2000s >> 2002 >> no-1173-may-2002

The Casino Society or Heads They Win, Tails We Lose

Gambling is big business and is set to become even bigger. At present Britons spend £7.3 billion a year on all forms of gambling – more than £3 a week for every adult. The casino industry alone mops up £3 billion a year and other popular forms of gambling include horse racing, the dogs and the National Lottery. Some people don’t gamble at all but others become addicted, in the worst cases losing all their money soon after pay or dole day.

Psychologists who study gambling offer various explanation of why it is done – the pleasure (of winning or even losing), to get rich quick, as a substitute for sex, and so on. Whatever the motive or the explanation, gambling as an industry exemplifies capitalism: profit-seeking, ruthless, manipulative, ready to exploit the weak and seeking the state as its partner.

New Labour has recently announced proposed legislative changes that will almost completely decontrol gambling. Up to now gambling has been severely limited by law. Casinos have had to be for members only and have been restricted in their advertising and location. The proposed legislation will allow all forms of betting anywhere, from one-arm bandits to roulette and blackjack and for stakes as high as £1 million. Casinos will be able to advertise, to set up shop anywhere and mix gambling with drinking, lap dancing and shopping.

The reason for the new legislation is not hard to see. British capitalists operating in the gambling sector have long envied the freedom allowed to their overseas brethren to make big profits. Las Vegas is pointed to as a licence to print money that should be extended to Britain and in particular to honey pots like London and Blackpool. Of course there are conservative voices that are not happy with such a prospect. Simon Jenkins, writing in the Evening Standard (28 March), asks, “Do we really want London to be the new Las Vegas?” With tongue positioned not too far from cheek he says, “If I did not know ministers to be incorruptible, I would see the hand of the Mob.”

What are likely to be the consequences of these “reforms” of gambling law? Almost certainly the amount of gambling will soar. It won’t necessarily involve a much higher proportion of the population, but it will certainly pose greater risks of penury for those who are bitten by the gambling bug. It is the most addictive of risk activities and unlike drugs is not confined to age groups or life styles (didn’t the late Queen Mother, in her lucrative role of the durable royal with the common touch, like a couple of bob on the gee-gees?).

Another consequence of the proposed changes is the shift of profitable business from the small-time operators to big business. The latter is known to have fiercely lobbied ministers for the changes – hence Jenkins’s provocative remark about incorruptibility. The commercial victims of the loosened legislation will be existing fruit-machine franchisees and National Lottery outlets. These are mostly local pubs and newsagents. They will face greater risks of going under, just as many small shopkeepers have succumbed to the success of the supermarkets and hypermarkets.

Socialists don’t object to gambling from any sourpuss point of view or moral high ground. We object to it as a manifestation of capitalism, as we object to all manifestations of capitalism. There may well be games of chance, playful or benign forms of competition in socialist society – but no exploitation of other human beings. So we say to our fellow workers: Don’t be taken for mark-punters for ever. Flush the profit system down the toilet of history.

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