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Committee for a Workers International :: Socialist Alternative
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The Socialist Party is a campaigning party. We are involved in many day-to-day battles in defence of working-class people - from opposing evictions, to campaigning to stop hospital closures, to fighting for a £10-an-hour minimum wage, to demanding the trade unions organise a 24-hour general strike against austerity. We support Jeremy Corbyn in the battle against the Blairites. In every struggle in which we are involved, however, we also argue the case for socialism.
We say there is an alternative to endless misery. Today, more than ever before in human history, enormous wealth, science and technique exists which could, if properly harnessed, easily provide all of humanity with the necessities of life that capitalism cannot. Yet we are being told that the most basic public services can no longer be afforded. It is not much to expect a job with a living wage, a secure and high-quality home, and a dignified retirement with a living income, yet in 21st century Britain these are becoming unobtainable luxuries for millions. The obstacle to achieving these modest aspirations is capitalism: a system that puts the production of profit for the few - the millionaire and billionaire capitalist owners of industry and the resources of society - before the social needs of the majority - the multi-billion poor and working class throughout the world.
Capitalism is an economic system which has the exploitation of the working class at its heart. Profit, which provides its driving force, is, as Karl Marx - the founder of scientific socialism - explained over 150 years ago, "the unpaid labour of the working class". From this flow all the inequalities of capitalism, which the current crisis has laid bare. Even in boom time the working class cannot afford to buy back the full product of its labour power. In periods of growth capitalism can temporarily overcome this problem by ploughing part of its profits into developing the means of production. This in turn creates new factories, workplaces - the organisation of science and technique - but at a certain stage all the same contradictions reappear. Capitalism is an inherently unstable system, riven by contradictions, which swings from boom to slump. However, in today's world the booms have become weaker and the slumps deeper. We are now in the worst crisis since the 1930s.
Yet the capitalists are literally drowning in profits. In Britain alone, the major corporations are hoarding an incredible £750 billion, which they are not investing because they do not consider they would make a sufficient profit from it. The capitalists are thus betraying their historical purpose. In the past, despite the many horrors of capitalism, it at least drove society forward by developing the means of production. Today, the sickness of the system is summed up by a failure to invest. Even before the recession, levels of capital investment were historically low. Instead of investing in manufacturing, the capitalist class tended to gamble on the world's financial markets because it was more profitable. The bursting of the huge bubbles that were created was the trigger for the 'great recession'. British capitalism has led the world in this process with massive deindustrialisation. For example, Germany's manufacturing base accounts for 20% of its economy but Britain's is just 10.5%. British capitalism today is a third-class power. Only its finance and banking sector is a world 'leader', including leading the way into the catastrophic crisis of 2008.
While capitalism is driving more and more people to food banks in order to make ends meet, socialism would be able to meet people's very modest demands - for a living income, a secure home, some leisure time - and much more, by the planned use of the resources of society for the benefit of all. By socialism we do not mean the old dictatorial regimes of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, which were dominated by a privileged caste of bureaucrats. They presided over a planned economy which played a progressive role until it was strangled by bureaucratic mismanagement. We stand for international socialism, based on mass participation in the control and running of industry and society.
Even in this society, capitalism can be forced to give concessions which improve the living conditions of the majority, particularly when they are faced with mass movements which make them fear that their system is under threat. We support and campaign for every measure which improves the living conditions of working-class people, no matter how minor. However, we also recognise that - as long as we live in a capitalist society - we will always face a constant struggle to keep any gains which we win, with the capitalist class constantly searching for ways to restore their profits by taking back what we've won.
We support the programme which Jeremy Corbyn was initially elected on, for example, which was largely made up of points we have been campaigning on for years. This modest programme was far from comprehensive but included numerous points - such as a £10-an-hour minimum wage and mass council house building - that could transform the lives of millions. However, the frenzied reaction by the capitalist class and their representatives in the labour movement, gives a glimpse of the lengths the capitalists will go to in order to defend their profits. Any government which comes to power aiming to act in the interests of the working class will have to overcome every obstacle that capitalism can throw at it. When a Labour government in the 1970s - led by Harold Wilson - attempted to increase taxation on corporations - big business, including the media, conducted a huge campaign against it, including threatening a strike of capital. The result was the proposal being watered down so far it was effectively annulled.
Look at the experience of the Syriza government in Greece, which came to power on an anti-austerity programme. It is now implementing austerity having capitulated to gigantic pressure from the Greek capitalist class and the institutions of the EU.
That is in no way to suggest that capitulation is automatic. The Greek working class did not capitulate, but stood firm by overwhelmingly voting 'oxi ' (no) in the 2015 referendum on austerity. Had the leadership of Syriza shown the same courage as the Greek people a very different scenario would have opened up. The events of Greece show that the election of an anti-austerity government would be positive - but it is only a first step.
To fully and permanently transform the lives of working-class people would require breaking with capitalism. Only by taking power out of the hands of the 1% would it be possible to begin to build a new, democratic socialist society. This would mean nationalising, under democratic workers' control and management, the 125 or so major corporations and banks that dominate Britain's economy. This would provide the foundations to begin to build a democratic socialist planned economy, capable of meeting the needs of all.
This would need to be combined with full government control of incoming and outgoing foreign trade. Doing so would enable a democratically elected government - and the working class, not the market - to control imports and exports, including capital. This would provide the possibility of developing a democratic, socialist plan of production that could very quickly transform the lives of millions.
Of course, a genuine socialist government would not take small businesses, such as local shops, into public ownership. Many of these are currently forced out of business by the multinationals and the behaviour of the banks. Nor would it, as opponents of socialism claim, stand for the taking away of personal 'private property'. On the contrary, socialists are in favour of everyone having a decent home and the other conveniences of modern life.
As unemployment and underemployment increase, Britain's full-time workers still have one of the longest average working weeks in the European Union. More than four million workers officially work more than 48 hours a week (and many more do so in reality) in order to make ends meet. At the same time workers are being told that they have to retire later and later. This is the lunacy of capitalism - millions thrown on the scrapheap while others work their fingers to the bone. By introducing a 35-hour week with no loss of pay - in other words, sharing out the work - it would be possible to dramatically decrease the number of unemployed while simultaneously improving the quality of life of working-class people. Zero-hour contracts would immediately be banned. They are a return to the misery of the 1930s - with workers not knowing from one day to the next if they will be able to earn anything. Instead everyone should have the right to a full-time job with decent pay, and without having to work themselves into an early grave.
If this was combined with, not only an immediate halt in cuts to public services, but a massive increase in them, it would be possible to eliminate unemployment. This would allow us to develop a vastly improved health service, education system and childcare.
Most of the politicians in Westminster received free university education and a student grant to live on while they studied. New Labour abolished this and introduced fees, which the Con-Dem coalition government then hiked up massively. Now the Tories' Higher Education Bill will mean fees can go up further, even without a vote in parliament. This is being combined with privatisation and big cuts in education, especially in FE colleges and schools. Not surprisingly the 2010 tuition fee hike has resulted in a fall in the number of state school students attending university. But education should be a right for all, not a privilege for a few. Socialists stand for free education for all, from the cradle to the grave - or a 'National Education Service', as Jeremy Corbyn has described it. For every student - FE and HE - to receive free education plus a maintenance grant would cost would cost £12 to 15 billion a year. That sounds like a lot of money but York university research found that £14 billion was paid out in grants and subsidies to big business in 2011-12. For example, the Department of Business Innovation and Skills provided £5 billion of coaching, marketing and advocacy services for big business. A socialist government would not only abolish fees and introduce a grant, but also write off the burden of student debt which is weighing on previous generations of students.
There are five million people, two million households, who are desperate for social housing. Yet the government is setting out to destroy what remains of social housing with its iniquitous Housing Act, including the introduction of 'pay to stay' which is an attempt to force workers out of what little social housing remains.
The pipe dream propagated by Thatcher of a 'home-owning democracy' lies in ruins. The average house deposit is now £34,000 (and twice that in London) whereas the median wage is only £22,000. More and more people are being forced into the private rented sector which is almost always expensive and insecure, and often substandard. In 2015 alone, 350,000 renters were threatened with eviction. As the benefit cuts and bedroom tax bite increasing numbers of people are facing homelessness - turfed onto the street because they cannot afford to pay their rent. Even for those not facing homelessness the housing crisis is a blight on their lives. According to Shelter, 59% of under-45-year-olds have had to put one or more aspects of their lives on hold because they have no secure housing.
A socialist government would introduce democratic rent controls so landlords could only charge a fair rent. It would also immediately institute a mass programme of building high-quality, affordable council houses. In the past even Tory governments, under mass pressure from the working class, supported a mass house-building programme. From 1949 to 1954 an average of 230,000 council houses were built each year. There are more than 150,000 skilled unemployed building workers in London alone. A house-building programme would provide work for building workers, but would also immediately halve or more the amount of money spent on housing benefit, which is currently handed to the private landlords.
Of course, a socialist government would have to take the protection of the environment into account when building housing. At the moment the big construction companies build purely for profit with little concern for the environment, or the standard, or affordability of the housing. A mass house-building programme would mean careful planning to ensure the protection of green spaces. In many cases, it would be possible to build on fully decontaminated brownfield sites. Moreover, pleasant and safe homes for all form a crucial part of a decent environment.
Childcare in Britain is the least regulated, hardest to obtain and most expensive of any country in the European Union. The average weekly cost of a nursery place is £160. Lack of decent childcare means that increasing numbers of parents, in particular women, do not have the choice of going out to work. Others are forced to rely on unqualified child carers. New Labour's solution was to introduce the Working Families Tax Credit (WFTC) and some parents are able to struggle through with this. In total the government still spends millions of pounds helping pay for childcare via the childcare element of Working Tax Credits. The Tories have already made cuts to WFTC, and even at its height it was nowhere near enough. Instead of handing money over to private nurseries, it would make far more sense to spend the money building and directly funding free, publicly owned nurseries, and after-school and holiday clubs, with fully qualified, decently paid staff.
The average cost of a room in a care home is now over £30,000 a year, while the average pensioner's income is £14,400 a year. The crisis in elderly and social care is reaching catastrophic proportions. Millions of elderly people are left to cope alone, or with whatever assistance over-stretched families are able to give. Hospital beds are 'blocked' by patients who don't need to be in hospital but are waiting for a place in a care home, or assistance to live independently. Meanwhile the private companies that dominate the care sector often make obscene profits while providing appalling substandard care, and overworking and underpaying staff. The answer is simple. A socialist government would bring social care back into the public sector and properly finance it so that care homes were high-quality and free to all those in need. This could be combined with massive investment into decently paid, qualified staff in order to provide the assistance needed to those still able and wanting to live in their own homes.
The NHS was the greatest achievement of the 1945 Labour government. Now the Tories are systematically destroying what is left of the NHS, which had already been undermined by New Labour in power. In England massive privatisation is being combined with brutal cuts. In Wales privatisation is not yet on the same scale, but the cuts now being carried out are even greater than in England. Privatisation of the NHS is being carried out in part to provide new and profitable fields of investment for big business. Since 2001, the Tories have received more than £10 million in donations from companies profiting from private healthcare. Labour is also implicated. The former Labour health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, is now on the board of the private healthcare company Bupa and Cherie Blair, wife of ex-prime minister Tony Blair, has set up her own private healthcare companies and is planning to set up private doctors' surgeries in Sainsbury's. Owen Smith, the right's candidate for Labour leader, was previously a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.
A socialist policy for the NHS would mean an immediate end to privatisation and a reversal of all the privatisation already introduced. However, this does not mean we want to go back to the NHS of 20 years ago. The NHS needs to be democratically run and accountable with the full involvement of NHS workers and users. It also needs to be better integrated (between hospitals, primary care, community care, social services, dentistry, etc.) in order to give people the best possible service. All charges for healthcare, including dentistry, eye tests and prescriptions, should be completely abolished.
How could this be paid for? A socialist government would redirect money currently spent on war and occupation into the health service. The cost of replacing Trident nuclear missiles, for example, is an estimated £205 billion, which could be far better spent on the NHS and other public services. We would also take the pharmaceutical and drug companies into democratic public ownership. The pharmaceutical industry bled and continues to bleed the NHS through extortionate charges for medicine. Pharmaceutical products cost the NHS about 10% of its budget annually, about £11 billion. A nationalised pharmaceutical industry would take decisions driven by meeting people's health needs, not by profits. It would be able, for example, to direct research at curing diseases and developing treatments for less common illnesses which the current drugs industry ignores - because it is not profitable to do otherwise.
At the same time a socialist government would carry out measures to increase living standards - such as a decent living pension, increased annually and linked to earnings, and the right to a job with a living wage for all. It should not be underestimated how much such measures would improve people's health. Ill health remains a class issue - even according to government statistics, low-paid workers are almost three times as likely to suffer from chronic ill health as high-level managers.
In a world of crisis, there is a particular crisis of British capitalism, which is paying the price for its refusal to invest in industry over decades. Despite the CBI bosses' organisation calling for the government to find ways to increase investment in manufacturing, there is no prospect of rebuilding Britain's feeble manufacturing base.
Both Tory and Labour governments have done nothing but stand aside and wring their hands as factories and steel plants have closed or had their workforces cut to the bone. This time, under huge pressure from below, the government had to say it was prepared to buy a 25% stake in Tata Steel. This, however, is not enough - in reality offering to help out any vulture capitalist that is prepared to buy the plant even if they intend to do little more than asset strip it.
In the past, even Tory governments intervened in the economy occasionally. Tory prime minister Ted Heath, for example, nationalised Rolls -Royce in the early 1970s. Clearly, the Tories were acting in the interests of big business, propping up industries before selling them back to the fat cats at rock-bottom prices, similar to the way the banks have been propped up by government money today. Manufacturing industry, by contrast, is allowed to go to the wall. Hundreds of millions of pounds of public money are being spent picking up the pieces in Dagenham, Birmingham, Yorkshire, Scotland and Wales and all the other places where factories have closed or jobs have been slashed. The cost comes from the loss of tax and National Insurance income, the increase in benefit claimants, and the unquantifiable social costs such as the extra strain on the health and welfare system.
Rather than spend that money dealing with the aftermath of cuts and closure, it would be far better to invest it in keeping the industry concerned alive and, if necessary, developing new, more socially useful production. For example, there is no need for all car plants to continue with their current production. Workers should be asked what the best use of their skills would be. Options might include environmentally friendly cars, buses or trams, or the development of green technologies. In the mid-1970s, workers at Lucas Aerospace, the weapons manufacturer, produced an alternative plan of production. They worked out that their production lines could easily be altered to produce kidney machines, electronic wheelchairs and a number of other products far more useful to humanity than weaponry.
But such huge public investment should not be yet another subsidy to private companies' profits. Government intervention and public investment should be matched by public ownership and control. It would then be possible for workers in individual plants, together with representatives of workers throughout industry, to draw up a new plan of production to better meet the transport needs of the whole of society.
One of the most popular things New Labour did was to introduce a minimum wage. From the beginning, however, the minimum wage was set at a level that was acceptable to big business - a minimal wage. Today, despite the Tories claims to introduce a 'living wage', millions are suffering poverty pay. On average workers in Britain are still £40 a week worse off than they were before 2008. Working Tax Credits, which cost over £30 billion a year despite the cuts to them, a large part of the country's benefit bill, are essential for millions of workers to get by. In reality, though, tax credits are a subsidy to rip-off employers, allowing them to get away with wages that are too low to live on.
A socialist government could immediately implement a real living minimum wage for all, of at least £10 an hour, and probably more. A real minimum wage would be just that - the minimum that is paid to any worker with no exemptions. The youth rate should be immediately abolished and young workers guaranteed the adult rate. Hundreds of thousands of workers currently do not even get the legal minimum. For example, even the government's Low Pay Commission estimates that between 9% and 13% of care workers are paid below the minimum wage. There has been a spate of changing workers' terms and conditions since the introduction of the 'living wage' in order to avoid paying it. Bosses can do this knowing they are very unlikely to face any penalty. Between 2009 and 2015 there were 4,780 employers identified as not paying the minimum wage; only three were successfully prosecuted.
A socialist government would strictly enforce the minimum wage. If small and medium-sized businesses said that they could not afford to pay it they would have to open their books to scrutiny by democratically elected committees. Those that genuinely could not afford to pay the minimum wage, and which were playing a socially useful role, could then receive government subsidies to allow them to pay their workers fairly.
At the same time, implementing a living minimum wage would not be the only measure a socialist government could quickly implement. Today there is no relation between the extent to which the majority in society value the work someone does and the amount they get paid for it. Hence stockbrokers receive gigantic salaries while highly skilled nurses, firefighters, paramedics and other life-saving workers are facing a pay freeze. The same is true for teachers, who play the enormously valuable role of educating the next generation, and are seeing their terms and conditions being viciously attacked. We want to create a society where everyone receives a decent wage. Highly skilled workers would receive higher pay than the minimum wage, but there would be no need for the huge differentials that exist under capitalism. At the time of the Russian revolution in 1917, wage differentials were initially set at 4:1. However, in a modern economy like Britain it would be possible to have a smaller gap between top and bottom.
Capitalism has all kinds of discrimination and oppression written into its DNA. Any society based on vast inequality will inevitably be divided and prejudiced. Racism, for example, has been an integral part of capitalism since its infancy when it was used to justify the slave trade. Later, racism was adapted to justify the colonial powers carving up the world between them. Today racism is still ingrained in capitalist society. The increased wealth and privilege of a small minority of black and Asian people is used to disguise the fact that we still live in a deeply unequal society. The police are up to 28 times more likely to stop and search you if you are black or Asian. The gap between average pay for white workers and those from ethnic minorities has actually increased over recent years despite an improvement in social attitudes. Over half of young black men are unemployed, more than the double the unemployment rate for young white men.
Internationally, direct colonial rule may have ended, but imperialism still dictates to the poor countries of the world via the multinational corporations and their agencies - the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Capitalism is more than happy to adapt the ideology of racism to its own ends whether that it is to justify the nightmare of poverty that is Africa under capitalism, or to distract workers in Britain from the real reasons that our public services are crumbling.
Discrimination against women is also embedded in the structure of capitalist society. Britain the position of women has improved dramatically compared to two generations ago. Nonetheless, although women now make up over 50% of the workforce, on average they still earn only 72% of male wages. Even though most women work they still tend to bear the brunt of domestic tasks. Even when women work full-time they spend an average of nine hours a week more than their male partners cooking and shopping.
It would be naive to suggest that a socialist government could just sweep aside sexism or racism and other prejudices, all deeply ingrained in this society. However, by beginning to construct a society democratically run by and for the majority, rather than a privileged elite, it could quickly begin to undermine prejudice and eradicate discrimination. It could rapidly take economic measures - such as decent wages and jobs for all, free high-quality childcare, free universal education, good housing, widely available inexpensive high-quality restaurants, and other measures - which would enormously ease the situation. This would be combined with creating major campaigns to eradicate prejudice. Longer term, the change in economic relations, the abolition of class divisions and the construction of a society based on democratic involvement and co-operation would also change social relations. Society would move away from hierarchies and the oppression and abuse of one group by another. Human relations would be freed from all the muck of capitalism.
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Article dated 28 June 2016
The Socialist, weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party
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