AFTER THE FALL

Writing in the London Review of Books earlier this month (Volume 40, number 13), John Lanchester reminds us how much the world has changed – and in some respects how little is different – ten years after the credit crunch and the beginning of the Great Recession.

Lanchester is one of our smarter contemporary thinkers. He’s the author of one of the best books on the credit crunch – Whoops! Why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay and the only novel i can recall about the resulting London property boom, Capital – you may have seen the television drama made from it even if you have not yet read the book. Although there is very little explicit Marxism in either book, Lanchester is one of the few contemporary writers who knows his Marx . This was apparent when he gave a talk to promote his book Capital to the London Review of Books – much of his talk was about the more famous book of this name.

Lanchester describes in the article the climate of intellectual over-confidence that preceded the crisis in 2007. He points out that most of the time, in conventional economic thinking, debt and credit don’t present a problem. Every credit is a debit, every debit is a credit. The problems arise when no one is sure who owns what. As he points out, on a global scale there are billions of pounds more credits than debits. Why? The rich have hidden their assets in off-shore tax havens to avoid paying tax.

Lanchester reminds us that, following the bail out of banks, no one has addressed the too big to fail problem. Furthermore, the risk of failing remains high. We have previously commented on how John Vickers fluffed the opportunity to ring fence banks’ more risky business from their socially useful activity of providing credit to businesses and consumers. Another problem Lanchester highlights is the failure to rein in shadow banking – all the things banks do but which are done by institutions that don’t have a formal banking licence.

Is another banking crisis on the way? Probably, but one thing is clear. Each new crisis in capitalism shows a different face, a different mix of problems. Into the mix sooner or later global warming is going to feature. This is why the Communist University in South London, CUiSL, is working on a discussion paper looking at how classical Marxist theories of crises and social revolution relate to this new threat. If you wish to see how this is progressing, and, even better, to join in, follow https://communistuniversity.wordpress.com/.

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RISE OF THE ROBOTS AND GLOBAL WARMING

In the Morning Star yesterday, (Tuesday, 28 March), Nigel Flanagan, Senior Organiser for the UNI Global Union, warned of the potential for intelligence robots to replace workers on a global scale. The appropriate response, he argued, should be to build a global union system to negotiate and bargain with the global companies that will own and operate these intelligent robots.

But is this a sufficient response? The UNI Global Union is merely a confederation of some 900 affiliated unions from 140 countries. These unions represent 20 million workers; but with a global workforce, according to ILO estimates, of 3 billion workers, the employers will not be trembling with fear. The UNI Global Union may represent a start in organising workers globally, but it has a long way to go and, even if it succeeds, much more is required than mere global Mondism.

The continual replacement of workers by machines lies at the heart of Marx’s Labour Theory of Value. His conclusion that it would lead to the collapse of capitalism – unless that collapse was first triggered by some other constraint to the development of productive forces that capitalism was unable to surmount – is the conclusion to his masterwork, Capital. At the start of the 21st Century we now recognise global warming caused by CO2 emission to be such a constraint. With both robotization and global warming increasingly emergent, the issue now is is how these two death knells for capitalism will interact and what consequences they will have on what replaces capitalism.

For communists, the struggle is about hastening capitalism’s demise and ensuring that it is replaced by communism – by which we mean a classless society in which the abundance made possible by advanced technology, including intelligent robots, is shared by all. As Marx recognised, and a brilliant little book by Peter Frase, Four Futures – visions of the world after capitalism (Verso, 2016) discusses, other post-capitalist societies are possible; and they are all much less desirable. If workers are largely replaced by intelligent robots, who owns those robots is crucial. If they are owned by the former capitalists, the elite, a society based on rentism could emerge in which a tiny ruling elite live off the rents from licensed technology and the largely unemployed workers subsist on menial tasks and handouts. The other possible outcome with a hierarchical society suggested by Frase is even more scarey: if the elite don’t need 3 billion workers, it would be in their interests to exterminate them.

Frase has some interesting ideas about extreme global warming. He suggests that it’s now inevitable and the real issue now is how we survive it. This could be relatively easy for the global elite, but very difficult for the rest of us. Climate change deniers, he suggests, no longer sincerely doubt the evidence; they simply think that their class can survive it, and very comfortably, thank you. These and other contentious issues will be discussed at Croydon TUC on 11 May when a speaker from the Campaign against Climate Change has been invited. Note it in your diary and make sure you are there!