Impressions on the commute

Impressions on the commute

For the last three months I've been spending a good portion of my time in commute-land, a rattling, faded bastion of middle-class conservatism and low-level lebensraum crammed into the 08.30 from Norwich to London.

Hopefully, this is soon to come to a blessed end and I can start waking up in a London bed, with London traffic and London impoliteness to look forward to as I make the jump from Suffolk buh to City cynic. Which makes this a good time to have a think about exactly what I learned on the trip down.

I think first and foremost I learned that commuting is a practice best reserved for the world's middle-management, as punishment for the shit they subsequently impose on the rest of us. There is nothing quite as satisfying as sitting in your seat watching a red-faced mid-level manager glare up and down the full carriage on the way in from Witham, his blood pressure rising and his guts twisting with rage as his expensive suit begins to marinate in sweat on the hot, airless carriage.

It's almost like karma starting early, as for this morning pick-me-up he will have been charged thousands of pounds per year - renting in London is only more expensive than travelling there once you pass Ipswich.

Secondly, privatisation of the rail was a fool's errand.

Okay this is not exactly big news. I watched columnist Peter Hitchens of the Mail on Sunday, of all people, take apart professional Tory sqeaky-head Iain Duncan-Smith the other day on Question Time over this very subject. In response to a well-argued ear-bashing on why renationalisation is vital, IDS (which always sounded like a venereal disease to me) was reduced to mumbling 'you want the age of steam back'. Well Mr Smith, it was quicker back then.

Of course, Hitchens' enthusiasm for the resurrection of British Rail is entirely understandable given than half his paper's readership appears to live on the lines. It amazes me how so many angry, pinch-faced suits wielding the Mail or the Standard can all be in one place every day without some sort of hellmouth opening beneath Liverpool Street.

Which is the third thing I learned. For this core Daily Hate readership, no matter how ideologically inclined towards fascism-lite you may be in other areas, if you commute it is impossible to reconcile the wonderfulness of Thatcherism with the manifest reality of old rolling stock, lines which break down every few days, smug rail directors walking around with giant bonuses and a subsidised company profit margin which makes the eyes water. Which must be a bit of a pisser if you're a reactionary old banker, really. The one time you're physically brought face-to-face with what Mrs Wonderful actually achieved in her time in office and it turns out to have been a bit of a disaster zone.

But as much as Hitchens is right about private sector involvement, nationalisation wasn't exactly a paradise either. The Tories' complaints that British Rail was cumbersome, inefficient, blah blah blah is hardly inaccurate, even if they did actually run on time, were a fair bit cheaper and didn't keep pretending that a change of logo/paint job amounted to an upgrade of the service.

In fact in the absence of other factors, any operator is going to have the problems that the (soon to be nationalised) East Coast Line I've been using has now. You're taking a service no-one can do without, in the most mature of markets, with no realistic means of competition developing. You're taking an economic system which requires a rising rate of return and a capitalist and/or political class which always has an eye for the main chance.

Given this, what do you think is going to happen next? Under state ownership, you have the growth of massive bureaucracy, jobs for the boys, misuse of funds, gradual cutbacks as the government commits itself to other projects like wars or banking bailouts, continued profiteering from subcontractors etc etc. Under capitalist ownership, you get profit skimming, cuts at the expense of safety and service, massive underinvestment, price gouging, private profits at the public's risk... and both of them insist on ignoring economic sense to sell us massively overpriced trolley food.

Better off out of it, is the final lesson.

Posted By

Rob Ray
Jul 4 2009 12:54

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Steven.
Jul 4 2009 16:51

Actually, under state ownership I think you get the same pressures as privately, since you still have to make a profit. The "massive bureaucracy" of the public sector is usually a red herring, and an argument in favour of privatisation. Basically it is a byword for "cutback slightly less".

Rob Ray
Jul 4 2009 20:49

Mm, yes and no. I agree in the final analysis the government has to balance its books the same as any corporation, but allocation of resources to individual areas within that has a level of flexibility and can be subsidised by taxation.

I don't think the question of bureaucracy is entirely a red herring, I certainly don't think it's an argument for privatisation though - the tendency for hyper-exploitation in India isn't an argument for the return of feudalism after all wink.

Red Marriott
Jul 4 2009 22:59

It was that pompous prat Mail columnist Peter Hitchens on Question Time, not the editor Wright;
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/question_time/default.stm

Rob Ray
Jul 5 2009 09:41

oops ta Ret, changed.

Steven.
Jul 5 2009 10:02

Well yes Jack, that is true. However that's also true for the private sector - public transport is too important for the economy as a whole to be allowed to fail, so all these private companies running services are ultimately backed up by the public purse anyway, and subsidised to a huge extent.

If you want to stand by the comment about "massive bureaucracy" Rob, and "jobs for the boys" I think you'll have to provide some evidence for them.

What do you mean by "jobs for the boys" exactly anyway?

In terms of the pressures, the pressures there are still ultimately the same as the private sector - the need to cut costs, staff, etc as the UK still has to compete with other countries for investment (and thus has to cut taxes as much as possible).

Rob Ray
Jul 5 2009 10:10

Edit: to Jack

I think that gets into the long-term angle when it comes to national ownership, which is what I’m referring to when I talk about gradual war or crisis-related cutbacks.

In a period of sustained growth and rising income (say post-war for example) the state can afford to continually throw big subsidies to create a strong and efficient transport network, as it’s in the best interests of a bull economy. It can also, in the short term, divert resources from elsewhere for the sake of one-off big infrastructure or expansion projects on the grounds of oiling the wheels of the wider economy.

However, as sustainable growth tops out, or in other moments of crisis, those subsidies present a tempting target for cutbacks or, failing that, may transform into a series of massive loans which eventually have to be paid back.

Japan has been one of the big examples of this, the state built up a massive bundle of debts to create this amazing system they have there, and as a result, ended up privatising the lot to offload some of those debts throughout the ‘85-’06 period.

Rob Ray
Jul 5 2009 10:21

Steven:

It's true that the public purse underwrites private rail, however again, in the short-medium term, these companies are far more pressured to extract a maximum rate of profit, as shareholders demand quick returns.

With the government, although ideologically there is a tendency at the moment to demand rising rates of profit, historically all that has generally been demanded is to break even - and going back to the 60s, often not even that - as part of the role of these institutions was social and allowed the government to argue it deserved a greater slice of the pie through taxes to provide that function.

In terms of bureaucracy, I'm mainly talking about middle-upper management and the widespread use of consultants/quangos etc that happens in the administrative areas rather than people on the front line. I'm not saying private companies don't have these inefficiencies, but they tend not to be so widespread because again, demand for shareholder profit tends to eat what might have been spent on them. Note here that I'm not saying more money is freed up for services by private enterprise - it's simply being pulled in by different private sources.

And it's not difficult to find this sort of stuff, just google "quangos costing".

Steven.
Jul 5 2009 10:48
Rob Ray wrote:
Steven:

It's true that the public purse underwrites private rail, however again, in the short-medium term, these companies are far more pressured to extract a maximum rate of profit, as shareholders demand quick returns.

but this doesn't make sense on a purely "capitalist" level, because a lot of their revenues come from public subsidy.

Either you or Jack wrote a very good article about this for freedom a couple of years back, about the selling off of a public rail company for about £1 million or something, which was then sold a year or two later for £75 million. It would be good to put that on libcom actually...

So basically, private firms can operate at a "loss" as much as the public sector, because the public sector can subsidise it to the same amount.

Quote:
With the government, although ideologically there is a tendency at the moment to demand rising rates of profit, historically all that has generally been demanded is to break even - and going back to the 60s, often not even that - as part of the role of these institutions was social and allowed the government to argue it deserved a greater slice of the pie through taxes to provide that function.

it's not an ideologically driven tendency, it's driven by the needs of the economy and the market. People on the left often describe things, such as privatisation, as "ideological", but the ideology is just a post-facto justification of what has to be done to benefit the economy.

Costs of public services have to be driven down because the UK has to compete on the world market.

Quote:

In terms of bureaucracy, I'm mainly talking about middle-upper management and the widespread use of consultants/quangos etc that happens in the administrative areas rather than people on the front line.

again, this is largely a right-wing media myth. Sure there is lots of bureaucracy in the public sector, but no more so than the private sector.

In a capitalist economy this is unavoidable, if nothing else because workers will resist work, and you need lots of layers of supervision in order to force them to do it.

Things like consultants and quangos aren't really part of the "bureaucracy", they are bought in on a one-off basis. Private companies also spend huge amounts on consultants, but there is not media uproar about this because they are not funded by the taxpayer.

In terms of "jobs for the boys" in upper management, this is much more open in the public and in the private sector.

Alleged overstaffing in "administrative" areas as opposed to the front line is mostly used as an ideological justification for staff cuts. These are actually a nonsense, because in any large organisation, large amounts of administrative work needs to be done. So what you end up with is front-line staff spending large amounts of their time doing administrative duties.

So for example in my work over the past couple of decades we have had lots of "efficiency savings" and cuts of back room and administrative staff, while having less reduction of front-line social workers. But now you have social workers spending 80-90% of their time in front of the computer, performing basically admin tasks, but at 1.5 times the pay of an administrator.

Quote:
I'm not saying private companies don't have these inefficiencies, but they tend not to be so widespread because again, demand for shareholder profit tends to eat what might have been spent on them.

again, this is buying the line of the right-wing media, that the private sector is more efficient than the wasteful public sector. This is incorrect. While the private sector has demand for shareholder profit, the public sector has the pressure to cut costs as a whole, and increase the rate of exploitation in order to compete on the world market. There is no qualitative difference between public and private sector employment.

Hence the USSR was not "socialist" but was in fact state capitalist - with everyone employed by one company, the state.

Quote:
Note here that I'm not saying more money is freed up for services by private enterprise - it's simply being pulled in by different private sources.

I'm not sure what you mean here - if the private sector is more efficient and less wasteful, then why isn't privatisation a good thing for service delivery?

Quote:
And it's not difficult to find this sort of stuff, just google "quangos costing".

I know you can find lots of things about these costs in the public sector. But like I said, consultants and things aren't a permanent bureaucracy, and if you wanted to evidence your statements you'll have to provide some which is comparative with the private sector.

Steven.
Jul 5 2009 10:56
Jack wrote:
Steven. wrote:
Well yes Jack, that is true. However that's also true for the private sector - public transport is too important for the economy as a whole to be allowed to fail, so all these private companies running services are ultimately backed up by the public purse anyway, and subsidised to a huge extent.

Yea sorry, I agree totally with the sentimen t and overall pont, it was just the "had to make a profit" bit I disagreed with - there's plenty of stuff that the state runs "at a loss". I think what is interesting with rail privatisation is that as far as I can tell, it seems like the government is putting neoliberal ideology before what would be "better" for the economy just in pure capitalist accounting terms.

yeah, I went into it more later but my point was that the private sector could run it at as much of a loss because it was still ultimately underwritten by public money. The "profit" is basically virtual profit when taking into account the amount the state is willing to spend on it (like for example the NHS currently running a "surplus" where it's just spent less than it was allowed to).

I didn't explain this well in my first post.

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Quote:
If you want to stand by the comment about "massive bureaucracy" Rob, and "jobs for the boys" I think you'll have to provide some evidence for them.

What do you mean by "jobs for the boys" exactly anyway?

I think this is definitely true - certainly in my experience the public sector is far more open in recruitment compared to the private sector, and also more understaffed. The whole myth of a huge bureaucracy is a mix between a slightly more organised workforce and a complete myth.

Even in terms of the whole bloated layer of management, I may be completely wrong here, but my experience has been that this isn't any worse at all than in any private company.

exactly - the correlation between excessive layers of management is pretty much just linked to level of workers organisation. To break down powerful workers organisation employers need to introduce more levels of management, more hierarchy within the workforce, etc, to force everyone to keep working, and working hard enough. For example Royal mail has something like one manager for every three workers I believe.

Rob Ray
Jul 5 2009 11:28
Quote:
private firms can operate at a "loss" as much as the public sector, because the public sector can subsidise it to the same amount.

But what we're talking about here is maximising profit, not simply maintaining a basic level of it. Yes private firms can run at a loss and take subsidy home, but they aim to operate at a profit and take subsidy home.

Quote:
if the private sector is more efficient and less wasteful, then why isn't privatisation a good thing for service delivery?

Well that's kind of my point, it doesn't actually matter whether the private sector is more or less efficient, because any money saved doesn't go into services or keeping prices down, it goes to the shareholders.

I may be arguing that there's wastefulness in nationalised companies, I'm not arguing that private ones are better value or provide a better service. In fact, almost everything I've read over the last five years has suggested the exact opposite. Hence saying that on the government's part, it's an ideological thing rather than a practical one, because it makes absolutely no sense to pay through the nose for a shit service which you then have to underwrite when it goes belly up, but that's exactly what the government has repeatedly done.

I take your points about bureaucracy, actually I reckon sticking with the railways might be an interesting one, though I'm at work atm so might have to do reading up later today.

Steven.
Jul 5 2009 11:47
Rob Ray wrote:
Quote:
private firms can operate at a "loss" as much as the public sector, because the public sector can subsidise it to the same amount.

But what we're talking about here is maximising profit, not simply maintaining a basic level of it. Yes private firms can run at a loss and take subsidy home, but they aim to operate at a profit and take subsidy home.

at the moment, private firms take a profit and take subsidy home - as shown in articles that either you or your brother wrote.

There is the same incentive to maximise the rate of exploitation in private and public sectors.

Quote:
Quote:
if the private sector is more efficient and less wasteful, then why isn't privatisation a good thing for service delivery?

Well that's kind of my point, it doesn't actually matter whether the private sector is more or less efficient, because any money saved doesn't go into services or keeping prices down, it goes to the shareholders.

then what about "privatisation on the cheap" to the voluntary sector? They don't have shareholders. So presumably this should be a good thing? But of course it's not.

The same financial incentives from the market and the economy operate on all different types of employers - private company, charity, workers co-operative, government. This incentive is to cut costs, maximise profits, and increase the rate of exploitation. This is because every type of employer must compete with all the others on the world market.

Quote:
I may be arguing that there's wastefulness in nationalised companies, I'm not arguing that private ones are better value or provide a better service. In fact, almost everything I've read over the last five years has suggested the exact opposite. Hence saying that on the government's part, it's an ideological thing rather than a practical one, because it makes absolutely no sense to pay through the nose for a shit service which you then have to underwrite when it goes belly up, but that's exactly what the government has repeatedly done.

actually, it makes lots of sense. Because you are using public money to final directly into private profit, which is good for the economy. And it attracts more investment.

The "wastefulness" you are talking about is not due to nationalisation. Capitalist organisations are "wasteful" when there are high levels of worker militancy - so wages are high, it's difficult to sack people, etc. In the past, some vital industries were nationalised in due to the fact that worker militancy had made them unprofitable (or not profitable enough). For example, mining.

This state control was then used to break up workers organisation and make them profitable again, then turn them back to the private sector.

Rob Ray
Jul 5 2009 12:39

Found what could be an interesting initial PDF though, initial pull-out quote:

Quote:
Relation between nationwide total employment and railway employment
A reduction in employment in the railway sector was taking place before the privatisation in the 1990s. Employment levels declined throughout the 1980s and 1990s in the government-owned British Rail (BR) from 244,084 in 1979 to 154,748 in 1990 and 121,052 in 1994. The privatisation has accelerated this phenomenon, with a dramatic decrease in 1997 and 1998 to reach 48,000 employees. Since 1998 the employment in the railway sector is stable at around 49,000 working units.

Later on it goes into more detail about this, but taking into account the Beeching cuts in the early part of that quote, it’s clear the private companies do operate with a slimmed down workforce comparative to the state. The full picture though is obviously more complicated, as quite clearly they lost some of this figure through cutting corners on safety and front line jobs - how much is the key bit.

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There is the same incentive to maximise the rate of exploitation in private and public sectors

I've already said I'm not arguing this in the long term, but you haven't addressed any of my arguments that the state's wider aims and outside sources of cash give it greater flexibility in this regard when it comes to individual areas over the medium term, like for example the ability to cut roads funding to increase rail funding, or to raise taxes.

Private companies require very quick returns, often within a four-year turnaround, meaning they have to slash from the start. The public sector meanwhile can run an entire industry at a loss for 40 years in the wider interests of promoting a boom economy and with it, increased taxes to pay for the subsidy. NGOs are something else again, and as I'm sure you're aware can be highly inefficient in themselves.

TBH though you seem to be assuming that I'm arguing we should have one of these as a better system than the others, which I'm not. I'm arguing that they're all shit, but for different reasons and manifesting in different ways. I think it's pointless to argue as communists that the public sector is efficient, just I think it's pointless to argue that the private sector is good value for money.

Quote:
Because you are using public money to final directly into private profit, which is good for the economy. And it attracts more investment.

In terms of directly boosting the economy, it makes much more sense to employ more people and build up mass buying power than it does to sit a load of money in stagnant capitalist accounts.

Quote:
State control was then used to break up workers organisation and make them profitable again, then turn them back to the private sector

But the opposite is true in many other cases, private sector buyouts are being used today specifically as a private sector method of breaking up public sector holdouts, and union activity remains far higher in the public sector. In as much as switching from public to private or vice verse can be an excellent excuse for unsettling organisation and taking on workers, I agree with you, but it happens with poorly organised areas as well - social care for example.

Steven.
Jul 5 2009 16:44
Rob Ray wrote:
Found what could be an interesting initial PDF though, initial pull-out quote:
Quote:
Relation between nationwide total employment and railway employment
A reduction in employment in the railway sector was taking place before the privatisation in the 1990s. Employment levels declined throughout the 1980s and 1990s in the government-owned British Rail (BR) from 244,084 in 1979 to 154,748 in 1990 and 121,052 in 1994. The privatisation has accelerated this phenomenon, with a dramatic decrease in 1997 and 1998 to reach 48,000 employees. Since 1998 the employment in the railway sector is stable at around 49,000 working units.

Later on it goes into more detail about this, but taking into account the Beeching cuts in the early part of that quote, it’s clear the private companies do operate with a slimmed down workforce comparative to the state. The full picture though is obviously more complicated, as quite clearly they lost some of this figure through cutting corners on safety and front line jobs - how much is the key bit.

this doesn't demonstrate anything inherent about public sector employment.

Transport workers used to be much more well organised and militant. This means that staffing levels will be higher, and that it will be much less likely to be profitable. In an essential industry then, it is likely that it will be nationalised.

Following the defeat of the miners in the 80s, and the other powerful groups of organised workers, the government attacked and managed to decimate the rail workforce. When it had broken up organisation and slashed staffing numbers enough to make it more profitable, the government sold them off. Private employers then continued the onslaught on jobs.

These statistics don't demonstrate anything other than that industries with a better organised workforce have higher staffing levels.

Quote:
Quote:
There is the same incentive to maximise the rate of exploitation in private and public sectors

I've already said I'm not arguing this in the long term, but you haven't addressed any of my arguments that the state's wider aims and outside sources of cash give it greater flexibility in this regard when it comes to individual areas over the medium term, like for example the ability to cut roads funding to increase rail funding, or to raise taxes.

Private companies require very quick returns, often within a four-year turnaround, meaning they have to slash from the start. The public sector meanwhile can run an entire industry at a loss for 40 years in the wider interests of promoting a boom economy and with it, increased taxes to pay for the subsidy.

you seem to be missing my point, which is that public money underwrites these private companies anyway. So if there profits are not high enough, they demand more money from the government, which can then get hold of the money in the ways you outline: by cutting funding elsewhere, increasing taxes, or going further into debt.

The government hands over billions of pounds every year to private companies which will run rail lines and make a profit. So the public sector is still effectively funding an entire industry at a loss, in the interests of promoting the economy as a whole.

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NGOs are something else again, and as I'm sure you're aware can be highly inefficient in themselves.

again, I'm not sure what your justification for this is. If you say that private companies are more efficient than the public sector, but not good because their efficiency savings they keep as profits, then surely the voluntary sector eliminates this problem.

What's your evidence for saying that NGOs are "highly inefficient"? Presumably you don't accuse them of having the "bloated bureaucracy" of the public sector? Or the shareholders of the private sector?

Quote:

TBH though you seem to be assuming that I'm arguing we should have one of these as a better system than the others, which I'm not. I'm arguing that they're all shit, but for different reasons and manifesting in different ways. I think it's pointless to argue as communists that the public sector is efficient, just I think it's pointless to argue that the private sector is good value for money.

my point was not that the public sector is efficient, but that you were blindly repeating right-wing media lies used to attack the idea of public service as a whole.

As a communist, the idea of "efficiency" is completely meaningless. What I care about is workers having a greater degree of control over their work and over the products of their labour - so the more "inefficient" in a capitalist sense the better.

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Quote:
Because you are using public money to final directly into private profit, which is good for the economy. And it attracts more investment.

In terms of directly boosting the economy, it makes much more sense to employ more people and build up mass buying power than it does to sit a load of money in stagnant capitalist accounts.

No it doesn't. If creating high levels of employment was good for the economy then that is what governments would be trying to do. As it is, no governments in the world are trying to do that, and pretty much every single one is trying to do the exact opposite - i.e. cut public sector jobs and public spending.

Having excessively high levels of employment means there is a smaller reserve army of labour, which exerts an upward pressure on wages. This is not "good" for the economy or business in the slightest.

So are you trying to say that pretty much every capitalist government in the world is trying to do these things to damage capitalist business and the economy?! And if not that, then why?

Money given by the state to subsidise private companies doesn't sit "in stagnant capitalist accounts", it gets invested for further capital accumulation.

Quote:
Quote:
State control was then used to break up workers organisation and make them profitable again, then turn them back to the private sector

But the opposite is true in many other cases, private sector buyouts are being used today specifically as a private sector method of breaking up public sector holdouts, and union activity remains far higher in the public sector. In as much as switching from public to private or vice verse can be an excellent excuse for unsettling organisation and taking on workers, I agree with you, but it happens with poorly organised areas as well - social care for example.

that's not the opposite situation, that's the same as the example I outlined. An "opposite" would be if a militant, well-organised section of the public sector was privatised. And that won't happen until the workforce is broken enough to be profitable (edited to add: or unless the state is prepared to subsidise it enough that it doesn't matter).