Saturday 28 November 2009

Bad Banks: everything leads back to financial capital

The following are Daphne Lawless’s notes from the talk she gave the Socialist Worker forum on “Bad Banks” on October 1.

Thank you all for coming. Thanks especially to Sue [Bradford, who was also on the panel], taking her first step out of that unpleasant bear-pit in Wellington and towards real-people politics again. Kia kaha, e hoa.

So, this is the first major meeting for the Bad Banks campaign. So it’s probably best to explain why Socialist Worker chose to initiate this campaign, and where we see it going.

Socialist Worker for the last few years has consistently followed a strategy of broad-party Marxism. What we need in this country, above all else, is a real mass party which unites radical leftists, traditional social democrats, trade unionists, Maori, feminist, queer, ecological and other social movements, which rejects neo-liberalism and commits to remaining politically independent of the Labour Party. The 57 varieties of leftist splinter groups which currently exist have no purchase on a real mass mood, and we must move past this kind of clique politics.

We have worked within RAM, the Residents Action Movement, as a demonstration of how this kind of broad-party politics might work in practice - although we are far from suggesting that RAM *is* the broad party. We have always been very clear that all groups and tendencies have to get over their small-group chauvinism, and be prepared to compromise to work together. We have had successes and failures, but it still seems clear that the broad-party strategy is the only strategy with any hope of success in the current climate.

How do we build this real political alternative? The alternative can’t be built by mechanical means - putting together the existing fragments like Lego blocks. No, the alternative has to be a political alternative. Which means it needs to be based on not only clear ideas pointing away from the current system, but on real social forces of real masses of people backing up those ideas.

The “transitional method”, which has been followed by radicals since Marx’s time, insists that you can’t get there by just jumping along any popular or populist bandwagon that happens by. But neither can you get there by drawing up a programme in some smoke-free room and then going out and preaching it on a soapbox. The essence of a transitional approach is to start with common sense – what everyone already knows from their personal experience – and follow a trail of logic that points towards a fundamental problem in the whole current set-up.

Rosa Luxemburg, the great German socialist, talked about the fusion of “workers and science”. That’s the essence of transitional politics – the combination of real grassroots anger at the system, with an analysis showing clearly how we can move beyond that system. We believe that Bad Banks has a good chance of having real success in those terms.

When we’ve been out on the streets on our Bad Banks stalls, we have confirmed what we suspected before – that ordinary people know clearly that “banks are a problem”. People turned down our first leaflet, not because they disagreed with it, but because they agreed totally and therefore there was no point reading it. When characters on Shortland Street are facing foreclosure issues, then you know it’s really a factor in mass consciousness.

Everyone knows that banks rip us off through fees. The media tells us all that the government keeps cutting the official cash rate, but the banks keep their mortgage rates high.

This is a crucial point that all radicals must understand. Since the mid 70s, the real world economy has pretty much stagnated. The income of ordinary people has not raised very much – in some countries like the USA, workers are actually paid less than they were in Richard Nixon’s day. The only reason that any major Western economy has grown is that the gap has been filled by cheap credit. Working people have been deliberately encouraged to take out mortgages, credit cards, hire purchase and in all other ways go into hock up to their eyeballs to make ends meet.

So this means that ordinary people are really screwed over when interest rates go up. And that means people’s attention is concentrated on the banks, as a visible sign that they’re being ripped off. That’s one of the problems with capitalism - the wage labour relationship *looks* fair, but it’s really exploitation. So workers find it much easier to see that the bank is ripping them off than the boss ripping them off. But it’s also a reason why in the absence of left-wing forces, workers can be distracted into how the government is ripping them off, and falling prey to right-wing tax-cut methodology. What Bad Banks is doing is attempting to find a “path of least resistance” in workers’ consciousness that leads in the right direction.

But on the other side of the equation, what this means is that finance capital – banks, insurance companies, private equity funds, all the other institutions which create pretend money – is now the political driver of the whole global system. What banks want, banks get. Huge bailouts, for one thing, paid for by cuts in public services. Wholesale dismantling of regulations back in the mid 90’s, and now resistance to putting any further regulations on them. Other forms of capital are subordinated to the needs of finance. Industry gets shut down by the truckload all over the advanced western states, smashing traditional working-class self-organisation and political consciousness.

Banks fund the kind of resource stripping which leads to ecological and social vandalism on a worldwide basis. Banks even brought down an entire country’s economic. Iceland was rich 18 months ago. Now it’s a basket case reduced to begging for the EU to let them in the door, because the banks sucked the whole country dry and then ran for it when the money-go-round stopped.

This eco-socio-economic vandalism creates a new form of proletariat in the Western countries - the French call it a “precariat”, from their “precarious” casualised lifestyle. Old-school capitalism was summed up by Henry Ford’s dictum that workers in his factory should be paid enough that they could afford one of the cars they make. A stable, suburban lifestyle for workers was encouraged, which also encouraged unions and other forms of worker self-confidence and self-organisation.

But increasingly in the Western countries, workers are roped into service industries - tourism, retail, call centres – or in making luxury goods for the rich. And most importantly – wages are so low that every worker simply must, at some stage, take out a loan or get a credit card just to survive. The industrial proletariat is not gone – it’s just moved to China, the Pacific Rim, the Mexican border and similar places where trade unions are illegal and the opposition is in jail. The brilliance of the current global system is that the industrial proletariat is now concentrated in countries where they don’t have basic democratic rights – while workers in the West have democratic rights, but are atomised and have no social power. The dominance of finance capital means creating a working class with no job security or historical memory, dependent on welfare and credit just to survive. That’s what they call “flexibility”.

While it was possible not to think about all of this during the bubble years, the economic crisis has just brought the central role of banks in a modern capitalist economy into sharp focus. And don’t be fooled by all this nonsense about “recovery” and “green shoots”. The media pundits talking like that have no historical memory and no vision of the future past the day after tomorrow. All that has happened is that the stimulus packages have worked – shovelling truckloads of free money the bankers’ way has opened up the doors of credit again. But the central problem is the same – that only continually increasing “helicopter drops” of free money can keep the system going. It’s just going to seize up again – and worse. Five cups of coffee might keep you awake all night, but you can’t drink thirty-five and hope to be able to stay up all week.

In modern capitalism, everything leads back to financial capital – which we can call by the shorthand of “banks”. This is why concentrating workers’ minds on the fact that banks are a threat is opening a small door to seeing the problem with the whole global system.

This is what some critics of Bad Banks don’t get. They seem to think that “Bad banks” must suggest that there are “Good banks”. Well, obviously some banks are worse than others. We’ve been asked whether Kiwibank or credit unions are as big a problem as the Aussie trading banks. Well, that’s a debate that we’re going to have to explore in the campaign.

But the message we have to get across is that the whole banking system is a parasitic growth on human society - but it’s not the fundamental problem. As long as we have capitalism, a system where production is devoted to private greed not public need, the banking system is a necessity - the system of economic and environmental exploitation just couldn’t work without it.

Lenin said that socialists should strike at the weak link. Socialist Worker believes that Bad Banks are the weak link - the weak link in the current global system, but also the weak link in ordinary people’s acceptance of that system. Masses of people can already see that banks are a problem. But if Bad Banks becomes a popular “meme”, it opens a door to an attack on neoliberalism or even capitalism as an entity – just like GST off food opens the door to a questioning of the whole edifice of sales tax, and why workers should even be paying tax in the first place.

SW does not want this campaign to be a “front”. We want this to be a properly broad campaign. Just about everyone on the further-left realises that banks are a problem. What we hope is that, in these early stages on the campaign, we will prove that “Bad Banks” has the ability to spread like wildfire through public consciousness. At that stage, it will become a self-sustaining phenomenon. We saw something like this in 2003 with the ARC rates revolt, and we took the initiative to found RAM to intersect with this public mood. Our analysis is that Bad Banks might get much, much bigger. But we do need an initial core of activists outside Socialist Worker – entire other organisations or groups, if possible – to help us with the campaign, to make it grow much faster.

So I urge everyone who’s not a SW member in this room to take away a truckload of Bad Banks pamphlets and sign-up sheets. You might also consider buying a few copies of UNITY, the magazine which I edit and is bloody good, which gives a few good articles on the problem with the current financial system. We urge you to write your own Bad Banks leaflets! We urge you to set up Bad Banks committees in every area, to spread the idea among your workmates, comrades, sports teams, knitting circles, whatever. And we urge you to keep in contact with Vaughan, our national organiser – send him your experiences on the stalls or wherever, so we can spread the word nationwide. Maybe a Bad Banks convention sometime next year might be a goer, who knows.

Practical politics is based on experiment. Bad Banks is an experiment to see whether we are right that the grassroots are turning away from neoliberal capitalism in their hearts – all they need is access to ideas and analysis which can offer a way forward. We encourage you to be part of the experiment.

“It is easier to rob by setting up a bank than by holding up a bank clerk.”

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