In 2013, the Greater London Combined branch of the Communication Workers’ Union published a pamphlet making the case for public ownership and democratic control of the telecoms sector. We will be publishing the PDF of the pamphlet with a new introduction from GLC CWU activists soon. Here we publish a special article from the pamphlet setting the question of public ownership in the wider context of socialist politics.
This pamphlet is about putting the case for common ownership back on the agenda of the trade unions and the Labour Party. It is about bringing back some sense of direction and a goal to our day to day battles and putting the movement back into the labour movement.
We’ve taken the example of the telecoms sector because that is the sector we know. But the case against capitalism and for common ownership can be made on a much wider basis both nationally and internationally.
The workers’ movement has had the most impact when we’ve dared to set broad social goals that challenge the rule of capital and put human need above private profit. After all the first mass trade unions were built around the idea of the 8 hour day: of shortening the working week to give workers some rest and time for themselves and their families and it was won against the violent opposition of capital and its political representatives, who claimed it would lead to economic ruin.
The highest achievements so far of the modern mass trade union movement has been the creation of state education and health systems that have provided at least some limited gains and protection for workers. And it is exactly these gains that are the main target of the current ‘austerity’ drive which is capital’s response to its own global crisis.
It is that global crisis that has exposed all the modern myths about the rationality of the market and the efficiency of capitalism and revealed the rotten core of the current system.
There is an alternative to mass unemployment, falling living standards and the destruction of the public services: a government of the majority committed to common ownership and economic democracy.
But to prepare the way for that the trade union and labour movement needs to engage in the battle of ideas and win majority support for the idea that there is an alternative to capitalism.
Capitalism stands condemned on a number of grounds:
• The grotesque inequalities it generates – in which bank executives who serve absolutely no social purpose are paid hundreds of times more than fire fighters or nurses who save people’s lives.
• The criminal waste of resources – be it in the senseless duplication and poor planning we’ve exposed in this pamphlet, or on the scale of impending global ecological catastrophe.
• The way it blights every aspect of life – from making people work all hours when they are young and raising kids, to throwing them on the scrapheap when they are old.
• The way it treats human beings as expendable units of labour whose health and safety is to be sacrificed to the god of profit.
• The way it limits people’s aspirations and horizons through an education system geared to the needs of business rather than the creation of rounded human beings who see knowledge and understanding as a goal in itself.
• The way it has emptied modern democracy of much of its content. Political parties often appear to compete, not for the support of the electorate, but for the grace and favour of huge corporations.
• The way it subverts the wonderful cooperation which underpins the global economy and turns it into a mechanism for filling the bank accounts of a tiny parasitic elite.
Those who defend capitalism do so on the basis that it is the most efficient economic system that humanity can devise. But there is efficiency and efficiency. We have to be clear exactly what capitalism is good at.
Capitalism is a very efficient system when it comes to maximising profits for shareholders, but not when it comes to the most rational and efficient use of resources and human creativity. In fact, the efficiency of capitalism comes at enormous cost to the bulk of humanity. For instance, right now we are in the midst of capitalism making itself more efficient by reducing the living standards and attacking the working conditions of workers across the globe.
The result is a generation of young workers in the advanced countries who for the first time in more than a century face the prospects of worse living standards than their parents enjoyed. Yet for the executives of the major corporations times have never been better.
While the living standards of workers are driven down and we have massive cuts in public spending and benefits, capital increasingly comes to the state with a begging bowl looking for support – and compliant politicians provide it. The billions of pounds in bailouts to the banks after the credit crunch are the most notorious example of this, but the telecoms giants are far from reluctant to milk the state for guaranteed profits. We do still have a welfare state – but it is a welfare state for capitalism.
The irony in this situation is that modern capitalism with its huge monopolies has already laid the basis for a more rational system with the enormous inter-connectedness of the global economy. All that is needed is to replace the tyranny of private capital with a democracy of the producers and consumers.
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