A Short Story from the March 1958 issue of the Socialist Standard
Scene: Speakers’ Corner:
Time: The present (although basically it could be anytime back to 1904). Socialist speaker addressing audience from platform.
Socialist speaker: . . . under Socialism, when the means of wealth production and distribution will be common property, all goods will be produced solely to satisfy human needs, and will be freely available to all . . .
Questioner: Rubbish! There wouldn’t be enough to go round.
Socialist speaker: There isn’t enough to go round now because, under capitalism, goods are not produced primarily to satisfy needs, but for sale and profit. A superabundance of any commodity (such as wheat in U.S.A. and Canada) is likely to mean a drastic fall in price and possible ruin for the capitalist; hence production is curtailed and goods even destroyed to keep the price up. Capitalism is not a system of plenty, it is one of organised shortage.
Questioner: But suppose everyone wanted a Rolls Royce car or a yacht under Socialism? You don’t mean to tell me that there would be enough for everyone to have one?
Socialist speaker: It's always yachts and Rolls Royces, never water, wheat, or bricks. Why? Probably because ninety-nine per cent. of workers will never be in a position to own either a Rolls or a yacht; owning these symbols of luxury is a sort of pipe-dream workers indulge in, like winning £75,000 on the “pools.” Rich people don’t waste their time worrying about owning these things—they don’t have to. They may own a Rolls, they may run a yacht, or a magnificent mansion full of servants, but what do a lot of them tell us? Why, that their needs are very simple—they boast of living on orange juice and salads, and ordering their lives like trappist monks. Indeed, some seem only too glad to get away from their Rolls Royces and get about on horse-back. Anyway, why would you want to own a Rolls Royce?
Questioner: Because its the best car in the world, and you yourself said earlier on that only the best would be produced under Socialism.
Socialist speaker: You’ve been reading those classy adverts., I can see! Ignoring for a moment the question of whether Rolls Royces could be turned out like Fords (and there’s no real reason why they could not be), what about owning a car at all? You ask any commercial traveller who spends a large part of his day behind the wheel of a car under modern traffic conditions—I’ll bet he would be only too pleased to wave goodbye to his car for ever, if he could. It’s like the story of the sailor who had spent all his life at sea and was fed up with it: his ambition was to walk inland carrying an oar, and to settle at the first place where someone asked him what it was he was carrying. Luckily people like a change, and not all want the same things.
Questioner: Let’s get back to the point. If goods under Socialism are free, surely people will demand more of everything?
Socialist speaker: Don’t you think that the millions living in poverty throughout the world (especially in places like India and Egypt) should have more?
Questioner: Oh yes, but there are millions of others who are used to better living standards—they would want much more than just having enough rice and a roof over their heads.
Socialist speaker: You mean that in “civilised” countries we are constantly bombarded by advertisements on hoardings, in newspapers, buses, and tube-trains, and on television, all telling us that we must own the commodities they advertise at the risk of social, or even physical, death. You’ll lose your girl-friend if you don’t wash with a certain soap or brush your teeth with the new, pink, toothpaste; and who had heard of “night starvation” before the advertisers told us how it could ruin our career, our marriage, and our life generally? Even in Lambeth the Jones must keep up with the Robinsons; their pram must be as big and shiny, and they, too, must have a T.V. aerial, even if there isn’t a T.V. set at the other end. It is plain that a lot of the “demand” today has been artificially created, and would be non-existent under a sane order of society.
Questioner: But even so, wouldn’t the greedy people take more than their share, after all, it’s only human nature . . .
Socialist speaker: Human nature! Oh, what terrible crimes have been committed in your name! To answer your question about “greedy" people with a timely example: Christmas is not long past—most workers indulged in a brief orgy as slight compensation for a year’s scrimping and scraping to get along. Houses were stocked up with expensive food and drink—everyone ate their fill, and then? Why, after Boxing Day, turkey became more and more unpopular, and anyone was welcome to the drink. See my point? Take another example—water is vital to life, and it is to all intents and purposes free. But because of this, people don’t go round filling themselves up with water until they burst. Shortages tend to make people scramble for more than they really need—remember the ridiculous rushes at the shops when sweets first came off the ration but were still in short supply? Some people hoarded pounds of sweets, not because they particularly wanted them, but because they were frightened there suddenly wouldn’t be any left. As a matter of fact, there have been recent experiments in American prisons which prove this point—do you read the Sunday Times?
Questioner: I haven’t time to read those big papers—too much in them.
Socialist speaker: In an article about the American penal system in the issue of 8th December, H. Montgomery Hyde, M.P., wrote about this new experiment he had seen working in several prisons he had visited. He noticed stacks of packets of cigarettes to which the inmates were invited to help themselves, free of charge. Mr. Montgomery Hyde wrote: “I was told that this had put an end to the illicit operations of the former “tobacco barons,” and that the amount of smoking had actually declined in consequence.”
Questioner: I don’t see the point of bringing all that in.
Socialist speaker: Don’t you? 1 think we can agree that convicts are less likely to act in a social manner than, say, a group of policemen. . . .
Questioner: Oh! no, we can’t!
Socialist speaker: Well, don’t let’s argue about that. The point is that tobacco is very scarce in most prisons—in fact, most convicts are not allowed any at all. The result of making it freely available was that the men were no longer worried about where their next smoke was coming from: although the cigarettes were free, the convicts apparently smoked less rather than more, as you might have expected them to.
Questioner: Yes, I see your point. But how will we produce enough under Socialism? Who will do the work?
Socialist speaker: Well, that’s another question, and as someone over on this side of the meeting was asking earlier about who would do the “dirty work” under Socialism, perhaps I can deal with both these points together. . . .
Michael La Touche