The Labour Party will be well advised to seize the growing public mood in favour of public ownership of the railways, utilities, Royal Mail, the NHS and education argues Robert Griffiths in the Morning Star
For more than 100 years, the economy in Britain and other advanced capitalist societies has been dominated by large corporations.
While many small businesses can still be found struggling to survive and grow in numerous branches of industry and commerce, almost every market is dominated by five, six or seven giant companies.
Between them, these big concerns monopolise most of the production, sales, investment and employment in their sector.
They largely dictate the terms on which the commodities within their sector — including labour power — are bought and sold.
This is one reason why references to “free enterprise,” the “free market” and so on no longer correspond to reality, if they ever did.
How much freedom is there, for example, in Britain’s domestic energy market today?
The “big six” monopolies command 96 per cent of sales, act as a cartel to determine general price and wage levels — assisted by the fact that most of them are major wholesale producers as well as retail suppliers — and collaborate in an investment drought while pouring almost half of their profits into shareholder dividends.
These positions, backed by big marketing budgets, ensure that smaller and lower-price companies such as Ovo are kept out of the monopoly market in energy supplies.
As Ovo managing director Stephen Fitzpatrick told a House of Commons select committee and the BBC Today programme this week, the big six have been engaged in a price-fixing racket to maximise profits ever since they emerged from the privatisations of gas and energy in 1986 and 1990, respectively.
But the solution is not to force more competition into this or that market, because the tendency to monopolisation arises from competition itself, as the struggle for market share produces crises, winners and losers.
Successful companies drive the others out of business and grow as a consequence.
The real solution is public ownership and planned investment, production and consumption.
Terms such as “free enterprise” and the “free market” are propaganda terms in the battle of ideas against social ownership and socialism.
They are intended to convey the false impression of widespread price-lowering competition and meaningful choice for consumers, whereas the monopolies compete mainly for market share while colluding to maintain high prices.
The choice is usually restricted in practice, meaningless in substance but exaggerated by big marketing budgets.
The only real freedom that exists is that for the monopolies to exploit, dominate and extort.
Of course, in a system where governments and MPs have to seek votes, a facade of regulation and accountability has to be erected.
So we have parliamentary select committees, ombudsmen, Ofgem, Ofwat, the Rail Regulator and all the rest.
Anti-monopoly, anti-trust and anti-cartel legislation has operated in the US since 1890, and in Germany since 1923.
In Britain the first but weak controls on price cartels were not introduced until 1948 and anti-monopoly legislation dates only from 1965.
Yet for all the anti-monopoly commissions in the most developed capitalist economies, the big companies exercise as much if not more economic and political power today as they did since the US Congress passed the Sherman Act more than a century ago.
Since then many of the top corporations have spread out across the world in search of raw materials, cheap labour and new markets.
In his classic work, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), Lenin explained how monopoly capitalism is the economic essence of this modern type of imperialism.
And just as the monopolies commanded the use of state power to protect their interests at home, so they are served by the political and military power of their home state in the promotion of their interests around the world.
This explains the formation of Nato and similar regional military alliances after the second world war, where British imperialism accepted the leadership of US imperialism in a joint effort to defend monopoly capitalism against the forces of socialism led by the Soviet Union.
The fusion of the economic power of the big corporations with the political power of the state — what Lenin called “state-monopoly capitalism” — has taken many forms.
In Britain these have included public-private tendering, government grants and subsidies to the private sector, economic planning, wage controls, anti-trade union laws, corporate lobbying and political funding, the public appointments and honours system and the nationalisation of essential but unprofitable or highly risky industries and services.
Most recently, new forms have arisen or become more prevalent to meet the modern requirements of monopoly capital.
Most spectacularly, a whole battery of measures has been undertaken to rescue capitalism’s financial system from collapse.
These include the pumping of state-backed funds into the financial markets (“quantitative easing”) and partial or full public ownership of banks and other financial institutions.
New levels of international state-monopoly capitalist co-operation have been achieved, notably the “troika,” comprising the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the US-directed International Monetary Fund.
Economic crises have usually accelerated the trend to monopoly. This, too, is taking new or pronounced forms.
Thus the rise of hedge and private equity funds — private investment vehicles funded by wealthy individuals and institutions, largely unregulated by law in the US and Britain, which also use borrowed funds to buy and sell aggressively in the stock, bond and other financial markets for high returns.
Increasingly, both types of fund are buying into failing or privatised businesses and extracting maximum short-term profit through selling off assets and shareholdings.
It’s a kind of “vulture capitalism” akin to what was widely denounced as “asset-stripping” when practised by companies such as Slater-Walker in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Today such vicious, predatory and anti-social corporate behaviour is accepted as perfectly normal and largely acceptable in much of the business, political and media world.
So we hear barely a squeak of protest now that — mostly US — hedge and private equity funds have become the biggest shareholders in the Co-operative Bank, the privatised Royal Mail and the blood plasma service which supplies the NHS.
The vultures are swooping on other NHS services, hospitals and schools in England as well.
This trend will further highlight the need for public ownership of vital industries and services between now and the general election.
The big question will be whether the Labour Party leadership continues to capitulate to vulture capitalism — or will it seize the growing public mood in favour of public ownership of the railways, utilities, Royal Mail, the NHS and education?
Robert Griffiths is general secretary of the Communist Party and a contributor to 21centurymanifesto
He will be one of the speakers at this weekend’s 21st Century Marxism event in Clerkenwell Green, London.