Saturday, 14 November 2015

Developing Marxist Theory

In some recent events, I have given my views on world developments and heard what others have had to say. One theme of these was Marxist theory, and here I sum up my views on how to develop it.
Marx was a genius in many respects, not least in the way that he had a clear perspective on the dynamics of the capitalist economic system from the earliest stages of its industrial development. So why is it that some key elements of his theory are still being debated or disputed, or sometimes expounded as if read from a holy book? Surely, this is a little odd, more than 120-150 years after the theory was first set out. Was Marx such an astonishing genius that his ideas cannot be fully understood even today? Considering why this has been the case also leads to my perspective on what should be done next.
Marx’s theory shows how social labour, ie the work that people do as part of their social cooperation to survive, takes a peculiar form under capitalism. This peculiar form – where workers are employed by capitalists to produce commodities for the market – obscures the underlying relationships. For example, it will appear that there can be a ‘fair wage’ for work done at the same time that the worker also provides the employing capitalist with a profit. Where does the profit come from? Mainstream economics does not recognise that it comes from the surplus labour workers perform. While surplus labour is evident under social systems such as slavery or feudalism, under capitalism the riches of those running the system are supposed to come from the magical powers of ownership and the ‘entrepreneurial spirit’. Such beliefs persist, despite the fact that many capitalists also gain their extravagant revenues these days from government spending.
The previous points would probably find agreement among almost all those who have studied the basic elements of Marx’s theory. But most soon fall into a ditch when other issues are raised. In particular, there is chronic misunderstanding of the structure of Marx’s arguments in the three volumes of Capital. I confess to finding this depressing, rather than amusing. Despite the clear, readable exposition of Marx’s approach in Roman Rosdolsky’s The Making of Marx’s Capital, published more than three decades ago, the result of the subsequent decades of much ‘Marxist’ writing can be more accurately described as cacophony rather than it having achieved much clarity or having made much progress.
However, there is a more fundamental problem, not simply a failure to get to grips with the theory. The problem is that an understanding the world does not easily develop in the absence of an active political debate, where questions are raised and demand to be answered, with consequences that follow from what has been said. Marx, Engels and Lenin developed their theories in such political turmoil, which provided them with fertile ground on which to build their outlook on the world. Today, the opponents of capitalism still have its destruction and disasters to provide raw material for their views. But, in the rich countries at least, they must also find a way through the quicksand left by widespread illusions in the potentially progressive character of the capitalist state. This dates back to the late 19th century, and was attacked by Marx in his 1875, unfortunately semi-private, Critique of the Gotha Programme. Such illusions have been given more substance from the welfare systems established in the post-1945 period.
Even though a deep crisis is now dismantling these forms of political cohesion in richer countries, most radicals today respond by arguing for a return to the status quo ante, not by explaining that the game is up. Consider the following examples of Marxist cognitive dissonance.
A longstanding one in Britain has been where many self-described ‘revolutionaries’ would argue to vote for the Labour Party as the least bad alternative in an election (better than the Conservatives), despite Labour’s consistent role as a supporter of British imperialism. (For those less familiar with this history, Labour’s pro-imperial strategy is part of a more general national-welfarist outlook, one that is to be paid for, as far as possible, by other countries) Not surprisingly, this trend has been strengthened with the elevation of Jeremy Corbyn as the Labour leader-saviour for gullible dissidents.
Another is how many of those who would claim to adhere to a Marxist perspective, for example on the trend fall in the rate of profit resulting from capital accumulation, see no problem in also advocating the nationalisation of banks. A demand to nationalise banks is not a challenge to the power of the capitalist state; it endorses illusions in that state as the potential saviour of the national economy and the mass of people. Nevertheless, they see no problem with this because they too believe that the capitalist state can be used in this way – given the right amount of popular pressure, of course. Surely, there are some problems here for anyone who wants to build a revolutionary movement, based on the power of the working class and opposed to the national state?
Probably worst of all, however, is the fact that most radicals ignore the division of the world between rich and poor, oppressed and oppressor, as outlined by Lenin. This is the major difference in political perspective between Lenin and Marx. But Lenin’s view reflects the development of capitalism into imperialism and this rightly contradicts Marx and Engels’s optimism expressed in the earlier, 1848 Communist Manifesto slogan: ‘Workers of the world unite!’. Lenin did not work out the point fully, but the logical conclusion is something that has been borne out by decades of disappointment: the mass of the populace in most of the richer countries is politically tied to their own state and not in the least interested in a revolution. This goes well beyond the narrow, unconvincing notion that such a political outlook is the fault of a ‘labour aristocracy’.
My view on the development of Marxist theory is quite simple: develop it! Analyse the way that the world works today and expose the exploitation and oppression that hides behind what is otherwise seen as the abstract, natural workings of the market. Analyse the forms taken by capitalist rule in the imperialist world economy today. This is the way to develop Marx’s ‘law of value’. Observation and experience have convinced me that while disputes on the so-called ‘transformation problem’ and the falling rate of profit, etc, cannot be completely ignored, there is nothing to be gained from prolonged debates on these issues with those who have every incentive not to learn. Not to push the cynical boat out too far, there is a lot of truth in the old saying that it is not possible to convince people of something when their salaries depend upon them not understanding it.
At this weak stage of development, I also think that there is little point in spending a lot of time honing the finer points of Marxist theory with those who are roughly along the correct lines, although that does not preclude my willingness to share views and engage with interesting ideas. If this somehow comes across as the position of a philistine who does not want to learn, then I would point readers both to the many articles on this blog and to my being awarded a PhD last year.
In recent years, I have paid particular attention to analysing the global financial system. This is at the forefront of popular misunderstanding, and a particular feature of the pro-imperialist reform initiatives from those who want to save the capitalist/imperialist system. Many, of course, will not admit that this is their underlying objective, or that it is an outcome with which they would be quite comfortable.

Tony Norfield, 14 November 2015

Friday, 6 November 2015

Poppy Militarism

Wear a poppy to commemorate what? Along with other facts of imperial history that are known by some, but never mentioned without risking censure from popular opinion, is that the cult of poppy wearing began with a militaristic poem from World War One.

Here is the poem by a Canadian soldier, John McRae, in 1915, once the carnage of war had begun to be evident, but before it had become an embarrassment to the major powers:

"In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields."

Wearing a poppy does not represent sympathy with the victims of war, and opposing the political forces that brought it about. As the poem makes clear, the idea is to 'take up our quarrel with the foe' (while we lay buried in the mud, underneath the poppies) and not to 'break faith with us who die'. It is an affirmation of national militarism.

British politics is unashamedly militarist. It celebrates the processions of dead soldiers from Britain's imperial adventures in Royal Wootton Basset, and casts into tabloid hell those who do not do the right thing on Remembrance Day. This outlook is also seen in the widely-observed convention that not wearing a poppy when appearing on TV, especially as a news reader or commentator, shows a disgraceful lack of empathy with national ideals, above all a lack of patriotism (which is even worse).

After reading this, if you still wear a poppy then consider yourself eliminated from my October Revolution greetings card list.

Tony Norfield, 6 November 2015

Friday, 30 October 2015

'The Old is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born: States, Strategies, Socialisms'

The journal Historical Materialism is holding its twelfth annual conference, The Old is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born, in central London on Thursday 5 to Sunday 8 November 2015.

The venue is the School of Oriental and African Studies, the Russell Square Campus, Thornhaugh Street, London, WC1H 0XG. Further details regarding the conference, accommodation, etc, are found here.

The conference covers a wide range of topics, with 14 sessions over the 4 days, each with up to 12 different discussions, plus three plenary sessions.

For those interested, I will be presenting in a talk on 'Facets of Imperialism'; other speakers are Ella Wind and Zeno Leoni. My presentation is entitled 'Shifting Tectonic Plates: the West and the Rest'. It will focus particularly on recent changes in the world economy and the greater prominence of China.

The 'Facets of Imperialism' talk is scheduled for Friday 6 November, from 14.15 - 16.00. The room is yet to be confirmed.

Tony Norfield, 30 October 2015

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

A Modest Proposal for Solving the Tax Credit Crisis

In the interests of stimulating debate on a matter of national importance to Britain, my advisers have suggested that a private communication with our esteemed Chancellor, Gideon Oliver Osborne, should now be made public.
Dear Chancellor,
One can only share your perturbation at the decision of the House of Lords to reject your plan to remove from the pockets of the poor a large share of their income. However, your ingenious scheme to lower their state subsidies and so to encourage them to work harder has unfortunately overlooked something. I must say that I was surprised by this omission. The very essence of your policy is to improve the lot of ‘hard working families’. But, despite the aforesaid objective, you have failed to see that it contains within its own title the solution to the problem at hand, namely how to save £4.5 billion from the public purse.
To make my opinion plain, I wholeheartedly agree that such a saving will help right the ship of state in the world’s stormy seas. Nevertheless, the point I must raise is that not all members of such families are actually ‘hard working’ and will not become so within the current parliamentary term, despite your proposed measures. I do not propose myself as a paragon of virtue in the respect of being hard working, since my real estate advisers inform me that my property assets have been working harder than I have in recent years to earn an honest income. However, I must point out how much more indolent, even than your humble servant, are those members of families that do not work at all for their daily bread! Of course, the most flagrant examples I must bring to your attention are those called ‘children’.
It is well known that these creatures can wreak havoc in neat and tidy homes; they eat and drink – but often cannot use a WC; they are foolish in their conversation and prone to believing in ridiculous absurdities such as ‘fairness’ and ‘sharing’;[1] they are calculated to cost the country many times what you have attempted to save in your tax credit policy, simply in the costs of their schooling and medical care! How can this evident fact have been ignored by your policy proposals?
Such a damaging, debilitating burden of children on the country must be removed! Doubtless, this will be seen as a too-radical policy measure, since not all have begun to see the advantages of dogs to overcome their isolation. Many seem to favour these unreasonably more expensive ‘human’ animals. But that is where a strong, clear-headed policy maker can win the day and lead the nation!
May the Good Lord help you to see a way out of your impasse, and I humbly submit to you my considered thoughts on this matter.
With all joy deserved, and wishing you an exquisite Poll-tax moment,

Yours sincerely,
Jonathan Swift[2]

[1] One would have thought that the lesson that there is no such thing as society would have penetrated even their undeveloped brains!
[2] For those who do not get the reference, see

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Bank Nationalisation?

Nationalising banks might look like a good idea, especially if you think that private sector banks caused the worldwide economic crisis and that state ownership would eliminate the risk of it happening again. It would look even more attractive if you think that popular pressure on the state doing the nationalising would make sure that, in future, banks, or important parts of the financial system, would then benefit the national economy. This article explains why this view not only misunderstands what is really at stake but how it is a ‘reform’ proposal that can only endorse the capitalist system of power and control.
I do not claim that this proposal is at the forefront of most people’s minds, but it does come up in discussions and was also raised in questions on a lecture I gave at the Institute of Contemporary Arts on 6 October. Given time limitations, I preferred to respond to other questions from the audience in the Q&A session at the ICA and left to one side the question of calling for bank nationalisation. It would have taken more than a minute or two to respond adequately because it raises a number of different points. In the following paragraphs I will set out the key issues. Later this week, I will cover these points, and many others, in another lecture on the crisis (29 October, at the Marx Memorial Library, 37a Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R 0DU, 7pm).
Two views underpin the ‘nationalise banks’ proposal. First is the notion that there is a national economy that can be managed in a progressive way. Second is the idea that the capitalist state can be forced to do it by popular pressure.
Proponents of nationalisation are aware that, in the wake of the crisis, many capitalist governments have already put some institutions into state ownership, even in the home of liberal financial regulation, the US and the UK. In the US, this was called putting important financial companies into ‘conservatorship’ to avoid the politically charged term. In the UK, the term ‘nationalisation’ was also avoided, and the government made a special effort for the largest affected banks, RBS and Lloyds, to keep a portion of their shares in private hands. However, not embarrassed by the capitalist state having upstaged their demands, proponents of nationalisation would argue that the state could have forced these banks, and others, to redirect their lending policies to boost domestic industry, investment, employment and the economy in general.
A belief in the benefits of nationalisation is more than simply naïve. It reflects the view that the capitalist state is like a weapon that can be taken from the hands of the capitalists and used against them in favour of the mass of people. So the state, with its laws, institutions, multi-layered backing and means of applying influence and force can be redirected in a progressive way, rather than remaining a capitalist machine churning out policies that reflect capitalist class power. Proponents of such a view avoid the key distinction between taking power away from the capitalist class and advocating reform policies within a framework that keeps the capitalist class in place. This is why, when reform proposals fail – when they are rejected by capitalist markets as unworkable – the reforms are junked and the reformers are either kicked out of office or capitulate to the demands of the market. Worse than this, such a political stance always has the logic of demanding that the state do something for the mass of people. It is not a demand for social resources to be put into things that people need and organising people to do this. It is a plaintive call for the capitalist state to deliver on its ‘obligations’, ones that it does not have except in the imaginations of the reformers.
Then there is the question of the role of finance and banks in the capitalist system. What is called a ‘financial crisis’ is the outward expression of a more serious and fundamental problem. Recent decades have seen a boom in financial transactions, new ‘financial instruments’ such as derivatives, and massive loans and debts worldwide. Especially in the 2001-2007 period, these helped boost global demand, output, employment and ‘prosperity’, especially in richer countries. However, these things ran well beyond the production of value and profit in the world economy. The bubble then burst when US mortgage defaults hit financial markets. The impact was so big because these financial markets had become inflated worldwide. Essentially, this boiled down to a problem of capitalist profit versus the huge level of debt and the ability to pay off this debt, or not – with the problem then of taking the losses. The following chart from a recent report from the Bank for International Settlements illustrates that the debt problems have not gone away, and were even worse at end-2014 compared to the size of the global economy than in 2007.
Core Debt in Non-Financial Sectors, % GDP 

All this has not that much to do with banks. Yes, banks played a part in the process of credit creation and financial excess. Yes, the banks were bailed out with ‘taxpayers’ money’. Yes, most people would prefer to see senior bankers in jail or under a bus, rather than retiring on huge pensions. But financial power in the modern world is not confined to banks, and is certainly not constrained within national boundaries.
Financial securities are issued by and traded by banks, but the securities are mainly issued on behalf of the many industrial and commercial companies that are otherwise seen as the good guys versus the ‘bad bankers’. As Marxist theory shows, and as common sense would endorse, value is created by productive workers. From this value, profits are derived, and commercial capitalists and financiers share in these profits. They are all directly concerned with and benefit from the exploitation of workers. Furthermore, the major capitalist corporations operate internationally, backed by their states, and the ones from the powerful countries can use their financial leverage, though mergers with and acquisitions of other companies, to increase their economic power in the world market. This also has little to do with banks: all kinds of financial and non-financial company are involved in this process. One study showed, using data for 2007, that just 50 companies, largely based in the major powers, controlled through cross-shareholdings around 40% of the equity in a total of 43,000 international companies based in 116 countries. Most of these 50 were financial companies, but they were mainly asset managers and insurance companies, only a minority were banks.
In the light of this reality, the idea that nationalising banks will rectify the national capitalist economy is ludicrous. It is an idea based on a nationally-oriented social democratic delusion, one that soon becomes political support for the national state to protect the domestic economy against the ‘unfair’ policies of other countries. Recently in the UK, the loss of steel industry jobs due to a decline in the world market has led to demands from across the political spectrum that the British government take action against cheaper imports of Chinese steel. This makes a defence of jobs and livelihoods dependent upon state action to oppose another country, rather than showing how the job losses result from an outmoded, dysfunctional capitalist system of production. Worse still, it encourages the natural opposition that workers have to bearing the consequences of capitalism to become a demand for the state to defend the national version of capitalism against other national versions. In the UK case, it is all the more naïve when the policy of the British government is to expand deals with China, both to finance energy and other infrastructure projects that local capitalists will not do and to open up financial transactions with one of the few expanding areas of the world economy as a means of boosting British imperialism’s revenues.
To conclude, I should add that I am not, in principle, opposed to taking control of the banking system. But the precondition is first to have a progressive, anti-capitalist force taking political power to make this work, also known as making a revolution. That is something British radicals do not want to mention because its probability shrinks under the weight of a very long experience. The irony is that even with such political power and control, the issue of ‘nationalisation’ does not necessarily arise. For example, the Bank of England was nationalised in 1946, but that has made no difference to its operations as a supporting institution of British imperial power. The European Central Bank is also owned by its respective national governments, but has hardly been progressive in its policies. More importantly, since when has nationalisation been a sign of a socialist outlook, except in the capitalist state-oriented outlook of the British Labour Party and the delusions of its radical supporters?

Tony Norfield, 25 October 2015

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Origins of the UK Welfare State

The golden age of the British Labour Party was the 1945-51 Labour government. So it is worth noting some little known aspects of its policies to cast some light on the political background to the modern day resurgence of ‘Corbynism’. Highlights of this administration in British popular consciousness are the introduction of the welfare state, establishing the NHS and a pension system. While there were economic problems in spending on welfare, since the UK was essentially bankrupt in 1945, the Labour government rose to the challenge. How did they do this? By using British imperial power!
One of the 1945-51 Labour government’s priorities was to maintain Britain’s imperial role. For good measure, this also included re-establishing French and Dutch colonial power in Asia, as a sign that the status quo ante could be revived in Burma, Malaya, Vietnam, Indonesia, etc. Using colonial Indian troops and Japanese troops to bring this about highlighted British politicians’ pragmatism and flair. Who else would have come up with the idea of defeating anti-colonial nationalists with soldiers both from a colony and from a recently defeated imperialist power? A stroke of imperial genius![1]
Although these eventst might seem to be an unfortunate foreign policy to liberal souls, having nothing to do with progressive social policies at home, in fact the two things were closely linked. Just look at how the new welfare state was financed.
Britain’s finances in 1945 depended upon foreign loans in 1945 amounting to £2,100m, or a massive 20% of GDP (note that £1 used to be worth something in those days). Of this sum, £1,100m was from the US. It was not exactly enthusiastic about Labour’s spending plans, but it was happy that the Brits were playing a necessary role worldwide in suppressing ‘communism’. For example, apart from the colonial efforts, think of Britain’s role in the defeat of Greek radicals and establishing a military dictatorship after 1945. So, history will record that the US played a role in funding the setting up of the UK welfare state! Another £250m was from Canada, which was both politically close to the UK and had done well out of the Second World War. Significantly, Britain’s colonies ‘lent’ £750m through the financial mechanism of the Sterling Area that gave them no choice but to do so. These were borrowings by Britain whose international value was reduced when sterling’s exchange rate against the US dollar fell in later years.[2]
After 1945, the welfare system quickly became unaffordable on the basis of Britain’s economy, especially when Labour increased defence spending during the Korean War. Apart from charges for prescriptions of medicines, something that led to ructions in Labour’s ranks and the resignation from government of Labour saint Aneurin Bevan in 1951, it also led to several years of rationing goods even more stringently than during the war. Above all, it prompted ever more nefarious plans to milk the colonies for economic resources in addition to the previous Sterling Area financial rip offs. Details on the former are set out in my article on this blog, 'Labour's Colonial Policy', 7 December 2014.
That is some of the historical background to typical Labour ‘progressive, alternative’ policies. It is based on using Britain’s privileged position in the world economy to deliver benefits to the British populace, completely consistent with Britain’s imperial role and nothing that could be described as a socialist view of policy in the world economy, far less anything that is anti-capitalist.
Jeremy Corbyn may know the history, in which case being a longstanding, proud member of the Labour Party raises a few questions. If he does not know the history, then it would reflect the more widespread arrogance, all appearances to the contrary in his case, of assuming that the rest of the world owes the Brits a living.

Tony Norfield, 8 October 2015

[1] I am not making this up. See Christopher Bayley and Tim Harper’s book, Forgotten Wars: the End of Britain’s Asian Empire, Allen Lane, London, 2007.
[2] There are few studies of these embarrassing (for Labour loyalists) events. One accessible source, written from a pro-capitalist market, although strikingly critical, perspective, is Edmund Dell, A Strange Eventful History: Democratic Socialism in Britain, Harper Collins, London, 1999, especially Chapter 7.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

October Events

This is an advertisement for two events in the next few weeks, and some shameless self-promotion. Both talks are held in London.

Tuesday, 6 October, 6.30-8pm

Venue: The Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Mall, London SW1Y 5AH

Topic: The Future of the Global Economy

Speakers: James Meadway, Mary Robertson, Tony Norfield

Admission fee: £10 (£7 for ICA members)

This is the first session in a series run by Verso Books, entitled, 'Radical Thinkers: Crisis Economics'. See their advertisement here.

I will be discussing financial aspects of the crisis.

Thursday, 29 October, 7pm

Venue: The Marx Memorial Library, 37a Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R 0DU

Topic: The Current Capitalist Crisis

Speaker: Tony Norfield

I believe there is no admission fee, but you may be asked for a donation to the Library.

See the MML advertisment here.

(Incidentally, the Library is open as a reference library from 12 noon to 4pm Monday-Friday)

Hope to see those interested at one or both events! (My talks will overlap a little, but cover different things)

Tony Norfield, 24 September 2015