Worker against worker: how competition in the labour market shapes labour politics
And what we can do about it.
The following essay seeks to answer the question of how labour market competition - conflict between workers over scarce job opportunities - conditions the dynamics of solidarity within the structure of organised labour, and what the implications of this competition are for labour's advanced political expressions, such as the Labour Party and socialist movement. My contention is that a materialist interpretation of economic history, with an emphasis on the structural changes capitalist production has undergone in the post-WWII period, reveals a number of severe limitations on traditional socialist politics. These limits have not been entirely understood or overcome by mainstream socialist thought. I argue that our failure to come to grips with these changes to production and competition has profoundly diminished the ability of socialists to respond to contemporary political challenges effectively. In place of a real, critical theory of society, we have increasingly wound up advancing conspiracy theories of society in which scapegoats of all kinds - bankers, immigrants, and even Jewish people - variously feature as the simplistic cause of simplistically-understood problems. This refusal to engage with complexity has sabotaged our ability to think clearly about who socialism stands for and what it actually wants. Making our way through these weeds, however, leads us to potentially inspiring new conclusions.
"History decays into images, not stories."
Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project, 476 [N10a, 3]
Nowhere is Benjamin's dictum more obviously at work than in the power which jarring images of exploitation have in shaping the political imagination of socialists. All the anxieties of our age are concentrated in these mental tableaux: our fear of the unknown, our hatred of oppression and indignity, our pity for the oppressed and our desire to be known and recognised for our power to feel such pity.
The literal, photographic images that illustrate the horrors of global industrial-financial capitalism have not lied to us. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the cobalt mines from which that mineral emerges as part of its journey of transformation into smartphone batteries, children as young as seven really do work under the most deadly, primitive conditions imaginable. In the megacities of China, electronics manufacturers like Foxconn really have had to systematically physically restrain their workers from committing suicide in heartbreaking numbers. In Europe, workers in Amazon's distribution warehouses - most of them immigrants - work in subhuman conditions, sometimes having to forgo bathroom breaks and urinate in plastic bottles in order to meet productivity targets. It's well-known that the global supply chain is made up of such links. Here, the narratives of economic and scientific "progress" seem to stand dumbfounded.
If the image of capitalist reality is shocking, it is, like all things that stain the soul, ultimately shocking for what it represents. We are shocked because we have been shown what kind of brutality is necessary in order to guarantee that the winners of the global ovarian lottery have, for instance, the right to play on their smartphones as often as they want, on progressively larger, higher-resolution screens. When put face-to-face with such a reality, how can we not be ashamed? And how can these images of terror and cruelty not guide our politics, if what we want is presumably a politics of humanity?
The problem is that today, a picture is not, in fact, worth a thousand words. An image can only ever be the frozen likeness of a story which still needs to be told in all its complexity. If for readers the word "complexity" has come to stand for the making of excuses, this shows just how emotionally and practically complex the question of capitalism in the 21st century has become. Like it or not, complexity is the jungle that rises up between us and a socialist society. We have to hack through its vines to reach our El Dorado. In that spirit, we should think about how these images of super-exploitation act on us when they enter into and guide our political discussions.
In the UK, "cheap labour" is how the daily dehumanisation of workers is described in concrete economic terms. The phrase is apt because the cheapness of the labour is double. Wages - the price of labour - are low, but that is not all; the lives of workers themselves are also cheap. Literally, in that such forms of work take place under regulatory regimes which allow employers to outlay only the cheapest, most basic provisions for employee well-being, if that. For the employer, both factors are simply different aspects of the "cheapness" of the labour. In more human terms, the dual meaning becomes visible in the poverty workers must go home to and in the brutality of the conditions under which they spend their working days. This is true for countries with generally lax labour laws as well as countries where labour laws are seen to be more advanced. Even in countries like the UK, cheap labour is a phenomenon, largely but not only because immigrant workforces are made the exception to celebrated rules. The hypocrisy, violence and misery immanent to all of these cold economic calculations is enough to capture the imagination of anyone with an interest in emancipatory politics.
But if history really does decay into images and not stories, then it's easy to see how images of exploitative cruelty have come to crowd out the longer story of how the business practices they correspond to have actually evolved over the course of the 20th century. Being unable to tell this over-arching story means being unable to tell the individual stories of those who suffered through capitalism's ongoing evolution and continue to do so. By treating people as images, we treat them as objects, which makes a mockery of socialism.
What this means is that our understanding of problems like cheap labour tends to centre on simplistic narratives that over-stress the role of finance capital and the "neoliberal turn" in capitalism's historic evolution, and which overlook the structural changes which labour itself has been subjected to over time, particularly in the 20th and 21st centuries. These structural changes have brought with them a whole host of social and political knock-on effects which are only now starting to become widely understood on the left. Overcoming our crisis of imagination will involve re-examining the history of capitalism's own endless crisis and how we have been swept along with it.
British socialists, among others, can learn a lot by grasping how deeply rooted political struggle is in the dynamics of competition in the labour market. Here we are on well-trod ground, but for the left no less than the right, this is where problems really begin. We need to pose the problem of cheap labour in relation to a historically-grounded, materialist understanding of the changes competitive conditions in the labour market have undergone over time. By doing so, we can learn just how far existing schemes to solve the problem of cheap labour really are from being adequate to their tasks.
"As long as a worker can be confident of getting another job should they be fired, they will not hesitate to be bold in demanding their rights, their dignity and fair pay in the job they have. They know it is possible to be confident and militant because they know that the ease of finding another job reflects the demand for labour in the market; such ease means employers need workers badly and so will hire them readily."
Real, lasting victories will continue to elude us if socialism does not more seriously confront the problems that cheap labour poses with regard to structurally-conditioned competition between workers. The limits such competition places on organised labour and its political expression, the Labour movement, are not trivial. We therefore need to examine the complex relationship between labour, production and consumption if we are going to form a real response to the historic tasks that cheap and cheapening labour makes incumbent on socialism. At stake are the projects of combating anti-immigrant racism, overcoming nationalism, establishing democratic workers' power, and the whole question of economic stability itself. The questions I seek to answer below are, therefore, profoundly practical ones.
To proceed, we need to understand the history of the Labour movement and the changes that its foundational subject - labour - has undergone since the middle of the last century. Understanding changes to the way labour is done, and by extension changes to the labour market, will allow us to understand why the question of cheap labour has become as such a violently contested political space.
In the first chapters of The Future of Socialism, Fabian socialist Anthony Crosland's epoch-making work on British social democracy, we are told a powerful story about the labour movement and its destiny. His thesis was that the Labour Party, in the post-war era, had achieved the kind of ideological hegemony over British politics that put it in a position to guarantee the ongoing stability, strength and growth of social democracy in Britain, more or less for all time. With Labour setting the agenda and defining political norms, regardless of who was actually in Government, continued economic growth could be ensured and the benefits of such growth could be broadly distributed. His whole book rests on this central argument, and there by extension rests the entire mid-century social-democratic model of politics and the welfare state, which Crosland so profoundly shaped.
Labour's democratic socialist ethos and the politics of a semi-planned economy which followed had by the 1950s so thoroughly become common sense that even the Conservative Party was reduced to simply making the argument that they could manage the welfare state slightly better. This historic convergence of the two major parties on questions of fundamental policy is referred to as the "post-war consensus". The consensus may not have been universal, but on the core points, it was seen to be inevitable by many people at the time. Crosland argued that this broad agreement and the hegemonic influence of the Labour movement on which it rested was irreversible.
As prelude to his broader argument, Crosland powerfully illustrates how competition in the labour market largely determines the extent to which Labour Party politics can maintain dominance. This is because the size, exuberance and strength of organised labour - trade unions - relative to capital is an essential and deciding factor in political struggle. The Labour Party with a capital L was then and is now an extension of organised labour with a lower-case l. The extent to which Labour can be militant and successful in its political demands is very much dependent on the extent to which the trade unions can be militant and successful in their economic demands. We will see later what the historic implications of this have been.
Crosland's reputation has taken a beating since the mid-century. The titular future of The Future of Socialism was supposed to be nothing like the past. Crosland writes that the basic "problems" of capitalism(the tendency towards crisis, war, unemployment and poverty which was so powerfully demonstrated in the 1930s) around which socialism had always organised had, in his view, largely been overcome since the end of the Second World War. This meant that politics going forward would centre around managing welfare state capitalism efficiently and working for cultural progress. This became the common wisdom of governing minds at the time.
But the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions disproved his contention in spectacular fashion. The rise of neoliberalism after a decade of economic stagnation and political turmoil showed just how inadequate the common sense of the Crosland era had been. The eighteen years Labour then spent out of government in the "wilderness" before the rise of Blair and the "Third Way" only rubbed salt in the wounds of Crosland's legacy. Relative to other Labour luminaries like Attlee and Bevan, he is now more or less forgotten.
By contrast, today the left is if anything overly-familiar with the role Thatcher, Reagan, Blair and Clinton played in shaping the modern world. When people talk about neoliberalism and austerity, they rarely fail to call to mind the images of these figures. And when people invoke neoliberalism, an invocation of financialisation is never far behind. This is where the connection between neoliberalism and labour is often said to reside: financialisation is seen as the key mechanism by which labour, at least in the high-GDP countries, has become cheap. Putting the country at the mercy of finance is said to go hand in hand with globalisation, which is synonymous here with outsourcing - but let us look at financialisation first.
When Jeremy Corbyn announced the Labour Party's new industrial strategy, Build it in Britain, he made reference to "a kind of magical thinking" which has governed British politics and economic policymaking "for the last forty years". The finance industry is supposed to be the wizard responsible for such dark magic, and only the power of the manufacturing industry can lift its malevolent spell. We are told that manufacturing represents the "real" economy, with finance as a sort of malignant epiphenomenon which must be compelled to make way for boundless industrial production. Build it in Britain promises to bring these all-important manufacturing jobs "back to Britain" - jobs which we had lost, in the familiar story, due to the laissez-faire economic doctrine of neoliberalism, which has selfishly guided investment largely into new ways to circulate finance capital, not into the all-important business of making things.
According to this telling, neoliberal doctrine, by the mechanism of globalisation, is said to have left British manufacturing and its workforce unacceptably vulnerable to the brutalities of international competition and cheap labour markets. Certain socialists, then, want us to believe that socialism means providing manufacturers and their labour forces with protection from such competition.
The "protectionist" label has already been applied to Corbyn's industrial strategy. Whether Build it in Britain has really earned this name, which in the age of Trump necessarily carries connotations of racism and xenophobia, is a question worth asking, but it's clear that the problem with Labour's industrial strategy is not that it comes from straightforwardly reactionary thinking. The problem is that it shares with reactionary protectionism the same basic lack of awareness regarding the real history of deindustrialisation. We are told that financialisation, in effect, causes deindustrialisation. But we cannot hope to understand why the financial sector has found itself in a position to dominate, nor why labour has become so cheap, by putting the cart before the horse.
To get at the heart of the matter, we need to come back to our central subject: labour market competition. Efforts to protect domestic industry from foreign influence, or to protect "native" workers from immigrants who, despite all evidence, are believed to significantly depress wages via their willingness to work for less than their true-born counterparts, are obviously efforts, however misguided, to deal with the problem of competition. Crosland well understood the importance of competition between workers, and this understanding forms the basis from which his argument about post-war Labour hegemony proceeds. This argument needs to be explored.
Crosland illustrates the basic principles of labour market competition in profoundly intuitive terms. As long as a worker can be confident of getting another job should they be fired, they will not hesitate to be bold in demanding their rights, their dignity and fair pay in the job they have. They know it is possible to be confident and militant because they know that the ease of finding another job reflects the demand for labour in the market; such ease means employers need workers badly and so will hire them readily. Workers know, consciously or not, that this also means their present employer's hands are tied when it comes to firing. This makes it easy to organise, easy to maintain solidarity, and easy to win in industrial struggles.
Powerful unions encourage an attitude of militancy and solidarity in their members. A militant, united union is one that can win daily victories and thereby prove its usefulness, power, and relevance, which helps to expand and maintain its membership. Defeated unions, on the other hand, shrink. This has a direct impact on the political effectiveness Labour Party because large unions collect large amounts of money in union dues, and the Labour Party can always campaign more effectively with a bigger war chest. Obviously, when it comes to funding, Labour can rely on no one more consistently or on a larger scale than its trade union partners. This is unlikely to ever change, unless Labour defeats itself and becomes a party of billionaire donors. For these reasons, labour politics need a strong trade union movement as their foundation. Such a movement is based on solidarity, not competition. When competitive dynamics become too strong, traditional forms of solidarity come under strain.
What the labour market forces us to face is "simply" our old friend supply and demand. When the demand(of capital) for labour exceeds supply - when workers can all get a job easily - then we have a seller's market, and the seller(in this case, the worker, the seller of labour-power) can set favourable terms and high prices. But if there is an over-supply of labour, then a buyer's market exists, and capital is in the better position, having more(and more desperate) workers to choose from.
Where the market concerned is that of labour, these dynamics are far-reaching and world-historic. The breakdown of traditional forms of trade-union solidarity accounts for the so-called "mystery" of why the famous "Phillips curve" seems to no longer describe reality. According to the Phillips curve model, named for its inventor, low unemployment should guarantee high wages; but this is only the case when workers are actually positioned to fight for them. Even when certain forms of work are widely available, as they are said to be now, the actual qualitative characteristics of that work and its relationship to the wider historic changes to the labour market condition the extent to which wages can increase. Membership in a powerful union is, in fact, the truly necessary condition for high wages - this is the so-called "union wage premium". But this premium has been under strain since the weakening of trade unions, despite all the ups and downs in labour market opportunities. This may also account for the strange fact that in an age where the labour market is transparently hyper-competitive, vacanies at work are rising and employers often struggle to fill positions. Low wage growth has led to a situation where many jobs at just not worth applying for, a fact attested to whenever people “drop out” of the labour market. We will have more to say on this phenomenon later.
A seller's labour market is a situation where labour has the better of capital, economically, culturally and politically. All the historic achievements of social-democratic politics proceed from this basic conditioning factor. In Crosland's words and in economic science generally, if the labour market is "inflexible", then organised labour and its political forces are well-positioned: large, powerful trade unions can readily influence politics, and they can do so in the interests of their members and the public at large. Of course, the actual day-to-day business of governance under a Labour majority has always involved a process of negotiation that necessary involves stakeholders other than the working class; this is what made the post-war consenus consensual. But from the beginning of our Party, organised labour laid the foundations of Labour supremacy. Such a strong position was essential to the post-war social democrats in guaranteeing the majority of society - workers - had a leading role to play in this process, and it remains essential to this day. This is the rock on which Attlee, Bevan and millions of progressive British voters throughout the post-war period built.
In many ways, this is also the rock on which Karl Marx built. All that he wrote about the significance of the "reserve army of labour" attests to his understanding of how changes in the labour market set the boundaries within which class struggles can take place. This reserve army - the unemployed and the underemployed - acts as a check on the power of militant organised labour in employment. The more numerous are those workers desperate for work, the easier it is for an employer to simply fire intransigent workers and replace them with more docile ones. This, indeed, has been seen and repeated countless times. He was not guilty of exaggeration when he wrote in his Manifesto,
"The organisation of proletarians into a class, and consequently into a political party, is continually being put upset again by competition between the workers themselves."
This is why the history of the labour movement can be told as a history of picket lines crossed or defended, of strikebreakers brought into factories or beaten back at their gates. This is why, for a century and a half, the worst slur a worker has been able to hurl against another is that of scab - someone who works when a strike is on. Scabs exist in the best of times but proliferate during times when workers are in excessive supply. A scab is someone who helps, in their small way, to allow for an over-supply of labour to act as a mechanism to strengthen the position of capital.
It is on this point, in fact, that Marx's much-debated, often-challenged theory of historical materialism can be seen to have its use. Economic forces do to an extent directly condition political possibilities. Workers have dealt with and struggled against competition, strikebreaking and changes to the labour market since the birth of the socialist movement; obviously, there is a conscious element of human agency in all this. But changes to the labour market - changes to the actual material condition of being a worker in a world full of workers - do fundamentally set limits on the heights to which voluntary human agency can fly. We forget this at our own peril. The tactics and strategy of the labour movement simply have to respond to these changes in the market for labour. This has been common knowledge for generations of labour fighters. Wherever it has not been, there has simply been a common ignorance.
Anthony Crosland made the claim that the labour market had, since the end of WWII, arrived at a composition so favourable to the workers as to mark an entirely new post-capitalist period in world history. In this formulation, labour markets had become so non-competitive, due to the runaway economic expansion of the postwar period which meant a high demand for workers, that organised labour and its political expression could always be assured of hegemony. But history has shown how growth and the labour market, at the time of his writing, were in store for changes Crosland did not anticipate. The fatal flaw, the hamartia in Crosland's otherwise brilliant argument is to be found here, right alongside his greatest strength. His insightful understanding of the essential political role played by the balance of forces between workers and capitalists in the labour market was ultimately flawed. He made eternal that which should have been seen as historically in flux.
Crosland assumed that labour market inflexibility would go on forever. When it finally did become all too flexible in the 1960s and 70s, the polarity between labour and capital was reversed. This change, like all such changes as had happened in the past, was a world-historic one that decided the destiny of millions. We still live with its consequences today. Since capital came to have its hands untied, its revenge for two decades of post-war humiliation has been severe. Such has been the revolutionary violence of the so-called "neoliberal revolution".
If we seriously think about competition in the labour market as a conditioning factor in the struggles for justice and socialism, then important facts start to become clear that the conversation about cheap labour and neoliberalism often obscures. One such fact is that the balance of forces between capital and labour had already started to shift well before Thatcherism and Reaganism. Competition in the labour market was growing all through the 1960s, only to come to a political head with the crises of the 1970s that fundamentally undermined the hegemony of social-democratic ideals and created space for neoliberalism to thrive. The left should never forget that the Winter of Discontent came under a Labour government and preceded, indeed catalysed, the era of neoliberal financialisation. Britain's shift from a mid-century model of state-supported export-driven capitalism to a late-century model of low-wage service-industry capitalism was part of a global foundational shift within capitalism itself, not a matter of neoliberalism per se.
"We need to understand that despite the role played by cheap labour in the global economy, globalisation is not by any factual measure the primary driver of increased competition between workers. The answer to the question of what, then, is the primary driver is as simple as it is easy to wilfully ignore: automation."
The causes of these deep shifts have to do with structural changes to production which profoundly disrupted the labour market and thereby reshaped politics. The decline of heavy industry, on which the trade union movement historically rested, was part of a restructuring inherent in the growth dynamics of capitalism itself. The mid-century crisis of deindustrialisation was inscribed onto capitalism at its birth. The history of capitalist restructuring needs to be examined in detail. We cannot put off hard self-reflection. If we continue to fail to appreciate this history, we will remain hopelessly at sea politically.
With the rise of neoliberalism, the back of organised labour has more or less been broken. The depths to which trade union membership levels have sunk has been widely remarked on. So has the significance of these developments to the politics of organised labour and social democracy.
In terms of raw numbers, the decline in trade union representation does not map directly onto the decline of heavy industry in the UK. The decline has been visible across sectors, including non-industrial ones which are still more or less vibrant, where employers have become increasingly militant in refusing to recognise or allow the growth of unions. This fact gives some comfort to those who suggest that the decline in trade union representation, and the political defeats social democracy has suffered in the wake of this decline, has had nothing to do with any structural changes to industrial production that may have been occurring in the post-war period. In this telling, neoliberalism is a purely political, arbitrary project, imposed from outside the economy itself. It is the first cause which destroyed organised labour and thereby led to the destruction of the welfare state, of growth, and the social contract generally.
But such ostensibly empirical analyses should not fail to recognise that the original political battles fought in order to establish the legal and regulatory conditions under which capital could actually wage such unrestricted warfare against organised labour were battles fought between a state guided by neoliberalism and the trade unions in industries that were heavily affected by structural changes to capitalist production during the mid-century. It was only out of battles with the miners' unions, for instance, that Thatcherism gained the right to command so imperially. Court decisions nakedly in favour of capital like the US Supreme Court's Janus vs. AFSCME ruling this year, which would have been unthinkable a half-century ago are, since the crushing of the largest and most powerful industrial trade unions, today all too thinkable. These battles had to be won in the 80s and 90s before it could make sense to speak of neoliberal hegemony.
It only became possible for capital to emerge from these late 20th-century industrial conflicts in a position of dominance because labour market competition had already increased and trade unions were already losing ground against employers by the time such conflicts erupted openly. Competition had been increasing throughout the post-war period because of the decline in manufacturing employment - a decline which pre-dated the heyday of outsourcing. Deindustrialisation made its effects felt throughout the economy, including in non-industrial sectors, because the decline of job opportunities in manufacturing is a decline of job opportunities as such. Workers even in other sectors are forced to restrict their militancy because as individuals they have that much less to fall back on should they be fired.
To understand how we arrived at today's hyper-competitive labour market, the question we need to ask ourselves is this: what exactly was the nature of those forces which undermined the traditional heavy industries on which organised labour power had always rested? What were these structural changes to industry and production that Crosland, writing in the 1950s, failed to fully anticipate? A broad consensus exists on the left that the answers to these questions have something to do with globalisation. But is globalisation itself a structural change? Is the problem of "cheap labour" simply a problem of the wide-open space capital has been allowed to roam in search of the best bargains? In a word, is cheap labour itself the ultimate problem? If so, then super-exploitation is the disease we are trying to cure, not a symptom of an even more insidious illness with which society is sick. At stake is nothing less than the status of socialism as a radical, emancipatory political project, or simply one that seeks to manage capitalist excess.
Clarity here is vitally important for day-to-day political practice, because the forces in play profoundly condition the extent to which workers in countries like Britain can react to neoliberal conditions in a way that expresses solidarity and empathy with those workers of subaltern backgrounds(immigrants, workers in low-GDP countries, etc) who share their basic proletarian condition but who are often cast in the role of labour market saboteurs. Without such an understanding of the real conditions of capitalist production, too many workers will inevitably be led to react in ways that are exclusionary, othering and nativist.
These are the tasks that socialism has set for itself, but their urgency can be obscured by seeing super-exploitation purely in terms of the images of cruelty it throws up. If we want to gain any kind of insight into the process by which the labour market became as competitive as it is, we need to look beyond what stands out as obvious for its moral repugnancy. We need to understand that despite the role played by cheap labour in the global economy, globalisation is not by any factual measure the primary driver of increased competition between workers. The answer to the question of what, then, is the primary driver is as simple as it is easy to wilfully ignore: automation.
That automation has profoundly churned up stable labour relations is not a point of contention. It is simply a historical fact that the vast majority of the human labour already displaced during the process of deindustrialisation - which is all too often treated as synonymous with globalisation - was not made subject to outsourcing. It was whisked out of the realm of the human altogether.
Understanding automation is key to making sense of an otherwise simplistic, muddled story about economic modernity. It allows us to understand the fact that heavy industry in the UK and across the supposedly "post-industrial" world still exists and still produces commodities on a colossal scale, despite our constantly being confronted with jarring cultural memories of shuttered factories and the obvious fact of a hollowed-out industrial workforce. This is because automation makes it possible to "deindustrialise" a country in human terms while retaining a manufacturing industry in business terms. A few more technologically advanced, productive factories can account for the output of many outdated, more labour-intensive ones. This is why UK manufacturing in 2014 could boast of a higher output than in the 1970s despite employing fewer than half as many workers, and why the attempts to revive manufacturing employment around 2016 were so tepid.
"It is well-documented that while manufacturing productivity has skyrocketed since the mid-century, wages have not. Productivity is the measure of power for an economic enterprise, and it is what decision-makers seek to maximise."
Mostly, automation supplements human labour, which is still carried on at a drastically reduced, more specialised level. But in some industries, like shipping, human labour has been almost entirely wiped out. The once-powerful dockworkers' unions which laid the foundations for the whole Labour movement did not stand a chance against the rise of containerisation, one of the most significant developments in all of economic history. That there was ever such a thing as a longshoreman or stevedore has been forgotten by many people. The transition to containerised, highly-automated shipping has done irreversible damage to communities formerly founded on wages from shipyard work. And automation in shipping is only becoming more absolute: the port of Rotterdam aims to be entirely human-free in the coming years, and the remaining dock workers there are under no illusions about what this means for them.
The facts of automation are widely-understood and treated as common sense all across the political spectrum and the business world, but here the Labour left struggles to face reality. If it is true that automation, not outsourcing, has impacted labour markets more than anything else, then the whole idea that countries can protect their borders, shelter domestic production, encourage local industry, and restore economic growth along the lines laid out in Build it in Britain or in Fabian Society pamphlets like Raising the Bar simply loses its foundation. There is no way a domestic manufacturing industry can be economically viable if it willfully forces itself to subsidise archaic production methods on a colossal scale. Where would the market for goods that would, of necessity, have to be sold at monstrously inflated prices be? Tightening tariffs would only create more prolific black markets. Selling goods eternally at a loss is not sustainable under any economic system based on commodity production where producers need to buy material and pay wages as well as sell goods. It is often claimed that left industrial strategy can build a domestic industry that both supports an expansive "middle class" while also being "innovative". This is frankly absurd. Innovation and labour-saving technique are synonymous.
Automation is too often treated, even by its fans, as if it and the effects it is said to have on the economy are fundamentally new and novel. It is on this false historical basis that many people, reasonably, have become sceptical about the grandiose claims often made in its name. But what we are really dealing with here is not science fiction. Unfortunately, reality is often obscured by the self-appointed proponents of automation as politics. But if we think about the kinds of labour struggles that were going on across the industrialised world in the 1960s, when the computer revolution set loose by the end of WWII started having its most serious effects on production, then we can see how ample is the proof that mechanisation and automation have been making their influence felt on the system of production - and therefore the labour market - for a long time. Post-war labour unrest in Britain over the introduction of new techniques of automated production goes back to at least the 1950s. Unrest over the introduction of machinery in general, of course, goes back to the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution: the real Luddites were nothing more than workers whose livelihoods were under threat from mechanisation.
It bears mentioning that much of the thinking which so profoundly influenced the students' and workers' struggles of the late 1960s - which came to a head in May '68 - were influenced by bodies of thought that treated the problem of an increasingly automated, scientifically-administered industrial society with a seriousness that is all too scarce today. These struggles, obviously, were raging when the neoliberal political hegemony of the 1980s was merely a twinkle in Friedrich von Hayek's eye.
One of the most influential left-wing thinkers of the period, Frankfurt School theorist Herbert Marcuse, was aware of what had been taking place for decades when he wrote the defining text of the radical student-labour movement, One-Dimensional Man. Of contemporary state capitalism, he wrote:
"Validated by the accomplishments of science and technology, justified by its growing productivity, the status quo defies all transcendence."
This sense that despite all scientific progress, the benefits of technology were not accruing to everyone was widely shared then and remains so today. But since the crushing of those left movements which looked at technology critically, we are more than ever adrift and confused about what exactly the proper relationship between the Labour movement and technology ought to be.
It is well-documented that while manufacturing productivity has skyrocketed since the mid-century, wages have not. Productivity is the measure of power for an economic enterprise, and it is what decision-makers seek to maximise. Advances in automation technique are an essential component of any increase in "total factor productivity". Other factors include "knowledge", which is to say, the preparedness of remaining workers to engage with the increasingly automated business environment. Productivity growth has, in the post-war period, completely transcended what can be achieved by human labour. This is reflected in the increasing independence of capital from the labour force, which necessarily makes the job market a more cutthroat one. The solidarity of organised labour is undermined and its political prospects become more dim. And in Britain as elsewhere, every new step in the development of productivity has brought with it new and more expansive rounds of automation, which puts plans to rely on this sector for an economic renaissance further into doubt.
It's true that across economic domains, the UK struggles with a uniquely complex relationship between wages and productivity. Productivity is low in the UK relative to other similarly advanced economies. It is easy to fixate on this mysterious gap and account for wage suppression and rising inequality in terms of the need to close this gap. This is the party line for conservative bourgeois economists. But the gap between wages and productivity is still large and getting larger. This is not unnatural. It is the inevitable effect of automation, which has served to expand the population of surplus labourers. This cleaving-apart of the necessary co-dependence of labour and capital, and the intense competition between workers for what work remains, inevitably puts capital in the politically dominant position. History shows that this reserve army of labour, once it begins to grow, can only brought back into the circulation of wages and commodities through state support or through the kinds of low-wage, often precarious work that have proliferated since the 1970s.
A serious account of how automation has reshaped the basis for capitalist production ought to put to bed any lingering sense that what British capitalism is suffering from is an artificial vulnerability to cheap labour, which can be corrected for by juridicial action to make labour artificially expensive. Labour has become cheap for reasons rooted in a history which cannot be rolled back by the strongest Labour government. If we want to dwell on the matter of "foreign competition", we need only remember that long before the images of slave and slave-like labour in countries China or South Africa took centre stage in our political imaginary, competition from rapidly-mechanising German and Japanese firms was the boogeyman which haunted the West. These economies began to exert pressure on US and UK economies long before China did, and they did so not on the basis of a super-exploited workforce but on their mastery - legendary then and now - of advanced manufacturing technology. The all-powerful Japanese auto industry, led by companies like Toyota and Honda, remains a global vanguard of automated manufacturing. Competition in the automotive sector is a long-standing fixation for British policy thinkers, given the significance of that industry. That we have forgotten the significance of automation to these debates, and now blame cheap labour for all our ills, attests to how much easier it is to blame people rather than science for one's problems.
All signs indicate that the promises made regarding the ongoing tendency towards the superfluousness of human labour across economic domains are going to be kept. Regardless of how the development of machine learning technologies plays out, it is irresponsible to pretend that everything which has emerged from a half-century of expert testimony is simply untrue, myopic or indicative of a moral panic. Any white-collar professions which remain protected from the effects of automation longer than expected will not be able to take on sole responsibility for maintaining a healthy, sustainable consumer economy. No society where people must work or starve can have even a momentary, theoretical existence on this basis.
The fact is that in an era when one country, with modern productive capacities, can provide enough of any given commodity to saturate the world market, manufacturing has simply ceased to be a realistic basis for the ongoing stability of consumer economies. Even countries which have recently come out on top in the global scramble for industrial growth are running up against the limits of an historically limited system. China, for its part, is refusing to be left behind as the object of Western pity. It has deployed techniques of automation widely and is conducting artificial intelligence research as aggressively as anyone.
Human beings really have been steadily pushed out of the domains of work they occupied in the mid-century, and this has been deeply disruptive to the forms of workers' solidarity on which the Labour movement rests. Competitive dynamics have turned workers in the UK against one another and against workers from around the world. It is impossible not to see the significance of these changes to capitalist production for the Labour movement. Automation has profoundly altered the economic and political terrain in which the Labour movement has to operate. Obviously, it is not enough simply to remark that the labour market has gotten more competitive, or to use that fact to account for the defeats suffered by socialism in its recent past. To understand how we can now move forward, we need to look beyond history and try to understand how this competitive labour market actually functions today, how it conditions political action, and what room to manoeuvre exists within it.
It is an oft-repeated fact that according to the official figures released by the UK Office of National Statistics, unemployment is at its lowest level since 1975. There is much to unpack in this. It is obvious that even in a post-industrial economy, job growth on some level is possible. We will confront the different ways in which the forms of work which flourish under late capitalism relate to the overall needs of capital accumulation and the problems they pose for capitalism's future, despite the rosiest ONS pronouncements. But first it is necessary to state an important first principle: one should always treat government statistics with a sceptical eye. This has nothing to do with deception as such. The scrupulous honesty with which it is possible to mislead should come as no surprise.
What economists call "hidden unemployment" - unemployment and under-employment not reflected in the official statistics - should never be left out of a serious critical analysis of political economy. In the UK as in most countries, government agencies routinely leave out of their employment statistics whole swathes of the population judged to be "not part of the labour force" on various grounds. Many of these convenient criteria were introduced by the Conservative government of the 1980s, and their bi-partisan appeal has kept them in place ever since. The UK Labour Force Survey, which collects employment statistics for the ONS, samples only 53,000 households in its research. Infamously, people who are not considered to be actively "looking for work" are not counted as unemployed; they are said to have dropped out of the labour market altogether, but this says little about whether or not they actually desire to work. Measuring exactly how many "economically inactive" people exist is difficult, but the Trades Union Congress estimated an increase of 157,000 between August and October of 2017 alone.
All of this contributes to an estimate of the unemployment rate that might actually be twice as high as officially estimated, if not higher. And obviously, unemployment does not by any means need to reach 100% or even 50% for economic breakdowns to occur.
It's not hard to see why the ONS is not over-eager to present a real portrait of the labour market. It would be very comforting if we could say that the economy, having decimated old forms of human labour, had fulfilled the promises made on its behalf by furnishing us with new, more rewarding forms by which we can all live. But what has arisen in place of the mid-century industrial economy has not been a world of stimulating, adventurous intellectual and entrepreneurial labour. Rather, a jungle economy has come into being. In this hyper-competitive environment, forms of work structurally inimical to the formation of those stable relationships which make labour organising possible have become commonplace. The economy that has emerged since the deindustrialisation of the workforce is one characterised, above all else, by instability. This is first and foremost a matter of the sectors which have expanded the most since deindustrialisation.
"The modern economy is awash in forms of work that have nothing to do with any long-standing working-class community, in which workforces are diffuse rather than centralised, turnover is high, and contact between workers is minimal or non-existent."
The vast majority of jobs added year-on-year since the 1970s have been and continue to be those in the service industry, where diverse forms of instability flourish. This highly complex economic realm is now estimated to account for almost 80% of the entire UK economy. The world-historic shift away from manufacturing and towards services was not at all something so simple to explain as a political choice made by members of the governing strata. Transitioning to an economy based on services - and on debt-driven consumption - was essential to keep capital and commodities in circulation as human beings were expelled from heavy industry. Without consumption, based on wage income, consumer economies obviously cannot survive.
But the service industry cannot grow fast enough or generate enough economic dynamism to account for the ever-expanding needs of capitalism. This is the problem modern politics has failed to solve. There is no historical or factual basis for assuming that service industry work will ever be able to support a situation of full employment which satisfies the real demands of a modern consumer economy. Service industry work is, by its nature, almost entirely low-skill; it requires little formal education or training. With so little barrier to entry in a labour market dominated by this kind of work, the potential supply of workers will almost always be as large as the working-age population as a whole. This means the labour market is guaranteed to almost always be saturated with excess labour. This will continue to keep wages down and virtually assure continued economic stagnation going forward, given the downward pressure on workers' ability to effectively function as consumers.
It's also important to remember that service-industry labour is not immune to automation. It is well-known that ride-sharing platforms like Uber are keen to automate their workforces, and the ongoing, dramatic death of the British high street - one of the pillars of service-industry employment - is as much a story of automation as it is of the Internet more vaguely. A story about "online shopping" is usually told to account for the death of brick-and-mortar storefronts, but online shopping is nothing more than automated shopping. Amazon's homepage is merely the window into a vast world of computerised distribution in which mainframes and web services have replaced human shopkeepers. One server farm can perform the task of a billion clerks. And Amazon is among the tech giants pushing most aggressively - and successfully - for mass automation of warehousing and distribution, currently the main human components of its supply chain. Elsewhere, checkout lines, once a staple of menial service industry work, have been made subject to highly-visible and expanding campaigns of automation. McDonald's has been aggressive in attempting to normalise its massive shift towards automated kiosk services through ostensibly heart-warming advertising campaigns. As an industry leader, we can expect other food service heavyweights to follow its lead.
But there is more to service-industry instability than labour market competition as such. When we talk about an unstable working environment, we cannot avoid talking about "precarity". Workers in insecure or non-existent contractual arrangements are said to be "precarious". It has been estimated that today, 10 million members of the workforce cannot be considered secure in their employment. This is what we call the "gig economy". This catch-all term encompasses forms of unstable work such as zero-hours contracts, bogus self-employment, and many more. The growth of the gig economy has been explosive in big cities like London, among the elderly, and online. Transport has become dominated by precarity as platforms like Uber and Deliveroo have proliferated. The gig economy, like the economy at large, is dominated by services. Precarious work has always existed: since the earliest days of industrialism, a worker's condition has been one marked by uncertainty. But the mainstreaming of this phrase in recent years is reflective of more recent structural changes to capitalist reproduction which all but guarantee "precarity" as an essential condition of working life for more and more workers.
Competition is not just a matter of more people and fewer places for them to work, though such factors are foundational. The Labour movement has always struggled with the task of maintaining solidarity during periods where labour is over-abundant. Alongside a general commitment to working-class unity, specific and often imperfect techniques of labour organisation evolved over time to face such challenges: slow-downs and sabotage to defray open conflict, proxy strikes, and so on. Precarious work takes us beyond this. Labour in the modern era is not only more unstable in the quantitative terms which overall deindustrialisation and increased labour market competition introduce. The labour market is also qualitatively more competitive than it was in its heavy-industrial past, where competition was most often over those forms of work that at least possessed structural features which helped facilitate traditional forms of workers' organisation and solidarity.
In the old, mid-century model of state capitalist production, the prototypical worker(though by no means all workers) could be assured of a job nearly for life, in their workplace or at least in the community wherein they and their fellow workers co-existed. This concentration of workers in large industries and working-class neighbourhoods, and indeed in specific workplaces where workers knew each other well, was one of the essential forces Marx identified as contributing to the increasing power and breadth of the militant labour movement:
"... with the development of industry, the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more."
It is precisely such forms of industry which have been subject to disruption, throwing much of the knowledge accumulated during generations of labour struggles into the air. The modern economy is awash in forms of work that have nothing to do with any long-standing working-class community, in which workforces are diffuse rather than centralised, turnover is high, and contact between workers is minimal or non-existent. These dynamics apply to service industry work in general, but they are especially pernicious where precarious work is concerned.
The breakdown of traditional forms of trade-union solidarity accounts for the so-called "mystery" of why the celebrated "Phillips curve" seems to no longer describe reality. According to the Phillips curve model, named for the economist who invented it, low unemployment should guarantee high wages; but this is only the case when workers are actually positioned to fight for them. Even when certain forms of work are prolifically available, the actual qualitative characteristics of that work and its relationship to the wider historic shifts condition the extent to which wages can increase.
Union struggles around precarious work are ongoing, and there are encouraging signs which indicate it is possible to construct limited forms of solidarity even along these lines. Organising precarious labour involves attempting to overcome the instability of the personal relationships in gig economy work. The experience of the Freelancers Union shows how even entirely independent freelance workers who nevertheless share a collective interest in industry standards can organise together. But the social appearance of precariousness is a property of deeper foundations, not foundational in itself. The basic instability in play is the instability of work as such, where there is always less to go around and seemingly more people trying to get it. This problem is always becoming more severe in the service industry where the barrier to entry, in terms of necessary skills and education, is always relatively low. But instability is inherent wherever there is always someone ready to undercut your salary, whatever your job might happen to be. These dynamics have put severe strain on traditional trade union strategies.
The transition from economies based on relatively stable manufacturing employment to ones based on unstable service-industry work is referred to as the transition from Fordism to post-Fordism. This historic shift marked the end of capitalism's "Golden Age". What we are dealing with in post-Fordism is, of course, more the restoration of conditions similar to capitalism's pre-Fordist "Gilded Age" than some substantially new historical form, but our Second Gilded Age is new enough for the living. And this period carries with it dangerous new challenges for the Labour movement to overcome. We must not lose sight of this.
In all this, it is essential to remember what, exactly, people in this hyper-competitive labour market have been reduced to competing for: the most alienating, monotonous forms of labour imaginable. That the truly desirable jobs available in a post-Fordist economy, those creative and entrepreneurial ones so often invoked by capitalism's mouthpieces as its most representative, have become the preserve of the rich and will never characterise the whole of capitalist production is obvious - the capitalist marketplace simply does not need as many plucky entrepreneurs as bourgeois ideology claims.
That working in fast food or telemarketing is profoundly unsatisfying does not even bear citation. In particular, the negative impact of precarious labour on mental health has been very clearly demonstrated. In addition, pecarious, low-wage work naturally puts workers at extreme risk of indebtedness, which, when it becomes a self-reinforcing debt spiral, can lead workers to suicide. Still less should we envy the employment status of today's most super-exploited workers in extraction, manufacturing and other heavy industries, where injuries, ill health and death are common.
"It will continue to be impossible to build a really durable consensus around a humane stance on immigration or for steadfast anti-racist politics without being able to present a true account of how wages and work prospects arrived at their present sorry state. A counter-narrative to nativism cannot simply be a counter-narrative; it must also be a narrative of its own."
Finally, knowledge of the perennial tragedy represented by the fact that most people, at the ends of their lives, regret nothing more deeply than having worked too much and lived too little should be inscribed into the hearts and the minds of every socialist that possesses either. And yet despite the profoundly inhuman nature of the work for which labourers in a post-Fordist economy must squabble, we still see political figures, including "socialist" ones, attempting to make of this sad display something profound and worthwhile. We are told that we need to rush to close our borders against those immigrants clamoring to rob us of precious opportunities, bestowed on us in lordly fashion, to live and die like cattle.
Instead of this obsequious bowing and scraping before supposedly inevitable "market forces", socialists must re-discover their historic responsibility to imagine a world beyond capitalism. Is it any wonder Labour struggles to capture the imagination of the country at large? Is it any wonder so many young people - despite breathlessly myth-making reports - fail to engage politically? What exactly are we offering workers, especially those young workers to whom the future might belong? A chance to "take back control" of their rightful shifts at Costa from the unscrupulous Italians and Poles? If that is socialism, then socialism is doomed and deservedly so.
The most progressive elements of the Labour left, of course, do not fall squarely into the camp of the nativists. But even when the Labour left's messaging on immigration is outwardly appropriate, when it comes to practical solutions to the problems posed by an economy where cheap labour seems to constantly be getting cheaper, the real danger is in the more-or-less-uncontroversial consensus around zaney schemes, such as Build it in Britain, for turning the clock back to a Fordist or semi-Fordist economy. Where ostensibly critical thought is brought to bear within the bounds of conventional wisdom, it seems to be more interested in offering guarantees that this time around, the producerist economy will not be characterised by its co-existence with and reliance on imperialism, patriarchy and racism. By this, the problems with left populism are meant to have been identified and solved. We are told that this is "not solely about nostalgia" for a world of highly-paid white male industrial workers, as if Woke Fordism were any more likely than a restoration of Fordism Classic. The point is entirely missed.
This is where the socialist movement finds itself today, after being subjected to a half-century of upheaval in the labour market from which it emerges. Unable to move our imagination beyond the already-discredited model of a more or less colonial welfare state based on heavy industry and mass industrial employment, we find ourselves unable to confront the "legitimate concerns" people have about declining wages and stagnant job opportunities other than by pointing out - correctly but incompletely - that our predicament is not the fault of immigrants. When asked whose fault it is, all we can do is gesture at "the bankers", as if decades of workers' and students' struggles around automation never took place and all Britain's precious manufacturing jobs were simply scooped up by City bankers and deposited in Asia, Africa and Latin America. We fail to take seriously the quite obvious structural shifts traditional working-class employment has undergone, and then wonder why former centres of working-class power have gone nativist, leaving Labour with nothing to do but account for the discrepancy between its name and its "middle class" voter base. We blame everything on "neoliberalism", which amounts to nothing more than an account of an international financial conspiracy if we ignore the structural changes which have gone on alongside it, and then either wonder why anti-Semites are attracted to the Party or desperately try to pretend they are not, fooling no one.
Eclectic, producerist left-nationalism presents itself as the most "realistic" way to reach "ordinary people". Whether intuitively or consciously, ordinary voters know that something does not add up about this story. Labour still has not been able to dispel the mistrust voters feel towards it regarding the economy, despite an overall favourability lead over the Government. Nevertheless, we relentlessly double down on our ideological committments, accomplishing nothing but to dig ourselves deeper and deeper graves. If socialism is going to survive the century, we need to do a lot better than this.
In the ahistorical fantasy realm we currently call home, it makes perfect sense for a Labour leader like Jeremy Corbyn to claim that mass immigration from Eastern Europe is responsible for "destroying" conditions for "British workers". In making these sorts of pronouncements, Corbyn and others have been attempting, in the hopes of being politically "effective", to address what the political class has come to refer to as the "legitimate concerns" of Brexit supporters, working-class Tory voters, and Eurosceptic components of the Labour base. This effort, we are told, represents nothing other than good, old-fashioned political realism. Such appeals to "realism" are given a boost by the fact that the progressive left discourse on these famous concerns and their supposed legitimacy does tend to quickly self-destruct. In attempting to square anti-racist politics with the politics of "anti-austerity", producerist socialism, we find ourselves amid insoluable contradictions.
We need to start taking the "legitimate concerns" catchphrase for what it is: a complex jumble of distinct, self-contradictory and contested notions, rather than something monolithic which makes a claim to legitimacy that is either true or false. The left has come to accept that "legitimate concerns" really does refer to nothing other than a "legitimate belief that mass immigration has destroyed the economy". This is what reactionary forces would like us to think. The progressive left has treated this radioactive term as if anti-immigrant sentiment has an inherent right to use it as its own. It then becomes our lot to endlessly re-wage the same fight to convince people that on this particular point of fact, they have been deceived. This gets us nowhere. If we do not quickly begin the task of untangling the knotty mess of meanings bound up inside the dominant "legitimate concerns" narrative, we will remain trapped in a futile, exhausting cycle.
"If our goal is not to fundamentally transform the economy, then we willfully allow ourselves to be put in a position where the very basis of our strength - organised labour - will constantly get weaker."
This is not as difficult as it might sound. Widely-felt anxieties regarding the fact that wages are down, the economy is in tatters and that inequality is soaring are quite obviously legitimate. That we cringe when we hear the dog-whistle of "legitimate concerns" blown attests to that extra, xenophobic dimension which is usually implied, consciously or not. But it is still our responsibility to reclaim what is useful in an otherwise toxic discourse. In order to genuinely(rather than performatively) meet the demand for effectiveness and realism, we need to be able to address those concerns that are truly legitimate: that is, the concern that capitalism has come to be a millstone around the neck of millions. This is what people are really concerned about, consciously or otherwise. Refusing to allow blame for capitalism's crisis to be deflected onto vulnerable social groups is a start, but only a start. It will continue to be impossible to build a really durable consensus around a humane stance on immigration or for steadfast anti-racist politics without being able to present a true account of how wages and work prospects arrived at their present sorry state. A counter-narrative to nativism cannot simply be a counter-narrative; it must also be a narrative of its own.
But the narrative on which the Labour left has settled is part of the problem, not its solution. As a catchphrase to summarise all the historic dynamics of deindustrialisation and globalisation, "neoliberalism" has served to obscure far more than it has revealed. The story of how labour markets came to be as competitive as they are cannot be told simply as a story of humans competing with humans on an expanded, globalised scale. Our silicon competition must also be given its due. It is automation, not cheap labour, that accounts for the increased labour market competition we have seen since the 1950s and the devastating political effects which have followed. Failing to appreciate this is a property of failing to recognise that financial capital and industrial capital are both brothers-in-arms in the class struggle they wage against workers. Even if, like all brothers, they occasionally fight, the facts remain the same. The theoretical splitting-apart which finance capital and industrial capital have undergone at the hands of the Labour left does nothing but distort the real history of capitalism's structural evolution and its political consequences. This kind of obfuscation must end, and soon. Frankly, it has been embarrassing to be associated with people who essentially dabble in the kind of banker-themed conspiracy theories that make our Party so attractive to anti-Semites.
Globalisation as such is nothing other than an emergent property of an increasingly complex, interconnected system of political economy. Any form of modern human social organisation will seek to globalise itself, and socialism can be no exception. The globalisation we know today is a distinct form of the concept with its own history. Global interconnectedness existed before neoliberalism and it must exist afterwards if we are going to truly fulfil socialism's international destiny.
Attempts have been made on the left to essentially settle for post-Fordism and accept the new forms of labour that come with it as the natural basis for politics. In this view, our task becomes that of correcting for the most visible forms of abuse through tougher labour laws, greater oversight, higher minimum wage laws, and so on. But any attempt to transform the post-Fordist workplace and the gig economy into things acceptable to socialism via the mechanism of state regulation will quickly reveal its limitations if we confront the practical political problems posed by labour market competition. If our goal is not to fundamentally transform the economy, then we willfully allow ourselves to be put in a position where the very basis of our strength - organised labour - will constantly get weaker. It is already difficult enough to imagine the Labour Party wielding the political power necessarily to enact far-reaching reforms. Labour is already subject to intense factionalism and lack of clarity about its actual political purpose. This is a property of confusion about real, foundational problems, not personal grievance. As competitive conditions continue to become ever more unfavourable to organised labour, these problems will get worse, and imagining power will become altogether impossible unless we re-envision what we would actually do with our power.
Under these conditions, any superficially transformative law Labour might propose - such as a minimum wage increase - would be unlikely to pass in an acceptable form. Even if it were passed, it would be subject to constant pressure to defer or dilute its implementation. Even if a parliamentary consensus could exist long enough both to pass and enforce certain laws, such consensus would always be subject to disruption by those historic forces which tend to explode the political solidarities on which Labour rests. This is inevitable as automation in white-collar and service industries continues to increase competition in the labour market over the long run. Labour governments have enacted great legislation before. History shows that the political see-saw that is life under capitalism virtually guarantees they last only as long as it takes for the right to claw back power. It is only truly fundamental social shifts that last - and it is the historic task of the socialist movement to help these shifts occur.
On the most basic level, competition in the labour market shapes the ideology which people possess and are possessed by. Less competition allows the ideology of co-operation to thrive; more competition facilitates a competitive outlook. This formula makes it easy to see how the existence of competition itself structurally tips the scales: co-operation must always exist in spite of competition, whereas competition merely needs to follow its own beaten path. Under competitive conditions, we can expect to always see ideologies of competition proliferate. These are fundamentally exclusionary, us-versus-them ideologies that breed attitudes which divide the working class against itself. While we can always argue for solidarity in the face of competition, the tension between solidarity and isolationism tends to favour the latter over time. Such ideologies will always put a check on what we can accomplish, even in government, if the economic forces at work remain untouched. Of course, we cannot be derelict in our political duties; have to fight out the day-to-day struggles involved in making progress, even when they are not carried on at a dramatic scale. But socialism must not fall victim to the dangerous illusion that long-term tasks do not exist.
The basic problem is this: as long as what the Labour movement is about is labour for its own sake, we will never be able to imagine political solutions that can take us beyond competition, and competitive dynamics will continue to find it easier to win out over co-operative ones. In an environment where more and more people are increasingly desperate to claim a place in an ever-more competitive job market, making the argument that socialism is about guaranteeing everyone gets a high-paying job becomes absurd. Every year it becomes clearer and clearer that no form of politics can make such a guarantee any more than its leaders can travel back in time. The collapse of 20th-century socialism was in many ways a collapse of the proposition that if you wanted steady employment, you were better off joining a union. When the factories started to close, many came to believe that one was better off taking their chances alone. For socialism, this is a perverse logic, but it has a pseudo-rational character. This form of thinking will only be given more encouragement as time goes on.
What socialism needs to imagine is a society not based on competition. This starts with realising that competitive ideology can only lay claim to common-sense status when competition takes place in an environment characterised by real scarcity. It is important to understand this rationale and be critical of it. Today, what scarcity exists is artificial. It cannot be otherwise when half the world's food is thrown away, most of our clothes never leave their closets and hundreds of thousands of housing units in Britain lie empty, sometimes for decades. Under such conditions, that anyone should find themselves in want for life's needs is not just absurd; it is a mortal insult. We have the power today to guarantee an unprecedented level of health, comfort and autonomy to every person without exception. The argument that economic competition is rooted in the facts of a scarce planet simply no longer makes sense.
Abundance is everywhere. In the abstract, "work" is more abundant than ever. Capitalist productivity is generating more stuff, more quickly and more abundantly than ever before. It just so happens most of this productive work is now done by machines. It is only our economic system, where wage-labour is king, which guarantees that people need to subject themselves to more and more distorted forms of work in order to get access to a smaller slice of an always-growing pie. People become each others' enemies and, desperately thirsty, are made to scramble for what drops of water the ruling class has allowed to touch the ground. These artificial divisions have spawned artificial rationalisations - racism, nationalism, and so on. But the most divided societies in history will not get anywhere by inventing newer, better ways to rationalse their deep divisions. We need something like a new society altogether. We can do this by making a political start to the end of competitive production.
Only the broad outlines of a project like this can be sketched without delving into policy complexities that demand their own independent treatment. Many of the discussions out of which such treatments will have to emerge have yet to begin. The only things we can say for certain are that competition will not be overcome with protectionist measures which can never amount to anything more than pointless attempts to re-create competitive conditions with which left politics simply happens to be more historically familiar. Today, automation has simply made such a version of "socialism" impossible.
"By making production serve society directly, rather than indirectly, we can introduce non-competitive values into human communities. Even if this takes place on a piecemeal basis at first, any extent to which workers can rely for their livelihood on non-market forces will diminish whatever dependence on the market does still exist."
Nor can we remain overly-reliant on those solutions to the challenge of automation already under discussion, such as universal basic income. Basic income, as an extension of the welfare state, relies in vain on the same self-contradictory, over-productive economy which gave rise to the problems it is meant to resolve. Basic income, as a state expenditure, will always rely on tax revenues which must necessarily shrink as automation continues to displace human labour and drive wages down by increasing competition in those realms of human labour that remain. This shrinkage of revenue takes place alongside a commensurate increase in the number of people meant to be supported by basic income, and the cost of such support.
This is in addition to the fact that basic income represents a guarantee made by the government to every sector of industry, assuring them that consumption of all kinds - from rent to consumer commodities and beyond - will be subsidised now and in the future. One can imagine what effect this would have on prices if businesses knew that no increase would henceforth be too much. The cost involved in such a program is literally incalculable given the incentive business owners would have to abuse such a system by raising prices or at least never lowering them in line with productivity increases and falling consumer capacity. Relying on the rich to foot the infinitely-expanding tax bill in this scenario is impossible. The wealth of capitalists is rooted in consumer activity on a broad, social level. Additionally, the total dependence workers would develop on the rich would put them in the position of being able to choose, arbitrarily and without consequences, whether or not to continue supporting an increasingly superfluous population. They will choose not to, and as long as we live under capitalism their power to make such choices will only increase.
It is no wonder the left is not taken seriously when, in confronting the great economic problems of our time, many consider basic income to be the most realistic, sweeping policy response. This despite the fact that it involves having the state essentially take on the role of super-consumer, standing in for every worker-shopper in the country left behind by post-Fordism. While basic income may in some cases be a useful, temporary mechanism for smoothing out the rough edges of any economic transition, as a concept it simply cannot play the role of saviour which it is often assigned. That basic income - an idea originally dreamt up in the Administration of Richard Nixon - should have taken on a vaguely subversive, left-wing flavour attests to the truth of that old catechism of critical theory that capital has the power to penetrate and envelop every form of radical critique, turning it towards commercial ends - in this case, that most basic end of continued commodity production on an ever-expanding scale. Every form of radical critique but one, that is. That form of socialist thought which reaches into the hidden heart of capitalism and calls into question the commodity-form itself cannot itself be commodified.
Rather than remaining wedded to a model of basic income, the left should take up the task of imagining something like "basic services". There is simply no reason - other than a false and totally misguided sense of "realism" - for a socialist movement to accept the middle-man role of private ownership when it comes to the most universal and basic of human needs. If basic income is in any way fiscally doable, it would quite naturally be even more fiscally doable for a state to invest in the production and free distribution of commodities under its own power. Doing so as a public service, not for profit, would represent a real break with the logic of the commodity.
In many domains of production, such as in the manufacture of essential but often-overlooked consumer goods like sanitary, medical, and household cleaning products, levels of productivity are so high as to render the commodity status of these goods completely historically superfluous. What it costs to make such goods is totally out of proportion with what they retail for. Production is carried on for profit simply because of the legal, political and ideologically hegemonic power of the profit-makers.
We need only look at the real differences between most branded consumer products to expose the lie that hides behind the claim that competition is the sole driver of innovation. This is especially clear where the vast majority of overlooked, unsexy commodities are concerned. Inability to access basic household goods is rife. Many people cannot even afford a fridge or a microwave - notwithstanding the fact that, on the mass-market end of the spectrum, these are utterly trivial goods to produce. Almost 8 million people in the UK regularly skip eating for lack of cash, despite the super-abundance of food goods. Basic furniture, which can be industrially mass-produced for almost nothing, is beyond the means of many families. It is in these areas, where productivity is high, costs are cheap, but retail prices are extreme where the state can take on the task of helping economies transition away from commodity production.
This is the significance of the idea of "production for use", which has always enjoyed some currency on the left. Today, we increasingly see calls being made for a society in which production is for the good of the community and not the profit of a few. But "useful production" is not just a synonym for the activities of big manufacturers, as opposed to the machinations of finance. It means making production decisions with the actual needs - physical and mental - of human beings as we find them in mind.
Today, decisions are made with regard to profit, with the actual use-value of objects as, at best, an afterthought. This is why modern capitalism has to co-exist alongside mass advertising, whose scale and sophistication has never ceased to grow. Indeed, advertising is practically synonymous those high-tech companies - Google, Facebook and so on - who are often said to carry the future of capitalism on their shoulders. All too often, consumption cannot be justified by individual consumers, at least not on the scale it needs to be carried on at, without psycho-social pressure. The purchase of one product is not enough: capitalism expects repeated, endless, obsessive consumption. An economy wherein competitive dynamics require all business decisions to be guided by the impulse to expand sales constantly - on pain of corporate death - fundamentally cannot be about use; exchange must command everything.
By making production serve society directly, rather than indirectly, we can introduce non-competitive values into human communities. This will serve a practical, political function. Even if this process takes place on a piecemeal basis at first, any extent to which workers can rely for their livelihood on non-market forces will diminish whatever dependence on the market does still exist. This will mean a diminishment of the power of competition to discipline and punish workers, which will allow the politics of the working class to grow and become more bold. Under such conditions, forward progress could become easier with time, rather than more difficult.
It will also mean productivity more in line with emergent consumer desires, rather than ones the advertising industry has to try increasingly desperately to stimulate. This will mean lower industrial output overall, which may buy the planet some extra time to face its ecological crisis head-on. Many other ecological benefits to production for use exist and should be explored in detail.
One further note is necessary. Workers' democracy and cooperative economics often take centre stage in the left imagination. Attempts to salvage the legacy of the Fordist era on a more "left" basis emphasize an expanded role for workers' control of production as a way of adding an extra gloss of radicalism. Taking workers' control of capitalist production for an escape from capitalist production is, however, an essential mistake made by the left with regard to commodity-dominated society. Any system which is based on competition will necessarily be incentivised towards endless accumulation of the kind that is cooking the Earth faster and faster every year. Under capitalism, workers' co-operatives are competitive in exactly the same way as any other business. Without fundamental economic change, workers' democracy will not be able to escape the imperatives to cut costs and increase productivity. Such constraints guarantee the instability of work going forward, even under cooperative conditions. There are many successful mega-cooperatives in the world, from Spain's Mondragon to Brazil's Semco, and they behave largely like any other market actor. For these reasons, we cannot expect a more democratic, participatory form of Fordism to stand in for a solution to the ecological, economic and social crisis posed by late capitalism.
Workers' democracy is an essential, necessary condition of socialism, but it is not a sufficient condition. Economic activity controlled by the public in the interests of the public - activity undertaken by governments and cooperatives - does possess an incentive structure which could allow us to overcome capitalism, but workers' democracy alone makes no guarantee of this. Within the space opened up by workers' control, debates and discussions will still have to be had - and they will have to address the problems of competition and commodity production on a profoundly fundamental level. We cannot mistake the possibility - today largely out of reach - of having a democratic conversation for the actual carrying-out of such a conversation or its real, practical results.
If we can create an economy that even partially frees itself from the self-destructive downward spiral of commodity production, we will be putting workers in a more stable, less competitively-determined position. This will, on the most immediate and practical levels, facilitate day-to-day political struggles; that is, the struggles socialism must wage not strictly in the realm of labour and production but on the ground of culture, identity, and justice. We can become stronger in all ways by becoming stronger at the point of production. To wage war against the real enemies of progress, we need to diminish the intensity of conflict in our own ranks.
It's true that in every complex social question, answers are not simple. The narrative of structural change to capitalist production is a long and intricate one. It's easier simply to say that immigration does not depress wages and leave politics at that; certainly it seems hard enough as it is just to wage that struggle. But while it might seem sensible to leave certain difficult questions unaddressed and focus on presenting a clear message, this amounts to self-sabotage. Asking the voting public to cope with uncertainty over who is to blame for economic stagnation is simply unfair and unrealistic. Democracy cannot cope with uncertainty, at least not on polling day. People are asked to make clear value-judgments, often binary in nature, about whom they think best understands the dilemmas of our time.
We need to accept that our idea of what is effective, realistic and feasible hasn't been working. Simplifying politics on the assumption that people cannot cope with anything else has done nothing but cede ground to a reactionary form of thought which thrives on over-simplification in a way that progressive politics, which are fundamentally about exploring the new and the revolutionary, simply cannot compete with. Socialism's deferral to easily-digested narratives with so-called "mass appeal", both on the left and the right of the movement, has not been some magisterially clever, Machiavellian chess move. It has been nothing more than a world-historic self-own. We need to rediscover our ability to convincingly, accessibly tell the whole truth of modern society.
It is within the structures of organised labour that these principles must be most consistently argued for. This is because of the hegemonic role played by large, powerful trade unions - those which survived the 20th century - in shaping Labour Party politics at large. The Labour movement must of course always be prepared to work with the relevant stakeholders in any scenario, whatever their class composition. But today, we are in many ways having to rebuild a vision of socialist politics from the ground up; and organised labour remains the ground of Labour politics. That the core constituency of socialism is the working class is just as true today as it was a century ago. The rise of the service industry changes nothing: service workers are workers, plain and simple. And with the increasing professionalisation and proletarianisation of occupations that were once carried out by independent trades and craftspeople, the working class is today more synonymous with the public as such than ever. Unions are working hard to have this fact be reflected in the re-invigoration of old unions and the expansion of new ones. The trade union is still ground zero for socialism, especially when its politics are in the process of re-affirmation. It is through the trade unions that we can find our way back to hegemony.
For progressive socialists concerned with the real history and limits of capitalist production, it is tactically backwards to confront the people we are least likely to be able to reach at this stage of our development - the average voter - from the weakest possible position. Such a position is our non-hegemonic one within Labour, wherein all the resources of the Party cannot yet be brought to bear. The key to this hegemonic position is the rank-and-file membership of the trade unions; it is they that pay the union dues that form the foundation of the Labour movement's ability to conduct any public campaigning at all.
These are still the early years of the 21st century. Alongside its veterans, today the socialist movement has within its ranks a generation of young fighters for whom the struggle for justice and freedom is only beginning. While with each passing year the world on which and for which we fight will grow less hospitable to life, we still have a lifetime - though only just - in which to win or lose what amounts to nothing less to the final conflict of that historic epoch which whose birth certificate was signed in the blood of the French Revolution. As always in the history of the workers' movement, it falls to the living to redeem the sacrifices of the dead. We owe it to the ghosts of struggles past, in whose company we stand, to hold socialism to the highest standard of political and practical rigour. The stakes for which we play are simply too high to do anything less.