Universities and Colleges of Further Education

In response to the derisory £50 million extra funding announced by the government to alleviate ‘student hardship’, the NUS has reminded us that students are currently being required to pay  for accommodation  they can neither  access nor, with casual  employment dried up, afford. The NUS is calling for a return to maintenance grants, more funding and an end to extortionate housing costs. In the longer term it wants a move towards ‘fully funded education’.

Communist would agree and go much further. The purposes of universities and colleges of further education are, as we see them, to provide free, open access, lifetime education to UK citizens and to conduct research that benefits the whole of society. This is best achieved when they are embedded in the local community and maintain an open door to local people. Universities should not act as businesses selling degrees in an international market. It is this mistaken aim that results in them being run by over-paid Chief Executives. Our vision of a university would be run democratically by workers, especially academics who work in the university, and other representatives from the wider community, including those from trade unions.

New Labour bears a heavy responsibility for promoting the disastrous business model for universities and treating degrees as commodities against which purchasers need to borrow. As in other areas, New Labour set the ball rolling which subsequent Tory and Tory/Lib Dem coalition governments continue to keep kicking down the road.

What can be done? It will be a hard struggle to achieve the free, open access, lifetime education we need. This is part of the wider political struggle in which the Communist Party is engaged. The Communist University in South London (CUiSL) does, however, demonstrate, on a very small scale and without any state backing or resources beyond those provided by the Communist Party, a viable, alternative model for university level education based on open and free access. It is for this reason that the Croydon Branch of the CP decided at its AGM this month to re-activate CUiSL as soon as classes at Ruskin House can safely resume. It was also decided that CUiSL would be returning to class discussions of topics and classic Marxist texts rather than committing itself to further extensive research projects such as global warming paper and (until it passed it over to the CP Economics Commission) banking.

I will post up specific proposals and plans for CUiSL as soon as we have them.

INCOMPETENT, CORRUPT AND MENDACIOUS

Writing in the Guardian today (Monday 1 February) Nesrine Malik struggles with the problem of why, with its ‘incompetent, corrupt and mendacious handling of the pandemic’ the Tories retain an approval rating of around 40% in the polls. Partial explanations are offered, including a mass media compromised by “credulity and ideological fellow feeling” (whether this includes the Guardian itself is not elucidated) and reluctance by voters to dump a failing leader at times of national crisis – not something that saved Neville Chamberlain. The actual cause of the Tories’ resilience lies, however, closer to the Guardian’s door than Nesrine Malik might care to ponder. The Guardian, with its unambiguous ‘remain’ line and tepid support for Jeremy Corbyn when he was under attack by the Parliamentary Labour Party, must assume some responsibility for the resulting compromised state of the Labour Party under its new leader, Sir Keir Starmer. But this is not the whole story. Things could have gone differently.

 Corbyn’s successful leadership campaign in 2017 revealed what many of us knew at the time: there is a substantial, largely unrepresented, body of opinion that wants, and will campaign for, socialism.  With very few exceptions, the Parliamentary Labour Party harbours no such ambition, and it did everything it could to undermine and eventually remove Jeremy Corbyn. Yet he could have prevailed if he been able to convince a clear majority of Labour Party members and Labour voters to respect the EU referendum and leave the EU. As this was actually Corbyn’s own view, it would not have been an impossible task. There was an excellent case that could have been made for ‘leave’ that had nothing to do with the Tories’ appeals to xenophobia and racism.  

 As the Communist Party has long recognised, the EU, with its powerless parliament and unalterable judgments by its Court of Justice, is fundamentally undemocratic and quite impossible to reform from the inside.  Indeed, as Greece demonstrated, had we abandoned Sterling and adopted the Euro as Tony Blair wished, even the option to leave would have been foreclosed. To counterpose, as the EU does, the free movement of capital with the free movement of labour is to entrench the power of the former and fetter the power of the latter. If Corbyn had stood by his principles and made these arguments to Labour members and Labour voters, he could have won them over. Instead, the Brexit debate inside the Labour Party, as elsewhere, was concerned with other issues, some real, some emotional, conducted through the medium of endless parliamentary squabbling which voters failed to understand and with which they soon tired. The Labour line on the EU in the 2019 general election was confused, the election was lost and Corbyn could be effortlessly ejected by the Parliamentary Labour Party and replaced by Starmer.

Is it then so surprising that public opinion has not turned from the Tories and to Labour? Labour under Starmer offers no prospect of radical reform, still less a road to socialism.  Labour under Starmer reverts to the traditional offer expected from right wing Labour:  we will manage capitalism better than the Tories. If voters are bored with or indifferent to this offer, even in the face of ‘incompetent, corrupt and mendacious handling of the pandemic’, who can blame them?

If only we could impeach Boris Johnson

Given our political system, restricted democracy and private ownership of mass media, there is little prospect of holding the present government, and Boris Johnson in particular, to account for their mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic. We lack even the theoretical possibility that exists under the US Constitution of impeaching the leader of the government. Impeachment is a power that should be invested in a second chamber, but the House of Lords is spectacularly unsuitable for exercising this power. Not only is it unrepresentative, it’s stuffed with Tory donors and cronies of the Prime Minster and his predecessors.

Our political affairs don’t have to be organised in this way. One alternative to the House of Lords would be a second chamber selected by lottery, a system called ‘sortition’ that has its roots in ancient Greek democracy.  The field for selection might be drawn from everyone over a certain age or from only those who self-nominate. Unlike the present House of Lords, the term should be fixed and convicted felons and the certifiably insane excluded. Such a body would be well placed to consider a motion to impeach the Prime Minister or any of his ministers.  To maintain its reputation and public esteem it should also have the power to impeach its own members by a majority or qualified majority vote.

Impeachments requires an inditement. In a more democratic system this would originate in the lower chamber but in our two party system distorted by first-past- the-post voting and a capitalist controlled media, we clearly cannot leave this to the House of Commons.  Exceeding a threshold vote in a plebiscite would be the best way of creating an inditement for the second chamber to consider.

We all probably have our own ideas about what an inditement of Boris Johnson for dereliction of duty and mis-management of the Covid-19 pandemic should contain. What are yours?

Carbon Tax

Capitalism’s shambolic response to Covid, especially that of the Johnson government, does not bode well for its ability to address the climate change crisis. Professor Henry D Jocoby’s advocacy in the Guardian on Tuesday, 5 January, of a fiscally neutral carbon tax to contain emissions is a timely reminder of the tough decisions that will be needed. A government such as ours which seems intent on not annoying its own most reactionary supporters while being willing to exploit workers, including teachers, NHS staff and other ‘key’ workers, to breaking point appears particularly unsuited for the task.  

Professor Jacoby’s proposal is not a new one. A fiscally neutral  carbon tax was advocated by James Hansen in his book Storms of my Grandchildren  more than ten years ago and was endorsed in the discussion paper on Global Warming by the Communist University in South London (link below). As for the rate for such a tax, Professor Jacoby gives by way of example a rate of $0.50 per Kilogram of CO2, but James Hansen saw this tax as one that would be increased annually until even the least costly hydro-carbons to extract would not be worth extracting. Some indication of the eventual rate of such a tax is provided by the marginal cost of Saudi Arabian crude, which is thought to be currently around $4 per barrel and its selling price of around $60 a barrel. A barrel of oil contains around 0.4 kg of CO2. To keep Saudi oil in the ground would take a tax of $56 a barrel or $140 per kilogram of CO2.  Some estimates of the cost of environmental damage per kilogram  of CO2  are indeed of this order, but such a high final rate might not be called for as green energy sources would expand to replace first the more expensive hydrocarbons. Nevertheless, even less high carbon tax rates would not only impoverish workers, they would create an immense tax revenue that governments would be unable to spend efficiently. This explains the need for a fiscally neutral tax. This neutrality would be achieved by re-distributing most of the proceeds of the tax on a per capita basis, enabling workers to pay the higher energy costs resulting from gradually turning off the tap of hydrocarbons. The possibility of implementing a realistic Universal Basic Income might at last become a real possibility.

A carbon tax would, of course, not be confined to oil. It would apply to all hydrocarbons including those implicit in imports. Thus a system of assessing and accounting for carbon content in all commodities would be called for. Only in this way can governments be held to account for CO2 emissions and their inclination to meet national CO2 reduction targets simply by closing manufacturing and substituting imported products forestalled.

A capitalist government would, of course, be unlikely to distribute the tax proceeds from a carbon tax on a per capita basis. It is fundamental to a capitalist economy that labour receives only sufficient to enable it to reproduce while the social surplus is accumulated by capital. Whether this remains possible, i.e. whether capitalism can survive global warming, is an open question that will be tested.    

GLOBAL WARMING – CUiSL discussion paper

UNDERSTANDING THE UK-EU AGREEMENT

It’s not easy to understand the draft UK-EU Agreement on Trade and Co-operation, but you will find a link to it below if you wish to try. For an excellent overall political assessment, I recommend that by Rob Griffith, our General Secretary, and John Foster, our International Secretary, in the Morning Star today (28 December 2020). From a totally different perspective there is also an excellent assessment by George Monbiot, link below. Monbiot’s politics encompass a participatory but parliamentary democracy that would somehow ‘respect’ the environment and guarantee welfare for all. Monbiot is neither a Marxist nor its practical embodiment, a communist. The weakness in his approach is apparent to Marxists, but it is nevertheless, encouraging that his assessment has much in common with that of Rob Griffiths and John Foster.


The Labour Party, on the other hand, has offered no clear assessment of the agreement, only a short-term tactical response. Keir Starmer, desperate to project an image of himself as someone who, in words that remind us of Tony Blair, “takes tough decisions in the national interest” immediately endorsed the agreement without much comment or insight and told Labour MPs to vote for it.


It now falls to the wider labour movement, not the Parliamentary Labour Party, to build a united movement focused on the fight for socialism.

Links
The draft EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement

George Monbiot assessment

Keir Starmer’s response

The Article by Rob Griffiths and John Foster is not yet posted on Morning Star Online but will no doubt appear shortly

CARNAGE AT THE BBC

We have come to expect in recent years little from the BBC Reith Lectures but the current series of three by Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England, beginning today will not be without interest. Link here

Carney provided today a clear explanation of how neo-classical economics disregarded most of Adam Smith’s teaching and turned the rest on its head, substituting subjective value for the labour value employed by classical economists.  The dire consequences for us all were well described – a society that knows the price of everything, the value of nothing and considers itself powerless to address the distribution of wealth. There were references to Bentham and John Stuart Mill, but no mention of Marx’s Labour Theory of Value with which he overcame the problems inherent in classical value theory. Where Carney really began to flounder was when he touched on solutions. Calling for a limit to the expansion of markets into every corner of society and for corporate leaders to be induced in some unexplained way to act more ‘responsibly’ simply won’t cut it. It will be interesting to see whether he bottles out of calling for a comprehensive carbon tax in the final lecture. It can be argued that a carbon tax such as advocated by James Hansen is the only means by which capitalism can now survive.

The BBC could be relied on to pick only the most anodyne of questions following the lecture and it didn’t disappoint.  Questions were taken from, amongst others, John Osborne, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and Ed Balls, the former Economic Secretary.  This speaks for itself.  

The depth of Carney’s economic thinking was, nevertheless, profound compared with what passes for much economic discussion in our mass media today. The remaining lectures will be worth hearing; but in my experience you will, nevertheless, find much more profound and insightful analysis and discussion at Communist Party meetings, in the pages of the Morning Star and provided by the Marx Memorial Library.

Climate Change and Aviation

Climate Change, its consequences and who will bear the cost of ameliorating them,  is for communists a class issue. Some further evidence of this has been provided by recent disclosures about the airline industry.

According to a (typically muddled) speech by Transport Minister Grant Schapps on 19 October, it appears that, by one definition at least, the airline industry is receiving 11% of the entire government Covid support. Meanwhile, Heathrow Airport, owned by a consortium including Spanish group Ferrovial and the Qatar sovereign wealth fund, is appealing against the  High Court ruling that the third runway plan is illegal. The Court  found that ministers had failed to take into account its impact on the climate change!  Following the decision to appeal, a spokesperson for Heathrow commented that “once the benefits of air travel and connectivity have been restored … an expanded Heathrow will be required.”

With the government committed to bailing out the airline industry, who actually will benefit from this restoration of “air transport and connectivity”?  Research  by Gössling and Humpe published this month in the journal Global Environmental Change (link below),finds that 1% of frequent flyers cause half of aviation emissions. While this 1% is not quite the same as the 1% who own  half the world’s wealth, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the beneficiaries of “air transport connectivity” are the latter.

What about the impact on climate change of emissions from aviation? In the same paper   Gössling and Humpe point out that these emissions grew by a factor of 6 to 8 times between 1960 and 2018 and industry estimates prior to Covid indicated a further tripling between 2020 and 2050. Government meanwhile appears content with such projections. It ignores emissions from  aviation,(just as it ignores emissions from imported goods). This could render commitments to achieving zero net emissions by 2050 meaningless.

If aviation  emissions are a class issue, what is the solution? In a capitalist society taxing leisure flying might be attempted – but the 1% are unlikely to be deterred by even a 100% sales tax. A planned approach would be possible in a socialist society, with the ‘need to fly’ the criterion, not the ability to pay. How might we apply such a criterion to business and government flights?  Covid has demonstrated that much business flying is totally unnecessary. Business has no need to transport its top executives across the world in first class luxury by plane and still less by private jet. Remote conferencing provides a perfectly adequate alternative and will, in future, become even better  with the development of  hologram projection. Meanwhile, let’s not forget second class rail travel for our over-privileged business executives.

We face a climate emergency. It’s about time we started treating it as such.

Reference

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959378020307779

KLEPTOCRACY

The dictionary definition of “kleptocracy” is a society whose leaders make themselves rich and powerful by stealing from the rest of us. The classic example is post-Soviet Russia where, according to a sophisticated estimate by Novokomet, Piketty and Zucman (2017), around one billion dollars belonging to soviet citizens was looted and secreted away following the collapse of the USSR.

Our leaders in the UK might not be the same class as Russian oligarchs, but they are catching on fast. The suspension of competitive tendering during the Covid-19 pandemic is providing a wonderful opportunity for ministers to fill the coffers of their friends and allies with public money and see a portion of it flow back into the Tory Party as political donations.  

The National Audit Office (NAO) is committed to investigating how the government has ”managed the risks”  associated with this relaxation, but they will only look at a sample of contacts awarded and, judging by past experience, won’t  investigate the complex relationships, extant and putative,  between ministers and the private sector and the resulting flow of political donations they generate.

Two prime candidates for the NAO’s ‘sampling’ should be definitely be

  • Ayanda Capital’s £252 million contract to supply an undisclosed number of face masks to the Department of Health and Social Care.  The owners have links with the international trade secretary, Liz Truss. Many of the masks did not meet the requisite standards and could not be used in the NHS.
  • Serco’s contract worth £410 million for the so-called and totally ineffective “NHS” test and trace system. Serco were fined £19.2 million last year by the Serious Fraud Office for misconduct over electronic tagging.

These are, however, simply the two most obvious and blatant examples. What is needed is a complete investigation of all such awards and an in-depth examination of all large political donations and the award of sinecures and over-remunerated ‘consultancies’ to ex-ministers and senior civil servants.  

Reference

Filip NovokmetThomas PikettyGabriel Zucman, From Soviets to Oligarchs: Inequality and Property in Russia, 1905-2016, NBER Working Paper No. 23712, https://www.nber.org/papers/w23712

Peter Latham and Ted Knight: showing the way

In the wake of the resignation of Croydon Council’s CEO and now its leader Tony Newman, Croydon Council’s auditors, Grant Thornton, have issued a report about Croydon’s weak ‘financial resilience’. You can read the full report by following the link here.

The Council set its 2021/21 budget prior to the Covid-19 pandemic being declared. The auditors complain that there was insufficient challenge from councillors on the financial risks of the budget for 2020-21. From their lofty position and advantage of hindsight, they chide the council that budget setting and monitoring was simply “not good enough”. The pressure points, aside from lacking a crystal ball over Covid-19, arose in their view from over-spending on children and adult social care and the failure to deliver “real savings” in this area.  The auditors were miffed that their warnings in the two preceding years were ignored. It is the nature of the auditing profession, however, to seek to cover themselves by issuing such warnings while continuing to collect their not unsubstantial fees. As a profession their ability to predict real financial collapses is practically non-existent  and for which the collapse of Carillion in 2018 is merely the latest example.

The real problem with local government, including that in Croydon, is not over-spending on social services, it is the absence of tax raising powers and democratic control. As Peter Latham described so vividly in Who Stole the Town Hall, (Policy Press 2017), local government has been reduced to being a mere supplier of subcontracted services under control of a central government intent on lining the pockets of big business who, in return, finance their political party.

Earlier this year we mourned the death of Ted Knight. Ted was Leader of Lambeth Council when Thatcher imposed a cap on the local rate that councils could levy. Ted led a national campaign against the policy and in 1985 refused to set a capped rate because it would have resulted in large-scale cuts. As a result councillors were personally surcharged £125,000, removed from office and banned from standing again. Ted would have been bankrupted had not the surcharge been paid off by the local labour movement. Ted remained politically active for the next 35 years and ended his life as a leading light on Croydon TUC where I was privileged to work with him.

If we are to attain the kind of democratic local government that Peter Latham had in mind, we need more councillors and council leaders of Ted Knight’s calibre  – ones who are prepared to face down the government and set the budgets they know, as our democratically elected representatives, are needed  

WHY WE MUST EXPROPRIATE THE EXPROPRIATORS

While workers brace themselves for a tsunami of job losses, which the Chancellor’s Winter Economy Plan will do little to alleviate, it is notable that, according to Swiss Bank UBS, the world’s 2,189 billionaires have increased their wealth since the beginning of the pandemic by 27.5%  (Guardian, 7 October). This builds on a longer term trend in which the super wealthy have accumulated wealth at a dizzying rate. The same source reported in 2017 that billionaires’ average fortunes had grown by 70% in the preceding three years.

Conventional economics – the neoclassical variety they teach in our universities  and which failed to predict the Great Recession –  has no explanation for this growing concentration of wealth. Thomas Piketty came up with a partial explanation in his 2014 book Capital in the Twenty First Century: he attributed it to the private rate of return on capital consistently exceeding the rate of growth in income and output. He called this the “central contradiction of capitalism” but he didn’t explain how or why this differential persists. To explain it we have to turn to Marx and, in particular, his Labour Theory of Value. According to this, the central contradiction of capitalism isn’t a differential return, it’s the conflict between labour (workers) and capital (those who own the means of production). While this conflict remains unresolved, the latter can extract surplus value from the former provided they can sustain the current social order through their penetration and control of government.

Can conventional politics and conventional political parties such as the Labour Party address this contradiction and resolve it? No. Big business and wealthy individuals have too much influence.

Can we not let the super-rich become even richer provided living standards for workers gradually improve as they have over the last 200 years? No. Global warming has added a degree of urgency that has previously not existed, even at the height of the cold war and under the threat of nuclear annihilation. The super-rich, however, have insufficient incentive to address the urgent need to transition to a zero carbon economy. The world’s 2,189 billionaires own more wealth than the 4.6 billion people who make up 60% of the world’s population (see link below). They can protect themselves from global warming; and they have no wish to see fossil fuels remain in the ground as much of their wealth is invested, directly and indirectly, in them. Yet keeping fossil fuels in the ground, thereby rendering them valueless, is the only known means of halting the rise in atmospheric CO2 .

A condition of addressing global warming is, therefore, in Marx’s words, to expropriate the expropriators. Only then will we be able to start to address global warming.

Reference

https://www.oxfam.org/en/press-releases/worlds-billionaires-have-more-wealth-46-billion-people