Whenever there’s a suggestion of a policy that can make workers’ lives better, the response is the same. The bosses and the right wing press insist in chorus, “You can’t buck the market”.
We saw this in the fury directed at Ed Miliband’s recent suggestion of very limited rent controls—a cap on “excessive rent rises”.
Simon Agace, chairman of the upmarket Winkworth estate agents, was incredulous, warning of “damage done on the provision and quality of property in London”.
This is the mantra of the ruling class. They claim that what 18th century economist Adam Smith called the “invisible hand” of the market is the most efficient method of allocating resources.
It follows that interfering with the market ends either in disaster or futility. So we can’t have rent controls because bosses would stop building houses and create more homelessness.
Higher wages? That would price workers out of jobs and make unemployment go up. Taxing the rich would just see them taking away their wealth—and our jobs.
On the other hand they say that the market gives power to the people. As consumers we make free choices that decide what gets produced. But the reality is very different. The market routinely fails, and the housing crisis gripping Britain is a good example.
Millions of people desperately need better homes. But construction firms can make more profit building for the rich.
Capitalist production isn’t about meeting human needs but increasing bosses’ profits. It creates massive abundance and waste alongside dire scarcity.
We see this in food too. Human agriculture produces more food than ever before. Yet amid this plenty millions of people are starving.
This isn’t new. The revolutionary Karl Marx explained how the “anarchy of the market” and its “violent price fluctuations” could “cause interruptions, great collisions, even catastrophes, in the process”.
But the market hype is part of a much bigger ideology that says we can’t fundamentally change our society. Even when its shortcomings are exposed, we’re told there is no alternative—and that “market forces” will punish any attempt to create one.
This is clearly the lesson that our rulers want us to draw from Greece. They threaten its left government with capital flight and bank runs if it breaks with austerity. And at almost every election here we’re told that unless the Tories get in, the financial markets would turn on Britain.
Many on the left recognise the limits of the market’s ability to meet our needs, but see no potential to break with it. So they look to the government to protect workers from the ravages of the market, and prevent the chaos of its crises.
This follows the theories of liberal economist John Maynard Keynes. He argued that the market only functioned smoothly in the long run—and “in the long run we are all dead”. In the meantime state spending can drive investment when the private sector doesn’t.
Similar solutions to make the market work through a greater or lesser degree of tinkering are often put forward.
This can take the form of state ownership, tougher regulation or higher public spending.
Marxists agree with many of these demands, but not because we think they can fix capitalism. On the contrary, the left Keynesians’ argument often rests on a myth.
They hark back to the post-war period of nationalisations. But this was underpinned by the longest boom in capitalist history—and fell apart when boom turned into bust.
Keynesian ideas fell out of fashion in the 1970s, then revived after the 2008 financial crash. But this was caused by a fundamental crisis of profitability in capitalism that tougher banking regulation wouldn’t have stopped.
The gains that the working class won after the Second World War—in health, housing and welfare—can show up the hypocrisy of today’s austerity. But the left shouldn’t play into the bosses’ myth that there is such a thing as a pure free market, with no planning or state involvement.
Giant firms such as Asda, Ford or McDonalds are planned economies in their own right. They organise complex logistics on a vast scale. They just do it for the sake of profit.
It’s nonsense when the right tries to claim government meddling is to blame for capitalism’s problems. But it’s also wrong to imagine the state holds the solution.
Bosses and states rely on each other, and the state has always played a central role in the economy. This exposes the problems with seeing the market as a force of nature that runs according to fixed laws.
Superficially the economy can look like a giant marketplace of individuals trading commodities. But beneath this lies a web of social relationships that has come to dominate our lives.
Understanding these social relationships is key to understanding capitalism’s power over us—and its weaknesses that we can exploit.
Workers are compelled to compete with one another for jobs in order to make a living. That’s presented as a voluntary trade with the bosses—our labour power in return for a wage.
But it means that whatever our labour produces, the benefit goes to someone else who didn’t work for it. This is the fundamental division in society, between those who work and those who exploit them.
Capitalists are also compelled to compete with one another. They must increase their profits or be driven out of business.
Marx identified this as the driving force behind capitalism, the pressure to have “accumulation for accumulation’s sake”. This drives bosses to constantly try to squeeze more out of workers. But workers have no such need for the bosses, who produce nothing.
When it becomes less profitable to build homes, capitalists stop building them. That’s why the last crash saw flats abandoned half built. The profiteers could respond to rent controls in the same way today.
But this isn’t because the resources for building homes have disappeared. Neither have the construction workers or the equipment—or the real need.
All that would have been reduced is the potential profit, and that’s what capitalist production is based on.
Instead we could use the wealth that workers create to meet human needs. This could mean building homes by the million, to decent standards, and for working class people not parasitic landlords.
This would mean workers taking democratic control of what’s produced and how resources are distributed within society.
The point isn’t to compromise with a form of “market socialism” or “mixed economy” with workers’ cooperatives. Even firms owned by workers are subject to the discipline of capitalist competition.
The goal is to replace that competition with cooperation—to get rid of the waste and the mismatch of resources that takes place under capitalism.
It means putting the decisions currently taken by boardrooms full of bosses in the hands of the working class.
Marxists don’t have a detailed blueprint for how such a society would run. But we do see glimpses of what it could look like whenever workers fight their bosses.
Every strike contains a challenge to the bosses’ control of the workplace, and puts the onus on workers to act collectively.
Workers who have been trained to see themselves as isolated individuals have to create their own organisation. This can range from rotas of picket lines and solidarity meetings to the struggle in Greece’s state broadcaster ERT.
Workers refused to leave when bosses tried to sack them, occupied its premises and took over broadcasting themselves. After all, who knows the ins and outs of production in any workplace better than its workers?
This is a better reason to demand reforms that clash with the priorities of the market. They can’t fix capitalism, or change it into something that’s fairer or more stable. But they can be part of a fight against the bosses’ priorities that builds workers’ confidence and organisation.
So can fighting for better wages and conditions than the terms bosses offer. It is in these struggles that we see the power not just to buck the blackmail of the market, but to smash the tyranny of capitalist rule that underpins it.
How can we take back the wealth from the rich?
Economics of the Madhouse
by Chris Harman
now available to read online at marxists.org/archive/harman/1995/madhouse
Ours to master and to own: workers’ control from the commune to the present
edited by Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini
Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk