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Last month saw a spate of tributes to the passing of an English workplace trade union militant, Kevin Halpin. Britain’s left wing daily, the Morning Star, carried the articles recalling factory struggles, personal reminiscences and campaigns he helped lead over many decades of activity.
One of the articles mentioned his friendship with James Klugmann. Both men were at one time in the Communist Party of Great Britain. Biographical work on Klugmann written by Dr Geof Andrews, makes reference to Klugmann as a “complicated communist” and “shadow man.” Kevin Halpin penned his own biography with a contrasting title, Memoirs of a Militant: Sharply and to the Point.
But the contrast doesn’t end there. Klugmann came from a well off Jewish family in London’s leafy Hampstead. Halpin grew up in the grinding poverty of industrial Lancashire in northern England.
It would be hard not to be friendly with Kevin, his wit and laughter was infectious. James Klugmann was friendly but serious; a product of the English public school system, Cambridge University and much that went along with left politics there during the 1930s. Their meeting point was education.
As one article states, Kevin, “valued James’s stress on explaining the imperative process for Communists of changing militants into revolutionaries.”
That imperative process was a problem in the post WW2 years. How much more is there a problem in today’s north Atlantic countries where industry is not as dominant as it once was?
One approach of those going bye, if not totally bye gone, times was a sharp and to the point focus on ideas associated with the tendency for the rate of profit to fall. That was something industrial workers could readily relate to.
For the owners of capital to accumulate more capital and maximize profits they had to compete. First they would compete against the workers.
Screw you. Keep wages, conditions and entitlements to a minimum. If you guys win improvements my profits will fall.
We must have more flexibility in the workforce, say the owners. Do two jobs at the same time. Better still, here’s a machine that can do even more than you can. You see, this investment comes at an extra cost to me.
Then in this world of accumulation and maximization of all that they touch the owners of capital have to compete with each other.
Let’s get some new equipment in so we can make our goods and services even cheaper.
No we can’t pay you more just now; we spent all our readies on investments. You’ll have to wait.
OK say the workers, we waited, we’ve produced more and it’s cheaper.
Sorry, no can do, say the owners. Our competitors have done the same.
We’re back to square one.
The idea of the falling rate of profit has been about for centuries. But in terms of political education it was an open door into the works of John Maynard Keynes and Karl Marx. A worker might be encouraged to read Marx’s Communist Manifesto. From there paths led to historical, sociological and cultural perspectives. Other writers and speakers were accessible; on colonialism, the arts, feminism.
But society is changing more rapidly now. The industrial proletariat that Marx clearly focused on is not so visible today, at least not so much in the north Atlantic countries. But it is increasingly visible in the emerging economies of the global south.
So it is probably time to reconsider the meaning of the term proletariat. We have the ricos preaching austerity in Europe and greatness in the USA. But those outside that narrow band are increasing and in a more fragmented, even disordered formation. Now we talk about the 99 percenters.
Falling rates of profit will resonate with blue and white collar union activists in traditional manufacturing, extraction and transport industries. Much less so with third generation unemployed, the many youth feeling under threat by the police, single parent families having difficulty in budgeting for health and essential services bills.
Other tools of inquiry and liberation from these tyrannies are required. Something that can reach out to specific sectors, meet the diversity that exists in the 99%. These groups have their activists too; in the environment, housing, gender and ethnicity rights. Moving from militant activism to revolutionary struggle is not as simple as flicking an on/off switch.
The falling rate of profit tendency had to – still has to – be studied. The leap combining knowing what-is-to-be-done and knowing how-to-do-it is a revolutionary one. So too, it is with Marx’s concept of alienation. It has to be understood and brought to bear on the issues faced by the new proletariat.
Traditionally alienation – call it estrangement, separation, being set apart – had four dominate aspects. Some contemporary writers are promoting a fifth; afeeling of helplessness about situations far away or beyond our influence.
The first type of alienation appears as the worker is distanced from the product he or she produces. Bakers have to go to the supermarket to buy the bread they produced. The ship builders can’t afford a cruise to the Caribbean islands for summer holiday. The cost is beyond them.
The second type of alienation occurs because the worker does what he or she does as means of survival. Something they work at for someone else, the owner of capital. Yes, it’s possible to enjoy your work and the company of the people you work with. But the economic power and control of work place practices rests with the owner of capital.
Work is at the core of being a human being, it’s part of what gives us human identity. And that is where the third category of alienation comes into play for most of us.
The queen of England’s job is meeting other heads of state, attending various “royal” functions and signing official documents. She is also expected to produce the next head of the British state.
Fortunately for her the royal blood line has ensured that she has inherited considerable wealth. So she has plenty of time on hand to pursue her personal interests. Corgi dogs and thorough bred horses, by all accounts.
Most of us work in the production of goods and delivery of services. Some are lifters and carriers. Others, at various levels, function as administrators and managers of these productive and delivery systems. They’re the lucky ones.
The unemployed are assigned lesser identity. Not being part of the survival system, except as a reserve labour force, kept at a distance until the system needs topping up. They are doubly alienated. Not allowed a worker identity in an economy which is built around accumulation and profit maximization, they must stand apart from the existing work force.
The fourth form of alienation is the estrangement of the worker from the human society to which he or she belongs. That doesn’t mean we wander around in lonely paranoia. The productive system to which the (employed) worker belongs is distant from the accumulative, profit maximizing world of privately owned property, natural resources, places of production and wealth creation.
You may own a car and the house you live in. As many have recently found out to their cost, as the system giveth so it taketh away. The real capital stays in the hand of the bankers and other big business.
So an understanding of alienation is crucial to turning a militant community activist into one struggling for a revolutionary change in society. The falling rate of profit has a relatively narrow focus, on the relationship between the worker, the product and the owners of capital.
A study of alienation offers a wide scope of individuals and groups of people to consider. At the same time it presents an opportunity to focus on one’s particular interest. That may be affordable and descent housing, child care, pollution control or whatever.
A housing issues activist doesn’t need to be told that cost is a major obstacle to accessing good housing. Others obstacles are access to those with power; economic power, political power, power to influence others, power to make contact with others.
Property developers don’t get rich building accommodation at affordable prices for the poorly paid bakery worker or the unemployed. The struggling mother of a young family can’t afford utility costs and health charges. The system doesn’t’ allow it. It’s got other priorities in mind.
Tackling these and similar problems requires a variety of responses, which may be local, national or global. But the revolutionary imperative increases when the environmental activist shares a common struggle with, say, Black Lives Matter.
That way the distance between different social groupings is shortened. So are the odds on bringing about change.
Sharing information and having a conversation is admirable. Connecting for collaboration over tactics and strategy, where both parties feel comfortable in their own skins and to a suitable degree, with each other, makes for a powerful fusion.
Deliberate attempts to set apart particular ethnic communities form the unemployed, who are already alienated from the productive process, puts an even greater distance between these two groups.
Meanwhile the owners of capital are strengthened by this division and are enabled to carry on maximizing their profits an accumulation even more capital.
Who says the markets don’t like uncertainty? Big business thrives on divisions caused by alienation.