Thursday, February 2, 2017

Charity begins at work (1963)

From the June 1963 issue of the Socialist Standard

From time to time appeals appear in the Press or are broadcast on the radio to provide food or shelter for starving or homeless people in such parts of the world as Korea, the Congo or (latterly especially) Algeria.

Easter is traditionally the time when charitable appeals are intensified, and various bodies affiliated to the Freedom from Hunger Campaign then made a particular point of drawing attention to the contrast between the fitness, security, wealth of, for example, the readers of The Observer and the plight of the unfortunates in these countries. War on Want pointed out that so many were starving, homeless, suffering, orphaned or despairing; the Save the Children Fund asked for “shillings or pounds” to provide “food, warmth, life itself ” for starving children. The United Nations Association asked readers to covenant one per cent of their incomes for seven years to “help in education, research and training for the underdeveloped countries ” so that parent could be aided “in the fight for food ’’—heading this appeal, “ No Eggs for 2 out of 3 People in the World.” Elsewhere in the same paper the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, yet another affiliated body, asked for help for “children with hunger-swollen stomachs—without food all day,” and mentioned 634 cases of malnutrition in one centre; it said that £2 would send four children daily meals for a month. Similarly, the previous Sunday in the same paper, War on Want claimed that £15 would provide a Tent Home for eight destitute Algerians.

No doubt the well-meaning organisers of such appeals are frequently hard put to it to carry out even a fraction of their good intentions, for they compete not only with everyday demands on our purses, but also with innumerable other appeals for aid to Tibetan refugees, limbless ex-servicemen, incurable cripples, cancer research, homes for children and the aged, distressed gentlefolk, and residential clubs for sailors (to mention only those that appeared alongside the Freedom from Hunger trio).

They may therefore have been very pleased to hear of the notable effort to relieve hunger and thirst among some 2,000 refugees and unemployed from Britain and the Continent which was made on the night of Monday, April 22, at a large, old but sturdy, building some twenty miles west of Marble Arch. It seems that no actual Koreans, Congolese or Algerians were present—but one must begin somewhere, after all. None of those present is reported to have had a swollen stomach (not, at any rate, swollen by hunger) or to have been actually starving—but the drive out along the Thames Valley may well have stimulated some appetites, and who knows, some of the busier people may have had to skip lunch that day.

What is undeniably true is that a good many of the guests at that ball at Windsor Castle had been out of a job for many years, despite their willingness and availability for the duties of occupying a throne and making themselves generally useful, as advertisements for jobs phrase it, in the ceremonial service of the callous and ungrateful countries who have rejected them. Moreover, a large proportion of the rest have never been employed, and have had to rely on public generosity all their lives.

The scale of this generosity on that Monday night was most impressive. According to William Hickey in the Daily Express, the means by which the 2,000 attained freedom from hunger (and thirst) for at least one evening included: 80 lb. smoked salmon and 300 lb. fresh salmon, 500 oz. caviar, 36 turkeys, 50 ducks, 200 chickens, two barons of beef, 14 large legs of pork, 24 hams, 500 lettuces, 80 lb. tomatoes, 36 cucumbers, 360 eggs, 28 lb. beetroot, 20 lb. Belgian endive, 48 bundles of spring onions, 48 bunches of radishes, 500 lb. fresh fruit, 200 pints fresh cream, 1,600 bottles of champagne, 1,080 bottles of whisky, 720 bottles of gin, 216 bottles of vodka, 2,000 bottles of lager and 20,000 cigarettes. In case they all became hungry again by morning, a further 4,000 eggs and 6,000 rashers of bacon were provided for breakfast; otherwise, of course, there might have been no eggs for 2 out of 3 people in the ballroom. To aid them in the fight for food, 145 servants were on hand, and there were even “half a dozen volunteers from the Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace” to assist in the struggle to open car doors.

Expressing the “hope that everyone will relax and enjoy themselves,” Hickey gave the total cost as between £15,000 and £20,000. This works out at not far short of £10 per head, and presumably includes Joe Loss’s fee for providing a 30-man band to play for dancing. Whether it includes the pay of the 15-man strong band supplied by the Brigade of Guards and the 40 Metropolitan policemen working a double shift within the castle precincts, or the costs of erecting 40 special traffic signs, providing “thousands of freshly cut flowers" from the royal conservatories, and illuminating the exterior of the castle with 52 arc-lamps, is more doubtful. To say that £14 or £15 was spent on each guest would probably not be a wild exaggeration.

Judging by the Press reports the following day, the benevolent hopes of William Hickey were fulfilled. At any rate there is no indication that those who danced the twist so well that midnight were unduly disturbed by the thought that what had been spent on this one “vast and glittering party” would have housed more than 10,000 destitute Algerians or provided 4,000 starving children with daily meals for well over a year, or paid the fuel bills of the 10,000 old people estimated to have died this winter as a result of inadequate heating. Why should they worry? They themselves receive, just like their ancestors or precursors, the benevolence of the greatest charitable body the world has ever known: the working class.

There were no advertisements or radio appeals, of course, for contributions to the expenses of the splendid celebration at Windsor and of the subsequent display of wealth and privilege surrounding the marriage of an actual, real live cousin of the Queen. None of the British and foreign royals and ex-royals and their favoured friends was observed standing on a street corner with a tin and a poster or a collection of little paper crowns to pin on the lapels of generous passers-by. No, this particular charity is much better organised: they save you the trouble of taking money out of your pay-packet to put it into a tin, or of writing out a cheque. In a way, you pay for it all because it comes out of the surplus value which is extracted from every moment of your working day.

No doubt a good many of those who provide this surplus value would pay for things like this even if they were asked—like the man who wrote to the Daily Express saying: “If we really want our royals—and I can’t imagine ourselves without —for goodness' sake let us foot the bill cheerfully and generously." The same poverty of imagination is presumably suffered by the thousands who waited for hours outside Westminster Abbey to catch a precious glimpse of the great occasion. But there are thousands, probably millions, more who would if pressed admit to at least an occasional hankering after a bit more of the wealth which they, and only they (together with their fellow-members of the working class all over the world) produce. After all, if you are starving or homeless it would be nice to have some food or a roof over your head, wouldn't it? Even if your food or your accommodation is not inadequate in quantity but merely inferior in quality, it would be nice have something better, wouldn't it?

Some of the more daring of us may go so far as to wish that we, too, could sometimes visit the many beautiful places in the world, see more of the sublime achievements of the great painters and sculptors, have more time to appreciate literature and poetry or study languages or history or science —or simply wish that we had more chances to use our talents, our skills and abilities, our intelligence and creative ability, to the full, instead of being condemned to the grinding monotony of boring, meaningless and often futile work, day after day. Most of us assume such wishes to be unrealistic and pointless day-dreams, inevitably doomed to frustration. To have to go to work each day and devote most of your waking hours to tasks with little or no connection with your interests is as inescapable a necessity as denying some of your wants in order that more urgent ones shall be met.

Yet there is no necessity whatever for the frustrations, the deprivations and the disappointments that are our accustomed lot to continue a moment longer than we allow. It is our own willingness, as a class of workers, to go on permitting the capitalist class—the owners of the means of production, the buyers of our energies—to take all that we produce and return to us a pittance, that enables wealth to be blatantly flaunted and wasted in a world of poverty and want and threatening mass-destruction. It is because we “can’t imagine ourselves without’’ our royals, our landowners, our shareholders, our financiers, our soldiers and sailors and airmen and police, our masters and our State apparatus, that they continue to dissipate the abundant riches we produce, in the display of luxury and the machines of death.

Two or three generations ago poverty, unemployment, war, and the myriad daily frustrations and miseries of life under capitalism ceased to be necessary at all. Since that time the capacity of man to satisfy all his wants has increased many times. When the workers of the world at last see that this is so, and organise to appropriate the wealth they have created, when they do away at last with the entire system of buying and selling and paying of wages, and prices, and all that goes with it then every man, woman and child on the planet will have enough to eat, there will be ample clothing and housing for all. No barriers, political or economic, will frustrate travel anywhere over the face of the globe for all who will, and the creative potential of every human being will be used to the full.
P. R. Collins

1 comment:

imposs1904 said...

'Oxford Committee for Famine Relief' became Oxfam.

P. R. Collins was the pen-name of the sociologist, Peter Rollings.