Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Tue, 29 Sep 2020, 4:14 PM


On Marxist Tories

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In one respect, the right-wing conspiracy loons are right: Marxists have captured some of our major institutions - the institutions being the government and Tory party.

I say this because of the campaign to stop us working from home and to get us back into offices. Such a demand is justifiable only if you take a very dark opinion of capitalism.

Those who have faith in capitalism see upside in home-working. Andrew Sentance tweeted:

Why are so many people focussing on the negatives of working from home? It is a great opportunity to reduce transport emissions, stop spread of disease through commuting and mingling at work/in city centres, and provides a more flexible and family-friendly working environment.

To this we should add that whilst WFH does depress demand for retail businesses close to offices, it should boost it in those near where we live, and revive local high streets. The money that home-workers save on commuting and on Pret's sandwiches can be spent nearer home.

Better still, we have quasi-experimental evidence from Nick Bloom and colleagues that WFH can boost productivity (pdf) a lot as workers face fewer distractions than in offices. Granted, not all firms who have tried WFH during the pandemic have enjoyed such gains, but it's possible that as firms and workers learn, and if they get the right policy support, productivity will improve as these teething troubles are cured.

How then can one regard WFH as a bad thing? You can only do so if you are very pessimistic about capitalism.

For example, you'll oppose WFH if you believe that capitalists are so lacking in entrepreneurial nous that they cannot spot new business opportunities created by home-workers. Alternatively, you might believe they are constrained from exploiting these by financial constraints or by the inability of capital and labour to shift to new uses - even if those shifts are small (for example if sandwich-makers move from city centres to outlying areas which might well be closer to where they live).

If you believe this, they you must believe that capitalism has become stagnant and sclerotic - that capitalistic relations of production have become "fetters" on the development of our productive potential.

You might also oppose WFH if you fear that the collapse in demand for city centre offices will crater the commercial property market and in doing so create bad loans. This requires one to accept that financialized capitalism is unstable and crisis-prone. Madmen

You'll also oppose it if you think Kalecki was right (pdf) - that "'discipline in the factories' and 'political stability' are more appreciated than profits by business leaders." If bosses want the sense of security and power that comes from directly overseeing their workers they'll want people back in harness. This is perhaps what Jeremy Hunt had in mind when he said people might come to miss the "fizz and excitement you get in a good workplace." His own employees never experienced such fizz, but perhaps egomaniacs who want to oversee an empire of minions do.

And let's remember something else. Sarah O'Connor is right. The pre-pandemic economy was not working for millions of people. It trapped many into cramped over-priced homes and forced others into long and stressful commutes. The belief that capitalism requires such discomfort is one we Marxists can readily accept. I'm surprised, though, to see the Tory party adopt it.

There's a devastating implication here. If you think this is what capitalism requires, then you are saying that capitalism must force people to be in places they don't want to be. Which vindicates a point made by Peter Doyle about slavery - that capitalism denies people economic agency (pdf). As Marx put it, capitalism turns a "free" man into a mere factor of production, "one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but - a hiding."

And then, of course, there is the brute fact that dragooning people back into offices endangers their health. Which of course, vindicates Marx again:

Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society.

Not only do the Tories seem to believe Marx's ideas, but they are actively striving to make them even truer.

As a Marxist myself, I find all this weird. Even I am not this pessimistic about capitalism. I suspect the economy can adjust to meet the new demands of home-workers and I've been pleasantly surprised by how many big employers have adopted home-working.

Now, the sight of some people being more Marxist than me is a familiar one. When I was university, several of my fellow students were. I just never suspected that Boris Johnson was one of them. But perhaps this is to give him far too much credit, and to impute to him a coherent idea where in fact there is no such thing.

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