Chris Harman


Flexible friends?

(June 1994)

Thinking It Through, Socialist Review, No.176, June 1994.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘Throughout Europe governments that used to be committed to the “social market” or “social democratic” policies are now complaining that their workers have it too easy’

What a contradictory world we live in. A Times Higher Education Supplement article five weeks ago concluded, ‘academics have grown weary of Marx ... Marx’s academic appeal has started to wane.’ Yet only ten days later Will Hutton, the Guardian’s economics editor, was complaining, ‘British Conservatives are perversely reclaiming Marxist truths and practice as their own.’

The Times Higher Education Supplement overstates part of its case. There have never been more than a handful of Marxists at any academic establishment in Britain. Economics students have nearly always had huge dollops of virtually unintelligible rubbish, from such luminaries of conventional bourgeois economics as Lipsey and Samuelson, forced into them. And sociology students have always had to cope with potted versions of Durkheim, Weber or even Talcott Parsons.

But it is certainly true that a thin layer of academics who once peppered their work with Marxist phrases now use the more fashionable language of postmodernism. And this means that, within the intellectual establishment as a whole, the consensus lies in some variant of liberal democratic or social democratic ideas.

It is also true that behind the government’s policies lies a belief that capitalist success depends on an assault on workers’ conditions – although this has been true for well over a decade and is hardly a new phenomenon.

Hutton is certainly right when he says, ‘The Conservative centralists have centralised power to maximise the labour value of production at the lowest price ...’ and talks of chancellor Kenneth Clarke’s ‘embrace of the Marxist contention that worsening the pay and conditions of average workers – labour market flexibility – is essential to boosting the capitalist endeavour.’

The response of the liberal minded to such an approach is to recoil in horror – especially when it means the sudden intrusion of line managers into their own areas of work. Hutton’s own reaction is typical. He does not at all like what is happening, but insists Marxists are wrong to see it as part of the logic of capitalism. Rather it is all based on an intellectual misunderstanding. The Tory stress on ‘labour flexibility’ is misplaced, he tells us.

‘Accumulation of wealth is a much more subtle process, depending crucially on human capital and the marshalling of savings into investment. In this education, training and financial institutions are of a fundamental importance.’

This message is echoed in dozens of cliched statements about ‘human capital’ and ‘training’ from Labour spokespeople. Such as Gordon Brown, Robin Cook and Margaret Beckett.

But it is they who suffer from misunderstanding. Modern capitalism does, of course, require workforces with a much higher degree of formal education than 100 or even 30 years ago. A recent Financial Times report on Chrysler’s Windsor plant in Ontario – just across the river from Detroit – tells us that a fifth of new employees are college graduates.

‘Potential employees are required to take examinations which measure reading, writing and mathematics ability, manual dexterity and interpersonal skills ... The tests automatically favour the well educated.’

But the higher educational qualifications do not make the job itself any less tedious. ‘Workers must have the flexibility to perform more than one job. To keep the plant running smoothly and to cut down on overtime pay, assembly line employees are often expected to fill in for absentee workers, or ease the workload in other sections of the plant.’ Nor has the shift to higher qualifications altered something else – the continual pressure from management to keep pay down.

Even conventional measurements of living standards show that in what is still the most industrially advanced capitalist state, the US, average real wages have been falling since the mid-1970s. In Japan, pay increases in the 1980s were only about a third of those in the early 1970s despite rapid growths in productivity. And in both countries average working hours are substantially higher than in most of Europe.

There is only one way capitalists who want to stay in business can respond if their competitors have both lower labour costs and higher labour skills – they have to put the pressure on wages and conditions themselves. A policy of simply opting for higher skills is no answer. The logic of the system demands it is accompanied by an intensification of exploitation.

That is why throughout Europe governments that used to be committed to the ‘social market’ or ‘social democratic’ policies preached by the likes of Hutton are now complaining that their workers have it too easy and that wages, working conditions and welfare benefits have to be subjected to the demands of the international market.

Those who turn their back on Marx usually denounce him for being ‘deterministic’. In fact, Marx was concerned with achieving conditions under which the great bulk of humanity could enjoy genuine freedom for the first time by taking control of their own destinies. His ‘determinism’ consisted in recognising that is not possible while we are subject to the logic of a system in which we are dominated by the alienated products of our own past activity – by a system based on blind competition between capitalist firms and capitalist states.

The harder workers toil within this system, the more they help pile up capital over which they have no control and so create even more pressure on themselves to toil harder – or to be deprived of the possibility of getting a livelihood at all.

People like Hutton and the Labour leadership, by contrast, believe that somehow there is a path to freedom by working to make the present system more efficient. This means putting forward all sorts of fancy schemes to persuade capitalists they can combine being more competitive with being less oppressive to those they exploit. But not all capitalists are stupid, and the most successful are usually those who employ new schemes in such a way as to be more oppressive.

The intellectual turning away from Marxism is, in fact, taking place at a time when Marx’s insights into the insane logic of the system are more valid than ever.

Last updated on 18 December 2009