Tony Benn on Capitalism’s Failure and Its Use as System of Class Control

I put up a long piece the other day about two books I’d bought by Tony Benn, one of which was his Arguments for Socialism, edited by Chris Mullin (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1979). Benn is rightly revered as one of the great champions of socialism, democracy and working people of the late 20th and early 21st century. Reading the two books I ordered has been fascinating, because of how so much of them remain acutely relevant to what is going on now, in the last years of the second decade of the 21st century. It struck me very hard that you could open his books at random, and find a passage that would still be both highly enlightening and important.

One such passage is in the section of his book, Arguments for Socialism in the chapter dealing with the inheritance of the Labour party, where he deals with Clause IV. This was the section of the Labour party’s constitution which committed it to the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. This was removed in the 1990s by Tony Blair in his desire to remodel Labour as a capitalist, Thatcherite party. Benn however fully supported nationalization and wished to see it expanded beyond the public utilities and the coal and steel industries nationalized by the Attlee and later governments. This was to be part of a genuine socialist programme to benefit and empower working people. He also argued that this was necessary because capitalism had not produced the benefits claimed by its early theorists, and was simply maintained because it was a useful instrument of class control by the capitalists themselves, particularly the financial section. Benn wrote

The phrase ‘common ownership’ is cast widely enough to embrace all forms of enterprise, including nationalized industries, municipal and co-operative enterprises, which it is envisaged should provide the basis for the control and operation of manufacturing, distribution and the banks and insurance companies.

In practice, Labour programmes and manifestos over the years have focused primarily on the great monopolies of financial, economic and industrial power which have grown out of the theoretical operation of a free market economy. For the ideas of laissez-faire and free enterprise propounded by Adam Smith and carried forward by the Manchester School of Liberal Economists until they reappeared under the new guise of monetarism, have never achieved what was claimed for them.

Today, capitalist monopolies in Britain and throughout the world have long since ‘repealed the laws of supply and demand’ and have become centres of political power concerned principally with safeguarding the financial investors who have lost the benefits of shareholder democracy and the great self-perpetuating hierarchy of managers who run them. For this purpose they control the media, engage in direct propaganda and on occasions have been found guilty of corrupt practices on a massive scale or have intervened directly to support governments that will allow them to continue their exploitation of men and materials for their own benefit. (Pp. 41-2).

This has been thoroughly proved by the last four decades of Thatcherism and Reaganomics. The shareholder democracy Thatcher tried to create through the privatisations of the ’80s and ’90s is a failure. The shares have passed out of the hands of the working class investors, who bought them, and into those of the traditional capitalist middle class. Shareholder democracy within companies has also been shown to be extremely flawed. A number of companies have spectacularly gone bankrupt because of serious mismanagement. The directors put in place to safeguard the interests of shareholders either ignored or were participants in the dodgy schemes of the managers they were supposed to supervise. Furthermore, in many companies while the numbers of workers have been cut and conditions for the remaining staff has deteriorated with lower wages, the removal of workers’ rights and zero hours contracts, management pay has skyrocketed.

And some economists are now turning against the current economic consensus. Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism has shown that laissez-faire capitalism doesn’t create prosperity, economic growth and jobs. He still supports capitalism, but demonstrates that what genuinely does work to benefit countries and the majority of their people economically is state intervention. He shows the benefits of nationalization, workers’ participation in management and protectionism. The American economist, John Quiggin, has also attacked contemporary laissez-faire Thatcherite, Reaganite capitalism, arguing very clearly that it is so wrong it’s intellectually dead, but still justified and promoted by the business elites it serves. He calls it in the title of his book on it, Zombie Economics, which has the subtitle How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us.

Thatcher’s much vaunted monetarism was effectively discarded even when she was in power. A friend of mine told me at College that Thatcher had quietly abandoned it to try to stimulate the economy instead through the old Keynsian methods of public works. And I can still remember the controversy that erupted in the early ’90s when Milton Friedman announced that monetarism was a failure. The Heil devoted a double-page article to the issue, one page arguing for it, the other against.

Tony Benn was right. Monetarism and the laissez-faire capitalism of Thatcher and Reagan was simply a means to entrench and give more power to the financial class. State intervention, nationalization and proper trade union representation were the way to protect the interests of working people. It’s long past time the zombie economics of the Blairites, Lib Dems and Tories was finally consigned to the grave, and a proper socialist government under Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders elected in Britain and America instead.

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One Response to “Tony Benn on Capitalism’s Failure and Its Use as System of Class Control”

  1. sdbast Says:

    Reblogged this on sdbast.

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