The Observations Column from the February 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard
During the coming year it is likely that the government will announce that, in addition to permitting the contamination of the environment by radiation from nuclear power stations, it will also allow our food to be so contaminated. Since 1967 there has been a ban on the use of irradiation as a method of food preservation but it seems likely that that ban will soon be lifted — which should delight the food industry.
Submitting fresh food to short-wave gamma rays has the effect of killing off bacteria. thus enabling it to be stored longer without rotting. A committee of "experts" set up by the government claims that irradiation is safe and effective but others have argued that it can reduce the nutritional content of some foods and is also open to misuse since there is no way of testing whether or not food has been treated. Critics of the process say this is important since there is a risk that irradiation will be used by the food trade to "clean up" contaminated food so that it can be sold even though it has begun to rot. It is also feared that irradiated food will be treated as if it is sterile and therefore not refrigerated, even though radiation does not in fact kill off all bacteria. So the risk of food poisoning may actually increase.
It seems that once again people's health will be sacrificed so that the food industry can increase its profits still further by passing off as wholesome food which is rotting and contaminated.
England's longest running industrial dispute, involving just 88 workers, has a lesson for the millions who bought shares in the privatised state industries and in particular for those who thought that thereby they recast their social standing.
For almost two years, the Silentnight company in Lancashire has been picketed by a group of increasingly beleaguered strikers. The dispute began over pay. it progressed to the sacking of 346 workers and now drags bitterly on, with that handful who have lost the support of even their trade union.
The company's founder, Tom Clarke, is one of Margaret Thatcher's favourite bosses. "Mr Wonderful" she once called him — perhaps because of the firm's family atmosphere under which Silentnight once tried to obscure the realities of class society, employment and exploitation. According to one of the pickets, everyone was once on first-name terms and if an employee was sick Tom Clarke would send a card and some flowers. Perhaps this chumminess was carried on when the crunch came:
Sorry. Steve but you know how things are. I own this firm, you only work here. I can't have you laying down the law about what you're paid. There's plenty outside who'll be glad of your job. You're fired.
I'm sorry too. Tom. And I'm not taking this lying down. I'll get together with the other lads and lasses and we'll all down tools together. The union will back us. I know that.
The point about this situation is that among the strikers are two people who own shares in Silentnight. One of them discussed the dispute with Tom Clarke at the last shareholders' meeting: "He was sorry at the way things had turned out, but that doesn't give us our jobs back” she reported.
Which brings us back to buying shares in British Gas and the like. Owning a few shares in some concern, perhaps winning a few pounds by buying and selling them at the right time, does not elevate a worker into the capitalist class. The class we belong to is determined by our economic interests, which means what we rely on for our living. In the case of the capitalist class, who are the real owners and the real shareholders, it means the monopoly of the means of production and distribution; in the case of the workers it means the sale of our labour power — working — for wages.
So the striking shareholders at Silentnight are not a contradiction in terms. They attest to the class division of capitalism, what it means and how it operates; they show the essential poverty of workers and of how deeply they suffer when they do not command a wage. And, shivering around their brazier in their lonely struggle, they do their bit to expose one of today's pernicious and popular fallacies.
One of the host of celebrities attending the UK launch of the UN International Year of Shelter for the Homeless was Rod Hackney. Prince Charles' mate, who is President of the RIBA. Hackney wants housing "to become the centre of public debate in what is likely to be an election year". Well that might provide an extra page or two in newspapers that the homeless can use as blankets when sleeping on the streets.
Hackney is also an advocate of "community architecture'. The idea behind this is that, given the right advice and access to resources, communities can build their own homes. This sounds like quite a good idea until you realise that it is precisely because people don't have access to resources that homelessness is a problem. Because local authorities and the government need, for political reasons, to be seen to be doing something about homelessness, then it's possible that a few highly publicised community architecture schemes will get off the ground as a token gesture. Community architecture, because of its “self-help" image, will no doubt appeal to many Tories — after all the labour power necessary to build the houses will be free — but it will not solve the problem of homelessness and slum housing. That will only happen when people have, not just access to resources to build and repair homes, but free access to those resources.