At the time of the struggle against pit closures in Britain in 1992/93 the old argument in favour of import controls to save British Coal was raised. Phil Mitchinson explains why this is not an "alternative" that socialists would put forward.
The Tories' announcement that it intended to close 31 pits, coming as it did in the same period that huge Job losses were an pounced by BT, British Gas, Fords and many others, sparked off the marvellous demonstrations in London at the end of last year. The fight to save the pits captured the imagination of workers all over Britain representing as it did the fight to save jobs. How could these pits, along with the other threatened sections of British industry be saved?
Without a fighting lead from the tops of the TUC and with no socialist alternative being offered by the leadership of the Labour Party many workers looked for a way out on the basis of the present system.
The old policy of import controls came out from it's hiding place, particularly in relation to the coal industry, but not only there. The idea of preventing the import of heavily subsidised coal from Germany, and equally subsidised nuclear electricity from France as well as the coal produced by cheap labour in South Africa, Poland and elsewhere, was raised by some on the left and on the right of the Labour movement.
It was also raised by a small section of Tories and businessmen, fearful of either losing support in their mining constituencies or of the social and economic effect of a further decimation of British Industry. Many of the other policy prescriptions of the left in the past such as exchange controls and devaluation were already redundant as a result of the ERM debacle. Although no doubt even these will be resurrected in the future though.
But the idea of import controls appears to have gained some support not only from a section of miners, who understandably are desperately trying to save their industry and their communities, but other sections of the Labour movement generally.
The main attraction of import controls is that they appear to offer an easy way out. The innate conservatism of the human mind, which tends to lag behind the development of the productive forces and technique, and resists the idea of fundamental change until it is left with no other alternative, means that the great majority of society, including the working class, will desperately seek solutions which do not imply a sudden and decisive break with the past.
In the first instance many workers will seek the "line of least resistance". As the crisis develops, all sorts of quack theories and panaceas will inevitably rise to meet this demand. Import controls, it would seem, are easy to understand, and apparently just as easy to apply, and therefore have all the compelling attraction of an instant "miracle cure" for a nasty and painful disease. But beware, before swallowing the medicine take the manufacturers advice, read the label carefully, what will be the consequences and sideeffects of such a policy?
We all know from bitter experience, any economic policy that is defended by the bosses is almost certain to be in direct contradiction to the interests of working people. Far from being an argument in favour then, the fact that a section of diedin-thewool reactionaries in the Tory party and the CBI put forward this policy should in itself make us think twice before adopting the same position. These Tories who claimed to support the miners showed their true colours when the white paper was announced. The workers can trust only their own forces and their own organisations in the fight to defend jobs.
Chorus of Protectionism
But aren't import controls a socialist policy? Why would a section of the bosses support import controls? In whose interests would this policy work? What effect would their introduction have on jobs and prices? If they are really such a good idea, why haven't they been implemented already? These are the questions every thinking worker should consider before joining in this new chorus of protectionism.
The advocates of import controls argue that their introduction would afford British industry, or rather specific sections of it, the coal industry for example, a breathing space "protecting" at least the domestic market for home produce, allowing the capitalists the time they need to retool and re-equip industry. That task accomplished, the "temporary" measure of import controls could be dispensed with, and Britain would once again be set to become the "workshop of the world." (And these people are supposed to be the realists!)
Even then, they argue, controls would only apply to those parts of the economy which were seriously threatened, noone is calling for controls on all imports, only on those affecting certain selected industries.
Clearly these arguments won't bear up to a thorough examination. In the first place the difference between "selective" controls and general ones is mere sleight of hand. We would ask the supporters of these "selective" controls which sections of British industry are safe, secure and without the need of protection?
In reality, almost all of what remains of British manufacturing is under threat at the present time. In other words import controls would have to embrace the decisive sections of manufacturing, precisely those subject to the most cutthroat competition internationally.
In a period of generally expanding world trade, the supporters of import controls might argue that with trade growing for everyone, Britain's overseas rivals "wouldn't mind" if Britain protected some of it's own industry. Whether this is true or not we are clearly not in such a period of general expansion. That is precisely why the decisive sections of the British capitalists have rejected the idea of introducing protectionist measures to date, at least in an open and undisguised form. They fear retaliation from their foreign rivals which would seriously damage the British economy, which is heavily dependent on the world market.
Of course there's no honour amongst thieves. Disguised import controls have existed for a long time in the form of quotas, state subsidies and a whole list of legal regulations tending to limit imports and "protect" national industries. The steady growth of these tendencies is an expression of the cutthroat competition in a situation of contracting world markets. The fact that British capitalists may be forced to introduce import controls by the rising tide of protectionism internationally is all the more reason why we should oppose them.
Now, some workers, still harbouring illusions that it is possible to find a way out on the basis of capitalism, will be prepared to embrace import controls as a "practical" solution to the problem of unemployment, at least in the short term. In reality, however, whilst the introduction of "selective" controls might save some industries, and even then only temporarily, it would be at the expense of others. The increased price of goods which would inevitably flow from such a measure, would reduce the ability of British workers to buy other goods provoking crises in other sections of the national economy. In other words it would at best mean the transference of unemployment from one industry to another, at worst, with the development of a trade war, an economic disaster in which there could be no winners, but British capitalism would be hit especially hard, and as usual it would be the workers who would be asked to pay with more unemployment and price rises.
Just what effect would this policy have on prices? The British capitalists freed from competition with their foreign rivals would increase their prices and, without any incentive to undercut the price of British goods, foreign capitalists would raise the price of those imports that were allowed in. In other words workers would be forced to pay for keeping their jobs with another variation of a pay cut.
Price Rises Inevitable
In addition, British industry is heavily reliant on the import of machine tools and semi-manufactures as well as raw materials, so if import controls were placed on these it would increase the operating costs of British industry further undermining it's competitiveness, leading to more job losses.
As far as the coal industry is concerned, British deepmined coal is already the cheapest in Europe, the reason it can't compete with German coal is because the German capitalists have at least had the common sense to subsidise it and treat it as a strategic reserve, the British bosses, however prefer to rely on the anarchy of "market forces".
So much for the economic consequences of import controls, but for socialists the matter does not rest there. Behind all the "Buy British" campaigns and appeals to save British jobs from the "enemy without", lurks a real threat to the class consciousness of workers and to replace the instinctive bonds of international class solidarity with the poison of nationalism.
At this point we should also examine the most insidious of the arguments for import controls, the argument of the "moral high ground". If we look at the example of coal, some on the left argue that while not supporting import controls as such, we should oppose the import of coal from South Africa and Colombia because to do otherwise would be to support the racist regime of the one and the enforced childlabour of the other. In other words, slyly disguised import controls masquerading as "internationalism". Why not ban all imports from these countries? What about all the other brutal regimes in the world?
The only effective way to assist the struggle of workers in other countries is for us to concentrate on stepping up the fight against our own capitalists, not to side with them against their foreign rivals. Of course it comes as no surprise that reactionaries on the right can spout such nationalist claptrap but for Labour representatives, especially those on the left to do likewise is unacceptable. It shows in practice where the defence of import controls ultimately leads to a common front of British workers with British bosses against foreign workers and their employers.
Let us be clear, the blame for the appalling decline of British industry lies not with unfair competition from abroad, or still less with workers in other countries, but fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the British bosses and the entire capitalist system.
None of this, however, should be interpreted as meaning that we are great defenders of "free trade". Just because we oppose one capitalist policy does not mean that we defend another. In any case, how can the "market" possibly be the solution when, as we have shown, it is precisely the market and free trade i.e. capitalism, which has created this mess in the first place. The market isn't the answer, it's the problem.
Karl Marx explained over a hundred years ago that neither "free trade" nor "protection" could solve the problems facing workers. So what is the solution?
If we take the coal industry as an example again, what is needed is not the free play of market forces, or controls on imports, but an integrated energy plan. But you can't plan what you don't control and you can't control what you don't own. In other words, the nationalisation of gas, oil and electricity is what's required. Not the kind of nationalisation that we have seen in the past, however, where industries were state funded, but run as private industries, with the workers having no say in the matter. A socialist policy of nationalisation would have to enable workers to run industry democratically. Production could then be planned in the interests of society, making the most efficient use of resources, and protecting the health and safety of the workers, the local community, and the environment in general. Some on the left of the Labour movement have raised a kind of halfway house position of some nationalisation, particularly of the privatised utilities, combined with controls on imports.
While we would of course agree with the call to re-nationalise these industries (along the above lines and only compensating those shareholders in genuine need), the privatisation of which has led not to increased competition but the creation of private monopolies which have raised prices, cut services and jobs, clearly this would not be enough. To enable the economy to be planned, will require the nationalisation of the banks, financial institutions and big monopolies too.
A Labour Party proposing to control capitalism, especially if it proposes nationalising key sections of the economy would face sabotage and a vicious campaign through the media, the courts and the other arms of the capitalist state to prevent it gaining power. That being the case, why propose tinkering with the system, why not abolish it altogether?
As unemployment continues to rise, and the prospect of a return to the "good old days" fades, we can be sure from past experience that the leaders of the labour movement including those on the left will continue to rummage in the dustbin of history for all kinds of ways of shoring up decrepit and decaying capitalism, and all this in the name of "modernisation". There are none so blind as those who refuse to see. All they are doing is prolonging the deathagony of the system and lending it a more violent and convulsive character.
The dialectical contradiction of reformism is that it always succeeds in achieving end results diametrically opposed to their stated intentions. They imagine that they are being practical when in reality they are utopian. They imagine that they are defending a socialist policy when in fact they are advocating a reactionary nationalist position, and are doomed to have their clothes stolen by the most reactionary elements as the tendency toward protectionism grows internationally.
It is the task of a leadership to lead, not to tailend the bosses and their representatives. The call for import controls is no substitute for a fighting socialist policy against redundancies and unemployment. It only serves to divert workers attention from the fundamental issues and in particular the fight against their own bosses, the "enemy within", by pointing a finger at foreign workers as well as foreign capitalists. The only answer to this crisis is indeed the most modern policy of all, socialism. No control can be established over the economy while the purse strings remain in the hands of the capitalists. No job is safe and there will be no end to the colossal waste of human resources that unemployment represents while production is based on profit and the anarchy of the market.
A socialist plan of production, based on the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy, under democratic control by the workers, could not only save jobs but eradicate unemployment. Once the profit motive is removed all the talent of human resources currently wasted could be employed. Such a socialist plan would be an inspiration to the workers of Europe and the rest of the world. On the basis of a common plan of production throughout Europe, trade could be managed without threatening jobs, but by the harmonious pooling of resources. A Labour leadership committed to such a programme would not only be more likely to win elections but could rely on the support of the working class against any attempted sabotage by the capitalists, who would not simply hand over it's privileges without a fight. As the old saying goes, a thing isn't worth having unless it's worth fighting for, and what could be more worth fighting for than an end to the uncertainty, chaos and misery of capitalism, and the building of a socialist future?