Tibor Rutar: Transition, Austerity and Primitive Accumulation – Left Answers

Tibor Rutar: Transition, Austerity and Primitive Accumulation – Left Answers

Today, political, economic and, given the rise of Golden dawn and other fascist tendencies, also ideological implications of the global capitalist crisis are intensifying rather than, as the free-market ideologues would have us believe, decreasing. Hence, for the Left, a thorough understanding of how to intervene in our societies both economically and non-economically is of utmost importance. Marx’s account of primitive accumulation, which convincingly explained the historically specific form of brutal non-economic accumulation of capital, and which his followers conceptualised as a continuous process, can be used as a starting point for a radical critique of the ‘democratic transition’, i.e. the ongoing capitalist subjugation, of the so-called post-socialist societies.

In the Slovenian case, this transition was somewhat idiosyncratic. Powerful labour resistance, which only intensified in the early years of the transition, and quite high union membership prevented the usual blitzkrieg character of the transition. The holy trinity of deregulation, privatisation and flexibilisation was implemented rather gradually, while most of other post-socialist countries were hit by the uncompromising and stunningly rapid shock doctrine. One of the main reasons for this ‘soft landing’ was an unrelenting wave of strikes, which established a form of social dialogue, only to be destroyed a decade later (around 2004) by a neoliberal right government of Janez Janša. Today, in the phase of post-transition, Slovenian economy is facing the well-known methods of implementing the logic of capital, with its means equalling its goal: accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake. Structural adjustment, which should help us reestablish fiscal balance, is a wholly transparent mechanism of commodifying our social life, as it demands even further marketisation via privatisation and deregulation.

In Slovenia, privatisation has been underway for more than two decades, i.e. since the collapse of the nominally ‘socialist’ economy into which we were embedded. Today, this form of commodifying every facet of our lives has become more shameless than ever. The current right-wing government of Janez Janša is not even trying to conceal its capital-oriented interests of selling the largest firms in state ownership and of relinquishing the government share in the most important Slovenian bank. The former minister of finance has legitimised the selling of firms in state ownership with the basic bourgeois rhetoric: because state-owned firms are unprofitable, we simply have to privatise them so that responsible capitalist owners will be able to make them profitable again.

A similar logic permeates Slovenian higher education and research. Here, political hegemons are desperately trying to restructure the existing, more or less universally accessible system in such a manner as to provide a constant fine-tuned source of technological innovations that would benefit our capitalist economy, since new, creative technology is one of the prime levers of lowering production costs and thus increasing market shares of innovative capitals. It seems as if the purpose of higher education and research is not to address the multifarious social, economic, political and ecological crises and social needs in general, but instead to serve the needs of the market (by creating a suitable labour force) and hence to fulfil the inhuman objective of capital, production for the sake of profit-making.

On top of all this, Slovenia has been ceaselessly implementing austerity measures, which the tragic Latvian story and startling confessions of various IMF economists reveal as catastrophic. The usual liberal promotion of ‘small business’ mentality and lower labour compensation for the young and the elderly, which are supposed to be less competitive than other workers, is as pervasive as ever. The 5-percent wage reduction in the public sector announced for this year is only the icing on this fiscal consolidation cake. In December 2012, the parliament has passed a pension reform that will significantly reduce state expenditure for pensions.

‘We’re not gonna take it’

All this has provoked a serious public outcry. Since November 2012, Slovenian civil society has been undergoing a veritable reanimation, if not a total overhaul. There have been constant protests against the corruption and eccentricities of the ruling élite, as well as against the inner workings of capitalism itself. The people are rising against the brutal austerity and its causes, demanding total democracy, political as well as economic, and trying to articulate a systemic alternative to the existing system. The inhuman living conditions announced by austerity measures are the straw that broke the camel’s back: in less than a year, there have been three major union strikes, and public opinion polls suggest that almost a third of the population sees no other option than revolutionary change, while less than 15 % of the people still support Janša’s right-wing government. There seems to be a newly found resistance, similar to the WWII resistance of the Liberation Front of the Slovenian Nation, whose legacy will be one of the focuses of this year’s Mayday school.

Even in the case of Slovenia it is blatantly obvious that economic as well as non-economic modes of capitalist accumulation are still present, if not intensifying – such is the nature of capitalist development. Hence, Marx’s description of the bloody transition from feudalism to capitalism, i.e. the violent expropriation of peasants and other immediate producers, and the consequent private appropriation of the common land seems a proper starting point for a conceptualisation of at least some of the modern mechanisms of capitalist development. Moreover, it can help us engage in a discussion of the current crisis on the one hand and, on the other, of the implications of the transition from ‘socialist’ economies to capitalist ones. In Capital, Marx talks about the enclosure of commons, which was necessary for the emergence of capitalist economies, generalised commodity production (via the monopolisation of the means of production) and, most importantly, for the ‘double liberation’ of labourers. Today, in developed capitalist economies, this process is still hard to miss even though it has been slightly less radical as means of production have already been concentrated in the hands of a small number of capitalists. Explicit and implicit subjugation of higher education, public health services and other once universally accessible and deliberately unprofitable institutions is a prime example of just such privatisation-accumulation. Even more obvious are the selling of state-owned firms and the privatisation of banks.

What lies ahead

This year’s Mayday school has been organised with such considerations in mind. We will start by discussing the history of the concept of primitive accumulation and its possible application to a continuous historical process. We will trace the theoretical development of the concept as it has been revisited, since Marx, by Rosa Luxemburg, the world-systems theorists and some of the most influential contemporary Marxist theorists such as David Harvey. Then, we will present primitive accumulation as a historically specific moment of the transition and post-transition of the ‘socialist’ economies. We will use the concept to analyse the current situation in those economies and the processes that lead to it. We will examine the problematic process of eurointegration, which has resulted in the implementation of the ‘Euro’ shock doctrine in the ‘post-socialist’ economies manifested as restrictive fiscal and monetary policies and pervasive privatisation of almost everything that was once publicly owned. Primitive accumulation will also be grasped as an element of the currently dominant policy of fiscal responsibility, which is also an essential part of the restructuring of East European and Balkan countries. Finally and most importantly, we will assess concrete possibilities of a viable socialist strategy and other forms of resistance to the current domination of capital.

Although a coherent and far-reaching diagnosis of the current situation is absolutely necessary, it is not by itself sufficient. Therefore, special attention will be devoted to possible alternatives. It is obvious that every uprising against the bourgeois offensive and capitalist transgression has to outgrow the narrow coordinates of liberal capitalism that coercively reduce economically unequal and different people to formally equal market atoms. Sweden, long held as an irrefutable proof of the power of the social-democratic compromise, is today facing serious deregulation and even mild reversals of the established social reforms despite being one of the most competitive and advanced countries in the world. A serious alternative has to be radical as well as over-reaching in character. Thus, its foundation can only be a powerful Left front that can draw inspiration from the already existing political actors such as Syriza in Greece, Die Linke in Germany and Le Front de Gauche in France, empowered with an uncompromising socialist strategy that would make the notions of production for production’s sake and of private ownership of means of production obsolete. Such strategy would first and foremost have to improve the living conditions of the vast majority of people, i.e. the working class, by shortening the working day, raising salaries and wages, and striving for full employment. Because capitalism is a system of production for the sake of profit, improvement of workers’ living conditions will not bring about economic growth and a more stable capitalist system. But our goal, the goal of all those who do not own their means of production, is not to improve capitalism. In the long term, our goal is to establish democratic socialist economies in which there is no economic exploitation and in which production is conducted not according to profit and autocratic centralisation but according to social needs and democratic decision-making.

Tibor Rutar is a member of the Workers and Punks’ University and a student at the Faculty of Social Science, University of Ljubljana.

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