From the September 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard
“£1 a Litre? BASTARDS!” So reads a recent Class War sticker (well, actually, not so recent, as petrol is now well over a £1 a litre). Amusing but typical of the populism they go in for. People don’t like having to pay more for their petrol, so blame the petrol companies for putting up the price. It’s the same with their campaign against the estate agents, Foxtons. People don’t like estate agents, so let’s target the one with the worst reputation.
But is this the message that people who are supposed to be against capitalism as a system should be wanting to get across? Calling the petrol companies “bastards” suggests that their decision to raise prices is a personal one on the part of those in charge of them; that they had some other choice, but deliberately chose this one. But did they? They are probably not very nice people (nobody who has clawed their way to the top of a corporate hierarchy is likely to be), but, whatever their personal traits or views, they are acting in this context as what Marx called “functionaries of capital”. As people in charge of capitalist corporations, they have to seek to maximise profits, in this case by fixing the price of petrol at what they judge the market will bear.
What does Class War expect them to do – or rather, what is the interpretation those who see their sticker and share its sentiment are likely to give it? That it would be nice if the petrol companies sacrificed this chance of maximising their profits? That this is an option within the capitalist profit system? That it wouldn’t be such a bad system if only capitalist corporations wouldn’t behave as bastards?
The campaign against Foxtons, too, gives a wrong message. Foxtons have acquired a reputation for sharp practice. Targetting them gives the impression that what is being criticised is not the capitalist system as such but only the excesses which some capitalist firms engage in. If these excesses were eliminated or suppressed then things would be OK.
Both main parties have played this game, and still do. The Labour Party used to criticise certain capitalist firms for "profiteering”, i.e. making too much profit, being too ruthless in pursuing profits. Presumably if only they’d be satisfied with normal profits, that would be alright. And it’s what Ted Heath did when, as Tory Prime Minister, he described the behaviour of Tiny Rowlands – a particularly predatory capitalist – as the “unacceptable face of capitalism”. Which suggests that there is an acceptable face of capitalism. Which of course is what he believed – and which, unfortunately, is the same message that the Class War campaigns will convey to people.
Robert Tressell got it right in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists when he wrote:
“They all hated and blamed Rushton. Yet if they had been in Rushton’s place they would have been compelled to adopt the same methods, or become bankrupt; for it is obvious that the only way to compete successfully against other employers who are sweaters is to be a sweater yourself. Therefore no one who is an upholder of the present system can consistently blame any of these men. Blame the system” (chapter 21).