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Cooking the Books: Labour is All Capitalist Now

In his column in the Times (24 January) former Blair speech-writer Philip Collins recounted how he had met a ‘nameless plutocrat’ in Davos this year who had told him that Labour, despite its protestations to the contrary, was anti-business and that Miliband was indulging in ‘intellectual Marxism’. How ungrateful and how weird is the idea some people have of Marxism.

Collins commented:

‘Mr Miliband does think Marx is a better prophet of capitalism than those who cannot see beyond their own profits. Quite right too. Business people believe in competition just so long as they are benefiting from it. They soon realise competition means somebody else might take their winnings. Echoing Adam Smith on the conspiracies that businessmen practised against the public, Marx pointed out capitalism’s inexorable tendency towards monopoly. Competition, in other words, producers its own grave-diggers.’

This is alright, except that Marx didn’t see all industries as necessarily ending up as a monopoly. He wrote rather of the concentration of production in bigger and bigger productive units and of the centralisation of the control of these by a ‘constantly diminishing number of magnates of capital’ (Capital, volume 1, chapter 32 on ‘The Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation). For him, this was an expression of the fact that production had already become ‘socialised’, operated by co-operative labour of the working class as a whole. He envisaged that eventually the working class would organise to bring ownership and control into line with productive reality and ‘expropriate the expropriators,’ ushering in a socialist society based on the common ownership of land and industry with production directly for use not profit. This hasn’t happened but ‘intellectual Marxism’ still has to see this as being the future for humanity.

Labour’s answer to monopoly is not this (of course). It’s more competition. Miliband’s ambition, according to Collins, is to ‘reform capitalism’. Or, as shadow business Chuka Umunna told the Financial Times (16 January):

‘We are all capitalists now. The question is, what sort of capitalism do we want? We embrace free markets but we want competitive and free markets and more responsible capitalism.’

This is the opposite of what socialists want. Labour wants to mend capitalism; we want to end it.

Labour is not anti-capitalist or anti-business at all. Most ‘nameless plutocrats’ and ‘magnates of capital’ will know this perfectly well, but this hasn’t prevented them, and their supporters in the Tory party (the party of the rich, as most people recognise), raising a howl of protest at a rather innocuous Labour promise to restore the 50 percent rate of tax on that part of anyone’s income over £150,000 a year.

There is nothing anti-business about this as it is a tax on personal income whereas the aim of capitalist production is to extract and accumulate profits as more capital. It is not to provide a privileged income for capitalists, though of course it does do this. The ‘entrepreneurs’ (as capitalists prefer to call themselves these days) who London Evening Standard columnist Richard Godwin said he had met were behaving more capitalistically:

‘When they started their businesses, they had neither the means nor the inclination to withdraw a six-figure salary for themselves. They preferred to reinvest’ (29 January).

But the plutocrats and magnates are people and they like their privileged income and the lifestyle it enables them to enjoy. In complaining about an increase in their income tax they are not being pro-business. They are being pro-themselves. As Godwin put it, ‘That’s not entrepreneurship – it’s self-interest.’