Saturday, March 7, 2015

My Log 462 Mar 7 2015: My youthful beliefs gain a new credence in the current crisis of a world beset by capitalism

James Keir Hardie was an early democratic soci...
James Keir Hardie was an early democratic socialist, who founded the Independent Labour Party in Great Britain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Plaque recording the location of the formation...
Plaque recording the location of the formation of the British Labour Party in 1900. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I grew up in a country where a left-wing Labour Party was elected to government when I was seven. They won comfortably with 45 per cent of the vote, and three years later, after creating the English-speaking world’s first national health scheme, they won even more, 55 per cent of the votes with a turnout of more than 90 per cent.
I was ten by that time, but in the years that followed I had to become accustomed to an unusual situation --- that although the government had the overwhelming support of voters, one never read a published word in their favour from any of the many newspapers that were then publishing, usually two in every city, up and down the country.  I used to read foreign magazines in the local public library, and can remember my surprise when I discovered that such a well-established and respectable-looking journal as The New Statesman and Nation  in Britain followed an unashamedly socialist line of thought.
When I got to high school during the war, I discovered another surprising thing: that most of my teachers were followers of Labour, and that even so distinguished a person as the Rector one day told us in a chemistry class that  he was taking in an emergency, that “there will be no millionaires in the future, you know, that’s over!”
Given these conditions it is not altogether surprising, I would say, that I put together a left-wing set of views that gave me the satisfaction of belonging to  what seemed like a band of reforming brothers, and that, in my youthful naivete I should somewhere along the way have decided that no one should be allowed to earn more than 5,000 pounds a year, that the banks and insurance companies should be nationalised in the public interest, and that at a minimum every person should be guaranteed the income to provide him or her with a reasonable standard of living.
In the years of my teens, my idea of serious politics was fulfilled by the action of a former Labour Party minister in stumping the country with a speech delivered in crowded halls and theatres, arguing for the nationalization of the banks.
Probably no reader will be surprised to learn that when I entered the world of journalism at the age of 17, I automatically assumed that I would never agree with the politics of the newspaper that employed me, nor  was it remarkable to my way of thinking that such a condition applied during the next twenty-five years in the eight newspapers for which I worked in four countries.
It was inevitable, I suppose, that the Labour party should eventually disappoint me, which happened when our Labour Prime Minister returned from Britain --- four years after the war --- having been convinced by Winston Churchill that we needed military conscription to face up to the so-called Soviet threat. Thereafter he stumped the country side by side  with the conservative leader to espouse his new cause in a referendum that he not only won, but that split his party down the middle so thoroughly that in 1949 the  electorate  threw Labour into the dustbin for more than a decade. At which point, I suppose one could say I decided to follow my bliss, and  left the country, to which I did not return --- and then only briefly --- for 25 years.
The betrayal of principles by that particular politician was a bitter lesson to me: when he had first been elected to Parliament during the First World War, he was in jail for sedition, having opposed the imposition of conscription, even in wartime. It has been tough for me to believe in the protestations of politicians since learning that lesson.
Of course, in the rest of the world I found the situation for a young socialist was even more desperate. Throughout the Western world, conservative parties swept the board in election after election. And in those countries that professed --- and to a certain extent practised --- socialism, free elections were almost never held. So although my old beliefs in a limited maximum wage and a fixed minimum wage, in nationalization of the commanding heights of the economy (to quote the phrase once espoused, and later abandoned, by the British Labour Party), have always seemed to me to be relevant for the building of a world of equal opportunity, I have long since ceased to advocate them on a regular basis.
Recently I have begun to get a feeling that those old beliefs did not mark me as an antediluvian leftist romantic, after all, but maybe rather as a canny thinker who may have been years ahead of his time. For nowadays, many earnest thinkers about the problems of the world seem to be coming to the conclusion that the current  tremendous man-made rise in economic inequalities can only be reversed by the assumption of the afore-mentioned limits on personal incomes, and establishment of minimal standards for the lower income levels, in other words, for a State-mandated redistribution of income. Arguments from the left  that the very system of capitalism itself, with its worship of profit as the primary and only motive for doing business, is standing in the way of humankind being able to solve its problems, keep coming from a broad range of thinkers, including many Americans whose work appears on the internet, including Naomi Klein, Canada’s  answer to Noam Chomsky, including such as David Harvey, brilliant British intellectual who, in this recent revival, is to be found at the centre of much “new” thinking. While some of these theorists may not specifically espouse the economic measures I have described, their critiques of Western foreign policies followed by leaders whose actions are shot through with double standards on every issue, certainly suggest a disenchantment with capitalism that is music to my ears. Of course, Americans have always protested against their governments that were from the first dictated by the elites, as described by Howard Zinn in his many remarkable works, but a valid criticism of such protests is that they have seldom been attached to specific proposals that could be put to an informed electorate. In short, they tend to be more like social protests than political in the accepted sense of the term.
Readers may  imagine my surprise at this encouraging turn of events. Of course, I am no longer 17, but closer to 87, which seems to suggest that one must take the long view if one is ever to hope to see one's cherished desiderata carried into effect.  
In particular, these thoughts have been stimulated by an article published recently by a group called Ricochet written by a former labour movement activist Al Engler, under the title Tax the Super-rich.
(Engler worked for many years as a cook on coastal towboats and for a decade as secretary-treasurer and then president of Local 400, Marine Section, International Longshore & Warehouse Union - Canada. He has participated in movements to protect environments, against war, for the rights of women, native people, immigrants, gays and lesbians, and for social housing. He is author of Apostles of Greed, Capitalism and the Myth of the Individual in the Market 1995, and his more recent Economic Democracy, the Working Class Alternative to Capitalism, 2010).
What is interesting about Engler’s article is that he has thought out and written down the details of the sort of actions that might be required if such a change in our world is to be accomplished. Here are some notes on his thinking:
First, the Achilles heel of Keynsian solutions: when governments took responsibility to act to protect the interests of common people (which lasted until about 1970), taxes on personal income rose to 80 per cent, and corporate taxes to 50 per cent, giving the public sector money for such programmes as the New Deal, and the national health service in Canada, and liveable pensions, the sort of programmes that conservatives incredibly argue we no longer have the money for (although our country is wealthier than ever before)
Second, Thatcher and Reagan argued that "giving capitalists more money and freeing corporations to maximize profits would be generally beneficial, trickling down to the masses." Since 1980 this has been proven disastrously wrong, lower taxes resulting in the richest one per cent no longer having access to 10 per cent of all income, but 20 per cent! Thus 10 per cent of the nation's income has been transferred from public revenues to private capital. 
Third, with more private capital, the super-rich are more and more able to manipulate politics, with the result that regulation of corporate finance and industry is weaker, unions have been  curtailed, real wages fallen, unemployment risen, and capital is free to go where it likes.
Fourth, naturally public deficits have increased while the rich have used their money in casino capitalism, adding little of value, allowing them to demand austerity --- in other words, to make the ordinary citizen including the poor, pay for their excesses.
Fifth, social  and infrastructure expenditure is frozen, public assets privatized. In extreme cases, more is spent on prisons, surveillance, militarism and war, than on education and culture.

Sixth, capitalism externalizes environmental costs. But humankind cannot do that. The technologies to solve climate change already exist, and “would already be available if solar, wind, wave, and geothermal power had received the investments, tax breaks, and subsidies provided for offshore drilling, fracking, tar sands and oil pipelines.” In face of  “melting polar ice caps and glaciers, rising sea levels, flooding coastal communities, acidifying oceans, more frequent and destructive weather events,” writes Engler, “capital simply disregards the threat.”
Seventh, “so long as major shareholders and top corporate executives are entitled to make major economic decisions in their private interests, capitalist profits will continue to trump employment, labour income, and public services.”
 In summary: “Humankind now faces global crises. Widening disparities in income, opportunities, and control are provoking disorders, militarism, and wars. Emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels threaten the climates on which human well-being depends. Private capital, focused on short-term profits, systemically aggravates these problems. Prevailing ideology is now aggressively hostile to government action. Tax cuts for corporations and the super-rich have reduced necessary public funds,” writes Engler.

Eighth, the solution:
In his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty proposes, according to Mr. Engler:
*corporation taxes should return to 1950s levels;
*personal incomes over $500,000 should be taxed 80 per cent;
*an annual tax is  needed of 0.1 per cent of private wealth over half a million dollars rising in steps perhaps to 2 per cent on wealth over three or five million dollars;
*since homes are already taxed why should stocks, bonds, and other wealth be excluded?
* a progressive estate tax on inheritances over one million dollars;
*a tax of 0.1 per cent on financial transactions. (“He argues that more transparency in income records and better statistics gathering would make it practical for countries to cooperate in preventing income and wealth from being hidden in offshore accounts”, becoming more and more recognized as a scandal in the capitalist world.)

 Finally, Mr. Engler comes to the nub of his --- and (as I hop on board) my  --- plan for a better world:
“Taxing capital could provide local governments with funds to reduce disparities and expand social services. Public spending on green infrastructure would provide more employment and increase market demand. Public spending to reconfigure cities could make it practical for people to live their daily lives without cars. Public spending on solar, wind, wave, and geothermal power as well as public transit would reduce carbon emissions and generate more jobs.
“Of course the super-rich will aggressively object. But everyone else will gain.”
Just as it seemed so obvious to me when I was 17, I still don’t see how any reasonable person could object to such measures.

1 comment:

  1. Boyce .... a speech I recently heard given by Richard Denniss of the Australian Institute at the ANU which I think you would like ...

    Steve, Canberra ...