1980s >> 1984 >> no-953-january-1984

Know your place

    “I can’t cope with it. Sometimes I have to go hungry in order to feed the child. For two or three days at a time, I go without food. I just drink a cup of tea” (a single parent, Breadline Britain. LWT, 1983). 

  “Roland Waller (Tiny) Chairman and Managing Director of Lonrho, according to the company’s latest set of accounts, picked up £266,034 in salary (1982). plus £3,990,513 in dividends. His income of £4,250,000 is the equivalent of £82,000 per week” (Labour Research, 1983).

What is wealth? It is the result of human effort being applied to the material environment. In order for human society to continue it needs to produce wealth. As our technology to operate on the environment has been changed in character, so the system of social relations in which we combine to produce wealth has changed. Very early forms of human beings arranged their production and distribution of wealth on a communistic basis. They suffered under no governments. They had no notion of individual property by which one person could exclude others from access to the wealth which many of them had taken part in helping to produce.

When, for reasons of scarcity of raw materials, competition between communities arose, the phenomenon of property took root. Since the emergence of property society the ways in which we have related to each other in the process of producing wealth have been changing. One epoch in human history was characterised by most of the wealth producers being physically owned and possessed by the ruling class. These were the ancient slave societies: what the doublespeak history books describe as the “ancient democracies of Greece and Rome”.

Another era in our history worked on the basis of a pyramidal hierarchy with the monarch at the pinnacle and beneath him aristocrats, knights, serfs and peasants. The modern set of social relationships in which we work to produce wealth are those of the profit system — capitalism. We have reached a stage where we have developed a very efficient means of producing and distributing wealth, but the system (the set of social relations) that we use to produce and distribute wealth is one which conflicts with the needs of the majority of people. Today the factories, farms, offices, transport and communications networks are owned by a small minority of people and state bureaucracies. In return for wages and salaries the majority work for the minority. Each worker is paid less than the value of what he or she produces and the capital-owning minority live off the surplus value thus donated by the workers.

So the rich get increasingly rich by not working, while the workers remain in a constant state of poverty as wages and salaries are used up before the end of each week or month. Production in this system is aimed at the goal of profit. From the point of view of the capitalist there is no reason to allow commodities to be produced if there is no prospect of being able to sell them for a profit. This explains why millions of human beings die each year from starvation although society has the capacity to produce more than enough for everyone.

The nineteenth century social investigators Booth and Rowntree exposed and commented on the wretched poverty of Victorian society. Many subsequent improvements in society were, and still are, measured against this sort of backdrop. But the argument that “at least we are better off than we used to be” is not very helpful. You could say that compared with the workers of a century ago. the workers of today are not poor. But poverty is not measured by reference to the past. It needs to be measured by reference to the present. Bearing in mind the sort of prosperity that most people could enjoy today because of what we could produce, the majority are poor. There are, of course, degrees of poverty ranging from the millions who are destitute and starving to the millions who exhaust themselves each week in order to varnish the mediocrity of their lives with artificial fun.

Since the implementation of Beveridge’s plan for social security by the Attlee government of 1945-50 some people have opposed the urgent need for socialism — that is classless society — on the grounds that you could, after all, make capitalism run well for the working class. Because capitalism works on the principle of continuous impoverishment of the working class it can never work in our interest, any more than a prison can be designed to work in the interest of the prisoners. The welfare state provides a careful system of indoctrination to produce literate, numerate. punctual, obedient and docile wage- slaves: state education; and a cheap medical service to keep workers just healthy enough. In a House of Commons debate on the Beveridge Report. Quintin Hogg MP (now Lord Hailsham) remarked that.

Some of my honorable Friends seem to overlook one or two ultimate facts about social reform. The first is that if you do not give the people social reform they arc going to give you social revolution . . .

(Parliamentary Debates. 17 February. 1943, Col. 1818)

In fact, Beveridge himself saw his plan as a means of making the existing social services “more economical”. He observed that.

It is to the interest of employers as such that the employees should have security, should be properly maintained during the inevitable intervals of unemployment or of sickness, should have the content which helps to make them efficient producers.

(Beveridge Report. Social Insurance and Allied Services, p. 109)

In the same vein Samuel Courtauld, millionaire chairman of the great rayon company. said that he was.

   . . . strongly in favour of the principles and almost all of the proposals of the Beveridge Report . . .  I have not the faintest doubt that if we can survive the first severe business contraction which arises after the war, social security of this nature will be about the most profitable long-term investment the country could make. It will not undermine the morale of the nation’s workers: it will ultimately lead to higher efficiency among them and a lowering of production costs.

(Manchester Guardian, 19 February 1943).

The relative poverty of the majority is endemic to capitalism. The majority under this system will have to live second-rate lives. And being in this condition of poverty cannot be easily escaped from. Generally, you do not get rich by working hard. You just get tired.

Poverty is a social problem today not because there are insufficient resources. We can project laboratories into space. We can construct thriving cities where once there was desert. The current state of agricultural and industrial technique enable us to adequately feed and clothe all of the world’s 4.2 billion inhabitants. The political parties which stand to operate this present social system do not have a solution to the problem of poverty. According to the “virtuous” Victorian values advocated by vocal members of the Conservative Party it is individual frailty or idleness which is the cause of poverty although not perhaps in the case of the House of Lords and the top exclusive gentlemen’s clubs.

Throughout its history, including prior to the seven occasions when it has formed the government, the Labour Party has made promises about reducing poverty. Perhaps more so than the other parties, it is seen as the party to do away with poverty. But because it has only ever stood to run capitalism the Labour Party has always, as a government, acted against the interest of the working class. During their last period of office, according to the Department of Health and Social Security, the number of poor families increased by 37 per cent between 1974 and 1977. Over the same period the number of individuals living in poverty increased by 43 per cent. The social service cuts introduced by the last Labour government meant the loss of 25,000 hospital beds. In its first two years, the share of the nation’s wealth held by the top five per cent of people increased from 43.1 per cent to 46.2 per cent, while that of the bottom 50 per cent of the population fell from 7.1 per cent to 5.6 per cent.

 

Although the SDP/Liberal policy is difficult to discover, it appears that the Alliance is moderately in favour of moderately reducing poverty to an acceptable level. Before it eliminates poverty from society, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) seeks to sack Thatcher, reform the Labour Party and create more jobs. As jobs, or employment, or exploitation, were the cause of poverty in the first place, voting Labour to abolish poverty is about as logical as jumping into the bath in order to get dry.

 

The only solution to poverty is for the majority of people to act democratically and to put the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth into the hands of the whole community. With production carried out on the basis of “from each according to ability, to each according to need” there will be no poverty, just one prosperous world community. There will be no antagonism of economic interest between those who produce but do not possess and those who possess but do not produce. With one worldwide community democratically using the earth’s resources to provide for our needs, we will finally have stepped from the contradictions of property society. The most painful and stark contradiction we suffer now is that the profit system itself has created a single, world-integrated society of production. Labour and resources come together from all over the planet to constitute many goods. Commerce has accelerated the development of highly efficient communications networks (including telephones, television communication, computer link-ups and holographs) and transport systems. But standing in the way, preventing this technology from being used to satisfy our needs, is the tyrannous idea that we need to have a social system with property owners, money, profits, wages, policemen, prisons, passports and nations. In his essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism, Oscar Wilde observed:

 

There is only one class in the community that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. The poor can think of nothing else. That is the misery of being poor.

 

Gary Jay