Why the Labour movement needs to be more socialist
I haven’t read Marx. But as I understand it, socialism is about holding things in common, working for the benefit of society as a whole.
But that’s not what the Labour movement has traditionally fought for. It has focussed very much on jobs and wages – the core function of a Trades Union is collective bargaining, fighting for their members’ right to a decent wage. The concept of individual ownership of wealth is as much enshrined in the working class as it is in the moneyed classes. It’s all about the ‘breadwinner’ earning good money to support the family. It carries with it a whole mindset as deeply embedded in capitalism as that of a hedge fund manager.
The womens’ liberation movement of the 20th century fought largely for the right of women to fill that ‘breadwinner’ role. As a result thousands (millions?) of women ended up trying to divide up their time between career, child care and home-making. Being unpaid, child care and home-making carried little social status – “oh, I’m just a housewife” – and was therefore seen as inferior to paid employment, regardless of how fulfilling (or otherwise) that employment was. As the feminist movement matured, these issues have come more to the forefront – but still mostly in terms of support that allows mothers to focus on their careers. Child care (and any other kind of caring role) and home making are still seen as low status, unfulfilling work. The goal, wrapped up in ‘self fulfillment’, and ‘career satisfaction’ and driven by a social construct that continually ramps up prices, is still to earn ever increasing amounts of money. That is your duty, the only route to happiness and contentment.
It used to be said that it takes a whole village to raise a child, but when status relies on the “breadwinner” model, being seen to need help carries the stigma of shame and failure with it. Superwoman is supposed to be able to juggle it all and she’s also supposed to be able to pay for it all, with or without a co-breadwinner. Anything less and she’s ‘relying on charity’.
When status is so closely tied to the concept of being the “breadwinner”, there is an inevitable shame associated with not being a breadwinner. Men – who were traditionally the key earners in a family – have come to invest their whole identity in their labour. Those who do ‘succeed’ as breadwinners take exceptional pride in their achievement, often to the point of arrogance. They consider their success is due purely to their own efforts and see themselves as superior to those who have done less well. When they cannot get work, they often suffer a whole range of mental health issues – including depression, which others (following the same status model) dismiss as laziness. They see immigrants as competition, threatening not only their employment, but the identity that is wrapped up in their working status. Such mindsets are a gift to a mass media that has a huge vested interest in maintaining the capitalist myth of trickle-down economics, where wealth is accessible to all as long they work hard enough. All the media needs to do is amplify these prejudices to keep the mass population at war with each other instead of questioning the system itself.
I believe this is why the Conservatives have dominated the political landscape since the 1970s, and gradually eroded the socialist initiatives of the mid-20th century – in housing, in education, in social welfare, and most notably, in health care, as seen in the abuse, under-investment and mis-management that has orchestrated the gradual unravelling of the treasured NHS. It is how we arrive at Maggie Thatcher’s famous declaration that there is “no such thing as society”. The dominant model of individual acquisition of wealth, which she so wholeheartedly espoused, was busy making it true. But it is important to recognise that her success was driven as much by misguided working class pride as it was by the greed and sociopathic tendencies of the rich. This is why so many dyed-in-the-wool Labour voters voted for Boris Johnson – Labour were failing to support them in acquiring individual wealth, and so they went to the party that openly promoted the philosophy.
But of course, the Tories can’t give the “Red Wall” voters what they want either. Because Brexit or no Brexit, the system doesn’t work that way. Money doesn’t “trickle down” from the super rich to the ordinary working man and woman – if it did, there would be no super-rich. They exist because the system is designed to flow in exactly the opposite direction: it puddles money in the hands of those who already have plenty, where it is removed from the public economy to stagnate in tax havens benefitting no-one. The statistics speak for themselves. The richest 1% of Britons hold more wealth than 70% of Britons put together. Globally, the richest 1% have pocketed $26 trillion (£21 trillion) in new wealth since 2020, nearly twice as much as the other 99 per cent of the world’s population put together. (Oxfam report, Survival of the Richest, Jan 2023). A trillion is a million million. It’s an unimaginable amount of money. I can’t help wondering how many individuals the 30 richest people in the world could pay a living wage to and still remain millionaires. I reckon it’s a pretty high percentage.
Thatcher’s party trick was to keep the myth that capitalist policies benefit everyone going for far longer than it should have done. She was able to do this largely by the introduction of the debt economy, most evident in the device of rapidly inflating property prices, encouraging everyone to borrow ever bigger sums of money and kid themselves that having a massive debt secured against their home made them somehow richer. The trouble with debt is that it becomes due for payment at some time; in other words, a debt economy is unsustainable. This is why Liz Truss’s ill-fated attempts to re-implement Thatcher economics had such a disasterous effect. The financial crash was the resounding sound of the credit card bill landing on the national (and indeed, global) doormat and what appeared to work in the 1990s will not deliver now. Not least because the bailiffs are arriving in the shape of global climate change to call in the massive environmental debt humanity has incurred in pursuit of individual wealth.
The financial crash of course happened during a Labour government. So in one sense Tory accusations are right – it was Labour’s fault, but only in the sense that Tony Blair perpetuated the myth that capitalist policies benefit everyone as well, and failed to turn the ship around when elected to office.
To give Blair the benefit of the doubt, it is only with 20/20 hindsight that the unravelling of the lie is clear. But if he had truly adhered to socialist principles, he would have had a much greater instinctive mistrust in the capitalist system (as so many “Old Labour” folk had and still have). But such is the power of the myth that if he had been more of a socialist, he may very well have lost the election, just as Kinnock, Milliband and Corbyn did. The working class always tend to prioritise individual wealth obtained through highly paid jobs over the prosperity of the country as a whole – understandably, since no political leaders have ever genuinely pursued prosperity for the country as a whole.
This is in no way to denigrate the actions of the railway unions, the nurses and teachers and others currently on strike in protest at the monstrous inequalities and impossible living conditions the UK government is asking its population to accept as normal and inevitable. Far from it – all the ordinary working person can do is fight their own corner. It is worth noting however that the media debate on the current wave of strikes always focusses on pay, despite that fact that those taking action are protesting about way more than their individual pay packets. They are protesting about working conditions, inequitable contracts, lack of job security, safety concerns and the chronic mismanagement and underfunding that is crucifying our public services and national infrastructure.
The post-war Labour government tried to establish a welfare state. They put in place the foundations for it. But it was swept away by the myth of trickle down economics and the lure of individual wealth which put Thatcher into office. She sold the nation to private industry. Now her successors are surrendering the state to the forces of global capitalism lock, stock, and barrel. They are not governing the country, they are simply reacting to events, clumsily, callously, without accepting any responsibility for the impact of their policies. They spend most of their time trying to conceal the evidence of failure and close down debate. They are presiding over the final demolition of the ‘country fit for heroes’ envisaged by a generation united by what many genuinely believed to be a just war against the aggressive Fascist Imperialism of the Nazis.
Its painfully ironic that it was Brexit that gave them the mandate to do it. Sensing a growing antipathy in those for whom wealth was not “trickling down” despite decades of Conservative government (including the New Labour government, who subscribed to much the same economic model as their Conservative opponents), the hard-line capitalists successfully shifted the blame onto the European Union. The EU, of course, is as much in the death-grip of corporate power as the UK government, but leaving the EU does not break that death-grip. It only strengthens it, as the leaders of the Leave campaign knew very well. The bigger the population of a political entity, the more potential collective power they wield. Divide and conquer was always a sure way for a minority to secure an iron grip on power.
The 99% can only defeat the 1% by working together. If you leave it to the markets – to money – then the odds are strongly in favour of those who own more than 60% of global wealth. We need to use the Labour movement’s history of solidarity to start building collective wealth, and that starts by dispersing the chimera of individual wealth.
After all, most ordinary people, do not crave stupid amounts of money. They want what it represents. The security and comfort of a nice home, the ability to relax and enjoy life, to be able to look after your family and loved ones, to feel confident in your childrens’ future and be able to relax and indulge in a little luxury now and again. To know that you can access excellent health care when you need it, and there’s a safety net if life derails you. Most of us just want enough money to meet these needs. It’s only the socially dysfunctional super-rich who crave billions upon billions that they can’t possibly ever spend. The trouble is that we live in a system that gives these disturbed individuals power and is totally incapable of holding them to account. They are set up as role models to aspire to, rather than sociopathic lunatics whose crazed activities are threatening the stability of life on earth itself.
Instead of awarding status to people because of wealth or perceived “success” (the so-called ‘meritocracy’) we need to start valuing everyone simply for being a unique human being. We need to afford care and compassion greater respect than wealth. We need to develop a society in which every individual can fulfil their potential, whatever that potential is, without being consigned to the scrap heap because they can’t cope with the overwhelming demands of the manic money-driven society we live in.
I dream of the day when “can’t afford it” ceases to be an acceptable excuse for not providing an essential service, for not stewarding the environment, for not doing something that life and humanity demands to be done. When we recognise that we are social beings, intrinsically connected to each other, and to remain healthy as individuals, people need to live in a healthy society. The society we live in right now is about as sick as a human society can be. There are so many damaged individuals in the developed nations, particularly the USA and the UK, who habitually act without empathy or compassion and aggressively defend their right to do so. They dominate a political landscape where those with the thickest skins flourish.
If we don’t change the story, I believe the disease is terminal. But for anything to improve, we all need to move out of denial, stop trying to score cheap political points and face reality. Change is coming faster and faster – the climate is breaking down, our global capitalist society is breaking apart on the myth at its core and the abundance of life on Earth is shrinking with alarming rapidity. It’s not for nothing that those most concerned about the crisis facing us are known as “woke” (though why we don’t use the more grammatically correct “awake”, I don’t know!). The first step to addressing a problem is to accept that there’s a problem. Denying reality is just throwing fuel on the raging inferno.
The principles of survival are old-fashioned and timeless – honesty, compassion and co-operation. United we stand, divided we fall. As things are, humanity is heading for a fall.