Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Cooking the Books

From the forthcoming July 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

(I) Baron Rothschild rides again
According to the Times (13 May), the Rothschild dynasty is to invest again in Black Sea oil from which they were ejected after the Bolshevik coup in 1917. In the 19th century the Rothschilds were often regarded as the archetypal capitalists. To be honest, this wasnt entirely free from anti-semitism. Even Paul Lafargue, who was married to one of Marxs daughters, was not immune from this.

But if, as the pre-WWI German Social Democrat August Bebel remarked, "anti-semitism is the socialism of the fool", then a leading contender for the prize of biggest fool must go to the anarchist and comic opera revolutionist Bakunin who wrote in one of his polemics against Marx:
"I am sure that, on the one hand, the Rothschilds appreciate the merits of Marx, and that on the other hand, Marx feels an instinctive inclination and a great respect for the Rothschilds. This may seem strange. What could there be in common between communism and high finance? Ho ho! The communism of Marx seeks a strong state centralization, and where this exists, there the parasitic Jewish nation - which speculates upon the labour of people - will always find the means for its existence" (quoted, Polemique contre les Juifs, 1872).

On the other hand, F. A. Sorge, who was one of Marx's correspondents in America, recounted the following anecdote concerning a member of the dynasty:
"One day in 1848, as the story goes, Baron Rothschild took a walk on the Common of Frankfort-on-the-Main. Two labourers met him and accosted him thus:' Baron, you are a rich man; we want to divide with you.' Baron Rothschild, not the least puzzled, took out his purse good-humouredly and answered: 'Certainly! We can do that business on the spot. The account is easily made. I own 40 millions of florins; there are 40 millions of Germans. Consequently each German has to receive one florin; here is your share;' and giving one florin to each of the labourers, who looked at their money quite confused, he walked off smiling" (Quoted here).

The point Sorge was making is still valid. Bill Gates could behave in the same way today. One estimate of his personal wealth is $100 billion. The world's population is about 6.5 billion. So, if similarly accosted, the amount he would give would be $15. Even if only the US population was concerned theyd get only $333 each.

Contrary to a widespread belief, socialism is not about equal sharing or redistributing wealth more evenly. Its about the common ownership of the means of wealth production. Which is a different proposition altogether. These means are already a single integrated network operated collectively by the whole working class, but they are owned separately, whether by rich individuals, capitalist corporations or states. Its not a question of dividing them or their monetary value up amongst the population but of making them the common property of all.

On this basis they can be used to turn out what people require to satisfy their needs and to which everyone can have access to satisfy those needs in accordance with the principle "from each their ability, to each their needs". Because people's needs are different so will be what they take and use. But everyone will have an equal right to satisfy their different needs. Thats what socialism means, not sharing out the wealth of Bill Gates, the Rothschilds or other wealthy individuals.

(II) The Nutty Philosopher
"Tax breathing, not chocolate cake" ran the headline in the Times (30 May) of an article by a certain Jamie White, who was billed as "a philosopher". It didnt say of what but he seems to be a philosopher of taxation.

In any event, he advanced the view that the best things to tax are things people are prepared to pay for irrespective of the price. When the price of cakes reaches a certain level people will stop buying them, but whatever level a hypothetical price of air would reach people would still buy it.

"Privatising the air is the ideal solution", wrote the philosopher. "Alas, it is difficult to arrange".

Alas, be buggered. Fortunately, it is impossible to arrange. Not that some enterprising capitalist wouldnt seek to own and sell air if they could, as in the nightmare situation envisaged by Owen in Robert Tressells classic novel The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists:
"They have monopolized everything that it is possible to monopolize; they have got the whole earth, the minerals in the earth and the streams that water the earth. The only reason they have not monopolized the daylight and the air is that it is not possible to do it. If it were possible to construct huge gasometers and to draw together and compress within them the whole of the atmosphere, it would have been done long ago, and we should have been compelled to work for them in order to get money to buy air to breathe. And if that seemingly impossible thing were accomplished tomorrow, you would see thousands of people dying for want of air - or of the money to buy it - even as now thousands are dying from want of other necessaries of life. You would see people going about gasping for breath, and telling each other that the likes of them could not expect to have air to breathe unless they had the money to pay for it" (chapter 15).

While only a nutty professor would argue that the private ownership of air was an "ideal solution", most people today accept that the private ownership of the productive resources needed for life - land, water, minerals and the instruments needed to fashion them into useful things - is reasonable. Actually, from the of view of meeting human needs, it is a quite unreasonable solution.

Why should the land, water and the other things that are just as essential to life as air be privately owned any more than the air we breathe? Why should a section of society be in a position to hold the rest of us to ransom and say "unless you work for us (for less than you produce) you cant have access to what you need to live?"

Of course they shouldnt. All the means and instruments of production should belong in common to the whole community as the only basis on which they can be used to satisfy the needs of every member of society.

The good news is that White will be regarded as a fruit cake by most supporters of capitalism too. Even Madame Thatcher baulked at the free buying and selling of body parts, inconsistent with her own nutty philosophy as this was.
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For further info about Robert Tressell and his novel, 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists', check out the following article from an old issue of the Socialist Standard.