Socialist Worker

Crumbs...or whole cake?

by Michael Rosen
Issue No. 1829

YEARS AGO there was a cartoon that did the rounds. It showed a galley ship, with hundreds of galley slaves rowing away like crazy. Standing over them was an overseer with a whip in his hand urging on the slaves with, 'We're all in the same boat.' What a perfect picture of how politicians talk about society. Yes, we all live in the same country, in the same world, we are all born and we all die. But the vital thing is that in the time between birth and death we find that the way we live is structured.

In the galley ship it was obvious. It was structured so that you were chained to the oar to make the ship move, ruled over by an overseer and some naval officers. In our society every effort is made to conceal from us how we're structured. All this week, the debate has been around whether 'we' (yes, 'we'!) can 'afford to pay the firefighters more'. This is classic 'we're all in the same boat' talk.

The trick is to isolate one part of the economy, in this case the tax and spend part, and try to show what can and can't be afforded. To switch analogies for a moment, it's like sharing out a slice of cake instead of the whole cake. This is what the Tories did in their efforts to smash the miners in 1985. They said that mining coal wasn't 'economic', while their government, and New Labour since, pumped billions into nuclear energy. What's more, the wasted lives and wrecked mining communities carry on with no cost given.

Now we see politicians and commentators queuing up to prove that paying the firefighters more is dangerous for the good ship UK. It would sink, they say. And they've been using a raft of words meant to scare us - 'wage inflation', 'overheated economy' and the like.

What these words really mean is, 'Paying the firefighters more will make it harder for us, the government, to try and run capitalism. It will make it harder for us for two reasons: '(1) It's the job of us people who own and control business to pay workers as little as we can get away with. This is helps us to make profits. '(2) To make this easy, it's the job of us people who own and control business to keep workers' organisations as weak and as divided as possible.' Andy Gilchrist did a great thing when he reminded us that the same government that's going on about 'not being able to afford' to pay the firefighters is planning to spend billions on war.

Isn't it just great to hear a union leader talking about more of the cake than the little slice that's being negotiated? Even so, there's a load more cake to talk about too. What's sickening is hearing commentators pretending they're talking about the rest of the cake by mentioning nurses or cleaners.

All this does is take our eye off the massive chunk made up of the profits, dividends and bloated salaries of the tiny few who own and control business. Even more importantly it takes our eye off the fact that this chunk isn't theirs by magic.

It comes from the work of the millions of people making, servicing and distributing all the things we need and use. All we need to remember is that there were many galley slaves but few overseers. I see that the slogan printed on the firefighters' T-shirts is 'Rise like lions'. From the same poem by Shelley is another line: 'Ye are many, they are few.'

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Sat 7 Dec 2002, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1829
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