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A Few Simple Measures to Change the World
From Socialist Outlook, Spring 2004

 

The key slogan of the anti-globalisation movement against neo-liberalism is ‘Another world is possible’, but Marxists do not often take the time to outline what an alternative society might look like, and how we might get there. In this article, through a series of entirely reasonable and logical measures, Phil Hearse shows how things could be different in Britain. While not an alternative blueprint for society, these would result in changing the world – and a revolution in Britain would change the world.

A notable feature of the political position of the founders of modern socialism – Marx and Engels – was their refusal to draw up a detailed blueprint of future socialist society. This differentiated them from what they called ‘utopian’ socialists. Their approach was based on two assumptions; first, that while the principles of socialist society could be discerned in advance, its precise shape would be the outcome of struggle and practice. In other words, some trial and error in the application of socialist ideas would be inevitable. And second, because of the inevitable transition period between capitalism and a fully socialist society (a society without money or classes), socialism would be the product of a long development; it would be foolish to attempt to predict the exact form of something decades away.

There were, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, two main criticisms of this approach. On the one hand anarchists and utopians denounced it as a cop-out from explaining what socialist society would look like; and the reformists, who gradually came to dominate the Second International, utilised it mercilessly to relegate socialism to a formal future dream, counterposed to the fight for partial, piecemeal reforms within the present system.

The problem of how to link present struggles with ultimate objectives started to be overcome in the early 1920s, when the Communist International began to elaborate the idea of ‘transitional demands’. This was developed by the Left Opposition and especially by Trotsky. The very idea of a ‘transitional programme’ is synonymous with his name.

The basic idea behind a transitional programme is that the first shape of post-capitalist society has to emerge out of the contradictions and struggles in existing capitalist society. Trotsky’s famous phrase in the 1938 Transitional Programme is that it starts ‘from today’s conditions and consciousness towards the conquest of power’. This can be seen for example in the way both Lenin and Trotsky posed the idea of workers’ councils or soviets. In his writings on Germany, Trotsky said the soviets were ‘the highest point of the united front’, instruments of struggle under capitalism. At the same time workers councils were seen as the backbone of a future state system.

Discussion of a transitional programme and transitional demands has almost totally disappeared from the left today. The reason is obvious – in a situation where neo-liberalism is totally dominant, posing a programme which leads to the conquest of power is much more difficult. Instead we are involved in defensive battles with very partial demands.
Equality

To work towards an egalitarian society, a few basic measures would be necessary:

*Tax all personal incomes over £40,000 a year at 100%. A fundamental of capitalism is privilege, authority and deference, and behind personal power is economic power. This measure would collapse luxury industries like high fashion, grotesquely expensive restaurants and the market for Mercedes – in other words undermine obscene waste and conspicuous consumption. More rational forms of consumption would follow.
*Introduce a national minimum wage at a liveable level – say £15,000 a year for a normal working week, and combine it with the statutory right to work. The state would have to be the employer of last resort. Those necessarily on benefits – for example the severely disabled or state pensioners– would have the right to this income. When unemployment is a personal disaster, the power of the workplace tyrant is vastly strengthened. When everyone is entitled to a living wage, all social relations will instantly start to change. The power of the boss, from company chairman to local manager, will be fatally undermined.
*Introduce a national childcare scheme, free and open to all parents. This would strike a blow instantly at the situation of single parents, mainly mothers, who are today the poorest section of the community because they cannot have a full-time job and because private childcare consumes their income. This measure would have the advantage of creating perhaps 250,000 new jobs.

Economic power

Who rules Britain? The super-rich and the super-powerful, the dominant actors and controllers of the economy, the lords of finance capital. Every single individual in Britain – at least anyone who shops in a supermarket or at Next, has a bank account or a mortgage, or uses electricity or water - donates a massive part of their personal income to these same individuals. By removing the wealth and power of the elite, the decisions about investment could be made public property.

* Nationalise the banks, insurance companies and finance houses. This is anti-capitalist measure number one in creating an alternative economy. Decisions about investment and resources could then be democratically decided.
* Nationalise the supermarkets and other major retail chains that generate vast fortunes in profits to stabilize food prices, eliminate irrational and wasteful duplication of products, pay a reasonable price through fair trade initiatives to small farmers and third world suppliers and put huge resources at the disposal of society.
* Put all public utilities into social ownership.
* Encourage the formation of co-operatives with grants from the socially owned banks. Subsidise small businesses that have difficulty meeting national minimum wage requirements. Make it a legal requirement that all firms are allowed to retain in profits only what is necessary for reasonable future (productive) investment.

By these measures – especially those in the final sentence of the last point – an economy which functions for private profit will have been destroyed. A democratic economy would mean democratic choices on the main lines of what is produced and how, not just who gets the economic benefits. A democratic economy would revolutionise energy, fuel and chemical production and use, transform transport, and end intensive farming techniques, in an attempt to defend the environment.

Housing and transport

You cannot move towards equality in Britain without getting rid of the private housing market. Here there is a massive dilemma. Millions of people have sunk their savings into their houses, and thus their financial future into the possibility of selling their house for a substantial sum. But this system crushes people trying to get their own home, and puts everybody into a system where a giant proportion of personal income goes on housing – to the benefit of mortgage companies and estate agents. This can only be overcome by giving everybody financial security irrespective of whether they own their house or not, and by a huge programme of social housing construction. Individual house ownership is irrational and would have to be phased out.

* A massive programme of social housing construction.
* Legal limits on the price of private houses.
* Transitional arrangements to allow private householders to return their accommodation to the social sectors, in return for cash benefits.

The irrationality of the present transport system is too well known to warrant much comment here. Self-evidently the environment and social rationality require an efficient and cheap integrated transport service. In a transitional situation we would need draconian regulations on the use of private cars and the gradual change of major freight transport from road to rail.

Ideology

All class societies retain their power by a combination of repression and ideological domination. Capitalism’s reactionary ideas that justify inequality, violence, repression, racism, sexism and personal authority are reproduced daily in the normal experience of life under capitalism. These ideas reflect ‘the way things are’ and can seem normal and inevitable. But they are crucially reinforced by the mega-power of the right-wing mass media. Any alternative society would have to deal with this situation drastically.

* Abolition of private ownership of the mass media - press, TV and radio.
* Democratise the mass media by making access open to workers and community organisations, political parties, cultural associations, co-operatives of artists and film and programme makers.

Abolition of the private ownership of the mass media would be fiercely resisted – it is one of the pillars of modern capitalism. Difficult democratic choices would have to be made about which groups could have free access to the national mass media. Political parties of a hundred people would clearly not have control of a national daily newspaper. But the guiding principle should be pluralism, open access and diversity.

Getting to this stage implies a tremendous social upheaval and a ferment of ideas. Workplaces, universities, schools and communities would be gripped by debates about society, history, social relations and the future. It is in the struggle that ideology – fundamental ideas – will change.

Uprooting racism and sexism will never be achieved simply by getting rid of capitalism, because they are deeply rooted social practices which ultimately can be destroyed only by instituting and enforcing alternative social practices, and by transformations in the dominant ideology. This will inevitably be a central issue in the cultural revolution which socialist transition implies.
Heart of darkness

The real core of the capitalist state, its final guardian and heart of darkness is the repressive organisations – police and courts, the armed services and the security organisations. No changes in social life and the economy can be stabilised without destroying or transforming these structures. This is a crucial, and permanently controversial, question for socialists. In combination these changes would radically disable the repressive functions of the capitalist state.

*Elect the judges (and magistrates) and reinstate full jury trials. End the prior vetting of juries. Abolish the Official Secrets Act and ‘anti-terrorism’ laws.
*Abolish the security services and police Special Branch. End the surveillance of workers’ organisations, leftwing political parties, peace groups and other radical associations.
*Put the police under community control. End the doctrine of ‘no interference with police operational decisions’.
*Subject the appointment of senior officers in the armed forces to democratic control.

Crushing the central core of the capitalist state also implies radically cutting the arms budget, eliminating US bases in Britain, breaking from imperialist alliances like NATO and effecting a real ethical foreign policy, based on solidarity with peoples of the ‘third world’ and all those fighting against, and building alternatives to, capitalism.

Transition – people’s power

In Norman Jewison’s brilliant movie Rollerball the corporations have become the government. In a crucial monologue the chief executive of Houston, the energy city, says, ‘All we ask, all we have ever asked, is that people do not question management decisions.’ Socialism is about the opposite, the permanent questioning of the rights and wrongs of social decisions.

As argued above, the first forms of post-capitalist society emerge out of the struggles in capitalism. The first principle is workers’ control. Socialist transition is inconceivable without a growing tide of struggles in the workplaces and communities, in which the working class and the oppressed try to impose their own decision-making and supervision against the will of the bosses.

In a post-capitalist society, the idea of workers’ control would be elevated from the workplace to the whole of society. This means breaking, step by step, with the logic of capitalist ‘democracy’ – periodic elections with parties that agree on 90% of everything. Workers’ democracy would mean the massive extension of democracy into every institution, with democratic assemblies making basic decisions, and those in responsible posts being elected by workers, communities, teachers and students.

At the level of the national state it would mean a government and national assembly of delegates elected by assemblies from below. To prevent attempts at a violent re-imposition of the old order it would need the creation of their own defence organisations – an embryo workers’ militia – federated at a regional and national level.
A new society

The exact organisation of representative structures cannot be predicted in advance. But the general features of this type of society can.

It would be a society of growing equality where economic insecurity was banished.
Capitalism functions on the principle of economic insecurity, which is needed to discipline the workforce. The eternal struggle to find a decent job, or somewhere to live, or a hospital that does not have huge waiting lists dominates the lives of millions.

This society would be one where an increasing proportion of consumption goods would be socially provided, cheap and eventually free, unmediated by the market. In other words, wages would be less important. Cheap food, cheap housing, free health and dental care, cheap clothes, cheap books and newspapers, cheap entertainment. Consumer choice would still have to be expressed through money and the market; a society without wages or money is only possible in a society of abundance, which would take decades to achieve. But when most things are cheap, differences in income become much less important.

It would be a society of decreasing working hours, as information technology was used to automate drudge labour - and its benefits were translated into increased leisure, not increased profits. Combined with the overall changes in social power and the ideological revolution, this would create a dynamic transformation of all social relations. Relations between people would cease to be mediated by money, power and privilege. That means equality, respect, co-operation and solidarity. People might even talk to one another on the Tube. Now that would be a real revolution!

In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels started out with a basic proposition that underlies everything they wrote: human beings are social animals who only function through social co-operation. Capitalism has grotesquely distorted that into competition and domination. A few simple measures can put it right. Their implementation would of course require a revolution.