Monday, November 18, 2013

The Case For Public Ownership

Sidney Webb (1859 - 1947) 
The original version of Clause IV of the Labour Party Constitution, drafted by Sidney Webb in November 1917 and adopted by the party in 1918, read, To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.
The move in Britain towards public ownership, a mixed economy and the welfare state came in the years of the Second World War and immediately afterwards. The war effort demanded effective economic organisation and the start of a much fairer distribution of the basic requirements of food, warmth, clothing, and health. Even schooling entered the frame in 1944. The electorate in 1945 decided that we would not return to the days of poverty and exploitation that had characterised the inter-war years. The NHS, welfare provisions, council house building and the public ownership of key elements of the "commanding heights of the economy" took place under the Attlee Government. Even when the Conservatives returned to office, they then limited their programme of denationalisation to the Steel Industry and basically accepted the norms of the welfare state and the mixed economy. Their future depended upon accepting this compromise.  An era of "consensus politics" then emerged, with fewer fundamental differences between the two main parties. The problem with the basic acceptance of the status quo by Labour was that capitalism can always find its way around restraints, unless governments act continuously to block and transcend its activities.

The cohort of voters who supported Labour in 1945 and the early 50s, tended to remain loyal to the then Labour's vision of society. But whilst some of us from that time are still around, we are now a dying breed: long since replaced by fresh cohorts. New experiences and influences began to shape the norms of the new generations. Car ownership, undermined the scope for public transport. Whilst rail denationalisation and the end of much municipal transport, further shifted us away from public transport. The growing world of television was opened up to advertising and to commercial programming, thus enhancing individualistic values. Then whilst Thatcherism rowed upon a wave of anti-collectivism, she also acted to undermine its remaining communal base with the destruction of much of manufacturing and mining. To which she added the sale of council houses. Moves which New Labour never sort to contain. Then in recent years we have moved into a incredible and ever expanding technological revolution. Almost as soon as the latest advances are made in computer-style technology, they become outdated.  Capitalism uses its position to cash in upon these changes - as an avenue for sales and controls. The capitalist power elite established global controls, buying services via the use of the third world's impoverished work force; whilst selling in the dearest markets.

But capitalism always operates for its short term interests. Paying as little as it can for raw materials, labour power and technological innovations. It then sells where it can make the highest profits. These practices lead to an eventual collapse in effective demand, leading to economic deprivation. For capitalism ends up failing to supply people with the money to purchase its own goods and services. The global financial crisis of 2008 is likely just to be a taster of things to come.

Yet there is a huge paradox. This was pointed to by the late Royden Harrison. Things have moved  rapidly in recent years, but events have only confirmed his diagnosis. He pointed out that the objective circumstances for the operation of socialism had never been better, yet the subjective circumstances had never been worse. For whilst objectively we have the skills, knowledge, organisational potential and technology to provide for everyones' basic, intellectual and emotional needs; the subjective appreciation of what is possible have never been worse. Our minds are often taken over by passing consumer fads and the beer and circuses of the modern media. When people rebel (often under stark circumstances) they tend to be consumed by unquestioning and counter-productive doctrines, such as those of racism and militant Islam.

So what can be done about the world's serious situation - climate change, imperial expansionism, fanaticism, starvation, mass poverty, unemployment, economic decline and the threat of economic collapse?  As radical improvement requires a change in people's values and commitments, then it is essentially a question of political education, political education, political education. Luckily there is something to build upon. If people could not be moved to contribute readily to disaster relief funds or to go to people's aid when they saw accidents, then there would be nothing to build upon. But consumerism and individualism still get adjusted by the experiences of daily life into avenues where human sympathy and collective instincts come to the fore. Political education directed towards the best in people is, however, very different from political indoctrination. The strongest educational question is "why?". It rebounds on those who see themselves in the role of stimulating political education. Any of us could be wrong at anytime.

If public ownership is to advance (including the end of outsourcing in the public sector which currently accounts for 24% of expenditure in the UK's public sector). then there are big problems we need to tackle. Public bodies can be prone to bureaucratic centralised controls. Wealth, power and status can come to dominate in the public as well as the private sector.  Democratic controls by producers and users of services are an antidote. Municipal, Consumer Co-operative and Worker Self-Management structures will often be more appropriate than the running of centralised State owned systems. Above all the providers of services and their users need to share a public service ethos. Those who work for a public body, need to see themselves as public servants. Whilst those who benefit from such services need to share similar values, which lead to them not just to grabbing whatever they can. Selfishness detracts from the common good.

I am not seeking perfection, just general standards of human decency and a sense of sharing.

The biggest problem is, however, to get ourselves out of the grip of capitalist domination. Sidney Webb called for the inevitability of gradualness in advancing public ownership. Today, it might take us time to get the ball rolling towards forms of public ownership, for we need to get politicians on board. Each step might be difficult. But once we create the conditions to start the move, we might come to be surprised as to just how revolutionary our gradualism has become. For we will come to realise that the future of mankind is tied in with our actions.

If you see public ownership as an avenue towards our salvation, then check "We Own It" out.  Things did not end with Sidney. Nor with Tony Blair's rejection of Clause IV. 

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