Friday, December 31, 2010

All in it together? (2010)

From the December 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Some are less in it than others.
The gap between those at the top of society, and the rest of us, is actually getting bigger. That applies throughout capitalism, and it is the case even in Britain, after thirteen years of Labour Governments – which promised to run capitalism in the interests of all of us. This inequality has even got Conservatives worried. So much so that sometimes you see an article in The London Times, the house-journal of British capitalism, which make you wonder if some disgruntled sub-editor has put it in as a joke. Michael Portillo, former Tory M.P. and indeed former aspirant for the job of Tory leader, has just made a speech about the way things are going. Anatole Kaletsky, the London Times economics expert (who, clearly, is very far from being a Socialist), complained that the inequality “is putting democracy in danger” (London Times, 10 November). Portillo (wrote Kaletsky) denounced the “greedy, irresponsible behaviour of Britain’s wealthy financial and managerial elite”.
“The chief executives of middle-sized financial companies [who of course are also large shareholders] receive average salaries of £2 million and continue to vote themselves pay increases, at a time when ordinary workers face cuts in their pay and pensions. Such disparities could prove incompatible with democracy, according to Mr Portillo.”
Reports from other countries suggest that this is a general trend in capitalism throughout the world. What about America, self-appointed world’s policeman, raising the banner of freedom and a fair society across the globe?
“Another shocking statistic quoted by Mr Portillo: inequality has now become so extreme that America’s 74 richest citizens receive more income than the bottom 19 million combined.”
David Cameron says “we are all in this together”. As usual, some are more in it than others. And what very many people are in, up to the neck, is the muck and slime at the bottom of society.

Why do Portillo and Kaletsky, both enthusiastic supporters of capitalism, fear this trend in society? It’s simple. In the end, if you take a typical worker, whose head has been filled since he was born with propaganda that the capitalist system is the best system of society ever devised by man, and is indeed the only possible system – if you take him and kick him hard enough, finally even he will turn round and kick you back. If there were a lot of extremely poor people, then a well-to-do person could hardly walk down the street without the fear of a physical attack by someone demanding money.

There is a story that in the days of Charles II a settler in the American colonies returned to London for a visit, and he brought two Native Americans with him, to impress them with the flaunting displays of wealth in the capital city. When the visit ended, he proudly asked them that they thought of the ostentatious spectacle. They were greatly puzzled. “Why”, they asked, “don’t the poor people kill all the rich people?” Clearly there were a lot more poor than rich: and since the majority could easily overcome a small minority, why did they not take such an obvious step to put an end to such manifest unfairness? The answer, of course, is the unremitting barrage of propaganda in all “civilized” societies to persuade everyone that rich people are rich because they are in some way better than the rest of us. (The Native Americans had not been subject to that kind of bombardment.)

Why is this making some supporters of capitalism unhappy? It’s simple. If you refuse benefits to someone who “refuses to take a job”, what will he do? Lie down somewhere out of sight and quietly die? Or try and knock some richer people over the head and grab their money?

If you go to South Africa, you can see what might happen. Because of government policies during the half century after the war, when apartheid regimes kept down the great majority of South Africans who didn’t have a white skin, and refused them any worthwhile education, and any equal chance in the job market with whites, not to mention any reasonable place to live, etc – because of all that there is a great gap between the richest and the poorest. Well-to-do South Africans travel along the well-constructed broad roads in their expensive air-conditioned cars, passing black South Africans who are walking along the hard shoulder, and who live often in shacks without water on tap, or electricity, or mains sewage. The result is a very high crime rate. Poor people see wealth all round them, and not surprisingly want to grab a bit for themselves.

South Africa has one of the highest homicide rates per capita, if not the highest, in the world. So you pass large houses surrounded by high brick walls, with prominent notices outside – “Armed Response”: which means that if you dare to offer any threat to the owners of the house (e.g. if you try and pinch anything), they will use guns to try and kill you. If you are driving a car in Johannesburg, you are very unwise to stop at a red light, because this will be an open invitation to someone holding a gun to step into the car, and order you out. The car is then driven off, and you can walk – carjacking, it’s called. An acquaintance of mine, who was an ambulance driver, actually lost his ambulance in just that way – ambulancejacking. Now, of course, apartheid is overthrown, and everyone can vote, but the main change so far is that the new successful black politicians, and their relatives and friends, are all suddenly (surprise, surprise) much richer; so some thousands of black people are now driving expensive air-conditioned cars, and living in houses protected by “Armed Response”. But there is still an enormous discrepancy in wealth between the richest and the poorest, along with the high crime rates which always accompany such inequality.

So the theory among some members or supporters of the upper class is that it may be cheaper in the long run, and certainly more pleasant, to keep social benefits at a level which means that rich people have less fear of being robbed in a personal attack, or of having their houses burgled.
Alwyn Edgar