GB News and Gary’s Economics
A recent slot for the Socialist Party on a GB News chat show (bit.ly/3Umo53W) revealed an interesting thing about what socialists are up against: not only do people not agree on what socialism is, they don’t agree on what capitalism is either. So when we’re arguing with a pro-capitalist, we should not make the mistake of thinking that we know what they’re defending, or that even they know what they’re defending. They might be talking about something else entirely.
The pro-capitalist on the show seemed to be arguing that the less-developed, 19th century ‘small-business’ economy was ‘real’ capitalism, in which the population supposedly shared in the general wealth and welfare to a far greater degree than today, when the world has been taken over by a hideous monster known as ‘corporatism’. As if to emphasise how terrible our modern corporate affliction is, he was perhaps tempted to overegg the pudding in relation to the Victorian incarnation of the profit system. Incredibly, he even summed up the conditions of workers in that age of slums, workhouses, TB, cholera and child labour as ‘they’d never had it so good’.
Which all goes to show, as regular readers know very well, the importance of precise definitions. It’s such second nature to us that it comes as a surprise to find that other people don’t operate that way. ‘Socialism’ in many people’s minds is just this cloudy amorphous notion that can easily mean anything to anyone. And apparently ‘capitalism’ too can mean anything.
For the record, you can see our definition of socialism in the Declaration of Principles, on page 23 of this issue, or on the website here (bit.ly/3Umo2Fi). And equally for the record, here is our definition of capitalism: a system of society based on the production of wealth for sale on a market for a profit. Things that are produced for sale are called commodities. Other societies had commodities, but their economies weren’t based on commodity production. Other societies produced things (of course they did), but those things weren’t produced primarily for sale so they weren’t commodities. Other societies had markets, but the markets weren’t the main reason for the production.
From this clear and straightforward definition it follows that any society which is based on production for sale on a market is a capitalist country, regardless of what that society might say about itself, eg. North Korea, Venezuela, etc. Many other consequences can also be logically derived, including the drive for perpetual growth, the super-concentration of capital, wildly increasing inequality, the tightening stranglehold of the rich on the machinery of power and propaganda, national and world wars, and global environmental devastation. Without that core definition, the architecture of economics falls apart into a miasma of vagueness and a tendency to discuss each issue in isolation, as if it was unrelated to the others.
An example of this kind of vagueness was evident in a recent Novara Media video (bit.ly/3TkQJBo) where Aaron Bastani, author of Fully Automated Luxury Communism (reviewed here – bit.ly/3UlGI8m) and sporting a funky MarxTM t-shirt, interviewed hip street economist Gary Stevenson, whose own YouTube channel Gary’s Economics (bit.ly/3tdDtE8) has been getting a lot of favourable attention lately, including from mainstream media.
Stevenson is a likeable, articulate and clearly passionate man who, having previously made a pile as a former top Citibank trader, is now on a mission to explain to ‘ordinary working-class people’ why it is that they are getting poorer while the rich are getting richer, and that, contrary to what they themselves pontificate about, ‘economics experts’ in universities and in the media don’t know or indeed care why this is. His jargon-free and swear-word rich elucidations of interest rates, inflation, gilt trading and national deficits feel like a breath of fresh air. He is motivated by an obviously sincere conviction that the poor are allowing themselves to be impoverished mainly because they don’t understand how economics works, which to an extent is self-evidently true, even if his trader’s take on it is not the same as ours.
One of his arguments is that governments make a fatal mistake simply handing money to the rich without having any means to tax it back again. This is a rather more sophisticated argument than the morally-motivated populist Tax-the-Rich agenda we’ve seen from groups like Occupy or individuals like US Democrat Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. He’s quite right to point out that governments in general struggle to get money back from the rich through tax. Indeed that’s why governments rely largely on stealth-taxing the rich indirectly through the wages they pay to workers. He wants to tax them directly, though, because even though some flight of capital might occur, landed assets don’t move, and those assets can be taxed regardless of who owns them. Would the working class benefit if the state taxed the rich a lot more? In the short term perhaps in some ways through more public spending, but not in any way that would significantly transform their lot in life as wage slaves. And the rich would fight such taxes with every influence they can muster, because quite apart from financial considerations, big taxes make for a big state and they don’t want a state that’s rich and powerful enough to keep siphoning off their profits and interfering with their dodgy dealings.
So what’s the vagueness referred to earlier? Bastani, possibly somewhat overwhelmed by Stevenson’s charisma and fast-talking economic chops, seemed rather to have forgotten to get to the nub of what, for a Marxist, the conversation really ought to have been about. At one point Stevenson almost invites him to, when he says that, where he comes from in Ilford, people’s idea of capitalism is that’s it’s supposed to be a fair system where hard work, thrift and merit are ultimately rewarded, and they can’t understand why this doesn’t seem to happen in reality. That should have been the moment to nail down definitions, to identify exactly what capitalism was, and thereby to confront the question that was waiting all along like the elephant in the room – never mind trying to fix the unfixable, Gary, why don’t we talk about superseding the capitalist system itself, and having a society with no rich and poor, and no inequality in the first place?