Saturday, January 2, 2016

China is capitalist — official (1986)

From the September 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Early last year pork rationing was reintroduced into most of the largest cities in China, after having been phased out a decade before. In Beijing and Shanghai, for instance, the monthly ration is one and a half kilograms of pork for each person. It is possible to buy pork in some shops without ration coupons but at a higher price, naturally. The reason for bringing back rationing is an unexpected shortage of pork: in 1984, 20 million fewer pigs were slaughtered than in 1979 And the reason for this shortage is the familiar one of profit and loss. Farmers in China simply make more money from growing grain or raising rabbits than from raising pigs, so pork production has declined in favour of more profitable occupations.

Then in May 1985 the government decided to bring Beijing into line with most of the rest of the country by removing price controls on many everyday items. Overnight, the price of 1.500 food items rose by an average of 30 per cent, but in some cases the rise was much higher, with beef, for instance, more than doubling. This was accompanied by an income subsidy for residents of the city, but most were still left out of pocket. Panic buying before the rise led to serious shortages and scarcity prices for vegetables, and the Beijing City Council had to restore the controls and subsidies for vegetables. Again, the shortage had been exacerbated by farmers switching to more profitable crops than cabbages and cauliflowers. A government spokesman explained the price rises as aiming at "encouraging production through the law of value", passing over their effects in decreasing people's living standards. As under capitalism anywhere, production priorities in China are clearly determined by considerations of profit not of human needs, and so play havoc with any attempts at economic planning.

Deregulation of prices naturally opened the way to profiteering of one kind and another. Some shops mixed fat and lean meat, selling the result at prices prevailing for lean meat. The get-rich-quick atmosphere led to some factories producing useless and even dangerous fake drugs and medicines, which were sold at vast profits. (At the same time, hospitals experienced shortages of genuine essential drugs; Beijing hospitals can obtain only half the amount of insulin they need to treat diabetics) There have been plenty of other examples of workers buying shoddy and lethal goods, backed up by ludicrously exaggerated advertising claims from unsafe electric fans to drink laced with industrial alcohol and tape recorders that break down and prove to have worthless guarantees. All are produced in the name of profit, not of satisfying human need.

The rivalry for profits between industrial concerns extends to competition among different places in China. For instance, the old industrial centre of Shanghai is falling behind its younger competitors and new local government bosses have been installed there to try and reverse the situation. And of course, an economy where the driving force is profit needs some policy for factories and other enterprises which, for whatever reason, cannot make a profit. Various government branches are at present discussing a bankruptcy law which will allow for enterprises to be closed if they make a persistent loss. Already the north-eastern industrial city of Shenyang has enacted its own bankruptcy regulations and has declared officially bankrupt one factory whose fate was sealed by its unpaid debts. No matter whether anything socially useful was being produced capitalism cannot maintain production in the absence of profits.

In 1985 China had a staggering trade deficit of 15 billion US dollars, caused by a huge increase in imports being matched only by a negligible increase in exports. The ruling class have realised the threat this deficit poses to their continued prosperity and so are attempting to boost exports, by insisting that the goods produced should be competitive on the world market in terms of quality, delivery date and price. So a major priority is the production of commodities for export at as low a price as possible, in order to reduce the trade imbalance. Fluctuations on the world market — the vagaries of capitalism, in other words — will have a clear influence on China's domestic economy. It is because of its dependence on the globe economy that China has recently applied to join GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which attempts to regulate the conditions of international trade.

Shareholding is no longer denounced in China as a capitalist vice, for shareholding and joint stock companies openly exist, albeit as a very peripheral part of the entire economy. A department store in Beijing issued three million shares, which were bought by various state-owned organisations. In other cases, workers in an enterprise are permitted to buy some shares in it. The state is likely to remain the largest shareholder in companies run on these lines — but clearly profit will be the dominant theme in their activities. Legislation is in progress to ensure that stocks and bonds can be inherited.

It goes without saying that the benefits from all the hard work of Chinese workers won't be theirs. The economic editor of Beijing Review complains that some organisations
have started providing their workers and staff with money for decent clothes and a free lunch every day. Such practices may seem trifling, or even in the best interests of the workers and staff members. But the results are horrible. If every worker in the country were given a daily free lunch, it would cost the state 18 billion yuan a year. If that were to happen, how the state finances would suffer!
And how the workers suffer from a system of profit and exploitation!

The appalling housing situation, for instance, means that 90 per cent of newlyweds must live with parents, in flats which are already grossly overcrowded and allow the minimum of privacy. In Shanghai alone. 100,000 families are in need of rehousing, while in the whole country only 350,000 were rehoused between 1979 and 1982. With the population increasing, the housing shortage can only get worse.

Whatever its form and whatever the mix of private and state ownership, capitalism everywhere can never be run in the interests of the workers.
Paul Bennett

Socialists are the democrats (1982)

Editorial from the November 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

Margaret Thatcher is reported to be giving some thought to legislation which will force trade unions to hold secret ballots before they call a strike. There is, of course, nothing new about this idea; more than one government in the past has considered a similar scheme, all on the assumption that it would be an effective method of reducing the incidence of strikes. There is little evidence to support this notion; and governments, as representatives of the ruling capitalist class, might consider the fact that a strike called after getting majority consent at a ballot would be that much more difficult to break.

Nevertheless, Thatcher's plan may well be popular among those workers who are under the impression that trade unions are too powerful, that the union bosses effectively run the country, that unions are undemocratic monoliths which grind contemptuously over all reason, all opposition, in their determination to win massive rises for their members. Those who study electoral trends, and who try to find out why parties win and lose elections, are generally convinced that strikes are harmful to the Labour Party, with its close connections with the unions, and help the Tories, who are supposed to be distinguished by a resolve to curb the unions’ power.

The truth is rather different. Trade unionism — the principle that workers should unite to protect their interests on the industrial front — is essential as long as capitalism lasts. It expresses the fact that capitalism is a class divided society, in which one class needs to sell its labour power to the other in order to live. If workers ignored trade unionism they would be at the mercy of their employers and there would be a consequent decline in their living standards.

But at best this is a holding operation, itself at the mercy of the prevailing economic trends within capitalism. When there is a slump, workers’ unity will very often be needed to resist a lowering of their wages and a worsening of their conditions — something which is happening today, with the employers trying to keep rises well below the increase in prices. In a boom, workers’ unity may be effective in exploiting the advantage which a high demand for labour power gives them. At such times, there will often be pressure from governments on the unions not to exploit the advantage to the full — as we saw, for example, under the Labour government after 1945.

The response which some unions gave to that approach from the Attlee government illustrates that trade unions do not invariably meet the principles of trade unionism, that at times they are prepared, for various reasons and on various excuses, to betray the interests of their members. At such times we hear nothing from politicians about the need to make the unions more democratic, of the need for the union membership to have a say in the policies and actions of their union, of trade union leaders being unrepresentative of their members’ wishes. When the unions are following a line generally favourable to the employers their leaders are swamped with gratitude and congratulations from the government. Many of them, at the zenith of their career, end up in the House of Lords, which is hardly the place for a democratic representative of the working class to find themselves. Any visitor to Parliament can see the numerous figures of ex-trade union bosses who once said their rabble rousing say, then did their bit by the capitalist class and now, in their leathery dotage, recline on the leather benches of the Lords. It is not an edifying sight.

This amply illustrates the motives behind Thatcher's threats to bring in her new law. The government must always be working to control the unions, whether by elbow-squeezing in the back rooms of Labour Party headquarters or by arm-twisting across the negotiating table or by head-bashing on the picket lines. This conflict is essential to capitalism and it will not go away, whatever laws are passed and whatever the wishes of the opposing participants, until capitalism is abolished.

Meanwhile, where do socialists stand on the issue? We have already pointed out that the class struggle is unavoidable and that workers are compelled by their own interests to join in it. At present, this is the role of the unions, with all their defects, but the job of the class conscious socialist is to work to make the unions more effective. One way in which this can be done is to make them more democratic, to encourage workers to take a more conscious part in the organisation and to ensure that any decisions taken are in accordance with the members’ wishes.

Of course, this is best done by having a socialist trade union membership. Socialists do not need leaders to instruct them as to where their interests lie. They do not need union officials to tell them how to carry on the class struggle and that they should co-operate in a government’s efforts to hold back wages and worsen working conditions. They reject all encouragement, from union as well as political leaders, to compromise their hostility to the capitalist system and to those who uphold it. So a socialist trade union membership would insist on their organisation carrying out its part in the class struggle to the full; they would not be diverted by specious assurances about an alleged common interest with their employers.

They would also establish a properly democratic organisation. A socialist membership would ensure that every policy and action by the union was fully in accordance with their knowledge and their wishes. And as a democratic, conscious union, they would be an historically powerful force. But that, of course, is not what Thatcher wants nor what was wanted by her predecessors in both Labour and Conservative governments.

The situation we have described — of a large socialist trade union membership — implies a high and widespread degree of socialist consciousness among the working class. And that brings us to the next, most vital, point. While socialists recognise the need for trade unions under capitalism, they are also aware of their limitations. Unions spring from, and can exist only in, a class divided society. They can do nothing to end that society; their action must be confined to the industrial field where the two classes dispute over the division of the wealth which the working class produce. They can have no say in the ultimate struggle, over the ownership of the means by which that wealth is produced and distributed. The unions can exist and struggle in capitalism but they can go no further than that.

It is on the political field that capitalism will be abolished. And while socialists can co-operate in trade unions with workers of all types of political outlook, on the political field there can be no compromise. An organisation aiming to abolish capitalism must consist only of socialists, of workers who understand capitalism and how its problems can be ended by socialism alone. Here also socialists have no use for leaders. They have no need for slick politicians to tell them that their problems are caused by undemocratic unions, by greedy workers, by menacing foreigners. Their socialist consciousness gives them a unique insight into the workings of human society. They will not be deceived; they demand socialism and nothing less.

A socialist party, consisting of workers conscious of their class interests and of how to act to bring socialism into being, a party therefore without leaders, is a properly democratic party. All its decisions are openly taken, after free debate and a majority opinion. This does not exclude the right of the minority to seek always to reverse a decision, while they carry it into effect. It implies a free availability of all knowledge and the fullest opportunity for participation of all members in the organisation, in its administration and its activity.

Such a party is the Socialist Party of Great Britain and its companion parties abroad. Socialists have a concept of democracy a long way ahead of what passes for it in other organisations; they recognise that a properly democratic society — which is what socialism will be — can be brought about only through the use of a properly democratic political tool. The democratic nature of a socialist party is an essential to the revolution to overthrow capitalism.


Editorial from the February 1925 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the Daily Herald of November 8th, 1924, appeared a copy of a letter on the Russian question, written by G. Bernard Shaw for .the Russian paper, Iznestia. This letter seems to have caught the fancy of the Daily Herald, as in a leading article next day it is described as a “brilliant analysis” of the Bolsheviks' position in Russia, and one alliterative phrase is quoted with great glee:—
“Wherever Socialism is a living force instead of a dead theory it has left Karl Marx as far behind as modern science has left Moses.”
The toadying policy of the Daily Herald towards the leaders of the Labour Party is so well known that little notice need be taken of its comments. It is curious, however, that two critics of Mr, Shaw’s letter, Mr. Longden, National Council of the I.L.P., and Mr. Max Beer, should have missed the double fallacy in the statement quoted.

What is meant by the phrase “ a living force”? Shaw, as is usual with him, attempts no explanation. “A living force” may vary from zero to the point where it over-rides all other forces. In no case or place has Socialism reached the latter position. In every country where it is being advocated it is at present accepted and taught by a minority, and can, therefore, only exert any “force" indirectly through its influence upon the fears or hopes of the ruling class, or of the majority. Without any exception, in every place where Socialism is seriously examined, criticised, or fought, it is always the teachings of Marx that are taken and dealt with by both supporters and opponents. Shaw in his propaganda is usually—though quite incorrectly— looked upon as a buffoon, except when he uses the Marxian case. In his debate with Professor Wicksteed, in the early eighties, he was only able to score by using Marx’s economics. When addressing a meeting of the “Technical and Administrative Workers,” at the Central Hall, Westminster, about two years ago, he gave Marx’s analysis of capitalism and showed how the concentration of capital into a relatively few hands had rendered impossible the old notion of an individual starting in business and building up a fortune by “ability and hard work”! Neither the Fabian Society nor the “Independent” Labour Party, which Shaw claims as “the living centre of English Socialism” (italics ours—as though Socialism could be national!) can produce a single notion or proposal worthy of a moment’s thought by the Workers, without basing such proposal upon the teachings of Marx. Even the Catholic Mr. Wheatley, a late Cabinet Minister, is talkihg of and advocating the class war in his latter-day speeches.

Mr. Shaw’s first fallacy is, of course, well known to all students of Socialism, including Mr. Shaw. His second fallacy, that the actions of the Communists in Russia are Marxian, or even a sensible deduction from Marx’s teachings, has been exposed on several occasions in the columns of the Socialist Standard. This fallacy extends farther than Shaw, and is extremely useful to supporters of the capitalist class in their attempts to oppose and "refute" Marx. In two public lectures on Marxism, given at King’s College, London University, in December, 1924, this was the line taken by the lecturer to show the "failure" of  Marx’s teachings.

On certain occasions Shaw will use Marx’s works, without acknowledgment, but evidently feels uncomfortable in handling such advanced material. As his writings and actions during the war and at other times show, he does not care to keep pace with Marx, or even with Moses, but feels quite at home when he goes Back to Methuselah.

Revolution or Resolutions? (2016)

The Halo Halo! Column from the January 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

There’s nothing the devout Christian likes more than a righteous feeling of guilt and sin. Fortunately Christianity gives its punters plenty to feel guilty and sinful about.

And although their god, like most others, is all-seeing and nothing escapes his attention, guilt-ridden Christians happily torment themselves with their sinfulness to their heart’s content, safe in the knowledge that although the invisible man in the sky is fully aware of every guilty secret, every bit of illicit pleasure and every sin committed, he will forgive them.

To regularly remind him, though, that their sins are to be forgiven, they occasionally need to demonstrate their repentance and remorse. Lent, the forty days leading up to Easter, for example, is traditionally spent miserably fasting and reflecting on these sins. And the New Year offers a wonderful opportunity for further repentance and misery by the drawing up of lists of New Year’s resolutions to torture themselves with.

And this year, for any Christians sanctimoniously agonizing over what New Year’s resolutions impose on themselves, the Halo-Halo column is here to help. Forget about giving up fags and booze, it’s not very original and you’re not going to stick to it anyway. Here’s something you can really feel guilty about. How about giving up your religious delusions? It seems you have more to be ashamed of than you thought.

A recent study by the University of Chicago indicates that children from religious families are less likely to share with others than were children from non-religious families. A religious upbringing is also associated with more punitive tendencies in response to anti-social behavior.

The results ‘challenge the view that religiosity facilitates prosocial behavior, and call into question whether religion is vital for moral development – suggesting the secularization of moral discourse does not reduce human kindness, in fact it does just the opposite’ said Prof Jean Decety (Science Daily, November 2015).

And a previous, but similar study by Royal Holloway, University of London found that ‘When subconsciously exposed to religious ideas and concepts, religious people are far more likely to actively punish those they believe are acting selfishly and unfairly’ (Science Daily, November 2010).

It’s a funny old world. As any socialist who has ever tried to reason with a Christian knows, if you try to describe a future society without poverty, hunger homelessness etc. and call it socialism, the Christian will call you a dangerous communist. Ask them to describe heaven and, if they can give an answer at all, they’ll describe pretty much the same thing. (Except with harp-playing angels and temples with pillars of gold).

The Christian, it seems, (in spite of his self-declared sinfulness) expects to go to heaven and be forgiven, but at the same time, reserves the right to be selfish, and to punish those of us who argue for a world without poverty here on Earth.

Puppet Kings and Labour Prudes (1937)

From the January 1937 issue of the Socialist Standard

The most talked-of political event of the past month was the dramatic exodus of King Edward VIII. One week he was the world’s most publicised figure, titular head of the world’s greatest Empire, moving with the authority of his position among one of the world’s wealthiest circles yet at the same time able to arouse great enthusiasm among the poorest of the poor by his visits to depressed areas and references to the poverty problem. The next week saw him spirited away under cover of darkness to a wealthy semi-exile, robbed of his royal position, and replaced by his brother. And this, says Mr. Baldwin, all occurred because the proposed marriage to a woman who bad been married twice before to men still living would have robbed the Crown of some of the lustre and respect essential to the maintenance of the bonds of Empire.

For us, as Socialists, the incident has its own significance. We aim at a system of society, Socialism, that will have complete stability because its foundation, the method by which the wealth of the community will be produced, owned and distributed, will be completely satisfying to the mass of the population. Having no privileged class, such a society will have no need of armed forces to protect the haves from the have-nots. Nor will it need those institutions which cover the naked reality of class privileges and class rule with the glamour of kingship and aristocracy, and thus prevent the working class from perceiving how they are robbed and by whom. Socialism will need no kingship, for it will have no need of an institution the main function of which now is to hide the fact that the State is an instrument used by the propertied class to enable them to exploit the propertyless.

It has always been the aim of the Socialist Party of Great Britain to point out how easily that State machine could be captured by the working class and transformed into an instrument of working class emancipation. Our propaganda has been faced with many obstacles, two of which have centred round the Crown. We have been told, on the one side, that the King “rules as well as reigns,” and that, therefore, to gain control of Parliament is useless, as the King could defy a Socialist majority controlling Parliament. On the other side, we have had to meet the argument that the Crown is not part of the capitalist machine but an independent force which might help the workers against capitalists and the capitalist class. The events of November, strikingly dispose of both contentions and thus will help to remove from workers’ minds doubts that prevented acceptance of the Socialist message.

In the first place we have witnessed how easy it was for the Party controlling Parliament to dismiss the most popular monarch of centuries because he would not accept their conditions, be a docile royal rubber stamp, and order his life as they wished. Many members of the Cabinet must have reflected that it was more easily carried out than the dismissal of organised wage-earners in their own factories. (Incidentally, those who still believe that Parliament is an unworkable machine may usefully observe how expeditiously it put through on operation of such magnitude and importance to the ruling class.)

The second point concerns the former King himself, for here we had an individual on whose behalf it has been claimed that he. interested himself in some of the problems of the working class. The extent of his understanding or the depth of his interest need not concern us here. It can, however, be said that it is impossible for anyone brought up in such surroundings to gain a correct appreciation of the working class point of view, let alone accept it. Nor would such an individual be prepared to support the only remedy, Socialism, since that involves the end of class privilege as well as the end of the monarchy. Inevitably, in essentials, the Crown must be the handmaiden of capitalism.

Nevertheless, in several directions Edward VIII interfered in social and political questions sufficiently to incur the disfavour of the ruling groups, and that was a reason why his abdication was desired in addition to the question of his marriage to Mrs. Simpson. The astonishing ease with which they accomplished that feat should prove to everyone that the notion of the modern monarchy opposing capitalism or even acting as a check on it is fantastic.

The episode is instructive, too, for the way it exposes the ruthlessness and hypocrisy of official circles. The Crown must, in the interest of the propertied class, be an untarnished symbol fitted to deceive the masses into a belief that the ruling class are a superior caste and that the country is governed by them in the interest of all, not merely of themselves. Also, the Monarch must be an apt instrument, prompt to obey capitalist orders. Edward, having some tastes and views of his own, was not willing. So Edward must go. Then, without more than an instant’s pause, the high-powered slush machines—the Press and the Pulpit— plastered the new King with all the amazing attributes with which they had been endowing his predecessor only a week before. One journal, simultaneously with the announcement of Edward’s abdication, hastened to inform its readers that the brother is a better golf player and tennis player, and better all-round athlete. Within a day or two we had learned that the new King is the only member of the Royal Family who was in action in the Great War (Edward was in France, but not in action, it seems, but we were never told so until now), that he drove a railway train, attends summer camp for boys, and takes a keen interest in social questions.

One good thing about all this is that it overreaches itself, and thousands of workers will be set on the road to useful thought through their feeling of nausea at such sycophantic utterances. The capitalists got their new King, but they have fortunately struck a blow at the institution, and through it, at their own position.

Regarding the way in which the dismissal was arranged, the full story will no doubt not be told for a long while. Sufficient is, however, apparent to show that the official Baldwin version is by no means the full story. The insistence that the King’s wish to marry Mrs. Simpson was the whole issue is hard to square with certain facts. It is an open secret that the King’s visit to South Wales, like previous excursions of his, and his awkward references to slums and poverty, were offensive and harmful to the Cabinet. And it was on this issue, not on Mrs. Simpson, that the Times and Daily Telegraph (November 24th and 25th) fired the first public shots in the conflict. They took the line that, to contrast the King’s “personal and representative concern for the well-being of a section of the people with the administrative steps of his advisers, is a constitutionally dangerous proceeding, and would threaten, if continued, to entangle the Throne in politics.” In form the attacks were directed against certain newspapers, but in substance against King Edward. It is interesting to recall also, that, at his accession, the Times evidently had their doubts about him (January 23rd, 1936), and put in a plea for him to be given "time to take the strain of his new duties.” . . . ” There is a feeling instinctive in the British race which likes to give any newcomer to any walk of life a fair chance.”

(Cynical people might say that King Edward ought to have expected trouble as soon as the organ of the British ruling class had started talking about “fairness.”)

On October 14th, The Week published a statement that a scheme was then being set on foot “for a social bomb to be exploded under the King.” This was a few days before Baldwin, according to his own statement, first broached the question of Mrs. Simpson to King Edward. The Times editorial on the South Wales visit (November 24th) coincides with the period in which, according to Mr. Baldwin (Hansard, December 10th), the suggestion had been made of a morganatic marriage. It appears that the Times at that stage was warning the King that even if he gave up Mrs. Simpson, or, alternatively, if the morganatic marriage provided a way out, he would still have to toe the line marked out for him by the Cabinet on behalf of the propertied class.

Two other aspects of the abdication deserve to be placed on record. One is the unanimity with which the Press lords agreed that there was not the slightest attempt to suppress the news about Mrs. Simpson in the months during which it was filling the columns of the foreign newspapers. Yet the New Leader reports that its printer not only refused to publish material on the matter but asserted that other printers would refuse to touch it also. Unofficial pressure by those who control industry and the Press can be as tight as any official censorship.

The other incident is the refusal of the Cabinet to allow Edward to broadcast before his abdication (Times, December 12th, 1936). The significance of this is that the British Broadcasting Corporation operates on a Royal Charter, and is thus nominally an organisation more directly under the authority of the Crown than any other. Yet he was not allowed to address his “own” subjects over his "own” B.B.C. Those who still persist in believing that the Crown has control over the armed forces or other bodies which work in the King’s name should ponder this. In fact, Parliament’s control is effective whenever those who are in a majority want to act. When a politically organised Socialist majority gains control of Parliament they will find it an effective instrument for the emancipation of the working class. Neither lords nor kings, lawyers nor financiers, will be able to stand in the way.

The conduct of the Labour Party towards the question was truly laughable. Having no policy— unless a palsied fear of Fascism can be called a policy—the Labour Party lined up behind "honest” Stanley Baldwin’s Cabinet. It shuddered at the idea of Mrs. Simpson becoming Queen —"married twice already. Both her former husbands are living" (Daily Herald, December 5th)— and echoed the capitalist plea that the Dominions would not accept her. It discovered, with the capitalist Press, that the King's acts "are the links which hold the Commonwealth together” (Daily Herald, December 3rd). The statement is absurd, whether from a capitalist’s or from a worker's standpoint. Capitalist interests hang together in the Empire from motives of mutual profit and mutual fears. The Crown is only the symbol with which the capitalists dazzle the eyes of the dispossessed populations in all the Empire countries. From a worker's standpoint—that is from the standpoint the Labour Party pretends to occupy—what binds the workers of the Empire and non-Empire countries together is their common fate as an exploited class and common interest in ending exploitation. Instead of basing its attitude on these elementary facts of the working class position, the Labour Party supported the capitalist monarchy and helped the capitalist class to sack an awkward occupant of the throne. They even sank so low as to echo the excuse that Edward had failed in his duty of sacrificing his personal affections—“The King failed to subdue the man" (Daily Herald, December 11th, 1936).

What a policy and what a Party!
Edgar Hardcastle

Between the Lines: Beyond the dark (1988)

The Between the Lines Column from the September 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

Beyond the dark
In case you can't find enough Tory dogma stuffed down the columns of your morning newspaper, Channel Four has provided just that added touch of repulsion at the end of the week, in the form of a new Friday-night discussion programme, Right Talk (a 10pm)

A Tory Lord chaired the first in the series. "Well", he began, "after nine years of Thatcherism we have all made lots of money . . . "; one immediately knew it was going to be one of those discussions. Lord Blake, who looked like an extra from Brideshead Revisited, couldn't be sure whether Thatcher's ideas owed more to Gladstone the Liberal or Disraeli the Tory. The participants drank orange juice out of glasses in silver holders (handling the glass itself might have seemed a touch too close to feeding themselves) and debated whether society really exists or, as Thatcher has suggested, we are all no more than a collection of individuals, united at most by family ties. Of course, the notion that there is no society is pretty handy when you are running one in which eight million workers arc dependent on state welfare payments, all of whom you choose to ignore. 

The discussion was frighteningly smug, which should perhaps be expected when a bunch of like minded doctrinaires get together and look at the world. I kept hoping that a socialist would burst in on the discussion (maybe Channel Four would send one in to collect the glass-holders), take on the whole pack of them and still drink his orange juice But the door never opened, and as the inane chatter continued I couldn't help thinking that the Tory party conference must he an awful place to be if you have a mind of your own.

Laughing at the riff-raff
In 1974 a BBC producer made an innovative fly-on-the-wall documentary called The Family. In July BBC2 re-screened it. Watching it the second time round, it became clear just how bloody wretched the lives of many workers are, a wretchedness which transcends any poverty statistics. The Wilkins family were not Victorian beasts who lived in one room and had arses hanging out of their trousers. That eight of them inhabited one pokey house in Reading was bad enough — bad enough indeed for two of the them to be rehoused in the course of the series, leaving only six of them to luxuriate in the palatial residence But it was not just the grimness of an impoverished family existence which made the Wilkins' predicament especially sad. It was the fact that these people had clearly been brought up to know their place in the world a mean and humble place, where complaining is in order but "you can't do nothing about it". In the course of the series I did not once see a single Wilkin reading a book, which is not a patronising jibe but a comment on the cultural impoverishment of many of our fellow workers. No books, but plenty of tabloid newspapers were in evidence As the series progressed the family became both more likeable and more pathetic One imagined a capitalist family watching the programme, mystified that people can live such pinched, cramped, repressed lives without wanting a revolution and laughing their heads off at the foolish antics of these simple slum-folk

Like many other viewers, I enjoyed watching Tom, the drunken, comical son-in-law whose native wit seemed to sustain the Wilkins in their ceaseless battle against the troubles of life. In the last episode Tom said that he had enjoyed the notoriety winch the series had given him, he thought he might now try his hand as a stand-up comedian. Unless he has disguised himself, the quest for stardom does not seem to have led to much in the last fifteen years Tom would have been better becoming a stand-up socialist; he could certainly have taught the Wilkins family a thing or two about how to change their situation.

One postscript on the series: its repeat showing led to a revival of public interest in the family Three of them were invited on to the Wogan show to tell us what had been happening since 1974. Every one of them had since been divorced. Mother and father were no longer together. Tom's wife had divorced him and married twice more, the son had divorced his wife, the teenage girl, unmarried in 1974, has been through several fathers for her children And all of this under a social system which, according to Mrs Thatcher, ties people together through the sacred knot of the family.

Through the keyhole
Back in 1974 there were doubts about the ethics of having a TV crew move in with a family for several months and observe their every move. The defence was that the Wilkins family knew what they were letting themselves in for. Even so, speaking in 1988. the mother of the family complained that they had been awfully underpaid for having been so used by the BBC. But what they did is nothing in comparison with the latest brand of voyeurism put out by ITV to please the advertisers. Family Affairs (6.30pm Fridays) is possibly one of the most tasteless ideas for a TV series ever conceived (And no. I haven't forgotten Cilla and her Blind Date.) Each week the presenter, Mike Smith, invites a couple to sit on a stage before an invited audience and argue about their most intimate problems. In one episode a black husband and a white wife are on the point of divorce; he will divorce her unless she slops seeing her racist father, who refuses to treat his black son-in law as an equal or, indeed, as a human being. She sees his point, but can’t bring herself to make the break. The audience, like over-emotional spectators at a street brawl, shout their advice. "Tell her father to go to hell." “If you loved him you'd give up your dad." "Be a man and take no notice of her old man., it's her you've married." On hand is marriage counsellor, Philip Hodson, whose sole function seems to be to make embarrassing, platitudinous statements like "Listen, why don't you turn to her now and tell her you love her." Oh yes, that will definitely save the marriage. Does this guy get paid for mouthing such banalities? It is a truly sick format which is likely to run and run.

Dictatorship games
As you read this column you may be submerged in 24-hour coverage of the Olympic Games from Korea, a country with a truly disgusting dictatorship You will recall that when the Games were in Moscow the USA would not go and Thatcher, who believes that politics should be kept out of sport, advised British athletes to stay away or whistle for an OBE. When the Games were in Los Angeles the Russian government ordered its boys and girls to stay at home. Now, by any standards, Korea is a worse hell hole and a fouler police state than either the USA or Russia. But both superpowers are sending their workers to compete there. Within a few weeks you will know the American national anthem down to the last beat; you will probably become pretty familiar will the Russian and East German ones as well. As for die British idiot-song — well, you had better stick to watching BBC closing down because "our' team is going to demonstrate what it means to have virtually no sports funding. Alternatively, you could keep watching Right Talk on Channel Four. I've just got this horrible feeling that any week now they're all going to burst into a solemn rendition of "God Save the Queen".
Steve Coleman

"People's capitalism" — a fraud (1987)

From the February 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the nineteenth century and until comparatively recently workers who were able to save deposited their spare cash in the Post Office Savings Bank and other savings banks and received a small but steady rate of interest on it. The present government has changed all that. At a cost of some hundreds of millions of pounds, including that of a massive advertising campaign, several million workers have been persuaded to become shareholders in British Gas and other formerly nationalised industries now privatised. The bait for the worker-shareholders is that the current stock-exchange price of the shares is appreciably higher than what they paid for them. There is of course no guarantee that the high share prices will last. Depending on the trading experience of the particular company and on the certainty that at some time there will be another big fall of all share-prices, the initial gain may disappear.

For the Tory Party the expectation is that many of these worker-shareholders will feel that they have an interest in voting for the Tories at the next election and on this ground alone the cost will be money well spent. But it has much wider implications, affecting as it does the question of the position of the working class in relation to capitalism.

The socialist case, in the words of our Declaration of Principles, is that society as at present constituted is based on the ownership of the means of living (land, factories, railways etc) by the capitalist or master class and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced. And that, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce and do not possess.

In the last resort the owning class depend for the protection of their privileged position on political power, their control of the machinery of government, including the armed forces. But from the time when the working class obtained the franchise and could determine the result of elections, the owning class and their tame philosophers and economists have devised all sorts of plausible theories to create confusion in the minds of the workers to prevent them from seeing capitalism as it really is. The aim of all the theories has been to deny the existence of a class struggle between possessors and non-possessors and to maintain that workers and capitalists are all members of society having the same interests, any differences there are being merely those of degree.

One of the theories dealt with savings. Adam Smith and Senior represented the way in which the capitalists accumulate capital as forms of abstinence and self-denial. As if there is really any similarity between the savings of workers with wages often little above subsistence, and the wealth and position of people with incomes running into hundreds of thousands of pounds a year. Sir William Ashley, an economic historian who knew about the way capitalism developed in Britain and who was an adviser to the Tory Party, wrote about that “abstinence" and "self-denial" theory in his The Economic Organisation of England (page 157).
Phrases like these have occasioned no little mirth: it is hard to discover self-denial or parsimony, as the world understands these words, in the processes by which modern capital is most largely accumulated.
But Ashley's recognition of the facts has done nothing to prevent modern apologists for capitalism from still using the arguments of Adam Smith and Senior.

Marx showed that the working class are exploited. The apologists for capitalism also use the term exploitation, but with a different meaning. For them only those workers are exploited whose wages are abnormally low. It is Marx's unique contribution to economic theory to show that exploitation takes place when the wages are what the trade unions would describe as "fair", that is wages negotiated with a trade union. The difference between Marx and the rest of the economists relates to what wages represent. The apologists for capitalism say (and a great majority of workers accept) that wages are payment for the workers' labour, so that a wage of £150 for a week is payment for, say, a 40 hour five day week. What the worker sells to the capitalist is not labour but his mental and physical energies, called by Marx, the worker's "labour-power". The capitalist pays to the worker a wage, which is the market price of labour power, and the capitalist then has the use of this labour- power. It is, however, the capacity of labour-power that it can create a value greater than a worker's wage. The worker in, say, three or four days, adds a value equal to the whole wage for the week and the rest of the week is unpaid labour for the benefit of the capitalist. Marx called this additional amount "surplus value", out of which come the industrialist's profits, the interest paid on any borrowed money and the rent of land where the factory owner does not also own the land. In this conception wages are prices, the price of labour-power, like the prices of other commodities bought by the capitalist. Only on Marx's theory is it possible to give a credible explanation of the sources from which profit, interest and land rent are derived.

If we accept the view that wages are fair payment for the workers' week's work, where do profits, interest and rent come from? So the apologists for capitalism have to invent other explanations. One was that the capitalist is paid for organising activities, in the capacity as manager of the enterprise. This had a certain plausibility, when the capitalists actually worked as managers of small firms. Marx pointed out that those capitalists were not owners of capital because they were managers, but were managers because of their ownership of capital. But it makes no sense in the modern world of big business where there may be tens of thousands of shareholders, none of whom ever sets foot inside the concern, and where all the managerial and organising functions are carried on by paid workers.

It is not even true that the shareholders as a body appoint the board of directors and therefore have ultimate control of company policy. In a typical big company, elections to the Board of Directors are not decided by the number of shareholders but by the size of their shareholdings. A company may have 20,000 shareholders but the huge shareholdings of a few individuals or, say, an insurance company can completely outvote the thousands of shareholders each of whom holds only a few hundred shares.

This puts into proper perspective the Tory myth that the creation of millions of small shareholders is going to change the structure and policy of British Gas and other such companies. The worker who withdraws a few hundred pounds from a bank or building society and buys a few shares instead, does not thereby become a controller of the company or enter into the ranks of the capitalist class. It will not make any difference to the fact that accumulated wealth of all kinds is concentrated in the hands of a small minority of the population.

Then there is the question, are not workers who own a few shares participating in the exploitation process? Are they not, in effect, capitalists? This is a very old issue. It was dealt with by Marx in Volume I of Capital, where he showed that the mere possession of a sum of money does not make the possessor a capitalist. For that, there must be present conditions enabling the money to be used for the employment — that is, the exploitation — of workers and for the accumulation of capital. (See Capital. Kerr edition. Vol I. Chapter XXXIII). And if the would-be capitalist is to be able to live above the level of a low-paid worker and not have to work in the business. Marx calculated how large is the sum of money needed to meet the cost of employing a sufficient number of workers and of providing the necessary means of production (pages 336-338). In relation to these realities of capitalism, the trivial sums of money received by workers as interest on savings, as profit on the sale of their handful of British Gas shares, or as dividends if they choose to keep the shares, are quite negligible. Of course these facts will not deter capitalism's academic hacks from pretending that in principle there really is no difference between owning £100 and being a multi-millionaire.

Where does the Labour Party stand on all this? They are among the apologists for capitalism. They reject Marx's theory of exploitation and deny that all forms of income from ownership come from surplus value, the unpaid labour of the workers. They made a quite indefensible separation between industrial profits on the one hand and interest on the other. Ramsay MacDonald once secretary of the Labour Party and Prime Minister in two Labour governments set out the theory in his Socialism, Critical and Constructive. Basing it on the writings of R. H. Tawney, MacDonald wrote:
When labour uses capital and pays it its market value, property is defensible: when capital uses labour and retains as its reward the maximum share in the product upon which it can keep its grip, property is devoid of a sure defence.
In line with this theory the Labour Party's "socialism" is capitalism as before but with the capitalist share-holders, now subject to the ups and downs of profit, changed into holders of government stocks providing a guaranteed fixed interest. Meanwhile the Tory government sets out to encourage an opposite change-over, replacing the workers' guaranteed interest on his savings with the ups and downs of profitability on company shares. Nothing to upset the capitalist class in either policy.
Edgar Hardcastle