From the August 1965 issue of the Socialist Standard
"When I see a rich man I give thanks to God".
To Mr. Enoch Powell capitalism is emphatically not a dirty word. To him it describes a social system before whose uncontrollable processes he stands in awe. In competition, the profit motive, “market mechanisms”, he sees capitalism as containing all that is morally right, socially beneficial and historically progressive. What Mr. Powell deplores above all is any attempt on the part of the state machine to interfere with the economic forces of capitalism. Society should never question what capitalism itself represents as economic necessity, for in its infinite wisdom capitalism knows what is best for humanity.
An example of the kind of government action that Mr. Powell deprecates is the attempt to arrest the movement of the labour force from areas of industrial decline to areas of industrial growth by imposing regional development. Also, he sees the intervention of the state in maintaining uneconomic services on, say, the railways as harmful. The law of economic viability ought to be allowed to run its course. The North-East of England and unprofitable railways should be discarded, for what is dead should be buried. Only what is commercially advantageous is socially best.
Another area of industrial life where Mr. Powell feels the state has no good cause to show its face is in wage bargaining between employers and workers. Here again, he says, the "free play of the market” is the best deciding factor; Mr. Powell mocks the attempts of the government to “plan” incomes as much as he attacks their attempts to plan economic growth. He thinks that Government action in these fields is only likely to frustrate the freedom of people to do what is best for themselves.
Mr. Powell has never carried his ideas to the point where he has refused to serve in governments that have attempted intervention in these various fields. He was part of the government that sent Mr. Quintin Hogg (complete with cloth cap) on a tour of the North-East as part of an attempt to formulate a plan for revived industry in that area. It was the same government that set up Nicky, Neddy and at least paid lip-service to the idea of an “incomes policy”. During this time, Mr. Powell held ministerial rank and was part of the Cabinet.
The case of Mr. Powell presents a curious and unashamed throwback to the ideas of early 19th century laissez faire capitalism. In fact, since the 19th century, the state machine has continued to grow and expand its field of influence through all branches of social and economic life including welfare and pensions, defence, nationalised industries, civil service, treasury, the law, housing, education, transport, science and technology, etc.
Mr. Powell has said that the disadvantage of the state is that it is not directly involved in competitive profit-making and is therefore “devoid of the incentives which tend to sharpen people’s minds in a competitive situation about what might be the right and what might be the wrong course’ . . . It is this very detached position of the government’s which allows it to view and act upon what it calls the collective “national interest”, plus, of course, the interests of itself as a political party in power. Part of the function of the state has been to try to mitigate some of the more savage effects of capitalism’s jungle laws, by the distribution of doles to the unemployed, subsidised housing, for example.
The intervention of the state in economic affairs, such as nationalisation, rent control, agricultural subsidies, etc., do not compromise the nature of capitalism; they are attempts by the government to facilitate its smooth running.
The tendency in capitalist society is quite the reverse of what Mr. Powell would like to sec. Far from diminishing its influence, the state machine expands and becomes more complex. It is doubtful whether Mr. Powell's views can ever have a practical place in the policies of a future Tory government.
One effect that Mr. Powell’s views do have at the present time is to help to preserve within the Tory Party its conservative identity and pander to traditional prejudices such as distrust of bureaucracy and the mythical virtue of conservative freedom. In practice, Tory governments of necessity administrate capitalism in much the same way as Labour governments. The policies they carry out are prescribed for them not by political principle, but in the main by the economic dictates of the situation in which they find themselves.
In spite of the fact that when they are faced with the realities of government the spurious differences between the Labour and Tory Parties tend to evaporate, as separate organisations they require the front of a separate identity. It is men like Mr. Powell who in the Tory Party help to provide the image of traditional conservatism. Whatever the actual policies of Tory governments in power, his views cater to the emotional requirements and sentiments of Tory Party membership.
Similarly in the Labour Party, the function of a politician like Mr. Michael Foot is that in spite of what the Labour government has done since it took office, the views of Michael Foot tend to create the impression of a “radical left-wing” party who are guardians of working-class interests. This is inspiring to Labour Party workers and helps to provide cohesion within the organisation.
Mr. Powell has said, “When I see a rich man I give thanks to God. What do I feel when I see a poor man? It is that he would be poorer still if there were not the opportunity and the national incentive to people to succeed, to become rich, to make profit”. What, in fact, Mr. Powell is advocating is complete subservience to the economic tyrannies of capitalist society, and more than that, all the class privileges and under privileges that it implies.
Mr. Powell accepts the criteria of profit, commercial advantage, and the opportunities for sale provided by “market mechanisms” as the best motivating force behind the provision of community requirements. In fact, nothing could be more remote from the realities of life under capitalism.
In practice, the private ownership of wealth, commerce, and the profit motive prevent society’s free use of its productive techniques and ensure that a vast proportion of social labour is inefficiently applied to functions that have nothing to do with meeting human needs. The profit motive is not something that facilitates the widest possible distribution of wealth, hut is in itself an economic barrier against the application of man’s accumulated knowledge and techniques in production. An example of this can be found in “National defence", which Mr. Powell concedes is the proper concern of the state. The need for “National defence" arises from the situation where the modern nation states, Britain, France, America. Russia, etc., are competitors over markets, trade routes, sources of raw materials, spheres of national influence, etc. In order to maintain security in a competitive world, governments must maintain standing armies, navies and air forces; they must divert research and technology into the improvement of means of destruction such as nuclear weapons. The government must maintain an armaments industry and ensure housing, food, clothing, transport, etc., for all the personnel involved.
Measured against these facts of everyday life. Mr. Powell’s maxim that competition stimulates production is true only within extremely narrow limits. In practice, economic rivalry carries with it the burden of a vast appendage of wasteful functions which from the point of view of real material needs are utterly useless. Competition and economic rivalry both within nations and between nations generate fear, insecurity and enduring frustration, and result in hatred and violence. The fact of workers being in competition within a nation over jobs, housing, etc., can provide the seedbed of enmity and race prejudice. Between nations, it is not merely that economic rivalry results in all the material wastefulness that is involved in war, but it also causes the destruction of human life itself. The Americans and Vietnamese who are killing each other now are doing so against a background of all that Mr. Powell eulogises as competition and economic rivalry. The effort that capitalist society puts into war and the preparations for war is only one aspect of the material waste and human misery that results directly from production for profit.
The profit motive is not a liberating factor in production but one that stultifies production. The profit motive sets the limitations on what is possible in production and distribution. Against this end, the real material needs of the community take second place. Man under capitalism provides food, housing, clothing, health services, education, etc., within a tight economic framework conditioned by the prior requirements of profit. It is against this background that the enduring problems of society such as housing shortages, ugly urban environments and the fact that two-thirds of the world’s population do not get enough to eat must be understood.
Mr. Powell has talked a good deal about freedom, but the kind of freedom he seeks to maintain is the freedom of entrepreneurs to wield an arbitrary power in pursuit of their narrow private property interests in the most fundamental of human activities—the production and distribution of wealth. Socialists also want freedom, but freedom of the whole community to deploy its productive resources and all the talents and skills of the working class—be they scientists, professional workers, craftsmen, technologists of whatever— in the long overdue work of solving our problems. But Socialism involves more than the possibility of material comfort. Above all, Socialist freedom is the freedom of the individual emancipated from his working-class status and all the indignities of economic servitude and exploitation that Mr. Powell finds so worthy of approval.