The Cooking the Books column from the March 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard
In the last week of January the media reported ‘riots’, really little more than pushing and shoving, at some supermarkets in France after the Intermarché chain reduced the price of Nutella, the nut-based spread, from €4.50 to €1.40 for a limited period. Similar scenes were reported in Wrexham in 2014 when the 99p Store there decided to temporarily sell their wares at 50p instead.
According to opponents of socialism, such behaviour confirms their view that it is human nature to be greedy and that this is what would happen in socialism where everything on the shelves of the distribution centres would be available for people to take for free. However, there is a great difference between the situation under capitalism and that is socialism.
For a start, in capitalism some people’s income is so low that they have to buy what they need in Poundland's and 99p Stores which enterprising capitalists have set up to sell them cheap, low-quality necessaries. So, when those on low incomes learn of huge price reductions somewhere they hurry to take advantage of this and get their hands on the reduced-price goods while stocks or the offer last.
This is not an expression of some built-in human greed. In the circumstances it is actually rational behaviour to satisfy needs based on the knowledge that this is not a permanent situation and that prices are soon going to rise again.
In socialism free access to what people need won’t be a one-off but will be permanent and the stores will always be well stocked. The ‘Soledad Brother’ George Jackson put it rather well in one of his prison letters:
‘Consider the people’s store, after full automation, the implementation of the theory of economic advantage. You dig, no waste makers, nor harnesses on production. There is no intermediary, no money. The store, it stocks everything that the body or home could possibly use. Why won’t the people hoard, how is an operation like that possible, how could the storing place keep its stores if its stock (merchandise) is free?’
After pointing out that it is in conditions of insecurity that people hoard, as ‘nuts hidden away for tomorrow’s winter’, he answered his question:
‘The people’s store will work as long as people know that it will be there, and have in abundance the things they need and want (really want); when they are positive that the common effort has and will always produce an abundance, they won’t bother to take home more than they need. Water is free, do people drink more than they need?’(Letter of June 17, 1970).
The other difference from capitalism is that nobody will be so severely rationed by the size of their wage packet or their hand-out from the state as to be only able to access low-quality things to satisfy their basic needs. In fact such low quality stuff wouldn’t be produced in socialism. Why, in a society where production will be geared to meeting people’s needs, would inferior goods that don’t satisfy these needs properly be produced?