Tuesday, 2 August 2022

The Generosity of the Working Classes

Whenever workers are accused of being greedy for wanting their wages to keep up with inflation – as RMT members, BT workers and train drivers are now, in common with workers generally in the late ’70s – it always puts me in mind of two Austrian economists.

One is the über free-marketeer, and also Margaret Thatcher’s favourite practitioner of the ‘dismal science’, Friedrich Hayek. He was adamant that society would benefit, and become immeasurably wealthier, if everyone was motivated solely by profit. “In fact, by pursuing profit we are as altruistic as we can possibly be,” he said, “because we extend our concern beyond to people beyond our range of personal conception.”

Another Austrian, Karl Polanyi (technically Hungarian but he was born in Vienna and lived there for many years), noted that this admonition to behave as selfishly as possible in economic matters pointedly didn’t apply to workers. In fact if wage earners didn’t act in precisely the opposite way – with admirable restraint and concern for the common good – the whole profit maximising system would rapidly fall apart.

If, Polanyi noted in his most famous book The Great Transformation, what workers are selling – their labour – is just the same as any other commodity produced for sale, like sugar or bottles of vodka, they should seek the highest possible price for it. If, that is, they are motivated solely by maximising profit, which Hayek and his predecessor Ludwig Von Mises thought everyone should be. Polanyi elaborated:

Consistently followed up, this means the chief obligation of labor is to be almost continually on strike … The source of the incongruity and practice is, of course, that labor is not really a commodity and that if labor was withheld in order to ascertain its exact price (just as an increase in supply of all other commodities in similar circumstances) society would very soon dissolve for lack of sustenance.

Naturally workers would not be allowed to continually renegotiate the sale of their labour in this manner. This is where the neoliberal solicitude for freedom crumples like leaves on a bonfire. Margaret Thatcher famously used the power of the state to destroy the influence of organised labour the moment it ceased to be a compliant partner of employers and tried to protect the living standards of its members. And in response to the actions of the RMT and others, Liz Truss, the favourite to be next British Prime Minister, wants a legal requirement to maintain “minimum service levels” even when public sector workers have balloted for a strike. If enacted Truss’s promise would return Britain to the salad days of the liberal utopia (coincidentally the original title of The Great Transformation) before disputes between employers and employees were made civil matters and when workers could be – and were – jailed for breaking their employment contract.

Liberal Fascism

And this, shall we say, fickle relationship with freedom is by no means a new impulse on the part of conservative-liberals. In the 1920s, one of the original economic liberals, Ludwig Von Mises, thought the merit of Italian Fascism would “live on eternally in history” for having “saved European civilisation” by smashing, quite literally, the workers’ movement in Italy.

It is illuminating that wage earners – flesh and blood people with bills to pay and other people to look after – are the only element of the economy expected to exercise restraint in economic matters out of concern for the common welfare. Nobody in power really thinks for one moment profit should not be maximised by corporations. And despite the propaganda that in these enlightened times, corporations ‘do well by doing good’, it certainly is being unashamedly maximised. Both Shell and Centrica (British Gas) recently posted record profits notwithstanding predictions that energy bills will soon triple. According to research by the union Unite, profit margins for the UK’s FTSE 350 companies (big business in other words) were 73% higher in 2021 than they were before the pandemic.  Despite Sir Keir Starmer telling us that “When business profits, we all do”, the bedtime story that high profits produce economic growth and rising wages like parched earth blossoms after a cloudburst just won’t wash anymore. Are we supposed to ignore the experience of last three decades?

Not selfish enough

The conclusion that economic selfishness is in fact a virtue when practised by those legal entities called corporations is defended despite the fact that excessive profits are a more likely inflationary culprit than high wages (which in fact have been stagnating or falling for years). In the words of the father of market economics, Adam Smith, “Our merchants and master-manufacturers complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price and lessening the sale of goods. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.”

One could argue that workers in Britain and elsewhere – far from being too selfish, aren’t being selfish enough. The RMT is demanding a pay rise of 7% which when inflation is at 9.1% is obviously a real terms pay cut. And here lies the crucial difference between wage earners and other elements of the economy, or ‘factors’ in production. When employers seek sky high profits or when landlords raise the rent by way above the rate of inflation, they do so because they can and because the practice is socially validated. When workers submit to whatever wage they can negotiate (usually whatever they are offered, even to get a trade union recognised is an immense struggle) they do so because they have to. Because, lacking independent means, they have to procure the means to survive for themselves and their families.

Historically, this unequal ‘deal’ been accepted, partly out of brute power, and partly because it promised benefits – to consumers, to workers receiving rising wages – that seemed to accrue from submission to the demands of capital. But what if, as in happening now in the West, the bounty stops flowing. How long are we going to continue to oppress ourselves?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 27 July 2022

Who is Jeffrey Sachs and why is he saying these things?

Last month the economist Jeffrey Sachs said something which should have sent shockwaves around the world. “I chaired a commission for The Lancet for two years on Covid,” Sachs told a conference in Madrid. “I’m pretty convinced it came out of US lab biotechnology, not out of nature; just to mention after two years of intensive work on this. So it’s a blunder, in my view, of biotech, not an accident or a natural spillover."

 This is not the kind of claim that can be safely dismissed – as claims going against the orthodoxy invariably are – as a ‘conspiracy theory’. Sachs is a famous economist. Twice one of Time Magazine’s most influential people in the world, he was responsible, as an advisor to Boris Yeltsin, for imposing shock therapy on post-Communist Russia (coincidentally the 1990s saw life expectancy in Russia fall by the largest amount, outside of war or famine, in any nation in history). Since then he’s undergone something of a metamorphosis, endorsing Bernie Sanders in the 2020 American election.

The Lancet is a famous British-based peer-reviewed medical magazine, not noted for its articles on the Loch Ness monster, Big Foot sightings and the lost city of Atlantis.

The Sachs/Lancet combination is therefore not one that can be plausibly accused of spreading fake news in order to garner a few thousand likes on Twitter. But what Sachs had to say wasn’t greeted with the kind of peaked curiosity you might expect from the media. The UK right-wing press – Telegraph and Daily Mail – did register his comments, though noticeably without the level of glee that accompanied claims from the year before that China, alone, might be responsible for Covid. State media (the BBC) and the liberal press (The Guardian) were conspicuous by their silence. Likewise the left-wing, and generally pro-China, Morning Star.

‘This was teamwork’

If Sachs is too close to the Establishment to be branded a conspiracy theorist, claims he is merely a “Xi propagandist” (Xi Jinping is the President of China) don’t really stack up either. After all, what he is saying does not exonerate China. To do that, he’d have to parrot the Chinese government line – and that of many western scientists – that Covid definitely originated in the wild.  Or echo Chinese media claims that the Covid-19 virus was cooked up at a US military base in Maryland. But he’s doing neither. He’s saying it’s very possible – not definite, no-one can know for sure without transparency by all parties – that SARS-COV-2 (Covid) was a deliberate creation of a US-Chinese scientific partnership and leaked out inadvertently as a result of a terrible mistake.  

It’s a matter of public record that US government agencies funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology among other places. This was a result of a 2014 Federal ban on such research in the US because it was considered dangerous. There were, Sachs says, grant applications that wanted to manipulate coronavirus strains to make them more infectious to humans (the logic being that if you do so, vaccines are supposedly easier to formulate). The National Institutes of Health – the US government agency that doled out the funds – says that no such proposals were approved. But, retorts Sachs, it’s common knowledge in these fields that some research is always undertaken in advance of the securing of funding.

“If this came out of a lab, it was US biotechnology that made it possible,” asserts Sachs. “The US actually trained the people at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, they were engaged with them, they were part of the same grant proposals. This was teamwork.”

Two caveats should be made. One if Covid was released from a lab, it was a catastrophic error, not part of some dastardly plan to create a devastating new bioweapon. Two, there is no certainty. “We don’t know for sure, I should be absolutely clear,” Sachs cautions. “But there’s enough evidence that it should be looked into and it’s not being investigated, not in the United States, not anywhere. I think for real reasons that they don’t want to look underneath the rug too much.”

 

Oops

 

But what is clear is that, Jeffrey Sachs aside, there isn’t much of an appetite for truth here. Some people – US Republicans, Tony Blair etc. – were all for lifting up the rug when they thought China was the sole perpetrator. Certain Trumpists even wanted to go to war over it. But the enthusiasm on the Right for the unvarnished truth has waned the more the plot has thickened.

American Democrats and centrists and liberals of various hues are fervently attached to the zoonotic explanation for Covid because to depart from it puts science in the crosshairs when it belongs firmly on a pedestal.  When the Chinese government isn’t agreeing with them for slightly different reasons, it’s urging the World Health Organisation to investigate the sudden closure of the US military base denounced as the harbinger of Covid.

But Covid as the bastard child of a joint US-China scientific project gone cataclysmically awry? That doesn’t have quite the same partisan appeal, not least because you can’t blame communism or the US military. Ironically, if it is true, the only possible scapegoats for a death toll of, conservatively, over six million and counting, are the signature forces of our age, globalisation and outsourcing.  I mean who’d have thought they could have any downsides?

That’s the one certain ‘takeaway’ in the Sachs version of the lab leak theory. The world is a lot stranger than you thought. A new Cold War, even direct military conflict, is brewing between the USA and China. The most ‘globalist’ candidate to replace Johnson as UK PM, Rishi Sunak, promises to “face down China” as the biggest threat to world security. And yet here were these deadly enemies cooperating on extremely risky germ research. And that’s beyond dispute; they were cooperating even if at this point the Armageddon outcome is a matter of conjecture. I’m fairly sure that in the actual Cold War, even at the height of détente, the US didn’t farm out biomedical research to the Leningrad Medical Institute.

In all probability, even if some version of the lab leak theory is what happened, it will never become the accepted narrative. To concede that would be to invite a moral reckoning so seismic it would fatally damage the legitimacy of the world’s two superpowers and give a new fervour to the forces of ethno-nationalism and religion. I’d like to think the non-national, council democracy of the Kurds could step into the breach but I realise its libidinal reach is at present a lot smaller.

 It will be interesting to see how the final, peer-reviewed report of Sachs’s Covid commission in The Lancet deals with the issue; whether it will be as outspoken as he has been. If it is, I expect it to be one of the most unwelcome items of news in history.

Sunday, 10 April 2022

Living in the Past – The Prison of Political Time Lags

Back in the 1960s, J.B. Priestley noted the widely unappreciated feature of time lags in society. There is an unerring tendency, he observed, to associate any era with “its newest and more original ideas”. But this is a mistake.  Very likely, only a few pioneers actually held these notions, while ordinary people – and self-styled intellectuals – remained steeped in mentalities that simply regurgitated insights from decades or even centuries before.

“It is precisely the ‘hard-headed and realistic’ who all too often exist in cages made out of largely discredited hypotheses,” said Priestley. “We must expect time lags of various lengths.”

Priestley was writing about scientific ideas, specifically concepts of time. Einstein, for example, started publishing about relativity at the start of the last century but, to all intents and purposes, for decades afterwards most people lived by intuitive notions of Newtonian physics. In all likelihood they still do.

But the concept of time lags can equally well be applied to politics. In fact paradoxically – as British politics now demonstrates – political cultures can become more ensconced in the past as the real past recedes into the distance.

The Brexit Right personifies this shying away from the painful realities of the present in favour of the (fictional) comforts of the past. In this dreamscape, the Second World War – in which Britain “stood alone” (not counting the Empire of course) safeguarding freedom against a totalitarian threat from Europe – is the rock around which everything else is arranged. It’s no accident that Nigel Farage urged everyone to see Dunkirk.

Less appreciated is that liberal and centrists are equally affected by nostalgia. But in this case the time frame is different. The defining period is the post-1992 era of the single market, ‘social Europe’ and the Blair-led Labour governments. This is seen as a time of expanding public spending, worker protections and a liberal attitude to social policy. Blotted out are the decidedly illiberal stances of both Labour and the EU to ‘illegal’ immigrants, sadistic policies towards the unemployed and the disabled and the imposition of austerity and privatisation.

Sometimes the two meet in a kind of paroxysm of denial. The Tories will, for example, regularly engage in the time-honoured trick of attacking the BBC for being biased and left-wing, prompting it to become even more accommodating to the Right in its news coverage. Liberal and centrists will impulsively leap to the BBC’s defence as a paragon of balanced reporting and civilised values.

The last time the BBC could be described as left-wing whilst maintaining a straight face was in the 1980s before Thatcher-appointee Marmaduke Hussey sacked Director-General Alastair Milne (Seamus’s father) in 1987. Even then, that reputation relied on little more than isolated outbursts of independence from government, which proved unacceptable. But the current surreal dance between conservatives and liberals manages to entirely erase the events of the intervening period. The appointment of the neoliberal John Birt as director-general, minute control over editorial content, outsourcing of programme-making, concerted moves towards more business-friendly coverage, reliance on establishment figures to interpret wars and financial crises, the courting of hard-right figures like Andrew Neil to anchor political reporting,  all that – the last 30 years in other words – simply doesn’t exist.

“The calendar is lying when it reads the present time”. It’s not 2022 at all, it’s still 1985.

However, it’s in the current post-Corbyn period that the wish to live in the past is being taken to new heights of absurdity. We are blessed with a Conservative government, still mesmerized by Thatcher’s epoch-changing landslide of 1983, ‘opposed’ in Parliament by the 1997 Re-enactment Society.

Thus we have the spectacle of Sir Keith Stalin calling for a “windfall tax” on oil and gas companies while Alexander Boris de Pfeffel ‘Pass the Port’ Johnson protests this would result in higher prices. They’re showing nothing but repeats on TV these days aren’t they?

There was such a thing a Windfall Tax, introduced by Tony Blair in 1997 to allegedly compensate the public for the fact that utilities such as gas and electricity were undervalued when privatised and the floated companies, like British Gas, were making “excess” profits. But that was more than three decades ago! The current excess profits of all participants – and they certainly are excessive, British Gas profits have nearly doubled in the past year – do not result from any initial undervaluation in the era of Roland Rat but from the way the system is set up to work. This is a natural monopoly, dominated by big energy supply corporations and a plethora of distribution companies with a business model that doesn’t work anymore, taking advantage of captive consumers whose freedom to choose between them is entirely hollow. The resultant profits are simply a form of disguised taxation. Except that the proceeds go to shareholders, not the government.

A windfall tax is an anachronistic and patently inadequate response to a crisis that calls for public ownership. But public ownership of utilities is one of the “sacred cows of Corbynism” ripe for slaughtering. It’s a dilemma for these ‘modernizers’ I know.

We live in a time of urgent problems. The climate emergency, capitalist failure, falling living standards, declining life expectancy, and food and fuel poverty all call for clear thinking, compassion and a willingness to discard the shibboleths of our Thatcherite political economy. In spite of this, or probably because of it, our politics is entrenching itself in the past.

How long will our political time lag last? Perhaps until it’s too late.

Thursday, 24 March 2022

The Billionaires' World

 Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has, almost inevitably, dredged up the only historical analogy most people are capable of making – that of the appeasement of Adolf Hitler before World War Two. Sun columnist Piers Morgan – who according to the adverts ‘says out loud what most people are thinking’ – has dutifully obliged with the Neville Chamberlain vibe. But according to many American politicians it’s just like 1938 all over again …. again.

Actually, and more worryingly, the most apt historical echo is not the Second World War but the First, when a group of states who had, ideologically much in common, slogged it out for four long years over a cause few could remember, resulting the deaths of around 20 million people.

On the eve of the 21st century, the Italian historian Domenico Losurdo recalled the 1910 funeral of Edward VII of England. It was, he wrote, “the occasion for a splendid procession which saw kings, hereditary princes and dukes, united by ties of kinship and common mourning, parade on horseback. Time seemed not to have made the least dent in the power and prestige of the European aristocracy. Nine monarchs, all descendants of William the Silent, occupied the stage …”

Yet a little over four years later, these same countries were dragged by a series of alliances into, at the time, the most destructive war in world history. These were resolutely capitalist nations – often officially led by people related to each other – that had, over the previous 30 years, taken possession of over 8.6 million square miles of Africa and Asia in the name of progress and trade. They were, on the surface, united by racial, economic, political and familial ties. Nonetheless these countries were plunged into insane nationalistic fervour and a seemingly endless fight to the death.

Of course certain ideological differences were stressed. Britain, France and, latterly, America – the Entente – were presented as bastions of liberalism in contrast to the militarism of the other side (Germany, Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire). But the Entente was also allied with Tsarist Russia, an absolute monarchy, police state and profoundly anti-Semitic regime.

Likewise today, Patriarch Kirill,  the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has backed Putin’s invasion on the grounds that it is a “metaphysical” struggle against immoral Western values (such as LGBT rights and same-sex marriage). At the same time, however, Boris Johnson has scuttled off to Saudi Arabia to beg for more oil from that erstwhile British ally, which happens to be an absolute monarchy and beheaded 81 people prior to his arrival. And which, in addition to visiting hell upon neighbouring Yemen, is also probably the most anti-Semitic regime on earth. Such does history rhyme.

In the current world the ties that don’t bind are not based on monarchy, aristocracy or Empire. Rather the common denominator across liberal, conservative and authoritarian countries is the dominance and ubiquitous presence of the ultra-rich. In 2021, there were 2,755 billionaires in the world, 660 more than the previous year. During 2020, a new billionaire was created every 17 hours. Billionaires are, collectively, worth $13.1 trillion, up from $8 trillion just 12 months previously and less than $3 trillion in 2006. To give a sense of perspective, a billion is a thousand million.

Their mere presence inevitably dominates and skews the societies they inhabit – be it the U.S, Britain or Russia. It is widely known, for example, that Russian billionaires – the infamous oligarchs – were created after the collapse of communism through the process of “voucher privatisation” which enabled a small group of people to acquire former state assets and amass stupendous wealth. But the number of Russian billionaires has, in common with the rest of world, dramatically increased in the 21st century; from several to over 100. They are taxed at just 2 per cent more than the rest of the population (and this increase was introduced in 2020!), while the rest of the country is subjected to austerity.

Venerated Ukrainian war leader, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, posed as an anti-oligarch in order to be elected president in 2019. But his campaign was launched on the TV channel of billionaire Igor Kolomoyskyi. And his putative hostility to oligarchs hasn’t stopped him, together with the partners in his TV company, owning a network of offshore companies registered in the British Virgin Islands, Cyprus and Belize. Repressing the Left and gutting labour rights, which Zelenskiy has done in the middle of a war, is strangely in tune with the interests of the mega rich.

Controlling the state, and using it to amass and protect great wealth, has become almost customary in the 21st century. Ba’athism emerged in the 1940s and 50s as a pan-Arab, quasi-socialist ideology, though one which was brutally repressive of leftists. But under Assad in Syria, Ba’athism has simply become the means through which a small elite have enriched themselves through privatisation and neoliberal ‘reforms’ – a process which has notably intensified since the turn of the millennium. In China, the official communist ideology and an interventionist state has proved no impediment to the leadership and company managers accruing huge fortunes. The Panama Papers, for example, named the families of eight current or former members of China’s politburo. Levels of inequality are similar to those of South Africa, peasants are regularly stripped of their land and turned into proletarians and super exploitation of workers occurs.

The liberal heartlands of America and Britain – despite their ostensibly democratic institutions – exhibit the identical thumbprints of billionaire domination, manifested in the gravy train of privatisation, quantitative easing, political funding and control of the media. Oligarchs in Britain, George Monbiot said in 2020, “use their economic power and translate it into political power, which is what oligarchs do the world over”. And given that billionaires (oligarchs) have hugely increased in number in the first two decades of this century, the process will only get more explicit.

It may be objected, plausibly, that the interests of billionaires lie in a strong state that protects them and ensures the conditions for their continued accumulation of capital, but that they definitely don’t lie in the division of the world into warring blocs that impose sanctions on each other and confiscate wealth. This is undoubtedly true. But it was also the case that the so-called liberal ‘golden age’ of capitalism (1870-1913) degenerated into the internecine carnage of World War One despite it being in no-one’s interest that it do so. The pre-WW1 era and our own are remarkably similar in many ways. The resemblances include a commitment to a globalised economy, few cross border restrictions on the movement of goods, capital and people, and a belief in balanced government budgets. But the liberal age of capitalism can to an abrupt and brutal end in 1914. Ours can too.

Those old enough to remember the 1990s will recall the air of triumphalism around the collapse of Communism and the fervent belief that, now the world was entering an era of globalisation, free trade and liberal capitalism, countries would regard war as irrational and anachronistic. No two countries with a McDonalds’ franchise have ever gone to war with each other, it was said. Well Russia has – or had – McDonalds.

The question which now inserts itself is whether nationalism, racism, authoritarianism and war are the inevitable shadows of liberal capitalism and market fundamentalism. That despite many in the global elite not wanting a world of war and division, the world is inevitably predisposed to such a disaster because of the inequality and suppressed conflict inherent in a  global economy designed exclusively around the needs of the rich.

If you ignore the noise about Hitler and appeasement, you can hear those chimes of history ringing now.