Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Get it Straight in 1958 (1958)

From the January 1958 issue of the Socialist Standard

Everybody knows that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line: a simple, unanswerable, self-evident proposition. Who, then, could fail to think and act on it? Well, in the matter of getting Socialism almost everybody acted otherwise. It remained for small bodies of Socialists, like those who formed the S.P.G.B., to insist that the straight line from capitalism to Socialism is the shortest way and the only way. This takes us back to old arguments that have largely been forgotten but which ought to be remembered and studied by all who want Socialism.

What was needed ?
In the earlier days of the Socialist movement there were men and women who had the Socialist idea and knew what was needed, but who rejected the S.P.G.B. They did so for reasons that seemed to them convincing. They agreed that, for the fundamental social change, there must be a Socialist majority, politically organised, gaining democratic control by taking the machinery of government out of the hands of the capitalists. But when they looked at the workers who had to be won over to Socialism they were dismayed. They saw millions of men and women, ignorant of Socialist principles, harassed with problems of getting a living, supporting the Liberal and Tory parties, dazzled by monarchy, loving a Lord, and awed by the power, wealth and knowledge of the rich. It would, they said, take half a century to turn this depressing human material into a political army for Socialism. What was needed was a quicker way. Something must be done immediately to ease the hardships of the poor and improve capitalism, and in the course of doing this the grateful workers would turn readily to Socialism. So they said to the S.P.G.B.: “You mean well and your case is logical, but logic is not enough. The slow, hard progress on the direct, uphill road to Socialism is theoretically right, but impossible in practice. Human beings being what they are we must leave the straight road and come back later on.”

The Bye-ways of Social Reform
So they laid their plans and revised their programmes. They undertook to keep the great Socialist objective before their eyes, though rather a long way off, but would, for the moment, concentrate on the day-to-day practical things, like minimum wages, old age pensions, abolishing war, getting rid of the Monarchy and the House of Lords. Naturally this would take a lot of energy away from propagating Socialism, and meant turning aside from the main road to go into bye-ways; but only for a time, they said. Then, with an invigorated working class behind them, happier and freed from the worry of war, they would come back to the high road and prove to the S.P.G.B. that the roundabout way was the quickest in the end.

Time to take stock
Now the temporary turning aside into the bye-ways has gone on for half a century and we can examine it again in the light of experience. What do we find? The promised reforms we have in plenty, contributed by Liberal, Tory and Labour Governments in profusion, though without weakening capitalism. But something has gone wrong with the plan. Instead of being freed to come back to the main job of getting Socialism, the Labour Party is now wholly absorbed in trying to win still more reforms, many of them the same ones that they promised to introduce quickly at the beginning. Now they are arguing about which kind of reformed House of Lords we are to have; about ways of modernising the monarchy; about further plans for getting the trade unions under Labour Government to accept “wage restraint”; about whether to fight wars with or without the H bomb.

If they had been the Tory Party, aiming to keep capitalism going as long as possible and willing to make concessions in the shape of social reforms to dissuade the workers from demanding Socialism, it could be said that the original plan had worked very well indeed. But some of the early supporters of the Labour Party genuinely did not look at it in that way. They really did aim at Socialism. But the attractive side roads or social reform led only into the morass of capitalist politics and now they are hopelessly bogged down in it. They have not come back to the high road that leads to Socialism. They have forgotten all about the road and the objective at the end of it.

A striking case in point is the fate of what was perhaps their best proposal, to get good, cheap houses for the workers. The intention was admirable and it seemed especially attractive because many Liberals and Tories were prepared in the interest of efficiency to support it, too; at least they appeared to be willing. Indeed it was a Liberal-Tory government that first introduced rent control and the Labour Party was glad to support it. Then the Labour Party found that the purpose of that Coalition government measure in 1915 had a snag: it was not intended to be low rents with high wages, but low rents to make it possible to keep wages down. Such an idea had not entered the heads of the early Labour Party advocates of rent control, but when the Labour Government came to administer capitalism in 1945 they convinced themselves that the “economic situation” (that is, the economic situation of British capitalism) left them no alternative but to link rent control with the late Sir Sir Stafford Cripps’ “wage restraint." That was one bitter pill that they swallowed. Now events have forced them to swallow another, for they have discovered that rent control, by keeping rents below an “ economic level" makes it not worth while for landlords to keep homes in repair, so that slums have been produced in the past 12 years at a rate faster than when the Labour Party began. They have, therefore, like the Tories, abandoned rent control. As the Manchester Guardian rightly says:—
  “Rent control—the freezing of the rents paid to private landlords for house property—has no serious defenders as a policy for present application. Notwithstanding its rash promise to 'repeal' the Rent Act, the Labour Party has long recognised that the need to conserve our decaying stock of houses makes a change of policy imperative, and that whether the new policy be Conservative or Socialist, rents must go up." —(Manchester Guardian, 5/12/57).
Now the Labour Party is back where it started, looking for another cure for the housing problem within capitalism. But it is not just the housing reform that has misfiled, it is the whole theory of social reform as a means of getting Socialism. Capitalism nullifies them all and thwarts the reformers' intentions. The reformist policy has not brought Socialism nearer and it has destroyed what socialist interest there was originally in the minds of those who joined the Labour Party to get Socialism. The Party that was to show the S.P.G.B. how to reach Socialism quickly has become merely Her Majesty's Official Opposition, an alternative government for capitalism. Even for the purpose of getting concessions from the propertied class they were wrong. As the S.P.G.B. maintained at the time, if the energy devoted to reforms had been used instead to build up a militant Socialist movement the propertied class would have hurried forward with reforms in the hope, though a vain one, of buying it off.

The shortest distance between two points is still a straight line.
Edgar Hardcastle

Notes By The Way: Robbing the Thrifty (1958)

The Notes By The Way column from the January 1958 issue of the Socialist Standard

Robbing the Thrifty

Elsewhere in this issue (Fifty Years Ago) two contrasting quotations are given, the first relating to the vast army of people who, forty years ago, were dependent on the Poor Law and the second a quotation from Colin Clark about the 1,700,000 now receiving National Assistance. As he says, the so-called Welfare State has done little more than change the name from Poor Relief to National Assistance.

His main point is, however, the way in which Labour and Tory Governments, by steadily raising the cost of living—60 per cent. since 1947—have whittled away the purchasing power of savings and fixed pensions.
  “While the social services are handing out benefits to some, the Government, through its financial policy, has been robbing the meagre savings of the humble and the weak and driving them back on to the bread line. Not a record to be proud of."
While this was happening to the humble and weak the rich and powerful had great opportunities for adding to their wealth through the rise of prices of company shares and properties of all kinds. Many great new fortunes have been made under the “Welfare State,” while the governments, the Trades Union Congress and the National Savings Committee were preaching thrift to those who could least afford it, and deploring the growth of gambling and football pools.

The Savings Racket in Russia

If the Labour and Tory governments in Britain have whittled away the value of savings by their policy of raising the cost of living, the government in Russia has achieved the same end by much more drastic methods.

In 1947, when they revalued the currency, issuing new currency in place of the old (but much less of it) they cancelled one-third or one-half of all deposits in Savings Banks above 3,000 roubles (about £143), and cancelled two-thirds of the face value of most State bonds. Thus, the worker who had invested £100 found himself owning only £33.

Earlier this year a still more drastic action was taken, particulars of which were given in Soviet News (10th April, 1957). published by the Russian Embassy in London. (See also Economist, 20th April, 1957.) The announcement was made by Mr. Krushchev. He stated that the total amount of loans outstanding was 260,000 million roubles (about £24,000 million), so that the cost of the tax free lottery prizes paid out on the bonds in place of interest must have been nearly £900 million a year, an amount much bigger than the cost of interest on the British National Debt.

Mr. Krushchev blandly explained that the Russian government has decided to raise no more loans, and as this could not be done “unless the payment of winnings and redemptions on the previous loans was suspended at the same time,” the government also proposed to postpone the payment of winnings for a period of 20 to 25 years.” Instead, they would repay the 260,000 million roubles at the rate of about 13,000 million roubles a year (about £1,200 million), but without interest or lottery prizes until the end of 25 years.

Mr. Krushchev did not say that the Russian government was going to do this: they were merely proposing it. and would only carry it out if the Russian workers approved! The same issue of Soviet News reported that the Russian workers had approved.

The suggestion of the Economist as to the reason for this move is that the size and cost of the debt had become so large (nearly half the annual budget) that it had become “a real burden” on State finances. The British Chancellor of the Exchequer must be envious of his Russian opposite number's freedom of action.

The Elusive "Middle Class” Again

In the Observer (1/12/57) Mr. Alan Day had an article on “Inflation and the Middle Classes,” discussing whether it is true, as some Tories say, that “the middle classes” have suffered more harshly from inflation than have other people.

He agreed that “one section” have undoubtedly been badly squeezed—"the pensioners and other retired people living on fixed-money incomes." He also agreed that the same is true of “the elderly working classes," but with the difference that the former have been on a higher standard of living and therefore have farther to fall before they can qualify for national assistance.

Apart from this, Mr. Day believes that the "middle classes" as a whole have not been badly hit, though some of them (he mentions "classics masters” as an example) have suffered because they are less in demand than they used to be. The others have had their salaries raised with the cost of living, though, as Mr. Day points out, it is done with less publicity than the raising of wages of railwaymen. dockers, etc.

But what is of more interest is what Mr. Day means by "middle classes." He deals in the main with people who sell their mental and physical energies, just like dockers, but who call their pay salaries instead of wages. In short, they are members of the working class, and the name "middle class" is inapplicable.

Mr. Day admits this. He confesses that he cannot define the term and writes:—
  “The only possible definition is that people are in the middle class when they think they are.”
But surely the remedy is too simple. If people can belong to a non-existent class merely by thinking that they belong to it, all they have to do about their problem of low pay is to think that their pay isn’t low. Or, since they think the working class are better off, why not think themselves into the working class? Or, better still, why not "think" instead of day-dreaming? Think about capitalism and their working class status in it; then think about Socialism, in which they would be able to live and work as intelligent members of a free society, no longer hag-ridden by notions about class.

One in Ten Americans is a Slum Dweller

Under the above heading the Daily Mail reports a survey made in America by the magazine "Fortune."
  “To-day, some 17,000,000 Americans live in dwellings that are beyond rehabilitation—decayed, dirty, rat-infested, without decent heat or light or plumbing.”
The Daily Mail says that, according to the survey, in America’s biggest and richest cities like San Francisco, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Houston, the number of people crowding into slums is growing proportionately faster than the population of the city as a whole.

The major reason for the slums is said to be "prosperity itself,” because, as jobs are to be had, people come in from small towns and farms, the South, and Puerto Rico.

Horizontal Alcoholics

Many writers have used the theme of a visitor from another planet as a means of taking a fresh look at the imbecilities of our world. Naturally, he cannot see any more or any deeper than his creator and most of the creators, being accepters of the present structure of society, have seen the odd little evils and missed the accustomed big ones. All the same, a visitor from another planet which had a developed capitalist system, and who was blind to the major evils of capitalism, might well blink at some of the crazier activities of official and unofficial legislators and moralisers. A latest example comes from Washington, U.S.A., and was reported in the Daily Telegraph (30/11/57).

Because the local legislature believes "that people are liable to drink more standing up," they made a law requiring that people who want to drink in public must do so sitting down.

The local Restaurant proprietors do not like this and want the few repealed. They point out that, to escape the law, drinkers pop over into Maryland, "where they can drink standing up. This means they can escape tipping."

Until some years ago there was another law which ruled that drinks had to be mixed out of sight of the customers, "so that non-drinkers would not be tempted. It was changed when some bartenders were found making Martinis with olives which customers had left in their glasses."

It recalls the Defence Regulation that at one time made it illegal to treat other people to drinks. (Or is it one of those many laws that exist still but are ignored?).

Does the Washington law allow the customers to take their drinks lying down?

New York Stock Exchange and the British Labour Party

The Daily Herald in a leading article (25/11/57) smugly reports that the President of the New York Stock Exchange—“no Socialist he”—has borrowed from the British Labour Party the idea of government investment in company shares, for that is what he is advising the American government to do "for small firms that need money to grow bigger.”

According to the Herald this proves that "the temple of private enterprise in Wall-street ” has been forced to go in for "public enterprise,” "because it is necessary for the efficiency of industry.”

We are not much concerned with the Herald’s belief that boards of directors will be more efficient and careful when handling government money than when handling shareholders' money, except to say that it is difficult to think of any single reason why it should be so.

What interests us more is that the Herald should so easily manage to get the thing upside down. When the temple of capitalism borrows an idea from the Labour Party all it shows is what queer ideas the Labour Party has, and how much the Herald has changed since its early days when it would have scoffed at the proposal.

A Straw in the Wind

The General Secretary of the Communist Party, Mr. John Gollan, in his report to his executive committee after his visit to Moscow, referred to the question of "Unity of the Socialist Parties and the Communist Parties.” (Daily Worker, 2/12/57.)

Mr. Gollan and the British Communist Party will now and for as long as the instruction holds, describe the British Labour Party as a Socialist Party, likewise the Labour parties in other countries. It was not always so. In 1929 the Communist Party’s election programme "Class Against Class” had this of the Labour Party
  “This Party is the third capitalist party. It lays claim to the title of Socialist Party, but has nothing to do with Socialism.”
At other times they have called the Labour Party social fascists and similar abusive names. Is it that the Labour Party keeps changing? Not at all. It merely means that the Russian government wants a new tactic to be employed towards the Labour Party so overnight it becomes a "Socialist party.” Who knows what it will be called by the end of 1958.
Edgar Hardcastle

50 Years Ago: Vast Army on Poor Relief (1958)

The 50 Years Ago column from the January 1958 issue of the Socialist Standard
  “There is a vast army of men and women wretchedly poor, living under abject and squalid conditions, and existing on a pittance eked out by the poor rate and private charity.” (Statement by Home Secretary, quoted in Socialist Standard, January, 1908.)
Vast Army on National Assistance (1958)
  “We make a lot of silly statements about our so- called Welfare State, in which poverty has been abolished and provision made for everyone. But the number of people on Poor Relief (we now call it National Assistance, but this is only a change of name) now number 1,700,000, nearly as high as the figure for the worst depression years, and very much higher than it was in the years before 1914. when practically none of our present social services were in existence.”

[The economist, Colin Clark, in The Cost of Living, p. 7.]

The Managerial Society Part Three — Fabian Version (1958)

From the January 1958 issue of the Socialist Standard

Management is a nice neutral word to describe capitalist property relations. It has no harsh ring of class antagonism, no hint of social conflict. The word is greatly in favour with Tories and Labourites. Once Labourites talked about capitalism and even hard-faced capitalists, but that was long ago. Now, according to the new Fabians, capitalism has gone, and capitalists— including the hard-faced ones—have been displaced from power by—Management. Some of the new thinkers now refer to capitalism in the past tense, just as historians refer to Rome or feudalism.

Capitalists without Capitalism
Although capitalism has gone, vide Crosland and others, capitalists still linger on, presumably through sheer inertia. It appears, however, that they are but vestigial survivals in the socio-economic body, like the appendix. Time and the managed enterprise plus State planning will wither them away. Actually it was not the new Fabians who pioneered the notion of a departed capitalism, but an old-time Labourite, Mr. Morrison, who in a more remote past used to talk in an old-fashioned way about the capitalist system. Nevertheless with the return of the 1945 Labour Government—which he regarded as a “victory for Socialism,” he declared: “The Labour Party does not propose to abolish the profit motive” (Observer, 28/10/46). In the same speech we were told the “new order” would be based on the recognition that “Management must in future recognise Labour as a service and not as a commodity.” He added that “this new status of the worker would, however, involve new duties as well as new rights.” It may be recorded that, “The victory for Socialism” was unblemished by any attempt of counter-revolution on the part of the capitalists.

To show that by 1948 class antagonism had been abolished, Mr. Morrison in another speech (Observer, 14/3/48) assured us that
  “The modern worker is or should be a responsible partner in industry . . . knocking at the manager’s door with ideas and suggestions.”
After that it was easy for Mr. Morrison to define Socialism as
  “The assertion of social responsibility for matters which are properly of social concern.”
This, of course, is crass confusion. The terms social and Socialism do not mean the same thing apart from the fact that both are derived from society. Anything from the issuing of licences to the supervision of brothels can be of social concern, but they have nothing to do with Socialism, which means the establishment of a social organisation based on free and social access to the agencies of production and distribution.

Enter the New Fabians
After this the new Fabians began to feverishly explore the “new social order” via the New Fabian Essays. Mr. Anthony Crosland, one of the contributors, is certain that capitalism has been abolished. What he isn’t certain about is the form of society which has replaced it, so he plumps for calling it “Statism,” and it becomes his version of the Managerial Society. All it amounts to is the fact that vast units of capital and the enlargement of the State’s economic functions have replaced the laissez-faire capitalism of the 19th century. But even laissez-faire was not a universal feature of capitalism. The U.S.A., Germany, Italy, Japan, etc., all began as capitalist countries, with marked State intervention, so there must be some feature more fundamental to capitalism than laissez-faire. If, of course, State intervention into the economic life of a country is “Statism,” or ” Socialism,” as the new Fabians hold, then the countries just mentioned have never had capitalism. Such are the startling conclusions drawn from the logic of Mr. Crosland.

It is a Marxist commonplace and acutely analysed long ago by Engels, that the growth of monopoly capital is a logical development from laissez-faire. Thus we can say —capitalism is dead, long live capitalism. If the elastic and highly competitive character of 19th century capitalism led by its very nature to monopolistic forms, this does not mean that competition has been eliminated, but, on the contrary, re-enacted on a vaster scale.

Old Fallacies of New Fabians
Because Crossman, Crosland, Roy Jenkins, Albu, and other Fabians believe, as did old-time Fabians, that State economic activity is Socialism, and because they limit capitalism to mean merely the uninhibited free play of market forces, for them State enterprise and the existence of huge formations of monopolistic and semi-monopolistic capitals is the negation of capitalism. Having restricted the content of capitalism to mean laissez-faire, they see State intervention and government policy entwined with capital interests as the decline and fall of the system. They fail to see that the transformation of 19th century State policy from non-intervention in economic organisation to active participation, was not due to so-called Socialist tendencies, but to the challenge by other powers to England’s economic supremacy.

Just as both old and new Fabians have not taken into account the fact that for English 19th century free trade competition there was substituted international competition, in which tariffs and protection were legitimate aids, and for the cut-throat competition of the free market there is substituted the cut-throat competition of the international units of capital. Add to this the colonial policies of the Big Powers, the export of capital and the search for spheres of influence and it is not hard to see how capitalist economics and politics go hand in hand.

Again, it was not socialistic tendencies, but world competition which compelled governments to undertake to subsidise or nationalise those industries whose services and commodities are vital to the needs of the capitalist economy as a whole, i.e., coal, gas,, electric power, transport, etc. And the need for State intervention becomes especially urgent where conflicting interests prevent these industries, when privately owned, from carrying out the necessary reorganisation. Again, the necessity of supplying cheap services and facilities for industry as a whole may mean a rate of profit or a slow rate of return unattractive to outside sources of investment or that private funds have ample and more lucrative avenues elsewhere. In that case it becomes necessary for the government to reorganise certain basic industries essential for the entire economy.

Because Labourites have represented large-scale formations of capital as a development towards Socialism and nationalisation as its stepping-stone, they are forced to maintain that the coalescing of large industry with State enterprise is the virtual elimination of capitalism and its replacement by a managerial system which constitutes the transitional period of Socialism. In such a way has Burnham’s theory been Fabianised or paralysed.

The State and the Classes
Although the Fabians have “abolished capitalism” they have not abolished the State. But they say it is no longer the executive committee of one class but “the social instrument of all classes.” Thus the army, air force, police, judiciary, etc., are all at the disposal of the working class if and when they care to use them unless, of course, another class wants to use them at the same time. Then one supposes it is a question of priorities. No doubt, when workers are on strike, especially in a big way, they may take note of such useful information.

The Fabians have, however, abolished classes, or almost. Thus Mr. Crossman in a broadcast (August, 1948) :—
  “In the Marxist sense there is no longer a bourgeoisie only a vestigial group to remind us of its former dominance. There is no more a proletariat in the Marxist sense, only a remnant to remind us of past miseries.”
Having eliminated the main division of capitalism, the odds and ends left seem hardly worth classifying, although Mr. Crossman still speaks of classes.

Now many Fabians who criticise Marx at least know someone who has read Marx, or someone who knows somebody who has. But such important sources of information do not seem to be available to Mr. Crossman. Otherwise even he might have known that Marx classified bourgeoisie and proletariat as property owners and those who possessed only their capacities to work. The class structure of capitalism—and this is the essence of capitalism, said Marx—is the division between owners of capital and wage-workers, whose means of livelihood consisted of selling their services to the former. Whether the capitalist is a man of great wealth or only moderately so, or whether the propertyless wage worker—proletarian—receives high or low wages does not determine the social relation which capital owners and employees enter into. It is ownership of means of production which is the basis of capitalist society.

That this division between owners and non-owners, in spite of two Labour Governments and fair shares for all, still holds good, can be statistically verified. The Oxford Institute of Statistics tells us 80 per cent. of capital is owned by 10 per cent. of the population, and that 1 per cent. own half of the entire capital.

Mr. Crossman might even get a few facts about the class division of wealth from some of his Labour cohorts. Writing in the Sunday Pictorial (27/11/55), Mr. Wilfred Fienburg, Labour M.P., stated :—
  “Let us face it, there ARE two classes in Britain to-day . . . one-tenth owns nine-tenths of the wealth and there are the others, 45,000,000 others, who own practically no wealth at all.”
And Professor W. Arthur Lewis writing on the Distribution of Property, Socialist Commentary, December, 1955, said:—
  “Two-thirds of the private property in this country is owned by less than 4% of the population. This uneven distribution lies at the root of most of the evils with which Socialists have been concerned in the economic sphere— especially the uneven distribution of income and economic power.”
Yet Mr. Crosland calmly asserts :—
  “It is no longer true that property relationships determine the distribution of economic power.” (New Fabian Essays, page 38)
Concentration of Wealth
In spite of the fact that, according to the new Fabians, capitalism is going or is gone, the concentration of wealth into fewer hands is still a marked phenomenon of this “non-capitalist society.” In fact, Mr. Bevan, a fellow-member of the same party as Mr. Crosland says :—
  “Even among the wealthy classes the concentration of wealth in the upper layers is disturbing—200 companies out of 176,000 in Britain take more than a quarter of all profits A little over 1 % take 60% of the profits.”—(Reynolds News, 15/5/55.)
While Margaret Hall on “Monopoly Policy” in The British Economy (p. 422), says :—
  “By the mid-twentieth century the concentration of economic power was accepted as the normal evolution of the advanced capitalist systems.”
So, in spite of the fact that, according to some of the new Fabians there has been a dispersal of wealth and economic power, there has been no dispersal in ownership. Neither has Mr. Crosland’s non-capitalist society altered the trends of the concentration of capital.

The Mixed Economy
The mixed economy, as it is called by “the new thinkers” to describe extant capitalism is supposed to be the British way of effecting a happy compromise between capitalism and Socialism. It is neither happy nor a compromise. Actually, over nine-tenths of manufacture, building, trade, and finance is privately owned and the remainder of State enterprise—power and railways—are themselves, as we have said, economic appendages to private enterprise. Even people like Mr. Morrison have never envisaged the mixed economy as more than a two-tenths State industry and eight-tenths private industry. Thus the mixed economy has a whisky and soda flavour. Mostly the spirit of private enterprise and a dash of nationalisation to take off the raw edge—but hardly a mixture.

Propaganda Value of the Managerial Society
The concept of a Managerial Society seeks to soft-peddle working class resentment and feeling in the struggles over the division of wealth. Now, the bloated, top-hatted, cigar-smoking capitalist of old-style Labour cartoons has been faded out. Instead we have managers who, though they seek profits, are really interested in the skills and techniques of management and who, unlike the capitalists, are workers, a special kind of worker, but still workers, and between one section of workers and other sections of workers there should be a general unanimity of interests, not conflict. Under the old capitalist society it was division and struggle. Under the managerial set-up it is, or should be, co-operation and collaboration, and if vide Mr. Crosland we might not be “all Socialist now,” we are at least all workers now.

In this way have the new Fabians presented the Managerial Society or, as they alternatively call it—British Socialism.
Ted Wilmott

Beggar’s belief (1999)

From the January 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard
  Capitalism creates a mass of people who are permanently unemployed and then has to devise means to control them.
In 1728 John Gay wrote The Beggar’s Opera for the London stage. It was an attack on the corruption of Robert Walpole’s government of private men and on the self-interested motivations that were now to drive society. It featured a central character called Mr. Peachum, a turn-key (gaoler), who aided, organised and fenced for the criminal fraternity of London (representing the cut-throat selfishness of Walpole’s ministers) and then turned them in to the authorities when they were no longer profitable to him.

It is not surprising that such a play should appear with the arrival of capitalism within society, with its emphasis on mercenary personal gain replacing any notion of loyalty or community. It is also not surprising that a prison was the chosen setting, nor that the law was seen as a corrupt tool in the hands of a selfish few. What is surprising, is how durable this image from the dawn of Modernity has turned out to be.

The prison was a common feature of 18th century writing, because it was emerging as a new and devastating weapon in the class war. Under feudalism the population could be controlled by fear, by selected spectacular public executions, to keep the whole thing running. Emergent industrial capitalism, however, needed a disciplined workforce, ready to clock on and work like machines, and obey. For industrial capitalism, gory punishments and executions were wasteful, and did not create sufficient internal discipline. Other methods were required.

Thus, with the advance of capitalism, we see less and less reliance on execution as a means of social control, and more and more on the rise of the prison. It is telling that the prominent liberal philosopher Jeremy Bentham advanced, for his idea of a Utilitarian Utopia, the Panopticon, a prison/workhouse/school, wherein from a central tower an observer could see into all the individual cells, without being seen themself. The idea was that the uncertainty of not being detected would prevent the inhabitants from stepping out of line, and thus there would be no offences. This was a fantasy of the factory, perfectly compliant workers, in their place, and knowing their own duty and work. It is also an image from which capitalism has never been able to escape, because it is precisely that discipline that it needs to function. This applies not just in the workplace, but in the whole of society.

Surplus population
The big problem for capitalism is that it contains the seeds for its own discord, so whenever social discipline breaks down prison is deployed to try and patch things up. The prison remains as a solid reminder of the anti-social nature of capitalism.

Capitalism creates such social breakdown because its creates a “surplus population”. Capitalism can, to keep up the compulsion on the workers to work, only fully maintain those workers who succeed in selling their labour power. Some of the rest are maintained at a lower level as an “industrial reserve army” to be used in the event of production expanding. Beyond them is a stagnant pool of the permanently unemployed who are regarded as “unemployable”. In recent years, as economic growth has slowed and the introduction of labour-saving methods continued, the size of this pool has grown. As far as the capitalist is concerned these workers, since they are on no use to them, can go hang (quite literally in the past).

Thus Noam Chomsky has spoken of “a kind of superfluous population there’s no point in educating because there’s nothing to do with them. You put them in prison because we’re a civilized people and you don’t send death squads out to murder them” (interview with David Barsamian, 1971).

The facts for America bear this out. In California education budgets have been slashed, and prison officers earn 30 percent more than lecturers, with a massive increase in the use of prisons. In that state alone over 130,000 people were held in prison in 1995, and it was still rising then. California has allocated $3.2 billion extra to its prison budget since 1992. Nor is California alone, and nor is it the worst. In 1993 California had 607 prisoners per 100,000 population, Texas had 700, and Georgia had 730. The combined totals of the three most populated European states (France, UK, Germany) only reached 84 per 100,000 head of population in the same year. In 1997 in the USA the figure was 645.

In 1995 5.4 million Americans were within the prison system (that includes remand, on parole, in prison, etc.), which works out as about 5 percent of the adult male population. The prison system has been deployed, to great effect, both to ameliorate the unemployment statistics (all those prisoners don’t show up) and to control the “socially excluded”. Within the vast network of controls, the US poor are being restrained and disciplined. This is on top of the increasing number of restraints being imposed by the American “welfare” system.

In recent years in Britain, both under the Tories and Labour, the prison population has began to shoot up as our masters, realising the bankrupt nature of their policies, and the stagnant nature of modern capitalism, decided to copy the US model. According to Home Office Statistics for 1997, there were 61,114 people in prison in the UK, 5,833 more than the previous year, and increase of 11 percent. The prison population has increased by 37 percent since 1993 (when it was 44,570), and it is clear that it is the greater use of custodial sentences that has caused that increase. The number of prisoners per 100,000 head of population has also increased to 111 (120 in England and Wales, 119, in Scotland and 95 in Northern Ireland), second only to Portugal in Europe.

What’s more is the increasing use of private prisons, selling them to a whole bunch of Peachums, to make a profit from locking up the poor (Gay is still with us). The massive amount of spending on prisons is going to create a demand to keep the prisons full (which will be complemented by police arrest quotas), to justify the payments and swell the security firms’ profits. As the system gets more and more expanded, more firms are being allowed a slice of the prison cake. In August this year, two months after the 1000th convict was tagged for home detention (a cheap and easy modern equivalent of the Panopticon, to enable the government to extend prison control even further), the government announced the winning firms that had tendered to administer these schemes.

The Curfew Orders which necessitate tagging are a way of subtly increasing the effect of prison, and controlling the numerous “petty offenders” for whom prison is too expensive and wasteful and option

More discipline
In April, the government announced that it was going to extend its “Welfare to Work” scheme to some lucky young prisoners, to help them find work (and thus buck the 76 percent recidivism rate for young offenders). This linking (apart from being a naked attempt to try and use their “captive audience” to increase the success figure for the New Deal) demonstrates the intrinsic values of the New Con, that it is a device by which the government is trying to control the surplus population, and allocate them to work, whenever they can find it for them. Already they are embarking on making it mandatory for single mothers to attend their initial New Deal interviews. Increasingly more and more strings are attached to “welfare”. Inspectors can call round at recipients homes and look round for signs of co-habitation, with a de-facto search warrant, under threat of extra-judicial punishment (removal of benefits).

Prison is also a device by which to promote and re-enforce racial division in society (as if creating a “criminal class” isn’t divisive enough). In Britain 1.5 percent of the British male population are Caribbean, however a staggering 10.4 percent of the British male prison population are likewise Caribbean. Of the female prison population, 12.9 percent were Caribbean, while only 1.8 percent of the general female population are.

The racism aspect is worsened when one considers that some 2,720 immigrants are held in “Detention Centres” as what the Home Office euphemistically calls “non-Criminal Prisoners”, part of the government’s attempts to prevent immigrants entering the country.

Also prison was used extensively for fine defaulters, of whom some 6,300 found their way to gaol, helping victimise the poor of society even more.

It is worth remembering, that throughout the Thatcher Years, police pay awards were significantly above other public sector pay awards (such as nurses and teachers), as the government fought to secure the loyalty of the police force. The result of this can be seen in the difference between the police involvement in the Miners’ Strike (with an illegal national police force being established, and the miners’ freedom of movement restricted) and recent events in Australia, where the police refused to intervene in the dockers’ dispute telling the government straight that they should fight their own battles. Also, increasingly, local councils are reliant on Close Circuit Television Cameras (with ever increasing sophistication) to keep an eye on us and ensure we are behaving (that damned panoptic eye again). We are not judged to be responsible enough to go about our own lives.

Other attacks on basic liberties abound, police stop and search powers are increased, the right to silence is removed, the right to trial by jury is decreased, freedom of movement is restricted. The change of government has made no difference. Increasingly the state is trying to shape and control our lives through bureaucracy or through the police.

The only solution open to capitalism now, faced with social decay and chaos, is to criminalise the “surplus population”, to lock them up, to take control of them and increase discipline throughout society. Capitalism’s only solutions are brutal and barbaric, and in 1997 70 inmates of prisons killed themselves.

Socialism offers to end the social conditions that cause that breakdown and necessitate enforced discipline, offering instead self-worth, and freedom of association in production, a strong inclusive social identity. The prison is not a symbol of capitalism. Capitalism is a prison, and it is imperative for us to try and break out of it.
Pik Smeet