The simple answer is: it’s the system we live in.
Today, nearly everything we need to live our daily lives – from Big Macs to bus rides – has to be paid for. Water, gas, electricity, housing, transport, food and clothing – the principle is the same: if you’re broke, you can’t have any.
And in this society there are vast divisions in wealth 7% of the population of Britain own 84% of the wealth. World-wide the difference is even bigger. Millions starve while a few thousands live in luxury lifestyles.
Teachers, politicians and the media try to portray this as a “natural” state of affairs: “it’s always been like this, and it always will be”, they say.
But they’re wrong. Early human societies were communal: they weren’t divided into rich and poor and they shared property instead of having to buy and sell the things they needed.
After this, human history is a succession of different class societies: different systems of the rich exploiting the poor. We get the slavery of Ancient Greece and Rome, then the feudal system of knights, lords and peasants, and then we get capitalism.
Under capitalism the vast majority of the world’s population is systematically deprived of any way of supporting itself other than working for an employer. Peasants are thrown off the land. The traditional “professional classes” like office workers and teachers are turned into wage slaves like the rest of us.
At the end of a week’s work on a Sainsbury’s supermarket check out, you come away with only your wages. You do not own the equipment you use, the uniform you wear and you have no right to consume any of the mountains of food and drink you’ve passed through the barcode till. And, on £3.15 an hour – £126 for a 40 hour week – you won’t be buying much of it either.
That makes you part of the working class – whether you like it or not.
Now let’s look at the owner of Sainsburys, David Sainsbury. His annual salary is £362,000. That’s £6,900 a week. “But he earns it”, your economics teacher might say. Of course that’s rubbish: why are the skills of one person worth seventy six times more than another (work it out!).
But consider this. In addition to his £362,000 salary David Sainsbury gets £37.6 million a year from share dividends. His real income is nearer £723,000 a week.
What are “share dividends”?
David Sainsbury does not just own a flash car and a few big houses. He owns a large part of the Sainsbury’s supermarket chain as well. Share dividends are the shared out profits of Sainsbury’s. It is this ability to make millions of pounds worth of profits from owning a business that makes David Sainsbury a capitalist.
Where do these profits come from? Part of them come from buying cheap and selling dear. Sainsburys buys fruit for a few pennies a kilo, in the third world, and “marks up” the price in Britain. But that is not the main source of profit. If all capitalists systematically charged too much for the things they sell there would be spiralling inflation and the system would collapse.
No, the real source of profit is the labour of all the people who work for Sainsbury’s: from the fruit pickers in Africa, to the lorry drivers who transport the fruit, to the checkout workers and shelf stackers in the store.
The harder David Sainsbury can make the workers work, and the lower the wages he can pay them, the bigger his “share dividend” will be at the end of the year.
“But it’s still fair”, says your economics teacher: “Sainsbury’s great grandfather gambled his savings setting up a corner shop, and anyway David Sainsbury is doing society a service, running the business that brought you Kiwi fruit and Sunday shopping – and he runs a massive charity.”
It clearly is not “fair” that one man makes millions while others work for peanuts. But that’s not the whole point.
The real point is that the system does not work.
David Sainsbury and his marketing executives do not look at a Kiwi fruit as a piece of exotic food. They look at it as a potential profit maker. They do not look at Sunday opening as a great service for hard pressed working families, but as a way of maximising profit.
The same goes for all production under capitalism. If it makes a profit, it will be produced. If it does not, it won’t.
If capitalism was a nice, easygoing system where every capitalist produced a profit every year this would not matter so much. But it is not.
Capitalism is an anarchic, crisis ridden system. Behind the backs of the marketing executives stalk market forces that are as unpredictable as the weather. Three times in the last 30 years big world economic crises have destroyed profit rates across entire industries.
Car factories have closed down, mines and shipyards have closed down, and even supermarkets – all because their owners could not make a profit.
Because of capitalism’s tendency to produce dramatic crises, millions are condemned to either low pay or long-term unemployment. There are 2.7 million people unemployed in Britain. There are four million people working for less than £4 an hour, including the majority of 16-21 year- olds.
And capitalism does not just affect your income.
It affects your education – as class sizes rise, as student grants are cut – all so that the bosses do not have to pay tax; so that they can take home more profits.
It affects your health – as the NHS is cut back, as we are made to eat diseased beef to maximise the profits of farming businesses.
It affects your environment – as rainforests are felled so that the paper industry bosses can make easy profits, as dangerous nuclear power stations are kept running to provide cheap energy, and higher profits, for the capitalists.
It threatens your life – as the different capitalists of different countries squabble over who can make the biggest profits, they go to war.
Or rather, they send the low paid, poorly educated and unemployed youth off to die while they just watch on CNN.
It destroys your mind – you are bombarded from hoardings, TV ads and by fashion magazines with the message: buy these £100 trainers, buy these designer label clothes – or you’re nobody.
Depression, suicide and low self-esteem are caused by capitalism – not by the individual sufferers.
But there is an answer.
Society could be organised as if people mattered.
We would have to start by taking the major industries, services and trade networks out of the hands of the big capitalists and putting them into the hands of the millions of working people.
We would have to plan production, using the latest and safest modern technology to make sure that people worked fewer and fewer hours a week, with more leisure time, more money and more high quality education and services to improve the quality of life.
By planning production, and by common ownership of the means of production we could begin to construct a society not based on profit but based on human need.
There would still be conflicts: should we build roads, bicycle networks or railway lines? Should rail transport be free or just cheap, with the fares used to subsidise aid to third world countries?
Dilemmas like these would be solved by workers’ democracy.
A utopia? No. It’s a necessity. And by creating a massive working class who have nothing to lose from ending the profit system – and everything to gain – capitalism itself has created its own gravedigger.
Again and again over the last two hundred years working class people have entered the road of revolution. Some successes, and many failures, have littered our history.
But capitalism holds no future for the human race other than the destruction of the environment, mass poverty and unemployment, disease and war.
Capitalism’s not natural, it’s not fair and it’s not permanent. It will produce either socialism or barbarism. Which will it be?