1980s >> 1985 >> no-975-november-1985

Running Commentary: Top people

In the same week as the official number of unemployed rose to 3,346,000 and as the Secretary of State for Employment, the unelected Lord Young, called for a ban on all wage rises unless they were linked to increases in productivity, a report was published on executives’ salaries and fringe benefits.

It shows that managing directors’ total average earnings, including bonuses and shares in profits, went up last year by 13.7 per cent — twice the rate of inflation. The average top director’s salary is now £37,588. In addition the average executive can expect to receive a company car, subsidised meals, life insurance, medical insurance and a bonus.

For those of us whose rate of pay is nearer £5,000, or whose only source of income is the social; for those likely to get no nearer to a company car than the works bus, no nearer to expense account lunches than free school meals for our children, and whose life insurance is likely to just about pay for our burial — for people like us. the working class, we may even have difficulty reading about how the capitalists live. For if The Times (4 October) is to be believed, it would need a managing director’s salary just to buy the report since it costs £125. No doubt they can claim it against tax!

The dispossessed
The Duke of Westminster, the richest man in Britain, has gone to the European Court of Human Rights complaining that a piece of “socialist” legislation has dispossessed him of £2,500,000.

So what is this “socialist” legislation that has sent him whimpering to Strasbourg? Have the rich been dispossessed without the working class noticing? The Act to which the Duke has taken such exception was introduced by that notorious dispossessor of the rich — Harold Wilson. In 1967 his government introduced the Leasehold Reform Act. which was designed to protect poor communities, especially those in the mining villages of South Wales, from losing their homes without compensation when their Victorian ground leases ran out. Freeholders were to be compelled to sell the lease to long-standing tenants at discounted prices.

The Duke of Westminster does not, as far as we know, own any pit cottages in South Wales, but he does have 200 acres of prime real estate in Belgravia in the centre of London. The desirable residences in this area — a little out of the price range of most mining families — are inhabited by members of the capitalist class who were only too pleased that Wilson’s “socialist” legislation enabled them to buy their leaseholds at knock-down prices. Hence the Duke’s cries of “foul” to the European Court.

While sections of the capitalist class are scrapping it out in front of 21 judges of the European Court, leading to a bonanza for the legal profession, we can’t help wondering what has happened to those mining families whom the Act was supposed to serve. Did they manage to buy the leaseholds on their cottages before they were thrown out of work by pit closures? If they did, can they now afford to maintain them? Do they wonder at the antics of the ruling class fighting over the results of a reform intended to benefit them?

Unnatural causes
Socialists would never claim that the establishment of a society based on common ownership and production for use will see an end to all of the world’s problems. There will still be events over which we cannot possibly have any control — such as earthquakes. But even so, deaths from such natural disasters will be minimised in socialism in a way that they cannot be now.

Most of the deaths that occurred in the recent Mexico City earthquake took place because buildings collapsed with their inhabitants trapped inside. But why did these buildings collapse? A reporter writing in the Observer (29 September) noted that among all the rubble and devastation many older buildings such as churches and palaces had remained intact and relatively undamaged. Why was it that these buildings withstood the quake and more modern ones did not? Many people are now beginning to ask the same questions. Why is it that when we have the knowledge and the skills to construct buildings that will not fall down in notorious earthquake zones like Mexico City, so many thousands died as soon as the tremor started? The simple and obvious answer is cost. It is more expensive to build houses, offices, hospitals and schools which can withstand earthquakes. In socialism, nobody’s life will ever again be sacrificed on the altar of profitability.

Protest limit
In the 1960s the streets of Berlin, as in other cities in Europe and North America, rang with cries of youthful protest. Many protestors focused attention on Axel Caesar Springer, a West German newspaper owner, who died at the end of September this year. He started his first newspaper in the ruins of Hamburg in 1948 with official British encouragement because of his virulent anti-communism. Springer went on to build a newspaper empire — Die Welt, Bild-Zeitung, Hamburger Abendblatt — and also acquired a huge publishing company. His newspapers went in for populist anti-socialist, anti-intellectual slogans heavily laced with sex, scandal and sentiment — a West German equivalent of the English tabloids.

During the late 1960s Springer became a “hate figure” for the youth movements which demanded the dismantling of his empire — the “dispossess Springer” campaign. Demonstrators tried to stop the distribution of his newspapers; writers refused to contribute to them; and people wore badges saying “Bild macht Dumm” — Bild makes you stupid.

But Springer wasn’t dispossessed; the protestors returned to university, and no doubt many of them later entered the corridors of power about which they were so scathing in their youth; and a small minority, including Ulrike Meinhof (herself once a newspaper reporter — she wrote of Springer: “his newspapers have more influence on German workers than their trade unions”), showed their contempt for established political processes by using the futile weapon of violence to make their political points. The demonstrations had achieved nothing: the capitalist class, including Springer, were still firmly in control; the repressive forces of the state had been increased to enable them to deal both with terrorism and peaceful “political extremists” (by means of the Berufsverbot, the notorious legislation which banned anyone with “left wing” views from working for the state, even in the capacity of teacher or social worker).

In the end, to take to the streets to demonstrate against just one symbol of capitalism the concentration of the media in the hands of the few, or the police, or nuclear weapons — is politically futile. What is needed is a political organisation of the whole working class which offers a clear programme of democratic action aimed at destroying capitalism itself.