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Inside Labour: Still none so blind as those who will not see

May 18 2018 06:00
Terry Bell

THERE are none so blind as those who will not see, and none so deaf and those who will not hear. 

That expression, attributed to the Old Testament Biblical prophet Jeremiah, has been used in one form or other over centuries by various writers and commentators.

Divorced from belief systems, it describes pig-headed, blinkered and bigoted refusals to face up to any self-evident truth. This week, in the wake of reactions to the latest official unemployment figures, it seems particularly apposite.

This, because although the Quarterly Labour Force Survey again revealed figures that show that high - and potentially growing - levels of unemployment are still with us, the main reaction was to call for economic growth. 

However, to give Cosatu its due, spokesperson Sizwe Pamla did call for a better quality of growth.

The South African Federation of Trade Unions went one step further, spelling out the claim that such growth should come through widespread state intervention. 

This would include the nationalisation of the mines, banks and land, as part of the measures to create a “socialist economy”.

In the sense of creating a fairer economy, most of the labour movement seems to be in accord. But just what constitutes socialism is undefined beyond the idea of state ownership and control. 

And nationalisation does not equate to the fairer share that most union members desire, with the current dispute between public sector unions and the employer-state being a good example.

Concept of worker control

Absent from almost all these calls and debates is the demand for the extension of democracy into all spheres: the concept of worker control. 

Nearly 200 years ago, this was a growing demand, as it had been as early as 1649 when the English “Diggers” declared that “the earth shall be a treasury for all”.

These were calls taken up and analysed against economic and social developments by the revolutionary German philosopher Karl Marx whose ideas, however interpreted, still influence strongly the labour movement. 

Since May 2018 is the bicentenary of the birth of Marx, another historic reference seems apposite.  

The reference is a comment by Marx’s collaborator, Friedrich Engels, that the “transfer into State-ownership does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces”. 

In 1888 he pointed out that it did not matter whether a single owner, a “trust” (corporation) or the state owned an enterprise; within a capitalist context, it remained essentially exploitative.

This was something recognised by Count Otto von Bismarck, the “Iron chancellor” of 19th century Germany who dubbed his own nationalisation of the tobacco industry and railways “state socialism”. 

He also created the first welfare state in the modern world, but only to ensure that he could keep the increasingly disgruntled workers away from turning to the ideas of democratic socialism that were then becoming popular.

But, from then until now, the mantra of the capitalist system has been “grow the economy”. More growth, it was and is claimed, would mean more wealth and more wealth would mean more for everyone. 

Only it never worked out that way: wealth tended always to rise to the top of an exploitative human pyramid, the opposite of the claimed “trickle down” theory.

It was only when those at the bottom of the pyramid, the workers who produced the wealth, became organised and demanded more of a share that more crumbs fell from the tables of the rich. 

And it was even possible - Sweden during and after World War II being a classic example - for workers in times of a labour shortage to gain a much greater share, reducing vastly the wage and welfare gap between employers and employed.

Jobless growth increases the wage gap

But in the globalised world of today and with the exponential growth of technology, that is no longer possible. There will be growth, but it will often - and increasingly - be jobless growth, with the rich becoming richer and the wage and welfare gap growing ever larger. 

At the same time, the earth itself will become poorer because of environmental plundering in the name of competition and ever more economic growth.

Time is perhaps starting to run out for the majority to see, hear and understand what is happening - and to take appropriate action. But, so far, there are only a few signs of this self-evident truth being acknowledged.

Add your voice or just drop Terry a labour question. Follow Terry on twitter @telbelsa.

Follow Fin24 on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Pinterest. 24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

terry bell  |  inside labour  |  labour
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