Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Real Class Division (2005)

From the March 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard
We’re supposed to be moving towards a more equitable society. Well how come class division is worse than ever, asks Paul Bennett

It was, the newspaper says, ‘an authoritative new study’, concluding that class divisions are worse now than fifty years ago:
“Britain is more class-ridden than in the 1950s, as children from affluent families take the lion’s share of university places and those from poorer backgrounds struggle to climb the career ladder. People born in the Fifties were more likely to escape their parents’ class than those born in the Seventies, says the report, which compares parents’ and children’s incomes over time, and finds that equality of opportunity in Britain has declined” (Observer, 16 January).
This is a fairly typical example of the way in which the word ‘class’ is often defined, in terms of ‘affluent’ versus poorer families, with people ‘escaping’ from the class of their parents by moving upwards on the social ladder. Varying access to education is often accounted for in similar terms. For instance, the Office for National Statistics noted that in 2001-2, 19 percent of children from manual social classes went on to higher education, as opposed to 50 percent of those from non-manual classes.
In a sense, class is a concept that can be defined as one likes. The British government’s Index of Social Class has a scale from routine occupations such as waiters and cleaners, through ‘lower supervisory and craft’ jobs such as butchers and bus inspectors, to higher managerial occupations such as company directors and bank managers. This is based on the factors of job security, promotion opportunities, and the ability and opportunity to work on one’s own and to make decisions about tasks. Of course, since most company directors are capitalists, they probably rank rather higher on these criteria than the average bank manager.
An analysis along such lines may convey a lot of information about society, but at the same time it hides a great deal as well. By emphasising divisions among employees it suggests that they have different interests and statuses, rather than stressing what they all have in common. It suggests that removing inequality is about people climbing upwards within this scale and so doing better than their parents, rather than overturning the whole system. The traditional division between ‘working class’ and ‘middle class’ also implies that there is a conflict between these two groups, with the middle class being better paid, educated and housed, often at the expense of the working class.
However, there is another way of viewing divisions within society. We can note, for instance, that members of the so-called middle class are as dependent on what their employer pays them as the so-called working class are. It may be called a salary and come in the form of a monthly cheque rather than a weekly wage packet, but its recipients still need it in order to live. From this point of view, in fact, the overwhelming majority of the population are in the same boat: employed, paid a wage, needing to work for a living, at risk of losing their job, pushed around at work, working longer hours and doing less interesting work than they would wish. They shop in the same malls and supermarkets, use the same schools, hospitals and transport systems, are subject to the same laws and government regulations. Above all, they are seen by their employers as a means of creating profit rather than as human beings with feelings and family responsibilities. As far as socialists are concerned, anyone in this situation is a member of the working class, irrespective of their educational background or the accent they speak with.
But not everybody in society belongs to the working class. A comparatively small number of people (the capitalist class) have no need to work or to sign on for unemployment benefit, for they own the means of production, the land, factories, offices and companies. Having a few shares does not put a person into this class, for owning a small number of shares (like having money in a deposit account) does not prevent you from needing to work for a living. In contrast, the capitalists receive enough income from dividends and interest and rents and inflated ‘salaries’ and bonus schemes that not only do they not have to work but their wealth is far beyond what workers can even dream of. In 2004, the top 1,000 people on the Sunday Times Rich List were worth the extraordinary total of £202.4 billion. That’s an average of £200 million each! On the average wage of £21,000 a year, it would take nearly ten thousand years to earn that much. The list includes the Duke of Westminster (worth £5 billion), Philip Green (£3.6bn), Bernie Ecclestone (£2.3bn) and James Dyson (£800 million). These are the people who have several luxury homes in different cities and can afford to stay in swanky hotels and go on expensive cruises. They are also the people who are likely to berate workers for not working hard enough, exhorting us to pull our socks up and put our backs into it.
 And where do these super-rich get their money from? It’s clearly not from the sweat of their brow, because nobody can work hard enough or long enough to be worth a million pounds, let alone several billion. As the saying has it, the rich get rich from hard work – other people’s hard work. Their wealth comes from exploiting the working class, both manual and non-manual workers, whether they toil in shop, factory, office or call centre. Of the wealth that each worker produces (each day, week and month), only a part is covered by their wages – the rest is taken by the employer, in the form of surplus value. Shell, for instance, made £9bn post-tax profit last year (that’s a 9 plus nine zeroes). This is the class division that matters, that between the exploiting capitalists and the exploited workers, not that between workers who are slightly less or more poor than others.
The solution to this situation is not for workers to strive to join the capitalist class, for even if a few individuals manage this, it still leaves the vast majority of workers exploited and subject to capitalism’s wars and pollution. To ‘escape from your class’, do not dream of becoming a capitalist. Work instead for a society in which class divisions no longer exist, just as billionaires and paupers, landlords and homeless, bombs and borders will no longer exist. This is what we call a socialist society, where the means of production belong to everyone, not to a small rich list. Where wealth is produced to meet people’s needs rather than to produce profits for a few. Where there is no social ladder but everyone has the chance to educate themselves in the best and broadest way possible and to do work which is rewarding and enjoyable, without ever defining themselves as a cleaner or a butcher, where everyone has the opportunity to relate to others as human beings rather than as cogs in an uncontrollable economic machine.
Paul Bennett

Do Social Reforms Kill Socialism? (1933)

From the September 1933 issue of the Socialist Standard

The "Dole" and the Workers

"What is the effect of the dole upon the mental attitude of the workers? Does it make them more acquiescent towards capitalism"

The question hails from America. This in itself is instructive. A few years ago various prominent English labour leaders and an odd capitalist or two, like Lord Beaverbrook, were advocating the adoption of the alleged "high-wage policy" of American employers. Now the American capitalists are seriously considering the adoption of the British system of State unemployment relief known as the dole. The "high-wage policy," so far from curing unemployment, has, in America, failed to prevent its rapid and enormous growth. Goods have been produced far in excess of the ability of the workers there to buy them back with all their "high wages." We have to note there, as in England, the sharp curtailment of production, wholesale dismissal of staffs, and all the rest of the characteristic methods of the capitalists in the endeavour to weather the "crisis," including drastic wage reductions.

The system of unemployment insurance was not patented in Great Britain. It was adopted nearly a quarter of a century ago by the Government of the day and applied to a few industries on the basis of foreign experiments. A few years previously Joseph Chamberlain had initiated his campaign for Protection, "to cure unemployment." "Look at Germany!" he said. "Under Protection her industries have forged ahead until their products capture Britain's markets." The Liberals looked at Germany, beheld unemployment rampant there as elsewhere, and also observed a State insurance scheme, which they proceeded to copy. It appeared in their eyes to be a more economical and efficient method of controlling the unemployed than the system of parish relief; and, with the dislocation of the labour market following the war, even Conservative Ministers helped forward its rapid extension to the majority of industries.

The system of parish relief, inherited from the days of Queen Elizabeth 350 years ago, was designed to meet a situation long before large-scale production had brought large-scale unemployment in its train. It had definite drawbacks from the point of view of those capitalists who had to pay rates upon property in industrial areas. They sought to spread the burden over the entire master class of a national scheme. From the standpoint of the unemployed the change in practice means no more than this, that they are paid relief out of the national exchequer instead of locally, and they are periodically badgered by courts of referees instead of by boards of guardians. Under the national scheme they now have six months' respite before the badgering starts, but for this privilege they have, while in work, made compulsory contributions. Since the advent of the National Government in 1931, the "means test" has gone far to lessen any difference between the two methods of securing workers' quietude.

Without some form of relief of the destitute, whether on local or national lines, it is obvious that there would be an enormous increase in crimes against property, ranging from petty thefts to wholesale riots. This, of course, would involve a correspondingly large increase in police activity and expenditure in connection therewith. In any advanced industrial country this is the consideration which induces the master class to adopt some form of public relief in the place of haphazard "charity."

There is no evidence, however, that in the absence of the dole, or some equivalent, the workers would become revolutionary. Such a mental change implies much more than mere discontent with the extremes of poverty resulting from unemployment. In spite of the enormous increase of unemployment in America in recent years and the absence of a system of doles, we do not hear of any rapid increase in the number of Socialists there. On the contrary, the very immediate urgency of the needs of the unemployed prompts the non-Socialist majority of them to give ear to those who promise them "something now" —Roosevelt, for example. They ignore Socialist propaganda as they do when in work.

Similarly, in Britain the establishment of the dole has not altered one way or the other the essential obstacles in the way of Socialist propaganda. Just as workers in employment can be gulled into accepting the fallacy that wage reductions are necessary to enable their master to recover their "share of world trade," so the unemployed can, in large numbers, be persuaded that a reduction in their paltry benefit is necessary to "national stability and financial integrity." The election results in 1931 is eloquent of this. Vast numbers of unemployed voted for the Parties which promised to cut their unemployment pay be 10%.

On the other hand, Socialists do not barter their political support for doles or promises of other reforms. The notion that the revolution is being held up by the existence of the dole is nothing short of ridiculous. This notion found expression (in a typically confused fashion) in the general election of the Communist Party for 1929. On page 25 they declared that, "The capitalist class of this country have been compelled, as an insurance against revolution, to introduce many schemes for the amelioration of the conditions of the workers." This, notwithstanding that four pages earlier they had declared that "the struggle for reforms in the present period leads to revolution." However, the existence of the dole can hardly be blamed for the muddle-headedness of those imagine that revolution can be advanced by "struggling" for "insurances against it."

The mass of the workers, employed and unemployed, accept and support capitalism because they do not yet realise that it is based upon their own enslavement and robbery as a class.

They do not realise that wages and doles represent but a fraction of the wealth which they actually produce to-day, and which they could increase and enjoy to the fullest extent under a system based upon the common ownership of the means of living. They do not realise these things because they are slow to think; slow processes, however, have the advantage of being sure. Socialists rely upon the development of the workers' capacity to think, a development which is forced upon them by the incessant class struggle. That struggle grows more glaring and more intense with every step in industrial progress, and when the workers eventually recognise its existence as such, no dole or other reform, nor promises of reform, will cause them to deviate from the revolutionary path.

Sweeping aside the parties which depend upon this type of appeal, they will organise to establish their supremacy in society in order to refashion it in accordance with their needs.
Eric Boden