As part of our series of interviews with political economists the website interviewed Dr. Maurice Coakley, Griffiths College Dublin. We would very much like to thank him for this valuable contribution to the website.
Interview with Dr Maurice Coakley
Can you outline for us very briefly the main thesis of your recent book, Ireland in the World Order: A History of Uneven Development?
Ireland in the World Order attempted a historical materialist analysis of Ireland’s social and political development from the medieval to the modern era, in order to explain why Ireland differed so radically from other parts of the ‘United Kingdom’. It argued that the socio-economic structure of the Gaelic order made it difficult for the English state to integrate the Gaelic elite into an expanded ruling class. Religious change accentuated these difficulties and encouraged the English state to adopt a strategy of full-scale conquest. This conquest had long term social and economic consequences, resulting in a social order that was premised upon maximising surplus extraction from the peasantry and which inhibited capital accumulation in the countryside. Instead of developing along lines similar to England or Scotland in the nineteenth century, Ireland came to display the typical characteristics of what has come to be known as ‘underdevelopment’. This context of underdevelopment ensured that social resistance in Ireland was closely linked to a striving for national independence.
The last couple of chapters explore the relationship between this historical background and Ireland’s social and economic development in the 20th and 21st centuries. It argued that the Irish capitalist class had been shaped by this structural underdevelopment and showed no inclination to develop an independent industrial base. From the 1960s onwards it sought to insert Ireland into transnational networks – above all by making it a conduit for US capital investment orientated towards the European market. Some of this was manufacturing industry that created real employment but much of it was fraudulent, with the Irish state becoming complicit with tax evasion on a massive scale. While the country significantly increased its average standard of living, it also made itself deeply dependent upon foreign capital. Most of the left and the labour movement assumed that this dependence on foreign capital was not a problem, and were wholly unprepared for the collapse occasioned by the 2007/8 financial crash.
At a more general level the book argues that uneven development is intrinsic to the capitalist system. This is not just a matter of the laws of the capitalism system working themselves out unevenly – though there is an element of that – but also that patterns of development are heavily shaped by politics. Global capitalism is a hierarchal system, and states play a central role in moulding that hierarchy.
How do you see the current crisis as fitting into this thesis?
The failure to the Irish state to pursue a course of independent economic development has made the Irish economy exceptionally vulnerable in the event of crisis. The Irish state found itself with very limited leverage to negotiate with the institutions of global and regional governance. To make matters worse the political elite has become closely interwoven with a rentier/financial oligarchy whose interests are very removed from any development project, or from the needs of the wider population. The Irish elite as a whole has become characterised by a mentality that combines dependency and fraud, a combination not uncommon across much of what is called the ‘developing’ world. The crisis also showed that behind all the rhetoric of equality and solidarity between European nations, the European Union retains a hierarchy of nation-states and any spirit of mutual solidarity between these nations is shallow.
How useful is Marxist political economy in understanding crisis in capitalism?
Marx’s great insight was to see capitalism as a social system with its own dynamics which he spend most of this life analysing. It is not so much that Marx provides all the answers; what his work does provide is a framework of questions that are essential for making sense of contemporary capitalism.
For Marx, the manner in which the social surplus is extracted is the key to understanding societies across history. Whereas in earlier social systems, surplus extraction tended to take the form of unpaid labour or the handing over of surplus produce, in capitalism it occurs through the medium of exchange. The worker is paid wages, but profits arise from the amount of labour which is never paid for. Capitalist production occurs in a competitive context and the capitalist is forced to adopt measures – either proceed with technological development or hammer down wages – in order to stay in business. This becomes the driving dynamic of the whole system, and an analysis of these processes enabled Marx to make sense of how the capitalist system functions, or at least to establish a clearer picture than anyone before him, and a much clearer picture than most economists who came later, but who rejected his logic because the implications of his analysis were too politically and morally uncomfortable.
Marx had been written off as an antiquated nineteenth century economist, but once the financial crash came, he suddenly became relevant again. What made Marx’s writings so pertinent was his insistence that capitalism is a crisis-prone system, and that social polarisation is endemic to it. His argument that the capitalist order has a systemic tendency towards social polarisation has been the most ridiculed aspect of all his work, but the reality of social polarisation has come back to haunt the contemporary capitalist world, and with it, the spectre of Marx.
Marx did not produce a completed theory of crisis, or rather he a produced a few different theories, and this has led to major debates and disagreements among Marxists theorists about how best to interpret the current crisis. Many of the intellectuals who radicalised in the 1960s and 70s became de-politicised or shifted to the right. But many did not and the writings of people like David Harvey, Peter Gowan, Robert Brenner or the Monthly Review school, to mention but a few, provides a rich body of work that is hugely valuable to those wanting to make sense of contemporary capitalism.
What do you see as the main characteristics of capitalism today and what implications does this have for workers both in mature capitalist economies and those in emerging economies?
There has been a radical change in the balance of forces between capital and labour – to the detriment of labour – over the last few decades and this has been one of the defining features of contemporary capitalism. Other significant changes have also occurred.
Over the last few decades, global capitalism – especially in the North Atlantic economies – has been characterised by a massive expansion of the financial sphere, a process known as financialisation. Behind the financial upsurge are some wider changes in the global economy. One is the presence of global over-capacity in production which inhibits investment. Too many goods are chasing too few customers. Many corporations don’t see any way that they can achieve profitable returns by investing in new production lines so they are either hoarding their profits or looking for speculative fields to put their money in. In the old core zones of global capitalism, investment rates have been falling for decades.
In this context financialisation was useful because more people could buy goods on credit, but the huge debt which was built up from the 1990s ultimately became unmanageable and the financial system imploded. We are living with the consequences of that. Most of the world’s banks are underwater, and have only survived because of massive infusions of public money from governments around the world.
There was also a political dimension to the rise of finance. The US government encouraged the process because it enabled the big Wall Street banks to achieve global dominance in the financial sphere at the very time that the US was losing its leading edge across much of the productive economy. Washington figured that they could best profit from economic expansion elsewhere in the world by becoming the world’s banker. However, that position depended upon the stability of the dollar, and of US government debt being at the heart of the global financial order. The structural centrality of US capitalism to the global system has been gradually undermined by the decline of the US manufacturing base. While the US government succeeded in preventing a complete meltdown of its financial system in 2008, it has not overcome its more fundamental problems.
Many commentators speak of a process of ‘globalisation’ as the dominant feature of recent decades. There is a partial truth in this. Capitalist manufacturing now takes place right across the globe, and East Asia in particular has become a major centre of global manufacturing. However, much of this manufacturing base is dominated by North Atlantic corporations. In many cases, the North Atlantic companies don’t bother setting up their own manufacturing plants but sub-contract out the manufacturing to local operators. This occurs not only at the lower levels of the value chains – like textiles – but also in high value areas. Apple, for example, farm out much of their manufacturing operations to Chinese sub-contractors. The manufacturing sector receives only a small percentage of the final sales prices for the goods being produced. Many corporations are spending more money on advertising than on manufacturing. One of the consequences of this is to create a huge imbalance of income between capital and labour, not only nationally, but even more so at a global level.
The whole framework of capitalist growth that emerged in the post-war decades appears to have exhausted itself. It would seem that once capitalist economies reach a certain maturity, growth levels start to decline. Alongside this, and interacting with it, has been the growing imbalance of power between capital and labour.
It seems clear that capitalism has entered a period of deep systemic crisis, one that is global in scale, even though it may take different forms in different places. In we compare the current crisis to the last major general capitalist crisis – the 1970s – some fundamental differences stand out. In the 1970’s, labour in the advanced capitalist societies was in a position of strength, and a slowdown in growth rates led to declining profitability. It was at that point that capital decided that the only way they could resolve the crisis of profitability was to reduce labour costs (and the power of labour) beginning in Britain under Thatcher, and followed on by Reagan in the US. This would ultimately result in the neo-liberal counter-revolution which has swept the boards over the last few decades. Looser market rules for capital and rising unemployment significantly weakened the position of labour. While the US in particular did succeed in partially restoring profitability, the defeat of the labour movement has some ironic consequences for the capitalist system as a whole. It meant workers had less money to buy consumer goods, and no less importantly it meant that capital could ride roughshod over popular demands for better services, better infrastructure, and a better environment.
The current crisis is very different in character. It occurs in a context of a vastly weakened labour movement. The 2008 financial crisis was not initiated by a fall in profits: on the contrary corporate profits were booming. If anything, the very weakness of labour was a key factor responsible for bringing about the crash. Because workers could not afford to buy the goods produced, the credit system was vastly expanded to cope with this but it ultimately collapsed under the weight of the huge levels of debt which had accumulated. The crucial point is this: capital will not be able to resolve the crisis this time by further assaults on labour. This does not of course mean that they won’t try. But even if they are successful in their efforts, it will not end the systemic crisis. On the contrary, it will deepen it because ordinary people will be even less able to afford the goods being produced.
Marx spoke about the ‘over-accumulation’ of capital. We usually think about this as an economic process, but it is also a social one. The huge wealth and power that capital has built up over the last three decades has become an obstacle to the capitalist system itself. If capitalism was a rational system it would have imposed harsh sanctions on the bankers and the brokers, and ensured that sufficient resources went into social services and into the creation a sustainable energy system. It would also make a serious effort to ensure that the general population would be able to buy the goods being produced by capital. But capitalism is not a rational system, or rather what is rational for the individual capitalist – or the individual state – becomes irrational for the system as a whole. While the current crisis is global in character, it takes very different forms in different regions
In North America and the European Union, workers’ movements – and progressive politics – will most likely be premised upon defending existing social gains. In parts of the world where there has been the most dramatic capitalist industrialisation and urbanisation, like China or Vietnam, we may well see the re-emergence of classic forms of the workers’ movement, with militant trade unions, strikes and factory occupations playing a key role. Elsewhere we have witnessed the rise of movements of solidarity among the poor, urban and rural. One cannot predict the future, but it seems reasonable to assume that this global crisis will produce new forms of resistance, and many surprises. If we do see a global popular radicalisation and the re-emergence of a radical labour movement, there is no guarantee that such a movement would be happy with modest reforms, and willing to allow the system of private property to remain intact.
Gramsci spoke, nearly a century ago, of an organic crisis of capitalism that was characterised by the rise of all kinds of destructive and irrational tendencies. Something similar seems to be happening again today. The ability of the US to win consent for its global ‘leadership’ continues to decline while Iraq and Afghanistan have shown the limits of its military power. If a substantial popular and democratic resistance to neo-liberal polices does not emerge, we are likely to see a deepening of destructive and irrational trends, alongside more imperialist adventures, across the globe.
Where does Ireland fit into this global system today?
Ireland’s position in the global system is a very contradictory one. At one level it is characterised by exceptional levels of dependency upon external capital, both North American and European. At the same time, Ireland’s position as a ‘bridge economy’ between the US and the EU has enabled Irish people to have a significantly higher income than they might otherwise have had. The GDP figures are exaggerated certainly, but there is no getting away from the fact that wages in Ireland are, by and large, significantly higher than in Mediterranean Europe. To many people, including many trade unionists, this seemed like a good deal. It is only with the global financial crisis that the downside of the deal has become more evident. Suddenly, Ireland was being demoted to the status of a ‘peripheral’ state, albeit a periphery of the world’s second major core region.
One of the reasons why resistance in Ireland has been muted so far is because people are afraid that resistance could be counterproductive, that deeper confrontations could damage Ireland’s position in the global system. The EU leaders and the debt collectors are aware of these fears and use them to their advantage.
While many are beginning to realise that there may be a heavy price to pay for having so lightly abandoned national sovereignty, they see no easy way to regain it. As living standards and social services in Ireland continue to fall, a point may well be reached when anger overcomes fear. The key issue here is not likely to be Ireland’s statistical position in the global hierarchy, so much as the jarring contrast between the official rhetoric of recovery and fairness and people’s lived experiences of deprivation and injustice.
We are obviously seeing austerity, in various degrees of measures, being rolled out across Europe. Why austerity? What is it actually designed to do?
The austerity agenda has a global dimension, but it is particularly pronounced in Europe. The Eurozone has created a single currency and monetary administration but does not have a unified system of government. Once the financial crisis broke, it became clear that most of Europe’s banks were effectively insolvent and the battle commenced to see who would pay the cost. If the European banks (including the Irish ones) had declared bankruptcy, this would automatically triggered the bond insurance system (known as CDO’s) which was operated by the big Wall Street banks, especially by Goldman Sachs. Wall Street would have had to cover these loses, which would have impacted on the value of the dollar.
But this never happened. Instead the European Central Bank insisted that individual states cover these losses. These were mostly concentrated in Europe’s peripheral regions where there had been a financial bubble, financed by the banks from Europe’s core states: Germany, France and Britain. The peripheral governments, led by the Irish, caved into these demands and nationalised the private debt. Once these governments accepted the private debt as public debt, the European Union authorities launched what they call the austerity programmes. These are similar both in form and content to the structural adjustment programmes imposed to such destructive effect by the IMF on Latin America and Africa at the behest of the North Atlantic banks in the 1980’s.
The argument put forward by the European Commission and the European Central Bank – that cutting public spending will rejuvenate the private economy by making it more competitive – is simply not credible. It has been rubbished by the International Monetary Fund and indeed by research commissioned by the European Commission itself. It is clear that the austerity programmes are not only having a disastrous social effect, but are also damaging the capitalist economies in the affected countries. Not only are these deprivation programmes socially and economically harmful but they have also significantly eroded the position of the political establishment in these states. Why then do the European Union authorities persist with them?
There are a number of factors here. This is evident if we look at the three key institutions pushing the austerity programmes, the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the Berlin government. Each of these institutions has their own particular interests and logic. The European Commission and the European Central Bank share a determination to maintain a single currency in Europe at all costs. The position of Germany is more complex.
The European Central Bank is closely linked to the private banking institutions and their aggressive pursuit of retrenchment in the periphery is to a considerable extent driven by the need to protect the big private banks, which are mostly underwater and would have collapsed without ECB protection. Jean Claude Trichet, who was head of the ECB at the time that they pressurised the Irish government to takeover the Irish bank debt, was in charge of the French Treasury at the time of Credit Lyonnais scandal. Criminal charges against him in relation to this were controversially dropped. His successor, Mario Draghi, was a former leading executive of Goldman Sachs, the leading Wall Street bank, which has an even murkier history than Credit Lyonnais. It is striking that when the ECB and the EC decided to impose so-called ‘technocratic’ prime ministers on Italy and Greece, in place of the elected ones, they chose two former executives of the Wall Street bank. It points to an aspect of European financial governance that is rarely mentioned in the media: the role of the big American banks. It is not only the big European banks that the European Central Bank has a strong affinity for; their generosity of spirit also extends to Wall Street.
The European Commission has had a long standing project of making the EU more ‘competitive’, a code word for reducing wages and working conditions and diminishing the welfare state across the EU. The Lisbon Agenda published in 2000 is fairly explicit about this. The global financial crisis was seen as a golden opportunity by the European Commission because it gave them the clout to overrule national governments, and impose a set of policies that they would never have been able to push through in normal circumstances.
Aside from the rarely mentioned role of the United States, the most powerful state in the EU is Germany. As unelected bodies, neither the Commission nor the Central Bank have any popular legitimacy. The Berlin government is of course anxious to protect its own banks, but more than that, they are answerable to their electorate, and that puts them in a peculiarly vulnerable position. Precisely because the German state and the German economy are the most powerful in Europe, they are not in a position to claim that they are being forced to adopt particular polices because of outside coercion. To justify their capitulation to financial interests, the German political elite have had to construct a bizarre narrative of lazy feckless Mediterraneans trying to swindle the German people out of their hard-earned savings. If this narrative is convenient for the German government, it runs its own political risks. It makes it more difficult for them to take the measures they need to take to protect the private banking system and the single currency, because they are perceived as undermining their own citizens’ savings.
There is another aspect to German policy. The have developed an economic strategy which has been described by many economists as ‘neo-mercantilist’. Berlin has prioritised creating an export surplus, which puts them in a very strong political position. However, wherever there is a trade surplus, there has to be a deficit somewhere else. By pursuing this strategy within the European Union, they made imbalances within the European economy inevitable. German banks – famously tight-fisted at home – lent money to banks across the European periphery so that people there could buy German products. To make matters worse, they are now forcing austerity polices on their neighbours, ignoring the evidence that these are thoroughly counter-productive. As an economic strategy, this was bound to crash because if the peripheral economies are on their knees, who then is going to buy German goods? The Greek Marxist economist, Costas Lapavitsas, has described this strategy as being one of ‘beggar thy neighbour and thyself’. That about sums it up.
Why doesn’t austerity work? Surely capital should be able to accumulate through lowering wages and thereby increasing profits – what Marx called increasing absolute surplus value. Unfortunately, as Marx also pointed out, workers are also consumers, and if enough of them are hit by lower wages, they won’t be able to buy sufficient consumer goods. More than that, it would appear that as capitalism becomes more mature, it can only be stabilised by more and more public spending. Without that, these economies go into reverse gear. This is what is happening today across the European periphery.
One way of overcoming Europe’s debt problems would be to simply write off the debt. This happened to German debt in 1953, with the blessings of Washington. Were the European Union to do this, it would be a massive blow to the interests of financial capital, and it would probably force the European states to take public ownership and control of the credit system. Another solution would be to print money to inflate away the debt. This would damage both the interests of financial capital and also of savers, who would see the real value of their savings reduced. It is considered to be politically unacceptable to the German government. Instead, the ECB, the EC and the Berlin continued to push through austerity programmes that they know are self-defeating. This whole policy is incoherent and behind the arrogance of the European leadership one can detect more than a hint of panic. Many of the right-wing apparatchiks who run the Commission and the ECB are probably genuinely oblivious to the political dangers they face in pursuing the deprivation agenda. They have grown up with the success of shock doctrine tactics in Latin America and in Eastern Europe and are confident that they will be equally successful in Southern Europe. They fail to note the difference between the regions. It was only through terror, torture and military dictatorship that the IMF could get away with these policies in Latin America. In Eastern Europe, people were desperate to become more ‘western’. None of this applies to the south of Europe. The European project increasingly lacks legitimacy. If these rulers resort to more direct form of coercion, this will blow away any remaining legitimacy that the EU has and there is no guarantee that the state security forces will perform as expected. The Egyptian example is a reminder of how powerless a state becomes once it faces a genuinely popular revolt.
Some people interpret the current impasse as an attempt by Germany to establish hegemony over Europe, but this is too simplistic and it misses two crucial aspects of the European crisis. The American connection has already been noted. The elites of all the Eurozone nations agreed to hand over a significant share of their sovereignty in order to strengthen the position of capital at the European level. They understood what they were doing, and the same elites, for the most part, still stand over that decision. The single currency was at the heart of this deal, and it fitted perfectly into the neo-liberal agenda of reducing social spending. National governments could turn to their electorates and declare that their hands were tied. As much as they would like to improve citizens’ conditions, the rules of the EU won’t allow them. This is what has been happening in Ireland and across most of the continent. The problem that these national elites now face is that the demands being made by Brussels are so excessive, that their political representatives run the risk of electoral extinction.
It is true that German exporters have benefitted from a single currency, but the wider German population has not. It was the French elite, not the Germans, which pushed for the single currency. The French elite remain nostalgic for their lost empire (a bit like the British) and they hope to create a European empire as a substitute. However, while it is unlikely that the current crisis has been driven by any thought out project by Berlin to establish a more-or-less coercive domination over Europe, this has become the actual logic of the European Union. This is the Achilles heel of the whole European project. The population of the rest of Europe will almost certainly not accept German domination and Germany itself has neither the will nor the capacity to impose it.
It seems more likely that the German elite are divided about what course to take. Sections of the German elite, most notably the Bundesbank, appear determined to crash the single currency rather than take any further losses. It is difficult to see how the single currency will survive. The most likely outcome is that one of the peripheral states, probably Italy or Spain, will withdraw from the euro, effectively sinking it. Alternatively, if they resist the Troika’s deprivation programmes, the German parliament will recognise that the game is up and pull the plug on the single currency. The German state will survive a collapse of the single currency, the ECB will not, and the whole Brussels operation will be hugely weakened and discredited. It is not surprising that they are so intransigent: they have nowhere else to go. A defeat for Brussels and Frankfort would not be the end of European co-operation. It would rather open up a debate across the continent about how best to create a different kind of Europe.
Many alternative economic proposals from ‘left’ sources seem to want to try and revive a capitalism from a previous era, namely through Keynesian inspired stimulus plans, can this work in today’s economy?
Some of the points that the Keynesians make are valid enough. There is a necessity to increase public spending in both social and physical infrastructure. We are, however, not likely to see a return to the high growth rates of earlier decades, nor is it clear that high growth would be a good thing. The Keynesians have yet to get their heads around the global ecological crisis. Endless economic growth is simply not possible, nor is it ecologically viable. The global environment is much too fragile for that. If we are to establish a viable economic model, it has to include an agenda of moving towards a sustainable energy system.
Given that a return to high growth rates is impractical, it is difficult to see how a social compromise between capital and labour of the sort that existed in the post-war decades could be revived. At a very immediate level, the private banking system is a massive obstacle to economic revival because it represents claims on future production. These claims are strangling investment projects. This private financial sector needs to be closed down, and the credit system should be turned into a public utility system, like electricity, water or transport. A publically owned, democratically structured credit system would enable the population to determine where investment should go and what forms it would take. Such a programme would not, in itself, abolish capitalism, but it would significantly re-structure the system and shift the balance of power from capital to labour.
If Ireland desires more economic control what policies should it pursue?
The crucial arena for establishing a modicum of self-determination is the financial one. The debt burden imposed upon the population is not only immoral, it is also impractical. It effectively condemns the state to extended stagnation, which will be accompanied by a gradual but accumulative reduction in social spending and social rights.
Beyond that there is a pressing need to for the Irish state to establish democratic control over the whole financial system. Formal nationalisation of the banks is not enough. The AIB for example is already state owned but continues to operate as a private bank servicing its own executives. The state doesn’t want to control the private banks because that would bring them under public scrutiny and it would encourage popular demands that national savings be used to improve the material and social infrastructure, and not just to enrich the elite and their hangers on. Capital control would be needed to make this effective. These measures would probably be inconsistent with membership of a single currency as it is presently constituted.
This programme is fairly modest but it would face massive opposition from the whole of the Irish elite and from the European Union (at least as it is presently operates). Given the weakness of left wing politics in Ireland, it might seem that we face a near impossible task. However, the destructiveness of the austerity programmes and the increasingly self-defeating character of European Union policies ensure that Ireland would be very unlikely to be alone in its battles to protect its society against the demands of Brussels.
The details of what policies a progressive government would need to introduce would have to be worked out collectively and these would change over time depending on circumstances. In the 1930s trade policies were considered more central than they would be now, but that could change again. A lot of good work has been done by people like Michael Taft, the Anglo Not Our Debt campaign, and the Irish Left Review. I am not an economist and I have no specialist knowledge of economics. What I have been trying to do is to locate economic policies in their wider political and historical contexts.
What economic demands should be made if one is trying to build an economic system centred around people?
Any political advance towards a more just society must begin from where we are now. In the case of western Europe, a defence of social rights and the welfare state has to be the starting point for launching a political challenge to the existing order, at least for the foreseeable future. However, a strategy that is based solely of making demands on the state and expects that the population, or the working class, will become radicalised when these demands are not met, is hardly credible. Politics has moved on over the last century and the ruling class now appeals directly to the population – mainly through the media – arguing that while certain social rights may be desirable, they cannot realistically be granted or maintained because the state cannot afford them.
If the left is to defend the earlier gains achieved by workers and the wider population, it needs to explain how these social rights are to be paid for. It is not good enough to say: “that’s their problem”. It is our problem too. Agitation will not succeed unless it is accompanied by a transformation in popular political consciousness, and for that to happen people must see a societal alternative. By that I don’t mean some vague notion of socialism but a concrete project for changing society’s direction and its social priorities. Such a project needs to be combined with a wider battle against the culture of greed and consumerist elitism that has been dominant for decades across the mature capitalist formations, especially the English-speaking ones.
There are many difficulties with the Scandinavian welfare systems but there are hugely positive features to these societies too and the left should not be afraid to acknowledge these. One of these is a much more equitable tax system, where the wealthier pay significantly higher rates of tax than lower income groups. This was made possible by a political culture that stressed the importance of social equality and if the left is to make headway elsewhere they need to create or revive an equalitarian political culture.
Re-distribution of income is only one part of a programme of transition to a more equitable society. Another crucial aspect is control over the credit system. This would involve not only having capital controls but also a publically owned credit system. The only way that we can ensure that a publically-owned credit system is used to benefit the broader population, and not just the elites, is to have an open and ongoing debate of what our social priorities should be, and where our collective resources should be best invested.
The radical left has long argued for greater workers’ control at the level of manufacturing industry but we also need to think through what needs to be done in other sectors of the social order. The workings of government and its many institutions should be transparent to the citizens and should be subject to democratic supervision. That would necessarily involve participation and consultation not only with the workers in any given institution, but also with citizens involved with them, like patients, commuters, residents etc. This kind of project would need to be accompanied by the development of new democratic media.
Marx is often criticised for failing to outline a comprehensive plan for a socialist society, but this is arguably a strength of his position rather than a weakness. We have to begin from where we are and work from there. The minimum measures necessary to defend popular living standards and the welfare state will face fierce opposition from the ruling elites. If a pro-worker government is to succeed in these very modest goals, it would need to achieve a deep popular mobilisation, and a politicisation of the populace. That’s the clear lesson of Venezuela. How far such a government could advance towards the goal of an alternative social order depends to a great degree upon the regional and international balance of forces.