Can capitalism really put ‘All of us first’?

We are in complete agreement with the Common Weal (CW) that decisive action is needed to end ‘inequality, poverty, declining infrastructure, powerless communities, closed politics, profiteering, low pay, overwork, anxiety, stress and unhappiness’. Indeed, the CW book provides quite a powerful indictment of the brutality and waste endemic under capitalism today. Its flawed approach is that it refuses to go beyond the limits of the very economic and social system that is responsible for these crimes. Instead, it ends proposing to carry through policies that would ‘humanise’ capitalism.

In essence, the CW hopes for a return to the era of the post-war economic ‘consensus’ which was underpinned by the long capitalist upswing between 1955 and the mid-1970s. During that time, at least in the advanced capitalist countries, the working class won important concessions on welfare, public services, full employment and, relatively speaking, improvements in wages and incomes.

The economic crisis in the mid-1970s brought this period to a crashing end. The capitalist class could no longer afford full employment and decent public services. How many times more so is the case today in the teeth of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s?

The CW does put forward reforms which socialists and trade unionists are involved in fighting for day-in and day-out and which form part of a socialist programme. These include a living wage and a shorter working week, tax increases on the rich and public ownership.

However, it believes that an agreement can be brokered between big business, on the one hand, and the majority of the working class, on the other, to allow a more equitable and fairer capitalism to emerge. In one telling passage, the view is expressed that: ‘Success will come when we can ‘coincide’ the interests of different groups, seeking ways of doing things that help not one against the other but both at the same time’.

The CW argument that there are ‘shared interests’ of workers and big business is naïve in the extreme. It flies in the face of the experience of hundreds of thousands of working class people in Scotland who are facing cuts and brutal austerity at the same time as the capitalists and the billionaire class get even richer at our expense.

The CW asserts that the laws of capitalism can be overcome through a consensus approach that reconciles the competing class interests of workers and the employers. One idea is the involvement of workers in the running of business through minority employee representation on boards (where the CW proposes the Danish and German models of one third worker participation on boards of management).

Socialists would counterpoise to this the demand for the nationalisation of the major companies to be put under the democratic control and management of the working class through elected committees.

The CW calls for ‘All-Of-Us-First’ economics where the profits of big business are shared out more evenly. Workers should be able to negotiate a fairer share ‘so that more of that growth goes to wages and less to profits … It’s about helping workers to help enterprises be better.’

Socialist Party Scotland and our co-thinkers internationally fight tirelessly against austerity and for reforms that will benefit the working class. Whether it’s helping to build mass campaigns to defeat the poll tax and the bedroom tax, the fight for a $15 minimum wage in Seattle or the mass movement against water charges in Ireland.

At the same time, we consistently explain that under capitalism all steps forward for working class people are temporary. If forced to give concessions to a mass movement with one hand, the logic of capitalism is to seek to take it away with the other. This is not an argument for not fighting for improvements. In fact, Marxists are among the best fighters for reforms. What it does do is underline the need to link the fight for reforms with the struggle to break decisively with capitalism.

The Nordic countries are the ideal model for the CW: ‘Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway all exist in a Me-First world but have managed to put all of their people first in a way we can barely imagine’. This is to paint a vastly over-rosy picture of reality.

The economic crisis in 2008/2009 hit Denmark severely. Its property bubble burst, banks went under and billions were cut from public budgets. The Social Democratic-led government introduced an unprecedented austerity package in 2012/2013 that included the slashing of unemployment entitlement for workers from 4 years to 2. The result was that 3,000 unemployed workers every month lost their unemployment benefit. This was implemented alongside tax cuts for the richest.

Successive Swedish governments have been lauded by international journals of big business like the Economist for its cuts and privatisation programme. Sweden’s 136 billionaires (more than in the UK) have almost half of the country’s entire GDP. A record amount of company profits in Sweden were handed out to shareholders in 2014

The CW proposes to raise £1 billion by increasing the top rates of tax, although they don’t propose any increases in corporation tax – despite the huge profits that are being made. Even this mild redistributive policy – and the other measures to increase wages for workers and to lower inequality – will be ferociously resisted by big business and the main capitalist political parties.

The elite are past masters at evading and avoiding tax and hiding their wealth in off-shore accounts and the like. This poses the need to take over the banks and the finance houses into public ownership and democratic control.

Anyone arguing for such encroachment into the wealth taken by the bosses will face howls of outrage from the billionaire class, threats to disinvest, to move abroad and even to sabotage the economy. This threat of a ‘strike of capital’ was precisely the one faced by the Wilson Labour government in the 1970s when it proposed to increase taxes on the rich. In response, the bosses revolted and the Labour leaders capitulated.

Faced by this blackmail, the workers’ movement needs to go further and to fight instead for the productive forces – the factories, machines, offices and resources – controlled by the capitalist elite to be brought into democratic public ownership. By owning and controlling the main economic levers – the major corporations that dominate the economy – it would immediately be possible to implement the policies outlined in the CW and much more besides.

Instead of this far-reaching but necessary policy, the CW only argues for extremely limited forms of public ownership. Public ownership of the electricity grid, Scotrail and an element of transport is about as far as the CW is prepared to go. This approach would leave the overwhelming majority of the economy in Scotland in private, capitalist hands.

The CW does not even go as far as the programme implemented by the Labour Government in 1945 that nationalised, on a capitalist basis, around 20% of the economy. Key sectors such as oil, energy, transport, manufacturing and finance should be publicly owned and controlled and managed by the working class – with compensation paid only on the basis of proven need.

This would need to be combined with full government control of incoming and outgoing foreign trade, enabling 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.
Instead of such a plan, the CW believes it’s possible to cajole and encourage business through more regulation and tax regimes that would encourage it to move in a more progressive direction.

There is an old saying that Marxists often use: ‘you can’t control what you don’t own’. If the majority of the economy is left in the hands of capitalist interests then planning production to protect the environment, to create full employment and a living income for all would be impossible.

Socialism would also be far more democratic than capitalism. A socialist government would draw up a plan involving the whole of society. Through elected and accountable committees everybody would be able to participate in decision-making about how best to run society. In contrast, the CW puts forward cosmetic changes that would not deliver genuine democracy for the majority.

Ideas such as ‘participatory budgets’ where local communities vote on where and what to spend money on would in practice just now mean deciding where to make the cuts. No CW proposals would fundamentally impinge or alter the power of big capital and capitalist governments.

So to re-iterate, many CW policies are welcome but to deliver them and more besides needs a mass movement against austerity and the building of new mass working class parties with socialist policies both here in Scotland and internationally. Then the task of liberating humanity from degradation and the horrors of capitalism can truly begin.

Philip Stott is the national secretary of Socialist Party Scotland (the Scottish affiliate of the Committee for a Workers’ International). A longer critique of the Common Weal was produced in June 2014 and can be read at