From the July 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard
- Have you got a bank account?
- Yes.- Do you draw interest on it?
- Yes.- Then you must be a capitalist.
The above exchange is typical of the confusion arising from the complexities of modern capitalism, its highly sophisticated credit system of banks, building societies, unit trusts, charge-cards and mortgage brokers. The number of cheque book holders runs into many millions and if mere possession of one made its owner a capitalist, there would not be enough people left to be workers.
Nevertheless, the question of cheque books and bank interest does mislead lots of workers. In the "good old days" when wages were around one pound a week it was instantly obvious that unemployment, sickness or another baby were major disasters - except for wealthy people. Nowadays, the "Welfare State" ropes us all into compulsory insurance, PAYE, housing benefits. Family Income Supplement - covering us from the "womb to the tomb." The government spends 40 per cent of its budget on social welfare; in 1890 it spent just 7 per cent. This 40 per cent goes to keep the workers quiet - and still does not succeed.
As a result, many workers are desperately concerned about the fate of British Leyland. or British Rail or British Gas. They think these are "our" industries because they voted for the government which runs it. They squabble about high or low taxes. The reformist parties vie in promising tax reductions Many workers quite sincerely believe it is our country and our industry and are in favour of low wages to help British products compete abroad.
It is not the possession of a cheque book, which these days can be obtained by banking just a few pounds, but how much the cheque book represents which counts (literally). To be a capitalist, one must be able to live without working for someone else - be free from the necessity of paid employment
Dictionary definitions of a capitalist are fair enough:
OXFORD: A possessor of capital or funds used in production.
NUTTALL: One who possesses capital, one of large means.
ODHAMS: One who possesses capital on which he may live.
PENGUIN: One who has accumulated wealth and makes it available for business.
As always, nobody has put it better than Karl Marx, who defined capital as "Wealth used to create more wealth with a view to profit " Being a capitalist allows a life-style with all the appurtenances of wealth: a country house and an apartment in town, a couple of cars, a fashionable social life, children at public school, travel abroad.
The workers' money is income — the capitalists' is transferable wealth. This also applies to corporate funds. A member of SOGAT or the NUM cannot claim a personal share of the funds but only membership benefits under rule. Supposing SOGAT to have £10 million funds and 10,000 members. A member retiring or resigning cannot withdraw £1.000. A trade union is not a limited liability company or a bank The funds are vested in the organisation, not in individual members.
All trade union investments in shares, stocks, banks, building societies, unit trusts and the Co-op Bank have to be reported to the Inland Revenue and inspected by the Registrar. Interest and dividends paid into union funds and all accounts must be audited and passed by professional accountants. Legislation was introduced when it transpired that some union accounts were badly run.
Redundancy payments will not set many workers on the high road to capitalist opulence. It is possible, after a life time of employment, to receive something like £20,000. One of the highest safe interest rates available is 10 per cent in a building society, producing less than £40 a week not much compensation for the loss of a wage of say £150 a week.
While it is true that exceptionally talented or fortunate individual workers do sometimes manage to claw their way out of the working class the prospect of many doing so is non-existent. The notion that the problems of capitalism can be solved by the workers becoming capitalists, even "small" ones, through Thatcher’s "caring capitalism", is like telling mice to start chasing cats.