A recent survey by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has sparked comment on a few blogs. It investigated what a sample of the public felt about economic inequality in British society. There are various points that will both hearten and dishearten the left, and I won’t go through all of them. The Left Luggage, as is their wont, have expressed a feeling that socialists need to adjust their message to win broad appeal. I’d like to argue that the adjustments involved are actually to some extent prefigured in Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme.
Some of the key findings were
1) People strongly support the idea of earned or fair inequality – that those work harder or contribute more should receive more;
2) People tended to position themselves in ‘the middle’, even when they weren’t, and to feel most sympathy for those in ‘the middle’;
3) People tended to be quite hostile to any perceived wrongdoing by the very poor – in particular, to those seen as ‘parasites’, claiming benefits while refusing to take a job – showing a similar, though lesser, hostility to the very rich when they were perceived as benefiting unfairly.
4) People supported the general idea of progressive taxation and redistribution, and a large majority supported the recent increase in the top rate of tax.
5) People were generally quite worried that inequality in Britian was much too high, and that this was related to social cohesion and crime.
6) People didn’t seem to endorse the idea of ‘equality’ as a general principle as much as they endorsed ‘fairness’.
Now what this suggests to me is that the left-wing proposal that might get the most public support would be what in the Gotha text, Marx calls ‘the early stage of communism’, and what has at other times been called ‘socialism’ as opposed to ‘communism’.
The idea of such a society would be that the means of production would be collectively owned, administered by workers’ councils/community councils, but that these councils should then apportion compensation to members in proportion to their work – possibly reflecting their skills or talent, possibly the difficulty of their work, or possibly just hours spent – and that this compensation would then allow those individuals to purchase goods for their own consumption.
Under such a system, there would remain precisely that sort of inequality that people regard as legitimate – between the harder working (and/or more skilled) and those working less hard. What would disappear would be the inequality that puts the ‘top’ so far ahead of anyone else – where ‘the top’ means both those whose income comes from their ownership of capital and consequent profits/interest/rent, and also those whose job involves specifically serving those owners of capital (lawyers, managers, executives) and partly controlling their capital for them.
As Marx says:
“…the individual producer receives back from society — after the deductions have been made — exactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labor. He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such-and-such an amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common funds); and with this certificate, he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labor cost. The same amount of labor which he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another.”
What could be fairer? Marx says, and I agree, that this is not yet the ideal economic system – full communism, which abandons the rationing and discipline of ‘certificates’ for labour, is preferable. But he also regards that as following naturally from the more moderate socialism which still carries the ‘birth mark’ of having emerged from capitalism. And he seems to have felt – as this research might be taken to bear out, that the masses of working people are more likely to support and institute it.
If this is right, then it implies a few lessons for how socialists should pitch their ideas.
Firstly, they should perhaps try to break open the simple idea of ‘equality’, and distinguish equality of power from equality of consumption, and then downplay the latter in favour of the former. That is – by expropriating all capital and putting it under the control of working people democratically organised, each individual is given only as much say as anyone else over the decisions about what to produce and how to distribute it.
This in turn means that they have equal say over the distribution of consumption – but there’s no guarantee that said distribution would be one of equality. They might well endorse a level of inequality – vastly less than what we have now, of course – between hard-working or skilled individuals and the genuinely workshy (like myself). But this wouldn’t then give the better-off control over the economy that would allow them to allocate themselves yet more exorbitant bonuses.
Secondly, it is possibly politically counter-productive to be seen as advocating on behalf of ‘the poor’, or to identify ‘working class’ with ‘low-income’ (as many people habitually do). Most people do not identify with ‘the poor’, even when they are – and in the terms of standard class analysis it’s not even true that the poor are the revolutionary candidate. Rather, it’s the ‘working class’ – i.e. people who get paid a wage for doing productive work, which is a large majority of the population. Socialists should aim to present socialism as these people running things for themselves, and getting rid of ‘the top’.
Thirdly, socialists should resist identification with the redistribution bureacracy, and insist that socialism is not about someone else taking your money and giving it to others, but about you the average person taking your money and giving it to others. Even when they felt themselves to be ‘middle-income’, most people in the survey still supported the idea of providing for and helping out the ill or those unable to work, or those in need for whatever reason.
I think two factors can be expected to strongly reduce this willingness to provide for others – firstly, the fact that such provision has been done by a remote set of officials, correctly seen as another part of a system that takes away control and power from the average person, and secondly, that the media, and right-wing politicians, have devoted so much effort to inculcating people with a fear that vast legions of benefit ‘scroungers’ (not to mention asylum-seekers and chavs) are trying to take all their money (despite costing a much smaller amount than tax avoidance).
If both of these factors were taken away, I think people would be quite happy to ensure that even if those unable or unwilling to work had less than others, they weren’t in serious need. So there’s no need for socialists to labour the point – if we do, we encourage people to identify socialism with more civil servants in offices, which is not what it’s supposed to be about.
While I know that quoting Marx all the time is a common bad habit on the left, I thought I’d add another quote from Gotha:
“[I]t was in general a mistake to make a fuss about so-called distribution and put the principal stress on it. Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves.”
Politicians from all directions have spent a long time trying to appeal to ‘middle’ England, to flatter and cajole the middle-income, middle-of-the-road, not-poor not-rich constituency. Might it be that revolutionaries should do the same?