2000s >> 2001 >> no-1163-june-2001

Feeble attack

Attac France is another group who think they can tackle poverty. Is their answer any better to the World Development Movement’s?

The vice-president of Attac France, Susan George, addressed a public meeting on 27 March in my hometown of Aarhus, Denmark, attended by several hundred people. Attac was founded just under three years ago in France and professes to be an anti-capitalist movement. The acronymn “Attac” stands for “Association pour une Taxation des transactions financières pour l’Aide aux Citoyens. Today it has some twenty sections around the world. An Aarhus branch was formed after the meeting was finished.

Attac has entered the popular vocabulary, especially after one of their very peaceful demonstrations, outside the Danish medicine firm Novo Nordisk. Novo was one of the companies involved in the legal action against South Africa. Novo produce AIDS medicine; due to its cost – South Africa has an HIV/AIDS epidemic – the SA government decided to import a copy medicine for medical aid. Novo were against this policy. The demonstration has the slogan: “People before profit”.

The flyer advertising the meeting already revealed that Attac is not anti-capitalist but rather anti-big business. It mentioned some of their aims: a redistribution of goods via taxation of currency speculation (the Tobin Tax) and the abolition of tax havens; better conditions for the Third World, necessarily involving the writing-off of debt; and democratic control of the market and the multinationals. None of these aims is strikingly original. There are a number of Social Democrats who share these views – and who believes those parties can be described as anti-capitalist?

The market cannot be controlled. Both inflationary policies of Keynes and the old, Eastern bloc command economics ought to be proof positive; the market simply cannot be regulated. Taking due consideration of the fact that a capitalist who has sold does not have to buy (i.e. reinvest), the market is nothing but the sum total of businesses buying and selling products, with a view to profit. Capitalist production is anarchic; this is never more obvious than at times of economic slowturn and recession (slump). At the time of writing the Asian tech market has nigh-on crashed; America is facing a downturn; and Marks & Spencer have suspended their European operations. Capitalism runs through periodic cycles of boom-bust and back, despite Blair and Brown’s off-heard: “We will not return to the days of boom and bust.”

George was adamant “that public services are not for sale”. We might also ask what Attac’s redistribution of goods amounts to. It would seem that Attac want healthcare, etc to be state owned and funded by greater taxation of the (already taxed) capitalists. This is merely “Old Labour” policy.

Writing off Third World debt is already governments’ policy. The World Bank has a strings-attached policy on debt relief. What this reveals is that the (short-term) loss of money involved is not nearly so important as creating politically and economically stable areas for trade and investment, with future profit gains in mind. (“Debt prevents economic growth” – George.)

George’s lecture confirmed that the so-called anti-capitalist movements don’t attack capitalism as a system. George and the others single out multinationals as the baddies, as the root cause of the problems facing the workers of the world. We certainly can agree on what multinationals have done – that need not detain us. Attac, like others, base their critique of multinationals, however, on a caricature. Multinationals cannot act willy-nilly. They do have to abide by the laws in the countries where they are established as well as by international agreements. (The ultimate power in society is political power and not economic power.) Furthermore, multinationals are not immune to the economic laws of capitalism as expounded by Karl Marx in Capital. Whilst their size mean they only get a buffeting when others go to the wall, recessions do affect the Multis.

Whilst businesses are interested in shifting taxation burdens to others and do try to reduce wage claims – all of which eat into profits – it is not entirely true to state these are all they worry about. High taxation and wages are related to more developed capitalist countries, where the workers are educated and well trained. Such a workforce is more productive. Inefficient techniques and workers do not interest multinationals too much, when they have an adverse effect on profits. Capitalists seek high profits with security.

Capitalist realities
George revealed an ignorance of capitalist realities. She thought it strange that remuneration comes to capital from goods. Her explanation for financial crises was that anyone is allowed to invest anywhere in the world. Scathing remarks were saved for the WTO because “it wants to make everything a commodity”. (Fancy that! George ought to read the opening paragraph of Capital.) The word “capitalism” was hardly used; she talked of “globalisation” incessantly, and her definition of it was pretty flimsy. No mention was made of the unending rivalries between capitalists.

Attac’s ignorance of capitalism, both in the domains of economics and history is fundamentally crucial. Any political programme takes its starting point in axioms. In judging the Attac movement, and anything else, those axioms are the first things to be looked at. Attac clearly believe in the continued existence of capitalism.

Like all reformers, Attac limit themselves to attacking features which they do not like; they fail to realise that those features are due to capitalism. The Multies’ growth is a mere reflection of the growth of the global capitalist system – they aren’t anomalies. Because they fail to recognise this, Attac will not be able to eradicate inequality and poverty. Two features are at the core of capitalism – a minority own the wealth of the world, which forces the majority to sell their ability to work for a wage (and millions don’t even have jobs) and production is carried out for profit. It is true: “Capital is rewarded to the detriment of labour”, but she has drawn the wrong conclusions and ought to think about doing away with the capital-wage labour relationship altogether. Does she not know why the system is called capitalism?

How does Attac view changes occurring? They do not denigrate parliament. George stressed the need for laws, “new rules” and “political procedures”; broad coalitions should be formed; trade unions have an important rôle to play; and Attac are for “popular education towards action”. George is utterly mistaken if she thinks governments can ever work in the interests of the workers, since their policies are formed by the dictates of capitalism.

George described Attac. It was founded by people from a variety of backgrounds; the only organisation named was the French Small Farmers’ Union – Attac. She said Attac has internal democracy and that they work to get a consensus of opinions. She sent a message to those who would use Attac for their own ends: it is not permissible to use Attac as a front. This was fine, although it will do little good, since the local Trotskyist vanguard have been licking their chops and been busily promoting Attac. (These days, the Leninists are more reformist than they used to be.)

In the questions and answers session, I addressed some of Attac’s weaknesses. When I noted the Soviet Union was a state capitalist dictatorship some of the audience laughed; George, however, agreed with me – let us hope others in Attac share this view. I sold some Socialist Standards, received praise for my comments from my fellow workers, and was interviewed by national TV.

In conclusion, then Attac does not differ from other left-wing reformist groups. All they want is some nebulously-defined humane, egalitarian capitalism where business is accountable to the workers. And people call socialists utopian!


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