Monday, November 27, 2023

Voice From The Back: Same old story (2003)

The Voice From The Back Column from the November 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard

Same old story

The announcement that R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings, the makers of Camel cigarettes, is to cut 2,600 jobs – close to half its workforce – has come as a great shock to the town of Winston-Salem in North Carolina. Between 1,600 and 1,700 of the jobs are in the town. Bad news for the shareholders? Well, no, not really. “The company shocked Wall Street yesterday morning as it unveiled the plan to cut 40 percent of its workforce, although traders welcomed the prospect of cost-cutting and marked the shares 12 per cent higher to $38.24 by midday” (Times 18 September).

The rich get richer

One of the myths expounded by apologists for capitalism is that there are no longer classes in society and that poverty is gradually disappearing. According to the BBC News Online (25 September) the exact opposite seems to be occurring in the USA. “The gap between rich and poor in America is the widest in 70 years, according to a new study published by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. The research, based on newly released figures from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, shows that the top one percent of Americans – who earn an average of $862,000 each after tax (or $1.3 m before tax) – receive more money than the 110m Americans in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution, whose income averages $21,350 each year. The income going to the richest one percent has gone up threefold in real terms in the past twenty years, while the income of the poorest 40 percent went up by a more modest 11 percent.”

Spare parts for sale

Everything inside capitalism takes the form of a commodity, so it should come as no surprise to learn that there is a brisk trade in desperately poor people selling their kidneys. The going price paid to young people in eastern Europe for one kidney is $2,500 to $3,000 and patients receiving the kidneys have paid between $100,000 and $200,000 for a transplant. “John Dark, a transplant surgeon at the Freeman Hospital, Newcastle, said it was difficult to draw a moral difference between the physical harm inflicted on someone paid for a kidney or paid to work in a Third World sweat shop . . . An impoverished man trying to support his family by selling his kidney is no different to putting in shifts down a diamond mine. Society has moved on from where paying for harm was unthinkable. We do it every day when we buy a pair of trainers” (Independent, 30 September).

Compassionate Tories

The Conservative Party at present are going through a crisis as they try to cobble together a series of reforms that might prove popular at the next election. They are making noises about being a caring, compassionate party, so it is interesting to see what one of the delegates to last month’s Tory conference had to say. “Mr Metcalfe, who has ambitions of becoming a Tory MP at the next election, received a rousing ovation when he insisted the way to combat crime was to make it not worth the price. He told the conference: “make prison a genuine punishment. Bring back solitary confinement, take away their TVs and snooker tables and let them earn privileges.” And there was more, “Bring back birching for young tearaways that terrorise council estates and vandalise graveyards, castrate paedophiles and bring back hanging” (Herald, 8 October). Phew, some caring – some compassion.

War aims

Mr Bush was very clear what the US war aims were in Iraq – topple the wicked dictator – build a prosperous democracy – and 100 percent foreign ownership of many of the state’s resources. Wait a minute, you don’t remember the third aim? Neither do we, but it seems that third aim is going to be realised long before the second one. “Controversial plans to privatise all of Iraq’s non-oil assets have been attacked by Nobel-prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz . . . The laws approved by the Coalition Provisional chief Paul Bremer, allow 100 percent foreign ownership of all state assets apart from natural resources. Trade tariffs and taxes have also been slashed, and the Central Bank of Iraq has been made operationally independent. `This is an extreme version of Republican ideology,` said Stiglitz. ‘Of course it is nothing we would do at home (US), because we’re actually quite protectionist`” (Observer, 12 October).

Another World (2003)

From the November 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard

Socialists have always known that another world is possible. The world doesn’t have to be capitalist. If, on the other hand, capitalism remains, then a world other than we’ve got now – with global problems of inequality, wars and environmental destruction – is not possible. The only other world possible today is a socialist world, in the original sense of the word of course, as a system of common ownership and democratic control of productive resources, not the travesties that passed for socialism in the 20th century.

Many in the alternative-world movement are prepared to call themselves “anti-capitalists”, but only a few are prepared to argue for a world society of common ownership and democratic control with production directly to meet human needs without passing through money and the market. Most are literally what they say they are – anti-capitalists, i.e. opposed to the actions of capitalist corporations, and the governments that protect them and promote their interests, rather than against capitalism as a total, global system.

They are engaged in a never-ending, uphill struggle to try to contain and restrain capitalist corporations and governments from pursuing profits without regard for the consequences. Some of their less radical colleagues – those running the Non-Governmental Organisations – have made a virtue of necessity and see this as their institutionalised role within capitalism, warning those responsible for running it of the long-term dangers for the system of allowing policies to be dictated by short-term profit considerations. They are not really anti-capitalist at all, just advocates of a “regulated” capitalism. It’s a message capitalist governments are prepared to listen to and even welcome (which is why they subsidize some NGOs, which are therefore not as “non-governmental” as all that). The administrators of capitalism are not as stupid as some of its “free-market” ideologues.

These are the same people who see the solution to the world’s problems as “fair trade” and who danced in the hall at the failure of the recent WTO talks in Cancun. If further proof was required that they stand for an “alternative capitalism” rather than an “alternative to capitalism” this is it. Trade – as the exchange of goods for money (an exchange of ownership title as opposed to the physical transfer of products from one part of the world to another that will of course continue in socialism) – is a key feature of capitalism which is in fact a system of universal buying and selling, i.e. trading, on a world scale. “Fair” trade is a capitalist concept according to which producers, or rather producer-countries, would get the full value of what they sell instead of less than this due to more powerful countries distorting the market in their own favour.

Disputes such as took place in Cancun are essentially an argument amongst capitalist countries, with the less powerful trying to regulate the world market so that it does not operate to the undue – in capitalist terms – benefit of the big boys. In this internal squabble amongst capitalist states, the NGOs take the side of the underdogs and offer this as “another world”.

The unequal distribution of the benefits of production is indeed, to continue with their language for a moment, “unfair” and “unjust”. In a sense, socialists start from the same premise as them that every human being, just because they are human beings, should be able to enjoy a life free from material deprivation and insecurity no matter where they live in the world. But we don’t agree that this can be achieved by a regulated capitalism which would put all capitalist states on an equal footing so far as realising the surplus value created by their workers is concerned. This might benefit – enrich – the capitalists of India, Brazil, China and Indonesia and put more money into the pockets of the rulers of African states, but it would not eliminate inequality between humans in the distribution of material goods.

Even in countries such as the United States and those of Western Europe which benefit from current world trading arrangements, there is still inequality: there is still a wealthy property-owning class whose income as rent, interest and profit gives them a privileged consumption and the rest of us, while nowhere near as worse off as those in the shanty towns and villages of Africa, India and Latin America, still suffer from problems of material insecurity. In any event, the division in the world is not between all the people living in North America and Western Europe and those living in the rest of the world. There are plenty of rich people – some of them filthy rich – living in the so-called Third World.

The only way to ensure that every single human being on the planet has an equal chance to enjoy a life free from material deprivation is a world where all the resources of the planet have become the common heritage of all humanity. On this basis, these can be used to provide enough for all, without conflict (between ruling classes) over access to key raw materials and without plundering the Earth’s resources or polluting the biosphere. We are not claiming that this would be an easy task – there will be problems of co-ordination and co-operation to solve, not to speak of having to clear up the mess left by the profit system – but it is technologically possible as well as socially desirable.

Yes, another world is possible but it has to be a non-capitalist – a socialist – world.
Adam Buick