Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Beyond the boundary

(February 1996)

From Socialist Review, No.194, February 1996.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘Right wing economists claim that between 10 and 30 percent of the loss of unskilled jobs in the advanced countries is to be explained by imports. But this still means that 70 to 90 percent of job loss is due to the decisions of domestically based capitalists’

When I first became a socialist, Labour politicians had a very simple argument against revolution. It was not necessary, they said, because the existing state could intervene in the economy to guarantee full employment and provide an ever increasing range of welfare benefits for the sick and old.

Today they have an equally simple but completely opposite argument against revolution. It is pointless, they say, because no state can intervene in the economy to fully guarantee these things. The reason, they say, is ‘globalisation’. Capital can simply move out of any country which tries to have higher wages, better welfare benefits or even, according to Tony Blair’s Tokyo speech in the new year, a higher level of taxation of the rich, than exists elsewhere in the world.

In fact, the old Labourite argument was wrong, and the new Labourite argument is just as wrong.

The old argument ignored the ability of capitalists to deploy their economic power against any government which they felt was impinging on their sacred right to subordinate production to profit – and to do so with the connivance of their friends and relatives at the top of the state’s bureaucratic hierarchies.

So in Britain big business forced Labour to forget its promises after the 1964, 1966 and 1974 elections by moving funds abroad and creating a balance of payments crisis.

And David Ricardo could already point out back in 1821, ‘If a capital is not allowed to get the greatest net revenue that the use of machinery will afford here, it will be carried abroad ...’ But this does not mean that capital can never be challenged successfully, as the New Labourite argument claims with its stress on ‘the global market’.

That ‘market’ is not some disembodied entity, exercising insuperable power over human life from the outside. It is, in fact, a euphemism for the capitalist system – for the interaction between rival capitalists as each seeks to make as much profit as possible from the exploitation of workers in the production process. And the great majority of these capitalists are very firmly rooted in particular national states.

They may be able to move their financial capital from one country to another at the touch of a computer key, but they cannot move their factories, their mines, their oil rigs, their docks or their offices nearly as easily. And that means they need a national state to protect these things and to guarantee them skilled labour, transport links, energy supplies and a relatively stable national currency.

In most countries exports and imports have been rising more rapidly than economic output for more than 30 years. But about 80 percent of this output is still for the national markets, and most foreign trade is with nearby countries. Thus, despite all the hype about the ‘tiger’ economies of Asia, the combined exports of all non-OECD countries only account for just over 2 percent of the advanced countries’ total Gross National Product.

Clearly, there have been cases of the shift of whole industries from advanced countries to relatively backward ones – as, for example, with the decline in the mass production of cheap textiles in Lancashire in the 1950s. But you cannot explain the loss of half a million jobs in construction in this country since 1990s in this way. The blame does not lie with ‘globalisation’ but with old fashioned slump.

Nor can the shift of production abroad explain the fall by more than half in the number of people employed at, say, Ford. As many cars are being produced there as in the past, but with more capital equipment and increased pressure on fewer workers to work harder.

Again the near destruction of trade unionism and the reduction of real wages in the newspaper industry are not the result of some impersonal force operating on a world scale, but of the all too human greed for profits of Rupert Murdoch, Robert Maxwell, Conrad Black, David Montgomery and the Rothermere family.

Right wing economists like Jeffrey Sachs and Patrick Minford claim that between 10 and 30 percent of the loss of unskilled jobs in the advanced countries is to be explained by imports. But this still means that 70 to 90 percent of job loss is due to the decisions of domestically based capitalists.

These are decisions that can be fought – and fought successfully. Throughout the dispute at Wapping ten years ago Rupert Murdoch was dependent on his British newspaper operations for the financing of his global empire. He won the dispute because of disastrous leadership by the print unions – like giving him time to get his scab printing operation going – rather than because ‘globalisation’ made him all powerful.

Ford might be a global car firm, but was brought to its knees very quickly when the last all out strike in its British operations, in 1988, paralysed its production right across Europe.

Of course, there are limits to what can be achieved by struggles in one country alone. Even the seizure of state power and of the means of production by the workers in one country does not give them more than partial access to the forces of production on a world scale – essential if we are ever to get a world without scarcity and escape once and for all from ‘all the old crap’ of class society.

That is why 150 years ago Marx and Engels issued the call, ‘Workers of all lands unite’. That is why 65 years ago Leon Trotsky denounced Stalin’s claim that he could build ‘socialism in one country’ as ‘a reactionary utopia’.

But that does not preclude workers in one country ever winning in the fight against their own capitalists, so stimulating workers elsewhere to fight as well.

Many false ideas conceal within them a small grain of truth. The new ideology of ‘globalisation’ is no different. The germ of the truth it points to is that capitalism has now brought production right through the world under its domination, with factories, wage labour and working class struggle arising in the midst of even the poorest and most agricultural countries.

But this means the conditions which created the sort of revolt we saw in France before Christmas are more generalised than ever before. And that increases enormously the chances of one big breakthrough by workers producing a chain reaction in a score of countries.

Last updated on 21 December 2009