Thursday, October 18, 2018

Prescott on class (1999)

The Greasy Pole column from the September 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Nicholas Soames is a Tory MP—the sort who is instantly at home in the club-like atmosphere of the House of Commons with its adolescent misbehaviour, its false camaraderie and its ravenous appetite for rumour. Soames is rich, privileged, secure. He speaks in a booming voice and is insultingly deferential or disparaging towards women. Claire Short, for example, is a natural victim for him. He likes to indulge all his appetites; the equally obnoxious MP Alan Clark tells of him taking up a lot of time during Agriculture Questions recommending “. . . an incredibly powerful new aphrodisiac he had discovered” (is this why people are elected to the Mother of Parliaments?) and on another occasion even the famously immoderate Clark was uncomfortable at the thought of how much he and Soames could spend on one meal in an exclusive restaurant.

To put it another way, Soames is an overweight, arrogant buffoon who, had he not been born into a very rich family, would have had difficulty in persuading an employer to give him a job stacking shelves in a supermarket. If he had got the job the other shelf-fillers would not have appreciated his “jokes”, which are manufactured and trumpeted out for the benefit of Soames rather than his defenceless listeners. For example, if Soames is in the House when John Prescott gets onto his feet he usually greets him with the cry: “Two gin and tonics please, Giuseppe.” This is supposed to be funny because it refers to the fact that in his early days, before he climbed the ladder of trade union officialdom, university student, MP and minister, Prescott was a waiter on an ocean-going liner. It is not amusing, especially for those who have heard it for the fortieth time. But perhaps it rattles Prescott, who recently got some unwelcome publicity about the fact that he no longer admits to being a member of the working class and instead lays claim to membership of that vague, indefinable, mysterious social strata called the middle class.

Father
The story was ecstatically embraced by the media. After all Prescott has a reputation of being the only representative of Old Labour in the Cabinet—the only link with the days when the governments of Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan were following roughly the same policies as Blair but not so blatantly. As might have been expected the Sun led the pack with an interview with Prescott’s 89-year-old father in his wheelchair. Prescott senior is angry with his famous son for many reasons: “spiteful” was how he described him in a typical Sun headline. The father began his working life as a railway porter and ended it as controller of Liverpool Lime Street station. At some stage he fell out with his son who, he says, has not spoken to him civilly for three years. For 50 years he has been a “traditional” Labour Party member, from which we can infer that he does not approve of John Prescott’s apparent shame at his roots.

There is rather more to it than that—as there is to the whole business of which class John Prescott belongs to and why and what he feels about it. A former Labour Party leader in Hull—which has John Prescott as its MP—says that he “. . . bent over backwards to show he is middle class”. Bending over backwards seems to entail living in one of the biggest houses in the city, with turrets and decorated chimney pots, having two Jaguar cars and other trappings. All of this sits uneasily with Prescott’s pose as a rough, tough son of the proletariat. It makes him seem to want to forget his time as a waiter (except that Soames won’t let him) and to be ashamed of his class origins (which Soames will never be).

Pride
The inference of this is that shame—and therefore pride—should come into the issue of class. It is usual to hear Labour politicians who declare themselves to be working class stoutly asserting that they are proud of it. On the other hand Prescott, according to the Sunday Times of 18 July, is proud of being in another class—of “. . . having hauled himself up” from the proletariat depths. It is a mystery, why anyone should feel pride in being born into one class or another, which is something quite out of their control and not something they have achieved. That is why millions of people who may be proud of being workers try so persistently to remove themselves from the source of their pride by winning the lottery. The same goes for members of the ruling class; it is no achievement of theirs to be born of parents like Nicholas Soames or Rupert Murdoch or Jonathan Aitken.

This is typical of the confusion in which the matter of social class is embedded. Living in a larger house and running a couple of cars does not in itself raise someone into another class. Neither does earning a bigger wage. The roller-coaster of capitalism’s economy has recently brought thousands of people in this country sharply up against the fact that there is more to it than that. Thousands who thought that taking out a mortgage on a house made them middle class were deprived of that delusion by the reality of re-possession. Thousands who assumed they were middle class because they sat in a manager’s chair and drove a company car were forced to re-arrange their concepts about society when they got their redundancy notice.

Exploitation 
A great deal of anguish might have been saved for these people through a proper understanding of capitalism’s class structure—what it is, how it operates and what it does to us. Simply—class is determined by a person’s economic standing and interests. Those who have to be employed—at whatever job—for a living are members of the working class. Their interests are the same as those of all other members of that class and opposed to those of the one other class, who as a class employ and exploit them. In this process capitalism’s class structure is protected and perpetuated.

Whether John Prescott understands this or not is another matter (although as he still describes himself as a socialist he ought to have at least an inkling of it—or did he not pay attention during his time at Ruskin)? He has made it almost to the top in government—hauled himself up so that he has a big say in organising the exploitation of workers like his dad to the enrichment and comfort of parasites like Nicholas Soames. Now that is something to be ashamed of.
Ivan

Social Protest Literature (1999)


Book Review from the September 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Social Protest Literature: An Encyclopaedia of Works, Characters, Author, and Themes. Patricia D. Netzley, ACB-CLIO Inc. 1999.

You will learn a lot from this dog’s dinner of a reference book. Did you know that “monkey-wrenching” in America is a form of environmental sabotage? Or that a character called Teacake, in a black feminist novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, contracted rabies and had to be shot by his wife? You didn’t? Well, you do now.

The trouble with Netzley’s confection is that it is wilfully selective, often tediously trivial—and, frankly, just too American. Of the 343 works cited, no less than 93 percent were published in the US. The British ones include those by or about Dickens, Aldous Huxley, Gilbert Murray, Herbert Read, Shaw and Raymond Williams. Bernard Marx, a character in Huxley’s Brave New World, merits a 200-word discussion. No entry for Karl Marx—only a passing reference to him under communism and socialism. The social reformer Edward Bellamy, with his boring prediction of a nationalised “socialist” America in Looking Backward, gets an enthusiastic 700-word coverage. For William Morris’s much more imaginative News from Nowhere—zilch! The entries for communism and socialism are disappointing. We are told that the principles of communism developed in ancient times, that Marxists split into several factions during and after the Russian Revolution of 1917, and that McCarthy led a crusade against communism. Not a word about what communism actually is as an alternative to capitalism.

Socialism fares only a little better. After being told that it “is an ideology that advocates equality and the abolishment of class structure and capitalism” we learn that “Socialists believe that the people, in the form of the state, should control all property and production of goods”!

Perhaps the main problem with this book is her focus on the word “protest”. It is a weak and even cunning word, exemplified in the protest vote, when you vote for someone you don’t agree with to give someone else a warning. Protest is often ineffective and done from a position of subservience: you protest the price of fish when you ought to be boldly changing the world. Socialists don’t go much on protest—vigorous opposition and constructive imagination are more our style.

Social Protest Literature has some good points. As the blurb says it is beautifully illustrated and would look good on a coffee table. It gives a fair introduction to a wide range of fictional literature on the lives of victims of property society. But don’t expect to find anything useful about how to abolish that society and replace it with socialism.
Stan Parker

Capitalist Priorities (1999)

From the July 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

I have just received a letter (dated 19 April) from a friend in Cleveland, Ohio. It is worth quoting almost in full as the contents demonstrate the priorities, as well as the contradictions, in the United States, the “land of the free”.
  “I am unemployed at the moment. I am receiving unemployment benefits, but they are very low. In this country, such benefits amount to half of the salary you were drawing, and they last half a year. It’s a real bummer, as we used to say.
  Other than that, though, I’m in good health, which is a good thing because people in this situation usually don’t have good health insurance, either. Some hospitals and many doctors won’t treat a person without such insurance. As it happens, I live quite close to a local charity hospital. So I’m assured of emergency care if I need it.
  What’s that I heard about this being the “greatest nation on earth”? (they actually say that, you know).
  News from the Balkans is quite depressing. This country is being led towards a ground war, with troops being called up, etc. I’m enclosing a newspaper clipping, complete with the “appropriate” photograph.
  A couple of months ago, Congress was in such an argument about how to spend a surplus of funds that normal legislative business was not being taken care of. That argument, of course, is totally irrelevant now.”

The enclosed clipping, an article by Paul Richer from the Los Angeles Times, stated that the Kosovo campaign will cost $4 billion through September, and that already there are insufficient reservists and volunteers. “We’ve gotten to the limits of volunteerism,” said a Pentagon official.

Apparently the only people who have gained anything from all this are the Iraqis. The Pentagon has had to scale back its activities in the “no-fly” zones in northern and southern Iraq, and shift the planes to Europe. The “appropriate” photograph from the newspaper is of Amanda Brown, 8, holding up a drawing she drew, bidding goodbye to her father, as he and other members of the 133rd Airlift Wing leave Minneapolis for Europe.

Meanwhile, back in the States, if Amanda Brown or anyone else falls ill and needs hospitalisation, but haven’t gotten insurance cover, then they won’t get suitable treatment. Such are the priorities of American capitalism.
Peter E. Newell

Sick society (1999)

Book Review from the July 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Cancer Stage of Capitalism by John McMurty, Pluto Press, 1999.

In the UK, one in three people will suffer from some form of it. At most about 5 to 10 percent of cases are caused by defective genes, the rest have their cause not just in the natural environment but—as oncologists are increasingly becoming aware—the social environment. (How long before the Chief Medical Officer issues the health warning: “Capitalism seriously damages health”?) McMurty takes the argument much further and identifies the causes of the world’s social problems in the global market, which in the last 30 years or so has developed a cancerous state. He argues that the global market is “a profound perversion” of the market, “much as a diseased cell formation is a perversion of a healthy cell formation, but succeeds in invading its host by masking its nature as the normal ‘self’ of the body”. Money no longer has a direct relation to wealth creation. Within the global market transnational corporations in particular make money out of money. Corporations “create credit and thus increase domestic money supply with no restriction on the amount of new currency demand so created in the host economy”. This is the carcinogenic disorder within the global market.

McMurty claims that the global market and the new role of money is a development that Marx did not foresee, and that “the gold standard, and therefore the dead-labour basis of money value which Marx supposed as money’s stable yardstick, was eliminated in 1974”. However, Marx’s theory of money, which explained the prices of commodities by the value of gold using a fully convertible currency, is not the same thing as the Bretton Woods gold standard which McMurty refers to, which was concerned mainly with international exchange rates between currencies. If McMurty were correct in his claim that transnational corporations make money out of money, mainly through the creation of credit, then this would be incredibly inflationary. In fact, in recent years in the UK and US and a number of other countries, inflation has declined while globalisation has continued apace. Furthermore, no corporation would go bust in this scenario. If in difficulty, corporations would merely pull themselves up by their own bootstraps by “creating money”. McMurty’s grasp of what constitutes capital is decidedly shaky: “wealth that can be used to produce more wealth”. In which case your garden spade and many other inanimate objects become capital. It would have made more sense if he had added: “for sale with a view to profit”. But then this would have altered his argument about the dynamics of capitalism and this would have been a very different book.

Is the prognosis for capitalism terminal? With enough political momentum, McMurty argues, internationally enforceable legal limits can be established so that money “returns to its proper value function”. This begins the eradication of the carcinogenic disorder and markets then serve the common interest. If you believe that, then you don’t understand the economics of capitalism.
Lew Higgins

Obituary: Jimmy Robertson (1999)

Obituary from the July 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

The death of Jimmy Robertson after a short illness came as a shock to his comrades in Glasgow.

He was such a regular attender at branch and propaganda meetings that any absence had the rest of us wondering what could have happened. He served the Party in whatever way he could, and, whether it was as branch treasurer or taking care of the literature table, every task was done cheerfully.

Jimmy’s political activity began in the Communist Party and he was one of the thousands who left it over the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956. Later on he came in contact with Glasgow branch of the Socialist Party and became a member in 1962.

But there was another side to Jimmy. He was to the very end a keep-fit devotee who hiked, ran, cycled and swam. Indeed his swimming ability earned him a medal from the Humane Society for saving a drowning man in the River Clyde, but, true to his nature, he would never do any of these things competitively, only for the enjoyment they brought.

Jimmy Robertson was one of those members who form the essential core of the Party and his passing is a grievous loss, especially to Glasgow members. We extend our deepest condolences to his family.
Vic Vanni

Just war (1999)

Book Review from the June 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Face of War. By Martha Gellhorn. Granta, £7.99

To commemorate the author’s death last year Granta reissued Gellhorn’s collection of war correspondence. Covering most of the twentieth century’s wars, from the civil war in Spain to the US invasion of Panama, this is an impressive record. However most of us have heard the old “war is hell” stuff ad nauseum. What will be of interest is Gellhorn’s general explanation for conflict: “leaders make wars” and also her conclusion that there can be a “just war'”—that is one against exceptionally bad or aggressive leaders.

According to Gellhorn there were several “just” wars this century including the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the Vietnam war (Vietnamese side) and the Israeli-Arab wars (Israeli side). The reasoning is fairly obvious: atrocity-mongering dictators have to be prevented, small nations deserve independence. What is being played here is the “good war, bad war” game. Choose your war and let your prejudices decide which side is the “goodies” (i.e. “morally right”). Ignore anything that gets inconveniently in the way. The 1939-45 war for example was apparently a war against fascism (despite the existence of neutral Spanish and Portuguese fascisms), and for democracy (despite totalitarian Russia being on “our” side). The idea that “this war was made to abolish Dachau and places like (it) forever” is equally absurd given the continued existence of concentration camps first in Russia and now in the Balkans.

And apparently in a just war anything goes. The “bad side” gets a hammering but that’s okay because they’re the “bad guys”. Thus the Germans in the 1939-45 war deserved everything they got. So it’s okay to roast folk alive in air raids if they’re on the “‘wrong side” (“You can’t really learn to like those people—unless they’re dead”, p. 184). Similarly Gellhorn has the audacity to say that Palestinians are better off as refugees (p. 309). So much for Gellhorn’s alleged “humanity, compassion and wisdom” (blurb on back).

No matter what the real or alleged atrocities of the “bad” side however, wars are quarrels over control of territory and resources between different sections of the capitalist class—business rivalry by other means. The working class can have no interest in such matters. The result of a “just” war is the same as a “bad” war—we get the hammering. The only “worthwhile” war is the class war—the fight against war.
KAZ 

The Balkan war (continued) (1999)

Editorial from the June 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

NATO’s war to complete the final break-up of the former Yugoslavia continues with increasing civilian casualties.

NATO claims to be waging war to save the Albanian-speaking population of Kosovo. If this really were their aim then their war would have to be pronounced a failure. The Albanian-speakers of Kosovo are manifestly worse off than they would be had there been no war. Burned out by the one side and bombed by the other, in the biggest displacement of population since the end of the last world war, the majority of them are now languishing in miserable refugee camps in Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro.

But NATO’s aim never was humanitarian. It has been, in the words of their Supreme Commander General Wesley Clark last March when it started, to “degrade and diminish” the old Yugoslav army, the one military machine in the area capable of standing up to them, and which had been thwarting their plans to turn the former Yugoslavia into a collection of weak, ethnically pure states in which the economic laws of the market could operate unimpeded, for the benefit, as they always do, of the strongest—in this case Western capitalist enterprises.

Wars are inevitable under capitalism because of the economic competition between states that is built-in to it, but is normally only a last resort when a state’s “vital interest” is involved. In this war that Serbia’s vital interest is at stake is clear, but it is difficult to see that this is so for the NATO states. Serbia under Milosevic was not that much of a threat to their interests and they have learned to live with dictators before—indeed they have learned to live with General Tudjman’s regime in Croatia whose record of ethnic cleansing is just as bad as Milosevic’s.

Probably NATO expected that the threat of war, or at most a short bombing campaign, would suffice. If so, they miscalculated and are now in a real mess from which they can only extricate themselves, unless they are prepared to admit defeat, by a further sacrifice of working-class lives and a further destruction of the civilian infrastructure in both Serbia and Kosovo.

What is going on is a turf war with the Serbian ruling class fighting to defend their already considerably reduced territory and NATO trying to grab Kosovo from them. It is for these sordid aims that the Albanian-speakers of Kosovo have been driven from their homes and that the workers of Serbia are being bombed and deprived of basic amenities such as water and electricity.

Capitalism is an abomination and a crime against humanity. It ought to have been done away with ages ago.

Welsh Assembly (1999)

From the May 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Could the Welsh Assembly be the most important thing that has ever happened to Wales? Brian Walters, writing in the South Wales Evening Post (4 March) suggested it will have a profound effect on our lives since it will have the power to decide what happens to education, health, transport and others.

There seems to be an implication here that decisions on such matters are not already being taken or at least that the decisions will be radically different under the Assembly.

But in the same article, Walters pointed out all the Assembly will be doing is taking over the powers that the Secretary of State for Wales now has. And is there any evidence these powers will be exercised in a fundamentally different way? Or will the Assembly authorities continue to suffer the financial and market constraints any administration anywhere faces? And what about the example of the Republic of Ireland, where all the problems present elsewhere in the British Isles—and sometimes in exacerbated form—have continued after more than 70 years not just of devolution but of independence?

What kind of problems are these? They are the usual ones facing all wage earners in Wales as elsewhere—to do with jobs and job security, housing, health, schooling, violence and general worry about the future. They arise not from particular political or constitutional arrangements but from the way society is organised—on the basis of production for profit and minority ownership of the vast majority of the wealth.

The fact is that even if the new Assembly were to bring decisions closer to home, these decisions would still have to be taken in the overall interests of the profit system. This will happen whichever party happens to win power.

Even if dissatisfaction with this eventually led to a fully independent Wales, such decisions would still be taken on the same basis—only by rulers from Cardiff, not London. The position of wage earners would be the same—it makes no difference where the government which administers the profit system has its headquarters.

So despite all the fuss the Assembly is an irrelevance. It will not give the people of Wales more control over their own affairs. The only change that will do that is a change in the whole social system, replacing competitive production for profit and minority ownership by co-operative production. Neither devolution nor an independent Wales or United Britain can achieve this. It is only feasible in a moneyless, frontierless society which, for those with vision, is the next stage in human social evolution.
Swansea Branch

50 Years Ago: Mr. Attlee on Working and Shirking (1999)

The 50 Years Ago column from the May 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Although the booklet “National Income and Expenditure” is published by Mr. Attlee’s government, it would seem that he has not read it. Under the heading “Income from Property” it shows that in 1948 the amount of income that went to receivers of rent, dividends and interest (before deduction of tax) was £1,479,000,000: in spite of which Mr. Attlee in a speech at Glasgow on April 10th referred to the receivers of property income in the past tense, as if they have ceased to exist. The following extract is from a report of his speech published by the Manchester Guardian (11/4/49):
“I stress . . . the duty of the citizen of the State as much as his rights. Everyone who fails to contribute his fair share is as much a parasite as those who used to live on the backs of the people scrounging on his mates. If a section of the workers make use of a key position to do little work and extract disproportionate wages they are just as much exploiters as the property-owners who used to hold the nation to ransom. They are acting anti-socially.”
This is a foretaste of what will be said by the Labour Ministers when eventually their attempt to improve capitalism collapses. They will blame it all on the workers.
(From Socialist Standard, May 1949)

What’s new about New Labour? (1999)

From the March 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Old Labour said it stood for socialism and advocated policies to run capitalism. New Labour says it stands for capitalism and advocates policies to run capitalism. The only difference between the “old” and the “new” versions is that Blair’s Labour Party is more honest about its love affair with capitalism.

Back in 1925 George Lansbury, darling of the Labour Left, addressed his party’s conference with a rousing declaration:
“Socialism is inscribed on our banners . . .  We intend that the land of Britain and all its resources shall be owned and used in the service of the British people.”
It was a peculiarly nationalistic version of socialism, but Lansbury and his followers clearly believed that they were standing for the principle of common rather than private ownership. Two years earlier 143 Labour MPs voted in favour of the following resolution which they proposed in the House of Commons:
“This House declares that legislative effort should be directed to the gradual supersession of the capitalist system by an industrial and social order based on the public ownership and control of the instruments of production and distribution.”
Again, there was no mincing words about their professed opposition to capitalism as a social order. Labour was committed to something different, so they proclaimed. But the strategy was one of gradual transformation: fighting the capitalist tiger one claw at a time. Of course, such gradualism is completely impossible when there is a clear choice between mutually exclusive ways of organising society. No more than a person can be a little bit pregnant or a part-time virgin can a society become gradually socialist.

Clement Attlee, who was to become Labour’s famous post-war Prime Minister, realised as early as 1935 that
“The plain fact is that a socialist party cannot hope to make a success of administering the capitalist system.”
How right he was. We wonder whether this “plain fact” has ever occurred to Messrs Blair, Brown and Cook—or whether they would consider themselves to be in a “socialist party”. (Oddly enough, when Blair’s Labour Party dropped its mythical commitment to Clause Four of its constitution they replaced it with wording proclaiming themselves to be a “democratic socialist” party.)

What Labour has traditionally meant by “democratic socialism” is benign capitalism. As Professor Eric Hobsbawm put it in an October 1980 article:
“The concept of democratic socialism is that by diffusion of power there will be a change in the relationships between capital and labour . . . Because in the first instance capital has to be accountable to the people it employs.”
This was manifest nonsense, all the more so when uttered by a so-called Marxist theoretician. The function of capital is to exploit labour. Capital can no more be held accountable to labour than muggers can be made accountable to the people they rob on the street. Were this some kind of academic hoax it would be unfunny, but as a basis for political change, in which millions of people have invested their hope, it is a tragedy.

The tragedy is not without its farcical scenes. Its contemporary ideologists have invented a mumbo-jumbo ideology called The Third Way. This is neither capitalist nor socialist, but . . . who knows? The Third Way is a glib phrase to describe the rhetorical abandonment of socialism and an accommodation with capitalism, albeit an imagined reformed and modernised version of the old system. As Richard Rorty wrote in the New Statesman (8 May 1998):
“We should not let speculation about a totally changed system, and a totally different way of thinking about human life and human affairs, replace step-by-step reform of the system we presently have.”
There is nothing new about this. Labour has always stood for step-by-step reform. The only difference is that in the old days they did so with a pretence of aiming at the creation of a totally different way of organising human affairs. Today New Labour is at least being straight. They can see no alternative to capitalism. They have been hypnotised by the blinkered Thatcherite ideology of TINA (There Is No Alternative) into open advocacy of the existing system.

Socialists opposed Labour when they claimed to be working for socialism by running capitalism and we oppose them now that they have finally rejected any alternative to capitalism. The current system, based on production for profit, cannot work in the interest of the majority of people and no amount of “modernising” rhetoric will disguise this fact. That is why socialism is as vital today as it ever was—and New Labour is as hopeless and irrelevant as Old Labour.
Steve Coleman

USA: The fallacy of the free market (1999)

From the February 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

The illusion that is peddled by sharp-suited government spokesmen on television about the benefits of the free market system is just that—an illusion. Every government in the world is in favour of free trade when their owning class is in a favourable position to compete and in favour of protectionism when some competitor from another country has the drop on them.

The British toadies of capitalism are bad enough but, in the USA the hypocritical posturing of the worshippers of the market system is truly nauseating. As the foremost industrial and commercial power in the world, the USA is loud in its praise of free trade as the cure-all for social problems. In practice, though, it often favours the strictest protectionism and some recent examples from the Press starkly prove this.

The notion that it is the soundest economic wisdom to “buy in the cheapest market” may be all very well for American academic economists to expound in the ivory towers of university and business schools, but in the USA when they find that their home produced commodities are being undercut in price the capitalists appeal to their government to protect US products from “unfair” competition. They call any competition at which they are losing “dumping”:
“Anti-dumping duties are a frequent recourse of the US government when faced with a trade problem. As the US trade deficit has mounted, pressure for duties has mounted, pressure for duties has increased rapidly and 36 petitions for anti-dumping have been received by the government so far in 1998, compared with 16 for the whole of last year. Most concerned imports of steel products . . . Ominously, William Daly, the US Commerce Secretary, has invited US manufacturers to make his anti-dumping staff ‘the busiest people in town’ . . . .” (Independent on Sunday, 22 November.)
The US exporters of Chiquita bananas, produced in Central America, used their political muscle to combat the European Union’s favourable trade terms for Caribbean bananas, and got the US government to slap 100 percent duties on such products as sheep’s cheese from the EU to the US. The American Financial Group, who own Chiquita, have recently given $1 million to Democratic and Republican politicians to fight the Caribbean preference which the they claim has lost Chiquita $1,000 million in earnings since the EC ruling of 1983 in favour of Caribbean bananas.

Behind the threats and counter-threats of a trade war the US and the EU are playing for higher stakes than are represented by bananas and sheep’s cheese:
“Andrew Hughes Hallett, professor of economics at Strathclyde University, believes we need to peel back the skin on this row to understand it. ‘I suspect it isn’t about bananas at all and it isn’t about protecting poor farmers either in St. Lucia or Honduras. It’s about political pressure in Washington and Brussels . . . In the EU this dispute is tied up with the power of the agricultural lobby. It’s like a bargaining chip. France is prepared to support Britain which is keen to get a favourable deal for its former colonies, so Britain will be more supportive of France on other issues affecting French farmers’.” (The Herald, 24 December.)
All over the world the US government pursues a policy of free trade or protectionism, whichever is most beneficial to US economic interests, but it is from New Zealand that we learn of the naked power of the US being used to force its products down the throats of unsuspecting consumers.

As the world’s biggest producer of genetically modified food, the US does everything in its power to protect the global ambitions of the agri-chemical firm Monsanto. It is increasingly concerned about European reluctance to accept genetically modified foodstuffs without proper labelling and testing.

In reply to criticisms of the British government that it was being pressured to accept US-produced genetically modified foodstuff, Tony Blair hid behind the cloak of secrecy when he replied:
“By convention it is not the practice of governments to make information on such meetings, or their contents, publicly available.”
In New Zealand no such convention applies and it was revealed in cabinet minutes that economic pressure was being applied to the New Zealand government to accept genetically modified food:
“The Cabinet Minutes, dated 19 February 1998, state: ‘The United States, and Canada to a lesser extent, are concerned in principle about the kind of approach advocated by Anzfa [part of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Council], and the demonstration effect this may have on others, including the European Union. The United States have told us that such an approach could impact negatively on the bilateral trade relationship and potentially end any chance of a New Zealand-United States Free Trade Agreement.'” (Independent on Sunday, 22 November.)
So there you have it. Blatant economic threats, undisguised self-interest, and no recourse to such fine rhetoric, so beloved by US politicians, as the “free world”, or hypocritical cant about “democracy and the freedom of choice”.

Capitalism is a horrible society—let’s get rid of it.
Richard Donnelly

Chattel and wage slavery (1999)

Frederick Douglass
From the February 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

In 1855, Frederick Douglass, a former slave, born on a Maryland plantation in 1817, had his book, My Bondage and My Freedom published.

We reproduce three passages from his book because we think it draws parallels between chattel slavery in the USA over a hundred years ago and the position of a modern wage slave:

“When Col. Lloyd’s slaves met those of Jacob Jepson, they seldom parted without a quarrel about their masters, Col. Lloyd’s slaves contending that he was the richest, and Mr Jepson’s slaves that he was the smartest, man of the two. Col. Lloyd’s slaves would boast his ability to buy and sell Jacob Jepson, Mr Jepson’s slaves would boast his ability to whip Col. Lloyd. These quarrels would always end in a fight between the parties, those that beat were supposed to have gained the point at issue. They seemed to think that the greatness of their masters was transferable to themselves. To be a SLAVE , was thought to be bad enough; but to be a poor man’s slave, was deemed a disgrace, indeed” (p.118).

“Were I again to be reduced to the condition of a slave, next to that calamity, I should regard the fact of being the slave of a religious slave-holder, the greatest that could befall me. For of all slave-holders with whom I have ever met, religious slave-holders are the worst. I have found them, almost invariably, the vilest, the meanest and the basest of their class. Exceptions there may be, but this is true of religious slave-holders as a class”

When Douglas goes to work as a caulker in a shipyard in Baltimore, and works besides white wage workers, he writes about the resentment of white workers towards the black slaves:

“In the country, this conflict is not so apparent; but, in cities, such as Baltimore, Richmond, New Orleans, Mobile etc; it is seen pretty clearly. The slave-holder with a craftiness peculiar to themselves, by encouraging the enmity of the poor, labouring white men against the blacks, succeeds in making the said white men almost as much a slave as the black slave himself. The difference between the white slave, and the black slave, is this: the latter belongs to ONE slave-holder, and the former belongs to ALL the slave-holders, collectively. The white slave has taken from his, by indirection, what the black slave had taken from him, directly, and without ceremony. Both are plundered, and by the same plunderers” (p.309).

Mr Puntila and His Man Matti (1999)

Theatre Review from the February 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Mr Puntila and His Man Matti by Bertolt Brecht. The Right Size Company, Albery Theatre, London.

Here is a play to delight socialists. The story of a capitalist and his chauffeur, which becomes the subject of an uninhibited Marxist analysis. An evening of exuberant theatricality: an occasion when in the words of one critic, “Karl Marx meets the Marx Brothers”.

The story is simply told. Puntila, a widower and capitalist landlord, seems schizoid. When sober he is ruthless, unfriendly and exploitative. When drunk he becomes driven by lust and “sentimental overflowings of fraternity”. (At one stage he proposes to four women who are advised by Matti to form a union of fiancées, the better to protect themselves when Puntila becomes sober.) We follow several weeks in Puntila’s life as he moves between bouts of drunkenness and sobriety, trying to recruit labour and to marry his daughter to a wealthy diplomat.

“What kind of man am I?” wails Puntila in the middle of one drinking spree. “No one cares, Mr Puntila,” replies Matti, thus confirming that relations between capitalists and workers are determined not by the personalities of those involved but by their economic and social relations. And if members of the audience are unaware of the implications of the dialogue the actors occasionally drop out of character and form themselves into a group of singers in order to offer a Marxist analysis of the plot. Here is another example of the “double process” which I referred to when discussing a recent production of Mother Courage (November 1998). Brecht wants us both to lose ourselves in events, but at the same time to remain distant from them the better to understand the plight of the people in a more objective, scientific manner.

The acting is dazzling. Puntila and Matti remain on stage for most of the evening whilst the rest of the group of ten actors appear as a myriad of different characters. And the staging is full of wit and invention, and culminates in a real coup de theatre when the main structure collapses as a metaphor for the collapse of capitalism. An evening to treasure. Do look out for the Right Size Company and Mr Puntila and His Man Matti which is set for a national tour.
Michael Gill

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Ethics (1999)

A Short Story from the January 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

As a socialist I have always found myself slipping quite naturally into what I think of as “ethical” behaviour when dealing with other human beings and life generally. I don’t make my ethics up as I go along; they are more to do with an insecurity in me which says I desperately need people to be decent to me and that requires me to be decent to them. It has nothing to do with any religious creed on my part, nor is it an attempt to exhibit a smug do-goodism. It is more a need to survive a system which teaches us to “Do others down the way you would expect them to do you down” and another one of those commandments I shall disobey with relish whenever I get the opportunity.

An article, “The Car” by G.T. in last March’s issue of the Socialist Standard illustrates this to some measure. G.T. sells his car knowing fully well that it is dodgy, but is oddly relieved when the people he sells it to do him out of a hundred quid when they hand over the envelope with the money in it. He says “I was initially relieved as if the lack of honesty on their side somehow reduced the guilt on ours.” He admits that he later felt depressed every time he thought about it. And I’m not surprised. Who wouldn’t?

Ethics are not easy to practice daily. I mean you can’t get out of bed and do an hour of them like you can yoga or Chinese exercises and immediately feel the benefit of them. The social mess we live in reminds us to look constantly to our own survival and we have to work hard at that. In my book though, this does not give us carte-blanche to cheat others or to turn a deaf ear when sympathy and understanding are called for. It means trying to be a psychologist and applying this to the way we live—which is what most of us do all the time anyway.

For example I live in one of a row of terraced houses, all stuck together, cheek-by-jowl, the walls so thin that even the turning on of a light switch by someone next door can sound like the faint crack of a whip. I can hear my next door neighbour sneezing, sighing and belching, and a quarrel between he and his spouse can send me scuttling to a part of the house where I hope I won’t be able to hear them. Yet these very same neighbours would not dream of disturbing my peace with very loud music or of turning up the volume of the television to an uncomfortable (for me) pitch. This is because they are on the whole decent people but more to the point they know that if I wished to I could retaliate and so we share an interest in keeping the peace. There is in this arrangement an unspoken acceptance, an acknowledgement of mutual existence. The basis for socialism.

But there is another example. For some reason (probably to do with the ethos of capitalism) there are those people who view another’s ethics as some kind of dreadful weakness and exploit it. They are those obsessed with their own existence. The system has taught them that the individual (to the cost of all other individuals) is the most important and so to them behaving in an ethical way is what someone else does. The other person is often the listener, the helper, the provider, the sympathiser. Then they look into another’s eyes they see nothing but their own reflection. They seldom see that another human life has its heartaches and problems. They are the same people who never seem to buy a round of drinks in a pub when it is their turn. Their pocket or purse always contains a twenty pound note and they don’t wish to break into it. Such mean-spiritedness! Money, plus self-obsession has become their God and it is a God we could all do without.

Once when offering a homeless person a small amount of money I was told by a well-heeled acquaintance of mine “I had to make my own way in life. Why can’t they?” It is precisely this kind of attitude that helps to promote capitalism. It is a deeply-engrained notion that we can all get along without each other. We can’t and we don’t and our lives would be a good deal happier if we all realised that. The influence of the capitalist system has ensured that many do not yet understand the necessity for the working class to free itself from slavery. It is a slavery not only of the body but of the mind too and that must be the worst enslavement of all.
Heather Ball

Bugged by mill-ennui – From Dark Ages to Grey Ages (1999)

From the December 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard
By the time you are reading this, you will know whether there has been a Wall Street Crash. If the world is lucky, the bubble won’t burst, it’ll just deflate. But nobody’s been feeling lucky for quite some time. Capitalism has made pessimists of us all.
For me, the summer of 1998 was the most depressing I can ever remember. While it was nothing but a polite winter in Britain, elsewhere, from Texas to China, countries seemed to be having catastrophic droughts, heatwaves or floods, suggesting that a huge environmental payback was imminent. An air of doom pervaded the rest of the year as people expected a global slump to follow the Asian crisis, while and India and Pakistan squaring off a nuclear war seemed more likely than ever. The news, and my friends, seemed full of foreboding about what fate had in store, and 1999 advanced upon us like footsteps ringing down a corridor on Death Row.

Many sensible people were inclined to believe the Nostradamus prediction that the world would end in 1999, but even the prospect of Armageddon could not shake us out of apathetic resignation. The end of the century. The end of a millennium. The end. Here, Britain has suffered a kind of bleak fin de siècle despair, a leaden “mill-ennui” that has produced the worst electoral voting figures on record and the most crushing sense of apathetic defeat in modern times.

In line with this mill-ennui, some people have been talking about the end of capitalism. What they mean is the end of civilisation, a dread abyss, the destruction of everything and the rule of chaos. On the 70th anniversary of the Wall Street Crash, analysts observed uncanny parallels between then and now, and a huge stock-market crash was expected by many. If history repeats itself, the consequences of global depression, unemployment and protectionism could lead to the rise of fascism, invasion and global war. The destruction incurred would then give capitalism a new lease of life for the 21st century. Faced with this doomsday scenario, prospects for socialism and even survival could look extremely bleak. In that sense one can only hope the optimists of a “managed downturn” know what they’re talking about. But when they assure us that “the fundamentals are sound”, J K Galbraith for one experiences “a slight feeling of unease” (Money Programme, BBC2, 24 October).

The real Third Way
It’s bad enough already for the people in eastern Europe. Under the old system it was secret police, propaganda and bread queues. Now it’s mafia, unemployment and bread queues. The Albanians thought pyramid schemes were what capitalism was all about, and lost everything to the first swindlers that chanced through their area. Many east Europeans, judging by the phoenix-like rise of the old “communist” parties, are contemplating a return to square one, the devil they know, but that prospect appals. The rest of them blanch at rebuilding Lenin’s statues, and must really be looking for a Third Way, never mind Tony Blur’s idiotic soundbites.

That there really is a “Third Way” of doing things is what this journal, and this organisation, are in existence to argue. The picture we represent of a peaceful, co-operative human culture based on a society of abundant resources is pleasant and reasonable but, unfortunately, so far removed from the selective reality of the news bulletins that people, by and large, just don’t believe it’s possible. For many people it’s not a matter of reasoning, it’s a matter of faith, and people don’t have any faith in themselves, let alone each other. According to the sociologists, all the old idols, the so-called “grand paradigms” of Fascism, Sovietism and Capitalism, have been historically discredited, but they continue to prowl in the dark, like the Undead.

Nobody feels liberated, just lost. Many will embark on a faddish search for “alternatives”, racing frantically but uncritically round a large dreary circle of other people’s abandoned cults until they arrive back where they started. For those with money, comfort-buying consumerism is all that’s left. The media advertising cry has become a ceaseless scream in our ears. Everybody’s claim seems equally just. We don’t know who to believe or what to believe in, baffled by the multiplicity of values and viewpoints in this inert postmodernist swamp we call a culture.

The only common hard ground in this swamp appears to be the prejudice that human nature is basically bad, or at best unreliable. It follows from this that any society made up of humans must be bad, or at best unreliable. Anything else is a Utopia. The future will be just more of the same, or worse. If Nostradamus had predicted that in 1999 we’d all have millennial misery then he’d have got one right at least. Thanks partly to an odd love affair that we humans have with wailing Cassandras who predict dire things, but thanks mainly to ourselves for doing those dire things anyway, we arrive at this most significant date believing that the sky is about to fall on our heads and there’s nothing we can do about it except smile wanly and pass the anti-depressants.

Meanwhile politicians have been acting out a kind of danse macabre with a flaming Earth as their stage. None of them appear to be doing anything apart from striking postures and smiling with photogenic insouciance. In Britain, our capable trendy leader Tony is revealed as Thatcher’s spawn, grinding an already prostrate working class under his designer boot, appearing on platforms with former Tory grandees like Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine, and while airily informing Scottish factory workers that he can’t save their jobs or stop the recession, energetically pretends to be fascinated by the urgent needs of constitutional reform.

This doom and gloom is more than the usual force-of-habit. Owing to an accident of calendars, the West is arguably in an especially reflective mood, contemplating a moment which occurs only once in a thousand years, the dog days of a millennium which started off in the Dark Ages and has ended up, many think, back there. If there is ever a time when society is going to review its history, its future and the meaning of it all it is likely to be at a time like this. But if people have become millennial about political realities for a while, it hasn’t inspired them with revolution, just revulsion. Religion may profit from this, since it feeds on despair like flies feed on cowshit. Fascism, the supposedly dead paradigm, is crawling from its grave once more to prey on the terrified but tethered scapegoats.

Reasons to be cheerful 
But to predict that the 21st century will be an exact replay of the 20th is to take no account of how things have changed in the interim. Without being pollyannas, we can easily find reasons to be more cheerful about the 21st Century than this. You only have to look at how far humanity has come this century in the matter of science and technology. Victorian writers thought of their steam-driven world as a paradise of technology and wrote paeans of praise to this new empire of reason, or else they pointedly lyricised about flowers just to be awkward, but they would have been awed into silence by the discoveries of the following hundred years.

From balloons to space stations, from the Penny Black to the Internet, the speed of change is as startling as it is unprecedented. Our general history looks like a bomb exploding. When this millennium began we were still in the Iron Age. In the thousand years before that, practically the only invention of significance in Europe was the stirrup, a device which turned the cavalry horse into the first tank. But then began a long slow accumulation of critical mass, followed by an accelerated expansion of development so powerful that its effects can now be detected in days and weeks and no longer in decades and centuries. It would be ludicrous to suppose that in the future this acceleration will not continue, just as the fragments of an exploding grenade do not stop suddenly in mid-air and fall to the ground.

Whether we know anything more as people than we used to is debatable. Ignorance is still rife, despite our literacy and sophistication. Our culture has certainly not kept pace with our discoveries. But it is having to change, whether people like it or not. We aren’t cowed by the priests like we used to be. Science made fools of them. We aren’t impressed by politicians any more. They made fools of themselves, and the press did the rest. Few believe in the Queen, or the Pope, as being anything but empty forms left over from bygone times. The rich are not revered, although their wealth is. Even the police are represented in popular TV shows as routinely criminal and corrupt.

Little by little, the ideology that underpins capitalism is being stripped of its pretensions, exposed and embarrassed by the ever increasing intensity of the public glare. The 21st century begins with the advantages of hindsight and experience the 20th never had. The resistance to fascism is huge. Capitalism’s own fear of global war is bigger still. The Internet is changing the face of popular culture and ideology. We are already in the midst of a social revolution that makes a lasting return to parochialism ever less probable. Now, in the face of that revolution, people are starting to describe the 20th century as the Grey Ages.

Post-modernism is the trendy name for nihilism, a belief in nothing, and nihilism is a state of ideological bereavement. Workers have been orphaned by the paternalistic state which now, clearly, cares nothing for them. Yet bereavement is merely a phase, and humans will recover. Post-modernism will pass. History cannot stand still. Lust for life and hunger for truth will return, and the war of ideologies will become more savage and deadly. But whereas ideologies in the past have relied on the severe restriction of information, ideas in the future will have to fight on more even ground and more on their merits.

Unable to prevent good ideas penetrating society, the owning class will face a massacre of its mythology and a wholesale change in the consciousness of the worker. Unless the rich can find a way to prevent it, the “wired” society of the future will open the way towards revolution.
Paddy Shannon

Next month: beginning of a three-part series on the Impact of the Internet.