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Nigel Harris

The Socialist ABC

C is for compete, cheat

(April 1979)

From Socialist Review, No.11, April 1979, p.40.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Capitalism is a world system governed by competition. Of course, people ‘competed’ before capitalism was invented. Feudal lords competed to build the largest castles, to capture the largest number of serfs or kill the largest number of soldiers in other lords’ armies. But that was just a small local affair. and. for much of the time, it left the serfs much as before, poorer but essentially the same.

Capitalism is the first society organised exclusively on the principle of competition between people, between firms, between States and between groups of States; It drives everyone. For the capitalist, the drive is not so that he or she can eat more. Most capitalists receive so much, they cannot possibly spend their income on consumption a fifth car or a fifth house is hardly worth the effort. The drive is to survive. Unless the capitalist continually reinvests, he is liable to be bankrupted.

The capitalist is not interested in what happens to what he produces, only in whether he can sell it at a profit. For the profit determines whether he can then invest and whether he can survive against his rivals. The drive for profit, not the drive to produce goods which people need, is the central principle. It is that which perpetually transforms our lives.

One day the revolutionary breakthrough is the invention of the steam locomotive. Steel railway lines spread out across the country like a web, smashing their way through cities, ploughing across the fields, tunnelling through mountains. Thousands of people are pulled into making trains, building lines and stations.

But scarcely a lifetime later, it is the petrol engine, the car, which suddenly explodes. The miles of railways, platforms, tunnels, become ghost towns. And then men and women who manned them become redundant. Now motorways gouge out the fields, oil refineries flare in the night, giant tankers nose their way into ports. Thousands more, sons and daughters of those who built the railways, are sucked into a new industry. Only to find as in British Leyland that capitalism has moved on in the feverish search for profit.

It does not matter what sort of a person the capitalist is. Perhaps he thinks he is human. He reads poetry at the weekend and falls in love. He worries about the hungry. and is kindly to the old and sick. But in his office, he has few choices. He mans a machine that consumes people, and if he does not consume people as ruthlessly as his rivals, he also will end up redundant. The machine must constantly be rebuilt, wages constantly reduced as a share of the costs. And if people starve, there is not time to think of it.

The capitalist is not just one man or woman. It is also the state. Indeed, today only the state makes it possible for the individual capitalist to survive. The employer cannot lower wages on his own, he needs the state to introduce an incomes policy or a wage freeze. And the state needs to do so to cut the prices of its exports to defeat its rivals, other states. In the past companies hired private armies to beat up their rivals and to frighten workers into accepting the dictates of competition. States have always meant armies and policemen to do the same thing. War is the ‘most advanced’ form of competition. Neither the capitalists nor their state are willing to wait to see if the market will favour them. All of them are into cheating to make sure they win and if they look like losing, then pure physical force will be used.

In the 1820s Lancashire millowners did not wait to see if Indian weavers would be bankrupted by British competition; they hired thugs to cut off the hands of the weavers. General Motors did not wait to see whether the car would defeat tramways in Los Angeles: they brought up the tramways and tore up the lines. Rich farmers don’t wait for prices to fall in a bumper harvest – they burn the wheat or plough in the cabbages to make an artificial scarcity.

If people starve, that is just a regrettable necessity. Full granaries and empty stomachs always go together in capitalism. For the starving have only their need they don’t have the money to buy, the money to ensure the profit. Without profit, the capitalist always finds it cheaper to destroy what his workers have made. Wheat is not grown to be eaten by the hungry; it is grown solely to be sold.

But capitalism is not simply the sacrifice of needs to profits, of workers to capitalists. It breeds a culture that soaks into every pore of society. It drills into every head the perception that the survival of each one of us depends on defeating every one else. If you can’t overtake them, at least push them down till they drown.

The competition inevitably generates nationalism let us all rejoice when foreigners starve; it breeds racialism: the only good Indian is a dead Indian. Competition divides us all ito separate competitive units so that profits remain king. Each individual is driven every day to calculate his or her saleable potential. For how much can I sell myself, how much as I worth in cold pounds or dollars or yen?

And then the market says: “Nothing! You are worthless too old or too young or too stupid or too clever or too ugly or too beautiful”. In the logic of competition, the unemployed face despair and suicide, removing themselves from a market for which, in any case, they do not exist.

The logic of the market, however, cannot conquer all. Capitalism can survive only insofar as competition continues to expand the whole system. Then it can buy people’s tolerance if not their love. But a system of production for exchange, for profit, not use, can in no way guarantee infinite expansion. On the contrary, it guarantees slump.

Just as the cabbages are ploughed in, so now people are thrown in the scrap heap. The ethics of capitalism – you can win if you fight hard – now return to fight capitalism. Survival for the majority means they must unite. All the competitive squabbles on the shop floor have to be overcome for the shop to fight. Unity is forced on the squabbles by the logic of capitalism itself – unite or die separately.

But it is not now simply unity of the shop, nor between shops, nor between workplaces. Unity between the peoples of different States, all gripped in a single world capitalist system, is the necessity.

Capitalism can be destroyed but not in one factory or one country. A change in one factory or country does not conquer competition. It is a small temporary step a vital step forward, but only one step.

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Last updated: 13 March 2010