Only the Political Economy of the Working Class Can Lead the Way Out of the Crisis

September 3, 2014

Below, we summarize the final part of a speech presented by Michael Thorburn at the October 25, 1999 meeting of the Chicago Branch of the Workers Party (part one appeared on 7/29/14).

Look at what is happening in Asia or in Russia or on the Southside of Chicago. Factories are closing down and millions of workers are being thrown into the unemployment lines. Yet, all the material conditions needed to carry on production exist. There is an abundance of raw materials. There are modern factories equipped with the necessary machines and other implements of production. There are  plenty of workers who need jobs to maintain their livelihoods. And in every country, large numbers of people are going without the basic necessities of life. Yet, the productive forces stand idle. Why? Because the capitalist system is unable to set these productive forces in motion.

And this is not all. Capitalism today not only fails to utilize the productive forces at its disposal but it is actively destroying these productive forces on a wide scale. For example, over the last 10 years, the opening up of Eastern Europe and Russia to international capital has led to the massive shutdown of factories and the destruction of productive capacity. Today, the so-called Asian economic tigers are collapsing as a result of the world-wide crisis of overproduction and the big international monopolies aim at consolidating their domination by wiping out production in these countries. So too, in the U.S. the capitalists are restructuring and downsizing, consolidating the most efficient factories while closing others in order to eliminate “excess capacity.”

Monopoly capital is literally devouring society. This is the source of the anti-social agenda which is slashing social investments, privatizing public services, and stripping away any humane feature of society. It is often said these days that Russian capitalism is “mafia capitalism” because that country’s resources and economic infrastructure are simply being pillaged by the ruling circles. But is not this “mafia capitalism” typical of capitalism all over the world in this era of decay and crisis. In every country, the big international monopolies are looting the public treasuries, privatizing the public infrastructure and demanding that everything be put at their disposal.  For example, in Mexico and Latin America, international finance capital is demanding that even the ports and roads be sold to them at fire auction prices. In the U.S., finance capital wants to rob the Social Security Trust fund, privatize the public schools, etc. Today, when capitalism is in permanent crisis, it is resorting to the methods of primitive accumulation – that is, monopoly capital is using its state power to simply rob the wealth of society.

What could more thoroughly condemn the capitalist system than the fact that it is destroying the productive forces built up by humankind over generations and generations, that capitalism is destroying the very means through which human beings create their material existence?

The root of the problem is that the vast means of production created by humanity and set in motion by humanity are social in character and they cannot be set in motion by the narrow aims of capitalism. Despite all the capitalist propaganda, the fact remains that the modern factories, communications systems, and so forth are not private property. There is really nothing private about them. They are all social in character. The means of production are social because they are the product of generations of labor – of thousands of years of human efforts – and they can be set in motion only through the cooperative division of labor amongst tens of millions of people. When workers go into a factory, they are told that they are on private property. The capitalist owner not only sets all the rules but owns the product. Yet it is only the social labor of the workers which enables that factory to produce anything. It is the social character of the modern productive forces which give them the capacity to produce an abundance.

One manifestation of this contradiction between the social character of the productive forces and capitalist private ownership is that the vast productive capacity of society far outstrips the limited consuming power of the workers (and society as a whole). The result is that today, as in the past, capitalism is undergoing a “crisis of overproduction.” This crisis has been precipitated by the fact that on a world scale there is an excess of capacity – that the auto industry, the steel industry, the computer industry, the garment industry, etc., can produce two to three times as many products as the limited world market can absorb. Thus even while capitalism is failing to provide the minimum of food, shelter and clothing for hundreds of millions of people, it is, at the same time, actively destroying productive capacity in country after country.

Thus what the world-wide economic crisis again brings to the fore is the necessity for humankind to recognize the social character of the productive forces.

Last week, I participated in a very interesting discussion with some health care workers. In discussing the almost universal support for the programmatic demand that “Health Care Is A Right,” we recognized that in order for this right to be guaranteed, health care must not be produced with the aim of maximizing profit but rather on the basis of meeting the needs of the people. And does not the same thing hold true for food, for housing, for education and all the basic needs of humanity?

For the last several years, the U.S. government and the capitalist economists have been boasting about “unprecedented economic growth.” But during these years millions of Americans lost their health care coverage. During these years, homelessness increased and today tens of millions of people live in seriously substandard housing. During these years, our public schools continued to crumble. Again, even according to the government, 1/3 of our country’s children lack sufficient food and are seriously undernourished. In sum, even with all the vast, modern means of production at its disposal, capitalism cannot satisfy the elementary needs of the people. Yes, in this so-called “commodity society,” every kind of luxury item is available for those with money, but the basic needs of the people and society as a whole remain unmet.

The working class must rally the whole people around the political economy which places working and oppressed humanity, not the capitalist exploiters, at the center.

Thus the economic crisis is bringing to the fore a number of fundamental questions. “Will economic life be organized to guarantee the livelihoods of the people or will our very lives remain dependent on the “blind hand” of the “free market” and capitalist profit-making?” “Will people be guaranteed wages commensurate with society’s high level of development or will our standard of living be forced down in order to increase the competitiveness and the bottom line of the big monopoly corporations?” ”Will government make the vital social investments needed to guarantee the rights of the people or will the entire economy be put at disposal of big business?” “Will the means of production created by humanity be put at the disposal of humanity and utilized to create conditions for the all-around emancipation of people or will these means of production remain monopolized by a few and used to enslave the majority?”

Michael Thorburn concluded his discussion by emphasizing: It is easy to see the bankruptcy of an economic and political system which is leading us to economic disaster and admits to having no way out. But when we reflect on this, we must recognize that the responsibility falls to us, to the working class, to lead the way out. It is the working class which must provide answers and create the new socialist society which eliminates the exploitation of human beings, which recognizes the social character of economic life, and overcomes the anarchy of capitalist production through the planned development of economic life on the basis of the aim of guarantying the well-being of the people. It is the working class which through its political leadership and struggle must rally the whole people around a political economy which places working and oppressed humanity, not the capitalist exploiters, at the center.