Reply to Richard Harris on the USSR and dispossession

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at tomaatnet.nl
Mon Jul 21 04:46:24 MDT 2003


Richard,

Hope you are not too knackered. You make a very good point, namely "how can
there be expropriation and dispossession in the capitalist restoration
process in the Soviet Union, if the workers did not possess the means of
production ?". I agree with you that the "state capitalist" interpretation
is ultimately an incoherent notion, it is a moral theory, not a scientific
socio-economic theory. The bureaucratic collectivist interpretation is in
some ways closer to the truth, but also not very satisfactory.

I do not want to go into the debate about the USSR at length at this stage,
though, because it is a very confused debate often, not focused on the
strategy for socialist transition but on shibboleths. Ernest Mandel said,
well, the problem with all these "Marxist theories of the Soviet Union" is
that they were formulated overwhelmingly by Westerners who lacked a thorough
first-hand knowledge of the Russian experience, did not understand what was
important to Soviet citizens very well, whereas within the Soviet Union,
most dissident radicals and Marxists who disagreed with the official
Marxist-Leninist theory were silenced in one way or another, through
censure, arrest, deportation, imprisonment or execution. This creates
serious distortions in the debate. Really, we are better off listening in
the first instance to what Russian socialists like Kagarlitsky and Buzgalin
themselves have to say, they know their country, and are less likely to make
mountains out of molehills, and focus better on the essence of the
controversy.

A good way to get a grip on the issue is to have a look at the legal
Constitution of the USSR, which guaranteed all citizens and workers certain
rights and duties. You will see that public ownership meant, that citizens
had guaranteed rights of access to resources/facilities and guaranteed
rights and obligations in regard to employment and other facets of life. On
the other side, the Soviet state had a statutory obligation to provide
certain resources and services.  In a sense, the USSR at least from the
Brezhnev era could be seen as a sort of thorough-going, generalised social
democracy, be it with limited democracy (no multi-party system, no genuine
political pluralism except within the framework of one mass party).
Ownership, effective control and property rights can take all sorts of
forms, but the main point is that, if expropriation occurred in capitalist
restoration, this took the form primary of the loss of legally guaranteed
ACCESS rights, and on the other side, the loss of governmental OBLIGATION OF
PROVISION of a range of resources and employment to citizens. The "social
contract" that previously existed was destroyed.

>From the labour theory of value, we know that the workers and peasants
CREATE the wealth, and that capitalists, managers and directors just
coordinate that wealth creation in various ways. The Soviet workers had
created/produced the publicly-owned assets which they had guaranteed access
and rights to, with their own hands and minds. This social wealth was
subsequently privatised, in which case they lost any kind of free or
semi-free ACCESS to it, they lost a whole set of entitlements to their own
product. On the other side, a whole set of obligations of the authorities to
the citizens was eliminated. This is similar to the "enclosure movement"
type of development, which Michael Perelman talks about, where serfs and
peasants often did not actually own the land, but were bound to the land, or
had the legal right to work on that land, transferred from generation to
generation. Nobody in particular owned the commons, but there were common
rules for the stewardship of the commons, and one could not just do anything
on the commons without due regard for others also using the commons.
Expropriation might not mean that they lost "ownership" so much in a literal
sense, as that they were dispossessed from their means of livelihood, from
effective control over their means of livelihood, simply through losing
access/entitlement to assets held in common.

David Schanoes (alias dms) appears prima facie to be not very concerned with
the law, everything is just a matter of class and class interests, but
heterodox socialists are very concerned with the law, because the law
defines what sort of property rights, access rights, and effective control
over resources and their disposal actually is, even if legal formalities may
not describe adequately what actually happens. You got to be vitally
interested in that.

If you argue that there was no dispossession and expropriation in the
breakup of the USSR, then if Western governments privatise public resources,
this cannot be viewed as dispossession and expropriation either. But it is
dispossession and expropriation, because resources and services which you as
a taxpayer originally paid for, which you as a worker created yourself, and
which you used to have legally guaranteed access and entitlements to, are
taken away, and their ownership and control is transferred to private
interests, who then proceed to make access/entitlement to those resources
and services conditional on your ability to pay for those resources. In
which case you as a worker are hit doubly, because not only do you have to
pay taxes to a government which provide less and less in return to you as a
worker, in addition, you have to shell out cash to obtain resources and
services which previously you received free or on a subsidised basis. You
are paying for a government which takes maybe 100 pounds from you and gives
you 10 pounds of services in return (or no return at all), in which case
it's clear that you have no real stake in that government. Why should a
taxpayer shell out cash, to pay a government to fight an expensive war in
Iraq, killing British citizens, when the purpose of the tax, is to provide
general infrastructural conditions which improve the life of the taxpayer ?
If this was very clear to the British worker at the time that they wanted to
introduce the poll tax, why should it not be clear in other areas as well ?

Just to illustrate, and example. In 1977, I worked for the New Zealand
Forest Service, a public service. The forests that the NZFS managed, were
planted very cheaply with unemployed labour in the 1930s depression (mainly
pinus radiata, douglas firs etc.). In NZ, you have about 1.8 million
hectares of planted forest (the Crown now owns 3 percent), and about 6.4
million hectares of indigenous forest (the Crown owns 77 percent). The
planted assets belonged mainly to the New Zealand citizens, and could be
accessed also for recreational purposes. Forest management and maintenance
was fixed in legal statutes. Then in the later 1980s, the Labour Government
decided to sell off half a million hectares of forest land to the
multinational corporations, on the grounds they would manage them "more
efficiently", because the market was supposed to be more efficient (earlier
Labour Governments had worked closely with Sir James Fletcher and others in
the private exploitation of the timber from those forests). A problem arose,
because nobody could really say that those forests were worth. They had no
capital accounts for those forests, a few "book values" for some assets
perhaps, but no market-based valuations, because there was no market for
them. So they hired these international consultants, who, at great expense
to the taxpayers, valued tthe forests in order to sell this taxpayers asset
off. In 1990, the NZ Government sold Crown Forestry Licences, to over 250
000 hectares of its planted production forests and other forest assets for
just over $1 billion. In 1992 it sold licences to a further 100 000 hectares
for $364 million. In August 1996 the Government sold its shares in the
Forestry Corporation of New Zealand, which owned licences to 188 000
hectares of prime planted forest and Waipa, one of the largest sawmills in
Australasia. Two thirds of that forest went to Carter Holt Harvey (18.4
percent), Fletcher Chalenge (16.3 percent) Rayonier NZ (5.9 percent)
Weyenhauser NZ (3.6 percent), Juken Nissho (3.1 percent) Earnslaw One (2.6
percent) Crown Leases (2.4 percent) Pin Pac Forest products (1.6 percent),
Timberlands West Coast (1.6 percent) (source: NZ Ministry of Agriculture and
Fisheries).

In my opinion, this was expropriation and dispossession, because (1) a
generation of workers, now retired, had planted those forests, (2) their
taxes had maintained and developed those forests, (3) they were publicly
owned forests originally, belong to the citizens and providing access to
them, (4) citizens had a right to the benefits generated by the long-term
income the government obtained from those forests, (5) access to those
forests became more restricted when they became private property, and legal
obligations to maintenance of the forests were reduced (6) the government
had no genuine democratic mandate to sell those forests, it just used its
legal authority as elected majority party to sell them. At the same time
that the government sold off the forests, they were cutting the social
(collectivised) wage in every other area. Thus, as longterm government
income was reduced, and taxpayers assets were sold off, workers were paying
a greater proportion of their taxes to provide services to business entities
from which they themselves drew no direct benefit, and received less social
wage benefits. The assets were sold off ostensibly to "balance the budget"
but public and private sector debt is still massive. This is daylight
robbery, if you ask me.

Suppose that you are a shareholder in a publicly listed joint-stock company,
and the board of directors decides that they are going to declare your
shares as being "valueless". What are you going to do ? You would be up in
arms about it, you would say that you were being dispossessed and
expropriated, even if the directors said "well we really run this thing, you
know, we have to do what we think is best" or if some academic said "your
shares have a theoretical value which is uncertain and hypothetical in a
continuously changing market". Why should public ownership be any different
? Well you say, I do not have my share certificates in public ownership. But
you do have a passport and a whole series of entitlements and access rights
defined by law. But more importantly, most of your rights and entitlements
were specified in legal statutes applying to all citizens. Changing those
legal statutes can effectively dispossess you and expropriate you.

In regard to the fertiliser factory my own paternal grandfather founded in
1929, HP Bendien NV (see
http://213.19.177.222/bedrijfsinformatie/geschiedenis.html - it was a
private company, not publicly listed), his eldest son Her, who was company
director after him, decided, in effect, that the value of shares bequeathed
by Bendien senior to his sons and daughters in his testament would be set at
a very low level, so that the larger part of the private capital was kept
within the company (we're talking big bucks here). Effectively therefore,
the other siblings including my father were expropriated and dispossessed to
a great extent, they received much less funds than they expected and felt
entitled to, and of course they objected to that strongly, but they could do
nothing much about it, since the company was within its legal rights under
Dutch law. My father just basically said, "well stuff you, I am just going
ahead with my new life in New Zealand, and I am never going to have contact
with my brother Her again, the money is not the most important thing here".
Uncle Her later sold his interests and went off to live in a villa in
Mallorca, and the company was renamed Pokon Chrysal International (Pokon
being a potplant fertiliser and Chrysal being a nutrient for fresh cut
flowers).  Uncle Her later tried to apologise and make some sort of deal
with his brother and sisters, in fact he even gave me some money when I was
unemployed and very poor, which I accepted at the time, but my father would
not have anything to do with it, he knew he had been expropriated and
dispossessed in a very important way, and nothing could change that.
Dispossession IS dispossession, expropriation IS expropriation, and if you
twist that into saying that it is not, on the basis of some legal subtlety,
you miss the change in social relations which is involved. Uncle Her meant
well, he claimed to represent the best interests of the company, but we were
not so stupid as to be ignorant of what was really happening.

This example from my own life is important, theoretically, because it shows
that bourgeois and petty bourgeois primitive accumulation can involve not
just expropriation of public assets, but also of private assets, i.e.
corporate expropriation, or expropriation WITHIN a corporation. One
bourgeois can expropriate another. It is all very well to talk about the
vagueness of public ownership, but very often corporate ownership is equally
vague, because those who operate the business constituted by the corporation
think that the business IS the corporation, and that they OWN it. It is
precisely because of this "vagueness" of corporate ownership, and subtle
distinctions between ownership and effective control, that accountability to
the real asset holders is lost. Far from increasing accountability,
corporatisation of public services therefore often REDUCES real
accountability. The rights, duties and obligations of public servants are
normally specified very precisely by legislation, but the rights, duties and
obligations of corporations allow for far greater "flexibility" and
accountability is much less, because the statutory obligation to provide
publicly accessible information is much less, and because information
privacy rights are much greater.

Therefore, the "privatisers" and "free marketeers" are not just engaging in
a form of "daylight robbery" by any other name, they are also promoting
greater social irresponsibility in society as a whole. Put simply, the
rhetoric about "individual responsibility" is often a cover for what could
just as well be seen as "legalised looting".

The fact that everybody pays taxes, as I said, bolsters the impression that
everybody has a(n equal) stake in the bourgeois state. However, the greater
the proportion of tax you pay for which you get no monetary or non-monetary
return, the more Johnny citizen is quite rational and entitled to believe,
that he has no real "stake" in the bourgeois state. Which begins to
undermine the legitimacy of bourgeois law, and therefore increases the need
to resort to forcible repression and military control.

And then we get to the point David Schanoes was making: namely, if the
bourgeois state levies taxes on the working class, in order to transfer more
wealth and freedoms to the capitalists, then why should the working class be
too concerned about the laws of the bourgeois state ? The answer is, that
the working class can be interested in those laws only insofar as they
promote civil conduct from a workingclass point of view, and insofar as it
can advance its own interests by fighting over those laws. But that is not
the same as saying that socialists should advocate lawlessness, because that
would sanction more immorality and crime. Rather, legal battles are a means
to advance the struggles of the working classes, and part of class
struggles. And not just class struggles, but human struggles for
emancipation from oppressive conditions.

Regards

Jurriaan










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