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Can social democracy solve poverty?

A reply to Henry Heller


The following article is a response to “Poverty in Britain: From feudalism to neoliberal capitalism” by Henry Heller, published in Canadian Dimension on July 25, 2023.

While Henry Heller’s review of my new book, Scoundrels and Shirkers: Capitalism and Poverty in Britain, is positive, I think the way he concludes his article is problematic—both conceptually and politically.

Scoundrels and Shirkers argues that capitalism produces not only commodities, profits, vast wealth, and a constantly changing working class, but also, and necessarily, poverty. The book examines, in political economy fashion, the many and ever-changing forms of poverty that British capitalism has produced in Britain over the past 800 years. I don’t believe there is another book that examines the particulars of poverty over such a long period of time.

I argue that with one important exception—the 1945-51 Labour governments—no serious attempts to solve poverty have ever been undertaken in Britain. In recent decades so-called “anti-poverty” programs have been used, but they are largely ineffectual. They pull some people out of poverty but leave the capitalist production of poverty in place. A more systemic approach is needed if poverty is to be seriously addressed.

Scoundrels and Shirkers concludes by identifying the measures that would have to be taken if poverty were to be reduced to a bare minimum. These include a massive redistribution of income and wealth to the benefit of those with low and moderate incomes, to be achieved via significant changes to the tax system; the creation of very large numbers of jobs, putting people to work at a living wage doing the many things that need to be done; and the use of universal social programs, rather than “anti-poverty” programs narrowly targeted at the poor. All of this would require governments that are committed to the principles of collectivism, equality and redistribution, and that have the courage to adopt such policies in the face of the enormous resistance they would generate.

I argue that these are the policies that a social democratic government—or for that matter, a socialist or any other government—would have to put in place if poverty were to be reduced to a bare minimum.

Heller responds to this conclusion by asserting that it is simply not possible that social democracy could take such measures. “Social democracy under the regime of capitalism can never eliminate poverty,” he says. Large numbers of poor people—a reserve army of the poor—who can be called upon to enter the labour market when needed is “essential to the profitability of capital. Hence reducing or eliminating poverty under capitalism is an illusion.”

This ignores the achievements of the 1945-51 Labour governments, which did in fact significantly reduce the incidence of poverty and did so in the face of overwhelming financial constraints and fierce opposition from British capital. It ignores the case of the Nordic countries, where the incidence of poverty is dramatically lower than in other capitalist countries.

Heller simply abandons any prospect of driving down poverty levels, presumably until “the revolution.” His position is, in effect, well, too bad, there is nothing we can do about poverty. With that interpretation, nothing will be accomplished.

Britain today is overwhelmed with poverty. After more than 40 years of Thatcherism and Thatcher-inspired policies, the numbers of people living in poverty continue to grow, the social security system has been ravaged and British manufacturing has been gutted. The health of working people and those who are poor has worsened, homelessness continues to rise in the face of governments’ persistent failure to produce social housing, the numbers of food banks have exploded, and survival shoplifting has grown. The poor continue, as always, to be blamed for these conditions.

In the absence of the kind of serious and systemic approach to poverty that I set out in Scoundrels and Shirkers, capitalism will continue to produce poverty, for which the poor will continue to be blamed. Charity and narrowly targeted anti-poverty programs will persist, with their minimal effects. And lives will continue to be destroyed.

I maintain that a government that is committed to the principles of collectivism, egalitarianism and redistribution, and that has the courage to act on these principles, would drive down the incidence of poverty. Enormously difficult though this would be, as is acknowledged in my conclusion, it should and could be done.

Whether social democracy can do this or not is an important question. But as the history and especially the recent history of poverty in Britain shows, these are the measures that must be taken if poverty is to be seriously reduced.

It can be no part of a left strategy to conclude, simply, that nothing can be done.

Jim Silver is Professor Emeritus at the University of Winnipeg and a Research Associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives - Manitoba office.


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