Capitalism for the Workers – Pull the Other One
In her first speech as Prime Minister, outside Number 10, Theresa May assured those from ‘an ordinary working class family’ that she understood their problems and that ‘the government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few but by yours’.
That would be a turn up for the books for a Tory government. The Tory Party’s role has always been, precisely, to govern more or less consciously in the interest of the rich. But, to get into office to do this, they need the votes of ‘ordinary’ members of the majority class of wage and salary earners and their dependants who make up the great bulk of the electorate. Hence such empty promises and pie-crust pledges.
Governing in the interest of the working class (and May used the term twice in her speech) is impossible for any government as this simply cannot be done under capitalism. Capitalism is based on the ownership and control of the means of production by a ‘privileged few’ and production for the market with a view to profit, the source of their high incomes and privileged lifestyle.
Capitalism runs on profits. Any government, whatever its intentions, has to respect this and give priority to profits and conditions for profit-making, unless they want to provoke an economic crisis and slump. This means putting profit-making before meeting the needs of ‘ordinary working-class families’. All governments have done – have had to do – this, some Tory governments with relish, some Labour governments reluctantly, but they’ve all done it.
The most recent example is the governments of which May herself has been a leading member for the past six years which have been imposing austerity on the ‘non-privileged many’, cutting benefits and slashing services while at the same time reducing corporation tax on profits.
In a speech to the 2013 Tory Party Conference May had already talked of ‘reforming capitalism and making sure our economy works for all of us.’ Launching her campaign to become Tory Leader, in Birmingham on 10 July, she returned to this theme, criticising certain business practices such as inflated executive pay and bonuses and advocating what the papers called a ‘socially responsible capitalism’ (as in the Financial Times headline the following day: ‘Theresa May calls for responsible capitalism in pitch for Number 10’).
This, too, is a pipe-dream, not to say a contradiction in terms. Some individual capitalists do sometimes exaggerate and have to be reined in, but capitalism cannot be ‘socially responsible’, i.e. responsible to society as a whole. It is a profit-driven system that can only work in the interest of the privileged few who are the profit-takers.
In saying her government will govern in the interest of the working class May has stolen the Labour Party’s rhetoric, as it is Labour that has specialised in claiming to be the workers’ party, out to govern in their interest. But there is a certain fairness in this, as the pre-Corbyn Labour Party had taken to stealing the Tories’ rhetoric.
In his bid to become Labour leader in 2010 Ed Miliband wrote about building ‘a different model – a capitalism that works for the people and not the other way round’ (Guardian, 29 August 2010 under the headline ‘I’ll make capitalism work for the people’). He became Labour leader but never got the chance to fail in this doomed venture. Later, Labour’s shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umunna, was going around calling for a ‘more responsible’ and a ‘better capitalism’ (just Google ‘Umunna’ + ‘better capitalism’).
The reason given by the majority of Labour MPs for wanting to depose Corbyn is their perception that, with him as leader, the Labour Party is unelectable and so cannot, as some of them have been tearfully proclaiming, get into a position where it can govern in the interest of – of course – the working class. Are they any more sincere – or insincere – than May? Not that it matters. It is not a question of sincerity but of what is practicably possible, and it is not possible to govern capitalism in the interest of the majority class of wage and salary workers.
Corbyn and his supporters, too, stand for a form of capitalism though they don’t overtly express themselves in that way. They stand for a more state-directed capitalist economy which they call, in the tradition of Old Labour, ‘socialism.’ But it’s still capitalism and still would not work in the interest of the working class. They have, however, forced some of their opponents to fight on their terrain.
Corbyn’s challenger, Welsh MP Owen Smith, has even described himself as a ‘Bevanite’, after a left-wing ginger group in the Labour Party in the 1950s led by Aneurin Bevan (before he eventually became reconciled with the Labour leadership and its policies, supporting the British H-bomb on the grounds that, if he were Foreign Secretary, he wouldn’t want to go naked into the conference chamber).
Another Welsh one-time firebrand, Neil Kinnock, in a secretly recorded intervention at a meeting of Labour MPs on 4 July, even used the S-word:
‘In 1918, in the shadow of the Russian revolution, they made a deliberate, conscious, ideological choice, that they would not pursue the syndicalist road, that they would not pursue the revolutionary road – it was a real choice in those days. They would pursue the parliamentary road to socialism’ (Guardian, 8 July).
His emphasis was more on ‘the parliamentary road’ than on ‘socialism’, but he did make a relevant historical point. The Labour Party has never been committed to syndicalism as the doctrine that the best way to get improvements for workers under capitalism and eventually to overthrow it is by trade union action. Nor, even less, to ‘revolution’ in the sense of the armed insurrection advocated by the Bolsheviks. In fact, the Labour Party has never been committed to revolution in any sense, but only – and openly – to the gradual reform of capitalism into socialism (actually, state capitalism) through a long series of Acts of Parliament.
The ironic thing is that this is what Corbyn and McDonnell stand for, in opposition to talk of accepting capitalism as it is and trying to make it work better than the Tories. It is certainly not what a majority of Labour MPs stand for. But their approach historically didn’t work. Instead of the Labour Party gradually transforming capitalism into something else, it was the experience of governing capitalism that transformed the Labour Party into a mere alternative management team to the Tories for British Capitalism plc.
We don’t suppose many workers will be fooled by May’s promise to govern in their interest but a number still are and will be by the Labour Party’s. They shouldn’t be. Both the Labour Party and the Tory Party stand for capitalism, and no government, not even one under Corbyn, can make capitalism work for the working class.