Cooking the Books: Dreaming of Ending Poverty

‘Ending poverty need not be a utopian dream’, was the headline of an article by Philip Collins in the Times (2 September), subheaded ‘Thomas More’s vision of a perfect society may be outlandish but it reminds us that Britain can change for the better.’

This year is the 500th anniversary of the publication of More’s Utopia in Latin. An English translation appeared  in 1551. More did imagine a regimented society with for instance, as Collins pointed out, everyone having to dress the same. But it is not this aspect that has interested socialists. It’s his imaging a society without private property where there is planned production to meet needs and whose members have free access to what they need ‘without money, without exchaunge, without any gage, pawne, or pledge.’

Collins (who was Blair’s speechwriter) is an open supporter of capitalism and thinks that a society based on minority ownership of the means of life and production for profit can end poverty. By ‘poverty’ he means a lack of enough means of consumption.  As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation puts it, ‘poverty means not being able to heat your home, pay your rent, or buy essentials for your children.’ 

This is a consequence, for some, of poverty in the means of production as these are owned and controlled by a minority only of society. Such poverty is the basis of capitalism and so is never going to be ended as long as capitalism lasts. But what about poverty in the means of consumption? Most people in Britain are able to heat their home, pay for their housing and buy essentials for their children and so are not poor in that sense. They get enough to keep themselves fit for work, raise children to replace them, and save something for their old age. But some, over 10 percent of the population, do not

How does Collins think this can be ended? He follows the Rowntree Foundation which has elaborated a plan to ‘solve’ poverty. Under this, by 2030 ‘no one is ever destitute; less than one in ten of the population are in poverty at any one time; and nobody is in poverty for more than two years.’ This doesn’t sound like ending poverty, more like accepting that ‘the poor ye shall always have’ and trying to palliate it.

In any event, their plan is based on there being steady long-term economic growth, which capitalism is incapable of delivering. This, because under it production goes through a series of ever-recurring boom/slump cycles, during the slump phase of which poverty increases. The plan also assumes that more money will be allocated to pay more effective benefits whereas this would eat into profits and, in a period of slump, as there has been since 2009, governments are obliged to cut back on benefits to relieve the burden of taxation on profits.

Despite what Collins claims, abolishing poverty under capitalism is an unrealistic dream. Ensuring that everybody, literally everybody, gets decent food, clothing, housing, education and the other things needed for an enjoyable life is only possible on the basis of the common ownership of the means of production because society, freed from vested interests and production for profit, would then be in a position to use modern technology to produce what is needed to do this. As More pointed out, ‘seying they be all thereof parteners equallie, therefore can no man there be poore or nedie.’

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