6 Rewards and Fantasies

Submitted by Juan Conatz on December 23, 2010

History excuses robbery and the law sanctions it. Even though the thief himself may not die in the odour of sanctity, provided he holds sufficient loot intact to pass on to his descendants, the hereditary principle will provide that his grandchildren may grow up virtuously and live graciously. The rich can afford virtue; the poor may well practise it the more, but can seldom afford it.

The descendants of the brigands who stole the land from the Scottish people are proud that their fathers fought for what they now possess, and are most indignant at the notion that they themselves may have to fight for it again. But the British landowning nobility as a whole is resigned to its present situation. They married -- both literally and metaphorically -- into the capitalist class and are also able to ensure their transition into the meritocracy. The Foreign Office, for instance, is traditionally "a form of outdoor relief for the aristocracy".

Even the Crown fancies its chances of survival as a harmless tourist attraction. But the very symbolism by which it justifies itself makes this an optimistic expectation to say the least, so far as a revolutionary Britain is concerned. By being over-plugged now it may not even stand a chance of a good engagement in Hollywood after its long run in London.

Is the monarchy a dead issue already? This is what the press would have us believe, damning the institution with faint praise. Involving the Crown "in politics" is the worst sin that a politician can commit, and his opponents fall over themselves trying to prove he did it. But since the Crown sets the seal of legality upon decisions which are made by the British State, it is more than the personality cult it appears to be. Republicanism is certainly a dead issue. It can make no appeal to the propertied. If the lands of the Crown are expropriated, what excuse is there for not seizing those of the aristocracy? And why should it end there?

This is the dilemma in which Scottish nationalism, like Welsh and Irish, finds itself. It either becomes another escape route into Parliament for yet another group of politicians, or it determines on a positive course of action which is inevitably republican. But if it does so, the propertied gentry who are its main protagonists on a cultural level sooner or later find themselves involved in a movement for social expropriation.14 They have opened the floodgates of anarchy. The nationalist leaders, as in Ireland, are then said to "sell out", though one ought to give them credit for being consistent in defence of their own interests. If, at this point, they have to rely upon the troops of their former enemy, they will do so, though they naturally prefer to use their own. Anything is better than expropriation.

Why is expropriation essential to a social revolution? Could not the former "ruling class" be compensated? The answer has divided the "legitimate" socialist from the revolutionary. The former, at least until the possibility of the attainment of office made the whole question academic, always allowed that the nation should possess the land by which the community was held to ransom, and the means of production by which the capitalist was able to exploit those with only their labour to sell. The orthodox Marxist believed that the concentration of wealth under monopoly capitalism made its expropriation inevitable.

The parliamentary tendency of social-democracy agreed. "But let the expropriated class be compensated!" Why? In order to allow them to retain a privileged position? There is no compensation for power but power. To enable their power to be exchanged at a fair price into another currency, is to enable that currency to be exchanged back into power, even if at a small brokerage. Under state socialism with compensation, as under fascist state capitalism, or British democratic state socialism, the "expropriated" class would become the new "meritocracy". Merit, like virtue, is the adopted child of money. Naturally the package-deal of Fabianism (state socialism with compensation) has appealed to that section of the already "meritocratic" professional class with sufficient intelligence to perceive the inevitability of some sort of social change. It has even conquered the "pink" section of the Conservative Party, as distinct from and to the dismay of the American conservative.

What is the "merit" of the meritocracy? It is not the "merit" of courage or devotion or craft or industry, though it is quite conceivable that some of its members may possess a few or even all of these qualities. It is simply the ability to administer. It is the art of ruling, the transmitting of the line of command-and-obey. Merit in this sense is measured solely by its service to the State, and the degree by which the servant becomes the master. For this reason it appeals to the professional class; it is their own revolutionary class theory.

Fabianism involves the gradual permeation of these ideas. It is now the common property of many parties, but advances the interests of one section only, though it no doubt sincerely believes that the samurai in question will be the saviours of us all. Most of the reforms of the past forty years come back to the panacea of State intervention and the role of Big Brother. They all have a family likeness. The prototype was "putting the unemployed on public services", the daring social reform of the twenties. "Reforms" of this nature foreshadow coming social changes. The "reformist" puts a liberal gloss on what is going to happen anyway.

Looking curiously at the yellowing party programmes and their outworn slogans, one can see the Fabian touch not only in Macdonald's Labour Party, as well as Lansbury's, with touching faith in the nationalisation of the mines and railways, for instance, but also in the old Independent Labour Party, both of Keir Hardie and of Maxton, which saw great things once dependence on the Liberals had been shaken. Even Trotsky believed that once British labour had got rid of Macdonald, Snowden and Jimmy Thomas it would be on the high road to social revolution. Its ideas appeared advanced to those who saw the State as the measurement of man. On the right wing, there was the early Mosley and the middle-period Macmillan, flogging the public works theme, and the now forgotten Sir William Beveridge with his plans for looking after us from the cradle to the grave. There was the Big Brotherdom of the Webbs, christened as such by Orwell but now known as the welfare state. The cult of the State presumes that it can solve all our problems, or could do so if the leadership were different. This is still the issue of the next election, and the one after. But the Fabian notion of the managerial class and the value of gradual reforms is now part and parcel of civil service thinking, irrespective of party.

It may be perplexing at first sight that the middle-class is not more grateful to Harold Wilson, as it was coming to be towards Clement Attlee. This is due to the ingrained conservatism of the older, and the necessity for the young and ambitious, in that world where one might as well be out of life as out of fashion, to acquire the brand-image of progressive Toryism. Even the professional class, now the bastion of the Labour Party as once the miners were, and in France the last bearers of the parliamentary socialist banner, has become anxious about its place in society. The petty-minded see that no restraints are possible upon the worker, or upon that part of the younger generation that despises bourgeois values. A "right-wing backlash" is hoped for, as the only way of preserving that economic domination which is regarded as the reward for merit. In reality, merit is the result of economic domination.

Why are people concerned for such domination? Money is power and power is privilege. It is at once a symbol of servitude but also of liberty within the system. Yet it is only a fantasy. It would be a suitably ironic gesture if an expropriatory revolution gave as "compensation" the very paper money worshipped by capitalism. It would be amusing to think of the industrial Romanovs sweating it out in exile sitting on bags of their own currency, valueless now that it was no longer a symbol of power. Merely to question the value of money is to raise a cheap laugh. But if money is the solution to our ills, could not governments print more and make us all rich? Why do they not do so and solve their own problems? An entirely mythic answer, arising out of the neo-theological science of economics, was that the amount of currency that could be issued related to the amount of gold held in the bank.

But as that gold was normally invisible to the outside world, it could easily be removed without anyone being the wiser, and when finance and government discovered the con trick that could be worked (they had only to increase their security precautions-nobody knew if the gold was still there) or simply discarded the gold standard, a new answer had to be found. To be sure, people are kept busy digging up gold in South Africa and transporting it to the United States to bury it again. But the economists no longer worship the image of gold. Now they tell us a different story, that currency is related to productivity, though the people as a whole hold fast to a related legend that the natural wealth of the country and its applied labour all comes out of Waterlow's printing works.

The fables of the economists have come to be the great saga of the British people. A government operating by sheer armed force would not have to trouble what its people think. It could ignore their wants and their opinions. But once one has to reckon with the mob, a different set of answers must be given. The commissar may say. "Have they no bread? This, comrades, is due to saboteurs, enemies of the fatherland. We are building up socialism and everyone must sacrifice."

What can the parliamentarian say? He can only talk in the language of the popular economists, and refer to balance of payments crises and national difficulties. His appeals, if they are to have any effect at all, and they rarely have anyway, must be in homespun language. The national affairs are likened to good housekeeping. We are solemnly warned of the dangers of national bankruptcy. Yet what happens in such an event? We do not pay our creditors? Some states, by using the language of patriotism and socialism, present this as a great achievement: "We have seized foreign assets in our country." It is true other nations do not like this. Britain, France and Spain united for the first time since the crusades when Mexico did not pay its debts, and invaded the country. But even so, when President Juarez paid up and Britain and Spain withdrew, Napoleon III went it alone. The debts were only a pretext. If an imperialist state has the power to invade, and wants to do so, it usually does so. It is unlikely that a bankruptcy by Britain would lead to a blockade by the Swiss Navy.

Economics is an agreed fiction. After the anti-Czarist pioneer Alexander Herzen fled from Russia, his fortune was declared to be confiscated. The astute Herzen had, however, placed it in government securities, which he discounted with Rothschilds of London. The bankers informed the Kremlin that if the bonds were dishonoured they would be re-presented on all the stock exchanges of Europe, and his imperial majesty hammered everywhere as a defaulter. This was considered to demonstrate the enormous financial power of the Rothschilds, who could defy the most despotic autocrat in the world.15 Both the might of the Rothschilds and the czar were myths of the nineteenth century. Within a man's lifetime, all a czar's commands were insufficient to get him a glass of water. And when a Vienna Rothschild found his wealth confiscated by an even worse despot, the London house did not make themselves the laughing-stock of Europe by huffing and puffing at Hitler in the same way.

The Czar had capitulated to Rothschild fearing that an act of legitimate sovereignty would be represented as an act of bankruptcy. As he shared a common illusion, he could be forced to obey. He could not send his soldiers to the banking house to prevent it insulting him -- if they had been living in Russia, finance would have yielded to brute force. Though the nazis still frightened the people with the bogey of international finance, one had only to disbelieve in it for it to lose its power.

Yet Marxists were still convinced that the political power and the armed might wielded by the nazis were "only a reflex" of the real, economic power, even though recalcitrant capitalists and industrialists might be sharing the same concentration camp as they. Once the fact of brute force was established, the tyrant had only to shake his fist for money to be poured into his lap. His commands were then regarded as strength. When a historian says that a particular war "was paid for by high taxes" he does not really mean that it was paid for by the government printing paper money, distributing it, and then taking it back again. This is the incantation, but not the real magic. What he really means is that, by force or persuasion, the people had to work harder and get less and be subject to greater inconvenience. Sometimes it is done by slavery and subjugation, but this has nowadays a flavour of illegality about it, even though the State legitimises it. (In defeat, as shown by the Nuremberg Trials, it can be found to be "illegal" after all.) Certainly it is not the way in a democracy. Some other method has to be found.

Yet a democratic politician, except in time of war, has few common ideals by which to appeal for sacrifice. Resorting to the stop-go economy crisis common to both parties has been the modern British form of democratic compulsion. It has become necessary to dramatise the ledger-book. The cross-entries in international banking are now front-page news and a matter for earnest debate. The theme of politics is always the same-that one must work harder and get less. But the reasons given for doing so vary. At one time, under the inspired leadership of Mr Churchill, we were offered "nothing but blood, toil, tears and sweat", but that was to win the war. It was apparently won, but we were still asked, by both parties, for sacrifices. This time it was to win the peace. Such as it was, it appears to have been won, at any rate for a longer period than the previous one. But we were still required to pull our weight and give just that extra effort . . . this time, so that we could get out of our economic difficulties. We have already moved to the stage where this itself has become a joke. We are told now that all this is just the way of the world and it would be impossibly juvenile to question it. For everybody knows from their own experience that if they do not have enough money there are things they cannot afford and so it is with the nation . . ..

So the saga of the national prosperity goes on whichever government is in office. It is a convenient repository of legends, told in the native language of capitalism, and handily capable of being expressed in different accents of party consciousness. The stuff of its legends comes from the confusion between the tokens of exchange in one country and those of another, for science has failed to produce a coherent economic system under which capitalism could be run more effectively.

Economists have only been able to suggest expanding the viable area, in a Customs Union, in Commonwealth free trade, in the Common Market. Even so, the artificial barriers make importing and exporting more difficult. This is not what causes depressions and slumps, when the goods are there and the labour is there and all that has happened is that the means of exchange have been so monkeyed about with that the system will not work. In such a situation the money system has completely ceased to have any utility.

Gold, in the Middle Ages, proved to be a means of exchange of undoubted utility. In a moneyless society, too, it may still be essential -- to the dental profession, for instance. Coin in its time was a handy means of expediting commerce, rather than barter. Even paper currency had a civilising influence, circumventing the brute force of feudalism with the mercantile devices of promissory notes, drafts and letters of credit. Embryonic capitalism within feudalism had to legalise usury, and to reconcile it with religion, because by it the merchant could finance the wars and lavish expenditure of nobility and government. Though the usurer was hated for his extortions, and the baron admired for his valour, the former was little more than the tax-gatherer for the latter. He could not grow rich on coin, which could be seized or garnished, but on paper. It seemed like magic to the superstitious, and it still does. Without the device of credit, trade could not continue. The law was no protection; it was merely a means of defending the basic laws of property for the benefit of the powerful, and enabling tribute to be levied upon commerce.

Reforms at that period, anticipatory of social change, consisted of remedying the laws for the benefit of the merchant. The capitalist was able first to prune, and finally to eradicate, the poison ivy of parasite aristocracy. He dictated the laws in favour of commerce. In the wake of drafts and letters of credit came the modern banking system. Coin ultimately became so debased as to be a pocket alternative to paper, small change of no intrinsic value in itself. But paper has become more than a convenient means of exchange; it is the Mammon for which under capitalism we live and die, love and hate. Paper, not gold, is the symbol of power and privilege. Nobody assesses their deposits in the bank in terms of ounces or pounds of gold. For paper, not gold, is the symbol of power and privilege today. (Even in the non-competitive state where paper may not be supreme in terms of money, it reigns supreme in terms of card-membership!)

And paper has long ceased to be a fair means of barter. The very fact that in a competitive society one can speculate upon the fluctuations of the currency proves it to be considered a valuable item in its own right. Interest charges show that there is a cost of money upon money. The supply of gold at least was conditioned by certain natural factors. The Royal Mint can churn out debased coin, while anyone with an offset litho could print off banknotes if it were not subject to certain legal hazards.

In fact, one could quite legally and freely print one's own tender and people will do so if they can get anyone to accept it. Our cheques and notes-at-hand could be taken up by others in consideration of our (real or imagined) reliability. Our issue would then become currency. This is what happens with Scottish banknotes, which Scots readily take on trust and assume to be legal tender, and get indignant when English shopkeepers decline them.

The value of legal tender lies in the authority of the state issuing it. Other forms of issue rest upon trust. Money is subject to the fluctuations of authority and may speedily become valueless except to collectors of ephemera. The banks, however, create wealth out of trust. They deal in invisibility. A growing capitalist's potential is assessed, and an overdraft granted by the process of dipping a pen into a red inkwell instead of a black one. A series of paper transactions follows, which may amount to no more than cross-entries in the bank's own ledgers, or at most in the ledgers of the combined clearing house of a handful of banks. Cash as such is unnecessary except by way of small change to pay the grocer, and even that finds its way back to the banks. Unless the government, for reasons of political policy, imposes artificial legal sanctions, the bank can go ahead and create vast industries out of paper-and-ink.

How does this economic sequence of command-and obey operate? Why is it that at a nod of the head and a dip of the pen one can get raw materials dug out of the earth, great factories built, vans and ships moving, executives hustling by plane across the world, careworn women smiling again and paying their shopping bills, elegantly dressed women ordering a second Jag, storekeepers rubbing their hands with delight and representatives going away with large commissions?

And on the other hand, how can a few cross-ledger entries in the wrong coloured ink plunge towns and valleys into misery and cause chimneys to stop smoking and the wealth of the world to be left undisturbed? If the bankers are gnomes, in what does their magic consist?

The Catholic peasantry of feudal Europe implicitly believed in the conjurious craft of the Jews, some of whom were the protocapitalistic usurers, and transactions on paper seemed the work of magicians. Today the superstitious ask us to believe that a little republic, which has avoided participation in war because of its defencelessness, has become our economic dictator -- the meek indeed inheriting the earth -- and that as a result our lives should be conditioned to the whims of its least worthy citizens, a handful of grasping financiers.

What is the magic elixir that the British nation is asked to believe exists in the fairy vaults nestling under the Swiss Alps? If you believe in fairies, clap your hands, otherwise the fairy will die . . . so long as the world believes in the Swiss bankers, they will grow prosperous and powerful and develop blood pressure and ulcers through carrying the world upon their shoulders. Cease to believe in them and all the fairy gold in the vaults turns to ashes when you try to cash it.

It was the logic of feudalism that all gave what they had. The poor man gave his labour. The merchant gave his wealth (his capacity to develop markets). The priest (forerunner of the professional class) gave his blessing. The knight gave his valour. It was a convenient theory for all but those who were not consulted in its formulation. It still shadows Tory thinking. Whatever the proposed reform, the classical lament is "Where will the money come from?" The suggestion is that it can only come out of taxation, which is equally unintelligent as to say "print more" . It suggests the rich keep the poor, since wealth comes from taxation and presumably the more one pays the more one contributes "to the less fortunate".

Tory prejudices have influenced the economic thinking even of the reformers, many of whom, even the most advanced, feel that the degree of taxation is bound up with the level of reform, and that those who oppose the monetary system and therefore do not advocate taxation as a remedy must by that token be opposed to reform. An alternative absurdity, frequent in the peace movement in the 'thirties and not extinct even today, is that if we saved the cost of a bomber, or what have you, we could send five hundred children from the slums on a seaside holiday each year. And yet one immediately wonders what the building of a bomber has to do with sending children on holiday. Certainly the bomber is quite unnecessary, but all that is needed for the holiday are a few coaches, a bit of free beach, food, pop and a place to stay. What have the wasted efforts of the engineers got to do with it?

Radical thought can contain an element of resentment against unfairness, which is quite understandable. Surely, if the wealthy are not going to be expropriated, it is only fair that they should be taxed! Through this argument parliamentary socialism has made inroads upon the working class, but in doing so it has postponed expropriation to an unreal future. Once it has done that, all it can do is occasionally to punish the rich with mild slaps. The right-wing, non-progressive Conservative is right in saying that much of taxation is merely punishment. In his arrogance he does not see that these lightly administered slaps save him from a worse hiding. Even in the present economy, it does not make much difference to society whether the wealthy are taxed or not. If each class made its demands firmly enough and consistently defended its living standards, they would attain the same level as they get from the State as concessions. Once they are pushed under, the affluence of those above is of little practical concern of theirs.

But, the bewildered reformer cries, if the rich were not taxed they would be buying second yachts while there would be no funds available for artificial teeth under the National Health Service! It may be wondered if they suppose that a yacht builder can make false teeth, or a dental mechanic uses seasoned timber? Liberalism, like parliamentary socialism, ignores the con trick of the money system, sharing Tory thinking on the real value of money. It is assumed that if one views taxation as illusory, it follows that one opposes reforms as such. Yet increase in human misery is something that happens when people are defenceless, and this lack of power is due to delegating it to others and to trust in the monetary system.

All so-called reformism, when not dealing with restrictions upon social life, is bound up with the redistribution of money. If the palpable falsity of our monetary system is not recognised, and a moneyless society is thought of as an illusion, one cannot avoid credence in the mumbo-jumbo of political thinking.

Revolution, to a "reformist", can only be visualised in terms of the ritual outburst of fictional South American republics. Yet every so often a revolutionary thought may strike the mind even of a mandarin. He is given a fascinating glimpse behind the curtain that surrounds the sacred economic mysteries. For instance, the Paris Metro was seen to spend more on the collection of fares than it received in actual revenue. For political reasons, it could not raise fares. Why not abolish fares, and actually save money by doing so? The taxi drivers protested. An indignant councillor exclaimed, "Mais c'est l'anarchie!"

The irrelevance of the money system is seen when needs and luxuries are well defined and largely available, yet some get insufficient for their needs, others get more than enough, and a few get an abundance of luxury. How is this method of distribution defined? How are our abilities rewarded? The yardstick, the reward system, is defined in different ways-wages, salaries, rent, profits, interest, earnings, pensions, allowances. However labelled, they define our place in society. We do not exchange what we have to offer by any fair means. Rewards are in proportion, or out of proportion, to the general wealth. One may by artificial means increase or decrease this proportion, but any normal system of taxation leaves the proportion still exactly the same according to the degree of power held.

Rewards are based upon power. The power determining our rewards may be sanctioned by history, defined by law or fought for. Not unnaturally, those with the greatest rewards like to think of their fortunate circumstances as due to ability, virtue, good training or inherited right. Yet any or all of these may be unrewarded if there is no power behind them. Coronets may not count for much in a vigorous new country, however it may esteem capitalism; and kind hearts are notoriously insufficiently rewarded.

Power can rest upon shortage, force or legislation. But it is power that determines rewards. In a state-dominated, non-competitive society, there is less grabbing because the system is geared otherwise. But the State must still, to preserve its authority and to keep that vital line of command-and-obey going, reintroduce other forms of reward and incentive. Positive disincentives for those who buck the system exist in "the submerged level".

Free co-operation, without the State, is mutual aid. It is regarded as impracticable. So was mercantile capitalism in its early days (if not thought of as magical, which is the same thing, perhaps). For on what does finance capitalism rest but trust? It has managed largely, but not completely, to back that confidence up by heavy penalties and the formulation of commercial law. But trust can break down. Its disappearance meant the pricking of the South Sea Bubble, and the Wall Street crash. When trust even in the State itself broke down in inflation-ridden Germany of the 'twenties, the people reverted to barter. In occupied Germany in the late 'forties they invented a currency of their own in the shape of foreign cigarettes and canned goods, a handy form of exchange which, as a last resort, could even be consumed. This, though stigmatised as the black market and labelled as anti-social, was regarded as enterprising. When, after the First World War, the German people had turned to mutual aid, in the occupation of the factories, the full murder force of the State was directed against them. Elementary barter was less obnoxious to the forces of rule, though it proved that even the collapse of government into weakness and disorder does not prevent life going on somehow.

Under monopoly rule, whether state capitalism, or state communism, the system ceases to depend on trust and moves into one of dependence. Rewards are determined by Big Brother and power is in relation to the administration rather than to economic pressure. The current Establishment witch-hunt against unofficial strikes is a reflection of the fact that the State cannot tolerate the workers determining their own rewards by pressure, beyond a certain point. There are naturally no objections to the legalisation of trade unions providing they play the role of official dragoons. There is a place for official trade unionism in the dependent society, and even military-ruled Spain finds the necessity of creating its own version of a labour front.

Under a monopolistic order of economy there is a new order of merit. There is less place, and in the state-communist version no place, for the self-made millionaire who can manipulate shortages and exploit anomalies. Bourgeois tourists to Russia find that normal business transactions are regarded as crimes. Even within capitalism, however, there are fewer opportunities for the self-made man as state capitalism advances. The methods of business enterprise of only a short while back begin to look criminal. Businesses are no longer built up by the smash-and-grab of laissez-faire capitalism. The men of power are chairmen of corporations, rather than independent bosses relying upon the profit motive. The first Lord Melchett built up a vast, competitive capitalist empire. The present Lord Melchett is concerned with increasing his enormous salary as chairman of a state board. Lord Beeching moves from one board to another. His salary when directing British Rail had no connection with the fact that it might make a profit or a loss.

The way to rise under state control is limited, though it still exists, even in Russia, where the officially approved artist or the sycophantic poet fills the place elsewhere occupied by pop singers or entertainers. Otherwise, the caste system is not being broken by the sudden acquisition of large fortunes. Those who already have large stakes in the economy become even richer, but the means of personal advancement is now through examinations, not through the old capitalist virtues of individual enterprise.

The planned state is a process by which we shall have our rewards determined for us, and the virtues are obedience and conformity. Money, which derives from the workings of individual enterprise, may lose its magical qualities. The wage system may become a sophisticated version of the food-and-keep of the slave. For though abolition of the monetary and wage system is an essential step to freedom, it does not of itself imply freedom if need is determined by others.

A free society might ration those goods which are in short supply and cannot be available upon the formula of "each according to his needs". It can have nothing to do with superior decisions upon merits, or the goblin fluctuations of currency. For then it would cease to be free.