The Guardian commentariat is divided into two groups: left-wingers of all shapes and colours on the one hand, and ‘progressive’ pro-European liberals on the other. It’s no secret where my sympathies lie, and so I must turn to the second group: for there we have, among many well-meaning, idealistic people, others who, having drunk deep at the well of Thatcherism, evince some very unpleasant tendencies.
Take Julian Glover. Glover often writes news items, but he’s also a fairly regular commentator, and not one you’d suspect of being ‘loony left’. ‘Smearing Labour’s new leader, a decent man, as Red Ed will backfire on his critics’, Glover warned upon Ed Miliband’s election, which was of a ‘peculiar and undemocratic nature’. In there, you have all the instinctive suspicion some ‘progressives’ harbour towards socialism and the labour movement: if Ed is a decent man, he obviously can’t be red. Those trade union crazies, it seems, are beyond the pale of common human decency. ‘Progressives’ draw up a political spectrum which, in including the wealthy and educated and excluding the working class, reveals their elitist nature.
Glover went further in this delightful piece: ‘The left should recognise that equality is undesirable’. His argument runs like this: life isn't fair. ‘[F]air opportunity in a liberal society’ (‘equality of opportunity’, that old Blairite watchword) does ‘not produce equal outcomes’. People are different, you see. ‘Life is an erratic blend of luck, ability and effort. We should encourage effort and hope for ability, and try to minimise dependence on luck. But we are fooling ourselves if we think we can eradicate inequality.’
There is an unacknowledged right-wing framework to all this, and before I lay out what is hopefully a more persuasive account of ‘opportunity’ and ‘outcomes’, let's take that framework apart. I can think of no better place to start than Glover’s own sub-heading: ‘It sounds horribly rightwing [sic], but a fair society may be one in which people have the right to strive for inequality.’
‘It sounds horribly rightwing’: Glover, of course, wants you to take his argument as something a ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ person can accept. But he's also, in advance, trying to belittle his opponents by using that word ‘horribly’, which suggests they are stuborn creatures of tradition. Enlightened inequality against the proles' ‘yuck’ reaction!
A ‘fair society’: as Glover himself points out, ‘fair’ is a popular word with politicians because you can use it to describe almost anything, projecting warm fuzziness all the while – unlike ‘equal’. ‘People’: there's the mindset of the atomised individual who ‘strives’ (yet to come!) for various things, possibly competing with others, but not working in a larger, constraining framework. ‘The right to... ’: and now the game is surely up, for that’s the language of big business: ‘free market’, ‘economic freedom’, ‘the right of management to manage’. The right always tries to paint accumulation as the exercise of freedom. ‘Strive for inequality’: there’s that word ‘strive’, which paints the capitalist’s accumulation of profits as an heroic quest. But in the phrase ‘strive for inequality’, Glover’s failure – wilful or otherwise - to comprehend inequality reveals itself, and that failure concedes the entire argument to the Right. Think in their terms – as too many nominally on the Left do – and it’s not surprising you end up with their conclusions.
It turns out that life isn’t really the way Glover imagines. In his mind, human beings are race horses: some will turn out to be faster and more successful than others, thanks to that ‘erratic blend of luck, ability and effort’, and to the victor go the spoils. (A left-wing government to Glover’s liking would presumably attempt to level the playing field – make sure all horses stand the same chance at the outset.) That view – some are just luckier, better and more hard-working than you and me – flatters the rich immensely. They rather like thinking of themselves that way, either as hard-working success stories or, as your Richard Bransons and Alan Sugars go, as big bad predators who out-competed the plebs. But this narrative conveniently forgets the most fundamental fact of capitalism, namely class.
Class in capitalist society means that a few people own and control what is needed to produce society's wealth – machines and factories (industrial capital), but also communications, infrastructure, financial institutions etc. The majority of the population – the working class – operates these means of production to produce goods and services, from cars and microwaves to wireless broadband, in return for a wage from the owner of the means of production – that is, they sell their labour power. The capitalist then sells the finished products on the market for a profit. Everything is owned by the employer, but nothing would be produced without the labour of the many.
Who produces social wealth: the corporations? No, it is the working class. If no-one worked (if no labour power was expended), the means of production would be useless, nothing would be produced and sold, and the capitalist would be deprived of his profit. That is, it is the work of the majority of the population that makes the rich rich. Note that the reverse is not true: if the capitalist class was relieved of its power there can be no suggestion that all production would immediately cease, although we would need to imagine new ways of administering and coordinating economic life.
The bourgeoisie (let’s call a spade a spade, in the manner of the Deputy Prime Minister) may have become the capitalist class through ‘luck, ability and effort’, but once there they retain their position through the work of the many, enforced by the institutions of the state. There is no level playing field, nor can there be one so long as private property exists. The class system reproduces itself as people are born into ‘their’ class, grow up in their neighbourhoods, attend their schools and begin working in the jobs available to their class. The capitalist gets richer as he siphons off the value created by the workers, who take home a very small share of the social product (just how small is negotiated through trade union class struggle).
So I just thought I’d set the record straight. There is no capitalism without class, and class means that a few rule while many labour. The rich aren’t more successful, ruthless, lucky, able: they're just in a position to reap the benefits of others' work. It’s nonsense to demand the ‘right to strive for inequality’. People are not atomised individuals ‘competing’ with each other - they're engaged in a set of very definite social relations, a class system that holds the many down to enrich the few. Under capitalism, there can be no wealth without poverty. Time to break the structure up, eh?