The Facts about Riches and Poverty
There are still many people who believe that we are mistaken when we charge the Press and politicians with deliberate suppression of information affecting the vital interests of the working class. Those who believe this should study the way in which newspapers and statesmen of repute conspire to hide from the workers the extent to which the ownership of wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small minority of the population. Never a week goes by without speeches articles and editorials assuring the workers that wealth is evenly distributed in democratic Britain, and that any inequalities there may be are lessening year by year. The huge fortunes of the Ellermans, Houstons, Nuffields and so on are dismissed as rare exceptions, which, anyway, are supposed to be vanishing because of the death duties levied on them when they pass to the heirs. All of this is a deliberate mockery of the truth. The journalists who write the articles—at least the better-informed ones—know that the truth is far different, but they have their living to get and must obey their proprietors’ orders. Behind the journalists are the newspaper proprietors, the big business men and the politicians, who have no excuse for what they do except the excuse that if the workers knew the truth they would soon want to do something about it.
A case in point, just one out of many, is an editorial in the Daily Telegraph (January 16th, 1937) entitled ” Britain a Nation of Capitalists.” It is based on a familiar piece of camouflage which consists of presenting a huge-seeming figure of “small savings” totalling £3,000 million gathered together in the savings banks and other institutions, and saying that this belongs to the working class. As nothing is said of the far larger sum that belongs to the small number of big property owners there appears on the surface to be justification for the Telegraph’s claim that wealth is “diffused through the whole community in quite considerable amounts.”
Let us, then, look closely at the figures.
Even if they were accurate they do not mean much. For, as the Telegraph admits, the £3,000 million belongs to 15 million people, equivalent to £200 per head. The interest on £200 at 2½ per cent, (the rate paid in the Post Office Savings Bank) amounts to a mere £5 a year, less than 2s. a week. Yet it is on the strength of this 2s. a week that the Telegraph describes the wage-earners as a “nation of capitalists.” Moreover, the figures are not correct. The sum mentioned does not belong wholly or even mainly to wage-earners. As Mr. Hargreaves Parkinson points out in The Small Investor (Blackie & Son, Ltd., 1930) much of it belongs to relatively wealthy persons, professional men, small business men, etc. Then G. W. Daniels and H. Campion, in The Distribution of National Capital estimate that there are 17 or 17½ million persons aged 25 or over who own less than £100, the total, being well under £1,000 million or less than a third of the Telegraph’s inflated figure.
Moreover, even if a larger figure is taken the glaring fact remains that it is only a tiny percentage of the accumulated wealth which belongs to the small minority who are the real owners of Great Britain. As Mr. Parkinson and many other investigators have shown, less than one-quarter of the population own between them nine-tenths of the accumulated wealth. They do not get from their investments a mere 2s. a week, but vast sums enabling them to live in luxury and idleness and yet accumulate fortunes running in some cases into 10 or 20 million pounds. The Telegraph, along with other papers, and along with the capitalist politicians, does not attempt to deny these facts. Instead it ignores them and merely presents part of the picture in a distorted form. The Telegraph writes of the savings of small investors but says nothing about the immensely-greater sum, £13,000 millions to £14,000 millions, owned by the 5,000,000 persons who own over £100. Particularly it does not mention the handful of 10,000 or 11,000 persons aged 25 and over who own £3,200 to £3,500 millions between them. Thus does capitalism lie and suppress in order to maintain itself in face of mass poverty.
Another piece of lying propaganda is the constant assertion that workers own large numbers of shares in public companies. Here, again, there is a part-truth in the statement, at least it is true that in most companies there are many shareholders who own only small blocks of shares. On the strength of this it is pretended by the defenders of capitalism that the shareholders are wholly or mainly wage-earners, and conveniently forgotten that even big investors habitually spread their investments over many companies, having only a comparatively small part in each. Even so, any proper examination gives a very different picture. Recently the Economist (December 5th, 1936) published an analysis of the shareholdings of ten big well-known companies, including Imperial Chemicals, Coats, Unilever. The figures show 442,720 shareholders (many of whom may be and are counted several times through having shares in more than one of the ten companies). The total number of shares or units of stock is 155,552,966, which makes the average holding £351 per person at par value. As many of the shares are now worth far above their original price, the present worth of the average is much more than £351, but even so the average holding would not appear very large. The significant part of the inquiry is, however, the further information as to the extent to which a few individuals own very large holdings of shares. A mere 193 shareholders hold between them 36,778,624 shares, that is about a quarter of the whole amount. These 193 shareholders are those who own upwards of 50,000 shares each. It was further found that 41.4 per cent. of the shareholders own less than 100 shares, 67.5 per cent, own less than 200, and 87.7 per cent, less than 500.
This is the true picture of capitalist monopoly—a picture the capitalists take care to hide from the working class. It need hardly be said that Germany, France, the British Dominions, etc., present a similar concentration of wealth. For example, the Journal of Electrical Workers of America (November, 1936) publishes figures brought out in a recent official inquiry concerning the great group of Bell Telephone companies. These companies make it their boast that their shares are widely held and that among the shareholders are large numbers of their own employees. The inquiry shows that there are, indeed, 657,465 shareholders, but the great majority of them own only very small amounts. There are 124,820 shareholders who are employees of the companies but their holding amounts to only 1,423,000 shares —an average of less than a dozen each! By contrast, at the top of the scale there are 957 wealthy individuals who own between them 3,156,803 shares, an average of 3,300 per person!
The lessons to be drawn are simple but important. The capitalists everywhere have an interest in hiding the facts of their own monopolistic ownership behind a screen of half-truths about the small shareholders. The workers have an interest in ending the system of society which rests on this class monopoly. In the meantime they have a duty to themselves in refusing to be deceived by the calculated misrepresentations of the capitalist Press.