Cooking the Books 1: Thieves fall out

  When we talk about the capitalist class of a particular country, we sometimes refer to them as “they”. But this can give the impression that they are a monolithic bloc with the same interest. Of course they all share a common interest in maintaining capitalist property rights and the general conditions for capitalist production, such as a working class dependent on working for them to obtain the money to buy things. Beyond that, however, the interests of the different sections diverge.

“American exporters in last-ditch attempt to stop Obama raising the trade barriers” read a headline in the Times (26 January):

“A coalition of leading American exporters, including Boeing, Caterpillar and General Electric, is trying to stop a ‘Buy America’ clause being included in President Obama’s $825 billion stimulus package. The American Steel First Act would ensure that only US-made steel was used in $64 billion of federally funded infrastructure projects. The money, earmarked for roads, bridges and waterways, is aimed at kickstarting the economy, but the initiative by steelmakers, which secured support last week in the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee, is opposed by American exporters, who fear retaliation by foreign governments.”

This represents a clash of interests between capitalists producing for the home market such as, in the US, those with investments in steel production, and those producing for outside markets. The former favour protection, the latter free trade. At the moment the governments of most countries favour free trade as they are haunted by their perception of what happened in the 1930s.

Then, governments put up tariff barriers against each other’s goods, thereby further reducing world trade and so exacerbating the depression. These “trade wars” can even be seen as a precursor of  the real war that broke out in 1939 when the countries that lost out in them, Germany in particular, decided that war was the only way to solve their problem of access to key raw materials and outside markets.

It remains to be seen whether governments will be able to resist pressure for protectionism from capitalist corporations producing for the home market, often backed by the unions organising their workers (Obama did get the proposal watered down). The Daily Mirror is running (yet another) “Buy British” campaign while construction site workers took up the populist slogan Gordon Brown raised at the 2007 TUC Conference of “British Jobs for British Workers”. Dismayed (as he knows very well that as a mainly exporting country most British capitalist firms would lose out if protectionism catches on), Brown tried to back-peddle on his demagoguery, and the BNP was delighted to be able to reclaim the slogan he had stolen from them.

Another division within the capitalist class is between those with investments in actual production and those engaged in various financial dealings. To judge by one incident at the annual Davos meeting of the world’s top capitalists and politicians, these two sections have fallen out big time, with one industrialist calling for some bankers to be jailed:

“John Neill, chief executive of Unipart, was given one of the day’s biggest rounds of applause when he declared that bankers who were involved in developing toxic products that caused massive damage to the global economy should be punished. If you knowingly make other kinds of toxic products, you go to jail. Why should bankers be different, he asked” (Times, 29 January).

Socialists look on at these arguments from outside as hostile observers. We don’t take sides. We don’t support either protection or free trade and we don’t oppose just the banking section of the capitalist class. In the words of William Shakespeare, we say: “A plague on both your houses”.

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