Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Freedom From Fear

The economic elite has extensive means at its disposal to direct political discourse and form policy to further its interests, including exerting influence over the media and the machinery of state.  National's third election victory and Labour's resounding defeat make it even more obvious that large numbers of Kiwis have been persuaded their interests correspond with those of the economic elite.

Part of the process of persuasion is very simple - it's an appeal to avarice and hubris. People who have sufficient money to buy security and opportunity are free from the fear of privation and they can exercise relatively high levels of control over their own lives.  Many believe they get this abundance of things and opportunities through their own hard work and abilities. They also believe that people who lack their advantages have failed in some way.  

They choose to ignore the fact that the keystone in the protective arch of their comfortable lives is debt - and if, for any reason, they become unable to service that debt, the arch will fall.

The other part of the persuasion process is a bit more complex and is to do with the extension of human rights and civil liberties. 

My last post on Labour Day ended: "All the while that industrial and finance capital was tightening its throttle hold on the neck of organised labour - it allowed certain domestic human rights and civil liberties. "  

Over the past 40 years or so, as corporate capitalism has thrown off its Keysian fetters and has been sucking the world dry like some bloated, psychotic vampire, it has continued to yield to some demands for the full legal and social equality the capitalist system promises. 

The 'neo-liberal revolution' has been so destructive because it has been startlingly effective and one of the reasons for that is there has been a steady progression in individual rights and freedoms which has obscured the dramatic shift in power in the relations of production back towards capital. 

The attacks on organised labour, the erosion of workers'  pay and conditions, the increase in the gap between rich and poor, the increasing concentration of wealth and the hyper-exploitation of labour in those countries to which capital took flight have all occurred alongside progressive changes in race relations, women's and minority rights  - seen most dramatically in the first world countries and especially here in NZ. 

Of course these have had to be fought hard for and were often ceded grudgingly. At times they run against the tide of public opinion and they can be reversed. But, for the economic elite there are benefits in granting to some others a little of the individual freedom to do and to be which it has always enjoyed - as long as those freedoms do not interfere with its pre-eminent right to exploit human and natural resources for maximum profit.  

They have learned that the extension of formal equal rights to women, people of colour and minorities yields greater benefits to the educated and affluent, stimulates consumption and  reinforces the buffer zone between them and the increasingly impoverished and alienated bulk of the population.  

What is not given much prominence is the fact that those who have slipped into the realms of the necessitous, and those who are at risk of doing so, are less and less engaged with the politics of individual choice and more and more engaged with the business of physical and psychological survival. 

Their ideological arguments obscure the fact that, even here in NZ with its relative affluence, people's ability to enjoy their liberty, to do what they want, to forge their own identities as women, as people of colour, as LGBT people, as people with a disability -  is powerfully conditioned and constrained by their individual socio-economic location and prospects.  

The declarations that neo-liberalism signalled the 'end of history', the 'end of ideology' and the end of the battle between capital and labour - are more the product of the ethnocentricity and ahistoricism of the writers than an objective analysis of what has been going on over the past 40 years or so. 

The basis of the capitalist market always was, and remains, the freedom to enter into contracts. In the world of work the thing being bought and sold is labour. Whether it is work by hand or by brain, what's being exchanged for money is part of the life of the seller - in temporal, physical and psychological terms. 

To be able to enter into a legal contract to sell part of yourself, you have to be free from any other legal constraints and obligations. A slave is not free because s/he is owned by another person. A serf is not free because s/he owes fealty to a lord. An indentured labourer is not free because s/he is bound by another contract. A woman is not free when her legal rights are subsumed by those of her husband or father. A person below the legal age of majority is not free because their legal rights are subsumed by those of their parents or guardians. And so on.

The notion of the rights of man has moved from its origins in white, propertied male demands for political and legal equality through the abolition of slavery, the extension of suffrage to non-propertied men, women and people of colour, the formal acceptance of the principle of equal pay for equal work, and beyond - into rights of prisoners and the mentally ill, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, criminalisation of spousal rape, legalisation of prostitution, civil union and same-sex marriage and the removal of the parental defence of castigato moderato

No-one can argue with the fact that the freedom to be, to express oneself, to have genuine equality of opportunity form the main supporting arch of a truly civilised society but how many people accept that the keystone of that arch is the freedom from fear of poverty, disease, homelessness and tyranny which can only be attained and maintained through collective action?  How many appreciate the fact that, without the keystone, the entire edifice will fall?

Harry Smith, the 91 year-old British Labour Party member who spoke so movingly about the need to protect the NHS, said he didn't want his past to become our future.  His political battles had been for freedom from the fear of poverty and disease.  

This is not a rarefied philosophical debate about the distinctions between the absence of coercion and the ability to exercise self-mastery – it’s about the basic preconditions of human rights and civl liberties.

Being nominally free to enter the labour market to sell your labour is no freedom at all if there are no jobs available, or if the wages on offer are below subsistence, or the working conditions are life threateningly dangerous.  Having the right to retire in old age with a pension is meaningless if the hardships of your work and private life mean you die before retirement. 

Most people in the world today subsist by exchanging their labour for a wage that is so low they can never save.  Many are crippled by debt created by being forced to borrow money at extortionate interest rates. Most human beings live on the edge of a financial precipice and their only safety nets are the ones they and their stressed families and communities can fashion from their meager resources. 

This was the reality of the lives of many Kiwis before a Labour government initiated the welfare state - and it is a reality that we are heading back to.  The growing disparities in wealth, and in the power and freedom that wealth buys,  should result in unceasing and tumultuous outrage from those at the base of society but instead result in more anomie  - expressed almost exclusively as horizontal crime - and alienation from the political process.

In part, this is because in NZ we still have the remnants of the social provision that was created to ameliorate the worst excesses of a rapacious colonial capitalism.  It's in part due to a poorly informed and blinkered populace - which has more information at its fingertips than ever but less in its head. It's in part due to the fact that we have a fairly large and relatively prosperous middle class whose well-padded backside is positioned in the social and political foreground where it usefully obstructs both the view of the depleted lives of the poor and the opulence and excesses of the rich.  And it's also due to the fact that it was the NZ Labour Party that enacted monetarist economic dogma and has  severed many of  its connections to its past. 

I lived in the UK in the midst of the Thatcherite revolution - and remember the tsunami of vicious attacks on trade unions and the left in general. I will never forget or forgive the almost complete subservience of the mainstream media in a propaganda war that was extraordinary both for its malevolence and its flagrant disregard for any principles of integrity and natural justice. 

It was no accident that the second item on the monetarists' agenda - after removing all controls on the export of capital - was to attack organised labour. As they labeled trade unions as 'the enemy within' and started dismantling the welfare state and emptying the public purse into private pockets, they also injected more of that illusory compensation for the growing economic and political powerlessness - the notion of the individual freedom to do, and to be which was easily achievable by those who worked hard and made the right sort of choices.

The price being paid by our own poor is high enough but is less than that being paid by workers in those countries to which capital migrated to extract greater profits from lower wages and conditions and slack environmental controls.  

Sunday, 26 October 2014

It's Labour Day …...

It's Labour Day and a large number of my fellow Kiwis see it as nothing more than an oddly named public holiday. Useful idiots declare that the battle between employer and employee is over, unions are obsolete and we should keep the public holiday but rename it.  Debtors' Day perhaps.

Clearly capitalism and its agents are not as convinced the battle is over hence the on-going demonisation of Trade Unions and the Left in general and the constant rewriting of history.  I was pleased to read Rodney Hide's piece of mean-spirited, ahistorical claptrap because I collect examples of right-wing dogma that confirm the theory that conservatives tend to be 'low effort' thinkers who, when they run out of facts and logical arguments, simply make stuff up. 

Hide is right in one respect - Parnell's historic victory was labour market forces at work.  There was a shortage of skilled labour in the colony and a lot of the possessors of that labour had voyaged to the ends of the earth to escape the grossly unbalanced and class-riven labour market in Britain.  Parnell and others like him had both the desire and the means to dictate how and when they would work.

And it was not just skilled labour that had an edge. The bleats of outrage from those whose privileged lives rested on the backs of agricultural and domestic labourers waft down through history. They convey outrage over the fact that the shortage of labourers, or their ability to acquire the means of their own means of subsistence, meant workers could demand higher wages and - horror of horrors - walk out on bad employers. 

Had there been a surfeit of carpenters in 1840, Parnell could never have set his own limits to his working day and it would never have become the custom and practice for the colony. Nor would that customary 8 hour day have passed into law if organised labour had not fought hard for it. 

There is NO example of capitalism proffering or even freely yielding progressive concessions to workers.  Concessions have always had to be wrested from its miserly grasp by organised labour and its allies. Any concessions that have been easily won have had some longer-term pragmatic or strategic advantage for the capitalist class.

Britain's abolition of the slave trade in 1807 is a case in point. The abolition, which is often touted as one of the few 'perfectly virtuous acts in the history of nations', was actually more the result of technological advances and the loss of Britain's American colonies and the desire to deprive the Americans of a supply of new slaves.  

That was why Britain initially abolished only the slave trade and why it deployed the Atlantic Squadron to stop slave traders from other countries.  It's why many of the prominent British abolitionists were against the trade in African slaves but for the retention of the institution of slavery in the colonies.  It's why it took another 24 years for slavery in Britain's colonies to be abolished, and why 'freed' slaves had to work a further 4 years for nothing, and why slave owners were massively compensated by the State.   It's also why the British State was later happy to support and supply the Confederacy during the American Civil War.

The political and economic advantages of abolishing the slave trade coalesced with the fear of popular insurrection - both of slaves in the colonies and, importantly, of workers at home. There was a rising revulsion amongst the affluent and educated middle class against slavery, and working class people saw a parallel between slavery and the reality of their own oppressed lives.  When the anti-slavery movement began to coalesce with the emerging working class movement it became too great threat.  At the same time as he was opposing the slave trade, history's poster boy for abolition, William Wilberforce, actively supported legislation that outlawed radical and trade union organisations.

The simple fact is that, when and where it suits, capital will exploit whoever and whatever yields most profit - without compunction or thought of consequences. That is the business of business and it invariably results in various forms of counter pressure from those who are being exploited and those who want to protect the exploited.  

That struggle between capital and labour was and remains the primary market force. It changes its clothes, it relocates and remodels itself but strip it of its ideological accoutrements, and it's still there, essentially unaltered.

207 years after the trade in African slaves was abolished in Britain, slavery still exists in direct and indirect forms. We live in a world in which the obscenity of the trafficking of human beings, including tiny children, as slaves and sex objects, is facilitated by the same extraordinary technological advances that have enabled the resurgence of an utterly rapacious and aggressive corporate capitalism.

It is those same forces that are busy turning the social clock back in NZ.  Employers want and, courtesy of a compliant state, get maximum 'flexibility' of working hours to minimise 'down time' in production or provision of services,  and longer working days on basic pay rates to maximise the return on the 'investment' of employee related overheads and on-costs. 

The NZ state - acting as the obedient servant of corporate interests - sold off the telecommunications wing of the NZ Post Office for peanuts. Politicians and civil servants, aided by the media, sold that economic absurdity to the populace with the lie that it would yield better value for consumers and the wealth from the increased profits and dividends paid out to investors in a free market would 'trickle down' to the base.  

Thirty years later - we have seen that product of social capital divided further and new tranches of shareholders and technocrats seek to maximise profits by divesting themselves  of the costs of directly employed staff. They achieve this via the use of independent contractors based overseas in lower pay economies, and domestically via the creation of self-employed contractors who have to absorb their own employment costs.  The savings to the corporation are not passed on to the consumer in the form of reduced bills but continue to flow up to the already grossly overpaid technocrats and shareholders.  

Those domestic workers - once directly employed, unionised and on collective pay and conditions - are left isolated, responsible for their own insurance, health and safety, taxes etc. Nominally 'free' they are actually between an employment rock and a hard place - tied by a one-sided, individually negotiated contract to sell their labour to a single buyer. They have only the appearance of the economic freedom and self-mastery we all crave.  In essence they're little different from Welsh slate miners who leased a patch of a quarry and were paid piece rates by the quarry owner. 

The ideological icing on the corporate cake is the rebranding of these self-employed workers as part of a new affluent and aspirational 'middle NZ' to which both major political parties have to appeal.  We are told that this new middle New Zealand doesn't have the same concerns as the old working class. They actually do. They may not realise it but they will  when the pressure to extract profit drives their jobs offshore. 

What capital has done - stripped of all its ideological puffery - is turn the clock back to the time when industry could hyper-exploit by paying workers as little as possible, stretching the working day to as long as possible, ignoring or bypassing health and safety and environmental controls as much as possible, and make workers responsible for as much of the costs of their own employment as possible.

What is wanted from the major political parties is a seamless service to corporate capitalism.  The tribal colours and anthems of the parties may differ, indeed that's necessary to maintain the fiction of social democracy, but what matters is that business gets to do what it wants, maximise profits for the increasingly select few. 

Only a fool or a rightwing ideologue (synonymous in many instances)  can fail to understand why the first items on the monetarists' agenda in the 1980s were the undermining of organised labour and the freeing up of capital to shift it to places where profits could be maximised through lower pay and conditions etc.  Only a callous idiot denies the ugly reality that the extremes of capitalist exploitation - child labour, convict labour, indentured and even enslaved labour - still exist in the 21st century, just not here, yet. 

The first industrial workers in Britain were pauper women and children who worked extreme hours in extreme conditions mass producing cloth which, in comparison to the finely woven, delicate materials  used to produce the clothes and furnishings of the rich, was low quality. It was intended for the domestic masses and for export to the colonies.

Capital was happy to exploit small children and women in mines and mills until it was more expedient to employ the increasing numbers of men being 'liberated' from agricultural and small scale artisanal production.  Changes in agricultural and industrial production methods met a rising tide of middle class revulsion with the ugly realities of the hyper-exploitation of very young children, and the notions of human rights and civil liberties which made unemployed, disenfranchised men a potentially subversive force.

Some industrialists and especially the mine owners fought against the Factory and Mines Acts which restricted the age and hours of employment of children - and wailed about the threats to their profits - but the market forces of the time tilted in favour of large scale mass production employing skilled and semi-skilled men. The costs of the plant and the intensive use of labour were offset by economies of scale and continual suppression of pay and conditions. 

Large scale industrial production today is rare in the first world and where it exists it's increasingly mechanised and digitised, less and less reliant on direct labour. Mass produced commodities - consumed mostly by the masses - are made in a mix of large scale, highly mechanised factories and small scale, labour intensive factories.  Both, for the most part, are physically located where labour is cheapest  and health and safety and environmental controls are weakest.  (1)

Most of the commodities aimed at and consumed by the very rich are - as they have always been - produced by highly skilled artisans and technicians in relatively small scale production units. 

The fashion industry - the rag trade - is a classic example. Most of the clothes and accoutrements of the very rich are as they have always been, hand produced by highly skilled and well remunerated artisans and technicians using the finest of materials.  In contrast, the clothes of the masses are made from the cheapest of materials and mass-produced by semi or unskilled workers paid piece rates or barely subsistence wages in very poor working conditions. 

 The poor of the First World borrow money at usurious interest rates to purchase clothing produced by the even poorer workers of the Third World. The shoddiness and poor value of the product is masked by an obsolescence created by seasonal cycles in fashion that are actively promoted by popular media. It is a form of madness.

The breaking of the back of organised labour and the con of self-employment in the domestic market has facilitated the gradual break down of many of the wider social advances that had been won by organised labour and its allies.  The padding of the pay packets of the middle class, and the legitimation of living with perpetual debt has ensured increased consumption of commodities and services produced/provided by overseas based companies.  

The varying degrees of isolation in the working lives of many people is matched by the increasing isolation and alienation of their social lives.  Bill Gates' vision of nuclear families living increasingly individualised and separated existences inside their computerised domestic units is an asocial nightmare.  We are, above ALL ELSE, social animals - profoundly, inescapably social. Outside broad-based family structures and wider associations within viable communities we are weakened - often to the point of being rendered helpless. 

And all the while that industrial and finance capital was tightening its throttle hold on the neck of organised labour - it allowed certain domestic human rights and civil liberties. 

But more of that in a later post.

  1. Ever ready to grab new sources of profit, industry has linked up with the coercive wing of the state to utilise convict labour. At its most nakedly exploitative in the USA, the state funded prison provides the facilities for production as well as the labour which it sells to the company for less than the cost of its subsistence - which is covered by the state. The state enacts a variety of local and federal laws to imprison a tranche of abled bodied young men for whom  there are no jobs because the state has allowed capital to relocate offshore to maximise private profits; the state then hires out the publicly funded facilities  and convict labour at below subsistence which enables the corporation to extract even greater levels of profit. Voila!

Thursday, 23 October 2014

The Age of Cupidity

I've been trying to publish a post for the past couple of weeks.  Although I have several in draft form, when I try to finish them I find myself overwhelmed by a deep lassitude - an uncharacteristic gloom which is only relieved by riding my bike, mowing the lawn or attacking weeds in my garden. If I could find a way of combining all three I might be onto something.

This lack of mental vitality is unusual for me given I'm a person who has robust opinions and a strong drive to express them.  

I blame it on Twitter.  

And John "just call me Prez" Key. And that good mate of his to whom he has never spoken whilst wearing his Presidential hat.  

And the media, large parts of which are downright embarrassing and only saved from total ignominy by the efforts of a few excellent writers - including the one who is currently being harassed by the Police.  

In protest against said harassment I shall cease calling the Police a 'Service' and revert to calling it a 'Force' (which is what Greg "Just call me Chief"  O'Connor wants it to be.)  I am reminded of a Euan McColl song about the UK police - written during the Miner's Strike :

'Remember the chap in the comical hat,
'Is one of humanity's crosses, 
"Wherever there's trouble, whatever the struggle, 
"He'll be on the side of the bosses.'

My gloom was deepened by waking up in the middle of the night with a song on a perpetual loop in my head. It's a song I've always disliked - and the bloody thing was still with me when I woke up this morning.  So, in an attempt to rid myself of the pesky, beady, hairy thing and in lieu of any other way of declaiming about some aspect of this troubled and troubling world, I've rewritten the lyrics.

Age of Cupidity

When tycoons are in the ascendancy,
And capital aligns with greed,
Then war will guide the planet,
And hate will steer the deed.

This is the dawning of the Age of Cupidity,
The Age of Cupidity,
Cupidity! Cupidity!

Disharmony and unawareness,
Indifference and doubt abounding,
More falsehoods and derisions,
Leaden-living nightmare visions,
Venality's revelation
And freedom's last inhalation.

Cupidity! Cupidity!

When tycoons are in the ascendancy,
And capital aligns with greed,
Then war will guide the planet,
And hate will steer the deed.

This is the dawning of the age of Cupidity
The age of Cupidity,  Cupidity,  Cupidity,
Cupidity, Cupidity.

Let the rain fall, Let the rain fall down, Let the rain fall …..etc