Saturday, May 2, 2020

Cooking the Books: Social distancing and the wages system (2020)

The Cooking the Books column from the May 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Faced with the spread of a highly infectious disease, the obvious immediate response is to encourage social distancing so that fewer people catch it. Should such an epidemic occur in socialism, as it could to, that would be the initial response too.

But today we are living under capitalism where social distancing, insofar as it involves people not going out to work at non-essential jobs, creates a serious problem. It is not so much the work not being done as the fact that most people depend on working for an employer to get the money they need to buy the things they must have to live.

This arises from the nature of capitalism as a class-divided society where goods and services are produced for sale with a view to profit. The means of living – the places where wealth is produced – are owned and controlled by a small section of society only; the excluded majority have to get money in one way or another to survive. They can beg or they can steal, but most do so by working. Some are self-employed selling a service direct to the consumer. The vast majority, however, get money by selling their mental and physical energies to an employer.

The effect on people of not allowing them to work can easily be worked out – they no longer have a money income and so can no longer access what they need. In these circumstances the government has no choice (unless, that is, it wants to provoke riots and rebellion) but to provide them with some money. In Britain the method chosen has been to give employers a grant to pay employees who they have had to send home on unpaid leave.

Some legal draftsman searched through ancient documents and found the word ‘furlough’ to describe this. Under the scheme employers are to be paid a grant of 80 percent of the labour costs of each worker they ‘furlough’, enabling their workers to get 80 percent of their previous earnings. Much better than nothing even though a drastic cut in their standard of living but enough to allow them to social distance; which is in effect what they are being paid to do.

Even so, well over a million extra workers have been reduced to applying for the welfare handout known as Universal Credit. The government even instructed local councils to find housing for the street homeless so as to get them out of circulation.

All this has involved the government spending huge amounts of money, which it will get by borrowing, some it seems from itself. The latter is in fact the equivalent of printing new money and would eventually have the same upward effect on prices as over-issuing money always does. The government is hoping that having to do all this will only be temporary and of course they cannot go on indefinitely paying workers to do nothing.

How much simpler things would have been if we were living in socialism where people’s access to what they need wouldn’t be linked to working for a wage. If ever social distancing should be needed in socialism, not being able to associate with other people would be inconvenient and difficult for the social animals that humans are, but not made worse by worry about how to get the things needed to live. Every member of society would have direct, free access to this as of right.

A Siberian Winter in Trottingham (2020)

Book Review from the May 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Winter at the Bookshop. Sylvia Riley. Five Leaves. 2019

Essentially a book of short stories and anecdotes, this has been put together by the writer of Switchboard Operators, which years ago was made into the 1990s TV series The Hello Girls starring Letitia Dean.

The bookshop in question was based in the poverty-stricken St Ann’s area of Nottingham and was run by Pat Jordan. Riley was one of the volunteers who helped out. Jordan was one of the leading lights of British Trotskyism, founding the International Group which was for a time the section in Britain of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. This was the current that was linked to veteran Trotskyist writer Ernest Mandel and to Michel Pablo, who argued that the revolutionary struggle should always take as its starting point the particular situation prevailing in each country concerned. This meant in many cases an emphasis on ‘Third World’ struggles for national liberation and also student revolt, rather than the more usual Trotskyist pre-occupation with the traditional working class.

The International Group – after early dalliances with Ted Grant’s Revolutionary Socialist League (the ‘Militant Tendency’) – eventually morphed into the International Marxist Group and became dominated by Tariq Ali during the student revolts of the late 1960s, which is when the book ends. It is necessarily a highly personal account but generally well written, rather twee on some occasions and moving at others. It tells of a world of backroom duplicators and yellowing pamphlets, of student rebellion and fluid relationships. An air of grinding poverty hangs over it all, in an area long overdue for slum clearance (which happened shortly afterwards).

Nottingham at this time was known nationally as a hotbed of Trotskyist activity in a period when the so-called ‘New Left’ was making its mark as a challenger to the conventional Communist Parties. Pat Jordan and Ken Coates (later to become a Labour MEP) were the most central characters in this milieu and Sylvia Riley writes engagingly about the movement they led, the people in it – and their foibles. Let us say it doesn’t entirely align with the more glamorous image the IMG seemed to have cultivated at the time.

The IMG eventually split and its main successor organisation became ensconced in the Labour Party – with several former IMG members going on to become prominent Labour parliamentary figures, including ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling and Kate Hoey. A long way indeed from Pat Jordan’s tumbledown bookshop, with its bare light bulbs, Marvel comics and Trotskyist tracts.