Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Letter from Ghana (1988)

From the April 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

Having now lived in Ghana for more than two months it is time to try and fit this totally new experience together with the socialist ideas I used to discuss (what seems like such a long time ago) at weekly meetings of The Socialist Party in Bristol. I came to Ghana with VSO, not so much to make a great contribution to the world's problems but for personal reasons. I wanted to travel to a third world country not as a tourist but to work. I wanted to change from the nine to five job that I had had in England for the last twelve years. So I ended up becoming a trainer with Ghana's National Service (not a military service but a compulsory community social service). training school leavers and graduates to do Primary Health Care, which largely means health education, in rural districts.

I now live in a very rural district myself in a pretty basic way. 1 live in a small village in the chiefs compound - no electricity and having to boil river water to drink, defecating in a pit (quite a luxury here) down a path which has to be carefully inspected for snakes.

I am sure that all of us advocating world socialism would find it useful to travel and live in the third world for a while to begin to understand some of the enormous problems facing the case for world socialism. We have to understand that the vast majority of the world's people come from very different starting points, not just geographically but differing social, economic and political structures and. most importantly, different ways of seeing the world.

The difference I think is most important here in Ghana has to do with people's sense of their own powerlessness. A terrible brand of fundamentalist Christianity has been laid on top of already existing traditional beliefs in the powers of ancestors and gods over the details of people's lives. Here is just one example: last week I was waiting for my Twi lesson and my teacher did not turn up (Twi is the local language). He is a trained teacher teaching at the local village school and I had just seen him the day before. He had not come, I was told, because his sister-in-law was very ill - someone had put a curse on her and he had to take her to the other side of Ghana to see a famous fetish priest.

One of the things I first noticed in Ghana was the absence of the political posters or graffiti that you see in so many foreign countries. Instead, everywhere are slogans about the power of God. the need to accept God's will and not to put your trust in humanity. In a country where the vast majority of people only live just above subsistence level there are perhaps many reasons why people do not concern themselves with national politics. When people here think of improving their material conditions it is in terms of managing to make a little more money by selling in the local market or by doing a deal with a friend rather than joining up with a group of people who advocate more radical change.

The Ghanaian government, the PNDC or Provisional National Defence council, under J.J. Rawlings is claimed by many to be a great improvement over previous governments and over many others in Africa. However, no elections have been held since he came to power in 1981. although this is supposed to be a transitional stage and local elections are to be held in October 1988. But candidates are to stand in their own right only and no parties are allowed. Candidates will be elected on the basis of local projects they propose - a new school or a new health centre perhaps. None will be seeking a more radical change. Since I have been here I have heard no one question this absence of political parties and in fact voter registration, which is to end at the end of this month. November 1987, is still at very low levels.

As far as I can discover new reformist policies in health, education and social services are in theory in the direction of greater fairness but there is no money to finance them. The poorest families still have to pay for schooling and medicines for their children. Of course this will change under socialism. Health care and education, as with everything else, will be freely available according to need, not ability to pay. However strongly I have argued in the past that a socialist system is both desirable and possible, I have had trouble enough to persuade my English friends. Here, I feel, it is even harder. 'Socialism', as it exists in this part of Africa, is the top-down imposed variety and often associated with the Eastern bloc or Libya.

Socialists maintain that the experience of capitalism as a member of the working class leads people to question the system. But here the subsistence farmer will not experience capitalism in the same sort of way. Although big business affects them - world cocoa prices, the cutting down of their forests for timber export - the connections are not clearly seen and most people's economic worlds revolve around their own small-holdings and market trading.

The women that I live with make peanut toffee and buy long bars of soap which they cut into pieces to sell. They sell to friends and relatives and one thing that 1 have come to understand is that buying and selling is about the best fun they have in their lives. There is none of the English embarrassment about money — several times people have quite unashamedly looked in my purse and cheerfully commented "You've got a lot of money in there”.

At the village level people do have experience of rich people. The chiefs of villages, especially if they have large farms, may be rich but their households, such as the one where I am living, may be filled with relatives who have almost nothing. In Ghana the chief's money is passed around when he dies - in ways that are studied by anthropologists - to his sister s sons.

Also I notice great divisions between the sexes and their roles. But even so this is not clear-cut for, although women do not own the land, they are involved in trading and as traders can become rich and powerful. In the household however, women work, cooking, caring for children, while the men sit chatting and drinking together, waiting for their food to be brought to them. I have talked to women about these hard-and-fast sex roles which seem, from my position, to mean a lot of hard work and drudgery for women and they smile at me good naturedly for having such strange ideas.

So the question I keep asking over and over again is. what needs to happen before people react to inequalities and oppression and begin to realise the possibility of a better world which they can bring into existence themselves? I wish I knew for Ghana and I wish I knew for Bristol - and whether the answers are different.
Naomi Roberts

About Books (1953)

Book Review from the April 1953 issue of the Socialist Standard

A man who was born and reared amongst a primitive people, who speaks their language fluently, who has been accepted and initiated into a high and respected rank in their community and who is a student of anthropology, such a man is in a remarkably good position to write of their history and social organisation. Mr. L. S. B. Leakey has all these qualifications to write of the Kikuyu people of Kenya and the Mau Mau organisation that has developed amongst them.

Mr. Leakey spent a number of years, working with Kikuyu elders, compiling a very lengthy and detailed book on these people, but the book has not yet found a publisher. Last year Mr. Leakey wrote a shorter book, now published by Methuen and Co. under the title “Mau Mau and the Kikuyu,” for 7/6d.

Since September, 1952, when the Kenya Government declared a state of emergency, the press in this country has told us of the murders and terrorist tactics perpetrated by Mau Mau without giving us much of an inkling why an erstwhile peaceable people have suddenly resorted to these measures, and for what object.

Mr. Leakey does not seek to explain the trouble in Kenya merely by reference to the present set-up. He takes us back to the misty origins of the Kikuyu tribe and traces their history briefly from those times to the present day. He leans very much to the idea of “the white man’s burden” and tries to whitewash the activities of the white colonists and their governments, a task which he obviously finds difficult.

Before their contact with white men the Kikuyu were an agricultural people living in the highlands of Kenya with a favourable climate and a fertile soil.
“. . . by the closing decades of the nineteenth century the early travellers and explorers of Kenya, describing Kikuyu land as they saw it. used such terms as ‘ as far as the eye could sec it was one vast garden.” (page 7)
Their social organisation was simple but highly effective. Land was held by families and sub-clans, the sub-clan being a sort of extended family. They had no chiefs; the head of the family was the senior man and the head of the sub-clan was an elected man chosen for his wisdom. But these heads had no arbitrary powers and any trading in land could only be done through consultation with the elders. Tenants on a piece of land did not claim property rights but only the right to cultivate it, and could be called upon to give it up subject to certain compensations.

The social administration was on a tribal basis and tribal councils were democratic. The marriage customs, education, religion and the system of magic were complicated but fitted in with the social conditions prevailing. Theft and immorality were practically unknown. The fear of social ostracism was sufficient to deter any possible wrongdoer. The religion, like all religions, was steeped in superstition but was peculiarly adapted to the conditions under which the Kikuyu lived.

Then came the white man at a time immediately following a tragic period in the history of these people, when they had been decimated by plague, famine and epidemics. The rest of the story is the age old one of the breaking down of primitive social organisation, the expropriation of the land and the creation of an army of wage workers with all the evils that capitalism brings in its train. The missionaries attacked the tribal religion and broke down the system of native education in favour of Christianity and capitalist ethics. The capitalist government took over the functions of the tribal councils. Many of the Kikuyu were rendered landless and reduced to abject poverty with none of their old security of livelihood.

Mr. Leakey tells us in simple words of the results: 
“At the same time the temptation to steal has increased a thousandfold. The needs of young men and women in the olden days were small, and they were met without difficulty by their own families. Young men, seeking to enhance their reputation with the girls, did so by deeds of bravery, by excelling at dancing, by being such good organisers or speech-makers that they were chosen by their fellows as leaders. Today, a young man, after initiation, feels that in order to make an impression with the girls, he must dress well in European clothes, must have a bicycle with a pillion to take his girl friends for rides, and so on. As he often cannot earn enough to fulfil this need for exhibitionism of the average courting male, the temptation to steal becomes measurably greater." (page 79)
Unemployment and hunger also drive these people to steal, and the breakdown of the tribal moral code removes the fear of social ostracism for theft. As the author tells us, under the old tribal conditions, thieving “ just wasn’t done.” Now it is.
“Under present day conditions, too, it often happens that the difficulties which face a young married couple are much more serious than in the olden days, and the circumstances are far less conducive to a happy marriage, so that many of these marriages break up. The woman is far from her people, and if she leaves her husband she often does not return to her home, but may join the ever increasing number of prostitutes in the towns or else make a semi-permanent liaison with some man to whom she is not married, either by native law and custom, or by Christian ceremony, or by ordinary civil marriage." (page75)
So with drunkenness, bribery, corruption and the rest. A few Kikuyu have become very wealthy, the majority have sunk to poverty that they never knew before.

Out of all this grew the Kikuyu political organisations; the Kikuyu Central Association, the Kenya African Union and finally Mau Mau. They threw up such men as Harry Thuku, Peter Koinage and Jomo Kenyatta. The suppression of the K.C.A. drove its members underground and gave rise to the present terrorist movement.

This is a useful, topical and easily read little book. The reader will find in it, not only the story of the Kikuyu but also the story of all primitive peoples when capital permeates their society. Despite the author’s reformist conclusions and his feeble apologies for the actions of capitalist governments, we can unhesitatingly recommend this book.

The Naked and the Dead,” by Norman Mailer was reviewed in The Socialist Standard in the July, 1950 issue. It is a very gruesome and ugly war bode of World War II with the scene laid in a tropical jungle island. We have nothing to add to the previous review. But it may interest readers to know that a cheap edition (by Allan Wingate, 8/6d.) is now available. Of its kind it is good.
W. Waters

Who cares who cares? (1988)

Editorial from the March 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

Stirring the public conscience became part of the entertainment industry some time in the early eighties. At first, unsuspecting viewers in leafy suburbs noticed nothing more harrowing than malnutrition and death thousands of miles away, and threw loose change at the spectacle. A vogue for tales of glue sniffing and dragon chasing in dank, inner city garages then led to terrible addiction to earnest debate among experts, a form of exorcism which suddenly made way for a string of fresh concerns. Somewhere between Crimewatch and Hospital Watch was sandwiched a feast for the gourmet voyeur: documentaries on the growth of child labour and teenage prostitution down among the marginalised; telethons on children in need (quite obviously of money); phone-in shows on emotional and sexual problems; a shocker on "granny farming", an everyday story of secondhand car dealers in the geriatric marketplace; endless films and chat on the despair of daily life among the unemployed, with whom the majority appear happily to co-habit provided no intercourse takes place; cameos on frozen or battered pensioners, racist attacks and supplementary benefit poverty; specials on the plight of the homeless in wastelands of property development; stomach-churners on child abuse-, and offerings from socially aware dramatists. Most of this output was probably forgotten somewhere between the bus stop and coffee break next morning, but not before millions had dug deep into their pockets and come up with yet more fluff for the less fortunate. The day of the armchair Samaritan had dawned, the Thatcherite model citizen who tends his or her mortgaged garden but finds time to toss a coin or two in the direction of the gutter. Sniffing the stench of capitalism's less public parts can create a warm glow inside, provided pegs are firmly on red noses and everything is at arm's length.

Throwing money at problems is not, however, the government's idea of compassion: they favour a variant called "value for money", an incantation heard whenever rigor mortis of the fist sets in. Translated into English and seasonally adjusted, it means the ability to spend the very minimum consistent with the efficient running of capitalism without being rumbled - a tricky operation carried out on the National Health Service since its inception but undertaken recently without the aid of anaesthetic. An increasingly healthy competition for beds, medical equipment and operating time has driven thousands into the caring arms of private medicine, whose sunlit wards full of flowers and smiling nurses welcome any chronically ill worker with enough of the life-blood of our civilisation. The overwhelming majority will, as always, have to settle for the grossly inadequate, a state of affairs they have grown to accept stoically as inevitable. Recognition that their lives are conditioned and restricted by their social class may strike at times of adversity, but not to the point of challenging the notion of commercial exploitation of care for human beings at their most vulnerable.

While the government's supporters are concerned that the crisis could seriously damage their political health, opposition to present policies is based largely on a mythology fostered by proponents of the Welfare State and its institutions. Seen through Labour party eyes, the deterioration of health care is attributable to a congenital heart defect in the Prime Minister, a condition strangely absent when they themselves took a knife to the service in the seventies. Their picture of the NHS as a humane oasis in a desert of cost accountancy simply does not tally with experience. Like any expectant father, Beveridge wanted nothing but the best for his child: "a comprehensive national health service will ensure that for every citizen there is available whatever treatment he requires, in whatever form he requires it". Recalcitrant from its birth in the madhouse, the poor kid in fact made treatment available to the sick only because it contributed, in the short or long run, to the production of profit and the accumulation of capital. Resources were always expensive and therefore scarce; waiting lists long and periodically cleansed of impatient corpses; doctors, like Caesar, give the thumbs up or down to those jockeying for life-saving technology; and infant mortality rates continue to be determined by factors of class and occupation.

In a society where reality can increasingly be mistaken for a series of fast-moving, interwoven images of fact and fantasy, it is hardly surprising that response to the distress of others is numbed or stifled. The pursuit of self interest has led not to harmony and satisfaction but a tidal wave of disillusion and mean values lightly sprinkled with a token concern. Who's for opting out?

The General Strike: A Weapon of Class War (2016)

From the May 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
On the 90th anniversary of the 1926 General Strike we look again at its lessons and at the uses and limitations of this class struggle tactic.
The General Strike lasted from 3 to 12 May in an attempt to defend the miners. It has been claimed that a significant proportion of the union leadership actually feared victory. ‘I am not in fear of the capitalist class. The only class I fear is my own,’ said J.R. Clynes of the General and Municipal Workers Union. Trade union leaders were not going to challenge the state even though as the strike continued, more and more control over the day-to-day functioning of society passed into the hands of the strikers. The TUC General Council betrayed every resolution upon which the strike call was issued and without a single concession being gained. The miners were left to fight the mine-owners, backed by the government, on their own.
Most commentators agree that the strength of the strike came from the solidarity of the grass-roots mass support and the weakness from above by an indecisive bureaucracy. ‘There’s never been anything like it. If the blighters o' leaders here dinnae let us down we’ll hae the capitalists crawlin’ on their bellies in a week. Oh boy, it’s the revolution at last,’ said one striker in Glasgow. Revolution was exactly what the trade union leaders didn't want. The General Strike had opened a Pandora's Box and in the words of NUR leader Charlie Cramp — ‘Never again!’ and said Ben Turner of the TUC General Council: ‘I never want to see another.’ The trade union activists' shock at the call-off was only matched by the employers' and government's unexpected surprise.  ‘A victorious army disarmed and handed over to its enemies,’ declared another Glasgow striker.
What We Said
The Socialist Party realistically understood that there was no immediate question of revolution. We favoured the general strike for the limited objective of exerting massive pressure upon employers to concede over pay or conditions. We had advocated:
 ‘. . . combined action by the workers to resist the wholesale onslaught by the masters upon wages and working conditions . . .  that the old sectional mode of industrial warfare was obsolete; that, while the development of industry had united the masters into giant combinations, with interests ramifying in every direction, supported at every point by the forces of the State, representing the entire capitalist class, the division among the workers, according to their occupations, led automatically to their steady defeat in detail. The only hope, even for the limited purpose of restricting the extent of the defeat, lay, therefore, in class combination... economic and political ignorance kept the workers divided and the defeats went on. Yet even worms will turn, and rats forced into corners will fight ...There is a limit even to the stupidity of sheep; and not all the smooth-tongued eloquence of their shepherds could prevent the flock from realising that they may as well hang together as hang separately.’
The Socialist Standard (June 1926) lamented the TUC's lack of strike plans:
‘As an expression of working-class solidarity the response of the rank and file was unquestionably unprecedented; but the long months, nay, years of delay found effect in the official confusion between ‘essential’ and non-essential occupations, the handling of goods by some unions which were banned by others and the issuing of permits one day which had to be withdrawn the next. Just prior to the strike the railwaymen were working overtime providing the companies with the coal to run their blackleg trains ...’
In particular, we urged the working class to learn the lessons of the General Strike:
 "The outlook before the workers is black, indeed, but not hopeless, if they will but learn the lessons of this greatest of all disasters. ‘Trust your leaders!" we were adjured in the Press and from the platforms of the Labour Party, and the folly of such sheep-like trust is now glaring. The workers must learn to trust only in themselves. They must themselves realise their position and decide the line of action to be taken. They must elect their officials to take orders, not to give them! ... It is useless for the workers either to ‘trust’ leaders or to ‘change’ them. The entire institution of leadership must be swept by the board." At the time we urged workers that they "must organise as a class, not merely industrially, for the capture of supreme power as represented by the political machine... The one thing necessary is a full recognition by the workers themselves of the hostility of interests between themselves and their masters. Organised on that basis, refusing to be tricked and bluffed by promises or stampeded into violence by threats, they will emerge victorious from the age-long struggle. Win Political Power! That is the first step.’
The general strike as a tactic
The possibility of a general strike keeps cropping up within the trade union movement. When we speak of the general strike we are not concerned with the general strike of a single trade union but of all workers. The movement is no longer a trade union movement but has become a class movement. For the general strike to succeed, the working-class must be convinced of the importance of the purpose for which it is declared. It must be shown that the aim is legitimate and victory is possible. The general strike cannot be a disguise for revolution, but simply the exercise of the right to strike on a wider scale and with a more clearly marked class character. The Socialist Party dismisses the idea that the general strike is a panacea for workers.
The idea of carrying through a social revolution by means of a ‘folded arms’ policy is romantic. A stoppage of production and transportation is not enough to bring about the overthrow of a society. Strikers will stand idly outside places of work, and even if the workers occupied and took possession of the factories and offices, it is a pointless exercise for they cannot function while the economy is suspended and production is stopped by the universal strike. So long as a class does not collectively own and control the whole social machine, it can seize all the factories and offices it wants to, but it really possesses nothing. The failure of a general strike involves real suffering, and discouraged and disconsolate, defeated strikers withdraw from the movement into passivity and apathy.  A general strike is ‘All or nothing!’ Workers should think twice about supporting such a gamble.
There are some who seek to transform a proposed general strike against austerity, for instance, into a political general strike, using the opposition to the cuts as the slogans to mobilise around. They expect that because of a sustained general strike the normal economic life of the country will be suspended, and there would be a total stoppage in distribution and in production. Naturally, workers would be forced to adopt more forceful methods in order to live. They would seize food and other provisions wherever they could lay hands on them. The ruling class would respond in kind with repression and so the general strike is envisaged to escalate into a revolutionary scenario. That is the idea of the ‘revolutionaries’. But this sort of strategy is a trick to delude the working-class. It proposes to drag them far beyond what was proposed. To imagine that a social revolution can result from misleading workers in such a manner is nonsense.
Although the general strike is quite powerless as a revolutionary means of liberation for the exploited class, nevertheless it is a potent warning to the capitalist class. It tells them if they are crazy enough to make the right to unite in trade unions and the right to strike empty forms, then a general strike may well be the shape that a labour revolt would take. It would be more as a means of damaging the enemy to save ourselves than a means of liberation. The trade union movement has proven itself to be a powerful instrument of a defensive character.
The strike weapon is the workers' only means of defence or attack which it has for the protection of its immediate material interests.  Working people are right to jealously guard the right to strike. While the Socialist Party fully supports this right for all workers, it is not our business to incite them to make use of it. It is not for us to urge or discourage strikes. It is for those immediately involved, those who will have to endure the consequences of their decision, to decide without pressure of any kind from outsiders. When those workers whose interests are at stake have decided upon a strike, other workers including socialists ought to aid them to gain every possible advantage from the situation in which they have placed themselves.
That is, generally speaking, what is and what should be the conduct of socialists so far as strikes are concerned. We acknowledge the strike as a weapon, but recognise that its effectiveness should not to be exaggerated and that it possesses limited power. Under favourable circumstances it may compel some employers to yield to union demands but it has never been able to produce any radical change in the capitalist system. Here or there some ameliorations have been achieved but they have not been incompatible with the increasing prosperity of capital.
The political expropriation of the capitalist class today is its economic expropriation tomorrow. To win for socialism the greatest possible number of partisans, that is the task to which the Socialist Party concentrates its efforts. What is necessary is to make socialists, to bring people's wills into harmony with a movement that seeks the election of more and more socialists to our various elective assemblies. The political expropriation of the capitalist class today can be its economic expropriation tomorrow and the transformation of wage labour to the free association of workers and common ownership.

After the holocaust (1988)

Book Review from the February 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Incomer by Margaret Elphinstone (Women's Press £3.95.)

Some of the best, and best written, accounts of moneyless societies are to be found in the pages of science fiction novels. Books such as The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin and Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy present convincing descriptions of egalitarian non-market societies. The Incomer doesn't rank with these, but does have some interesting comments on life without exchange relations.

The scene is an isolated village in the south of Scotland, after some vaguely alluded to holocaust, "when the world changed'. Industry seems to have vanished and agriculture has reverted to a subsistence level, with soils and seas recovering from pollution. The village. Clachanpluck. does make use of money in its dealings with other towns and villages but its internal functioning does without buying, selling and wages. Here are one character's comments when offered money in return for putting someone up:
'Well, thank you.' said Bridget doubtfully, looking at the coin as if it might bite her. 'I won't deny it might be useful. but I know that money is an evil thing, which can bind a person, so one remains in bondage to another. There's a powerful kind of magic to it. and it's done more harm in the past than can be told . . . I know too much about the past. They used money to win people away from their land They took their birthright from them and made them sell themselves for money.'
The mini-society of Clachanpluck is not socialist (socialist society will not be matriarchal, nor will we hound rapists to death) but the picture of a community based on co-operation and production primarily for use should make the reader reflect a little.
Paul Bennett

What's your class? (1988)

From the January 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

A worker's class position under capitalism is not determined by the particular function he or she carries out at work. If you depend for your existence either on a wage or a salary then you are a worker. In this respect it does not matter whether or not you are a carpenter or an architect; a nurse or a doctor.

Likewise a capitalist is not necessarily someone who goes into the Royal enclosure at Ascot or holds membership to the MCC. The capitalist's class position is determined by his or her ownership and control over the means and methods of production. Unlike the wage or salary-bound worker the capitalist lives off the exploitation of the worker through either rent, interest or profit. All other notions of class belong either to the meaningless realm of pop journalism (Sloanes and Yuppies) or to the more insidious. unscientific writings of academic sociology (class as a passive social hierarchy).

Both classes stand in antagonism to each other; both classes have diametrically opposite interests and it is the interests of the ruling class in terms of commodity production and profit that will always prevail. For workers, their sole interest and objective is in the abolition of commodity production and all the other paraphernalia of the economy, such as money wages, buying and selling, property rights and ownership. Nothing short of this objective will ever free the working class from their subject class position.

No matter what errors of judgement workers have made in the past or their current conscious or unconscious support for either private or state capitalism and the various political parties that administer them nothing can take away from the fact that they are the only agents who are capable of ending class society. The belief held by the left - an arrogant and insulting belief - that workers are either too stupid or irrational to establish socialism - says more about their own failings and ignorance than it does about the class they wish to lead. Essentially all that workers currently lack is an understanding of the class ownership of the means of production and their exploited place under it. Workers certainly do not lack intelligence or the capacity to reason since after all they run capitalism as well as design, invent, produce and construct everything in it. Furthermore The Socialist Party is itself evidence that workers can understand capitalism and work democratically for its abolition.

Workers may dream about escaping from their class position by doing the football pools, gambling or entering competitions to win a house or money. But it is a dream that for millions of workers will evaporate by Monday morning when they are forced to return to the factory, office or shop. Here as wage-slaves they will encounter, in their boredom and frustration, in their alienation and exploitation, a reminder of their place under capitalism.

Of course workers might temporarily place their faith in the illusion of "popular capitalism”. Workers might buy shares through unit trusts or in the de-nationalised industries like British Gas or BP but they will never own or control them; they might take on the responsibility for a mortgage or indeed own their house outright but they will never be in the position to live off property incomes; they might receive a few pounds each year on their fluctuating savings in a building society or a bank but they will never be able to stop selling their mental or physical labour-power for a wage or a salary. Workers are imprisoned within capitalism, exploited by private and state capitalism alike but have, through local and general elections, the means as class-conscious socialists to set themselves free.

Capitalism is not a natural, perennial system of commodity production but is instead a social system possessing a beginning and an end. Capitalism is by its very essence anarchic, unpredictable and prone to continual periodic crises. Capitalism does not progress either, but blindly stumbles around in circles. Capitalism has long lost its historical usefulness and it is now a matter of urgency that the working class should instead establish a rational social system based on common ownership and production for social need, for workers no longer have the luxury of time on their side.
Richard Lloyd

Economics Exposed: Fair shares? (1987)

The Economics Exposed column from the December 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

The plummeting of share values on October 19 of this year produced a lot of hot air, as pundits on all sides attempted to draw their political conclusions. Brian Walden, in a feature article defending the free market, warts and all, glibly referred to "capitalism's manifest superiority to socialism as a method of improving society" (Sunday Times, 1 November 1987). The Labour Party shadow cabinet produced a document stating that what was needed to avoid further trouble was "massive government intervention". And the CBI, at their Conference in Glasgow, made it a shocking crime to utter the dreaded word "crash", referring instead to a range of terms such as "adjustment". "nosedive", "the problem", "the events of the past few days" and "the latest squalls '.

There were two types of people who were immediately affected by the wiping of about 25 per cent off of the share prices at the London Stock Exchange in the course of a week. On the one hand, there were those for whom losing a quarter of the value of their shares meant losing millions, or very many thousands of pounds. Of course, they still had three quarters of the value of their shares, which would have been worth even more millions! Moreover, at the time of writing, share prices appear to be regaining a large part of their former value. For the people in this first category, socialists would not have shed any tears. They are a small minority who live comfortably on the backs of the rest of us. Most big capitalists would not have been affected by such a hiccup. Their privileged lifestyle smugly continued regardless of the panic by workers on their bosses" behalf.

We can sympathise rather more with the second group of people who were affected during that week. Many workers have been persuaded in recent years to buy shares in industries which had previously been nationalised. The government claimed it was taking these industries out of the hands of the state bureaucracy (which Labour had indeed falsely equated with "the people") and handing them over to ordinary people themselves. Of course, there was one snag. Most people are workers and therefore lack the cash to buy more than a handful of shares at the most. All the rhetoric about ordinary people becoming "capitalists" overlooks this simple fact.

To be a real capitalist you would require the cash to buy such shares in hundreds of thousands. Dividends paid on shares tend nowadays to be in the region of, say, 20p a share annually. While this provides the owner of a million shares with a nice unearned income of some £4,000 a week (making it a matter of choice whether to bother to go to work or not), the worker who has proudly bought 400 shares, for example, would receive £1.60 a week; hardly enough to retire on. It is an obvious but rarely stated fact that somebody can have a small "stake" in an enterprise, even with some minimal voting rights or control, but it is the size of the stake they can afford which dictates their position in society, their class and therefore their condition of life. And no reforms proposed by any of the political parties can even attempt to deal with this ultimate inequality at the roots of capitalism.

Beyond this aspect, several other problems have emerged from the great privatisation "sell-off" bonanza of recent years.
Largely as a result of these policies, the number of adults in Britain who own any shares has increased from 7 per cent in the late 1970s to 15-20 per cent today. But that still leaves four out of five adults with no shares whatsoever. There is every possibility that the number of shareowners will once again fall below 10 per cent, particularly after recent events.
Within the small minority who own shares, there is a much smaller minority who monopolise the bulk of all shares. About four fifths of all privately held shares are owned by less than one per cent of the population.
Of all the shares bought in recent "privatisation" issues such as the Trustee Savings Bank. British Gas and even British Telecom, a substantial proportion have already been cashed in again, with more shares gradually falling, predictably, into fewer hands. In many cases workers had saved a few hundred pounds and found that they needed that money back again after a year or two to help with household expenses, for which they had no other resources to fall back on. In other cases the intention was to make a quick (and very small) profit, then withdraw. The proceeds will hardly finance a life of leisure. Real capitalists do not have to sell their entire investment portfolio some months after acquiring it.

It is the people in this second category whose recent position was tragic. In some cases, workers had put their life savings into projects promoted by the government's smooth-talking advertisers only to watch their modest nest-egg eaten into during one week by the fluctuations of the business casino known as the Stock Exchange. During the television coverage of the October "crash", some investment analysts actually came on (rather too late) and said that it really was "not right" for the "very small investor" (the worker) to get too involved in the risks of share investment in the way that the big investors are able to and that the dramatic fall in share prices might serve as a warning and lesson to such people.

The real lesson, however, is that such wild commercial fluctuations show us the true nature of the capitalist economic system. Based on competition for profits throughout the world market, capitalism is unpredictable, uncontrollable and unable to meet human needs securely. The mass media had a field day, getting excited about their tedious obsession with share price indexes minutely fluctuating in a way that was of little immediate interest to most viewers. It was nearly as bad as the boring hysteria of the election coverage during the summer. What they failed to point out, though, was that such "strange" developments have happened before and will happen again, because of the very nature of world capitalism itself. They will happen under Brian Walden’s "free market" and under the "massive government intervention" which the shadow cabinet waffled on about. Nobody can predict when such problems might happen again, or find any way to avoid them.

The price of shares in a company can respond to subtle changes in business "confidence”. In a sane, socialist society the only pointers will be human needs on the one hand, and the real resources available for meeting those needs, on the other. The only “confidence" to be concerned about would be our vital confidence in our own ability to work together co-operatively to meet our needs. That ability certainly exists.

The temporary failure of "confidence" which found expression on October 19, on the other hand, was a failure of confidence in the secure, continued flow of profit into the bank accounts of the parasite class in society. They seem to have picked up since then, and persuaded themselves that there is nothing to worry about. Shall we prove them wrong?
Clifford Slapper