From the October 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Socialist Party recently debated an organisation called Go Change the World. Here is our speaker’s contribution.
“We want to encourage everyone everywhere to make a difference” says the Go Change the World Welcome’ web page‘.
A linked page encourages readers to “Become an Everyday Activist!” because it means “that you belong to a community of people that are dedicated to taking individual everyday actions to help change the world for the better.”
A further link contains encouraging messages from activists who have pledged themselves to:
“demonstrate to stop the influence of the arms trade on government policies” “light a candle for the children of Sri Lanka and pray for an end to the killing” “make the country aware of the Darfur killings” “pick up ten pieces of litter every day for a week” “recycle all our waste paper for a week” “write to Jack Straw to tell him he’s a cretin”
We can agree about one thing - there is something seriously wrong with the world we all live in. But after viewing these web pages we can say with some confidence that an unbridgeable chasm separates us regarding the sorry state of much of the world. In the absence of an analysis of what might be causing these problems Go Change the World and others like them want to apply small sticking plasters in a sort of Band Aid effort to deal with problems. We in the Socialist Party however are organised to remove the causes of those problems and therefore have a different approach.
Tinkering with these poverty problems achieves little if anything. Frances Cairncross, journalist and commentator in the Economist, illustrated in a radio debate on the meaning of the concept of Progress how little had been achieved in recent times by all the efforts at improving the lot of the poor and very poor. “Over the past thirty years the income gap between the richest 20 per cent and the poorest 20 per cent has increased seven fold.”
In order to deal with the problem of poverty it is first necessary to get a clear idea of what the problems are. The first thing to notice is that we live in a World society. The world is at present divided up into some 190 countries or nation states - some large some small - but no matter where you go you will find common features. These features never change:
Everywhere you go most things have a price. Everywhere you go the vast majority of people will be working for wages or salaries. It’s true that there are a still a few areas which practice a subsistence economy but they are small and getting smaller. The majority of the world’s population are engaged in the cash economy. In order to live the majority of the world’s population have to sell their ability to work for a wage or a salary. Conversely everywhere you go there will be a small proportion of the population whose function in society is to buy that ability to work and exploit it. Now they are able to do this because they own and control the means of existence – the land, the mines, the factories and offices, the means of transport, and so on – all the things that human beings have developed and perfected over the past millennia in order to gain a living from nature.
Our proposal involves the taking back of what was in the past ours anyway. We propose a return to shared ownership of the Earth and its resources.
The second thing to note is that private property is a very recent human invention. In their discovery of the wider world from the 15th Century onwards European explorers came across peoples they labelled "primitive" or "uncivilised" because they lacked the concept of yours and mine when it came to land. Land was their only means of life and it was held in common. Indeed the 18th Century philosopher and political thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that civilisation was invented by a man who put a fence around a piece of land saying in effect "This is mine" and who then managed to persuade the rest of humanity that he had exclusive right to dispose of it as he wished. Capitalism has roots in just such a massive historical theft - a theft involving enclosures and land clearances across whole continents and the physical enslavement of millions.
Let us return to our journey. Another common feature you will find is that everywhere you go wealth is produced to be sold. Everywhere the motive behind wealth production is the hope and intention of making a profit. And that in a nutshell is capitalism - class ownership and the profit motive.
Now if you really want to change the world it is that social arrangement that has to be changed.
Class ownership has to be replaced by common ownership. Production for profit has to be replaced by production for use. The world and everything on it and in it has to become the common property of the whole of humanity if we are to solve the problem of poverty.
Make no mistake about it at bottom the problems referred to by Go Change the World and a host of others like them are by and large poverty problems. They are problems that have no solution under capitalism. While we have no doubt that Go Change the World are sincere in their wish to "do something" to remedy the ills of the world it is our belief, based on a Socialist analysis of capitalism, that their efforts are no more than palliatives.
The poor are poor because they are denied full and free access to the means of life. The present owners allow us to operate the means of production only so long as it is profitable to them. We live on their terms. The profit motive has ceased to be a progressive thing - it is now a hindrance. It gets in the way and frustrates the implementation of known solutions to a whole range of pressing social problems. To solve the poverty problem the privileged minority who currently own the world have to be deprived of that ownership so that the means of life can be operated for the benefit of all.
Doing that will require conscious democratic action by the non-owning majority. We have to gain control of the state and the armed forces, which currently exist only to preserve and defend class ownership. Having gained that control we can then convert class ownership into common ownership. In other words we have to take collective political action.
This is the challenge we make to our non-Socialist fellow workers:
Don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. Don’t fritter away your efforts chasing an impossible goal. Don’t fall into the easy trap of only treating outcomes. Take up the challenge of organising to remove the causes.
It's not going to be easy but it’s the only way out of the mess we are in. It will entail a great deal of very hard work. We cannot do it for you.