Cooking the Books 1: Things can only get worse
Although Labour was elected to office in 1997 to the sounds of ‘Things Can Only Get Better’,
Blair is now singing a different tune. In the past the Labour Party used to argue that the state could, and should, be used to protect people from the worst effects of world market forces, through such measures as import controls, tariffs and subsidies to protect home industries and the employment they provided, and bans on the export of capital so that it was invested at home. Such views are still held by trade unionists, Leftwing reformists and the Green Party (which has taken over the Labour Party’s discarded policies in this area).
Blair now derides this as “the European social model of the past” and is actively campaigning to get other EU governments to abandon it too. In his Leader’s speech to the annual Labour Party Show in Brighton he told the audience (they can hardly be called delegates since the resolutions they pass count for nothing):
“In the era of rapid globalisation, there is no mystery about what works: an open, liberal economy, prepared constantly to change to remain competitive. The new world rewards those who are open to it. … The temptation is to use government to try to protect ourselves against the onslaught of globalisation by shutting it out – to think we protect a workforce by regulation, a company by government subsidy, an industry by tariffs. It doesn’t work today. Because the dam holding back the global economy burst years ago. The competition can’t be shut out; it can only be beaten” (Guardian, 28 September).
In other words, as the other member of the Thatcher-Blair Mutual Admiration Society used to put in: TINA. And, given capitalism, they are right; there is no alternative. What Marx called the “coercive laws of competition” can’t be overcome; they have to be applied, not just by capitalist enterprises but by governments too.
But at what cost to workers and society in general? It means running fast – in fact, running faster and faster – just to stand still, continually introducing new methods of organisation and production so as to be able to keep down costs and ward off or beat the competition. It’s a race to the bottom, involving, for those who actually produce and distribute the wealth of society, speed-ups, stress, precarious contracts, deregulations, redundancies, retraining, changing jobs – and the scrap heap for those who can’t keep up.
And, despite Blair’s optimism, there is no guarantee that, even with these changes, British capitalism will come out on top – who says competition, says losers as well as winners. Capitalism really is a rat race, or rather a treadmill, from which there’s no relief.