Labour needs a new revolution

Posted on August 27, 2018


First published in City Press, South Africa, on August 16, 2018

Capitalism is not dying, although it is obviously gravely ill. But this global system, based on competition and the accumulation of private profit, is also extremely resilient. It can survive, but perhaps only at the cost of the suffering and sacrifice of billions of working people.

That much is becoming increasingly obvious, along with an awareness that the working masses will not, to paraphrase the poet Dylan Thomas, go gentle into that good night (mare).

If history is any guide, the exploited and oppressed will rise up in rage and revolution. This could result in a change for better or worse — or even mutually assured destruction. Propelling us all towards that probable tipping point is the digital fourth industrial revolution, about which so much is said, and so little done to prepare for its inevitable consequences.

As a result, there is increasing awareness that something must be done. But to the fore are often myth-laden suggestions to resuscitate a system many unionists consider well past its sell-by date.

The latest of these comes from US senator Elizabeth Warren, seen by many as a potential Democratic Party presidential candidate. On August 15, she tabled the Accountable Capitalism Act — and displayed a stunning ignorance of history, shrouded in the myth of the general benefit inherent in capitalism. But this myth, and the distortion of history, has always been part of the armoury of those hoping to lull a restive populace into passivity.

According to Warren, before the 1980s, corporations balanced “their responsibilities to all of their stakeholders” at a time when “profits went up, productivity went up, wages went up”. Then, she added, “a new idea took hold” that “corporations should focus only on maximising returns to their shareholders”.

Like so many who adopt this argument, Warren was peddling myths. During the boom times, profits did go up and wages too, but usually only as a result of bitter struggles by trade unions. Labour in the US has a proud history that gave the world May Day and also survived such horrors as the massacre of the miners at Matewan, West Virginia, and the deadly New York garment fire.

Warren should also be aware of the 1919 Dodge v Ford legal precedent that ruled that it was the fiduciary duty of companies to maximise rewards to shareholders.

Then there is the matter of limited liability and the various offshore tax havens open to big business.

Unlike Bill Gates of Microsoft and Tesla’s Elon Musk, Warren and her ilk, in South Africa and elsewhere, do not acknowledge the apparent certainty of more massive unemployment; that this could bring with it the dystopian vision of islands of extreme affluence surrounded by a sea of seething rage, hopelessness and despair.

It is a vision echoing the 1949 commentary by Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics. He foresaw a future of “unmitigated cruelty”; a time when most of humanity could be cast on to the scrapheap of history, displaced by automation.

Gates and Musk accept the reality of massive armies of jobless people and they propose to placate them by means of a “universal basic income”. This would be a hand-out, financed by a tax on automated labour, that would provide every citizen with a set amount of money to cover basic needs.

The labour movement has largely dismissed this proposal, clutching instead at straws of history, demanding better wages, job retention and creation, but on the same basis advanced by corporations and governments: increased economic growth. Yet to do so is to accept the myth propagated by the likes of Warren.

Time, perhaps, to start thinking differently.