The Cooking the Books column from the July 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard
John McDonnell is portrayed by his critics as an opponent of capitalism. He goes along with this but is riding for a fall. An interview with the BBC on 20 May was reported the next day in the Times under the headline ‘McDonnell: I’d overthrow capitalism’:
‘The shadow chancellor said he wanted to transform society “in a way that radically changes the system”. Asked if his job was the overthrow of capitalism, he replied: “Yes it is. It’s transforming the economy.” Pressed on whether there was a difference between transforming and overthrowing capitalism, he said: “I don’t think there is . . . I want a socialist society.’
These days, this sounds quite radical but in fact is merely what previous generations of Labour Party reformists have held. They envisaged the state capitalist economy adopted as their long-term aim in 1918, and which they called ‘socialism,’ coming into being gradually through a series of nationalisations and social reforms enacted by successive parliaments and Labour governments. This is what McDonnell means when he talks of ‘transforming the economy’; this to be a gradual process, ‘overthrowing’ capitalism piece by piece. It’s the classic reformist position.
This involves presiding over the operation of capitalism for a long period. However, capitalism cannot be reformed so as to work in the interest of ‘the many’. Capitalism runs on profits and any government which takes on the task of presiding over its operation is sooner or later forced to recognise this and, in the end, to allow and even encourage profit-making to take priority over pro-worker reforms. This has been the fate of all Labour governments.
A Labour government, with McDonnell as chancellor, would be in an even weaker position than previous ones. His ‘transformation of the economy’ is to begin while leaving production entirely in the hands of private profit-seeking businesses:
‘Asked by the BBC what he would do to private businesses Mr McDonnell replied: “We’d follow France’s example – they legislate for profit-sharing. We’d expect companies to profit-share as well as ensure they have a decent wage policy.”’
Profit-sharing, that old swindle! It’s what the Tories used to promote as ‘people’s capitalism’ and as a way to get workers to believe that their interest was the same as their employer’s. Trade unionists opposed this as it substituted a contracted wage of a regular amount by one in which a part of wages varies with the profitability of the employer’s business.
The best known profit-sharing business in Britain is the John Lewis 'Partnership ' (as it calls itself). Its latest annual report shows how profit, and so the ‘profit-sharing’ part of wages, can go down – and down – as well as up:
‘John Lewis Partnership (JLP) has cut its annual staff bonus to the lowest level in 64 years after profit plunged at the group, which owns Waitrose and a chain of department stores . . . Sir Charles Mayfield, the chairman, said it had been a “challenging year”. He blamed the downturn in profit and the staff payout – which has been cut for five years in a row – on subdued consumer demand and “significant changes to operations across the partnership, which affected many partners”. Mayfield said the coming year was likely to put further pressure on profit’ (Guardian, 18 March).
McDonnell, apparently, regards schemes which allow take-home pay to be cut five years in a row as ‘a decent wage policy’. And, of course, ‘profit-sharing’ implies that production for profit continues.