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Back to Front - Wages, prices, profits


To capitalists, the system that supports them is a complete mystery, and despite decades of Nobel prizes they have been unable to shed much light on its workings. So they seize upon any theory, however pathetic, to explain why it is so good, and what workers must do to keep it going.

From time to time someone comes up with an idea such as that in the 1960s and 1970s, which held that the most important thing for Britain's economy was the balance of payments. Then it was the exchange rate of sterling. For Thatcher, it was the mysterious M3, or money supply (and, yes, someone got a Nobel prize for that one).

But one idea has been constantly embraced: the notion that the less workers get paid, the better it is for everyone. Hence the frequent calls over the decades for pay "restraint" on the part of workers and their unions, as if unfettered proletarian greed was continually threatening to bring down civilisation.

Surprise, surprise, the calls are coming back, all the louder now that inflation, having already hit the roof, is heading for the clouds. So far, though, the response from workers has been muted. Indeed, as the article on pages 6 and 7 describes, the public sector is in disarray: barely a quarter of Unison's local government members voted either way in their ballot on the latest pay offer.

Unquestionably, our unions are in a mess, from the bottom to the top. The head offices are full of armchair generals dreaming grandiose coordinated schemes, while the members – who know instinctively that the strength is not there for prolonged all-out action – are walking away.

There is, though, an answer: guerrilla struggle. It's a form of fighting that relies on our strengths, not our weaknesses. It relies, too, on what the membership in any given workplace is willing and able to do. That may (and does) make it anathema to the armchair generals and the general-strike-now brigade who in the absence of mass involvement have wormed their way into many union positions, but it is the only way forward.

Fight on ground chosen by workers in struggle – that's how the British trade union movement developed and advanced since the days of Karl Marx and before. With a few exceptions, the history of grand strikes once a decade or so is one of grand defeats once a decade or so. The engineers, until recently the leaders of industrial struggle, never had a national strike, yet won, over and over again, and advanced the working class.

Of course, guerrilla struggle is not easy. For one thing, it demands the involvement of the mass of members, at a time when the majority of trade union members clearly want to hide their heads under pillows and hope somehow that the nightmare will go away. It won't, not unless workers take action.

There's nothing more basic to the relationship between workers and capital than pay. It's a relationship described by Marx in the 19th century, before Alfred Nobel had turned from making armaments to founding prizes (none for Marx: Nobel's testament allows no posthumous prizes).

Marx's analysis of the falling rate of profit inherent in capitalism, and what capitalists try to do about it, was truly visionary – a totally accurate picture of the development of what's become known as globalisation.

For the employers, the "going rate" they want to pay is the lowest they can find in the world. Pay restraint? They want to cut our wages to what is earned in China or India.

Some think the way to a pay rise is promotion, but we can't all be promoted. Some seek – or sought – money from buy-to-let, but (thank goodness) we can't all be landlords. There's no escape, only a battle yet to be joined. That battle needs new generals, but first it needs new thinking in the workplaces, where wages are earned and profit is taken.