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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Little Room for Marx?

In a question and answer column in the NZ Herald (10 Dec. 2005, pC6) Andrew Little, the national secretary of the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU), said that "unions provide a necessary countervailing force to ensure bad management is challenged and employees’ rights are protected". He continued; "unions that do their job properly play a key role in the labour market by keeping upward pressure on wages, advocating for decent health and safety, providing employees’ perspective on issues like productivity and labour market regulation".
According to Andrew Little, the fatally divided capitalist society that Karl Marx described and analysed in his ground-breaking study, Capital, back in the mid-to-late 19th century, no longer exists. Little admitted Marx’s ideas are among "the most enduring political and economic theories of all time" but he said they were only relevant for Marx’s time "when the excesses and contradictions of powerful capital were at their height". For him, capitalism has "survived fully intact" and Marxist solutions have been proved "not so flash". Therefore capitalism’s existence cannot be challenged in the 21st century.
The six hundred maintenance engineers facing the sack at Air New Zealand might have a different view. For Little it is just a question of setting "bad management" back on the right track. At Air NZ this means cutting a deal by which half the workers lose their jobs and the other half do the same or more work for less pay.
However, it is not "bad management" that is the main problem. At the root of the Air NZ attempt to sack 600 of their engineering workforce are the exigencies of the globalised labour market which pits overseas workers against New Zealand workers. The contradictions of capitalism are still very much alive and kicking.
The French trade unionist, Emile Pouget, explained in his early 20th century pamphlet entitled Sabotage, that workers and capitalists, exploited and exploiters are caught in an "ineradicable antagonism". There is a "fundamental opposition of interests between the two parties" that remains as long as human labour power is treated as a commodity to be bought and sold.
There is nothing more normal in a capitalist society than for the "flesh for toil" to be sought after and bought at the lowest possible price. It is not the labour that the worker supplies that is bought but the very power to work itself, which is then used by the employer to the fullest possible extent while the worker is being paid to be a "wage slave" (to use Karl Marx’s still apt description). The wage paid bears little or no relation to the amount of labour performed. It is supply and demand, bottoming at the lowest possible "necessary" wage to keep a labour supply in existence, that determines the price of labour power: that and the ability of the organised working class to push up wages. Little understands that last part.
Pouget observed that the problem for the capitalists is that "labour power is an integral part of a reasoning being, endowed with a will and the capacity to resist and react". This power to resist has, for as long as people have been exploited by others, led to various forms of revolt. The one that Pouget examined is called "sabotage". This word derives from the French "sabot", meaning wooden shoe, and refers to the clumsy way sabot-clad peasant strike-breakers carried out the work otherwise done by the more skilled and experienced workers who were on strike for better pay and conditions. French workers adopted this word to describe their tactics of simulating such clumsy work in order to put pressure on the capitalist owners to accede to their claims.
Glasgow dockers in 1889 were some the earliest recorded exponents of this form of resistance. Their strike of that year was broken by the employers use of farmhands to load and unload the ships. The scabs worked very inefficiently because of their lack of experience at dock-work. When the strikers were forced to return to work without making any gains in pay they decided to "ca cannie" (ie go slow). They emulated the mistake-ridden work habits of the scab replacements who had now returned to their farms. After a few days of rough cargo handling that led to not a little of it falling overboard or being otherwise damaged, the employers caved in and gave the sought-after pay rise.
The main point being made by Pouget is that workers naturally attempt to restrain the natural exploitative tendencies of their bosses. Other means of direct action, like striking, boycotts, sit-ins and the like are also employed by resisting workers.
No completely "fair" contract is possible between boss and worker because this would eliminate the surplus that makes up the essential profit margin of the capitalist. Only unequal "lion and lamb" contracts exist in this social relationship. From this fact, Pouget explains, "it necessarily follows that in the labour market there are nothing but two belligerent armies in a state of permanent warfare ... between employers and workers there is never, nor ever will be made, a binding and lasting understanding, a contract in the true and loyal sense of the word". Pouget stresses: "Capital and labour are two worlds that violently clash together!"
If Andrew Little started from this inescapable reality of modern society, he might be able to come up with a strategic and tactical response to the proposed closure of the heavy repair facilities by Air NZ that would put workers’ interests first. Instead he clings to the fiction that bosses and workers share a common interest in running efficient work sites, that workers cannot exist without bosses, and that capitalism is the only possible way to organise society.
Air NZ, although it is being run as a profit-making capitalist enterprise, is 82 per cent owned by the government on behalf of the people of New Zealand. Those people, if asked, would, I am sure, rather keep Air NZ running as a safe and essential part of our country’s transport infrastructure than see its existence and safe operation compromised by the requirements of "the market". The main purpose of an airline should be providing safe and reliable air transport, not maximising profits.
The EPMU must mobilise public opinion to force the government to take full control of Air NZ and operate it for the public good. In the event of a shut-down of the repair facilities, workers should stage an occupation of their workplaces until the decision is reversed and their jobs are safeguarded. The Argentinean co-operative movement that grew out of the collapse of capitalism in that country in the 1990s was initiated by worker occupations to prevent the destruction and liquidation of vital manufacturing and transport infrastructure. New Zealand workers should take a leaf out of the Argentineans’ book.
In conclusion: The history of the 20th century was one of wars and revolutions; what has changed in the 21st century? Marxist analysis endures because the conditions it describes endure to this day. While the labour market prevails, the class struggle continues. Denying this can only help perpetuate the destructive capitalist society that daily blights our lives, our environment, and our humanity.


Anonymous said...

An excellent piece, Len. Try sending it to the Herald and ask for it to be printed as a response to Little. Post it on Indymedia as well.

Len Richards said...

Thanks "anonymous". I will give the Herald a shot. Little is a creature of his ideology and beliefs. (Aren't we all?). Workers deserve to have other view points presented to them. I am confident that the "marxist" view will be, by and large, in tune with their lived experiences.

Mellie said...

Len, I've been doing my bit to stoke up a bit of debate, I would recommend you go read a few pieces here (my piece) and a post here with links to a little debate happening elsewhere. Would be interested in your thoughts.