1990s >> 1992 >> no-1060-december-1992

The Futility of Reformism

Socialists contend that it is capitalism and capitalism alone which creates all of the major problems in the world today. Poverty, unemployment. crime, war. homelessness and, to a large extent, disease, not forgetting pollution and destruction of natural resources, are all fundamental to capitalism and cannot be solved on any long-term basis whilst this system continues.

Those who support the continuation of present-day society would disagree and claim that capitalism can be changed to solve all, or most social problems, by means of reforms. In fact they would claim that these problems are not problems of capitalism at all but problems that exist, as it were, alongside of capitalism. Each problem has a separate cause (seldom stated) and that therefore it is worthwhile making attempts to improve matters by tackling them one by one whilst retaining capitalism.

Never succeeded
No reform has ever solved a single problem of the capitalist system and none ever will because the pressures of the system are always too much. A reform is not a fundamental change; it is an attempt to alter the way in which capitalism is run. The fundamentals of capitalism are minority ownership of the means of production, the production of wealth for sale on the market, a money economy, a wages system, and the realization of profit from the difference between the wages the producers are paid and the sale of what they have produced. The forms of government and the methods employed to actually run the system are not fundamental but come about through particular historical and other circumstances. Thus Soviet Russia was, and is under another name, a capitalist country. So are China, USA and any other developed country you care to name.

While the fundamentals of capitalism are in existence its nature must remain the same. There must always be a drive for profit and a drive to expand markets which come before any other consideration. Capitalism cannot escape the iron laws of its own economics. Even given the desire to do so from those in power they must follow the laws of the market—or go under, to be succeeded by those capitalists who have a more realistic appreciation of the necessities. The system hangs together as a whole; no one part of it can be taken away.

In the history of capitalism, in every country, hundreds of reforms have been put on the statute books, reams of legislation written, and scheme after scheme have been implemented by all manner of well-meaning people looking to find the solution to the ills facing humanity. Whole industries have been nationalized, then “privatized” to no avail. Government money has been poured into priority areas, only for “black spots” to spring up elsewhere. Housing estates which were erected to ease the housing situation for the working class are now being demolished because they ended in intolerable conditions. An entire scheme of sickness care was set up in this country to cater for working-class ill-health called the National Health Service (they forgot to add ‘‘for workers”—when has a capitalist ever needed a “health scheme”?) The NHS is now in disarray. Endless training schemes have been set up to help young workers find (non-existent) jobs. Way back in 1911 the same problem was confidently going to be solved by the first Labour Exchange set up by Lloyd George.

Why is it that the charity business is booming? There are literally hundreds of charities operating to ameliorate just as many hundreds of ills, yet as fast as they collect money the problems grow. Many, many more examples could be given of reforms which came to grief or ended up creating worse problems which then have to be dealt with. Meanwhile capitalism is growing more and more dangerous and desolating more and more of the world.

For reforms to “succeed” capitalism would need to work smoothly and rationally. But capitalism is a totally anarchic, unco-ordinated system which cannot function in such a way because it only follows one law—the drive for profit. This blows the best-laid schemes of government, planners or reformers apart in its path.

It is quite impossible to achieve a long-term plan for any objective because capitalism is always in some crisis and demands immediate responses to pressures. World events occur with such rapidity that for any country just to try to maintain stability is about as much as they can do. They are so busy swimming against the tide of change that they are using all their strength just to keep their heads above water. They are so busy reacting there is no time to act. So, even if a long-term plan could ever work—and there is no evidence to show that it would and overwhelming evidence to show—that it could not—capitalism is such a dynamic system that it will not stand still long enough to allow such a plan to happen.

Internationally, capitalism has fared no better. All countries face desperate dilemmas in their relationships with other countries. Many stratagems have been put into operation to balance world trade and all have failed. Even if it were possible to devise a financial system which could iron out the tensions in world trade the co-operation of all the major countries would have to be secured. This is impossible because every capitalist country is always following a policy to suit its own interests. Since a major objective is to export more than is imported at any given time, it is obvious that not all can succeed. Add to this the conflicting interests of the multi-nationals and the difficulties encountered in handling lesser developed capitalist countries and it can be seen why reforms of international capitalist relations cannot succeed in harmonizing capitalism on a world basis.

Profits first
Given the nature of capitalism the puzzle is why do political parties advocate reforms and put them forward with every evidence that they themselves believe their absurd schemes will work? It is a mistake to believe that the capitalists understand their own system. They have never studied it in the way that socialists have. Capitalist economists make their reputations, and get their bread, from supplying “solutions” to capitalist problems. What kind of future would a budding Keynes have if he, or she, pointed out that there is really no way of ensuring a stable economy, that the system always staggers on from crisis to crisis?

Capitalists are struggling to survive in business and maintain their competitive edge. To do this they must make sufficient profit to re-invest in capital equipment and keep it up-to-date. This has to be their priority. Anything else comes afterwards. It is not the “wicked” capitalist who brings this about; it is not a moral decision, it is an economic necessity.

Given this as the norm—the everyday face of capitalism— where do reforms fit in? Reforms are basically of two kinds; those that are meant to make the capitalist system run a little more smoothly for the capitalist class and those that are meant to ease the lot of the worker. Neither kind can work because only a fundamental change of social system can make any difference. Reforms are not meant to change the fundamental set-up of capitalism; they are expressly the opposite of that. The most that can be achieved is to ease the conditions of a section of the working class for a time. But as fast as a reform is applied fresh problems are thrown up on account of the changing pressures of capitalism.

So the question remains, is it worth the effort? Why bother? Chasing after reforms is a futile effort, a waste of working-class energy when that energy could be put into something that is worthwhile—working for socialism.

Cyril Evans