Unmasked: Rogue capitalism
by Steve Lawton

Economic crisis breeds attempts to disguise and confuse. But inventing 17 categories of class society, as is now being suggested, won't obscure the increasingly repressive attack on workers' living standards or the true nature of class divisions. The anti-capitalist fightback will emerge out of all past illusions.
APPEARANCES deceive: He's public school educated, earns £35,000 a year and has a good City job. Not a staggering salary, but in itself very comfortable, like his average four-bedroomed terraced house.

 No car. He can't afford to run one anymore. He has a near-100 per cent mortgage on a house he bought at the height of the price boom in the late 80s, just before it crashed.

 Negative equity, like thousands of others, has trapped him into a devalued property with heavy mortgage repayments. His family, with four children, is increasingly at risk of being repossessed.

 The trend nationally is now on the rise again. And the housing market since then has not recovered.

 He commutes, not by train, but by coach from far up the Essex coast to London every day, because even the fares are too steep. That more than doubles the rail journey time. Pressure and stress result.

 He also has to make Child Support Agency (CSA) maintenance payments for a child of a previous mamage. And because he is at risk from a life-threatening illness, insurance and treatment add to the burden. The Labour Party benefited from the votes of such people at the last general election.

 Most working people are obviously not on that salary. But the combination of circumstances are not that unusual. It takes just one or two blows in life's grand plan to find everything at risk. And that salary is hardly luxurious in relation to the much cursed fat cats.

 But it is all relative. Six years ago the Family Budget Unit at York University, now based at King's College, London, calculated different scenarios for a basic level of living. They assessed the requirements, for instance, of a family of two adults and two children where one adult is working.

 Their research concluded in 1992, allowing for certain variations according to housing circumstances, that such a family would need an income of £21,000 a year.

 The report, which was published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, took into account one weeks annual holiday, owning a five-year-old car, buying cut price clothes, shopping for cheap but wholesome food and the just adequate use of energy.

 Today, the Unit suggests that would be around £24,000. But ever since that first report, not surprisingly, their findings have been routinely ignored by the Tory government. Nothing has changed since.

What affluence?

 This, of course, gives the lie to the idea that we're all becoming middle class, particularly on the basis of the standard of living, despite what some double-glazing sales politicians and pundits suggest.

 In the mid-to-late 60s and early 70s, there was a view that workers were beginning to become "affluent" and about to devote more time to leisure.

 It proposed that sections of the working class were somehow being drawn into secure middle class ranks in an ever upward mobility of labour. With it went all the trappings suggested of social and ideological conformity.

 That was a process, in that very catchy expression, of embourgeoisment. Not that anyone refers to it today.

 It supposedly led to a guaranteed future, particularly of employment and pensions, with consumer wants and needs ever more plentifully available and accessible.

 The "affluent worker" view was a modified form of the former Tory Prime Minister Harold MacMillan's line that "You've never had it so good", which meant something along the lines of "You're going to join those who've always had it so good."

 Indeed, the essence of the sophisticated 60s gradualist socialism of Labour's Anthony Crossland, was simply that we will all eventually be middle class. The "golden age" of working class comfort was about to descend.

 It was argued that it would redefine workers' ideological stance towards capitalism, into one of acceptance, participation and collaboration for the "common good".

 It expressed the class interests of the capitalist state when it still had a function of social provision and protection as well as general social welfare responsibilities. But it also reflected the fact that manufacturing was still strong and trade unions were able to exercise defensive clout.

 Even so, the ruling class never lost control for a minute. Its overwhelming power was evident immediately after 1945. For even though strident popular pressures for change borne of the Second World War were undertaken, the levers of decision making remained out of bounds to the working class.

 While the ruling class may seem to have retreated at that time, it can also be seen that it bound workers to the demands of sharing what capitalism was prepared to offer, even when it appeared to back down.

 It always constrained the class demand that workers become the arbiters of their economic destiny, and mediated it through the two party system, Parliament, its committees and other institutions. That safeguarded the masters and masked the extent and prominence of their influence.

 This was despite initially extensive nationalisation and the fact that workers could even precipitate, some time later, the downfall of a government -- namely, when many industrial sectors united against the Tory government of Edward Heath in the early 70s.

 The earlier foundation of that trade union strength was formed during the period of reconstruction, in which there was economic growth, employment demand and a welfare system that looked set to become permanent.

 As the benefits from the sweat and blood of British Empire colonialism receded, the ruling class prepared for a shift.

 Britain's economic power began to be transformed by the international growth of finance capital, transnational companies' expansion and concentration, capital flight, investment in developing countries and increases in imports while exports dropped.

 The ruling class has been divided by the recent process of reforming international economic power in the West. And it has led to the systematic dumping of any concessions capitalism once reluctantly or deemed necessary to agree to. The sharp end being anti-trade union legislation.

 So the emerging trend of economic asset-stripping, from the Tory monetarist crusade of 1979, quickly swept away any residual notion there may still have been that working people were going to become more affluent, or even get a better deal. We all came under "new management".

 Along with it, the human mask of capitalism, represented by social protection and welfare, has been systematically dismantled or turned into its opposite: a vindictive means of exploiting those with nothing left to exploit. This is clear from the changes in benefits and allowances.

 The affluence, pursuit of leisure and pursuit of middle class standards twaddle having already evaporated, get rich quick and self reliance came to the fore. It had always existed -- it is endemic to capitalism -- but now it would be writ large as economic policy. Even so, the ruling class will not give up trying to kid us that the good life is still there for the taking.

 While all the evidence shows that class divisions are worsening, greater efforts are being made to mask the nature of it. The new Population Census for 2001 is expected to be changed.

 Sociology Professor David Rose of Essex University is preparing a new classification for ministers which now separates the population, in his current government-funded submission, into 17 categories.

 It ranks down from number one -- the Queen, to number 17 -- unskilled unemployed. It is supposedly designed to take account of the shift from an industrial to a service based economy.

 The rationale behind this is that most people now allegedly regard themselves as being middle class. That is, it is estimated that the proportion of car-owning, home-owning white collar workers has increased from a third to half of the working population over the last 20 years.

 As Parliamentary powers erode, the economic crisis continues and imperialist re-alignment forges ahead, vain efforts will be made to retain that buffer against serious working class militancy.

 But concerns about bolstering and protecting the recently upset middle strata is coming up against their growing identity of interests with working people.

Rogue capitalism

The corruption, inefficiency and instabilities of capitalism have been all too clear in the financial sector. Besides high profile cases -- like Barlow Clowes and Robert Maxwell -- there is, for most of its junior players or budding "greedy bastards" -- as GMBU general secretary John Edmonds said of the fat cats at TUC conference, only a consolation prize.

 Increasingly, in fact, there is a rude awakening for those who think they're on the way to the top. They are a minority who manage to hit the platinum path to riches.

 But as we know, little mercy is shown by the City finance houses, crisis or no crisis, when it decides to knock them off. Go up the finance ladder, towards the level of Nick Leeson, who was convicted of fraud and bringing Barings, the 18th-century founded merchant bank down in 1995.

 Take the foreign financial career move as an example. Considered a step up, one of them -- Mr Fortunate -- was sent by his company to Singapore (where Leeson operated and is still imprisoned) for three years. Plush apartment, Philippine "au pair", nice big earner.

 Eighteen months on, bang. The finance house has learnt very well what Westerners have to offer, they can now call upon their own young whizz kids at a fraction of Western salaries. There were also cutbacks, a sign of what turned out to be the onset of the Asian financial crisis.

 The Leeson affair will also have had an impact and is likely to have caused the spotlight to fall on other operators. So it was thanks, goodbye and paradise abruptly ended.

 For others, it was a case of where to now. The company back home had dispensed with their services even though it had placed them abroad.

 Luckily, in the case of Mr Fortunate, he was spared the fate of many of his colleagues. He was brought back to fill a chance vacancy; luckily, he had the foresight not to sell up, but to let what is literally called his "executive residence" out for rent while he was abroad. He sold the big Mercedes to finance the move.

 Thousands of others were not so lucky, or so realistic -- there was no job to come back to. Even so, in this case, it was still quite a come down. Private school fees were suddenly a burden. No new Mercedes, he has to be content with a Volvo. The designer lifestyle is temporarily on ice.

 While hearts may bleed, such people are not as removed from the rest of us as they may seem, or that they may think. Even for those fortunates supposedly proving that the 80s great Tory ethos of economic individualism works. The bubble has been bursting more and more frequently.

 Many of these traders hit rock bottom, returning sharply to reality, believing they've missed, misjudged, or been done out of an opportunity of a lucrative portfolio at the right moment.

 Some, like Leeson, who perhaps hoped to join the 358-member billionaire club that currently owns assets exceeding the combined incomes of countries with 45 per cent of the world's population, clearly decided to take a short cut to avoid that possibility and look another kind of risk.

 Being mostly after the big hit, his was the "alternative" route to fame and fortune. But when all is said and done, Leeson's action is only just the other side of the law. After all, he simply personifies the huge free market speculation that is legalised grand theft, but for some "regulatory technicalities".

 Leeson was dubbed a "rogue trader", but that was the very nature of speculation throughout the 80s which could more accurately be called "rogue capitalism" -- that is, its true "advanced" face.

 And in fact, the position of many of those caught striving for "star trader" status to keep ahead of the opposition, always suggests senior figures in the banks and investment houses know where the game leads and encourage it.

 The top junk bond fraud tycoons of the United States who raked in billions in the 80s make that quite clear. There have recently been cases, of course, in Japan involving similar sums.

 So while these "star traders" are striving for their first million, they are just as likely to become also rans. The lesson for free market financial speculators is obvious enough: the majority will never make it big because, like the national lottery, the winning numbers don't come up twice -- unless, like Leeson, you fix it. But when crisis hits, plenty of short straws are passed around.

 One estimate suggests that the pressures growing in Asia, Japan and Russia will lead to around 6,000 city job losses (not including those lost overseas). In previous financial crises, many more thousands were lost.

 Banking, building societies, insurance companies -- they have all gone through "restructuring" or "downsizing" US-style, with immense and continuing job losses.

 Increasingly, to compensate for the falling rate and diminishing source of profit, finance, industry and science and technology, is becoming globally concentrated.

Takeaway economy

 Harold MacMillan, this time as Lord Stockton, would then coin another apt phrase to describe the wrecking of Britain's economy by his own Conservative Party: "selling the family silver". Silver plates have now gone, together with the cabinets, and we're left with a takeaway service economy leaving just 20 per cent to manufacturing.

 Privatisation, de-industrialisation, de-nationalisation -- key passwords for entry through the gates into free market hell, has stripped us bare of our national production base. It's left a hotchpotch of small struggling start-ups while foreign companies' subsidiaries have moved in. Figures show foreign subsidiaries' penetration is still rising.

 Whatever of value that was "publicly owned", is no longer. Whatever was accountable to state scrutiny -- and therefore susceptible to predominantly "democratic" pressure from the labour movement -- has been handed over to private interests. The Labour Party continues the process.

 Each step in the capitalist programme of legislative manoeuvring to contain workers' acts of self-defence at the point of diminished production, and in service, hi-tech, transport and commercial employment, has left workers increasingly at the mercy of market forces, "regulated" or not.

 Now, flexible short-term mobility, as ordered by the monetarist free market, is creating a downward standardisation of creative, physical and high-tech labour. It standardises even the most innovative sectors of the economy -- right the way through to education, research and development.

 And it is turning modern workers, and other social strata, into mobile, flexible units of profit and loss, discarding whatever is expendable -- especially in times of crisis. A tangible basis of responding to this is provided by the Fairness At Work White Paper.

 Ideologically, there was a political and social brainwashing process to reinforce the break-up of collective action by workers, which former Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher particularly masterminded: the old fallacy of rags-to-riches individualism.

 The promotion of economic individualism was aimed at different levels.

 At the unemployed: Former Tory employment minister Sir Norman Tebbitt's infamous phrase epitomised its real meaning -- to get "on yer bike" to chase mythical or badly paid jobs in another town. That is, from the north, go south.

 The target of rags-to-riches come-ons was adjusted by updating it as the enterprise culture. The go-getters were not only financial traders now, the self-employed could also supposedly transcend all class loyalties and affinities to achieve, to succeed.

 The reality meanwhile on the shop floor, was the promotion of the team working idea. That was introduced as the rate of international capitalist centralisation, technological innovation and exploitation intensified.

 Particularly, it reveals how production in Britain can be reduced to a semblance of a developing country's industrial standard. (As an imperialist power, the comparison is limited to that alone). Maximum labour input and downward moving real-term, cost-of-living wage rates have steadily resulted.

The idea of encouraging self-interest as a collective means to personal success, with supposed collective benefits all round, has taken different forms.

 Managements themselves have been re-degraded to become more crudely a part of the company success story while hidden behind the facade of human resources psychobabble. Anyone who has noticed the seried ranks of product indoctrinated suits at a Tesco managers' annual "conference", will realise how crude economic individualism can be.

 In the process, the fat cat directors have distanced themselves by light years and become arch-villains of blatant greed. The concentration of merger capital and the consolidation of private ownership is behind this. Therefore, fat cats take it as automatic that their slice will be ever juicier.

 There is no "minimum wage" or "maximum wage" for them, so workers should have an economic and social right to demand collectively the rate for the job. That can only have a major impact if it is done across unions nationally.

 Nothing like it will be achieved with a diversionary minimum wage -- it will standardise wage levels downwards if set in stone.

 Collective defence

 Collective action by all subordinates of capital, in opposition to capitalism and economic imperialism, puts them in active command of the contradiction of capitalist exploitation, however successfully they prosecute their struggle at any given time. Change must eventually succeed on a fundamental scale as awareness progresses.

 The economic crisis has led much of the financial world to flood the news pages of mainstream reporting. Topical among the phrases is "risk" and "exposure". But the more appropriate application is of the crisis exposing workers to ever greater risk.

 It takes no imagination to make the connection: we can see how these once seemingly abstract issues of finance are being bandied about in political contexts to show how we are all suffering, supposedly as one nation. And there's no mention of us becoming middle class, of course, in that context.

 As economic imperialism forces its way into our minds, our jobs, our pockets, and into all aspects of our existence, the whole gamut of modern international exploitation gets closer to being the real target of class opposition and resistance.

 If the standard of living continues to decline, and the government continues to fail to take drastic action on public spending, investment and social support, it is inevitable that a wider anti-capitalist movement will emerge. Socialism, from that point, could put the ruling class on notice.

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