From the December 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard
Guardianistas and the Daily hate-Mail readers have been treated to a form of united front against the Blair government. Not over the continuation of homelessness, poverty, unemployment or the instability of the world; but over the Earth-shattering plans of the British government to permit larger casinos to be built as a part of their new Gambling Bill. The forces of British Puritanism, left and right, have shaken out their musty banners and unfurled them in righteous anger. The Mail even evoked the ghost of Old Labour in the same way as an aghast Lutheran would grasp a crucifix to ward off Dracula.
Their concerns are not all pious moralism about improvidence, nor solely anti-Americanist fears of Vegas firms muscling in on the British gambling scene. The redoubtable Polly Toynbee noted the possibility that the current 350,000 gambling addicts in the UK might rise to some 700,000; and that American research suggests that 6 percent of people living near casinos become addicts (Guardian, 20 October). Since many of the new casinos proposed would be part of regeneration schemes for run-down parts of the country this is likely to be rather counter-productive.
The government themselves are on the back foot over this. The Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, maintains fiercely that the bill will increase regulation of gambling – removing slot machines from small cafes and the like, creating an offence of encouraging children to gamble, etc. Ministers maintain that new regulations are needed to take account of new forms of betting, as via the internet, that weren't covered by the previous legislation from the 1960s, and that jobs will be created.
Sheen of gold
A clear indication of their thinking can be seen from the debate in Parliament, after which Jowell commented, regarding calls for tight regulation, that: “It's perfectly possible also that investors will find our regulatory regime just too tough because our over-riding concern will be protection of the public and protection of the vulnerable and children” (BBC interview). Quite how this can be squared with the possibility of more casinos being opened, more gambling happening and more profits being made is difficult to see, conceding as it does the profit motive behind the gambling industry.
The attraction for Ministers is that casinos, and their associated leisure facilities, attract money. They do not make money, since they cannot make it out of thin air, but it increases a form of circulation of money, drawing it into the areas where the casinos will be and, of course, when money circulates there is more opportunity for the Treasury to grab a slice. It would thus allow for new developments (more building of casinos and leisure parks), and more jobs – staff to work in the casinos and associated facilities. Tony Blair defended the Bill in the Commons on the grounds of new jobs – the traditional bribe politicians offer the working class to buy their support. It would provide the veneer of economic activity to run – down areas, without adding to the sum of wealth in the world.
That is, in short, that the Labour government has been taken in by the sheen of gold. Blinded by the bright lights of casinos and money both. Indeed, this is the very trick that the gambling industry lives by – the promise of infinite wealth. Money has no use in itself, save to buy other goods. The more money you have, the more it appears you can do with it.
As Marx noted in Capital :
[M]oney has no bounds to its efficacy, i.e., it is the universal representative of material wealth, because it is directly convertible into any other commodity. But, at the same time, every actual sum of money is limited in amount, and, therefore, as a means of purchasing, has only a limited efficacy This antagonism between the quantitative limits of money and its qualitative boundlessness, continually acts as a spur [to acquire more] (Volume 1, Chapter 3, Section 3).
Of course, gambling concerns want to make it appear easy to get hold of vast sums of money – the archetypal get-rich-quick scam. Who can blame those hundreds of thousands of people who gamble, from taking up this modern secularisation of Pascal's wager – choosing between the certainty of a life of scrimping by in poverty, versus the finite chance of (effectively) infinite riches?
Hence why casino operators want to install slot-machines with unlimited pay-outs. They want to offer the promise of a shot at the big time, and thousands upon thousands will pour their coins into such machines, because, one day, their turn will come and they'll strike it rich.
When capitalism was still young it set its face against such temptations. In his section on money Marx discusses how the urge to hoard produced an urge for thrift, spending as little as possible whilst selling as much as possible, living to acquire more money, rather than living to live.
The expanding capitalist class faced an obstacle in the increasingly redundant aristocracy. One of the features of the great lords was living off income from estates, simply having money fall into their laps from no effort (and a class structure that actively meant they couldn't go into business). They had nothing much else to do with their disposable income other than to consume and display their status – hence the ostentatious clothes of aristocrats in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. What they also did was gamble, tremendously, precisely because they had the means to do so, and because they were rapidly becoming economically redundant and had no useful outlet for such money.
It was this relationship that forged the stern-faced Puritanism that still informs the debate, the reflex reaction against the old class enemy – the feudal class. It is, of course, a feeling that comes despite the reality of modern day capitalism, and how much it has come to depend on gambling.
Some government supporters have accused the bill's opponents of being elitist kill-joys, for wanting to keep casinos as a preserve of the very rich, a luxury item. In reality, the vast majority are excluded from the main strands of gambling that go on, the gambling that is now at the heart of capitalism.
Financiers on the Stock Exchange regularly gamble on the price of stocks. For example, they will agree to buy stocks, bonds, etc. on a given date at a given price, in the hope/expectation that on that day the price agreed will be below the general market price, so they can immediately sell off for a vast profit. Millions of pounds are ‘won’ that way in rewards and bonuses, but no real wealth is produced. Increasingly, this is normal behaviour for financial companies, and on this sort of practise hang the pensions and benefits of millions of workers whose funds are in the gamblers' hands.
The likes of Nick Leeson, who borrowed and invested, inveigled and manipulated until (back in 1995) he bankrupted Barings bank – one of the oldest banking firms in the world – are the ones behind this system of gambling. Far from being a system of communicating vital market information, as some ideologues of capitalism maintain, it is a giant poker table where stock brokers bluff and counter bluff their way to fortune.
Gambling, though, is even a respectable business all of itself – the insurance industry. Every time someone buys insurance, what they are actually doing is placing a bet that their house will burn down, or their car explode, or that they die horribly of a heart attack soon, etc., and the insurance agency is betting against, and setting the odds. Of course, just as you never see a poor bookie, so too will you find insurance agents have ways of making sure they're not over exposed by their own gambling. When the going gets tough, insurance companies increase the premiums – that is, they shorten the odds they'll give.
This industry too lives by the illusions of money – that property has an immortal soul in the form of monetary value, which can be protected. The reality is that losses due to natural risk and hazard can only be replaced out of current production anyway – all insurance firms exist to do is to keep the property system immune to such shocks.
Much like the misery and pain that gambling problems cause on an individual or family level, so too do these corporate gamblers on a national and world level. Their mistakes and misfortunes ripple in seismic shocks throughout the whole of society. We are all of us asked to carry the costs for the risks the gambling addicted capitalists find themselves wanting to take. Gain is privatised, risks are socialised.
This has political ramifications as well, because the tantalising prospect of a way out, of a chance to get up the ladder, that things will change, means a great many people accept the status quo, and don't begin to see that they are the ones who will actively make the change, rather than it falling into their laps. This goes not just for the less well-off but also for politicians looking for painless quick fixes to the more intractable problems of our society.
The idea that money is a cure-all, that if we can roll some dice and enough of it will land to change the landscape of our lives is inherently disempowering. It is a part of commodity fetishism, the handing of the control of our lives to the mysterious power of marketable things, rather than seeking to master our own goods. Socialism is about seeing beyond the money trick to look at and administer the real wealth, so that we may take charge of our own environment, rather than wait for a changed figure in an accounting column to fall our way.
Of course, risk will always be with us, and we need to find ways of dealing with it: what we don't need is people trying to take a profit from the risk, or trying to avoid helping people when the going gets rough. We don't need to balance imaginary account books, only the productive capacity to deal with people's needs as and when they arrive.
Without money, the false dreams of gamblers become impossible. So if the Guardian and Mail readers are interested in opposing gambling, they should look not to casinos, but to the economic system that profits so much from it.