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Cooking the Books: Against ‘Redistributionism’

On 5 December there was an interesting meeting in New York organised by the Marxist-Humanist Initiative (MHI) and Internationalist Perspective (IP). It’s on YouTube at Like us, the four speakers all argued that the populist policy advocated by trade unions and leftwing demagogues of redistributing income from the rich to the working class was not a way out of the crisis.

Anne Jaclard (MHI) pointed out that this was a typical example of trying to reform capitalism to make it work in the interest of the working class, but this could not be done. Pursuing it was not just futile but a diversion from acting to get rid of capitalism. Redistributive politics, or ‘redistributionism’, was a view that needed to be combatted. This was not to say that workers should not try to get more under capitalism; that was part of the class struggle.

Sander (IP) said that the mistake of the ‘redistributionists’ was the common one of assuming that the aim of production today was consumption whereas it was the production of goods not as such but as value with the aim of accumulating more and more of it. Diverting value which otherwise would be invested by capitalist firms in production would lead to inflation as the goods on which to spend it would not get produced.

Andrew Kliman (MHI) presented the classic case against ‘underconsumptionist’ theories of capitalism, pointing out that what the workers could not buy could be bought by capitalists whether to consume or to invest in production. That workers could not buy back all they produced could not be the explanation of capitalist crises as this was the case also in boom times; in fact, if this was the case capitalism ought to be in a permanent slump and should have collapsed long ago. The mistake was to see ‘consumption’ as just what the workers and capitalists bought to consume, whereas ‘effective demand’ also included what the capitalists invested in production. It was changes in this, as the rate of profit went up or down, that determined capitalism’s boom/slump cycle. He denied that there had been a shift of income from workers to capitalists in the period leading up to the outbreak of the slump in 2008 and that this was its cause. He claimed that working class living standards had not fallen during this period. The only way out of a slump, he said, was a devaluation of existing capital that would restore the rate of profit.

McIntosh (IP) disagreed that working class living standards hadn’t fallen in the decades up to 2008 but agreed that the only way out of a slump was a devaluation of capital. It was not the redistributive policies of the New Deal that had ended the slump of the 1930s. According to him, it was the Second World War and the massive devaluation of capital through its destruction that did this. The way-out for the working class was not an attempted redistribution of income in their favour (as now being proposed by the new Mayor of New York De Blasio as well as unions and the Left), but an end to production as value. He was in favour of workers struggling for higher wages but whether wages were high or low, they still involved exploitation. What was needed was production directly to meet human needs and so the end of value, money and wage-labour altogether.