A generation or more ago, when most of the world’s armaments were made by private companies, it seemed plausible to many people that if the armament-making came under government control and private profit was taken away there would be no deliberate encouragement of armament competition and the risk of war would be less. It was always a mistaken hope because the economic rivalries that make for war come from all the profit-seeking interests in all the countries, not just some sections or some countries. And in our own day armaments moving openly or secretly across the world are mostly despatched by governments not by private companies. These in any event could not operate without the consent of their own government.
The popular way of looking at the armament trade has changed too, and “merchants of death” has gone out of fashion as a term of abuse. This is not surprising, because the governments supplying the arms now present themselves as public benefactors, only concerned to help “good causes.” Anyway, all the governments are in the business—from the last Labour Government in Britain, which sold military aircraft abroad, to America, Israel and Russia.
Russia’s latest business deal in its growing invasion of world markets is the reported sale to India of £11 million worth of equipment, including heavy transport aircraft, helicopters and road building machinery. (Guardian, 7/10/60). The India Government wanted to buy in America but the Russians offered the stuff at lower prices. The significant aspect is that the purpose of the purchase is to enable India “to defend its border with China.”
Of course, China may or may not continue to be Russia’s ally, but business is business, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and who can object if Russia helps both sides.
It recalls the attitude of the Russian Government (and of the Communist Party) during the war, before Russia became involved. The Russian Government was selling oil and other materials to Germany and some simple-minded people here complained about it. Which brought from the Secretary of the Russia Today Society a letter to the Manchester Guardian assuring its readers that the Russian Government was quite willing to sell to both sides.
The “Alternative” Society
The people who refer to present-day capitalism as the affluent society make much of the greater variety of articles that are available to be bought by the mass of the population. They quote aggregate figures of washing machines, motor cars, refrigerators, etc., and the figures look impressive. But Mr. Mark Abrams, writing in the Observer (23/10/60) provides an analysis which puts the matter in better perspective. He divides families into two groups, those in “which the chief earner is in a white-collar post and earning at least £800 a year,” and those not in this group. About a third of families fall into the first group, and two-thirds into the second group, which he calls “working-class.”
He includes receivers of property incomes in this group as well as wage and salary earners. He shows that “only one item—the television set—is to be found in the majority of British homes.’’ The rest are the possessions of minorities.
His list showing the percentage who own various items, among his “working-class” group is as follows:—
Television set 79 per cent.
Lawn mower 34 „ „
Washing machine … 37 „ „
Car 22 „ „
Refrigerator 13 „ „
House 29 „ „
He does not make the important point that the percentage who own all of these items is, on his figures, at most 13 per cent. He does not include a telephone in this list; had he done so the percentage owning the lot would probably be under 10 per cent.
And he does not stress the point that “own” is an ambiguous term since millions of the houses and the rest are only “owned” by the user in the sense that he has them while paying off the mortgage or hire purchase instalments. And “car” includes all the barely roadworthy crocks.
Another enquiry (also referred to in the Observer) brings out that “many families when furnishing a home, prefer to leave some rooms bare rather than incur a small millstone of debt.” For the majority of workers it is not a question of moving all the things on the list but of owning one or two because they cannot afford them all—the alternative society. You can have full choice as long as you can afford what you buy.
A description of life in Stepney by Godfrey Hodgson (Observer, 21/8/60.) had the following which should further dampen the optimists.
The Rev. Joseph Williamson, of St. Paul’s, Dock Street, said that the best living quarters in his parish were the Peabody Buildings. They had no baths. The lavatories and sinks were outside the flats themselves, and were shared. “In illness, in winter especially, this is bad.” But all the other blocks of old flats were far worse.
“Apart from the flats,” Father Williamson went on, “we have squalor beyond belief. Let me say in all seriousness that on a modern farm the accommodation provided for pigs is far superior.”
The myth still receives wide acceptance that all the countries have for a decade had the low level of unemployment ruling in Britain. This ignores the years of massive unemployment that afflicted the workers in Germany and Italy until comparatively recently. And it ignores Canada. The Financial Times (28/10/60) printed a graph of unemployment in the past four years since January, 1957. It shows unemployment in Canada reaching 9 per cent. and 10 per cent. in each winter and never falling below 4 per cent. except early in 1957 and for a short period in 1959.
The Canadian Government has been calling special conferences to deal with the situation and admits that it threatens to get worse. Many British immigrants are coming back. The Canadian motor industry has been asking for tariff protection against the import of British cars.
Canadian workers out of a job or threatened with dismissal because of falling sales can derive what comfort they can from their Prime Minister’s remark that “the situation would get worse if action were not taken, and he promised that it would be taken before Parliament met.” Times (24th September, 1960.)
Russian Trade Policy
The oil industry has been worried by big Russian sales of oil at below the prices ruling in the rest of the world, but the Times (11/10/60) hopefully interprets some remarks made by Krushchev at a lunch in New York when he was asked: —
Whether Russia would extend to other commodities the same sort of agreement on quotas that it had accepted already for tin, aluminium and diamonds.” According to Pravda “Mr. Krushchev replied that there was no reason why this principle should not be extended to other goods.”
The Times interprets this as meaning that “Russia is willing to join international commodity agreements provided that Western countries are prepared to allow the U.S.S.R. what it regards as a fair share of the market.” In the diamond industry it will be remembered that Russia now sells all its diamonds through the South African Diamond Group. A correspondent writing in Reynolds News (16/10/60) went further and suggested that Western oil interests are trying to do a deal with Russia.
The leading capitalists in the world, the mammoth international oil companies, are planning to break through the Cold War barriers that have throttled top-level political contact between East and West since the Paris Summit fiasco. They are determined to make a vast oil deal with the Russians. In effect, they want to set up a cartel agreement that would span all the world’s oil supplies . . . though the first news leaks, planned to test the temperature, refer to the scheme as a “ live and let live arrangement.”
The Plan: Russia should be allowed to move immediately and extensively into the huge European oil market. With a one-fifth increase in consumption in 1959, this is still the world’s biggest market despite mounting African and Asian demands.
In return, the Russians would offer the big international companies no oil challenge in the rest of the Western Zone and among the neutral nations.
Children may still be taught that honesty is the best policy and crime does not pay, but once they enter the adult world of business these notions fade away, not by “brainwashing” but simply by disuse; to be replaced by the practical rule that what is profitable is right, but when in doubt you should consult a good lawyer. In a successful take-over bid those who lose may set up an outcry about “shady methods,” but the business world really sees nothing wrong in taking over a concern at a fraction of its value, throwing out or buying out sitting directors, and getting rid of redundant workers. And when the takeover assumes the form of a government seizing foreign investments at dictated rates of compensation or none at all, the rest of the world sheds no tears over the “business immorality” of it but hurries in to trade with the new owners.
Cuba is a case in point. Fidel Castro’s government seized American-owned sugar plantations and factories and went on handling and selling the sugar on its own account. From the standout of capitalist morality these are “stolen goods.” So the American ex-owners started action to obstruct the sale of Cuban sugar by Castro’s government. At this point we turn to the Daily Telegraph (22/10/60), a correspondent of which had been making enquiries about the Americans’ chances.
The one thing entirely missing from the article was a nice upstanding declaration that of course they would not touch stolen goods, because that would be dishonest. The attitude rather was the purely legalistic one that the American companies do not stand a chance of proving their case. Not a denial that the Sugar is “stolen” but a near certainty that no American company can prove that a particular lot of unmarked Cuban sugar came from a particular factory which used to belong to the company.
The article quoted “a spokesman of a City firm” who said: “It is impossible to make any forecast. But if you have a cargo of, say 9,000 tons of sugar it would be very difficult for a person on the other side of the Atlantic to say: ‘These grains came from our factory’. “
Tate and Lyle’s are going on buying Cuban sugar and told the Daily Telegraph
“We have not allowed our buying policy to change as a result of the dispute between the Cubans and the Americans.”