Thursday, November 6, 2014

Socialist Action's Convention

Trotskyists, armed with the Marxist ideological arsenal, pride themselves on offering a unique and intelligent opinion of world affairs. So it is a disappointment to read excerpts from Michael Schreiber's World Political Situation Report only to discover warmed-over, cherry-picked conventional wisdom.

Socialist Action (SA) has apparently not inherited Jack Barnes' talent for storytelling. Mr. Barnes' convention reports are masterful exercises in persuasive, sentimental argument, aimed primarily at comrades, but readable by a larger public. Importantly, he gets his facts mostly right. By contrast, SA's documents are sloppy, full of over-the-top claims that seem unlikely to be true.

The piece in question is about Europe's economy. The lede sets the tone.
Capitalism’s offensive against the world’s working class—which gathered momentum as a consequence of the major economic recession that began in late 2007—continues unabated. Even in the major industrial nations, the ruling class has been waging an all-out struggle to make working people shoulder the debilitating effects of the economic crisis.
The premise is completely wrong. Capitalists make money by selling better products at lower prices to more people. How can that be interpreted as an "offensive against the world's working class?" Quite the contrary, capitalism enriches all of us. Perhaps Mr. Schreiber has purchased the new iPhone 6, or maybe he recently flew on the Boeing Dreamliner airplane, or perhaps like me he takes statins for high cholesterol. Maybe he just bought a car with intelligent cruise control. And he certainly posts articles on to the web. My family buys fresh blueberries in January, imported from Chile. They're no more expensive than the blueberries we buy in the summer imported from New Jersey.

Gas prices are down by 20%. My wife is flying half-way round the world for less money than it cost her three years ago. Even food prices are starting to go down.

How can this guy claim that we're all getting poorer and keep a straight face? There's no way.

Well, there is a way, and of course it involves Greece--a cherry-picked example if there ever was one. German capitalists (evil bastards) sold the Greeks a bunch of new Mercedes on credit--money that now needs to be paid back. Mr. Schreiber doesn't give German workers any credit for building fine motorcars for Greek drivers, but now complains when they want to get paid for it. The problem is the Greeks want a free lunch (or at least a free Mercedes).

So I'll grant Mr. Schreiber that bit of his argument--people in Greece are poorer now than they were ten years ago. But if this is argument by cherry-picking, then I can pick cherries better than he can. The country with the largest proven reserves of crude oil is--wait for it--Venezuela. By all rights it should be a wealthy place.

Yet Venezuela, once the darling of the American Left, has destroyed its oil industry. Today the oil fields have gone to rot, with infrastructure lying in ruins. Venezuelans are much poorer today than they use to be. There are shortages of toilet paper and milk, along with most other consumer products. Caracas has one of the highest crime rates in the world.

Mr. Schreiber's article contains some glaring contradictions. In one paragraph, he complains on behalf of European heating oil refiners that the market is completely glutted, in part by imports of American oil and gas. Accordingly, in Italy 3500 jobs are at risk.

The very next paragraph, however, claims that "imperialist powers" are falling all over themselves to invest in Ukraine, which "might have the fourth largest deposits of frackable shale gas in the world." Go figure. Why would they do that if there's a huge glut of oil and gas on the market? This is what happens when you cherry-pick factoids and have no understanding of underlying economic principles.

Mr. Schreiber goes further and claims that "[t]his explains, for example, the intense interest of Western capitalism in bringing Ukraine into the European Union and into NATO, while muscling Russian capitalism out of the picture." Since when? There isn't a single country willing to put any boots on the ground to make Ukraine part of NATO. And it boggles the mind that anybody wants it in the (disintegrating) European Union. Mr. Schreiber lives in a fantasy land.

The summary of "facts" concludes with this howler.
In summary, despite continued and heightened attacks on the working class by international capitalism—leading to a huge increase in poverty worldwide and a huge shift of wealth upward to the already wealthy— none of the efforts by the masses to thwart these attacks has yet resulted in lasting victories.
There is no huge increase in global poverty. For example, China has suffered a slowdown since 2007--today it's growing at only 7% annually. Given 1% annual population growth, it's hard to see how the Chinese are getting poorer. Likewise, the US has been growing at 2-3% annually since 2010, again significantly above population growth. While some aspects of the American lifestyle are worse than before (most notably, job security), there is little evidence that people are actually poorer. On a global scale, among nations participating in the global economy, that is clearly not true.

Mr. Schreiber points out that Germany's economy shrank by 0.2% last year, after increasing for the past five years. Germany's population isn't growing at all, so this represents at worst an extremely modest decline in the standard of living. But given persistent deflation in the Eurozone, it probably doesn't even mean that much. Like the rest of us, Germans have a higher standard of living than they have ever had before in history.

At the end of the article Mr. Schreiber recounts how the European working class is reacting to this supposedly dire state of affairs. He starts oddly, with the demonstrations in Hong Kong! Not sure what the relevance of that is.

Then he talks about the rise of far right parties in Europe, from the Sweden Democrats to France's National Front. He asserts that the "absence of effective working-class leadership has allowed ultra-right, ultra-nationalist, and fascist parties to grow in some areas, luring petty bourgeois and even working-class sectors into their ranks with rhetoric that blames social problems on immigrants or minority ethnic populations."

But the rise of the extreme right has nothing to do with "working-class leadership," or, for that matter, even economics. It is, instead, because of the democracy deficit intrinsic to the European Union. A bunch of technocrats in Brussels claim to know what's best for every country, and the people never really get a say in the matter. Of course they object to that.

There are crises in Europe--a democracy deficit, and a currency union that doesn't make social sense. The European Union has gotten too big and too powerful. It needs to be reduced to the free trade area it was originally.

But growing European-wide poverty is not the problem. Because there isn't any.

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