Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Capitalism: no deal (2008)

From the July 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Under capitalism most people must be losers.
Daytime telly is a form of wallpaper: meaningless moving pictures to fill the time between adverts selling insurance or offering to unlock the equity in your home. The prime example of this form is the endless Deal or no Deal, fronted by the great survivor of light entertainment, Noel Edmonds. Ridiculous though the show is, it serves as an unwitting allegory of capitalism.

The premise is that 22 boxes containing a card each detailing a monetary sum between 1p and £250,000 are distributed among the players. One player is selected, and they will win the money represented in their box. The complication is that before they do that, they have to open everyone else’s box, and at various stages a character called “the fat banker” will ring a phone and offer to buy the player’s box.

The game is obviously entirely random – once the boxes are distributed, there is nothing more the player can do – at most, if they play it right, they can negotiate a good deal with the bank; but even that is down to the luck of which boxes are eliminated (the more lower score boxes are eliminated, the higher the banker’s offers). To emphasise this mechanistic process, if a player accepts the offer from the bank, they are asked to keep on playing as they would have done, to see what they could have been offered, and see whether they could have won more. Players are shown what money could have been theirs, and encouraged to believe that they have lost that money they never had.

If this sounds dull (and it is) the players are encouraged to pad the show out by devising complicated patterns of selecting boxes to eliminate. Even more, they are encouraged to give each other pep talks and egg each other on to think positively. Obliquely, this is associated with Edmonds’ own advocacy of “cosmic ordering”, by which you ask the universe for something and it gets delivered. All of which serves to pad out what is essentially a fairground game of chance into an hour of television.

So, just like capitalism, the wealth – in the boxes – is distributed randomly and unfairly, with only one player having more wealth than the rest put together in their box. Like a market, players have to try and sell their box without knowing what other boxes are out there, but they are encouraged to try and reach for the maximum prize. The players are tantalised and mesmerised by the prospect of £250,000, and very often go on to lose because the contents of their box, as eventually opened, are less than they were previously offered.

Like capitalism, the game disguises its true inhuman mechanics through a mixture of hope and delusion. The slim chance that one person can win is enough to entice the players to keep going, and to keep believing in their cranky positive thinking systems.

The fact is, in capitalism, the fact of birth sets the opportunities available, and is as random as the distribution of boxes. Of course, a few people do manage to climb out of their situation – but it helps if a decent sum was dealt in the first place, and the way they play the game depends as much on luck as it does on their own skill; but the idea that they are self made, and got where they are today entirely through merit is entirely believed by the people who too wish to make the big win like they have. Just as many lose the game, entirely through no fault of their own, but are left with the lingering memory of what the banker said they were worth, and what they have lost.

It is just such thinking that the Tory Party rely upon. Until recently, they have been trailing massively in the polls. The good betting was that at the next election, the most they could hope for was a hung parliament (possibly with themselves as the biggest party). After all, the electoral system is currently against them, they need more votes absolutely to win enough seats to have an overall majority than the Labour party needs.

After years of assiduously refusing to give the Tories any leverage on tax, Labour slipped up, and abolished the 10p basic rate of income tax they had introduced – effectively raising the rate of tax on the lowest earners. That some of that was off-set by rises in the minimum wage, and (less obviously) by the increase in statutory holiday entitlement from 20 to 24 days. Such mathematical factors, though, weigh very little against the conscious fact that people will see the deductions on their payslip increasing in size, and they can be told that it is the government snatching their money away.
This is grist to the Tory mill – they were able to return to their old refrain of being for cutting taxes, and telling people how the highway robbers of Labour were taking their hard earned money and squandering it. Suddenly, they were able to spring into a massive lead in the polls, and romp to a massive victory in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election. A victory so massive, that were the swing to hold to the next general election, the Tories would be guaranteed a massive overall win. Suddenly, the hug a hoody and cod greenery were cast off, as the Tories found that their old dog whistle was working once more, and the promise of cuts and cuts and cuts of taxes became the effective way to make friends and influence voters.

Simultaneously, it shattered Labour’s capacity to claim to be on the side of the poor – appearing to throw the burden of a tax cut on the poorest in the land. After all, it was to fund a cut in the 22 percent band that the 10 percent was abolished – Labour couldn’t even point to a reform that the tax increase paid for. So, of course, the leftist rivals of Labour (and the party’s own left wing) managed to jump on the bandwagon and launch an attack on the tax cut, which benefited the Tories by playing into their game. Labour have paid the price for claiming to be able to run the game capitalism better than their Tory rivals.

The secret of the Tories success is that they can simultaneously feed off hope and despair. The hope that one day, with a bit of hard work, you too can make it if you’re left to your own devices. The despair that you’re being robbed by the government through taxes and that your money is being given to those who are living the life of Riley while you slog away. This is the political equivalent of cosmic ordering, of positive thinking. You have a chance – it doesn’t matter how the boxes have been dealt, if you play the game right, you will make it in the end. The same thoughts animate the hopes of all those who pay the prole tax to phone into TV game shows, or buy national lottery tickets, for their big break out of their rut.

Of course, what people don’t see is that they’ve been robbed before the tax man even arrives. Those who work for a wage or a salary are being taken for the value of their unpaid labour that their employer extracts from them through the sleight of hand that is the wages system. Just as the sleight of hand in Deal or no Deal is that the production company, Endemol, make many times more than they give away in prize money, and indeed, wouldn’t even run the game unless they did so. Recognising that, though, would require shattering the illusion of the game.

Seeing that the distribution of wealth means that there must be losers, that those who win got there by luck, that those who lose got there by luck, destroys the game itself. Destroy the cosmic ordering and you remove the incentive to keep playing the game. That the game of capitalism is itself pernicious and destructive demands that it be removed outright, not played as best you can. If a game is inherently unfair, no tweaking of the rules, no aspirations, no change of player is going to alter that.

It is socialists’ job to arm our fellow workers with such knowledge and be a voice to cancel out the obscurantists calls for “thinking wealth” or other such mind candy that is the modern opiate of the masses. Latching on to tax campaigns, whether to relieve the poor or tax the rich, means keeping truck with the rules of capital – the game in which the winners are fixed before hand. So, when the fat banker asks us, “Capitalism: deal or no deal?” No deal! We say.
Pik Smeet