Cooking the Books 2: What Classless Society?

At one time, a long time ago now, when the Labour Party still retained some sort of vague commitment to being opposed to the workings of capitalism it used to say that it favoured the redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. They were going (they said) to establish a more equal society by taxing the rich and using the money to provide better public services for the rest of us.

Actually, in the last century there was a long-term trend towards a less uneven distribution  of wealth ownership. But this did not result from any deliberate policy on the part of governments (the wealthy soon found ways of minimising or avoiding taxes on their existing wealth and on their accumulation of more wealth), but rather from a majority of people coming to own more consumer goods, etc. resulting in the total amount of wealth owned by the non-rich sections of society rising faster than the total amount owned by the wealthy.

The rich still got richer – and, in absolute terms, each one of them got more than each of the rest of us – but, proportionately, together they got less than the rest of us as a group. There was no redistribution from them to us; which would have gone against the logic of capitalism involving as it does the accumulation of more and more capital in the hands of a capitalist class.

In the 1990s this long-term trend (which continued even under Thatcher) was reversed. Since 1991 the rich have been getting richer faster than the rest of us – despite a Labour government. In December the Office for National Statistics published the figures for the latest available year, 2002. Two sets of figures are published, one for all marketable wealth and the other for ““marketable wealth less value of dwellings”. Since capitalism is based on the concentration of the ownership of the means of wealth-production  in the hands of a tiny minority, and since houses are not means of production, it is the second set of figures that are the more relevant (even if they still include other items of wealth such as cars and hi-fi equipment that are also not means of production),

These figures (published on the ONS website at  show how things have changed since 1996, as the situation inherited by the present Labour government when it came into office:

                                     1996  1999 2000 2001 2002
Top 1% owned               26      34     33     34     35
Top 5%                           49      59     59     58     62
Bottom 95%                    51      41     41     42     38
Bottom 50%                      6       3        2       2       2

As can be seen, whereas in 1996 the top 5 percent owned as much as the bottom 95 per cent – or one out of every 19 persons owned as much as the other 19 (of whom half owned virtually nothing) taken together – by 2002 the top 5 percent owned nearly 40 percent than the rest of us.

Who says that we’re living in a classless society? Who says that the capitalist class have died out? Who says that the Labour Party can deliver a more equal society or is even trying to?

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