30 November 2003

The Power of Three

Recently, an ancient incantation popped up after years of disuse, when first our Minister of Labour and then the heir apparent to the throne threatened, not subtly, to close down the union for the national airlines.

The heir apparent, Mini-Lee, specifically plagiarised his father's 1980 confrontation with the same trade union, threatening that "I don't want to do you in, but I won't let anyone do Singapore in".

"Tripartite Relations"

Attention, shoppers: the magical phrase is Tripartite Relations. Following a venerated tradition, the "leadership" of Singapore plagiarises and then bastardises key political, economic, and social theories from academics, and then attempt to pass off the product as "uniquely Singaporean", thus excusing themselves from the usual obligations of democracy and accountability.

But let's not get sidetracked here... the issue is "tripartite relations" between the State - which in Singapore, always means the Party, Capital, and Labour. To understand what this magical phrase means, it is necessary to take a magical journey back in time for 150 years... to October 1847.

Like all good stories, this one begins "in media res", in the middle of the plot, so as to speak. The Industrial Revolution had been under way for almost a century in Western Europe. Poor William Wordsworth had much to lament in the 19th century about the despoiling of nature, so much that his muadlin verses on flowers and clouds gradually became nostalgic in his countrymen's eyes within his lifetime, due to the ravages of industrialisation, urbanisation, and rural migration in England. For that eventual rapproachment with his initially unreceptive readers, Wordsworth became the poet laurette.

Too bad then, that the poet never pointed to the real ravages of industrialisation on the human soul. The industrial revolution created a new class of people, the Capitalists, who owned the factories where hundreds of thousands toiled, in very abysmal conditions and very low pay.

By 1799, one year before Wordsworth's famous "Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey", the capitalists got smart enough to bribe the very corrupt government of William Pitt, to ban the formation of trade unions. The unions would've had sufficient bargaining clout to negotiate for higher pay and more humane conditions.

Back to 1847, fifty years on. By that time, unions are banned in most of Western Europe, and the exploitation of workers boiled to crisis proportions. Enter Marx, with the Communist Manifesto. The rest, they say, is history.

Marx might have been a poor Communist philosopher (and he expressedly insisted that he was never a Communist), but he was a brilliant economist who saw the problems of early capitalism, which probably would have "did capitalism in" if Marx didn't publish his analysis.

It did however take almost a century before economists began to take Marx seriously, and only because of the great crisis of industrial capitalism, which we know as the Great Depression. The great arch-Capitalist Henry T. Ford eventually gave in and reversed his opposition to labour unions within his factories, and hence started the ball rolling on modern trade unions.

And tripartite relations? Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programme echoed most economic-political reforms in capitalist countries across the Atlantic Ocean.

The "welfare state", maligned as it is in today's discourse, is a valid description for every modern capitalist country.

The state's policy basically guarantees the near full-employment conditions in the economy for the capitalists.

For Labour, the state guarantees basic working conditions, such as instituting minimum wage laws, and safegauarding work conditions.

Since the state's aim is for an economy operating near full-capacity, it takes out "unemployment insurance" for workers caught in the wrong part fo the economic cycle, hence the dole.

To provide a decent workforce for the factories, the state heavily subsidises education, as modern industrial economies require a workforce schooled with a foundation in Math, Science, or Engineering.

In general, this agenda sounds like most of the modern "capitalist" countries. What we practise then, is a reformed capitalism, reformed by Marx's analysis of the flaws of the early system.

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