1960s >> 1962 >> no-699-november-1962

Not what it used to be

The rich are always sensitive about the sufferings of the poor; not, of course, to the point of being willing to get off their backs, but at least to the point of being glad to be told from time to time that the poor are not as poor as they used to be and that if any are it is their own fault. Such assurance is a great comfort to the rich. It carried them safely through the miseries of a dozen slumps and made them (and still makes them) genuinely indignant whenever the workers come out on strike, because, as the newspapers always inform them, strikes were justified in the bad old days but not now when everything is so nearly perfect. How are they to know that the newspapers were saying exactly the same in the “bad old days,” twenty, forty, a hundred years ago?

About a hundred years ago Marx and others were commenting on the great inequality of income and property between the workers and the property owners. Already the defenders of capitalism were at work suggesting that it used to be even more unequal and that things were improving daily. Ever since then there has been a continuous stream of that kind of propaganda. It was flowing strongly in the depression between the wars, as the following samples show:

  It appears safe to say that the distribution of capital is less unequal than it was before the war. (Manchester Guardian, 12 March 1936).


  . . . the great re-distribution of wealth and income that has happened in this country since the war. . . . (Times Literary Supplement, 7 March 1936.


  The gap between rich and poor in this country shows every sign of continuing to grow smaller. (Star, 9 April 1936).


The line has changed since then; not that it has been given up, but the dates have been altered and the great improvement is now supposed to have taken place since 1936. not before. In truth, apart from the continued post-war conditions of very low unemployment (which does not look so secure now) the main features of ownership of capital and division and of national income appear to have altered very little over a long period. Which explains why the stream of propaganda about alleged growing equality gets interrupted from time to time by statistical inquiries showing how little, if any, change there actually has been.


We have just had such an inquiry in Professor Titmuss’ Income Distribution and Social Change (Allen and Unwin, 25s.). He refers to the widespread opinion among politicians and economists that this country had become more a much more equal society than it was before the war and sets out to examine again the statistical material on which this opinion has rested. He makes many criticisms of the material on national income distribution and the way it has been interpreted (and also some criticisms of statistics of ownership of wealth). He holds that the earlier studies may have reached wrong conclusions: there is, he claims, need for a re-examination because the belief in greater equality of income distribution may be seriously in error.


But no matter what Professor Titmuss writes about it, the propaganda claiming that things are better than they were will persist.


Among other reasons, it always suits the political party in power to argue that its policies have had or will have a beneficial effect in the direction of diminishing poverty and it can be taken as certain that there will be an almost universal agreement in the Press and elsewhere not to consider doing anything that matters about the fundamental social issue of the means of production and distribution, land, factories, etc., being owned by a small minority of the population. A case in point is the review of Titmuss’ book by Samuel Brittan in the Observer (Sept, 30th, 1962). He recognises, as does Titmuss, that distribution of income cannot be considered apart from the ownership of wealth, and actually remarks that “the whole subject of inequality is largely discussed without hypocrisy. The basic question is the ownership of personal wealth.” Yet this promising opening leads on to the pettifogging and irrelevant proposal that there should be “a moderate and graduated annual tax on personal wealth in the upper incomes.”


Just how this is supposed to alter the basic situation is not explained.


Edgar Hardcastle