The Cooking the Books column from the November 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
Producers and Parasites was the title of a 1935 pamphlet by the Scottish-born American Marxist John Keracher. On the face of it Ed Miliband’s distinction in his Labour Party Conference speech between “producers” and “predators” seems more radical. After all, aren’t predators worse than parasites? But this is only on the face of it, as what Miliband meant by producers was quite different from what Keracher did. Nor were his “predators” the same as Keracher’s “parasites”.
Keracher was explaining Marx’s theory of surplus value which starts from the observation that wealth can only be produced by humans applying their mental and physical energies to materials that originally came from nature. Under capitalism these producers are exploited in that the difference between what they are paid as wages and salaries and the value of what they produce is appropriated by those who own and control the means of production. These capitalist employers and their hangers-on are “parasites”, argued Keracher, living off the unpaid labour of the “producers”.
Miliband’s distinction is not between wealth-producing workers and those who live off profit, interest and rent, but between two types of capitalist. It’s a distinction between Keracher’s parasites. According to Miliband, there are good capitalists who invest in providing goods and services and jobs (the “producers”) and those who are out to make a quick buck through asset-stripping and financial wheeling and dealing (“predators”).
There are two things wrong with this distinction. First, it accepts the capitalists’ impertinent view of themselves as wealth-producers (in Stock Exchange circles they even call mining companies “miners”); whereas all wealth is produced by those who work with their hands and brains, not those who invest for profit. Second, all capitalist firms are predatory in that their aim is to grow bigger by winning the battle of competition against their rivals and absorbing them through take-overs. That’s what all the big capitalist firms of today have done, including Rolls Royce, which Miliband cited as an example of a good capitalist.
For some reason, commentators interpreted Miliband’s speech as a turning to the left by the Labour Party. Certainly it was a piece of demagogy that went down well with his audience of councillors, would-be councillors and trade union bureaucrats. But in essence it was no different from Ted Heath’s 1973 denunciation when Tory PM of Tiny Rowland and Lonrho as “the unacceptable face of capitalism.”
Actually, the speech was an open recognition of what has always been the Labour Party’s practice – accepting capitalism and trying to smooth off the rough edges of capitalism, to humanise and moralise it. Cameron employed the same approach when, in opposition, he spoke of the Tories standing for “compassionate capitalism.” (It’s a different story now.)
It’s a pipe-dream of course. Capitalism is a system based on the exploitation of the real producers which can only work in the interest of the parasites, whether predatory or passive, who live off profits. It can never be made to work in the interests of the majority, as the experience of the present Coalition government and the immediately preceding Labour government is showing. In fact, as the experience of all governments everywhere has always shown.