Issue 237 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review


The great divide

An estimated 4,000 jobs were to be cut by the water companies as the year began--with the prospect of 9,000 in total being shed. The reason given was that demands by the water industry regulator that prices should be cut by a small amount over the next few years would hit the private companies' massive super-profits. The victims of the cuts, once again, are the workers who produced the profits in the first place. Since the water companies were privatised in 1989 some 11,000 jobs have already gone.

The higher prices, worse services and job losses in the water industry encapsulate much of the reason why the market and big business are so despised at present. The deregulated, unfettered market has been given free rein, and any attempt to control the market is met with bitter resistance by those who benefit from this deregulation. People at the bottom of society are penalised while profits and share dividends are subject to complete protection. Any notion that they should suffer is met with cries of outrage from businessmen and politicians alike.

The story can be repeated in every industry, in every country. Big pay rises are incentives to the rich, but are impossible for the poor. Left to itself, the market puts next to nothing into social or environmental concerns, and begrudges every penny it has to spend. The often minimal and usually inadequate forms of welfare which working people receive are constantly under attack from the same people who believe that corporations can be denied nothing.

It is unsurprising, given this situation, that the groundswell of opinion against the market system has been growing. The bitter opposition to the World Trade Organisation talks in Seattle has set the seal on a mood of anti-capitalism already in evidence around the furore over GM foods or the Paddington rail crash. The triumphalism of the free market, so apparent in recent years, has produced levels of revulsion against the whole system not seen since the 1930s. The growth in inequality in even the richest countries, the acceptance of the profit motive as the only criterion on which to judge issues, and the constant pressure on those in work, have all produced a growing discontent which has taken a generalised form. If the protests in Seattle are the response US capitalism faces when its economy is booming and its unions are still extremely weak, then what must its rulers fear when the economy turns down? Then the resentment can change to burning anger against the system.

At the same time, there can be optimism for the future. The mood symbolised by Seattle demonstrates that people are fed up with the way in which capitalism runs the world and with many of those--like Stephen Byers and Clare Short--who apologise for it. For the first time in many years they are also prepared to do something about it. In Britain there is a bubbling of discontent and anger which is showing itself in a range of industrial disputes and other issues--like the support for Ken Livingstone as London mayor, and in the support internationally for fighting back.

In this issue we look at the hopes of past socialists and the prospects for the future. There is a real sense that we cannot allow the new century to go the way of the old, and that means challenging the market. It also means challenging the pro-market policies of Blair and his cohorts. We are entering a century where all the big questions of class, of who controls the wealth, and of what sort of society we really want to see are high on the agenda and will only be settled by decisive battles in which socialists will play a key role.

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