In Britain today, one child in three grows up in poverty, in a household with less than half the average income; in 1968, the figure was one in ten.
Thousands are homeless on the streets, while 600,000 homes stand empty.
Hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions are unemployed, while those with jobs have to work harder, for longer hours and for more of their lives. Health, education and other public services are being trashed by New Labour’s cuts and privatisation, while inequality, like the wealth of the rich, snowballs.
The gross poverty and inequality which exist in Britain are repeated on a far larger scale elsewhere in the world. Thirty million people die every year for lack of food, even though the European Union and the US are glutted with agricultural surpluses. One in five children worldwide eats enough not to starve to death, but not enough of the right balance of foods to stay healthy. One person in four has no regular access to clean drinking water.
Nor is it true that things can only get better. According to the United Nations Development Programme, 46 countries have a lower income per head than they did in 1990, while in 25 more people go hungry than they did a decade ago. Inequality between countries is also increasing.
Following the massive “Make Poverty History” mobilisation for the G8 summit in Scotland in July, increasing numbers of people know these sort of facts. Yet in the absence of a clearly visible alternative, there is a widespread social and political pessimism — a general acceptance that the kind of world we live in is inevitable, or that charitable sticking plasters to cover its most grotesque wounds are all that is possible.
Yet, also according to the UN, a tax of just four percent on the personal fortunes of the richest 225 people in the world would — just 225 — produce enough to create access to food, drinking water, education and healthcare for every human being. To maintain regular nutrition, clean water supplies and sewage facilities for everyone in the world would cost just $15 billion — less than the tax cuts given to the rich in Britain since 1979. If the world’s income were divided equally, everyone would have the living standard of an average worker in a poorer European country like Estonia or Portugal, a vast increase in comfort and security for the great majority of the human race.
These rational things are not done because the world is not organised rationally. It is organised not according to human need, but according to the “needs” of the small and rich minority who own the means of producing wealth. This is as true in “developing” countries of Africa and Asia as it is in “developed” Europe — and as true in “communist” China and Cuba as it is in Bush’s United States. Capitalism is about making the rich richer, about increasing profits at the expense of everything else. In light of this, world poverty is easier to understand. Why invest in allowing children in the poorest parts of the world to grow up healthy and educated? There’s no profit in it.
At the same time, capitalism is creating a catastrophic, possibly irreversible ecological disaster, as the drive for short-term profit threatens to destroy not just lives today, but the very conditions which allow life to exist on the earth.
But the story of capitalism is not simply one of blight and destruction.
As it develops and spreads, capitalism creates a group of people with both the incentive and the power to create a better world. It creates a working class working collectively in large factories, shops and offices, driven by the constant pressure on its wages and working conditions to organise collectively, to form trade unions and other organisations which can resist the encroachments of the capitalists in their drive for profit.
Workers are forced by the nature of this struggle to stand in solidarity with one another, to overcome boundaries of workplace, nationality and many other divisions in order to resist capitalism effectively.
History shows that when working-class struggles reach a high enough level — when solidarity is generalised from a method of resistance to the guiding principle of society — they can create a whole new world. A society in which both politics and the economy are controlled democratically to achieve rational goals could easily meet human need.
It could create a world with no rich and poor, no profits and no wage-slavery, no palaces and no homeless, no jobless and no overworked.
Getting rid of the huge waste resulting from unemployment, advertising to sell rubbish, useless competition, and military spending would allow us to create a society in which new technology is used rationally to expand human freedom — in which every person has a decent standard of living and ample time and resources to develop themselves as a citizen and as an individual.
The working class which makes this possible is a growing force worldwide. There are more wage workers in South Korea than there were in the entire world when the Communist Manifesto was published. When Marx published Capital in 1867, there were barely 250,000 trade unionists in Britain and very few anywhere else — today, according to the lowest estimates, there are more than 150 million all over the world.
Equally, the working class and the workers’ movement will have to be massively strengthened and armed with clear ideas if they are going to make the kind of revolution I have described. This is not an automatic process — we need to organise to make it happen.
That is what we in the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty mean when we call ourselves socialists, and why you should be a socialist too.