George Walford: Options

Although nobody has been rude enough to raise the question, readers must have wondered why IC should speak so often in favour of familiar capitalism, with the market and the state; the system does have substantial disadvantages. An explanation appears when one notices a similarity between capitalism and getting old: bad as each of them may be, it is yet better than any alternative on offer.

Other systems recently tried in Russia and China resulted in the authorities killing more of their own people than any ordinary capitalist state has ever done and an eventual return, after all the suffering, towards something very like standard state-and-market capitalism.

Systems yet untried, such as true communism (as distinct from the Soviet perversion), thorough going anarchy, or (anarcho)-socialism, hold out no more promising prospect. It was the attempt to achieve true communism that produced the horrors in Russia and China, and the claims made for anarchy collapse at a touch of the acid question: In this society of freedom, would people have freedom to behave in non-anarchist ways?

The (Anarcho)-Socialist Party have provided a practical demonstration of the way their version of democracy would operate. They, also, claim to offer freedom, and they have shown how they understand the term. In 1992 a group of members found themselves in dispute with the majority, and the freedom the Party allowed them consisted of three options: submit, resign, or be expelled. In the event 23 members, including several of the most knowledgeable and long-serving, were expelled from this party of some 500-600. This was distressing enough for the repudiated, yet a harsher outlook lies behind it. At present this party exists within the capitalist system; those expelled lost little more than membership, continuing to live and even forming an (anarcho)-socialist party of their own. But where would dissidents stand in an (anarcho)-socialist society, with not only party membership but all social activity subject to the tyranny of the majority? (The people expelled seem, in the best anarcho-socialist style, to have learnt nothing from their experience, continuing to use in their own party the version of democracy that maltreated them).

With competition of this quality the state looks secure for a while yet.

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Accounts of the years following the Great War commonly speak of a widespread determination, especially on the part of ex-soldiers, that nothing like it should ever happen again. The outbreak twenty years later of the Second World War, virtually a continuation of the first, calls this in question, and Robert Graves found ‘never again’ limited to a thoughtful minority. He went right through the war, as a second lieutenant for most of the time; experience at the sharp end turned him against war and the rulers he held responsible for it. Most ex-soldiers followed a different pattern of response:

whatever hopes we had nursed of a general anti-Governmental rising by ex-service men soon failed. Once back in England, they were content with a roof over their heads, civilian food, beer that was at least better than French beer, and enough blankets at night. (Goodbye to All That, Penguin 1979 [1929], 254).

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GOOD intentions have added a new horror to disaster. Victims, and witnesses too, now need persistence and determination if they are to escape the attentions of ‘counsellors.’ At Clapham Junction and Lockerbie, and at Dover after the Herald of Free Enterprise sank, there they were, adjusting the responses of sufferers and relatives to fit the approved pattern. At Lockerbie they had the firefighters – who had the job of recovering the bodies – feeling guilty about their lack of guilt-feelings. One bereaved parent, prevented from visiting the site and desperate for information, found that counsellors were the last people he wanted to see. A survivor of the Clapham disaster hid away at the fifth home visit from a counsellor: ‘I didn’t seem to be reacting in the way they expected. Instead of feeling guilty for surviving when others died, I actually felt incredibly fortunate.’

Worried about your divorce, your debts, your smoking? Suffering from a bereavement? No problem; the counsellors stand ready, 30,000 full-time paid ones, 270,000 volunteers, and over two million part-timers. Nothing prevents you setting up in business for yourself; just insert a small ad, and if you want letters after your name a Dip.CPC follows two years of home study. (Data from the Sunday Times April 3).

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Some of the biggest insurance companies have been reported going to surprising lengths to avoid meeting claims. (Sunday Times 10 April) One method (always available to them but formerly not so much used) is to place a strict interpretation upon the small print. Thus one dealer, robbed of prints worth £100,000 by thieves who had obtained copies of the keys to his shop, was refused payment on the ground that this was not forcible entry. Representatives of the companies attend conferences at which they learn how to avoid having to meet claims.

One has to expect sharp practice in commerce. The insurance business stands out by having, if not direct deceit then at least wilful misdirection, built into it; even its title is a conman’s trick. ‘Insurance’; the word brings a feeling of security; having insured against burglary we are safe from being burgled. It doesn’t, of course, work like that. By paying insurance premiums we do nothing to reduce the risk of burglary, we only protect ourselves against financial loss.

Do we even do that? Individual experience, here as elsewhere, is erratic, but take together all the people insured against burglary. Their overall loss from this crime will be just as great as if they were all uninsured. The companies do not improve the financial position of the policyholders as a group; they merely spread the losses suffered by individuals. ‘Insurance’ would be more accurately and informatively known as ‘loss-distribution’ – a less attractive proposition.

In order to perform even this function, the company has to maintain a staff and premises. It has to pay administrators, actuaries and salespeople (now often called ‘financial advisers’). It also needs to make profits. These amounts come out of the premiums, leaving for distribution among the burgled a smaller sum than the policyholders have collectively paid to the companies. Each policyholder pays not only his or her proportion of the total loss from burglary but also a proportion of the costs and profits of the companies. The policy-holders as a group support the burglary industry just as if they were uninsured, and the insurance industry on top of it.

The extra expense varies from company to company, and from risk to risk. (We have taken burglary as an example, but the same principles apply to all insurance against loss). Some years ago, when the Fire, Auto and Marine Insurance Company failed, it was reported that payments on claims ran about 40% of premium income; that is to say, the policyholders as a group had lost, to the insurance company, some 60% of their premium payments. It was also reported that this was about normal for car-insurance, and that in other fields claims paid usually amounted to a smaller percentage of premium income.

Insurance does have its uses. Although expensive, it finds a place in ensuring compensation for injured third parties, or when a potential loss would be ruinous, such as the destruction by fire of a heavily mortgaged house. Or when there are special reasons for covering a risk, as when one person is using the property of another. Such instances, however, form only a small part of the insurance paid for. In most cases the policyholders, in the belief that they are protecting themselves against financial loss, ensure that they shall suffer it. They pay, and pay heavily, for a protection less real than that of the warrior who had his shield blessed and made ‘bulletproof’ by the priest; at least that did not make sure he would be wounded.

We often think of magic as a thing of the past. There are more people today under the spell of that word ‘insurance’ than ever believed in witchcraft.

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One account of the San (the Bushmen), by an anthropologist who lived among them, is entitled The Harmless People; they tend to be seen as inoffensive victims of the Bantu and the whites, Another view is possible.

Harry Turney-High reports that they killed Hottentots to get their cattle. C. J. Driver, relating how Dutch farmers killed them, also explains why: ‘Since no one owns the land or the cattle / The San steal… / They are not to be trusted / They hide among rocks / And they know as much about poison as cobras’. (‘Oorlogskloof’)

Perhaps the members of a society that engages in war and kills animals damaging herds and crops would do well to refrain from judgment.

from Ideological Commentary 64, June 1994.