Saturday, March 6, 2010

Why doesn't big business support a national health service?

Cross-posted from the blog, Stephen's Blog.

It is often argued that a "single payer" health insurance system run by the federal government or a national health service would be in the interests of American big business apart from the health insurance companies. The growing burden of healthcare costs on the economy would be brought under control, and companies would no longer have to pay insurance premiums for their employees. Companies in Britain and Canada are quite happy with the national health service in those countries.

So why does big business not promote a real healthcare reform? This is the question asked by Doug Henwood in Issue 120 of his Left Business Observer (a publication that I highly recommend for its astute analysis of American economic and political developments; see here).

Apparently some people offer a "web of influence" explanation that focuses on interlocks (overlapping membership) between insurance companies and other companies and on the role of insurance companies as a source of finance for other companies. Henwood presents detailed evidence to show that these are not very significant phenomena.

Basing himself on testimony from researchers who have interviewed top executives on the issue, Henwood states that some (perhaps even many) executives support "single payer" in private but are reluctant to make their views public for two reasons.

First, they worry about the possible reaction of other firms with which they do business. Small companies especially are considered hostile to "single payer." They do not stand to gain in terms of costs because they do not provide health insurance to their employees, while they would have to bear part of the additional tax burden. So they would see such a reform as an attempt to shift costs from big business to small business.

Second, they are afraid of "encouraging would-be expropriators." One informant formulates this fear as follows: "If you can take away someone else's business -- the insurance companies' business -- then you can take away mine." In other words, the politics of capitalist class solidarity trumps the economics of cost reduction.

Henwood adds another consideration: "Employers like workers to feel insecure. Fear of losing health coverage makes workers less willing to strike or resist pay cuts or speedups."

At least in this case, it is misleading to view reform politics solely as an arena of conflict among diverse business interests. It is also an arena of class struggle.


What is Real Democracy and How Do We Get It? (2010)

From the March 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

In a month or so the people of Britain will be asked once again to decide which representatives of the ruling class will rule over them for the next four or five years.
It is well known that the word ‘democracy’ originates from Ancient Greece and means ‘power of the people’. Such an idea, in its literal sense, encompassing economic, political and social democracy does not exist anywhere in the world. This is primarily because the planet’s resources, many of which human beings need in order to live, do not belong to the people as a whole. Instead, they are in the hands of a small, privileged, rich minority. Such extremely limited political ‘democracy’ as does exist in parts of the modern world, is scarcely even a shadow of what genuine democracy will be like when it is finally put into practice.

For real democracy: imagine a society where all the people would be of equal status, with equal, free access to resources owned by the community, as a whole (e.g. food, shelter, healthcare, education, transportation, etc.). Imagine a world with no leaders and no elite to lord it over the rest of the population. A society where everyone can have an equal say in the issues that concern them. Above all, a world, in which all the people own and share the wealth that we need in order to live.

People and Politics
Not just socialists, but large numbers of people sense the lack of democracy in present society. Huge and ever increasing sections of the electorate, not only in Britain, but globally, feel, and by now know, that with the prevailing political ideas, the outcome of elections is not going to make any real difference to their way of life.

People have not always felt this way. Those who struggled to gain the franchise in the 19th and early 20th centuries, earnestly believed that this would empower them sufficiently to provide a means of solving many of the social, political and economic problems around them. Even fifty years or so ago, many thought that their vote could bring about genuine, significant change.

Now, experience has led people to think otherwise and, although most of them will still be casting their votes, few will have any great expectations, whether they vote for Tweedledum (Conservative) or Tweedledee (Labour) or, for Tweedledum-dee-dum (Liberal-“Democrat”). In mainstream politics, apathy has grown. Although this is disconcerting for the activists of the dominant parties, the general forces of capitalism are not overworried by it.

Those who administer capitalism want the electorate to vote for the main parties, which are all thoroughly committed to the capitalist status quo. However, capitalism’s leaders have no interest in public involvement in politics, outside of election time. Of course, there are radio phone-ins, programmes such as ‘Question Time’, ‘Any Questions’, etc., but these are tightly controlled and the participation of individual members of the audience in studio discussion is very limited, to say the least. Forums on the Internet have allowed more expression of dissent, but generally in practice to smaller, well-scattered audiences, in spite of the huge potential of this medium. Capitalism’s ideology and indoctrination dominates the thinking of the vast majority of participants. If large sections of the electorate, through apathy, do not vote, capitalism remains firmly entrenched, by default.

Why people are powerless
Almost everyone would like at least some degree of control over what shapes their lives. Many know they have not got that now, and probably most of those, if they thought about it, would realise that in the past, they didn’t have that degree of control either. Simplistic, misleading explanations are concocted as to why people are powerless. These include: ‘greedy bankers’, ‘corrupt politicians who don’t listen to the people’, ‘fat cats’, the ‘nanny state’ etc.

Capitalism, on the one hand, and genuine democracy, on the other, are completely incompatible with one another. The reason for this is that under capitalism, wealth is concentrated in the hands of a very small minority of the population. This wealth brings its owners huge power, influence and lifestyle opportunities, completely unavailable to the majority.

According to the United Nations Development Programme, more than 1.2 billion people – nearly one in every five people on Earth – survive on less than $1 a day. More than one billion people in developing countries lack access to clean, safe drinking water. Contrast that with the fact that the net wealth of the 10 richest billionaires is $133billion, more than 1.5 times the total national income of the least developed countries.

A study by the World Institute for Development Economics Research at the United Nations University reports that the richest 1 percent of adults owned 40 percent of global assets in the year 2000, and that the richest 10 percent of adults accounted for 85 percent of the world’s assets. In contrast to this, the bottom half of the world adult population owned barely 1 percent of global wealth.
If we look at the U.K, it is well known that since Labour has been in power, inequality has grown even greater than it was under the Conservatives. In fact, in January 2010 a government commissioned report by the ‘National Equality Panel’ revealed that the gap between the rich and the poor was greater than it was 40 years earlier.

In 2004, the top 1,000 people on the Sunday Times Rich List were worth a total of £202.4 billion. That’s an average of about £200 million each. On the average UK wage in 2004 of £21,000 a year, it would take nearly ten thousand years to earn that much. It should by now be crystal clear that such enormous disparities in wealth ownership which capitalism generates, make any meaningful democracy unattainable, within the present setup. The only effective solution is to get rid of capitalism, the root cause of this problem and replace it by a society, in which the world’s resources are shared by the world’s population.

Boardroom dictatorship
We are told by the apologists for the status quo that we live in a ‘free’ society. However, just ask people how ‘free’ they really feel on their daily commute (slog) to their places of employment (exploitation), as they are crammed together in buses or trains, or face the predictable monotony of the traffic jam. Employment is accurately described as being exploitation since the value of what the workers produce in the form of goods and services is much greater than the value of the wages/salaries which they receive. The surplus value is pocketed by the capitalist class and is a very important source of the wealth of the ruling class.

How ‘free’ do the working class (vast majority of the population) feel when they arrive at work, where they spend a significant amount of their waking hours. Few dare to criticise their line-managers or conditions of employment. They are only too well aware of the consequences of doing so: loss of promotion prospects and/or, quite likely, the sack. Trade unions do not and cannot give the protection which left-wing reformers once hoped they could. The trade cycle of booms and slumps is a natural part of capitalism. Particularly in a slump, most workers have to keep their mouths shut about their grievances and, even when the economy is stronger, workers still have to be very wary about what they say openly.

The basic reason why the working class majority feel powerless and not really ‘free’ is because they do not own any significant amount of the means for producing and distributing wealth, which people need in order to live. According to Social Trends 2003 published by the Office of National Statistics in the UK, the top 5 percent of population own 58 percent of this wealth, while the bottom 95 percent owns only 42 percent. This is a very important statistic since it means that out of every 20 people in Britain, the wealthiest one owns more than all the other 19 put together.

Such enormous inequality, although variable in degree in different parts of the world, is very typical of the global situation. It means that the vast majority are forced by their circumstances, to become economic slaves to the rich minority. The term ‘wage slavery’ is still very apposite. When people think of slavery, a picture of Ancient Rome and Greece with their slave drivers bearing whips, usually comes to mind. Modern wage slavery is very obviously quite different from this. The whip is no longer required. Capitalism has something far more subtle and far more productively effective at its disposal. In the Ancient World, slaves were quite often brutally treated by their masters. However, because the slave was the property of the owner, it was in the interests of the owner to keep him or her in a reasonable condition, in order to work.

In contrast to this, when capitalism began to develop further, in Europe in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and, spread to other parts of the world, the industrial working class (wage slaves) themselves were clearly not the property of the capitalist class. This meant that the capitalists had no economic interest in maintaining those, who worked for them. After all, these workers could always be replaced by others in the queue, looking for work. This was the thinking of the employers in the earlier period of capitalism and, still is today in the less developed parts of the planet. Hence, the grinding poverty of early industrial capitalism in Europe and, still today, in many undeveloped countries.
Modern capitalism, in the more economically advanced countries has been adapted subtly to suit the self-interest of the ruling class. Welfare systems have removed the worst excesses of poverty in such countries and, most importantly from the point of view of the capitalists, have to a considerable extent, removed the threats of instability for the owners of industry, caused by any organised discontent amongst workers. Such is the sophistication of modern wage slavery that, workers can often be persuaded (indoctrinated) into exercising self-discipline at the workplace, which means that line managers (more highly paid workers) often need to spend less time in supervising their subordinates.

Revolution from below
In view of the overall situation of poverty, wars, inequality, pollution etc., how do we get from the dictatorship of capital and the boardroom, to the system of real democracy described earlier? The means to reach such a society must surely reflect the composition of the new society itself.

Since the emergence of agriculture, about 10,000 years ago, private ownership of the means of production has developed, with a ruling class at each stage. Many changes have taken place since then but the key element has been private ownership of resources, by a small minority, right from slave owning societies through to feudalism and then, to capitalism. Significant political changes have been led by minorities, who have successfully imposed their will and rule on a population, very often by means of violence.

Capitalism, with its ruling class was established and developed by a minority, that is to say by leaders. In complete contrast to this, genuine democracy or real socialism, the two are synonymous, will be a society run by the whole of the people. Since it will be without leaders, this democracy will be set up by a majority of the people, consciously and politically organising themselves for a change, which they both understand and desire.

Even now, many people realise that there is something seriously wrong with the present system (wars, poverty, pollution, inequality etc.). However, it is the awareness of an alternative to this which is missing. The task of socialists is to get people to think for themselves, without the need for leaders. When more people consider the genuine socialist, democratic alternative to capitalism, those who give it support, will swell the size of the already existing world socialist movement. As the number of socialists grows, the ideas will spread among the people they come into contact with, particularly in a world where those ideas can be communicated so much more quickly than in the past. A series of political, democratic acts will be needed to establish the truly democratic society of socialism. People with a socialist consciousness will unite and upon achieving a majority, measured by voting, will be in a position to establish the new society.

World Socialism
At last, democracy will have real meaning: a society of production of goods and services for human need, with ownership and control of the means of production and distribution by all the people. Since the division into rich and poor will have been abolished, it will be a classless society. The precise, day-to-day details of the running of this future society will be up to the people at the time, but what we can be sure of is that just as there will be free access to goods and services for everyone, without any need for money, so there will be open access to the administration of society for those interested in particular issues, such as food production, health, education, building of houses, the environment and local matters.

Probably, there will be local administrations, perhaps in the form of councils, which will be reflected at wider levels, such as regional and global. The new democratic society will most likely involve participation of delegates in these councils. The consequence of this is that certain delegates could be subject to recall, if the electorate were dissatisfied with their activities. These factors would emphasise the genuine democracy and choice available to everyone.

Such a society will clearly face challenges in the need to clean up the mess created by capitalism. Swift measures will be required to undo as much as possible of the damage which has already been done to the environment by the previously existing profit system. Adequate food supplies, housing, health services and education will need to be expanded to areas of the planet previously deprived of them under capitalism. The tasks involved will obviously be considerable. However, the numbers of people available to do such work will be much greater than could ever be the case in a market economy since unemployment and the vagaries of the trade cycle will have been abolished. There will be increased automation of some tasks, and further technological development, with consideration for the environment. The scale of human energy available, accompanied by a social concern for creating the best possible working conditions, will make work a far more individually and socially satisfying affair than could ever be the case under capitalist wage slavery.

These will be enormously exciting times because at long last, human society will have evolved to the position of being able to tackle effectively the challenges facing the modern world. Immense satisfaction will be experienced by huge numbers of individuals as, on the one hand they will be able to contribute their mental and physical energies into increasing the commonly held wealth of society, whilst on the other hand, they will satisfy their own self defined needs from the common store.
The new era for humanity will have begun.
Vincent Otter

The prophet debunked (2010)

Book Review from the March 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Trotsky. A Biography. By Robert Service. Macmillan. 624pp.

Were Trotsky alive today, he would have the editors of this book shot. It is riddled with irritating errors. Round brackets close square; names change spelling; weird sentences like the idea that Russian radicals “took the bits of Marxism they disliked and discarded the rest” slip through; and apparently Oslo and St. Petersburg lie on the same longitude, 59 degrees North. Macmillan should be ashamed to have allowed this slapdash product into print.

This would not matter except that the representatives of Trotsky on Earth have launched a flurry of chaff to attack this biography of their idol. Forensic hair splitting has been their method, and finding faults, such as that Natalya Sederova (Trotsky’s partner) died in 1962 rather than 1960 as the book claims. This is, of course, a distraction tactic. Hardly any of their reviews deal with the meat of the book.

Peter Taaffe, leader of the “Socialist Party” (formerly Militant) performs the usual Trotskyist miracle of simultaneously denying and justifying the repressive tactics and terror of the Bolsheviks. David North of the World Socialist (sic) website cavils over trivialities, and even manages to accuse Service of anti-Semitism. North also has the lack of originality to describe Service’s text as part of the ‘School of historical falsification’ echoing his hero’s riposte to Stalin.

They don’t address Trotsky’s ordering the decimation of a battalion for cowardice. Or Lenin signing an order for 100-1000 leading citizens of a city to be hanged. The book notes Trotsky’s willingness to use authoritarian methods, and suggests that prior to 1917 he never spelled out what he meant by dictatorship, but that during the crisis leading to the Bolshevik coup d’Etat, he would speak in praise of the guillotine that made opponents of the revolution “shorter by a head”.

Service depicts, with accounts from witnesses, Trotsky as an aloof and self-centred man, who lacked political judgement to help him keep friends close. He alienated many by his manner. He was never, contrary to the received wisdom and dogma of the sects, an organised Marxist. He was a non-aligned member of the Russian Social Democratic Party, who spent the years up to the Great War trying to unify the factions but never joining any. Even when he joined the Bolsheviks, it was as a loose cannon, and that would be part of his undoing.

Service attributes Trotsky’s failure to become the leader of the revolution after Lenin to a lack of will on his part – and claims that any obstacles were surmountable. He suggests that Trotsky was not planning, nor might have been able, to use his position of head of the Red Army to seize power: but that the fear of this motivated his opponents.

What sticks in the craw of the Trots, and threatens the entire ideological edifice of their movement, is Service’s contention that Trotsky did not in policy terms differ from Stalin, and that he had indeed consciously presided over the introduction of a series of show trials of opponents like the ones used by Stalin against Trotsky’s allies. Further, he examines Trotsky’s late claim that the “backwardness” of Russian development was to blame for the “degeneration” of the revolution. In that case, enquires Service, was not the whole enterprise, including all its shed blood, a forlorn waste of time.

Despite the claims of the acolytes, this is not an entire hatchet job, Service freely acknowledges that Trotsky was a great writer and orator, and a brave man in his own personal right. It is, though, a biography, as much a literary form as an historical one, and judgement plays an important part. Service gives his opinion, and is openly critical of Bolshevism and the reader can make up their own mind.
Pik Smeet