- Created: Wednesday, 02 December 2009 15:45
- Written by FRFI
Joseph Choonara: Unravelling capitalism, Bookmarks Publications 2009, pp159, price £7.99
This apparent purpose of this booklet is to provide a popular summary of Marx’s critique of political economy and then present an outline of the development of modern capitalism up to the present crisis. What we find is something disjointed and incoherent where the later historical exegesis bears no relation to the earlier part which seeks to follow Chapter 1 of Marx’s Capital. Even worse: Marx’s categories are distorted to justify a reactionary position which rejects the relevance of Lenin’s theory of imperialism for today, and with it, the struggle against opportunism.
Productive and unproductive labour
This is most apparent when Choonara tries to deal with the distinction between productive and unproductive labour, so far as I know the first public attempt by a Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) theoretician to do so (Choonara, pp47-48). He has no difficulty in dealing with productive labour – that labour which generates both value and surplus value in the production process – but then neither did classical political economy. He also talks with little difficulty about unproductive labour when that labour is exchanged against revenue – for instance, in the form of personal service. But nowhere does he consider unproductive labour where labour is exchanged against capital in the sphere of circulation. Choonara cannot conceive of this since it would torpedo the SWP’s whole analysis of contemporary British capitalism, a ‘gigantic usury capital’ with its bloated banking and financial services sector. Contrary to appearances, banks and other financial institutions do not create value or surplus value: they take and distribute that which has been created in the sphere of production.
The SWP’s rejection of the parasitic character of British capitalism presents it with an impossible paradox: how is it that there was, for instance, from 1997 until June 2008, just before the crisis, simultaneously:
- a general rise in the standard of living of the majority of the British middle and working classes of around 20%,
- a rise in employment in the banking and financial services sector from to 5.0 to 6.7 million,
- a smaller rise in the number of workers in the state sector (which is financed out of revenue) from to 6.7 to 8.0 million,
- a fall in the number of productive workers as indicated by those working in the manufacturing and construction sector from to 6.3 million to 5.3 million?
You either ignore this a la SWP, or explain it. Marxists understand that British capitalism is parasitic through and through, its external assets in 2008 nearly five times the size of its GNP, sucking in wealth from all over the world, especially from the poorer countries. But this flies against a hallowed tenet of SWP theory: that British workers do not benefit from the exploitation of workers in the less developed or oppressed countries of the world. One only has to imagine this ever-diminishing number of productive British workers heroically supporting both the insatiable greed of the ruling class and a rising level of material affluence of the British middle class and large sections of the British working class to understand the absurdity of this proposition. It serves however to support the SWP’s Eurocentric view of the world which consigns struggles such as those taking place in Latin America today as of marginal significance. It is not surprising therefore that Choonara is able to mention the 1999 Seattle protests as an example of growing anti-capitalist sentiment (p8) rather than the vastly more significant contemporary Cochabamba Water War in Bolivia.
Accumulation and competition
There is not room to deal with all of Choonara’s theoretical and political inadequacies. SWP orthodoxy is that the accumulation of capital is driven by competition (see, for instance, Chris Harman: Capitalism’s new crisis: what do socialists say?, reviewed in FRFI 206); in fact Marx derives the necessity of accumulation from the concept of capital itself before dealing with capital as many capitals: accumulation drives competition, not vice versa. Choonara tries to work it both ways so that although he quotes Marx correctly on the matter (p68), he then presents us with a concept of ‘competitive accumulation’ (p69 and in several later passages) which enables him to have his cake and eat it. Assigning primacy to competition has specific purpose for the SWP: it serves to justify their reactionary characterisation of the Soviet Union as ‘state capitalist’ on the basis that ‘accumulation’ was a competitive response to the West which in the post-war period became competition through the arms race. This particular notion of ‘state capitalism’, substituting as it does a form of competition based on supposed geo-strategic imperatives for a process rooted in the production and sale of commodities, has nothing to do with Marx either.
No room for Lenin
Choonara does have a section which is entitled ‘The birth of imperialism’ in which he finds room for Trotsky’s descriptive and therefore unhelpful concept of ‘combined and uneven development’, but not for Lenin, the central theoretician of imperialism. This is part of the SWP’s constant marginalisation of Lenin. Instead, later on, there is room for a lengthy citation from Mike Kidron (pp134-35) who argued in 1961 that imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism but one, and that it had been superseded in the post-war period by something called the permanent arms economy. Kidron’s argument was that arms production was a form of ‘luxury goods’ production which slowed the decline in the overall rate of profit. Kidron developed this in his Western capitalism since the war, published in 1968. Demonstrably nonsense from a Marxist standpoint, the theory received its death knell from the 1969 publication of an English translation of Theories of Surplus Value. Here Marx showed in detail how luxury goods production depresses the general rate of profit (Volume 3, pp 349-51). SWP theorists reacted by just ignoring this: forty years on, Choonara still thinks arms production slowed the fall in the rate of profit, and, standing Marx on his head, continues to believe that ‘In principle, any ‘luxury’ spending can play this role’ (p136).
The casual and solitary reference to Lenin’s Imperialism practically at the end of a four-page set of suggestions for further reading (pp154-57) underlines the point that Choonara and SWP ideologues try to ignore: the central figure in the further development of Marx’s critique of political economy is Lenin, not Trotsky, or Luxemburg, or Gramsci or anyone else who takes their fancy. It is Lenin whose standpoint on imperialism ensures the revolutionary significance of Marxism for today, with his understanding of the necessity for a struggle against opportunism. Reject this and you inevitably have to revise Marx, and move from a revolutionary working class position to one that capitulates to opportunism. That sums up this pamphlet.