Where Is the Independent Working Class Perspective on the Economy?

Mark Carney’s speech to the TUC:


Mark Carney addressing the TUC Congress, 2014

On September 9, Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney gave a speech to the 146th Trades Union Congress. The theme of the speech, delivered in a deadpan and earnest manner, was to attempt to show how the Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee is working “to maintain price and financial stability”, creating the conditions for “sustainable growth in jobs and incomes”. It is their job “to ensure the economy achieves its potential”.

His message to the workers was to leave these matters to the Bank. Meanwhile, the unions should be responsible with their pay demands. Under the Bank’s guidance, the recovery will continue steadily. Recklessly demand higher pay, and you risk destabilising prices.

“By maintaining price and financial stability, we put in place the foundations for sustainable job creation and income growth,” he said. “Stability gives workers the confidence to invest in skills or to change jobs. And it gives firms the confidence to hire new workers, invest in new equipment, introduce new products and pursue new markets. We need workers with the right skills. And we need companies taking strategic initiatives to grow productivity. That productivity is needed to secure real wage increases over the medium term.”

He gave his speech in the context of the continuing all-round crisis, ostensibly in a period of recovery. The fundamental problems experienced by capitalism, such as the falling rate of profit, have resulted in ever-intensifying cutthroat competition. In these conditions, dubious and underhand practises have become the norm, which both precipitated the crisis and continue to be pursued with renewed vigour, as evidenced by the exposure of one scandal after another.

Rather than take up the alternative of a public, not-for-profit banking system to facilitate the economy, with the perspective of its development in a pro-social direction, the government and Bank of England are instead aimed at bolstering the existing system. Yet they find themselves unable to do so. They turn to exceptional measures, such as quantitative easing or indefinite periods of very low interest rates, which then do not actually work out as necessarily planned. They are losing their power of prediction.

In this context, the speech attempted to present the Bank as on top of the situation. Yet their argument essentially asserts that it comes down to the market: it is an issue of the supply and demand of labour.

Royal College of Midwives vote to strike on pay
Britain has outperformed, said Carney, in terms of employment with respect to the US and the rest of Europe. He argued that is due to a “shock” in the supply of labour, as well as limited industrial disputes and action over pay. Here he made various admissions, revealing that there has been an unusual peak in those seeking work due to the stress on the working class and the concessions it has made.

Carney therefore mentioned that “financial risk is being steadily shifted to employees from both employers and the state through changes to the structure of pensions and benefits, reduced job security and evolving labour market institutions, including the union movement”. Therefore, “the strong performance of the UK labour market reflects in part people feeling compelled to work for financial or other reasons”.

“With more workers at competitive wages,” he said, “companies have been encouraged to hire.” Unemployment has therefore been lower than might be expected in a deep recession. “Britain has an opportunity… to reach and sustain a higher level of employment than in the past. And workers can maximise their pay prospects. But when will Britain get a pay rise?”

His argument was that a trade-off has occurred between pay and jobs. Pay is low, but this has kept people in work. The whole logic to this is entirely capital-centric, and leads him to say: “Supporting jobs means helping the economy reach the maximum sustainable level of employment.” The working class should give up its aim of full employment.

In summary, then, the best that Carney was able to say was that any increase in pay is going to be slow, and depends upon whether the “labour supply shock” settles down, and whether prices can stay stable.

These arguments can be criticised on various levels, not least the old fallacy/lie that prices rise if wages rise. As he put it: “What matters for inflationary pressures… is the relationship between wages and productivity, as captured by unit labour costs.” The arguments are entirely capital-centric, starting from the point of view that labour is a cost of production, such as the following:

“The weakness of pay has, in effect, purchased more job creation. It has not resulted in an unusually high level of profits. The burden of the Great Recession has been shared across the UK. Profits have been squeezed almost as much as labour costs. Employees have seen their real incomes reduced, but more people are in work as a result.”

The main point is the extent to which the human factor is left out of the equation. Firstly, their leaving the market as the determining factor both relegates the role of consciousness and obscures the role of the powerful monopolies who exert huge power over these markets. Secondly, the arguments effectively eliminate the role of the workers themselves.

What comes across in the speech are aspects of how much the crisis has been shifted onto the backs of the workers, though Carney neglected to add how direct actions of the bank such as quantitative easing have also shifted the burden through the eroding of pensions in particular. The aim is to ensure Britain remains attractive to the monopolies. As Carney asserted, the reduction of incomes in real terms that has been suffered by workers was necessary as it “rebalanced” the economy and rebuilt “competitiveness”. But there is only so far, even on their terms, they can go with that strategy. Forcing concessions out of the working class is not going to lead to any solution; rather, it will exacerbate them in the long run.

In a theoretical way, the workers’ role is eliminated and they are made an appendage of capital. The most Carney can call on the working class to do is give up its claims and get behind the Bank, government and business.

“The squeeze on real incomes [due to the crisis] was pronounced,” he said. “And yet there were relatively few calls for higher wages to compensate.” Workers and their unions have a responsibility not to demand too much, since: “As a result of that painful adjustment, the UK is more competitive. Britain’s labour force and trade unions deserve great credit for ensuring that this risk is much lower in the UK. By sharing the burden, our economy is better positioned for the future.”

This participation of the workers in deciding economic affairs as part of the democratic renewal of society is what will open the door to solving the problems of the economy and indeed in the workers’ deciding their own worth. The independent working class perspective on the economy rejects the economic pseudo-science which revolves around such concepts as the “natural rate of unemployment” and “labour market dynamics” to justify continued attempts to keep the workers’ movement passive and unthinking in the face of the anti-social offensive. These concepts are archaic and unscientific.

Whose economy exactly? The essence of the speech was to leave it to the experts – the workers have no role or say in the direction of the economy. It is neither for the workers nor the unions to decide.

On the contrary, it is only the working class that can save the day. Only it has an outlook that includes the human factor, and from this standpoint can put the economy under conscious control, can determine consciously the prices of production and exchange, how much of what is produced, resolving the contradiction between production and consumption. The workers will not give up their claims on the economy, will not be diverted from developing their own independent outlook on the economy and will continue to discuss the need for and demand a change in the direction of the economy.

The lesson for the working class movement is that it is our economy; we will decide!

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