Mind the gap!

The 2017 snap election was notable for many things, not least the Tory party itself proclaiming that its policies have not worked. Well, it did not quite say that — the problems it admitted existed seemed to have no cause, they just were. No mention of who was in office for the past seven years nor whose ideology had dominated the political landscape since 1979.

Yet, at the same time, the Tories were keen to portray the dangers of a Labour victory that would undermine “our strong economy,” “prosperity” and “strong economic fundamentals.” How can you have that when increasing numbers of people are finding it harder to make ends meet or joining the “just-about-managing” is left unasked, never mind unanswered.

The economy exists, surely, to ensure people’s needs are meet? Not under capitalism — hence the contradictions in the Tory campaign, contradictions which reflect the nature of capitalism itself.

The Tory mantra that being in work as the best way out of poverty rings hollow when used to answer the question of why so many people in work are in poverty (child poverty has been steadily increasing since 2010, with two-thirds of poor children in working families). Britain was unique amongst developed nations for having economic growth but falling real wages (wages fell almost 10% in 2007-14).

Wages, moreover, have not risen in line with productivity so far this century, yet marginal productivity theory is still taught in universities as if it explained the real world. Ironically, as the economy was forced, by State intervention, to more closely approximate the economics textbooks by means of anti-union laws, so the link between productivity and wages ended.

The share of wages in UK GDP has fallen from a peak of 76.2% in 1975 to 65.8% in 2015, which is the real fear underlying all the talk of Labour taking us “back to the 1970s.”

The impact of Thatcherism can also be seen outside of production. While average pay packets increased by 19% in nominal rather than real terms since 2006, the bills of the privatised utilities have increased far faster — the average gas bill by 73%, electricity by 72%, and water by 41%. It has become so bad that, after denouncing the energy-cap proposed by Ed Miliband as Marxist madness, the Tories recently embraced it — much to the horror of company bosses.

As for water, consumers are paying around £2.3 billion more a year in water and sewerage bills to the privatised companies than if they had remained in state ownership and almost all the industry’s post-tax income is paid out in dividends, while capital expenditure is financed by borrowings (now standing at £42bn when there was no debt burden at the time of privatisation).

So the gap increases between product and pay, between profits and people. Property is theft is still true — how else can the many enrich the few?

The Tories are caught by the contradictions of capitalism, stuck in the gap between reality and rhetoric. Capitalism is not freedom as it is based on despotism in production — the worker sells their liberty and labour to the boss who, in return for ordering them around, keeps the product of that toil. Property is monopolised by the few and so any “free agreement” in such circumstances will benefit the stronger party — as shown by neo-liberalism. And as inequality rises, social mobility stagnates alongside wages.

Some kind-hearted liberals proclaim all this as examples of “market failure” but no: it is how capitalism is meant to work. That the resulting inequality undermines society and the economy is just one of many contradictions facing capitalism.

Little wonder May and Hammond have been left defending the abstract notion of a “free market” capitalist economy — mere months after proclaiming that they did “not believe in untrammelled free markets” — in the face of an opposition which simply seeks to save capitalism from itself.

The Tories have no ideas and are simply, at best, offering watered-down versions of ideas first raised by Labour. That the opposition are setting the agenda is significant: “There is no alternative” convinces fewer and fewer, particularly as it meant a new form of feudalism. Invoking the 1970s will not counteract a life-experience of being ripped-off daily in the world the Tories have created.

We are faced with the gap between rhetoric and reality. This system of economic contradictions will continue until such time as we end it, by our own efforts. The task is to convince people that they need to act for themselves, to fight for what they need by their own direct action and solidarity.

More — we must raise libertarian alternatives to both private and State capitalism: instead of privatisation/nationalisation, we must urge socialisation rather than replacing the boss with the bureaucrat (or vice versa); water companies owned by their consumers and run by their workers; railways under workers’ control with strong links to passenger associations; solving the housing crisis must go beyond replacing the private landlord with a State official, tenants must control their homes collectively and individually; co-operatives should be favoured over capitalist firms in both production and consumption…

The biggest gap remains, as ever, that between what is and what could be. We are a rich country which could provide well-being for all but the distribution of wealth and power is so dysfunctional even the Tories have to pay lip-service to doing something about it. The answer to the social question remains, as ever, in our hands and not in those of politicians, regardless of how nice or radical they seem. The answer lies in whether we remain content to let others act on our behalf or whether we take control of our fates.

Iain McKay


This article first appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Freedom Anarchist Journal