Dr Benjamin Selwyn. D.R.
Mohsen Abdelmoumen: As the capitalism crosses a major crisis, how do you explain the absence of management of the working class and the giving up of any fighting spirit, whether it is on behalf of labour unions or labour movements ?
Dr Benjamin Selwyn : I do not agree that there the global working class has given up in the face of the current capitalist crisis. On the one hand we have seen the implementation of austerity in Europe and the United States, which has been based on labour repression – politically and economically. However, even in these cases we have seen upsurges, most importantly in Greece. Since the early 2000’s many countries in Latin America swung to the left. The most successful shift to the left was in Venezuela, which is now under threat from a right-wing reaction. Hopefully the labouring classes there will be able to resist this reaction. But in order to do so effectively, they will also have to fight against the corrupt elements in the post-Chavez regime. So they have a double struggle ahead. The major tensions of capitalist development in the Middle East – of mass impoverishment, lack of employment opportunities for the many, very low wages, and vast wealth concentrated in the hands of a minority – have not gone away and will, in all probability, lead to further social explosions. China has experienced a rising curve of workers’ struggle for over a decade now. The China Labour Bulletin shows how not only are these strikes expanding in number but that they are becoming increasingly offensive (fighting for new concessions from employers) rather than defensive (defending old rights). South Africa is experiencing mass struggles, which have intensified since the Marikana massacre in mid 2012. The National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa has recently withdrawn its support for the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party, both of which have been at the forefront of the neoliberalisation of South Africa. It is debating how to establish a new workers’ party that is genuinely socialist and based on the self-activity of the working class. This is a very encouraging development. There are many other examples across the world, of worker’s struggling to ameliorate their conditions. The concept of Labour-Centred Development, which I advance in my book The Global Development Crisis, views these struggles as developmental. They can lead to real improvements in the livelihoods of the workers’ involved in these struggles and their families and communities. They can also, I argue, constitute the basis of an alternative process of development , where increasingly well-organised workers cease to be simple carriers of the commodity of labour-power, and increasingly exercise their collective ability to direct economic and political resources in society.
How do you explain the rise of the countries of the BRICS ?
The BRICS represent a reconfiguration of the global capitalist hierarchy. The ‘classical’ division of labour – where core economies produced and exported industrial products to peripheral economies in exchange for primary products – is finished. In its place we have global production networks that span the globe, integrating tightly geographically distant regions under the control of Trans National Corporations (TNCs). Most of the academic literature is ‘firm-centric’ because it views these developments from the perspective of these TNCs and their supplier firms. In reality, the proliferation of these global production networks has been based upon the establishment and exploitation of a global labouring class – which has expanded from around 1 billion in 1980 to over 3 billion today. Chinese industry exists at the heart of these global production networks. It is effectively the world’s assembly platform for manufactured wage goods. However, while there is much excitement in the West about China becoming the next hegemonic power, such speculations are misleading. Chinese manufacturing is very much based on importing high-tech components from more economically advanced regions, in particular Japan and South Korea, and then exporting the final products to the rest of the world. The global hierarchy is now one where Trans-National Capital based in the traditional core economies ( the US, Western Europe and East Asia) concentrates on producing high-value added goods, from capital goods to high tech, to knowledge goods, China plays the role of assembly platform for manufactured goods, and other BRICS, such as Brazil, South Africa and Russia supply raw materials to China and other fast-growing economies.
What is the role today of a committed intellectual and which are its means in front of the capitalist domination ?
A lot of academics in the field of development studies produce what Michael Burawoy calls professional or policy knowledge. The former provides expertise, relevant bodies of knowledge, historical understanding of processes of development and change, but they do so for a restricted audience of fellow academics and students. The latter focus on solutions to specific problems defined by clients, often national governments or their agencies. These two fields of knowledge are certainly important, but the latter in particular, often works within parameters established by the state and Capital. Professional knowledge often suffers from excessive complexity in its presentation, for example the deliberate use of complicated rather than simple terminology. Burawoy provides two further classifications of intellectual production, which are much more relevant to the question of the role of committed intellectuals. These are critical knowledge and the second is public knowledge. The first asks questions such as ‘who is this knowledge being produced for ? Why ? Who benefits from this knowledge ? The second attempts to engage the public beyond the academy in matters of public concern and morality, asking such questions as ‘how could things be different ? The committed intellectual can strive to produce critical knowledge and engage in public knowledge production. As far as my work is concerned, it is orientated towards labouring classes. I aim to write in a clear and accessible way that is empowering to the reader, rather than disempowering (as much professional and policy literature is), because it sheds light on the state of the world and how it might be changed for the better by labouring classes. In this way I am influence by the great Brazilian educationalist and socialist Paulo Freire, who sought to develop a pedagogy of the oppressed. A big problem with intellectual production is that it is elitist. It argues for ‘policy’ executed by states or firms, and, even when it is sympathetic to workers, regards them as relatively passive beneficiaries of elite policy. The concept of Labour-Centred Development seeks to demonstrate how labouring class struggles for their amelioration are developmental, and that they can be achieved independently of, and often against, elite policy. Committed intellectuals do not exist in an Ivory tower however. We face our own struggles. In the UK pay for academics has fallen by 13% over the last 5 years, student tuition fees have increased to £9,000 a year, and all the while senior managers of universities are increasing their salaries.
How do you explain the hegemony of a bank as Goldman Sachs who dictates her law to States ?
Goldman Sachs has been referred to as a ‘vampire squid’ because of its connections with and seeming power over numerous national governments and policy institutions. But it is only one of many financial institutions that have accrued increasing political and economic power over the last three decades. Neoliberalism has been, amongst other things, about ‘freeing’ financial institutions from any kind of state control. Under the Bretton Woods system, financial institutions were constrained by capital controls. If you reverse these words you have Control over Capital. This represented a very significant level of state control over finance. Whilst most mainstream political economy analysis regards such controls as a function of the United States’ attempts to rebuild the world economy after World War 2, they were equally a product of class compromise. Following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 rising workers struggles across the globe, and a genuine fear in Europe and the United States of worker uprising, led to capitalist states seeking to pacify their national labour movements by providing concessions. In the core economies these concessions included a commitment to full employment. Part of the way of achieving full employment was to control capital and force it to invest within the national economy, rather than seek cheaper labour elsewhere. The gains of the European working classes after the second world war were due not to the generosity of capitalists and states, but to the threat of mass unrest from below. This was recognised by the political elites. For example, Quintin Hogg, a leading light in the Tory party, told the British parliament in 1943 “If you don’t give the people social reform, they will give you social revolution.” Neoliberalism is a project to raise capitalist profits through repressing labour, in particular though reducing wages. The liberalisation of financial institutions has enabled this process, through generating huge flows of capital, seeking out new locations for production, based on cheap, disciplined and non-unionised labour. The giant financial institutions have facilitated the geographic expansion and social deepening of capitalist social relations, in particular through debt. This process has generated huge profits for these institutions, but it has also entailed huge risks. Firstly, the logic of financial capital is short term, based on flows of hot money into and out of countries, which generates instabilities such as currency and banking crises. Secondly, the extension of debt to poor people (‘sub-prime’ refers to a section of the US population that was previously deemed too poor, and thus risky, to lend to by banks) entails new risks. The US state has worked hand-in-glove with the financial institutions to facilitate the financialisation of ever-larger chunks of society. But it also has to step in when things go wrong, such as with the current global economic crisis.
The West uses various alibis, as « human rights », « democracy », export of the « civilization », etc. to invade our countries. Do you think that this process is inherent to the western nations which need our wealth to feed their consumerist lifestyle ?
The West certainly uses the dictum of ‘human rights’ and ‘democracy’ to legitimate its imperialist interventions across the world. Does it do so to sustain its own consumerist lifestyles ? This is not such a simple issue. On the one hand working populations in Western countries have seen their wages fall significantly since the 1980s. Working conditions have got worse, unions have been attacked and undermined. These strategies pursued by Western states and firms have enabled the latter to raise their rate of exploitation of Western labour. On the other hand, Western workers have been able to continue consuming at very high levels, in particular compared to workers in other parts of the world. This is due to financialisation and debt, and the proliferation of global production networks based on cheap wage labour. The latter has reduced significantly the price of wage goods. The challenge is to build solidarity between worker across the globe, against capitalist exploitation whatever its nationality.
Algeria is the target of the imperialism with its variants. What message could you send to those who resist in my country ?
Fighting imperialism is an integral part of the struggle for a better, alternative society. I would argue, however, that many anti-imperialist movements have been weakened by the ideology of ‘national unity’ which generates an image of a united people fighting foreign exploiters. Algerian people, just like any other people, are divided along class lines and the problems of Algeria are as much a product of imperialist intervention as they are of domestic exploitation. It is worth quoting the words of Frantz Fanon, who was a member of the Algerian National Liberation Front in the 1950s, and who was a major critic of the emerging African post-colonial elites at the time. He showed how the national bourgeoisie, far from being an integrated part of the ‘the people’ were themselves an exploiting class, concerned with their own enrichment at the expense of the mass of the domestic population: « The national bourgeoisie turns its back more and more on the interior and on the real facts of its underdeveloped country, and tends to look towards the former mother country and the foreign capitalists who count on its obliging compliance » If the struggle against imperialism is to generate genuine human development, then it needs to be combined with a struggle against the exploitation of the labouring classes by the capitalist classes in Algeria and elsewhere.
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Published in in french Algeriepatriotique the 28/03/2014