The Social Re-Forum of Aotearoa

From Class Struggle 52, September/October 2003

The Social Forum Aotearoa is meeting in November at Porirua to gather together those ‘social movements’ in NZ that are broadly anti-globalist and anti-capitalist.  The fundamental problem with these WSF currents is that they are reformist, believing it possible to overcome the defects of capitalism internationally without overthrowing it. The reason for this is that the gurus who dominate the WSF like Naomi Klein, George Monbiot, Noam Chomsky and Walden Bello, say that capitalist exploitation is caused by unequal exchange driven by powerful elites who can be replaced by more powerful masses.  We agree that a ‘A New World Is Possible’. But this must not be the old world order in new clothes, but a new socialist world.
The purpose of this article is to explain why this understanding of capitalism is wrong and why it leads to such disastrous consequences. Some anti-globalists like Monbiot argue that globalisation can only be resisted by an international civil society developing out of the institutions like the UN. This tendency is theorised in the book Empire by Hardt and Negri. Others seek to reclaim national sovereignty from these globalising forces. In NZ, ARENA, the Alliance, some Greens, and academics like Jane Kelsey, take this position (see article on Trade Wars).  These two positions overlap considerably, but can become somewhat antagonistic at the extremes.
We shall show that logically both of these approaches are two sides of a false coin which wrongly mistakes globalisation for a ‘transnationalisation’ of the location of power and wealth.  That is, international capitalism has centralised its power by undermining and then transcending the power of nation states. The question then becomes how to match this global power on an international level, and/or how to fight to reclaim national sovereignty at the local level?
Both strategies result from a common conception that the capitalists use their power to enforce unequal exchange between capital and labour. This inequality can be corrected at either global or local level by mobilising the counter-power of the masses to take over the capitalist state. For example, the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement adopts the strategy of attacking the global headquarters of multinational capital, while others favour the strategy of organising and linking local resistances to globalisation.  
Market fetishism
The key to understanding the different currents of the WSF is to see where they go wrong in their theory of capitalism.  They misunderstand the nature of capitalist political power. They see capital as exploitative because capitalists use their power to extract surplus from producers by underpaying them for their labour during the process of exchange. For them what is wrong with capitalism is the unequal exchange in the market that robs the producers and enriches the bosses.  Therefore exploitation can be resisted by workers mobilising their power and struggling until wages become equal to their value, and by nationalising the wealth accumulated from their past unpaid wages. This is political logic of the exchange theory of David Ricardo the foremost classical political economist critiqued by Marx in Capital.
The problem with Ricardo’s theory of capitalism was that he took the exchange relations of capitalism to be the basis of exploitation.  He equated capitalism with the market rather than with a set of historically unique social relations. 
For Marx, what distinguished the capitalist market from the earlier development of the market was the way it turned everything into commodities which exchanged more or less at their values (the socially-necessary-labour-time –SNLT, or the normal hours of workers using typical machines –required to produce them).
However, Ricardo could not explain why the value of one ‘commodity’, labour, which he agreed created the value in commodities, was paid less than this value. As Marx pointed out, Ricardo failed to understand that capitalism had created a new form of exploitation by making labour-power into a commodity. The capitalist bought the worker’s labour-power in order to create value. Labour-power was the only commodity capable of producing more value than its own value. Its own value was the socially necessary labour-time (SNLT) required to produce the commodities workers needed to consume to replenish their labour-power (i.e. the workers consumption). Because Labour was equal to the value of the product of labour-power the two could not be equated.
By forcing workers off the land and into industry capitalists could buy this labour-power at its value, produced by workers during part of the working day –necessary labour time –but also force workers to work for a longer period –surplus labour time –to extract surplus value and hence profits.  (Marx said if capitalists actually paid workers the full value produced by their labour they were idiots and would soon go out of business.)
Marx discovered this because he used a method of analysis that looked beneath the level of market exchange to the underlying social relations of production. For Marx then, it was necessary to explain how capitalism falsely presents production relations as exchange relations so that workers could become conscious of the need to revolutionise the relations of production.
Marx’s theory therefore reveals to workers how production relations come to be fetishised (re-appear falsely in another guise) as exchange relations. This happens because workers do not see the underlying mechanism of surplus-value production and assume that profits are deducted from wages.   This fetishised ideology of the marketplace where individuals appear as actors exchanging their commodities is the material base of the bourgeois ideology of the state representing individual citizens who can mobilise electoral majorities and reform exchange relations. 
From this ideology flows the concept of class exploitation at the level of exchange, of workers participation in parliamentary politics in popular fronts (all those who are in some way exploited by unequal exchange including small capitalists and even national capitalists) and reformist policies of wealth ‘re-appropriation’ or ‘redistribution’ back to the producers as the property or income of all those ‘exploited’ by capital – e.g. the rationale for Hardt and Negri to replace class with ‘multitude’ i.e. all those exploited by unequal exchange.
But more than this, neo-Ricardian theory becomes a practical application of bourgeois ideology when it is actively used by the petty bourgeois agents of capital as social democracy or reformism. This political doctrine tries to eliminate the risk of revolution by putting ‘socialism’ on the ‘installment plan’. Socialism becomes achievable in easy, progressive stages of equalising exchange, first by means of exhausting the potential of the bourgeois state for reforms such as land reform, nationalisation, social welfare etc. so that at some indeterminate point in the future these reforms  will compound into full-blown socialism. But in effect all that is being ‘revolutionised’ here is the fetishised form of capitalist production relations – exchange relations.  Thus even this reformist agenda pre-supposes getting and using state power step by step to defeat the capitalists.
The problem is that capitalist state power is only incidentally a means of determining the value of wages. That is overwhelmingly the role of the labour market. The state’s real purpose is to organise the interests of the ruling class as a state force to guard against any threat to capitalist productive relations.  The ruling class will not concede any state power if it results in their expropriation.
Therefore capitalist state power has to be taken by force and replaced by workers state power to transform capitalist social relations into socialist relations.  But as long as reformists and their exchange theory socialism continue to dominate the labour movement capitalist state power and capitalist social relations will not be challenged and overthrown. Or worse, any challenge will be defeated because workers are not prepared to take power. 
Global anti-capitalism
This is why those who adopt the strategy of global reforms to take power and equalise exchange are wrong. Hardt and Negri are a good example. They say that the enemy is no longer organised into national capitalist classes, but is united into one global Empire. The bosses’ power is now concentrated in global institutions like the IMF, WB, WTO and the big multinational firms. Since these are no longer located within any one nation state, then the anti-global and anti-capitalist forces must also be organised ‘transnationally’. The struggle that results will allow the ‘multitude’ (or the ‘new proletariat’) to become global citizens, win a ‘social wage’ (i.e. a guaranteed income) and assert its right to re-appropriate’ of capital.
S11 and the war on terrorism proves this theory wrong. The enemy is still imperialism organised on a national basis. US imperialism is based on US national territory and its government and military are violently advancing its interests with the war on terrorism and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.  Hardt and Negri have been forced to explain the post-S11 imperialist war and growing rivalry between US and EU as a regression of US imperialism back to nationalistic politics. But instead of seeing that this is neither a regression nor something confined to the US alone, they pronounced EU multilateralism as a more progressive stage of transnational capitalism, or Empire, and the UN as the body that represents the reformist potential of transnational government that can made to deliver on the masses’ demand for global citizenship, social wage and re-appropriation.
S11 has therefore knocked down, along with the twin towers, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, the reformist illusion that transnational capital is no longer located in rival imperialist powers. On the contrary, the conflict between the US and EU was not about the US breaking from its multinational obligations, but rather the naked re-emergence of rivalry between US and EU imperialism for control of territory, resources and markets.  Far from reflecting a victory of the ‘new proletariat’ in Europe to pressure Empire to concede its demands, EU imperialism is busy driving down workers living standards, cutting their social wage and ‘re-appropriating’ the gains of past workers struggles.
Therefore if there is no transnational location of power which determines production of surplus, there can be no transnational location of resistance to take power and reclaim the surplus.  This leaves the global anti-capitalists in their millions, reading Monbiot, marching without direction on the streets, incapable of organising anti-imperialist movements to defeat the military power of the imperialist states, and incapable of forming military blocs with oppressed states under attack from imperialism.  Worse, they are diverted from the elementary task of rebuilding independent organisations capable of mobilising workers to combat the deadly popular fronts of the reformist left with the bourgeoisie, religious extremists etc in the name of ‘civil society’. So maybe those who say that the better strategy to fight globalisation is that of reclaiming national sovereignty have a point?
National anti-capitalism
The nationalists at least recognise that power is not globally located outside national borders. Therefore they are usually on the side of oppressed countries against imperialism. But they make the same mistake of fetishising the power of nation states (as opposed to transnational states) to overcome unequal exchange. They think that reclaiming political sovereignty at the national level will allow them to regain control over their economies and the distribution of wealth.
To refute the nationalist position all we need to do is point to the history of social democracy. Whenever mass social democratic parties have become the government and attempted to use state power to radically redistribute wealth or equalise exchange by nationalisation etc, they have been overthrown by imperialist-backed coups or imperialist invasions. The high point of post WW2 social democracy was the 1970s when Chile, Portugal and Nicaragua all attempted to introduce radical social democratic reforms and were all overthrown by right wing coups.
After such defeats, including the fall of the Soviet Bloc, social democracy retreated a long way to the right and adopted neo-liberal policies imposing the costs of imperialism’s crises on the backs of workers and peasants. Where social democrats have won elections, as today in Latin America, not only can they not roll back neo-liberalism and win any substantial reforms, they are forced to attack their working class supporters. For example, Lula’s Workers Party in Brazil, the most left wing party in power in Latin America, is forced to govern in a popular front with the big boss party of Alencar and implement the World Bank’s policies. Lula is now busy suppressing rising opposition within his ranks.
This means that the same state power that the reformists claim can be taken over to win back sovereignty and protect the economy, is inevitably used against them by international capital. The state is the agency of imperialisms’ crisis policies and the means of repressing all challenges to its rule. The reformists dream turns into the workers’ nightmare.
The only power that can win control over the economy is the workers’ power used to overthrow the state and to impose a workers government and socialist plan. And that will not happen unless the domination of the labour movement by reformists in the WSF is exposed as grounded in a petty-bourgeois neo-Ricardian theory of unequal exchange. Not until revolutionary Marxists in the workers movement can build a class conscious vanguard party with a genuinely revolutionary theory and program to leader the masses will the prospect of workers power become real.
As we have seen,  the problem with the global and local strategies being debated in the WSF movement is not that one fights at a global level and the other at a national level, but that both are incapable of winning state power and taking control of, and planning,  the international economy.  This is because they fail to understand to real nature of capitalist production and the capitalist state.
By taking the fetishised forms of capital as real, the anti-globalisation strategy of the internationalists becomes a diversion from the real struggles that must initially be located within nation states. S11 has shown that faith in building an international social democracy on the basis of the UN or even the EU is utopian and dangerous.  It deludes those layers of workers and youth who are idealistically opposed to the effects of imperialism into the dead end of de-territorialised and directionless struggle against a non-existent transnational state. Instead these kids get beaten or shot by US, Italian or German cops and military.
On the other hand, while the nationalists are at least fighting on the ground where the worst effects of globalising imperialism are felt, their strategy is to sow illusions in social democrats winning state power from the capitalists without an armed struggle. As the history of Latin America demonstrates and today again shows, state power will not be conceded to the workers. It has to be taken by force and used by the masses to create workers governments that can take control of the national economies and begin to build federations of socialist republics and economic cooperation between countries.
The task of revolutionaries is to explain to those who are attracted to the WSF solution to capitalist imperialism that it is an adaptation to imperialism not a solution. We say that the WSF is a forum for the promotion of a reformist politics grounded in a fetishised ideology of capitalism. We say the leadership of the WSF hides their reformist politics behind a façade of ‘democracy’ that in effect denies workers’ democracy. The WSF leadership refuses to allow political parties to affiliate because it knows that this would invite serious debates leading to exposure and challenge of their reformist agenda.
As revolutionaries we want to break the rank and file participants in the WSF from its reformist agenda. The way to do this is to demand freedom of speech and organisation within the WSF. In this way those who see the necessity to expose and defeat the reformist agenda can challenge the WSF to take positions on the important questions of our time – the defence of Iraq against imperialism; against Lula’s popular front in Brazil; for workers occupation and control –without compensation –of factories like in Argentina etc.  CWG will do so on the basis of the 21 principles contained in the document calling for a conference of principled Trotskyists and revolutionary workers. As we say in that document, our urgent task is to refound a new world party of socialism that can unite the theory and practice of revolutionary Marxism in a program to overthrow capitalism and build socialism.

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