Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Capitalism and aircraft (1986)

Cover cartoon by George Meddemmen.
From the February 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

When the history of capitalism comes to be written, there will be very little mention in it of Michael Heseltine or Leon Brittan. The dispute between these two ambitious politicians may be represented to us now as a momentous clash of the titans, vital to us all, and that may well be how they themselves like to think of it. Perhaps in the end one or the other will find himself in Number Ten. None of these things changes the fact that this whole affair is of no real concern to the vast majority of people - which is what the history of capitalism will be all about.

That is not to say, of course, that there are not a lot of people who are presently interested in the contest between these two. Spurred on by the assiduous efforts of the capitalist media, there can now be very few members of the working class who have not heard of them. Whatever difficulty they may have in following the serpentine proceedings of the Cabinet, the ministries and the civil service, has not prevented many workers taking sides. Some argue that Heseltine deserves support for his opposition to an American take-over bid for a British firm, for his exposure of some dirty tricks in the government and of Thatcher's overbearing style of leadership. Others may have sympathy for Brittan’s adoption of a lofty refusal (he has claimed) to use his position as a minister to influence the take-over and to insist that the matter be left to the Westland shareholders, who know best how to protect their dividends.

It is impossible to say how many rush-hour bus queues have been disrupted by violent arguments between workers who don't have shares in Westland, or in any other company, about how best to look after the dividends of those who do. This is not an entirely fanciful notion, for workers do persistently take sides in such matters, in which they have no interest. They do this every time they complain about cheap foreign imports competing "unfairly'' with "their" goods on the British market, or when they get worried about a fall in the exchange rate of the pound or when and this is probably the most tragic example of all - they join in militarily protecting the investments and other interests of their ruling class.

Those types of uninformed prejudice will have been warmed by Heseltine's stand against the American bid for Westland. British workers are inclined to be a touch paranoid about invading American capital. It is difficult to unravel the reason for this; after all, American capitalists are no different from any others, who all have the same function - to organise and apply the most intensive possible exploitation of the workers they employ. Perhaps it is not unconnected with that period of Labour government just after the war. when British working class poverty was abruptly renamed post-war austerity which was, we were told, partly caused by the economic, commercial and financial domination of American capitalism. But that particular propaganda was no more than a convenient, opportunistic explanation for that particular period of capitalism in crisis. There have been many such crises since then, each one with its one spurious explanation the gnomes of Zurich, inflation. Arab oil sheiks - to divert attention from the basic fact that crisis is endemic to capitalism and that the system can't operate efficiently or to the benefit of the majority.

At the time of that Labour government there was, of course, still a British aircraft industry with ambitions to outsell American products. For some years British aircraft were successful competitors (and some were disastrous flops the Britannia, the Princess flying boat) until the massive power and investment of the American industry made itself felt. The last significant clash was in the 1950s between the DeHaviland Comet and the Boeing 707. Patriotic British workers sneeringly contrasted the Comet's sleek lines with its rival's chunkiness and assumed that the aircraft's appearance would have some effect on its profitability. But, as time has shown, the American industry had in fact developed the most economic - which meant, for the airline owners, the most profitable - design and the matter was settled when the Comets began to break up in the air. with such calamitous results for the passengers as well as for the aircraft industry in this country.

There were other spasms of life after that, such as the shorter-haul Trident and the VC10 and desperate governmental intervention brought about mergers in an effort to build a more concentratedly competitive industry. None of this worked, against the remorseless power of the American companies. principally Boeing. In any world sense, the British aircraft industry no longer exists and what there is of it is a truncated, cobbled-up patchwork of mergers and joint design projects with foreign companies. Westland is the latest example of this; unable to live much longer through its own competitiveness, it had to merge or go down.

British workers may not enjoy this, bombarded as they are with persistent propaganda about the "national'' interest, the need to keep "our" exports outselling all others and so on. Those who are convinced that they have a stake in the enterprise which buys their labour power, who therefore feel a common loyalty with the owners of the enterprise which actually exploits them to produce surplus value, are prey to all manner of social delusions. But the story of the collapse of the British aircraft industry bears witness to the capitalist reality that wealth, whether it is food or clothes or helicopters, is produced with the motive of sale at a profit. If there is no prospect of that sale then the motive for production disappears; the factories shut down and workers are thrown out of employment. There is much woe in the land and much cursing of scapegoats like American investors or foreign currency speculators. All of which misses the point. Westland's problems have nothing to do with any lack of human need for helicopters which, although at present extensively used as weapons of war have many obvious values to human beings and will be used in these ways when we have a society operated on the basis of human interests. The problems reflect the limited capacity of the market, which is the overall scope for the profitable sale of the machines. It is the market which interests the shareholders; they have invested capital in Westland in order to realise profit, not to produce things which are useful to human beings. If profit comes more readily from making helicopters as killing machines, so much the better for the investors; at present the big market is the military one. which goes some way to explain the government's inevitable interest in any take-over plans.

Which brings us back to that odious pair Heseltine and Brittan. In representing their clash as of great moment to us all they have avoided all mention of the basic issues about why and how helicopters are made, about how this society operates, about the class division between the useful producers and the parasitic owners and about the role of politicians in keeping this whole sordid deception whirling round and round. No, they will not attract a lot of mention in the history of capitalism. That can be written only when we have a saner, more humane social system, which means when the world's people have seen through to the realities of capitalism and the cynical posturings of its leaders.

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