From the January 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard
As The Seventies close, do you remember the prosings of journalists and politicians ten years ago? A new era was dawning. The white heat of the technological revolution was going to make everything different. The common people were about to enter a new age of prosperity and happiness — or so we were told. It seems a little far-fetched now, doesn’t it?
In fact, of course, the economic and social relations of capitalism are totally unchanged. The small owning class still faces the large working class in irreconcilable antagonism at home, while across the world each state, governed by its ruling class, prowls the economic and military jungle seeking its prey.
These fundamental realities express themselves in terms of the various issues which rise to prominence from time to time, but although different episodes pass across the screen, the projector is unchanged. The European Economic Community is one such episode, about which we have been exhorted to concern ourselves. The British ruling class found itself in a quandary for two reasons. The British Empire, with its secure overseas markets for British products, finally disintegrated in the fifties and sixties. Where could substitute markets be found? The only obvious answer was for Britain to join the six Western European countries who had combined to form a ‘common market’.
The other quandary of British capitalism urged the ruling class in the same direction. British foreign policy for at least half a millenium has been devoted to protecting the trading position of London and the Thames from the competition of ports opposite to them across the North Sea in the Belgian/Dutch Low Countries. For centuries Britain repeatedly sent forces to help those countries obtain or safeguard their independence from the great powers which were currently ruling or threatening them — whether France, Spain, Austria or Germany. Expeditions in pursuit of this commercial and strategic imperative were sent to the Low Countries in the time of Philip of Spain, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm and Hitler. But then, after the Second World War, Britain was no longer powerful enough to prevent the formation of the EEC and the consequent linking of the Low Countries ports with the industrial power of France, West Germany and Italy.
Rotterdam’s port flourished as London’s declined. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em; and British capitalism abandoned its long-held distaste for ‘European entanglements’ and joined the Common Market. The referendum held years later in Great Britain on the subject was a mere formality. The British ruling class had decided to go in (more enthusiasm for joining was found among the bigger firms and less among the smaller, but the bigger firms naturally carried the day): so the media told the voters what to think, the campaign for going in spent vastly more money that the campaign for staying out, and (in strict impartiality) three leaflets were distributed to every voter in the country, one putting the reasons for staying out and two putting the case for going in.
The electorate is overwhelmingly working class, but it is a working class not understanding capitalism and therefore not accepting socialism — and, lacking such understanding, it can be pressurised into voting how the capitalist class currently wants it to. So a large majority voted for joining the EEC. Socialists took no part in the debate; our advice would in any case be ignored by the ruling class, and we are dedicated to the abolition of capitalism, not the solution of its successive problems.
The other main domestic issues in the seventies were of slightly longer lineage. Keynes advised a moderate continuous inflation as a means of stimulating production and profit (as he hoped) by accentuating the booms and moderating the slumps. This has been put into operation as deliberate policy by every government since 1935, though it has been subjected to routine attacks by every opposition in the same period. So every party promises to end inflation as a general election approaches, and every government cold-bloodedly continues it after the election. This leads to such farces as Margaret Thatcher’s current claims that the government is putting prices up in order to fight inflation, as if you might fight dishonesty by telling more lies or save whales by stepping up their slaughter.
Inflation not only reduces wages every week — one might almost say every day it is also a weapon in the hands of the big capitalist as against the citizen who cherishes hopes of becoming a small rentier or coupon-clipper. For despite the efforts of employers to pay employees only as much as they have to spend on maintaining themselves, thereby enforcing continued attendance at the factory or office; and despite the efforts of governments to equalise the purchasing power of wages by penalising the unmarried and the childless in favour of those married and bringing up children (by income tax adjustments, heavy taxes on items such as beer, tobacco, cars, cameras and so on, balanced by handouts such as children’s allowances, family income supplements) -- despite all these efforts, some workers by fortunate chance or by exceptional habits were able to put by sums of money in the old Post Office Savings Bank or building societies.
Inflation destroys this money, thus reducing workers again to the absolute necessity of selling their labour-power. Money put into National Savings by loyal (or misguided) workers in, say, 1930, would come out now, including all the interest which has accrued, at not much more than a tenth of its value in real terms. So inflation, which both reduces wages and destroys workers’ savings, has been an abiding feature of capitalist policy, both Labour and Conservative, for forty-five years now.
If you are standing on a ‘down’ escalator, you have to walk continually upwards in order to stay in the same place. So combinations of workers in times of inflation have to fight continually, not to obtain any better pay but merely to avoid a declining standard of living. In capitalism as it has developed over the centuries in Britain, struggles to force prices (including wages) up or down are endemic, even in times when the currency is stable. When the currency is being rapidly devalued, as at present, it cannot be expected that such struggles will be any fewer. Prisoners kept in the hold of a ship will make strenuous efforts to reach the hatchway when the ship is sinking. These attempts by workers to increase the price of their labour-power (or avoid its decline) are seized on by the media as evidence of innate wickedness and depravity; but attempts by companies to increase the prices of their products are depicted as part of the law of nature.
The Grocer magazine, for example, records each week the latest increases in the price of food, each the result of a successful strike by the suppliers the withholding of supplies at the lower price and their availability only at the higher price — with never a word as to the ‘depraved’ or ‘evil’ nature revealed by such increased demands. Having filled the media with attacks on workers who are trying to restore their standard of living to what they thought they had agreed to work for a year ago, capitalist propagandists can then make our flesh creep with tales of the overweening powers of the trade unions. The less bright trade union leaders and militants, flattered by this picture of their own importance, sometimes accept it as true; but it remains as completely fictitious as Hitler’s diatribes about the overweening powers of the Jews in Germany in the 1930s. Both fictions had the same origin: to denounce the over-great powers of your adversaries both prepares the ground for, and justifies, your subsequent attacks on them.
Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, after fourteen years of settler rule and nearly total ostracism, is about to follow the great majority of African states and become a developing capitalist nation in which the Zimbabwean capitalist class will decide whether its profits are better served by a Western-style system with several capitalist parties contending for power, or by one-party rule. Neither variety of political superstructure on the capitalist basis will have the support of socialists.
The seventies saw the United States finally disengage itself from Vietnam, and the triumph in Vietnam of capitalism operating through a police state. The passions aroused by several decades of war in that unhappy country led to perhaps hundreds of thousands of those who backed the wrong side being driven out by the new ruling class. Thousands of these boat people must have drowned. So another country joined what fanciful British newspaper articles are still calling the ‘monolithic’ and ‘communist’ section of the world: though a moment’s consideration reveals that it is neither communist nor monolithic. The majority of the boat people, for example, were Chinese; since China is now Vietnam’s deadly enemy, a potential fifth column had to be, and was, extirpated. Cambodia has now become Vietnam’s Vietnam, with 100,000 or more Viet troops (with Russian supplies) supporting one puppet, Heng Samrin, while China upholds another, Pol Pot — amid the corpses, it is thought, of three million Cambodians who were unfortunate enough to be caught up in the capitalist rivalries of the ‘monolithic Eastern bloc’, tainted by the destabilising influence of America.
Where now are the progressive thinkers who were assuring us during the seventies that all would be well in that part of the world if street demonstrations and agitation forced the US forces to leave Vietnam? They are quiet at present, until the next recurring problem of the capitalist world demands a similar facile ‘solution’ which will in fact merely lead on to the next problem while capitalism lasts.
Another issue which has spawned millions of words in the decade is the ‘energy crisis’. Oil in its easily available form will, some experts tell us, run out in the foreseeable future, further supplies will have to come from oil-bearing shales and extraction will cost more. The forecast has been followed by a higher price of oil (in real terms), and other forms of energy such as coal have also become more expensive in pursuit of oil, which has a commanding share of the market. (Hence coal miners are somewhat higher in the league table of wage-earners, which has led to cries of ‘the revolution is round the corner’ from some and ‘disaster is upon us’ from others — both equally wide of the mark.)
Energy will not run out. Capitalism is endlessly inventive in its pursuit of profit. A planet consisting of a red-hot mass of molten rocks just below the surface — actually breaking through the crust regularly in some areas and more sporadically in others — surrounded by continuous tides, rivers, and winds of enormous power, and bathed by a rotating but continuous deluge of sunshine, is not going to expire from lack of energy, though new ways of making it available will be employed. Socialism would dispel any worries about energy even more quickly, the oil, coal, gas and so on consumed by the world’s enormous military forces and preparations for the next war, by the police, prison and psychiatric services, by the financial and profit-taking mechanisms of capitalism is simply wasted, and under socialism would be used to feed, clothe and house humanity.
So farewell to the seventies. At least the empty and futile hyperbole employed to welcome the decade ten years ago should make us chary of accepting similar verbosity about the eighties,