End of an era?

With the commercial preoccupation for “anniversaries”, it is only a matter of time now before some predictable advertisers begin to cash in on the approaching year 2000. In the late 1980s, we are expected to feel a carefully cultivated pride in the achievements of the twentieth century. But with that second millennium a mere twelve years away, we would do well to replace social pride in this “civilisation” with a determination to end it.

Often it is the official facts and figures which reveal, as much as anything, the organised misery of the present social system. The most recent British Social Trends Survey, published in January by HMSO, explains among other things how the number of homeless people has continued to rise in recent years. By 1986 local authorities were officially accepting responsibility for a total of 120,000 homeless families. Between 1982 and 1986 the number of repossessions by building societies, in which failure to make mortgage payments results in eviction, more than trebled from 6,000 to 21,000 families each year. So much for people who “own their own homes”. Still, you could always take a break at the Dorchester Hotel in Park Lane, London, whose latest price list includes rooms for £957 per night.

Another tendency exposed by the survey was that more and more workers are able to enjoy the benefits of modem technology only at the price of stress caused by deeper and deeper debt, while the interest paid on HP agreements helps the company owners to become even richer. Between March 1982 and March 1987 consumer debt to credit companies doubled to £31 billion. At the end of 1986 almost 12 per cent of annual disposable income was owed to credit companies.

Meanwhile, according to the latest Inland Revenue Statistics (January 1988), the richest ten per cent of people in Britain possess more wealth than the rest of the population put together, while the poorest half of the adult population have seen their share of wealth drop from 17-21 per cent in 1979 to 15-19 per cent in 1985. Even at 21 per cent of the wealth, this was hardly something for the poorest 50 per cent of the population to celebrate, which is a sobering thought for those who dream of the “good old days” when people like James Callaghan rather than Margaret Thatcher, used to preside over this poverty. In any case, vast differences like these between the two classes in present-day society will not disappear through reforms; they will only go when the economic and social system which gives rise to them goes.

One in a hundred people in Britain now own between them one fifth of all marketable wealth. The poorest half of the population holds only seven per cent of such assets. Research by Professor Tony Atkinson and Dr Alan Harrison has also demonstrated the recent reversal of the trend which, from the 1920s to the 1970s, saw the slight filtering of wealth out of the hands of the richest five per cent (largely for tax purposes). From 1966 to 1984, for example, the wealth held by the richest five per cent fell from 56 per cent to 39 per cent of all marketable wealth; now it is rising again (Guardian, 13 January 1988).

Such details of class division are, of course, not confined to Britain but are global. For example, a national survey in the USA in 1986 showed at least 33 million people there to be suffering poverty even by government definitions, with two per cent of American families holding 54 per cent of total financial assets (Guardian, 15 November 1986).

All these facts and figures can be bewildering but they come to life more clearly when some of the more outspoken among the owning class open their mouths and let their own side down through lack of tact. For example, on 6 March 1986, the Daily Mail reported that William Baker had been sentenced to nine months in prison (eight months suspended) for petty theft. In mitigation, Baker pleaded: “I only want to feed my family”. In passing sentence. Judge Geoffrey Jones was quoted as saying: “I hope it is absolute hell, so that when you have served your twenty-eight days you won’t ever want to go back in there again. It is better to starve than to go out and burgle”. I wonder whether Judge Jones has ever had to make the choice?

Then there was the well publicised comment on private health made by Margaret Thatcher during last year’s general election campaign, when she said “I can go on the day I want, at the time I want, with the doctor I want”. Less than three months earlier the Health Education Council, it its last report before it was disbanded, had concluded that “All the major killer diseases now affect the poor more than the rich”. It is significant that attempts were made to suppress this report.

Of course, the evidence of the sickness of present-day society is almost endless, from hypothermia to nuclear pollution. The widespread recognition of these problems gives the desire for some sane and rational alternative a stronger base than ever before. We have conquered the technological problems long ago. Now, social relations must be transformed to free us from the constraints of the market society.

As the end of the decade and the end of the century approach, the great choice facing humanity is between production for monetary profit, the system which exists throughout the world, and production to meet human needs. Many people can at least see the desirability of a society in which needs would be met as a matter of course, not as the privileged luxury of those who can pay. If that desire is to become more then it must be brought about through working-class unity and democratic political action. We have to end the bosses’ ownership, which allows them to exploit us, rather than just negotiating the terms of that exploitation. This solidarity between workers in different parts of the world has emerged more clearly at certain times in history.

For decades the socialist alternative has been discredited by those state dictators in the Russian empire and elsewhere, who have described their state-capitalist regimes as “socialist”. But, for example, those workers in Poland who formed Solidarity were not deterred by this from challenging the power of their bosses. In doing so, they received messages of support from similar underground trade union movements in both Russia and China. Among those messages received from Russian and Chinese trade unions, and published at the time, were the following:

  Our own workers movement is only being born . . .
The struggle for the rights of ordinary people in Poland is also our fight . . .
Your victory clearly shows the tremendous power and new class consciousness generated by the solidarity of the working class . . .

So in this age of meaningless “anniversaries”, let us stick to the exciting task of creating our own history and making something worth celebrating.

Clifford Slapper