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The waste of maintaining capitalism

The defenders of capitalism argue that the chief feature of the market system is its efficiency in allocating scarce goods and resources to the areas where they are most needed. Socialism, they argue, would inevitably be destroyed by its own inefficiency and inability to meet even the most basic economic needs of society. This argument is flawed on two counts.

Firstly, the last thing capitalism does is allocate goods to the place of greatest need. Instead, it responds solely to signals transmitted in terms of money, and thus allocates good to those activities able to gather together the most money to attract effort and resources. The vaunted “efficiency” of doing this is thus measured solely in terms of managing to match the means and resources put into a branch of social activity to the amount of money involved in it. In other words, the efficiency of capitalism is that it manages to behave like capitalism on a sustained basis.

Secondly, even given its capacity to allocate its means to its own ends, capitalism throws up problems inherent to its own nature, that it must actively counter. A clear example of this is unemployment.

Not only is unemployment a cruel waste of human talent and potential, it is also is a drain on financial resources, in terms of the welfare budget and its administration. This is a waste on a gargantuan scale, tolerated solely because capitalism requires an industrial reserve army to potentially supply labour, and regulate the price of commodified labour-power on the open market. Capitalism must waste resources on unemployment or else see the wages system, at its very heart, would not work properly.

The waste unemployment represents is a problem that has not gone unnoticed. Political and economic pundits continually struggle with ways of combating the “evil of idleness”; politicians of every stripe try to woo workers' votes with promises of ending unemployment; and trade unionists call for a government policy for “full employment”. There are, however, other wastes of resources inherent to capitalism, that its harlot voices cry much more softly about.

Armies and arms
One particularly relevant to current world events is the need of the capitalist class for military force to pursue its ends. In 2001 the British state spent £23.5 billion on the “teeth elements” of its military budget, which is, believe it or not, comparatively low in world terms (fifth overall, and the third highest in Europe). This level of expenditure persists despite the so-called “Peace Dividend” that came about after the collapse of Russian State-Capitalism. In 1991 the expenditure figure was around £25 billion (2001 prices); and the Labour government has even reversed that marginal decline in expenditure.

This marginal reduction in military spending is itself a response to the immense drain on resources such military commitment represents. The aim of the reductions has clearly been to retain fighting efficiency, at lower cost. At present, personnel costs represent some 37 percent of military expenditure (with 41 percent going on equipment). This breaks down as a total of 188,000 fulltime trained military personnel, backed up by some 288,000 reservists and 93,000 civilian staff. This compares to 1991 with a total of 282,000 full-timers, 341,000 reservists and 169,000 civilian personnel.

This indicates that the military budgets have been reduced largely at the expense of an increased workloads of the workers in uniform. Regardless of this, however, it also shows the amount of human resources being diverted to the cause of destruction and slaughter, rather than producing useful items such as houses, hospitals or schools. Of course, military spending is not entirely unproductive, nor unprofitable even if wasteful, and thousands more workers are engaged in the process of producing the equipment and weapons with which the soldiers are expected to kill and maim.

As ever with capitalist production, wherever it finds profits are to be made, it gradually reduces the cost and effort that goes into chasing those profits. So too, thus, do weapons, and particularly small arms, become cheaper to produce and obtain, and thus so too do the small-time capitalists of the criminal world find it easier to find suitable military force to the scale of their operations. In so doing, capitalism drives forward yet another harmful and wasteful aspect of its own system.

Police and prisons
Accounting for the difficulties of recording crime, according to the statistics on crimes reported to the police, in 1990 there were 18,000 violent crimes against the person in 1990, as compared with 23,300 in 2000. Rising violence has become a concern for many people, fuelled by squalid social conditions, the absence of hope, the alienation of people from each other and by the increasing availability of weapons with which to do harm. As these figures rise, the state finds itself obliged to plough money and resources into combating both the ill effects of the market system upon its subjects and also to thwart the ambitions of the entrepreneurs seeking a violent short-cut to profit.

In mainland UK there are some 113,000 people employed as full time police, accompanied by some 9,000 special constables, applied to tackling this task for the capitalist class. As the recent demonstration by police officers in the heart of London suggests, the cost of paying for this manpower is beginning to become burdensome on the capitalist state. In England and Wales the numbers of police officers have fallen from 110,790 in 1990, to 101,683 in 2001: falling over a time when their actual workload was increasing.

Part of the response to rising crime rates, has been to resort to more imprisonment. The prison population in England and Wales has risen from 45,000 in 1990, to over 64,000 in 2001. The running costs of the prison service in England and Wales in the latter year were £2.2 billion. Attempts to “privatise” prisons under deals similar to the public private partnerships seen elsewhere in government policy, represent an attempt to claw back some of the unprofitable expenditure the system must waste on keeping so many people incarcerated; likewise, the government's continuing attempt to find cheaper alternatives, such as tagging and curfews.

This barrage of figures simply indicates the amount of resources that the capitalist system is compelled to spend maintaining itself and overcoming its anti-social logic; both in terms of the might of police forces directed at, and the overall military force directed by those who have decided that the opportunity costs of violence are reasonable. The more capitalism severs social bonds at home, and is compelled into war abroad, the more it must set aside from productive activity into the sheer waste of maintaining the means of violence.

Socialism, based upon co-operation and the strong social bonds derived from common ownership, will be freed from the imperative to spend on such branches of activity, and will instead be able to direct them towards satisfying our social needs as a priority, realising the potential that our free and common labour can deliver for ourselves.

Obviously, there are functions currently undertaken by the police and military that will continue to be needed. Currently the police deal with most aspects of sudden death, from investigating it to breaking the sad news to relatives; and obviously, such a function will still be required under socialism. Likewise, the armed forces carry out about twelve hundred search and rescue missions each year, saving thousands of lives. However, we can look to the world around us now, for examples of how such socially necessary functions can be organised. A clear case being the life-boat service, staffed by part-time volunteers who put their own lives at risk to help their fellows in distress.