What use is philosophy, in particular, Marxist philosophy? It’s a common thought, especially among non-socialists, but also among socialists, particularly if the philosophy they’ve studied or have been taught, concentrated solely on expounding laws or rules, with no application, no focus on “making the philosophy live”.
Recently the Sydney Morning Herald had excerpts from Gittinomics, a new book by SMH Economics Editor Ross Gittins.
Economics, says Mr Gittins, should “concentrate simply on helping societies maximise their production and consumption of goods and services.” We have a “devotion to consumption” and so “many of us are working long hours to make the money to buy the stuff we suppose will make us happy”, to improve our “social status”. Economics can help us make personal decisions e.g. should students pay their HECS fees upfront and benefit from the discount, or pay off HECS over time? Companies, we are told, are powerful, but “consumers” also have power, as they make “choices”.
Such platitudes are served up to economics students at all levels of our education system and are regularly aired in the mainstream media. How do we make some fundamental criticisms of such a point of view?
Gittins’ approach to economics is metaphysical. Metaphysics is a philosophical trend which mistakenly considers phenomena abstractly, divorced from their real context, unconnected to other things and processes. Metaphysics views things as fixed, unchanging. It does not see the real source of development as internal contradictions (the unity and struggle of opposites) within each thing or process.
In real life, economics does not exist alone, just as politics does not have an independent existence. In society we find political economy. Economics is not separate from politics.
Economic decisions are imbued with political considerations which either help business secure and expand its economic activity (WorkChoices, Welfare to Work legislation, Australian aid to East Timor) or place restrictions on capital in order to mobilise resources to expand services to people (think of decisions by the Cuban or Venezuelan Governments).
On the other hand, political decisions, for example by capitalist governments, to go to war, or support oppressive regimes, or impose sanctions, have the aim of securing a climate for the expansion of economic exploitation, in one form or another, which may include sweeping aside barriers to capitalist exploitation such as toppling socialist governments.
Capitalist economic activity is driven by profit making and this throws light on the central relationship (contradiction) in our society, between the owners of capital and the exploited, who do the work. Economists, such as Ross Gittins, don’t talk much about this relationship. They metaphysically describe two independent, separate groups — producers and consumers.
Yet working people are producers, in the real sense of the word, not just mindless “consumers”. In fact, their ability to consume is very much determined firstly by the role they play in the production process and secondly by the struggle they carry out collectively with their fellow producers, against the employers, to increase their share. Consumption and production are interconnected. As well, working long hours, in most cases, is not a willing “choice” but a result of increased exploitation foisted onto workers.
Another example. There are State and Federal elections this year and in the light of the WorkChoices legislation, there is much pressure on workers to give their first preference vote to the Australian Labor Party (ALP), rejecting in effect, other political forces. Is this the best decision people can make?
An awareness of mechanical materialism will assist us. Mechanical materialists treat the world as a machine. The unchanging parts are set in motion by external forces, they are not self-moving, self-developing. Change is seen as the repetition of the same cycles, with nothing new developing. Any interaction only produces more or less of the already existing qualities. Mechanical materialists recognise that people are products of their circumstances, but downplay their ability to react to and refashion their environment.
Social democracy is based on mechanical materialism. The fate of the working class depends on external forces — parliamentarians, the ACTU, the ALP, governments — and not on the people’s own struggle. A thoroughgoing remodelling of society, including class relationships, is out of the question. Working people are condemned to the cycle of making gains, fighting to preserve them, losing them and fighting to get them back. Medibank and Medicare, working conditions, including shorter hours, come to mind.
We must recognise that changes have taken place within society, within the electorate and within the ALP. Our primary task at election times must be to elect genuine left and progressive people’s representatives.
The call to re-elect the ALP, as the only alternative, in these changing times, becomes a call to preserve the two-party system, but socialists must have an eye on the future and act in the present, to consciously change the direction of politics in Australia.