Poverty is an emotive word which must be carefully defined. It cannot be defined by any given quantity or quality, whether of possessions or things freely available. Truly, it can only be defined as a relationship between the actual state of things and the potentiality. The native of a primitive tribal society who is free to help himself to the simple food, clothing and shelter of his environment does not live in poverty. As far as he is concerned he could not be richer because everything that he knows is there to be taken. The moment he becomes poor and dissatisfied is when he develops a greater knowledge of the world and discovers things previously unknown to him. He would develop new needs in response to his changed environment as he found new ways and means to satisfy his physical and social desires. If they were not satisfied he would consider himself deprived and living in poverty.
The above process would occur if our primitive tribesman were suddenly transported to modern-day New York, London or Belgrade. Once he had found an employer (a euphemism for “user”) he would now have a vastly greater standard of living but would be living in poverty. He would be denied access to most of the immense mountain of wealth which would be displayed, advertized, and given the hard-sell wherever he went. Despite the motorcars, colour TV, holidays abroad, etc., which provide the illusion of increasing social status, the various forms in which these and all other commodities are marketed shatter that illusion. They range from the cheap imitations and bare utility models (or futility if you expect them to work) and then gradually upwards to the top-class de-luxe models made for jet-set oneupmanship rather than use. This fact shows clearly the poverty that exists in capitalist society. The production lines of capitalism are geared not to producing good quality but to producing the poor quality that workers can afford.
The popular theory of why workers live in poverty (i.e. the capitalists, Tory government, shopkeepers etc., putting up prices). is an indication of support for capitalism rather than opposition to it. It implies that if we only had such things as “fair” prices and “fair” wages we could all live in splendid affluence. Without inflation the working class would still live in poverty as they did before inflation “became” the cause of all our economic woes. The poverty of the working class is caused by the exploitation that takes place at the point of production and not by any robbery at the point of distribution, and Marx’s Labour Theory of Value explains clearly how the exploitation occurs.
The legalized, and in that sense perfectly “fair”, robbery takes place when the worker, having sold his labour-power (ability to work) to some member or section of the capitalist class, gets to work with the machinery and raw materials already purchased by his employer and produces a new commodity. This new commodity has a greater value than the sum-total of its original components—the raw materials, the machinery, and the labour-power that produced it. This surplus value which is created comes solely from the unique character of labour-power which creates new value in the course of its use by the purchaser, the capitalist. The basis of exploitation lies in the fact that the value of all commodities is determined by the quantity and quality of labour required in their production.
Surplus value is created because the capitalist does not pay for the workers’ labour but for his ability to labour. Once the worker starts to labour, the work that he does no longer belongs to him; the capitalist has already bought his labour-power for a contracted period of time, and everything produced in that time is the capitalist’s property. The value of the worker’s labour-power is, like all other commodities, determined by the quantity and quality of labour needed for its production. This, simply stated, is the food, clothing, shelter, etc., that allows the worker to keep himself reasonably fit in mind and body for his work and also allows for the raising of children to eventually be fit for this purpose. The result of this is that:
The worker receives means of subsistence in exchange for his labour power, but the capitalist receives in exchange for his means of subsistence labour, the productive activity of the worker, the creative power whereby the worker not only replaces what he consumes but gives to . . . [the capital laid out, on men, machinery, and materials] . . . a greater value than it previously possessed, (Wage Labour and Capital. 1970 Moscow ed. Page 30).
This means that the working class must always live in poverty. Having no access to any means of production of their own, in order to live they must sell their ability to work to the owning class and produce a surplus. The increasing of this surplus is the inexorable motive-force of all capitalist production. It determines which sections of the capitalist class will best be able to expand and crush their competitors, and inevitably leads to the constantly increasing rate at which this surplus is extracted from the working class. No matter how high their living standards may increase, the workers’ relative poverty only increases (profits, which give a deceptively low indication of the true rate of exploitation, increased at approximately double the rate of wages during the past year).
To end this exploitation, whereby the working class gets ever poorer and the idle class ever richer, a revolutionary transformation in the whole basis of society is needed. The present class ownership of the means of life and the relations resulting from it must be completely abolished. Everything in the earth and on it must become the common property of the people of the world to be used to satisfy their needs and wants. Only by this can poverty be ended.
The resources, the organizational ability, and the technology to do this exist today. What is lacking is the social organization that could control and utilize the productive forces in the most effective way. In capitalism a large proportion of these forces are used in the negative capacity of maintaining the divisions in society. The money system, which regulates exchange between owners and non-owners, would be totally unnecessary in a society where all the means and instruments of production and distribution would be commonly owned. The police forces, armies, navies, air forces, and all their expensive ironmongery which is used to maintain the ruling class’s supremacy at home and abroad, would have no place in a society without classes or borders.
Finally, the profit motive of capitalist production ensures that many of society’s productive forces are never even used. All production is geared to what economists call “effective demand” which is not what people want but what they can afford to buy. This is why factories are closed, men made redundant, and automation plans shelved while people are still obviously still in need. In fact, one of the greatest problems of capitalist production is to avoid producing so much that prices will fall to unprofitable levels and warehouses and stores start to fill with unsaleable goods,
The popular conception of Socialism (or Communism) is of sharing-out poverty by retaining the present social organization but dividing up the existing wealth equally among everybody. This idea is a moralistic fantasy that would probably end up in more vicious divisions than before. The poverty that exists today can only be ended by a real revolutionary transformation — the establishment of a world-wide community of free men and women in total control of the productive forces of society. This is what Socialism means, and it can only be established by your active participation in a world Socialist movement that accepts no compromise with poverty.