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Inside labour: Can capitalism live with socialism?

Oct 23 2016 06:09
Terry Bell

Karl Marx must be spinning in his grave in London’s Highgate Cemetery. His name, with an apparent nod to his ideas, has been quoted approvingly at a conference of institutional investors in New York.

However, this should not be surprising, since the economic policy pendulum seems to be swinging from laissez-faire to regulation, from the ideas of Milton Friedman to those of Maynard Keynes.

What is of particular interest is that the main speaker at the New York conference was Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, accompanied by a delegation of business and trade union leaders. And it was one of the trade unionists, Federation of Unions of SA general secretary Dennis George who introduced Karl Marx to the assembled money moguls, but as a potential collaborator, not an opponent.

Standard Bank CEO Sim Tshabalala reportedly noted that this reference was the most memorable moment of the conference.

But it tied in with his own analysis: that while capitalism is extremely dynamic, it could also worsen inequality and instability, a sentiment with which Marx would have agreed.

As a consequence, Tshabalala felt that “wise capitalists” should reach out to social partners, in order to ensure stability, “shared prosperity and broad national development”.

The leading social partners in this case would be the unions and what this statement amounted to was: We’re all in the same boat, we must row together in the cause of nationalism, patriotism and against some common enemy.

This is the reason conciliatory moves are being made by a number of business tycoons, politicians and mainstream economists — the effective manipulators of the pendulum. They are trying desperately to find ways to maintain the system while attempting to claw economies out of the mire of increasing joblessness and social instability.

For the worried, monied minority the priority now is social stability. And, as George pointed out this week, there are higher levels of productivity and stability in countries such as Norway, Sweden and Austria, where worker-directors are commonplace.

But in such cases — they also apply in Germany — the worker voice is a minority in the boardrooms. As such, it has been criticised as little more than window dressing that only provides more substantial crumbs from the table of capital.

However, such concessions — and talk now of extending the practice — could open up the debate about the best, most efficient, stable and productive way of owning and managing the means of production, distribution and exchange. And that might introduce the actual ideas of Marx: the promotion of democratic worker control.

As such, the examples that should be looked at, even within the present competitive, profit-oriented system, are those such as the John Lewis Partnership in the UK or, perhaps better still, the FaSinPat (Fabrica Sin Patrones — factory without bosses) ceramic works in Argentina. Both provide clear evidence that private ownership and stock exchange listings are not necessary for a productive and successful enterprise to exist and thrive.

The John Lewis Partnership, the third-largest private business in Britain, is owned, via a trust, by its 91 500 employees. FaSinPat is directly run by the workers in collaboration with their community.

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