given these problems, along with overproduction, isn’t it a surprise that the capitalist mode of production didn’t meet its maker 150 years ago? Choonara explains that crises themselves find ways of restoring capitalism.
Though the terminology was hard to follow at times, the talk contained well-known examples to illustrate points, from the selling off of Woolworths for £10 to the high profitability after the destruction of World War Two. For a beginner in economics, this talk made it clear how concepts that often seem abstract and inconsequential in fact affect our lives and create struggle. An open discussion followed, in which many members of the packed lecture room asked questions on fictional capital, the Labour Party, and one speaker pointed out that 25 families in Greece own 75% of the country’s wealth. On the question of how optimistic socialists should be, Choonara ended the talk by borrowing a phrase from Antonio Gramsci: “Optimism of activity, pessimism of intellect”.
Michael Roberts’ blog was suggested for someone an economist who stands outside of mainstream debate.
The concept of class and what it means to be working class is often talked about in a very confusing and imprecise way, with factors like income, taste in music, accents, and clothing being used to determine which class we belong to. Therefore it was essential for Socialist Worker editor Judith Orr to remind us what it really means and how Marxists should understand social relations in her talk “What is class?” A study by the London School of Economics recently identified seven distinct classes. The BBC’s website created a questionnaire to let you know which one you are, full of ridiculous, patronising questions such as whether or not you listen to opera. Can working class people not enjoy classical music? I hadn’t noticed. Alan Sugar’s accent and early life, and Steve Jobs’s jeans do not stop them from being a part of the ruling class: this is purely superficial.
The reality is that, though there are many complicated sub-sections to every class, things are now even more polarised than Marx and Engels originally explained. The most important characteristic of the working class is that it sells its labour power to someone who owns the means of production. The theory of surplus value shows how workers are paid less than the value of their work. So defining this class as simply “poor” is useful for bosses, as this robs it of its agency and its revolutionary potential. With class consciousness, workers will realise that nothing can function without them, while it can function without employers. This includes professors and call centre workers, cleaners and nurses. Judith reminded us that we are hit not just by the conflict of interest between proletariat and bourgeoisie, but by the contradiction within the ruling class, who compete amongst themselves. She also noted the importance of having our own media outlets to raise class consciousness and offer an alternative to liberal newspapers.
What do we mean by class?, Judith Orr, Socialist Worker, April 9th 2013
In one of his prefaces to an edition of Marx’s Capital, Friedrich Engels explained how it was written so that any literate person to understand it. Yet it has always been renowned for its density and difficulty for most readers. Mike Wayne, author of Marx’s Das Kapital for Beginners gave the talk “Why you should read Das Kapital”. Wayne started off by explaining the immense achievement of this work. Capital had the very general aim of analysing capitalism in every part of the world, though it remains a very accurate and specific text, explaining the laws of motion and global development of capital. A reason it is so difficult to read in the English translation is that we are not used to the achronological form. Part 1 of Volume 1, ‘The Commodity’, is essential reading. It explains Use-Value and Exchange-Value, the two sides of the commodity, as well as the concepts of commodity fetishism and abstract labour.
Some members of the audience made contributions, including me. I gave some suggested preliminary reading and made a point about how reading Marx’s economic works, including Capital, arms you to be make better, more systemic anti-capitalist arguments than the average left-wing journalist. Business owners are often talked about as “job creators” or “wealth providers”. Some parts of Capital are devoted to explaining the dishonesty of this reasoning and how the real source of all wealth is labour. The labour theory of value is developed, explaining that in any job, there is unpaid labour. Chapter 25 is one of the parts of Capital devoted to larger problems and trends of global capitalism. Reading this gives you a good grasp of why crises are not down to individual errors or ‘corporatism’, but how they are in fact built into the system: its own gravedigger.
Two other useful guides to Capital are Stephen Shapiro’s How to read Marx’s Capital, and Ernest Mandel’s introduction to each volume which provides an overview and historical context, which can be found in the Penguin Publishers editions.
Videos of all these talks should be on the swpTvUk YouTube channel soon.