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Nigel Harris

Evading the problem

(March 1983)

From Socialist Review, No. 52, March 1983, p. 34.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Socialist Economic Review 1982
Edited by David Currie and Malcolm Sawyer
Merlin. £4.95

This is an odd book. It is a collection of fifteen papers from a 1981 conference on alternative economic strategies (for a Labour Government, presumably), with eight commentaries, but lacking either a common political conception or a central preoccupation. Thus, to the patchy quality inevitable in any collection of this kind, is added a central political difficulty. The best pieces are those most removed from any particular ‘socialist’ concern, the most academic pieces (see Rubery and Tarling’s Women in recession); the most ‘socialist’, those that rant. Only one contributor, John Palmer, steps outside the parochial concerns of this island to the awful realities beyond.

However, underlying the book or rather, many of the contributors’ pieces there is a unifying problem, a problem most people seem to want to evade: that of power. There are those whose primary concern is to identify a problem:

‘Women remain trapped in a vicious circle that can only be broken by a major and comprehensive set of initiatives on the part of a government committed to ending women’s financial dependence on men.’ (Gardiner and Smith, p. 39)

There are those ingenious in formulating remedies. But who is to do what needs to be done, and how plausible is it to assume they will do it? Most quietly assume the government will somehow do something in principle; the State is the friend of the reformers, not part of the problem (whoever forms the Cabinet). It is the lack of attention to means which gives what Schott calls ‘that certain air of Utopia that surrounds Alternative Economic Strategies’. (p. 176)

Can the State be an agency for reforms? Clearly it can, as the historical record shows. But it would be foolish to think it is with equal intensity at all times. Is this the time when reform is part of the potential agenda? What are the conditions of reform? There are two obvious ones. The first seems to be when the State is obliged to reform for fear of something worse (a question we will return to). Another is when the State’s revenue is buoyant so it has greater capacity to increase expenditure on worthwhile things. This second condition is lacking today; the slump, flat profit rates, squeezes the State’s capacity to reform. Thus, it might seem, the serious reformer must pay attention to raising the State’s financial capacity to reform that is, undertake measures to restore profit rates and so, buoyant public revenues.

The particular features of the present time do not receive searching examination, although John Harrison (the Left opponent of Alternative Economic Strategies) remarks that revolution is easier in present circumstances than reform simply because of the nature of the times:

‘It would be harder to implement a radical Alternative Economic Strategy than a fuller take over. In fact, it would be damned near impossible.’ (p. 126)

Some contributors embrace the belief that a reorganisation of the State and its relationship to companies can overcome the underlying economic problem. The ‘planning agreement’ at times comes to bear the magic of a wand. But the magic unfortunately varies also with the profit rate: with more profits, there might be more agreements; with less, companies are forced to fight for their survival. Then someone must decide who is in control: as Harrison asks:

‘Who decides when agreement cannot be reached? Capital or government? Who has real control?’

If the hypothetical government’s grip on business is slippery, what of labour? There is much loose talk of ‘industrial democracy,’ forms of organisation to mediate controls. David Lipsey (the Right opponent of the Alternative Economic Strategy) is no less brutal than Harrison:

‘Either the (National Planning – NH) Commission will tell the workers what to produce, in which case they are not behaving democratically. Or the workers will tell them what they will produce, in which case there is precious little planning.’ (p.113)

If the State is a weak reed for the reformers, they need a force capable of obliging the State to reform. But that logic goes in the opposite direction to the inclinations of many of the contributors. Of course, all are inclined at lagging moments in the drama to wheel in the secret weapon from the wings the ‘working class’. But it is play, a character without flesh, hypothetical. MacLennan notes regretfully that the Alternative Economic Strategy seems to be ‘something devised by the big battalions, institutions like the Labour Party or the TUC’. (p. 103)

Or, more accurately, not devised by, but devised for, by outsiders seeking to influence the ‘big battalions.’ Yet the big battalions cannot remain enamoured simply with good ideas for reform; they have to worry about the survival of the ‘British economy,’ which brings us back to the unpleasant problem of the level of profits.

There is one sad little piece by Owen Jones that pleads for a larger role for ‘working people’ in the Strategy. But, regrettably, the piece collapses into a plea to sugar the Strategy pill it needs to:

‘offer concrete advances (to workers – NH) while simultaneously promoting a sense of hegemony amongst working people.’

Leaving aside the hint of ‘economism’, much deplored by other contributors, the last proposal smacks of persuading workers that they can ride the horse without actually doing any riding.

The ‘working class’ is a myth for the contributors beside the well-trodden paths of economic analysis and speculation. Indeed, apart from wanting to do workers good and talk of ‘industrial democracy’, there does not seem to be much that is socialist about the volume at all. All too often the issue of power fades into ‘opening up space for socialist, and feminist ideas and greater equalitarianism to flourish’ (Gardiner and Smith, p. 39). Hearts and minds may run society, not capital; and even if they don’t, the Left can find some corner to hide.

The harder people keep their eye firmly on the State. Here the elasticity of language allows the ‘abolition of capitalism’ to merge imperceptibly in ‘the defence of capitalism’, just as it did between 1945 and 1951. Then a Labour Government, in order to ‘abolish capitalism’, implemented a programme which was a diluted version of one put forward by Harold MacMillan in 1938 with the intention of protecting capitalism. In 1964, Harold Wilson borrowed the same bag of tricks. Then the fight for reforms becomes a means of recruiting the Left for the defence of established society. Meanwhile, the struggle for socialism goes on.

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