Cooking the Books 2 – Who creates wealth?
‘Miners put faith in filters to prevent further dam disasters’ read a headline in the business section of the Times (1 November). You might think that this was an article about mineworkers being reassured that measures were in place to lessen the risk of them being drowned in some mining disaster. But you would be wrong. If you read on, it’s about measures being taken by ‘two of the world’s biggest mining groups’, BHP and Rio Tinto.
This distortion of the word ‘miner’ to mean mining companies and even the tycoons, oligarchs and other multi-billionaires who own them (see ‘world’s richest miners – bit.ly/3Edg5wK) is standard practice on business pages. Similarly engineering companies are referred to as ‘metal bashers’ (bit.ly/3tdWXbB). But the owners of these companies don’t work in a copper mine and don’t operate a machine-tool. They exploit those who do, by turning into profits what their employees produce over and above the value of their wages.
Such misuse of language is not confined to the business pages. It is also common amongst defenders of capitalism. The short-lived prime minister, Truss, declaimed to the Tory conference:
‘We believe in making it easier for our wealth creators, doers and makers to get things done’ (Daily Mirror, 1 October).
She was justifying the abolition of the highest rate of income tax and the lifting of the cap on bankers’ bonuses. Apparently, bankers and other rich people ‘create wealth’. They are certainly, in some cases, ‘doers’ (though not of anything useful from the point of view of human survival) but they are not ‘makers’ of anything and they don’t create any wealth.
So, let’s go back to basics. What is wealth and how is it created? Wealth is anything that is useful to humans. Some wealth such as the light and warmth from the Sun is a free ‘gift of Nature’ but most wealth has to be produced by human activity, by humans exercising their mental and physical energy. The materials on which humans work are, like the Sun’s rays, provided by nature. New wealth is ‘created’ when humans work to fashion or refashion materials that originally came from nature into something useful to them. Doing this is ‘production’.
Some of the materials humans work on are extracted directly from nature, as by copper or zinc miners; other materials worked on have already been transformed into wealth, as the pieces of metal that engineering workers alter or assemble.
The work of creating new wealth is not just physical. Mining is not only the work of physically extracting materials from the ground; engineering is not only changing pieces of metal into something else. Like all work, these also involve planning and designing the best way to do the physical work. All work involves both physical and mental activity, at both the production unit and the individual level. There is no way that wealth can be created other than by humans working on materials that originally came from nature.
Defenders of capitalism confuse wealth with the monetary value that wealth assumes under capitalism and so assume that anybody who makes a profit is ‘creating wealth’. This has a certain perverse logic from their point of view since capitalism is not a rational system geared to creating wealth to satisfy people’s needs. Its aim is to create monetary profits.
So, let’s rephrase the ephemeral Truss’s words: ‘We believe in making it easier for our profit-seekers to make profits’. Socialists, on the other hand, believe in making it possible for the wealth creators to make useful things to directly satisfy people’s needs. This is possible only on the basis of the common ownership and democratic control by society of the materials, natural and industrial, for creating wealth.