Saturday, February 7, 2015

“We are the 99 percent”

The Cooking the Books Column from the December 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

So proclaim some of those who called for the occupation of Wall Street, explaining: “We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we’re working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent” (wearethe-99percent.tumblr.com).

A powerful appeal - the sort of thing we might say ourselves. But who are “the other 1 percent” that are getting the best of everything? According to WeAreThe99percent, “they are the banks, the mortgage  industry, the insurance industry”, by which they presumably mean the rich people who own and control these financial corporations. But is that all of them? Apparently. But if so, this is wrong.

In 2010 CoreData research calculated that the number of millionaires (defined as those having a £1 million in addition to their principal residence) in Britain was 284,317 or 1.1 percent of households. So, the figure of 1 percent of those who benefit from the present system is more or less correct. However: “The study found that the majority of millionaires’ assets are held in shares at 34.2 per cent, while 32.2 per cent is invested in property and 13.2 per cent is held in cash. Just over 5 per cent of their money is invested in physical items, such as antiques, collectibles and art” (Daily Telegraph, 30 September 2010).

So they are not just bankers. In fact, at least in Britain, the biggest group seems to be property speculators and landowners. And the shares will be held in all sorts of capitalist corporations, not just banks and insurance companies. In other words, the 1 percent are capitalists in general. In suggesting that they are just the bankers WeAreThe99percent have got it wrong. It’s a mistake insofar as it suggests that if the bankers are dealt with (whether through banking reform or nationalisation) then the problems facing the 99 percent will go away, which of course they won’t as they are not caused by greedy bankers and the like but by the whole capitalist system.

It’s obviously not the intention, but to say that the 1 percent who exploit the rest of the population are just the bankers is to imply that non-financial capitalists are part of us, the 99 percent, when clearly they are not as they don’t face problems over housing, healthcare, inadequate pay or finding a job. “We Are The 99 percent” is an appealing slogan, but misleading if it means “everyone except bankers”. It should  mean something more like “everyone except the capitalist class”.

A wit once accused us of defining the working class as “everyone apart from the fat controller”. This is because we define the working class as everyone who, owning no means or instruments of production, is obliged by economic necessity to sell their mental and physical energies for a wage or salary to live or, otherwise, to depend on state handouts. In a developed part of the world such as Britain this amounts to about 90 percent of households and this is the group we look to end capitalism because they have a material interest in doing so. The other 10 percent is made up of the 1 percent of capitalists and 7-9 percent of “self-employed” (not that we’ve anything against most of them as they don’t exploit the working class). The trouble is “We Are The 93 percent” is not quite so snappy a slogan.

Robbed blind (1993)

Book Review from the March 1993 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dare To Be A Daniel—A History of One of Britain's Earliest Syndicalist Unions. by Wilf McCartney. Kate Sharpley Library, BM Hurricane, London WC1 3XX.

The misery of wage slaves exploited in the catering business has always been particularly bad. Although Wilf McCartney's twenty-four page booklet on the subject, written originally in 1942 and published in 1945 with a preface by Orwell, is written in a workmanlike, sometimes poorly-crafted style, it expresses well the plight of the catering workers then and now. Reading it, what is clear is just how little has changed. It has always been a notoriously hard occupation to unionize, based mainly on casual and cheap foreign labour, and McCartney shows how little the official trade unions did to support catering workers. Reports of minor successes in rank-and-file strikes are written up encouragingly, but the hard fact is that catering workers are still being robbed blind by hotel and restaurant bosses despite earlier militancy.

Politically, McCartney's radicalism was of a pretty confused nature. Of relevance here is that he joined the SPGB in its early (not as a founder member) and makes the following critical comments about his experience:
I and others joined this party to learn socialism, but later, along with H. Maslin [surely, H. Martin—editors] and others, we left because of a letter in the Socialist Standard signed "Upton Park". The questioner wanted to know what would be the action of a member of the SPGB elected to Parliament, and the answer was that the Socialist member, backed by the revolutionary votes outside, would consider capitalist measures on their merits! This was quite enough for us.
McCartney is here referring to one of the most historically interesting formative conflicts in this party. The Socialist Party was formed to advocate socialism and nothing but. We have always rejected any compromise with the capitalist system. In 1910 some members, interpreting this principled anti-reformism as a dogmatic opposition to all reforms under capitalism, put their point by writing a letter to the Socialist Standard signed "W. B. of Upton Park". The reply given to them was that a single socialist or a minority of socialists elected to parliament on the basis of whether such measures benefitted or harmed the working class. For example, if measures extending the freedom of socialists to disseminate ideas or reducing election deposits or banning religious control of schooling were on the agenda it is quite possible that a socialist minority would be instructed to vote for them.

The minority within the SPGB formed a Provisional Committee to oppose this policy. Like dogmatic sectarians, inspired by doctrine to dismiss social reality, they went as far as to argue that no reforms have ever helped or could ever benefit the working class. The exchange of documents between the Executive Committee, expressing the position which we maintain today, and the ultra-sectarian Committee, of which McCartney was possibly a member, is highly educative and explains well why our party is opposed to reformism but not to reforms.

Many of our opponents on the Left, embarrassed by our unceasing exposure of their own rotten reformism, have tried to attack the Socialist Party by attacking what is actually the position of the few members of the Provisional Committee who left this party precisely because we do not hold the view in question. McCartney did hold that view, left the SPGB and went on to join the Syndicalist Propaganda League which was soon to disappear into the mists of history. What a pity that a man of such evident passion and union militancy did not stay within the ranks of the one revolutionary party committed to the abolition of the wages system.
Steve Coleman