Changing the System
If you have no freedom to change your life you may as well be in prison. Workers in capitalism get more porridge than empowerment.
In the comedy show Porridge the drama takes place in Slade prison. There are prisoners and warders; the warders have varying personalities, from the ‘hard but fair’ MacKay, to the liberal Barraclough, and a selection of lesser unsavoury screws. The prisoners also have their various characteristics, all of them in their varying ways trying to make the best of their lot.
Here, then, we have the prison system. As a prisoner you would, by and large, prefer to have Barraclough to MacKay, and MacKay to the more sadistic screws, especially when trying to obtain some kind of favour, or minor change to prison routine such as a film showing every week. Barraclough might do it, MacKay might not. But on the subject of imprisonment itself, all of the screws are united in upholding the prison system, the idea of prison, and the wider social idea of just imprisonment. There is no negotiation that can take place for the prisoners to release themselves, convert the prison to an open one, or otherwise interfere with the prison’s core function of imprisonment.
Imprisonment is a social fact, harder than the walls and bars that are erected on its foundation (though of course mutually reinforced by them). Without a system of imprisonment, there can be no prisons. In the same way capitalism’s own prison has its own rules, its areas of compromise, and its areas that are non-negotiable. The leaders of capitalism can change how capitalism works, within limits, but cannot change the fact of capitalism.
Capitalism as a social fact is written into every one of our lives, every moment of the day, and we reinforce it every time we work for a wage and pay for our own goods with those wages. Even if a leader were to want to change matters they would be trapped by our own resistance to change. If there is to be change it must come from us.
It is sometimes thought that socialists have a conspiracy theory regarding the state and leaders – that they are all plotting to do us in, regardless of political colour. In fact, all we have to say is this: that they are bound to observe the system which they find themselves in. Some, of course, are corrupt bastards. Others can cut various deals with each other, and specifically can join in the fight between capitalists over whether finance or manufacturing capital is to do better from the current administration, or decide whether to maximise profit in the short, medium or longer term, but all must maintain the production of profits from us, the subject class, and defend those profits against all comers, whether it be us (by using the police) or capitalists of other states (with the armed forces).
So, appeals to leaders are not the answer, on a matter so integral to capitalism as the defence of profits. You may as well ask for more liberal laws on shoplifting. There is, however, the possibility yet to be considered of a popular ‘political’ movement without an attack on the economics of capitalism. Again, this falls as flat on its face. Let’s return to our prison example. The prisoners decide to bypass the screws and hold a meeting in the prison yard about how bad prisons are. If the meeting is about entertainment, for example, the screws may be intimidated into providing something, even unasked for, such as a prison library; but discussion of liberty will bring out the truncheons. Prison riots don’t provoke early release: they provoke savage repression, beatings and subsequent lockdown. Imprisonment is non-negotiable, because it is fundamental to the prison itself, and you would have to attack the social structure of prisons and imprisonment to make any change. In the same way, any movement to change a fundamental feature of capitalism, as with disarmament, must address the basis of the system itself rather than engaging in wishful thinking.
Thinking about it, the very word ‘Defence’ should be sufficient clue as to how much input we are meant to have with the issue. We are not even allowed to call it what it is. Not ‘attack’, not ‘bands of hired killers’, not ‘death factory’, not ‘organised murder’, but defence, something which we are to be forced to accept as an integral part of our lives. In the same way, we are expected to be glad of a job rather than resentful of our exploitation, and happy to be protected by the police rather than disturbed by the presence of blue-clad armed thugs defending their masters’ ill-gotten profits from us at the bank and at the supermarket.
So, while there is leeway in capitalism for change on minor issues, there is little or none for its basics of profitmaking and defence of those profits – the extraction of wealth from us and the defence of this wealth against all comers. Bodies of armed thugs and killers are basic to private property itself, even in previous epochs, not just its latest manifestation in capitalism. Any appeal to the goodwill of our masters, or the leniency of their foremen, is futile.
In short, the making of profits out of us, the subject class, and defending these against us, their rightful owners, and fighting over these profits between themselves – all these things are non-negotiable, social facts as solid as iron bars and prison walls, and cannot be changed by appeal to leaders or by political action that does not address the fundamental problem from which warfare springs – class society, where social wealth is a private thing, spoils to be fought over rather than shared. Whilst wealth is private property, to be fought over, it will be fought over, and preparations for these conflicts will continue apace.
What, then, as they say, is to be done? As mentioned, the basis of the system in which we live and are currently trapped is the making of profits from us, the working class. Our time at work not spent reproducing our own existence – building modest houses, growing food, producing light and power to keep our machines and computers humming into the night – is a social surplus, appropriated by the capitalists through their waving deeds of ownership, stocks and shares, pieces of paper and the like. Everything that we make, over and above that required to keep us coming back through the factory gates or the office door on a Monday morning for another week of drudgery, is appropriated and turned to the following purposes: reproducing the factories and offices in which we work; reproducing the class structure of police, prisons, cash tills and banks, to keep us in our places; defending their ill-gotten gains against other capitalists at home and abroad, with government and warfare; and only then can what remains be spent on gin-palaces, cocaine and, soon, day trips to outer space.
The way to stop these expenditures should be obvious: take back the surplus! We produced it, after all, if anyone is feeling legalistic. Put the wealth in our hands! Whilst there is a structural reason for capitalists to prepare for and go to war against each other, we have no reason to fight each other – maybe individually over some resentment, but to put a million men a side into trenches drenched in poison gas or drop fire on children from the sky takes capitalism. Every fraction of social wealth that is returned to our hands is wealth not put to slaughter or to extravagant capitalist consumption.
We in the Socialist Party stand for such a position. We address the problem of disarmament, along with other unpleasant effects of capitalism, by looking to their root, in a class-divided society, which divisions create the institutional misery of war and arms production, as well as overwork, alienation and suicide, and the starvation of millions around the globe who in any sane society would be given the resources to realise their potential, not as an act of charity but from a simple sense of solidarity and a self-interest in every member of society being able to fully contribute.
All you will get with an appeal to the rich and supposedly powerful, to end arms production and spend money on the poor, is empty promises, disdain, and probably a sense of relief that once more the slaves are not yet powerful enough to rebel against their masters and must still beg for crumbs for themselves and their fellows.
If you think that the appeal to these leaders is rational, the answer will come back, perhaps sotto voce: “This is rational!” War is the logic of the capitalist state, just as policing is the logic of the class struggle at home, and the starvation and physical deprivation of more than a billion is likewise part of the logic of capitalism where if you do not produce a profit you cannot enter the economy and thus must starve.
No, we must work for ourselves, and we must address the problem at its root. The problem lies with capitalism, not with one of its features, and can only be resolved by grasping this root and tearing it from the ground.