Monday, 28 October 2013

Comrade Owen Speaks

I have just read an enjoyably well-penned but otherwise insane article by comrade Owen Jones, perhaps the most hard-left commentator in Britain at the moment. It deals with the struggle between Ineos and Unite! over the future of Grangemouth, a petrochemicals plant in Scotland. I really do have to pick this one apart – for the good of the revolution!

He starts:

"A Swiss-based private company..." 

...oh dear, foreign. Bad start. He continues:

"...yet more livelihoods sacrificed on the altar of global capitalism."

The alter in this case, presumably, being the one that gave them their livelihoods. As Grangemouth is not a commune. For comrades wishing to join a commune, there are some great ones about.

Then comes the time-worn question – "Who runs Britain?" Well, Jones tells us, it certainly isn't the "the country’s largest democratic movement... the trade unions". 

That would be the unions that keep getting implicated in trying to rig elections. But then, they do make up for that by democratically grinding parts of the economy to a halt after first not-exactly-consulting the general public, so they're not all bad.

We are then told that Ineos is operating out of tax havens. Well, it's a good thing that new government under Comrade Cameron is doing what the last didn't, namely, getting more and more of these loopholes closed. Just saying. Onwards.

The next paragraph examines Ineos' balance sheet. $2bn profits last year. 50% growth in sales. 20% gross profit growth. We don't like the sound of that, do we? Strong private growth. Much more than we earn. Grrr.

Jones proceeds to point out that workers' pay could not reasonably be seen as a reason for closure. He's right – it has far more to do with the way US fracking has changed the gas market, making the type of activity undertaken at Grangemouth far less profitable. A £300bn refit was proposed by the owner, but this will obviously make a big dent in the company's balance sheet. Of course, the idea of importing foreign gas might have Comrade Jones worried too, so perhaps it would be better for Ineos to simply operate at a loss. A great socialist innovation, that idea.

There follows a long and skilfully developed article, the exegesis of which would take too long (also, it's far better read untarnished by my commentary). The gist, though, is that Ineos is more interested in lashing out at Unite than anything. Their aim, sayeth Jones, is to squeeze the workforce down and keep more of the profits. This is perhaps not true specifically in the Grangemouth case, but it could well be true in general. Here's why.

The relationship between unions and big bosses in the UK is unhealthy. It has been forever – an almost hereditary elite and a generally socialist union movement aren't natural friends, and it is the public who have long suffered from their clashes. In the latter half of the last century, Britain's vast car industry collapsed thanks to their squabbling. In the pre-Thatcher years, government was heavily influenced by the unions and the result of this was terrible policymaking, culminating in the IMF being called in in 1976.

Flip the coin and you have the bosses. They have been managing to syringe a steadily greater share of their companies' profits out for themselves and their shareholders in recent years. This is a cause for worry, but also serious economic examination. 

Then to the workforce. This is going to shrink – Marx saw that coming a century ago. Better machines require less manpower. That is fairly undeniable, whether or not we like the ramifications. Society has to adapt. The Industrial Revolution required huge social change – perhaps Comrade Jones would have objected to that, as well?

Well, the truth is that cottage industry wouldn't have been much fun.

There is a real and damaging antipathy between unions and top management. Both need to change if we are to have a healthy economy built upon a healthy society. But fiery commentators on the hard right and left – enjoyable as their punditry may be to read – contribute to widening this divide rather than trying to bridge and ultimately close it.

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