Tom Bramble is a long-term socialist activist, author and retired academic based in Queensland, Australia. He taught Industrial Relations at the University of Queensland for many years and has authored numerous books and articles on the Australian labour movement. He is a member of Socialist Alternative.
- Everyone's a socialist in a crisis, 21 March 2020, Red Flag.
- One of the most prevalent ideological mantras of Western capitalism is that the market should rule. But as the latest health and economic crises demonstrate, capitalists soon forget their worship of the market when times get tough. They scream for government money, and plenty of it. It turns out that “the market” is fine when it comes to whipping workers to accept lower wages, but when it comes to lower profits, the market can go hang.
- Every student with the misfortune to have studied economics at school or university will know that “the market” is the god before which we must all kneel. Markets bring consumers and producers together to ensure an equilibrium of supply and demand, the textbooks tell us. We may all be individuals each pursuing our own private interests, but this selfish endeavour miraculously results in an optimum outcome for all. You don’t even have to step inside a classroom to have received this lesson. It’s rammed home in normal times in every newspaper, in every news bulletin on the TV, in every politician’s speech. Just listen to them. Governments can’t expand spending on Newstart because “the markets” won’t allow it. Governments shouldn’t ramp up public housing because that will throw property markets into a spin. Competition should be opened between universities because a market in education will sift out the bad providers from the good. The champions of the market, if challenged to explain how it is that markets consistently result in supplies of goods lurching from shortages to gluts, point to the economic dysfunction of the old Soviet Union as proof that if “planning” replaces the market, a much bigger disaster ensues. It doesn’t take an Einstein to see what rubbish this is. The last thing any capitalist wants is “free competition”, because that might squeeze their profits. Just look at how the supermarkets have destroyed small shops or how any new industry that emerges is soon dominated by three or four companies globally.
- But there’s another angle to this. Capitalists preach “the market” for the working class – stand on your own two feet, don’t rely on the government – but themselves sponge off the public big time. Just look at the billions in subsidies and tax concessions the fossil fuel companies, huge enterprises for the most part, extract from state and federal governments in Australia. The vehicle manufacturers raked in hundreds of millions a year from the Australian government for decades until deciding it wasn’t enough and went overseas. This is why big companies and industry groups hire armies of former politicians to lobby on their behalf in the offices of premiers and prime ministers – there’s money in government coffers and they want it. And while the capitalists talk about “the market” setting wages for workers, in reality, they don’t really allow the market to do the job. They use the whole apparatus of state repression, the industrial tribunals, the police, the courts to suppress workers’ rights to organise to pursue their demands. But when a crisis hits all the bullshit about the market is thrown to the winds. And that is just what we are seeing now. Faced with the collapse of the capitalist economy, for the second time in a dozen years, with massive bankruptcies on the table and the stock market plunging by more than 30 percent and more to come, fervent advocates of the free market are now embracing government intervention to save their skins.
- The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry is urging the federal government to provide wage subsidies to workers, equivalent in value to Newstart to all businesses experiencing a sharp downturn. It is also asking the government to provide concessional loans of up to half a million dollars, with 80 percent of the debt guaranteed by government, as well as wage subsidies to cover sick leave entitlements. Nothing but corporate welfare of a kind that they have long decried when applied to workers themselves. In the short term, working class households will get some benefits from this cash splash. In Australia welfare beneficiaries will be getting $750 in their bank accounts. in In the United States it is likely that Americans will receiving close to $1,000. But this is just short term relief to get the economy moving. The long term benefits will go to the capitalist class in the form of tax cuts and other financial concessions. The current crisis demonstrates not only that all the ideological nonsense about the virtues of the free market is quickly thrown overboard when capitalist interests are threatened, but also that the idea that governments are essentially powerless in the face of the markets is rubbish. Governments are not helpless victims who cannot do anything in the face of “economic reality”. In the normal course of events, when we demand things like better welfare, health care or education, governments tell us that it isn’t possible.
- Workers every day face their own personal crises – lack of money to pay the rent or the possibility of defaulting on their mortgage because the boss didn’t call them in for work this week, overdue utility bills that must be paid or risk being cut off, expenses for children’s education that fall due, the fear of redundancy. These are crises that are experienced personally but are really a collective crisis of everyday life for working class people. But when we ask for governments to respond, we are told that addressing these things collectively is not possible, and that this is just the way things are. But when the capitalist system goes into crisis, governments act promptly. It turns out that political decisions about the economy are possible and it is wholly possible for governments to tell the markets to go jump.
- Most of the time we’re told that “the economy” can’t afford a decent standard of living for workers – higher minimum wages, liveable Newstart allowances, a massively expanded public housing program to get people out of the private rental market, free university education. Budgets have to balance. Businesses have to be competitive. Taxes have to be kept low. And now, all of a sudden, we’re finding that the economy can, apparently, afford things that we have long demanded. Governments around the world are now laying out money on things that just weeks ago they would have attacked as unaffordable.
- It’s not that governments have suddenly discovered a big pot of gold in the basement of the central banks. They say that they are taking these measures to both protect public health and to save the economy. But it’s obvious which takes priority. The new measures constitute the largest bailout bonanza in world history, carried out through state-administered transfers of public wealth and current and future debt to billionaires and big business: socialisation of losses, privatisation of profits. The outcome will be to further transfer, consolidate and concentrate wealth, just as has occurred since the GFC. While there is discussion about small handouts, nothing serious is being proposed to halt the mass layoffs now gathering steam.
- In pretty much every spending package, subsidies to business, government loans and tax concessions account for two-thirds or more of the funds outlaid. Things that directly benefit workers – the big majority of the population – account for only one-third of the money.
- It turns out that these things, too, can be done. So, in an economic emergency, few of the usual rules apply. Governments can marshal the resources and can threaten the narrow interests of private businesses. Hardcore libertarians despise these measures as rampant socialism. From their perspective, they’re right: the very existence of such programs is condemnation of the free market capitalist model that they promote. But they are best seen only as another approach to the management of the capitalist economy. The fact that governments across the OECD are now prepared to spend trillions of dollar to save the financial system from collapse only confirms that the world economy cannot be left safely in the hands of “the market”. And, the situation clearly confirms that when the capitalist class and governments deem it necessary to save their system, lots of measures they once denounced as “unaffordable”, not permitted by the condition of “the economy”, are actually affordable and permitted. Governments can act when required. The ideological justifications of yesterday are revealed as threadbare. But nor are government interventions of this nature geared towards the interests of the working class, only the interests of the bosses.