Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Oh, what a lovely war!

You may not realise it but there is one war going on that looks like it may be nearing its end. I call it a war, but really the sides are so unequal it has been a bit of a full scale massacre. Now a report has come out and suggested that it could all be over in a matter of years and those on the losing side are 'unlikely to survive'. The winning side are subsequently congratulating themselves on what they see now as an inevitable victory, gloating that anyone who still tries to stand in their way are 'trying to turn the clock back'.

I am talking generally about the war waged by the multinational supermarket giants on the British petit bourgeoisie in general, and that section of it engaged in retail in particular. My, those boys have taken one hell of a beating! By 2015, on current trends, they will be completely wiped out - and British High Streets will be simply chains of trendy wine bars and fast food outlets.

Now what do Marxists have to say about this brutal and bloody class war?

Arguably, we can point out that this is what Marx said would happen over 150 years ago. Capitalism is all about competition for the accumulation of profits, and as Marx said, this tends to lead to the concentration and centralisation of capital. Big capitalists wipe out smaller capitalists, and then themselves get gobbled up by giant multinational firms. Shit happens, basically. Marxists do not celebrate the destruction of small capitalists. The MPs report notes that 'the erosion of small shops is viewed as the erosion of the social glue that binds communities together...ethnic minorities, immigrants, the elderly and those living in deprived areas are expected to be the worst affected'. It will hit rural areas in particular hard.

So what should Marxists advocate doing about this?

Firstly, I don't think the solution to 'globalisation' lies in 'localisation' - the uncritical championing of small High Street traders as some sort of alternative to supermarkets. Chris Harman has noted that such a strategy 'does nothing to confront the destructive behaviour of medium and small locally-oriented businesses. There is no evidence that such businesses care any more about the welfare of the population as a whole or about the effects of their actions on the environment than do big businesses. In fact, they have often been in the forefront of right wing political movements and of anti-union drives. Occasional hostility to big business interests is all-too-often a prelude to doing lucrative deals with these interests.'

Secondly, we have to recognise that supermarkets are in many ways a more advanced and superior way of organising production than what went previously. To quote Harman again, 'We are told that planning is no longer possible. But all these great companies have intricate mechanisms for planning their own production at the moment – but they do so in order to compete with each other. So for instance, there are now just four great supermarket chains that dominate the sale of foodstuffs in Britain, and through their domination of the markets, also have a stranglehold over most of British agriculture and much of the food processing industry. They literally plan, months or even years ahead, the production of certain types of food in certain quantities, but from the point of view of profit making not the welfare of the consumers. We have to conceive of a revolutionary transformation, in which the control of the supermarket chains and their planning mechanisms passes from the top of society to the bottom, is democratised, so as to enable co-ordination across the whole industry instead of competition within it.' Under a democratically controlled system, we would be able to organise food distribution so that the needs of say the elderly and those in rural areas were met in a way that they are currently not.

Finally, I think Marxists should remember something Lenin noted in 1916:
'The bourgeoisie makes it its business to promote trusts, drive women and children into the factories, subject them to corruption and suffering, condemn them to extreme poverty. We do not "demand" such development, we do not "support" it. We fight it. But how do we fight? We explain that trusts and the employment of women in industry are progressive. We do not want a return to the handicraft system, pre-monopoly capitalism, domestic drudgery for women. Forward through the trusts, etc., and beyond them to socialism!'

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At 4:56 am, Blogger Frank Partisan said...

Well written Marxist analysis. Good point about glamourizing small business.


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