We met with Raoul Hedebouw, federal deputy of the Belgian Labour Party (PTB). While it is obvious that we agree on certain points of analysis and possible solutions, it is no less obvious that various observations and orientations divide us. However, the situation implies in these uncertain times to find ourselves around what unites us. The struggle in the field immediately leads to modifications of the theory. At least, we hope so*…
AP: At the time of the wave of layoffs, there was a slogan that said « don’t touch my job ». Do you think all jobs, any jobs, are worth defending? I quote Alain Accardo: » Lhe workers and their organizations, that is to say the « commodity labor », are only co-responsible for this plundering and destruction insofar as they defend employment at all costs in the existing context and fight to this end everything that decreases in the immediate future the economic growth and the financial profitability of the investments »…
Defending jobs would play into the hands of capitalists? Let’s put forward the opposite proposition: would those who accept job losses then contribute to the destruction of capitalism? This is not the case either. The proof is that many employers are happy for governments to allow job losses, because their goal is to produce goods to sell in solvent markets, regardless of the employment rate. The workers’ struggle to maintain jobs is indeed an anti-capitalist struggle. The real question is what to do during these working hours, and it is true that it has been put under the carpet in social struggles, which focus on the collective ownership of the means of production. Today, we are still on the defensive. At the end of the Second World War, this question was much more present. Many workers tell me that they need to produce something else and something else, so the goal for them is not to keep their job as it is at all costs. Thus, some ex-FN workers would prefer to make pots and pans, if they could!
AP: However, it seems that the PTB is fighting for a fairer distribution of the fruits of production, but without touching production itself. I am thinking of the metallurgy, the automobiles…
We discussed this at our last convention. We Marxists have lacked for a long time a systemic vision, and notably an ecological one. By trying to win small daily battles, sometimes successfully, we have lost sight of the systemic side. And when we question the production, we are in the middle of it! Since the market economy alone decides on production, there is no point in winning a small battle in this or that factory. We need to take up the systemic fight at great cost. Socialism 2.0 is much less focused on the quantitative production of goods than in the past. The technical and scientific level in rich countries allows to raise again the qualitative question of another type of production.
AP: If this question didn’t arise, could we call ourselves anti-capitalists? Here, I quote André Gorz: » The workers’ movement and trade unionism are anti-capitalist only insofar as they question not only the level of wages and working conditions, but also the ends of production, the commodity form of the work that carries it out. » How to arrive at his proposal?
I can follow Gorz on this criticism. There is a too exclusively socio-economic side to Marxist struggles, including within the PTB. At our last congress, we talked about other decisive themes to be addressed: peace, ecology, human rights, feminism, COP 21, etc. We would like to address these fields more, but it is not obvious, because the PTB is not (yet) audible on these issues. Since the crisis is systemic and cannot be solved by a capitalist economic decrease, it is a pity not to see the solution in the workers’ movement. It is indeed a question of producing differently. But at the same time it is legitimate for the workers to seek to solve their immediate problems. Others fall back on alter-globalism or degrowth, which are less linked to the socio-economic question. Social and anti-capitalist revolutions are based on immediate needs and not on 100-year objectives. Today’s Marxism must work to merge the two aspects, something that has clearly been done too little in the past.
BL: When David Pestieau, in a debate, talked about producing « differently » but not less, I was skeptical. However, it is essential to reduce the flow of materials, energy and information to achieve a sustainable ecological footprint…
The total quantity of goods to be produced in order to remain ecologically sustainable is a complex issue. What unit would we use? Certainly not the dollar, nor even the euro, nor the GDP. As a Marxist, we will take the labor value, i.e. the social time necessary to produce a good. For example, if it took four times as long to produce a more « ecological » train as a regular train, we would increase our wealth by a factor of 4. However, there would still be only one train. We must move towards short circuits and more decentralized production. But I don’t think that the total amount of wealth produced should decrease, because the amount of work that we will produce thanks to our technologies can increase. The question is: what kind of goods are we going to produce, and here I agree with the left-wing degrowthists. The ecological and energy transition is going to require a lot of work: wind energy, geothermal energy, maritime energy, are going to entail immense work.
BL: But are you aware of the depletion of resources of all kinds (fossils, minerals, sand, etc)? We will have to do with less of these resources in the future, simply because they will no longer be available at reasonable economic costs, and renewable energies will not fully compensate for them…
There is a debate to be had here. The more time passes, the more difficult the transition will be. During this period, will we have to reduce consumption? In Western Europe, certainly, yes. At the global level, we will move towards a different type of consumption. Will science and technology help us? Yes, but they won’t be enough on their own. It will also require a qualitative change in lifestyle. I don’t think so, because capitalism has greatly limited science until now, preventing it from fully deploying its positive effects. With a truly free science, I am convinced that we could invent new and qualitatively superior ways of living, of which we have no idea today!
BL: Technoscience today is at the service of capitalism…
Of course. I studied botany and I could realize, even in this field, the desire to make any scientific research profitable, which is very frustrating!
BL: When you talk about comfort, let’s not forget that there are two types of comfort: the modern one allowed by the energy slaves, and the traditional one with for example the nap in a hammock between two coconut trees at the seaside. A hammock is a simple and comfortable object! Should we continue to promote the first version, with all-out electrification, or should we return to a more sober notion of comfort?
I will answer in two parts. We refuse the mercantile comfort we are fed. What are our true desires? But when you say « return to », it’s a philosophical question. To return to a time when we had another type of comfort, also commercial, but where we certainly polluted less? On the contrary, I say that the goal is to « go towards » something else with another type of production that will not resemble that of the Thirty Glorious. Marxists always bet on progress, on moving forward. We cannot imagine returning to a pre-market economy, for example.
AP: Doesn’t the PTB share with capitalism this religion of progress according to which tomorrow will necessarily be better than today?
The concept of progress is not linked to capitalism by necessity. Its capitalist definition — increase in GDP and production of any profitable good — I refute. In a society freed from the dictatorship of multinationals, the debate on comfort levels will be very complicated, as it will have to integrate individual, societal and ecological needs. It is the bet of sustainable development for the generations to come. The needs must be defined collectively and democratically.
AP: But what do we really need? Those created by advertising? I haven’t often heard the PTB speak out on the invasion of advertising, for example…
In Liège, we did an action against the advertising billboards to make them available for the associations. But I agree: the PTB diversifies its profile too little. The reality is that there are many battles to be fought: refugees, undocumented migrants, parity, etc. Today, the political, trade union and associative movements of the left are not surfing on the crest of the wave, it must be recognized. In the northern countries, they are on the defensive; elsewhere, in the South, they are more offensive. So, here, we can’t take everything in hand. The day when the youth take over, we will be able to tackle all the issues again, as in the 1960s and 70s. Let us hope for a plural movement with complementary struggles. There are too few places where we discuss with each other, that is missing in Belgium. Building a movement in diversity is a challenge to which the PTB must contribute.
BL: You write in First on the left (ed. Aden, 2013): « Let’s not tell those millions of Africans waiting for tractors to plow the land that there is too much steel in the world. I see here an industrialist conception that will crash against the ecological wall. Yes, maybe there is too much steel produced in the world! This contributes to global warming, of which you are well aware. Is it really a good idea to produce steel in Belgium to make tractors for African farmers, while ploughing with tractors and intensive agriculture destroy the soil? Isn’t this classical vision of technical progress destined to spread throughout the world from the West outdated?
Among the degrowthists, there is also a contradiction between the periphery and the center. I don’t think that agriculture can be developed in poor countries without modern technical input. There is a way to use the technique differently, without having to return to small-scale family farming, which is not a solution for the future. European countries have a responsibility towards the Third World to export technologies, to bring them scientific knowledge with which they will follow their own path and restructure their economy which has been destroyed. We must stand together.
AP: Yet, according to scientific studies, permaculture and organic farming could feed all of humanity. The mechanization of agriculture has been imposed by the West on the rest of the world, but it is not at all indispensable…
When you see the economic level of some African countries, for example without railroads, it is the absence of everything. Every country needs a minimum infrastructure to run its economy. The Global South needs technology transfer from us.
AP: In relation to the countries of the South, how does the PTB reconcile maintaining employment, purchasing power and consumption in the rich countries, without continuing to exploit them? Let’s quote François Partant, who talks about Marxists: « They did not see — and still do not see — that their development and that of the periphery are incompatible »…
The danger would be to oppose the working class of the imperialist metropolises with that of the periphery. Here we could work five times less, since productivity gains have increased by that much since the end of the war. I agree that there is an exploitation of the peoples of the South for the benefit of the Western elite… which nevertheless allowed a redistribution towards the workers during the Trente Glorieuses…
AP: … exploitation for the benefit of the capitalist classes, certainly, but which also feeds the insatiable desires of European consumers for manufactured objects…
Labor costs capitalists less today because they can have it produced elsewhere. I see this as a positive link, because globalization offers the prospect of common labor struggles to a greater extent than in the era of colonialism, when the relations of power and interdependence were less obvious to understand. If we produce enough wealth here to live well, it is still not fairly distributed. The question is how to produce and what exactly. But in the south there is the question of quantity for people who are even short of calories. We advocate the reduction of working hours rather than the creation of jobs, for reasons of well-being and the possibilities of democracy. Indeed, it requires time. This is crucial, but thirty years of neoliberal « work more to earn more » propaganda has put us on the defensive and in the obligation to regain lost ground, which is hard.
AP: We absolutely have to give meaning to our lives, to our work, to society…
Yes, Marxism must take up these questions at great cost, even if they are complicated equations. In Latin America, after the left-wing revolutions, the question of what to produce and how to produce it is immediately raised, it is very pragmatic! In the short term, they have to ensure their national security, face an aggressive right-wing that is waiting for them on the social and economic fronts, it is not easy. Being right in your own corner and getting knocked down after three weeks is no use either! Those who have the most financial and technical means to transform their economy — the rich countries — have a great responsibility to organize the global transition.
BL: Wouldn’t the first message of an anti-capitalist policy be to encourage citizens to turn their backs on capitalist lifestyles The question is: do we want to be the ones who do not consume — or as little as possible — the products that the capitalists sell them? To be anti-capitalist is above all to stop giving your money to the oppressors. When I see radical left-wing activists using the services of low-cost airlines, frequenting « asocial » networks or buying on Amazon, it is totally incoherent!
I will answer in two parts. First of all, many PTB members have an alternative consumption, I think in particular of François Ferrero who animates a collective vegetable garden. I myself frequent an organic grocery store. Now, there is the philosophical debate of whether it is individual behavior that will change society or the other way around. I think that we must first consider a change in production: for example, it would be enough to decide to stop producing plastic bags so that they would no longer be found in the stores! But there is a balance to be struck with individual choices, of course. Let’s also be careful that these new social practices of alternative consumption, which are time-consuming, do not deprive us of the time necessary to fight other battles. Thus, we could be criticized for putting our energy into a GAC rather than advocating for and with refugees, for example. I hear the arguments of the alternatives, but I can conceive that a social fight takes precedence over the others if the situation is urgent, for example a union cause in a company. Everyone has his or her own angle of attack to decide what are the urgent issues in the anti-capitalist struggle. That said, the PTB must also bring a global vision. Let’s observe each other’s methods of fighting and learn from each other. If a worker felt that his or her purchasing power took precedence over the quality of the production, I would not agree. We do not immediately demand a better sharing of the capitalist cake, but we do want to change the recipe.
AP: By thinking about what we consume first, by creating debate before we make concrete changes, we will avoid the objectivist error, as Alain Accardo calls it, of seeing all oppressions outside of ourselves without realizing that they are also rooted in our subjectivities and that we ourselves are also part of the problem.
Let’s take an example. I am touring Belgium to give conferences and carry a word of combat. For this, I use my car and I am thus at the heart of the contradiction between consumption and ecology…
AP: … but we are all contradictory, even the growth objectors!
Okay. On the left, we don’t even have this thought. I like to start it, but in reality, it doesn’t change all the practices, far from it. Personally, I weigh the pros and cons, keeping in mind the strategy: the democratic takeover from the top of production. For example, there is a form of short-term lesser evil in using the car to change the balance of power. In the PTB, elected officials have a small salary to avoid gentrification through material wealth, this is an important ethical angle of attack; as a deputy, I earn 1,430 € per month, roughly what I earned in my former job. So, of course, I sometimes go to the big supermarkets, because I don’t have enough margin to consume « alternative ». The most important thing is to synthesize all these constraints, limitations and personal choices, within and between organizations, which has not yet happened enough. We have often been content to hurl anathemas at each other. For example, classical Marxism has stigmatized « the selfish bobo who consumes green in his corner ». Conversely, the degrowthists who castigate « the worker defending his salary to be able to buy a flat screen » are also making a mistake. These are too simple visions. Let’s intensify the dialogue between all combatants, let’s make our arguments permeable. Otherwise, our divisions benefit our enemies.
BL: Do you believe in the convergence of struggles?
Yes, and above all to the convergence of our discussions! It is not necessarily during a demonstration that we will manage to talk to each other, we must organize other moments. How many degraders have ever had public debates with shop stewards?
BL: It’s happened before and it went well! It’s a pity that it remains at the theoretical level. When it comes to getting ideas into the machine, it’s a struggle.
Our common point is the questioning of the established order. The radical left, the unions and the degrowthists are all going against the tide, and that’s not bad enough to bring us together! Afterwards, the confrontation of ideas will not always be easy and even more so when they have to be translated into democratic decisions.
AP: You said: « It is striking to realize how little the parliamentary majority cares about what the opposition brings. They don’t even hide from it.
Yes, but we knew that from the start. We have never led people to believe that we would change anything by going into parliament, where much of the work is going nowhere. Just to think that a bill usually takes five years to go through the mill… Our millionaire’s tax bill won’t be discussed until the end of the legislature, in my opinion. Real change will come from the people. We, as members of Parliament, can only contribute to the visibility of the movement.
BL: Do you think historical materialism is still a valid theory in 2015? As a reminder, it announces that, at the end of a more or less long dialectical process, capitalist society will give birth to a communist society.
In the past, the vision has been too deterministic, because of the type of collective consciousness that was underway right after the Second World War, which believed that nothing should happen the way it did in the past. People were probably too excited about the possibilities of changing the world. On the other hand, I am firmly convinced that capitalism will collapse.
BL: But will its collapse necessarily lead to communism?
The big problem is that capitalists have plans B, C, D that buy them time. Their resources — techno-science, coups, war, mass consumption, austerity, etc. — have been used to create a new world. — to channel and neutralize the discontent of the people are much more important than we thought. So, it will depend on the social actors whether or not to switch to the left. In times of crisis, filthy beasts also emerge. Let’s get back to the main point: historically, capitalism has soon had its day, it will die because of increasingly severe and systemic crises. But political awareness must follow, ideas do not come by themselves, and therein lies our responsibility as elected officials of the left. The mechanisms of human and soil exploitation do not automatically create class consciousness; in the past, the conceptualization was overconfident, even though Marx had already sounded the alarm that capitalism was depleting the soil and not respecting the metabolisms of nature.
BL: Marx perfectly analyzed the first contradiction Capital/Labor and had the intuition of the second contradiction Capital/Nature. Don’t you think that this will be a determining factor in the fall of capitalism?
The two must be linked. We are not equal when it comes to environmental damage. The international bourgeoisie is not at a loss for resources to protect itself. They will be able to continue to live partially in « their world », because they have the material and financial capacities. They can, to some extent, push back the limits in the name of profit. The contradiction comes more from the capitalist system of production than from labor. Those of us who want economic change (among other things) are « condemned » to have the people with us, and therefore to take up their problems with them. Some are directly short-term problems: after Hurricane Katrina, people wanted a house first, not a job.
AP: But they also need to be given other perspectives, as Christian Arnsperger says: « Even in a perfectly egalitarian society, the anguish and revolt of each individual will remain fundamentally intact. No one will possess less than another, but in the absence of spiritual means, each will continue to want for himself more and infinitely more.
Whether man is intrinsically good or bad is a vast question. I think that man becomes what society makes him. More and more scientific studies show that cooperation outweighs competition as an evolutionary criterion. But this idea is not widespread among the people because the dominant ideas they share are those of the dominant class, as Marx had seen. In another type of society, it is not said that the human being would remain selfish…
Interviewed in Liege on October1, 2015 by Alexandre Penasse and Bernard Legros.
* This article is the longer version of the article that appeared in the November/December 2015 Kairos 22