From the September 1966 issue of the Socialist Standard
The recent years have been times of vigorous protest. The Bomb and World Poverty have been two issues which have sparked off great indignation and organisations such as CND and Oxfam. However, the ability of CND to sustain its enthusiasm has undoubtedly waned. CND has been an organisation built up around what seemed to be a simple answer to a clear-cut problem. On analysis, however, CND undoubtedly asked more questions that it could itself answer. Involvement in its activities was its own invitation to doubt and further criticism. CNDers became embarrassed by the irrelevance of their narrow protest, the Bomb, to the problem of war in general. Other questions they began to ask were—should they act politically, what form of political group or party should their protest take?
At the same time, members of Oxfam have been expressing their own doubts. Inevitably as the years begin to pass, the idea has begun to grow up that Oxfam cannot as a charity organisation begin to solve the problem of world hunger. These doubts were made clear at a recent discussion week held amongst young people at Sibford, Oxfordshire. As one speaker expressed it—“it’s no use feeding 100,000 beggars in Calcutta if next year you still have 100,000. You can't go on just handing round the rice bowl every day and changing nothing."
Also put up at this conference was the idea that Oxfam must adopt a political view. “The choice is crucial—to become just a fund-raking organisation or to accept that we're involved in social change and take steps to facilitate it. We've got to evolve."
The briefest glance at the enormity of the problem of world hunger compared with the efforts of such organisation as Oxfam is enough to show that these self criticisms are amply justified Two-thirds of the world's population have a diet inadequate to sustain good health. Even if aid to under-developed countries were to be increased a thousand times, a figure far beyond the most hopeful dreams of Oxfam, the basic cause of world poverty would not be touched.
But inadequate diet is not a problem which only exists in underdeveloped countries. In the industrialised countries of Europe and America, this kind of deprivation also affects such people as low-income workers and their families and old age pensioners. A recent enquiry by the London School of Economics found that 500,000 children in Britain were deprived. The constant references to the so-called richer nations tends to conceal the facts of poverty in western countries.
These then are the effects of the problem, and until the nature of the problem is defined it is impossible to begin to overcome it. The varying degrees of material deprivation from which the majority of the world's population suffer is due to the failure of world capitalism to provide for human needs.
World capitalism as the dominating system of production and distribution can never be rationally organised in such a way that it serves the needs of the community. Private ownership, economic exploitation and the distribution of commodities through a marketing system with a view to making profit form the barriers that prevent man from making the fullest possible use of his labour, technology and natural resources. This is the nature of the problem of poverty.
Any attempt to deal with world poverty within the framework of capitalist society is bound to fail, since it accepts all the pre-conditions of the problem. The priorities of capitalist society are privileged properly rights and the pursuit of profits.
This is not to say that man has abandoned himself completely to the anti-social values of property society, and the existence of such movements as Oxfam is evidence of this.
The dramatic pictures of starving children who are nothing but hollow-eyed walking skeletons, never lose their effectiveness in moving men to indignation. The tragedy of it all is that in the main, victims are appealing to other victims for charity. The truth is that the working communities of the so-called rich nations are preoccupied with their own struggles, and to appeal for money from men who are harassed throughout their own lives with the difficulties of supporting families and making ends meet is to illuminate the hopeless futility on which charity is based. It must he said that the activities of Oxfam run the risk of being quite ineffective in dealing with poverty, but at the same time, creating the general impression that something is being done.
The 15 million pounds per year private aid collected in this country, even taken together with the larger amount of overseas development aid made available by the government, is a refined irrelevancy in relation to the problem. The task is straightforward. Men mutt produce much more food. This is made to appear difficult because the attempts now being made are conditional upon a profit making system.
Oxfam are right to now question the effectiveness of their own efforts. They are right to begin to think that political action is necessary. But even now, will their ideas develop along useful lines? Some sections of Oxfam are now in favour of bringing pressure on the government to increase overseas aid. The economic difficulties of the government at present completely rule this out. But even if this were not so, no amount of overseas aid that might he practical on behalf of the British or any other government could improve the situation to any appreciable degree. The only effect of this kind of operation would he to further delay real solutions. Any idea that accepts the economic conditions of capitalism is self-defeating.
Inevitably, the idea of birth control has also cropped up. The ability of the so-called theory of over population to divert men's minds from the real causes of poverty seems inexhaustible.
We must constantly draw attention to the contradiction inherent within capitalist society. The problem of hunger cannot be isolated from world poverty maintained year after year by the economic barriers of capitalism. This is not a technical problem: it is not a problem of overpopulation. It is a question of the kind of social priorities that people choose to accept. If it is to be capitalism, it will be production and distribution geared to the private accumulation of wealth by a privileged minority. It will mean economic recessions, unemployment, the curtailment of production at a time when humanity desperately needs more wealth. It will mean that technology will be stifled by the limitations of investment programmes. It will mean that the price mechanism and the market will sometimes result in the stockpiling or destruction of food whilst people are starving. It will mean the waste involved in war and commerce.
If it is to be world Socialism, it will be the common ownership of the means of producing wealth. It will mean the free application of human labour to the earth's resources with the most efficient utilisation and further development of technology. It will mean a productive system built up on relations of social equality and adjusted to the idea that man matters most.