State companies, capitalism and the left: a Marxist view

Posted: July 16, 2012 by Admin in At the coalface, capitalist crisis, Capitalist ideology, Class Matters, Economics, Labour Party NZ, National Party NZ, New Zealand politics, Protest

The slogan of the anti-sales campaign is, from the standpoint of workers’ class interests, at best meaningless and at worst nationalistic. It does, however, serve the purpose of uniting people across class and political lines. Marxists should challenge this rather than promote it.

by Philip Ferguson

One of the big problems faced by those of us who have campaigned around progressive issues for many years is lack of media coverage, let alone sympathetic media coverage.  Every now and then, however, the mainstream media will give significant coverage to an apparently progressive campaign, sometimes even exaggerating the numbers taking part.  Earlier this year I was struck by how the media in Christchurch exaggerated the size of the anti-Marryatt/Parker rally, a product of the growing hostility of the Christchurch Press to some of what was going on in the city council (for our coverage, see here).  Environmental protests also often get sympathetic media treatment.  Struggles by workers, although occasionally getting some sympathetic coverage, are much less likely than ‘safe’ issues, like anti-mining or anti-whaling, to get such treatment.

This past weekend protests against the sale of minority shares in state-owned enterprises garnered massive, sympathetic coverage on the main Saturday news programmes on Prime (which uses Sky News), TV1 and TV3.  Given that these were far from huge marches – a few thousand in Auckland, somewhat less in Wellington and less again in Christchurch, along with small protests in smaller centres – this was one of those not particularly common times when the coverage was notably greater than what might be expected from the size of the protests.

The sort of sympathetic coverage the campaign against the partial sale of state-owned companies has been getting is partly a reflection of differences within the establishment.  No serious bourgeois economic commentator, for instance, really believes these sales will make much difference to boosting investment in the productive sector or give the government lots more money long-term to pump into infrastructure.

It’s even a funny sort of flagship policy for the Nats and is perhaps more of a reflection that Key and co aren’t interested in pushing neo-liberalism but have to look like they’re doing something significant to drive the economy.  It’s certainly a long way from the relentless full frontal attacks on the whole working class by the ruling class and its political managers in Labour and National in the 1984-93 period.

While this helps make the ‘state assets’ issue safe for the media, it also makes it ideal for the tiny, fragmented ostensibly Marxist groups too.  Unable to generate anything themselves, here is a ‘movement’ they can attach themselves to, find a comfort zone in, and hope to gain some recruits from.  Doing this, however, requires politically adapting to the politics of the spontaneous movement.  Thus such groups embrace the slogan “Aotearoa is not for Sale”, which might sound good as a soundbite but is, when examined, vacuous at best.  What does it even mean?  Given that this country has a capitalist economy, of course chunks of it are for sale.

Among the left groups embracing this soundbite is the Workers Party, the only left group which maintains a newspaper.   “Aotearoa Not for Sale” is the heading for their leaflet on the partial sales of the state’s own capitalistically-operated companies and the main point they make is that the country is not for sale to local or foreign capitalists.

I assume they think this is putting Marxism into the issue.

While it’s certainly positive that they have tried to counter the nationalistic argument around sales such as these and the Crafar Farms, there’s a bit more to Marxism than that.  Indeed, even their anti-nationalism is rather undermined by the slogan itself as the slogan concentrates on the country rather than the class interests of workers.

Moreover, the very title of their leaflet assumes, implicitly, that Aotearoa is already “ours”.  Otherwise, why say it’s not for sale?  Who cares if our next door neighbour sells their car?  We only care if they try to sell our car.

They also refer to the state-owned companies as “public assets”.  OK, we all use shorthand or imprecise terms, and it can be silly to pick people up on these all the time.  However, the term “public assets” is misleading and, added to the “Aotearoa not for Sale” line of WP and other left groups, it seems even more the case that they are suggesting in their party leaflet that these companies are “ours”.

However, they certainly are not.  And here’s where a bit more depth in Marxism is handy.  These assets – or, more strictly speaking, these companies – belong to the state, not the “public” and certainly not the working class.  So referring to them as “public assets” can only suggest that the state and the public are either the same thing or at least very much overlapping.

A Marxist approach, by contrast, would explain what the capitalist state is and how companies owned by the state are often not much different from private sector companies.  It can actually be harder for workers to fight the employer when the employer is the state than it is to fight a private employer because bosses in the private sector are often more vulnerable to industrial action.

It’s also necessary to have an understanding of how the state sector fits into the capitalist economy and why chunks of the state sector have been turned into profit-making companies.  For instance, in the 2010-11 financial year Mighty River Power made a net profit after tax of just over $127 million.  It did this because it pays the workers it employs less than the total value that their labour-power creates, just like a private employer.

There is, of course, a difference, in that this profit goes to the government rather than private investors.  However, all this means in practice, in terms of the economy as a whole, is that the government can raise more money without higher taxes on corporates and rich people.  It means that the state itself becomes a capitalist exploiter, rather than simply the guarantor of the smooth operations of the system.  The state now directly exploits sections of workers and accrues surplus-value directly from that exploitation.  So workers are not any better off at all by the state operating as a capitalist.

There is an attempt by at least one WPer to develop a more rounded position; it’s an article by Ian Anderson in May.  It makes some good points, but ends up rather muddled.  For instance, having quoted the great Irish revolutionary James Connolly that public ownership should only be supported to the degree that workers are ready to run it, he then goes on to support campaigning for “public ownership” in the here and now.   But if workers in New Zealand in 2012 aren’t at the point where they’re ready to take over functions of government, why use Connolly’s quote as if it is relevant to the concrete conditions here today and can inform a political position here at this point in time?

At the  end, the article uses the term “public ownership” as if it’s a step in the right direction, even though the author points out earlier in the article that “public ownership” at this point in time in NZ often involves producing goods and services as commodities anyway.  So, even when the article makes a good analytical point, there isn’t a logical connection between it and the political position the article takes on state-owned enterprises.   If the analysis is correct, then the logical political position would be not to get too excited by the shift from the state acting as a business and exploiting workers to the state having 51% ownership of these businesses and 49% of the shares being in private hands.

Essentially what the Workers Party has done is completely conflate privatisation (or in this case partial privatisation) with corporatisation.  But these are already corporates, they were turned into corporates by the economic reforms of the fourth Labour and fourth National governments.  They’ve been capitalist businesses for several decades.  They are not the same as the old state-owned nationalised industries; they are the result of the break-up and corporatisation of those old institutions.  While the Ian Anderson article, as noted above, does briefly recognise this, it doesn’t draw out either the economic or political significance of the change.  Instead, it simply moves on and advocates a political stance which might be relevant if we were back in 1984, before the old government departments and nationalised industries were broken up and turned into capitalist companies but makes no sense (from a Marxist standpoint) long, long after these have already been corporatised.

In New Zealand – and this is true of similar places such as Australia and Canada – most of the working class have two main illusions that blind them to their own class interests, illusions which are generally shared by most progressive people outside the working class as well.  One is in nationalism and leads to domestic forms of nationalism being counterposed to ‘foreign’ ownership, when in fact all capitalist ownership is alien to the interests of workers.  The other illusion is that the state is somehow “ours” and can be the vehicle for our side winning the things we need.  While some small left groups have countered the first illusion, they have tended to reinforce the second illusion by adopting the liberal-reformist rhetoric that the state, or at least parts of it – in this case parts that actually exploit workers – are somehow “ours”.

A good example of this illusion is provided by the International Socialist Organisation.  An article by long-timer ISOer Corey Anderson (http://iso.org.nz/2013/05/01/socialism-and-the-campaign-against-asset-sales/#more-1339) begins by pointing out some basic facts about state ownership and the way it serves the interests of capital (paragraph 2) but then subsequently seems to forget this and claims, “People have come to expect a more comprehensive and less costly delivery of goods and services from state-owned corporations which are at least supposed to act in the interests of the people, not the board of directors or private shareholders.  The existence of an alternative model can give people hope and encourage them to dream of bigger and better things.”

But virtually everything here is wrong.  Who, with any experience of state-owned energy companies, expects them to provide less costly services?  In fact, energy prices have risen substantially since the old MED was broken up and converted into state-owned corporates.  Moreover, as already noted, the SOE legislation requires these enterprises to *maximise profits*.  No-one who knows anything about SOEs expects them “to act in the interests of the people” because they were specifically set up *not to* – they were specifically set up to make the largest profits possible.  And how is state capitalism “an alternative model” to private capitalism?  Indeed, since ISO has opposition to state capitalism as one of its core principles, this is a very odd thing to argue indeed.  It’s another indication of how principles are subordinated to short-term tactical considerations.

Why not simply tell workers the truth about the state and its operations as a capitalist exploiter?

The would-be Marxist groups either don’t understand how capitalism works and how the capitalist state fits in or, if they do, they prefer not to share these insights with workers and others protesting the partial sale of these state-capitalist companies.  Instead, they tail along behind existing levels of consciousness and illusion, merely offering some tactical thoughts on how best to go forward.

Not long ago this was the standard approach of the largest left group, Socialist Worker.  Anything that moved, SW was on the bandwagon, talking it up and offering mere tactical advice as if the activists in this or that movement were incapable of working out tactics themselves.  This approach led to SW going round and round in frantic but ever-decreasing circles of activism, until the organisation was finally exhausted and gave up the ghost.  What were SW politics ten years ago are the politics of the remaining ostensibly Marxist groups today; the vacuum left by SW has been filled by different groups but the same politics.  Nothing has been learned.

Further reading: Class, class consciousness and left political practice

 

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Comments
  1. Ian Anderson says:

    “It’s even a funny sort of flagship policy for the Nats and is perhaps more of a reflection that Key and co aren’t interested in pushing neo-liberalism but have to look like they’re doing something significant to drive the economy.”

    Surely privatisation is linked to neoliberalism?

    “If the analysis is correct, then the logical political position would be not to get too excited by the shift from the state acting as a business and exploiting workers to the state having 51% ownership of these businesses and 49% of the shares being in private hands.”

    Are you arguing leftists should not oppose further privatisation? While the current corporate SOE model is exploitative itself, further privatisation will have a negative impact on the working class. 75% of the country opposes asset sales, is the content of their opposition entirely reactionary? Or do people remember the impact of asset sales, largely under the Fourth Labour government?

    SOEs aren’t so much a “step in the right direction,” as asset sales are a step further in the wrong direction. Article you quoted takes a transitional approach:
    “In the short term we might fight for public ownership, but in the long term we must fight for public control.”

  2. Don Franks says:

    “75% of the country opposes asset sales, is the content of their opposition entirely reactionary? Or do people remember the impact of asset sales, largely under the Fourth Labour government?”

    The fact that the Labour party is able to strike attitudes against assets sales today without any serious opposition suggests that people do not remember this history very well.

    People’s reasons opposition to asset sales are several and various. As Phil’s article notes, the false idea that it’s “our” state is a central reason for some workers opposing the sales. To describe capitalist state ownership as “public ownership” is misleading.

  3. Admin says:

    Ian, if as you state in your article, state-owned companies are run capitalistically, then what is the basis for campaigning against them being run capitalistically with 51% state ownership and 49% private ownership? What you’re doing is separating your theoretical analysis (which is correct) from your political position. This is, unfortunately, a fairly standard practice on the left here. Instead of informing political positions, theory is just something that is written about and then put to one side.

    Neither your article nor the WP leaflet indicates how partial privatisation will have a more negative impact on the working class than the current situation of the state running capitalist operations.

    In fact, this should have been your starting point.

    If you can concretely show that the working class will be noticeably worse off with capitalist companies being 51% state-owned rather than 100% state-owned, then you would actually have a case for opposing partial privatisation. But neither your article nor the WP leaflet present any such case.

    Privatisation is not at all “necessarily” linked to neo-liberalism. Lots of stuff has been private long before neo-liberalism and chunks of state stuff have been privatised in capitalist economies long before neo-liberalism. Anyway, why the fetish with neo-liberalism? Capitalists do what they do because they are managing an anarchic, crisis-ridden system. Sometimes that means favouring a greater role for the state, sometimes it means favouring a greater role for the private sector. The job of Marxists isn’t to fetishise or demonise this or that set of policies; it’s to explain why capitalists do what they do. It’s not about neo-liberalism or Keynesianism; it’s about managing capitalism.

    You further state: “75% of the country opposes asset sales, is the content of their opposition entirely reactionary? Or do people remember the impact of asset sales, largely under the Fourth Labour government?” Well, historical specificity is useful here. Under the fourth Labour government parts of the state sector that produced goods and services which could be provided to both individual members of the public (in the sense of you and me) and to private enterprise at *below their actual value* were either privatised or turned into state-owned enterprises (ie surplus-value producing businesses). So, they went from being non-profit and producing primarily use-values to producing commodities, embodying exchange value. So what is being sold now is simply not the same as what was being sold in the 1984-93 period. The commodification of *these particular* enterprises has already taken place – years ago.

    The 75% of the population who oppose what you call “asset sales” don’t understand this because they don’t understand how capitalist economies work. That’s where Marxism comes in. Instead of simply reading back to people stuff they already think, the job of Marxism is to try to assist people to understand the workings of the capitalist economy – ie, to act as a revolutionary science. Otherwise all you do is join in the process of going round and round in circles, based on existing (fairly low) forms of consciousness.

    Your post also repeats the idea that fighting for “public ownership” is indicative of a “transitional approach”. No, it’s not. The whole notion of “public ownership” is simply misleading and wrong. In the here and now you fighting for public ownership simply obscures the fact that what is really meant is ownership by the capitalist state. Anyway, who are “the public”? How has the term “public ownership” got anything to do with Marxism?

    In addition, transitional demands, as conceived by Trotsky, are demands which may start from existing forms of consciousness but *can’t actually be realised under capitalism*. What you call “public ownership” certainly can be realised under capitalism, so it’s reformist rather than transitional. In fact, it’s barely reformist, since capitalists are in favour of all kinds of “public ownership” too.

    An understanding of historical specificity is also useful in understanding the whole concept of the transitional programme and transitional demands. Trotsky once said of his father, who was a reasonably well-off peasant, that his consciousness was so low that it wouldn’t have been possible to find a transitional demand that could relate to him. In other words, the transitional programme and the transitional approach only really has relevance when you’re dealing with a political situation like the one that existed in 1938 when Trotsky wrote the TP. The TP *presupposed* an already-existing certain level of consciousness, an already-existing vanguard layer of workers, an already-existing level of class struggle. None of the preconditions to make the TP, or that approach in general, relevant exist today.

    One result of this is that the Trotskyist groups who think they’re being very orthodox by advocating “transitional demands” and the “transitional approach” usually end up advocating some kind of reformism that has nothing to do with Trotsky’s ideas. The result is that the bulk of “Trotskyists” operate within the sphere of reformism.

    Moreover, to return to the discussion about NZ and government policy, if neo-liberalism were dominant in New Zealand today, you’d have rakes of neo-liberal economic analysts and commentators. But there are virtually none. Practically every serious bourgeois economic commentator in this country favours a mixed-economy model. As does John Key. Key is about managing capitalism and, far from ploughing ahead with some neo-liberal agenda as happened in the Douglas-Richardson era, Key is remarkably risk-averse. His hero is Keith Holyoake, not Roger Douglas or Ruth Richardson.

    In the not-too-distant future I want to write something about how Marxists analyse shifts in bourgeois economic theory and policy. In short, that it starts from the needs of the capital accumulation process, not from some inane adding up of what “nasty” things this or that capitalist government and leader do, which is the stock approach by most of the ostensibly Marxist left in New Zealand. (And which Marxists call empiricism and impressionism.)

    Unfortunately, WP has fallen right back into the same sort of political approach as characterised SW a decade ago. There are now no significant differences between you folks and SW politics of the early 2000s. This simply means you are destined to repeat all the old errors, over and over – which is also why the longest-serving member of the Wellington WP recently ended up holding the megaphone for Winston Peters.

    Phil

  4. “In the not-too-distant future I want to write something about how Marxists analyse shifts in bourgeois economic theory and policy.”

    Hey Phil, have you read ‘Reading Capital Politically’ by Harry Cleaver? He has a whole chapter on how Marxists have used Das Capital in various ways to analyse capitalism. Might be helpful: http://libcom.org/library/reading-capital-politically-cleaver-intro

    • Admin says:

      Hi mate, I’ve actually always meant to get onto Cleaver and just never had time.

      What I want to look at first, though, is how bourgeois economic theory and policy itself shifts and how you have to look at different points (and obstacles) in the accumulation process to understand how and why those changes in theory and policy take place.

      Paul Mattick, a council-communist, wrote some excellent stuff about the evolution of bourgeois economic theory, although he died about 1980 so missed the arrival of neo-liberalism. In my view, Mattick was one of the great Marxists, in terms of economic theory, of the twentieth century, whatever disagreements I might have with his views of the Russi9an Revolution and some other things.

      I also want to dig out an excellent article on the state which a friend of mine wrote back in the late 90s. It looks at the role of the state in the reproduction of both capital and bourgeois society.

      But thanks for the link. It does make it a lot easier to get to Cleaver too.

      By the way, I had an idea for a day school on working class history that I wanted to talk to you about at some stage.

      Phil

  5. “Anything that moved, SW was on the bandwagon, talking it up and offering mere tactical advice as if the activists in this or that movement were incapable of working out tactics themselves. This approach led to SW going round and round in frantic but ever-decreasing circles of activism, until the organisation was finally exhausted and gave up the ghost”

    We call this ‘headless chickenism’… its prominent in the anarchist movement too.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Hi Phil,
    You seem to lack a basic understanding of how class societies work in the modern world. Let me explain. Class societies like capitalism are divided into various competing classes. They struggle with each other over economic and political power. Sometimes they struggle over wages and working conditions. Like at the Ports of Auckland where some of your comrades supported the wharfies campaign against privatisation of port employment (contracting out).

    Sometimes the workers lose. But sometimes they win (yes I know temporarily) a concession from the ruling class. That concession might be the nationalisation of an industry and the distribution of profit generated for improving the living standards of workers. Say the nationalisation of oil industry in Venezuela and the use of profits to subsidise food in the barrios of Caracas.

    We all know that partially privatising electricity assets will harm the working class in two ways.

    One higher electricity prices http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PA1206/S00225/nationals-asset-sales-would-mean-higher-power-prices.htm

    Two the reduction in state income currently generated from the assets will result in a growing government debt crisis that will be used as an excuse for further cut backs to the states provision of social services.

    I would be curious to know why there has been no similar article on your comrades involvement in Save our Port campaign. I saw no criticism of the “our port” line from you or your comrades.

    Good day to you!
    Anonymous

    • Admin says:

      One of my points, of course, was that neither the WP article nor their leaflet put forward any argument for how the partial sale of state-owned capitalist enterprises would have a negative effect on workers. If there was a good argument, I’d be happy to accept it.

      I can see why you use someone else’s name as to use your own would expose you as not knowing much about how capitalism works.

      For instance, you say: “the reduction in state income currently generated from the assets will result in a growing government debt crisis that will be used as an excuse for further cut backs to the states provision of social services.” This is amusing, given that you’ve just identified the division of society into two classes. Because, of course, the simple fact is that what you call “the income generated from the assets” is actually surplus-value which comes from the exploitation of the workers employed by these state companies! So all you’re doing is arguing in favour of the capitalist state running capitalist firms and exploiting workers instead of private capitalists doing it!

      While you favour one form of capitalist exploitation over another, at Redline we prefer to oppose capitalist exploitation per se.

      In terms of rising prices, prices have been rising ever since the state-owned energy industry was divided into state-owned companies run on the profit model.

      I’m also bemused that you don’t even understand the difference between nationalisations in Venezuela and the operations of capitalist businesses owned by the state in New Zealand.

      Instead of exposing the nature of capitalist exploitation per se and the role of the state in this, you’re putting forward the classic mystifications of reformism.

      Thus your silly little performance piece here has one useful purpose – since your comments are a distillation of all the widespread reformist illusions about how capitalism and the capitalist state actually work, they provide an opportunity for further critiquing those illusions and confusions and further clarifying how Marxists analyse these issues.

      Phil

  7. Anonymous says:

    Comrade Phil!
    You cannot have it both ways! Either there is or there is not a “possibility of building a Marxist working class party in the current conditions in New Zealand of low horizons and little fightback”.

    If there is no possibility of building a Marxist Party then it doesn’t matter what the SWs praxis was. They would still have gone round and round in “ever-decreasing circles of activism, until the organisation was finally exhausted and gave up the ghost.”

    If however you think there is a possibility (even a very slim possibility) of building a Marxist Party in New Zealand then we can discuss strategy and tactics.

    Revolutionary greetings!

    Anonymous

    • Admin says:

      You seem confused, both about who you are and what I said.

      The lack of conditions for a party-building project doesn’t mean that no project of any sort is possible. Instead of running themselves ragged, the SW comrades could’ve developed a project that was better-suited to the actual conditions.

      Simple really.

      Phil

  8. Don Franks says:

    There are few things more insubstantial and cowardly than anonymous personal attacks.

  9. Mike K says:

    Phil

    I note that you did not refer to Anonymous’s comment about the Ports of Auckland. Despite your extensive coverage of the dispute, there was no similar denounciation of the “Save our Port” slogan, even though Ports of Auckland Ltd. is very similar to an SOE.

    The other glaring inconsistency in your position is that whilst you’re happy to denounce state ownership as nothing more than capitalist ownership in the most ultraleft fashion today, in 2004 you and your comrades accepted the Foreshore and Seabed Act (what Annette Sykes described as ““the largest confiscation of land since the early colonial period”) as a “progressive” nationalisation!

    • Admin says:

      The problem Mike is that you are not comparing like with like.

      The inconsistency is that you think a business run on capitalist lines by the state is the same kind of thing as a beach.

      It’s not. The foreshore and seabed is part of the natural environment where people hang out and swim, surf, dive and so on. A beach is just a beach; it doesn’t employ workers and extract surplus-value from them.

      It’s also good, btw, that the state operates health and education services because these are largely still provided as use-values. So, no, we don’t simply “denounce state ownership in an ultraleft fashion” (or any other fashion).

      Mighty River and the other stuff up for partial sale, however, are not just part of the environment or parts of the state that provide services essentially as use-values and therefore at below-cost to the population at large. Rather, they are companies run on capitalist lines by the capitalist state, they produce goods and services as commodities, they involve the production of exchange-value and thus surplus-value and thus they exploit those they employ. So all you’re doing is favouring one form of capitalist exploitation over another. You’re clearly arguing that it’s better to have capitalist exploitation carried out by the capitalist state than by a mixed shareholding model.

      Perhaps the Workers Party needs a more rigorous internal education system to teach members the difference between a beach that everyone uses and no-one has to pay for – ie something that exists outside the circuit of capital – and a capitalist business run by the state!

      It also appears that the “glaring inconsistency” here is between your position on the foreshore and seabed (that full private title is OK as long as it’s in iwi hands) but having 49% private title in capitalist companies like Mighty River instead of none is terrible.

      The other thing you are mistaken about in your strident defence of a Keynesian approach is around the Ports of Auckland. The Ports of Auckland workers were opposing a direct attack on their rights in the workplace as workers and as members of a trade union, through fighting the contracting out and other measures that undermined their working conditions. An entirely supportable fight, as they and the working class would have been weakened if they lost that battle.

      But neither the official WP leaflet nor the article in the WP’s official paper, written I think by the WP’s national education officer, nor you here, explain how the passing of 49% of the share-holding in a capitalist-run firm from the state to private shareholders would be a defeat for the working class and why the capitalist state having 100% ownership and operating a capitalist business is preferable to it having a 51% shareholding and private shareholders having the other 49%. If there was a strong case, I’d be happy to support it.

      All you’ve done, however, is reinforce my impression that your position has more to do with Keynesianism, lowest-common denominator politics and political opportunism than Marxism.

      Should we have criticised Auckland Port workers for a chant of “Whose port? Our port!” Well, firstly I’m amused that any of you folks went trolling through a load of our coverage on that dispute to try to find something that you could present as an inconsistency, as if this would disprove the validity of our criticism of your favouring one type of capitalist firm over another. I guess it suggests that the critique hit a raw nerve.

      In any case, marxists aren’t under any obligation to criticise every single slogan that spontaneously emerges among workers on any or every particular picket line. If we did, we wouldn’t have much time for much else! (And, by the way, it’s not as if we criticise everything whatever is left of the Workers Party says and does either!) However, more importantly, what non-Marxist workers might chant spontaneously is quite a different thing from what ostensibly Marxist organisations argue for.

      The criteria for judging what a Marxist organisation says is rather more strict. For instance, it’s not the job of Auckland port workers – or for that matter people organising the campaign against the sale of part of the shareholding of Mighty River etc – to put forward a Marxist analysis, since they’re not claiming t be Marxists. But it *is* the job of an organisation claiming to be Marxist to put forward a Marxist analysis.

      Instead of doing this, however, your official party leaflet and the major feature article in your paper, written by someone who I understand is your national political education director, reinforce illusions about how capitalism works and the nature of the capitalist state. And in your post here you confuse very basic Marxist economic categories and even confuse something entirely outside the circuit of capital with a capitalist business!

      It’s also quite striking that you don’t even attempt to argue with the substance of our analysis. Instead you attempt to deflect the issue into a discussion about the alleged inconsistency between what is in the article above and what the Anti-Capitalist Alliance, which some of us were part of, said 8 years ago on the Foreshore and Seabed issue, and what we on this blog didn’t say on the Ports of Auckland, “inconsistency” which turns out to be the result of your confusion over stuff like what is a beach and what is a capitalist firm.

      The Workers Party has clearly unlearned how to make a Marxist analysis, as it has politically shifted rightwards into the space that Socialist Worker used to occupy. So be it; shit happens. Some of us, however, intend to continue promoting Marxist analysis.

      Phil

  10. Don Franks says:

    As any militant would be aware, the “save our port” campaign was essentially about defending union jobs. It took place in the recent union culture where every single struggle for workers wages of conditions is festooned with other arguments – such as efficiency or quality of service etc. Our blog criticised where it was thought to be required in workers interests – eg reliance on the bosses courts.
    On reflection, the anonymous poster didn’t deserve any reply. He was into posturing and point scoring, larded with personal abuse. Gratifying for him, irrelevant to workers struggles for justice.

  11. Mikel K says:

    It’s a very naive form of Marxism that says a beach is merely a place for surfing and sunbathing as far as capitalism is concerned. What about iron sand mining on Auckland’s west coast? What about Ngati Kahu’s epic battle to stop a billionaire investment banker from building homes on top of a wahi tapu cave on Karikari beach? What about all the minerals and hydrocarbons that subsist in the continental shelf? Capitalists want to commodify these resources, i.e. integrate them into circuits of capital. When the state is the prime accomplice in confiscation and enclosure, Marxists cannot just shrug their shoulders and say, along with John Key, it’s no big deal.
    It’s no accident that water rights have become the front line in the battle against privatisation, since individualised, commodified, capitalist property rights inevitably clash with hapus’ desired kaitiakitanga role in preserving the habitat of eels, whitebait and so on.
    State Owned Enterprises are not identical to capitalist enterprises. The SOE act currently has clauses obliging the entities to be good employers and to maintain social responsibility (this will not apply to the private shareholders) Naturally, these have been empty words up to now, but a Workers’ Government could enforce those obligations. That you cannot imagine any intermediate form of government between the status quo and a workers’ state is probably due to your implication that the consciousness of NZ workers is comparable to a well-off peasant in 19th century Russia. Having talked to a cross section of people on the recent demonstrations, I can say with confidence that’s demoralised rubbish.

    Perhaps you should get out a bit more, Phil.

    • Admin says:

      Mike says that it would be a very naive form of marxism that says that a beach is just a beach under capitalism.

      No, Mike you’re wrong. A beach where people swim, dive, surf etc is just a beach where people swim, dive, surf etc. Even under capitalism. Your example of an iron sands operation is where something that was once a beach has been converted into capital. So the salient feature of that thing now is that it is an element of capital, not that it is a beach (let alone an ordinary public beach where people swim, surf, sunbathe etc).

      So your clumsy attempted sleight of hand – trying to shift the goalposts from an ordinary beach to a beach that has ceased to be simply a beach because it has been transformed into an element of capital – has rather badly backfired. Once again, it reveals that you don’t understand:
      * the difference between an ordinary beach which anyone uses for leisure activities and a capitalist company
      * the difference between such a beach and capital

      Marx, of course, was very clear about the difference between something that is created by the work of human beings in the context of a capitalist society and something that simply exists as part of the natural landscape, created not by human work but by the evolution of the natural world.

      Thus a table is certainly not just a table if it is created as a commodity. Like any other commodity produced in the context of capitalism, it is the embodiment of a set of social relations.

      This isn’t the case with the natural landscape. (A beach would only embody the social relations of capitalism if it was an artificially created beach, made by workers employed and exploited by a capitalist company.)

      Your lack of understanding of the actual process of conversion of something into capital is pointed up by your liberal take on SOEs. You fail to understand that SOEs are qualitatively different from the old nationalised industries / government departments that they come from. Those old state entities are no more. They were broken up several decades ago. Some chunks were privatised (sold off to to private capital); some chunks were corporatised but not privatised (turned into capitalist companies, but capitalist companies still owned by the state, which is also of course a capitalist state); some chunks were turned into Crown Research Institutes (which are expected to break even but not make the most profit they possibly could as SOEs are).

      Mike also says, “When the state is the prime accomplice in confiscation and enclosure, Marxists cannot just shrug their shoulders and say, along with John Key, it’s no big deal.” But Marxists oppose the process of commodification, *not* the pattern of shareholding. So your position here doesn’t make any sense. You rightly note the role of the state and yet then you go on to *defend* capitalist companies provided they’re owned by that very state! Marxists attempt to clarify questions like the state, but you simply obfuscate the issue.

      However the most jaw-dropping bit of the post – and the most naive – is the liberal take on SOEs and the SOEs Act. You state: “The SOE act currently has clauses obliging the entities to be good employers and to maintain social responsibility”. I must say in all my years of radical activity I have never heard someone purporting to be a Marxist put forward this liberal piffle.

      The current industrial law obliges employers to enter good faith bargaining too. Perhaps you have illusions in that, as well.

      I’ll come to what’s wrong with your liberal argument, from a Marxist point of view shortly. But having made the point that SOEs are different from private companies because the SOE Act says they have to behave nice, you then rightly note that they don’t behave nice. So you’ve actually cancelled out your own liberal argument.

      Moreover, you’re in Auckland and right before your eyes has unfolded a saga involving a capitalist business that is state-owned, albeit by the local rather than the national state. Namely, the Port Company. It tried to screw over workers every bit as much as a company with a minority (or majority) private share ownership. And its attack on the port workers was driven by the need to maximise profit!

      In fact, the imperatives of capital far, far outweigh this or that piece of paper saying a company will act nice. This is Marxism 101. (Btw, every self-respecting big company these days, certainly here and in most of the First World, have some sort of mission statement which includes stuff about how they’ll be good, responsible citizens, be environmentally conscious and so on). But the imperatives of capital just keep over-riding the bits of paper. Go figure!

      A Marxist approach to the SOEs, in contrast to your liberal nonsense, asks questions like:
      * Are these companies profit-driven?
      * Do they produce goods and services as commodities rather than simply use-values?
      * Do the workers who work in these companies perform surplus-labour and thus create surplus-value?

      Clearly, the answer to all these questions is YES. (Indeed, on top of the normal operations of the market, they are even required by regulation to make profits, maximum profits – so they go the extra mile, as it were.)

      They are capitalist companies.

      The qualitative change having already happened decades ago, when they were transformed into capital, what is happening now is a *quantitative* change – instead of the holding being 100% in the hands of the capitalist state, the holding will be 51% in the hands of the capitalist state. There is no *fundamental* change to the *character* of these companies because the fundamental change – corporatisation – already took place a generation ago.

      Having made a liberal argument for why you think the SOEs are so different, you then move on to a reformist take on the SOE legislation and a “workers government”.

      In a revolution, Mike, the workers actually set up their own forms of power. They smash the capitalist state, they don’t take hold of it and utilise its legislation! If the forms of power created by workers are, say, workers’ councils, those workers’ councils co-ordinating on a national level, could be seen as constituting “a workers’ government”. They move forward to abolish capital, and thus the whole capital/wage-labour relationship. Some piece of legislation passed decades ago by a bourgeois parliament doesn’t come into it.

      The only way the SOE Act would be relevant to a “workers government” would be if *your* “workers government” wasn’t actually a revolutionary government at all, but was some sort of parliamentary government that used the existing machinery and legislation. But that is a social-democratic conception of the path to socialism. If you have a Marxist – and this applies also to class-struggle anarchist – conception of getting to socialism then it sure ain’t through laying hold of the existing state and legislation to make capitalist companies owned by the state act nice.

      I think the reason you’ve got yourself into this hopeless morass of part-liberalism and part-social democracy is that WP started with a political position predicated on being part of something, anything, that seemed to be moving, *instead of* starting with a Marxist analysis which would then allow you to relate to developments in a revolutionary way, rather than a liberal or reformist way.

      If you want to be a liberal or a social democrat, good luck to you. But please cease pretending that the WP position on this has anything to do with Marxism.

      Phil

  12. Don Franks says:

    Phil can speak for himself, but I can’t let this fantasy pass without a response.

    “The SOE act currently has clauses obliging the entities to be good employers and to maintain social responsibility (this will not apply to the private shareholders) Naturally, these have been empty words up to now, but a Workers’ Government could enforce those obligations.”

    Ok Mike.

    Let’s have a wee look at this.

    From New Zealand in winter 2012, where unionisation is about 10% and falling, where there is no revolutionary group with a membership approaching triple figures, where the mass of the working class is atomized, where the public perception of a dangerous lefty is a Green mp, from where a smarmy millionaire Tory prime minister is one of the most popular individuals in the land, we suddenly somehow Boys Own paper like leap to a situation where we have a workers government, and, throughout all the smoke and thunder and ruins and total social rupture and destruction of the bourgeoise state apparatus, some far sighted revolutionary – let’s say Mike- prudently secures and bears aloft and intact a pristine copy of the SOE act, for the workers government to treasure and enforce.
    Change can come in qualitative leaps and this would be a big one,if it happens,
    Goodonya mate. You deserve a DB.
    And maybe a fourth form end of year debating prize.
    In the meantime please remember that life is short, so don’t clog up this site with ridiculous shite.

  13. Mikel K says:

    Don, having read your last post, you’ll be pleased to know that I will not be commenting on this site again.
    Other readers of this blog may care to reflect on whether such methods of “debate” are one of the reasons why the revolutionary left remains so small.

  14. Don Franks says:

    Actually Mike, your guess at what might please me was astray. I’d prefer to see this debate through, because it covers issues that have bedeviled the left for a long time.
    As it stands, I must leave it to blog readers to ponder how on earth a weasel worded clause from the statute of a bourgeois government might appear as a precious asset to some distant future revolutionary leadership.

  15. Admin says:

    I was bemused by Mike’s criticism of your “methods of ‘debate’” when his own consisted of arguing against what hadn’t been said to the point of willful misrepresentation, dragging in red herrings and so on. While he’s happy to use terms like “demoralised rubbish” he objects to your use of “ridiculous shite”!

    If the discussion does continue with him, I think he’d need to actually discuss the question you raised and explain how commodity-producing, profit-driven (ie capitalist) companies are so much better if the capitalist state 100% owns them and exploits the workers employed by them than if the capitalist state 51% owns them. That question has been persistently dodged.

    Phil