1970s >> 1979 >> no-893-january-1979

Rolling in Poverty

To most people the word ‘poverty’ means one of two things. Either life below the breadline, such as experienced by many in this country in the last century and by millions still today in the less developed parts of the world. Or simply being badly off, of having enough to live on but not being able to afford the extra comforts which most other members of the community enjoy. Socialists also discern poverty of a third kind, of which however more later.

Looking at the first type of poverty, where people actually suffer sickness or death from undernourishment, we find that it has virtually disappeared from Britain and the other economically advanced countries of the world. The second type however is still rife. It exists among various sections of the population, the low-paid, the unemployed, the old, the disabled. Government statistics describe as “poor” families whose net income, less housing and work expenses, is less than 20 per cent over the Supplementary Benefit rate. In Britain 5 million families, and altogether 16 per cent of the population, fall into this category.

If the first type of poverty has been wiped out, why then should the second type still be so prevalent? After all we are no longer in the dark days of the 19th century when wealth was limited and goods seemed scarce. Today our local supermarket bursts at the seams, gleaming newly-designed cars fill the showrooms, huge £2 million airliners carry large numbers of people from one country and one continent to another. Why in the midst of all this plenty does there still not seem to be enough to go round with fair shares for all? Why this continual inequality?

While the conditions in which people lived and worked 100 years ago now seem a far-off nightmare to most of us, the lives they led did have one thing in common with those we lead today. They, like us, depended for their livelihoods on selling their energies to an employer for a wage or salary. Under far worse conditions admittedly, but the very fact that their existences revolved round the fact of having a job meant that their standard of living, like ours, was determined by what today is termed the job market. If the economy, particular industry or occupation in which they were engaged went into decline or needed fewer workers, they ran the risk either of a reduction in real wages or of unemployment. And for them this could mean poverty of the first kind, or starvation. The same situation exists today but with the obvious difference that the low-paid and unemployed, instead of being left to starve, are “cushioned” by state benefits of various kinds and hence suffer the second kind of poverty, having less to spend than the average worker. Yet this promotion from absolute poverty to state-defined poverty does not hide the fact that the economic basis of society, the competitive lines along which the world is run, has not changed since the 19th century. The need to make profits is still the dominant feature. As long as an enterprise is profitable (or “viable” in the language of state-run concerns) jobs remain and wages can even go up. But as soon as, for any reason at all, profits fall or become losses, lower real wages or unemployment result. A change of attitude on the part of governments in recent years means that such economic downturn does not bring the absolute poverty of former times. Governments have learned from experience that a large destitute work force is both potentially explosive and in the long term a neglect of a valuable resource. So they now prefer to take a more active part in the management of affairs and to keep their low-paid and unemployed workers physically and mentally fit. For when next there is an expansion of trade and profits to be made, their abilities can again be put to work. As neither governments nor employers can forsee periods of boom and recession in the market, labour, trained and untrained, must be ready at hand to exploit the upturn when it comes. Otherwise opportunities are missed and the markets go to foreign competitors who have been quicker off the mark.

So if the “poor”, the 16 per cent are still with us, it’s not because there isn’t enough to go round (with today’s technology and expertise, resources, if used rationally, could be easily sufficient to satisfy all people’s needs), but because the anarchic, uncontrollable nature of the economic system under which we live does not allow for the elimination of poverty, only for unpredictable ups and downs in the production and distribution of the world’s wealth.

The vast majority of this wealth anyway is concentrated in a small number of private hands. What all those who sell their bodily and mental energies for money (the vast majority of the population) get, unevenly distributed among them, is the tiny amount of wealth remaining. And here we have a third kind of poverty, the one mentioned at the beginning as being discernible to socialists. It is neither complete destitution nor life on low pay or the dole but the relative poverty of all the world’s workers, those who run the system from top to bottom and yet, whether “high- paid”, “low-paid” or unemployed, see only a tiny fraction of the wealth they produce. In absolute terms they are far better off than their fellow workers of the last century, but in relative terms they are worse off. Their percentage share of the total wealth is considerably lower than that which went to their 19th century counterparts.

This helps to explain why workers’ pay never seems to be enough. Even on high wages, the drabness of their lives and the comparative shoddiness of their possessions are as nothing compared with the vast wealth on view everywhere around them and, in particular, with the supreme comfort and luxury in which the small minority who own most of the wealth and don’t depend on being employed for their livelihood, are able to live. Not of course that the attainment of wealth necessarily leads to great personal satisfaction. But this is the illusion that everything in our competitive set-up, in particular advertising and the media, conspires to create. Furthermore to a society permeated by economic insecurity (how many of us do not tremble for our jobs at some time in our lives?) and the mentality of getting ahead at the expense of others envy and the urge to get as much money as possible “behind you” while the going’s good is a perfectly comprehensible reaction.

As an alternative to the system which produces and perpetuates poverty we have a completely different kind of society to propose, one which will do away with poverty in all its definitions. We propose a world community in which all the resources at man’s disposal are used to satisfy the needs of people, not of profits. There will be no poverty of any kind quite simply because all wealth will be owned in common and all persons will have free access to all goods. There will be no money, no employers, no wages, no frontiers. Only voluntary cooperation and economic equality In a society in which what you need will be readily available when you need it the “I want more” mentality will inevitably be absent. To achieve this change of society we need a revolution in ideas followed by a political revolution in which people by majority vote (not by minority violence) will usher out the present world system of buying and selling.

Howard Moss