Thursday, August 31, 2006

Reactions - 5 years after 9/11 (2001)

From the October 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

We reproduce below reactions to what happened on 11 September from Socialists in various parts of the world as posted on the World Socialist Movement Forum.

Today at the community mental health center where I work, as at workplaces all around the United States, work has basically come to a beautifully silent stop. Television has just won a Permanent Revolution, as the news goes from bad to worse, and the number of viewers explodes from the moderate to the extreme.

My workplace just had a prayer vigil for the dead. I chose not to attend, even though I am also feeling sick about the entire affair. But it is only an intensification of the nausea I feel every day living in a market system of owners and nonowners. The collapsing World Trade Center was the symbol of only the temporary fall of the businesses that held offices there.

The Phallus has descended, but only for a short time. After the tragic death of thousands of workers (and capitalists too), there will be a glorious Reconstruction. The Spectacle will see to it. Military efforts will ensure that the guilty are found, and the buildings in Manhattan will be rebuilt, whether or not the city chooses to reconstitute the World Trade Center itself.

Business will go on as usual. In fact, the spirit of reconstruction may even benefit it. Millions of human lives will continue to be sacrificed for the profit of a few. Millions around the world will continue to starve. Millions of children in the United States alone will continue to spend their childhood abused, or neglected in noisy, smelly and dangerous ghettos. We workers will all return to work, and the nightmare of capitalism will resume. Blood will be swiftly donated to the injured by millions of generous citizens. Yet the system too will get its new blood.

I do feel terrible today, profoundly depressed. I really wish I didn't, but I just do, I can't help it. I don't know if some of you are also feeling angry. But underneath there is a gnawing mourning we must all tolerate. "Get a handle on your feelings, man, there is work to be done!" the Spectacle will whisper. "Rebuild Southern Manhattan and the Pentagon, and rekindle your nationalism and hatred of people from other lands." All around us, folks will volunteer their efforts, and the basic goodness and humanity of our species will show its strength and its supportive, loving, quality. But this will not lead to a social revolution from a system of private or state ownership to a moneyless and stateless system of common ownership of the means of life, much as we all could use one badly in this endlessly violent world in which we do not feel safe.

No, the Spectacle will portray the negative image of that glorious vision of freedom and community. For the community action we witness on television will attempt to mask our essential passivity. National togetherness will shroud our apartness. Revenge upon the terrorists will deflect our hatred of work. Our mourning will obliterate our celebration of life. Our trauma will disempower us. Our national strength will weaken us. The world of appearance is as topsy-turvy as Marx and Feuerbach showed Hegel's reality to be.

Which is why we must preserve our critique of the totality. It is also why we must refuse the Spectacle. For only in our critique of the totality will our mourning, our strength, our trauma, our love, be real. Only in our critique of the whole system may we hopefully one day witness the world centers of trade really come down, and not merely the mere illusion of its collapse, even though it was a grander production than even Hollywood could have mustered with the budget of a thousand Towering Infernos. The wasteful dead are lining the streets. Their death sickens me. But in the land of death, they have only come home, while in the land of the living, we have yet to build one.
DV (Chicago) 11 September

September 11

I saw the news this morning
a tower all in in flames
I saw the ones about to die,
I didn't know their names.
I watched the screen in disbelief,
an unbelieving eye.
The questions come into my mind
for who, for what, for why?

Terror is an ugly word
for an ugly hateful hate.
Terror of the madmen
or terror of the State.
Terror from the death squads
or terror from the skies.
No matter where, no matter when
it's the innocents who die.

And the sadness grows, the sadness grows.

An angry mob confronts a child
on her way to school.
The plane crashed into a tower
by a willing fool.
Napalm raining from the skies
for all the world to see.
Dimensions of the madness
are all the same to me.

And the sadness grows, the sadness grows.

From the one who hides behind a desk
to the one behind the gun,
From the one who hides behind a mask
in the hateful deed that's done,
From the one who give the orders
and justifies decrees
to the one who pulls the trigger,
just a matter of degrees.

And the sadness grows, the sadness grows.

The war that's over there
is the war that's brought to home
To reap a bitter harvest
from the seeds that we have sewn.
For religion, dogma, bits of flag
and the things for which men kill,
For the lies that divide us
I'll say I've had my fill.

And the sadness grows, the sadness grows.
The sadness grows, oh the sadness grows.
Music and Words by Len Wallace (Canada)

Reasonable people everywhere will deplore the events of the past few days in New York and will sympathise with those families who have lost someone. They will admire the courage and the unselfish acts that have been demonstrated by firefighters, police, medical workers and ordinary citizens who put their own lives on the line everyday to help other people and often go unrecognised.

We are frequently subjected to only the darker side of human behaviour, the selfishness, such as the despicable acts of deliberately killing thousands of innocent people, the acts of terror to promote a particular end. The people who commit these acts believe that the end justifies the means. The exact opposite of what World Socialists say, that the means and the end must be consistent. That to bring about a truly democratic society it can only be brought about democratically.

Whether these acts of terror are carried out by individuals, private organisations, or acts of war declared by nation-states against other nation-states, (and legitimised by them because they say it is in their interests to act in this way), the terror is exactly the same for the victims.

It is no less a tragedy if wives lose their husbands, children lose their parents, or parents lose their children through the act of a single terrorist or group of terrorists, or through the official government-ordained act of an official military executioner. The end result is the same, tragic and needless loss and human suffering for the victims and their families.

"Legitimate" acts of war are seen as being necessary, and in the interests of a particular nation state that is being threatened directly, or by the economic interests of another nation state, or group of nations. What are the interests that are being threatened? They are either territorial expansion or access to resources. Who is it that requires access to these territories or resources? It is the exploiters of resources, the private corporations who look to local governments to grant them access, for payment, (royalties), or to their own governments to use their coercive powers to "persuade" through denial of access to trade, or other economic embargos. Political groups who resist these pressures are seen as hostile. Those who lie down, who acquiese, are seen as friendly. When these methods fail, threats of aggression, or actual aggression are the legitimate acts of terror - war.

That is the way in which the capitalist system encourages exploitation of the worlds resources, the regular daily need to increase investment and exploit resources drives the aggression of governments to "defend" their interests, wherever they might be on the planet.

The machinery of war, planes, ships, tanks and all of the paraphenalia, are sold aggressively by all of the major powers as a legitimate industry for official acts of war. Land mines despite the horrible damage to innocent victims every day, are a legitimate commodity for governments to invest in. Over 800 billion US dollars a year are invested in the machinery of war according to the United Nations.

Individual capitalists may be opposed to war, many of them would rather have their money used for peaceful means, to "protect" people from war, another legitimate source of profit, and highly moral. Nevertheless, the acts of terror, legitimate or otherwise, are driven by the various groups protecting their right to legitimately expand "their interests", or by others to defend their own.

The loss of lives of innocent victims in war are "regrettable" when they happen to groups other than our own, in far away places, they are "tragic" when they happen on "our own" doorstep, to "our own" people.

New York is one of the melting pots of world society representing all of the world's major cultures, I look forward to the time when people everywhere recognise that we have a common interest in preserving what is good in each of our cultures and sharing it with the world.

For a world society, caring for each other, and sharing with each other. One World and One People.
Robert Malone (New Zealand)

I was in Florida at the time of the attack and a few days after. This enabled me to see how the news was reported and commented on. When I got back to England I was able to make comparisons.

Not much difference really. If anything, the British tabloids were more bloodthirsty and revengeful than the American papers I saw. The letters to the press in both countries reflected majority patriotism and "gung-ho" militarism. But there was a minority who took a more critical view of the causes of violence, whether "terrorist" or governmental. The following, from the St. Petersburg Times of 15 September, is a good example:
"Our nation is now reaping the result of an arrogant, militaristic and interventionist foreign policy. But rather than acknowledge and deal honestly with the root causes of violent terrorist actions, most prefer to pound their fists and expound about a 'declaration of war' . . . This 'war' is clearly not about bringing the perpetrators of the September 11 actions to justice; it will end up being nothing less than a carte blanche for the launching of a military and economic offensive against designated 'enemies'', and to provide a rationale for stifling political dissent at home. The 'war' now being hyped in Washington will increase, not decrease, the probability of future attacks on U.S. targets by those who feel dispossessed and oppressed by U.S. policies."
Stan Parker (UK)

Monday, August 28, 2006

War, Plots and Civil Liberties (2006)

Editorial from the forthcoming September 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Was there really a plot to blow up transatlantic airliners or were the police just using a pretext to fish for information by rounding up and questioning people they suspected were up to something without knowing precisely what? Will ministers eventually say, as they did after the killing of John Charles de Menezes and after the raid on that house in Forest Gate when another innocent man was shot, that its better to err on the side of safety? Better a few innocents are shot than a terrorist act in which hundreds die?

Whatever the truth, the "security alert" last month in which a terrorist attack was said to be "imminent" allowed the state to project itself as the defender of the public. It is no such thing. The state is controlled by pro-capitalist politicians who pursue policies they consider to be in the general interest of British capitalism, even to the extent of putting the lives of the general public at risk.

The present government, led by Blair, has decided that it is in the best interest of the British capitalist class to tag along behind the US government's global pretensions, especially its so-called "War on Terror", which is really a struggle with certain Middle East states and disaffected Arab elites and their supporters for control of that oil-rich region.

The US government is committed to furthering the interests of US capitalism, which don't necessarily coincide with those of British capitalism, and there are pro-capitalist politicians in Britain, some apparently within the cabinet, who think that Blair might have gone too far in his pro-US stance. But it is not up to us as socialists to judge which politicians best represent the interest of the British capitalist class.

It is this pro-US capitalism policy option that has put the "British public" in danger by making them legitimate targets in the eyes of the Islamist opponents of US domination of the Middle East. It is just plain ridiculous for government ministers to try to deny this. What makes it worse is that neither the attack on Iraq nor (even less) giving Israel more time to bomb Lebanon enjoyed majority popular support.

But no government can leave such a vital decision as to whether or not to go to war to a popular vote. This is because the role of governments is to be "the executive committee of the ruling class" and, as the interests of the capitalist ruling class are at variance with those of the rest of us, such a decision cannot be left to us as there is no guarantee that our decision will coincide with what the ruling class judge to be in their interest. In fact, in the case of war, people spontaneously tend to be against it.

It is true that, as most people do support capitalism, if a government launches an effective enough propaganda barrage it can generally persuade people to support a war. But this takes time and decisions about war cannot wait. Blair is on record as saying that as a leader it is his duty to give a lead on going to war, even against majority popular opinion. In Britain, until recently and still formally, going to war was a government decision that didn't require even parliamentary approval.

Democracy and war are in fact incompatible. States have to have a minimal degree of popular support to function, but this need not extend much further than allowing the populace to decide every few years which group of pro-capitalist politicians are to staff the state and, exercising "leadership", use it to further national capitalist interests.

Truth may be the first casualty of war, but civil liberties come a close second. Whether real or manufactured, "terror plots" and "security alerts" provide a pretext for a state to further erode civil liberties inherited from a more liberal past, as the string of laws introduced by the Blair government to increase the powers of the state bears witness.

It can't be denied that there is a conflict going on involving attacks on innocent civilians on both sides. In Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon the US and/or its allies bomb villages and villagers. In America on 11 September five years ago and in Britain last 7 July, the other side killed innocent workers at or on their way to work. Socialists condemn both sides. And we don't swallow the propaganda that the state is there to protect us.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Hurricane Katrina: Reflections of a Socialist on an Unnatural Disaster

As we approach the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I would like to share a few reflections on the disaster and on the society that produced it. My aim is not to provide a systematic account or analysis, but to highlight and reflect upon various points that I find particularly significant. [1]
Stephen D. Shenfield

A natural disaster?
Heat waves and blizzards, droughts and floods, hurricanes and tsunamis, landslides, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions are usually regarded as "natural disasters" or "acts of God". By implication, the suffering they cause is, at least mainly, the fault of Nature or God. There is no reason to blame human society.

In fact, there are plenty of reasons to blame society.

First point. The irresponsible drive of business for profit is changing the planet's climate -- warming the oceans and the atmosphere, melting icecaps and glaciers, spreading deserts, disturbing rainfall patterns. Specifically, major storms in the Atlantic and Pacific, no longer moderated by cool subsurface waters, have increased in duration and intensity by about 50 percent since the 1970s. Global warming also brings hurricanes closer to centers of population by raising the sea level and contributing to the erosion of coastlines.

Second point. Natural phenomena do not cause human disasters unless people put themselves in harm's way. Volcanic eruptions cause human disasters because people live near volcanoes.[2] Earthquakes cause human disasters because villages, cities, factories, and even nuclear power plants[3] are sited in places known to be prone to earthquakes (and because construction firms do not find it profitable to build housing capable of withstanding tremors).

Most of us are restricted in our choice of where to live. We have to go where we can afford a home, where we can get jobs or a plot of land to farm. The pattern of settlement reflects the social system, not just individual choices. So here too society bears a large part of the blame. In a rational society, one in which human welfare comes first, would people not rearrange the pattern of their settlement with a view to keeping themselves out of harm's way?

The human impact of hurricanes clearly depends on how many people live in or visit the coastal areas most exposed to them. Coastal counties now account for over half of the US population and 10 of the nation's 15 largest cities. Moreover, coastal population is increasing rapidly (by 28 percent between 1980 and 2003).[4] In coastal Louisiana, property development, for housing, tourism, and "entertainment" (e.g., casinos), expands in a self-sustaining dynamic, as the infrastructure built to serve existing development attracts yet more development. Besides putting more and more people at risk, property developers are steadily destroying the remaining coastal wetlands. The wetlands (together with offshore islands) provide New Orleans and the interior with a vital protective buffer against storm surges.

Afraid the hurricane would miss
The tourist trade was implicated in the tragedy in another way. The scale of the threat facing New Orleans and coastal Louisiana became clear in the course of Friday August 26; the hurricane made landfall in the early hours of August 29, Monday morning. The presidents of two coastal parishes, Plaquemines and St. Charles, declared mandatory evacuation at nine on Saturday morning. However, when New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin appeared at a press conference at five that afternoon he failed to order mandatory evacuation, saying that he was still consulting with his legal advisers on the matter. Nagin finally ordered mandatory evacuation at 9.30 Sunday morning. The delay played a crucial role in blocking a proper evacuation, mainly because only a mandatory evacuation order legally obliges local authorities to make provision for those unable to evacuate without help.[5] By declaring mandatory evacuation earlier, Plaquemines and St. Charles achieved 100 percent evacuation.

But why was Nagin so reluctant to act? Personal foibles apart, he was afraid. Not that Hurricane Katrina would hit New Orleans, but that it might, like Hurricane Ivan in 2004, change course and miss! For in that case hotel owners might sue the city for business lost as the result of an evacuation order that turned out to be unnecessary.[6] Nagin has close ties with the tourist trade.

Besides property development and the tourist trade, the oil and gas industry has contributed generously to the effort to prepare ideal conditions for the Katrina tragedy. The Louisiana wetlands are not only a natural buffer against storm surges. They (and not Alaska) are the United States' largest source of crude oil and its second largest source of natural gas. To support and transport this production, the oil and gas companies have carved 8,000 miles of cuts and canals into the wetlands, disrupting the natural flow of waters and facilitating the penetration of saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico. "The whole artificial system works to the detriment of the wetlands. No one claims otherwise."[7]

The ports and shipping industry also bears a share of the responsibility for the disaster. The levees built by the US Army Corps of Engineers along both shores of the Mississippi from Baton Rouge to the sea were designed primarily to serve shipping interests.[8] They provide some immediate protection against flooding, but over the long term they heighten the danger by blocking the flow of much needed silt into the wetlands.

Why such a poor government response?
Many people still ask why the government response to Katrina was so tardy and ineffective. Why was the population of New Orleans not evacuated in time? (I have already mentioned one of the reasons.) Why did the victims have to wait so long for vital supplies to arrive? Why did it take so long to get them out of the disaster zone? Why were flood control measures so inadequate?

Unfavorable comparisons have been made with government performance in similar situations in some other countries. For example:
*Canada. In November 1979 a freight train carrying chemicals was derailed while passing through the city of Mississauga, Ontario. Realizing that toxic gases were being released, local police organized a rapid and efficient evacuation of the population.[9]
*Cuba. In September 2004 Hurricane Ivan swept through the Caribbean. 27 died in Florida and about 100 in Grenada, but western Cuba, which suffered a direct hit, was evacuated in good time and had no casualties, thanks to the coordinated preparations of central and local government.[10]
 *The Netherlands. Following the winter storm of 1953, which caused 1,800 deaths, the Dutch mobilized their resources to build a flood control system that far surpasses that of Louisiana in scope, technological sophistication, and effectiveness.[11]

However, unfavorable comparisons have also been made with the handling of other disasters in the US, such as the rapidly improvised waterborne evacuation of Lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001.[12] Moreover, even in the Katrina disaster some agencies evidently did much worse than others. The accounts I have read are highly critical of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the US Army Corps of Engineers, but have nothing but praise for the US Coast Guard, which rescued more than 22,000 people. (Many were also rescued by spontaneously formed civic organizations like the NOLA Homeboys and the Cajun Navy.)

All these comparisons need to be taken into account. They imply that some causes may be specific to the US, others specific to the Bush administration, yet others specific to one or another agency. There were several important contextual factors:
* Much of the National Guard was away in Iraq.
* The obsessive "war against terror" led to the domination of a "militarized paradigm" and the neglect of non-military threats, with FEMA subordinated to the huge Department of Homeland Security.[13]
* The flood control budget had been cut drastically -- in large measure thanks to the war in Iraq and the "war against terror".
* The Bush administration is hostile in principle to the idea of the social responsibility of government.

Red tape and lack of professionalism
There are also some very important issues that have to do with the way government operates in practice. I would like to focus on two of these: the issue of red tape and that of professionalism.

Red tape was a major factor in the ineffectiveness of FEMA. Its representatives insisted on sticking to bureaucratic regulations despite the suffering caused by the resulting delays and even if observing regulations was simply impossible. They refused to provide supplies on the basis of oral requests from local officials: the requisite form had to be faxed to head office. However, the fax machines had been damaged in the flood and were not working.

Harvey Molotch offers an interesting analysis of the conditions under which bureaucrats are and are not willing to override regulations in an emergency. To some extent it depends on how much empathy they feel for the victims. But above all they judge the likely reaction of their superiors and the consequences for themselves. If they override regulations, will they be congratulated later for having done the right thing? Or will they be reprimanded and penalized? They make this judgment on the basis of cues from above. If a sense of real urgency is conveyed, regulations won't be allowed to thwart prompt action. When the Twin Towers were attacked this "panic button" was pressed. In the Katrina disaster it wasn't. Molotch suspects that the difference had something to do with racism.[14]

Another reason why FEMA did such a bad job was that it had been deprived of professional leadership. Experts in disaster management had been removed from key positions and replaced by allies and cronies of Bush with no relevant skills or experience and no sense of public service or duty.[15] Some experts had left, and those who remained were demoralized. The agencies that responded more effectively were those which had managed to preserve their professionalism.

The issue of professionalism is linked to that of the administrative structure of American government. Most countries have a permanent high-level civil service staffed by professional administrators and specialists. Governments come and go, but the civil servants remain and provide continuity of memory and experience. The US is unusual in allowing each newly elected politician to fill the entire upper layer of the civil service with his own appointees. What weight, if any, he gives to professional competence in making those appointments is up to him.

Without a permanent and professional civil service, government lacks both coherence and autonomy from special interests. As a polity, the United States is structurally incapable of carrying through a comprehensive flood control program like the one implemented in the Netherlands. Louisiana scientists have devoted enormous efforts to formulating and promoting such a program, based on sound science, for the Gulf Coast, but the political process repeatedly frustrates them, generating instead a ragbag of partial or even irrelevant measures. The real purpose of these measures, which are incapable of solving the problem that they ostensibly address, is to pay off the special interests to which various local politicians are beholden.[17]

Marx proclaimed that "the state is the executive committee of the capitalist class as a whole." On issues of disaster prevention the interests of the capitalist class as a whole overlap with those of society at large. After all, flooding is bad both for business and for the people. Here in the United States, however, government is unable to function in the spirit of Marx's definition of the state: it is not the executive committee of the capitalist class as a whole, but merely a mob of lobbyists for all sorts of special capitalist interests. I find it pertinent that in American usage the term "state" refers to a territorial unit of government, not -- as it does in other countries -- to the permanent entity that underpins and connects successive governments. In this sense the United States is not a "state" at all.

Danger -- looters!
What is the first priority of government in the wake of disaster? Saving lives? Looking after the survivors? Disposing of the dead and preventing epidemics?

Think again. At best these things come second. The first priority of government in the wake of disaster is exactly the same as its first priority at other times: maintaining or restoring "order" -- that is, its powers of coercion. Moreover, the first purpose of "order" is to protect and enforce property rights. From this point of view, the main threat posed by disasters like Hurricane Katrina is not the threat to human life and health, to the environment, or even to the economy. It is the threat of "chaos", the threat to "order" and "civilization", but above all to property, arising from the temporary breakdown of government.

The "looter" symbolizes and dramatizes this threat, conjuring up images of Viking warriors on the rampage, barbaric violence, evil incarnate. Of course, these particular "Vikings" were all the more terrifying for being black. In the days that followed the hurricane, the media stirred up racist fears of the poor black people of New Orleans, spreading rumors (the fashionable expression is "urban myths") later shown to be exaggerated out of all proportion, if not completely unfounded.[18] Fear sells.

All in all, we shouldn't be too shocked or too surprised to learn that at 7 p.m. on Wednesday August 31, 2005 martial law was declared in the flooded city. Mayor Nagin told police officers to stop rescuing people and focus solely on the job of cracking down on looters. This was just two and a half days after the hurricane made landfall and with thousands of people still stranded in attics and on rooftops.

In one heroic encounter, police officers chased down a woman spotted pushing a cart of baby supplies. She fell, they handcuffed her, but what were they to do with her? All the jails were flooded. By the end of the week that problem was solved. A new makeshift jail was set up at the Greyhound bus terminal, with accommodation for 750 prisoners. This was the first institution in the city to resume normal functioning.[19]

True, "looters" used to be treated even more harshly. After the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 people were shot dead as they foraged in the wreckage of their own homes.[20]

Why did people loot? Or to use less loaded language, why did they take things that didn't belong to them without paying for them?

One man answered a TV interviewer who had asked him why he was looting by asking in turn: "Can you see anyone to pay?"[21] The stores had been abandoned by their operators, but people still needed the things stored there. They needed food and fresh water, dressings for their wounds, new clothes to replace those ruined by exposure to the "toxic gumbo" of the floodwaters. Most of the so-called looting was of this kind -- for the satisfaction of desperate need. In any sane society that would be a good enough reason for taking things.

Two paramedics from San Francisco who found themselves trapped in New Orleans wrote about the Walgreens store on the corner of Royal and Iberville Streets in the French quarter. The owners had locked up and fled. Milk, yogurt, and cheese could be seen through the window in the dairy display case, spoiling in the heat.[22]

Should we expect the parents of hungry and thirsty children not to break in, even at the risk of being pursued by the police? Would they have been good parents had they failed to do all in their power to see to their children's needs? And what of storeowners who choose to let food go to waste rather than give it to needy neighbors? My first impulse is to wax lyrical about the sheer meanness of their behavior. But probably they made no such conscious choice. As businesspeople they must have thought of the food and drink in their store not as products for assuaging hunger and thirst, but merely as commodities for profitable sale. If they could no longer be sold they might just as well go to waste.

Social looters and entrepreneurial looters
Some looters -- let's call them "social looters" -- acted not just for themselves and their families but for the benefit of the local community. For instance, the young men who collected medical supplies from a Rite Aid for distribution among elderly neighbors.[23] Or the man who distributed food from a Winn-Dixie store to the 200 or so people holed up at the Grand Palace Hotel. "He was trying to help suffering people, and the idea that he was looting never crossed his mind."[24]

Socially responsible people of this kind are sometimes described as "commandeering" or "requisitioning" the goods they seize. That may well be how they view their own actions. In legal terms, however, only government officials, as representatives of duly constituted authority, have the right to commandeer or requisition property in an emergency. Private citizens who do so, whatever their motives, are engaging in theft and may be penalized accordingly.

Consider the feat of Jabar Gibson. This resourceful young man, purely on his own initiative, found a bus that was still in working order (the city authorities assumed that all buses had been ruined by the floodwater), took charge of it, filled it up with evacuees, and drove them to Houston. This was the first busload of evacuees to reach Houston after the storm (at 10 p.m. on Wednesday August 31). The police were forewarned that a "renegade bus" was on its way; if they had intercepted it Jabar might have been arrested and charged with theft. Fortunately he was in luck: he got through to his destination, to be greeted by Harris County Judge Robert Eckels.[25] Presumably his crime has been forgiven.

Of course, not all looters were responding to real personal, family, or community needs. Some were simply taking a rare opportunity to acquire coveted though nonessential consumer goods. For others looting (and shitting in) fancy stores was a form of social protest or "empowerment," an outlet for pent-up anger against the endlessly advertised world of affluence from which they felt excluded.

Finally, there was a phenomenon that I propose calling "entrepreneurial looting." Entrepreneurial looters gathered assets with a view to later sale. As they got stuff for free, they could sell at any price and still make a profit. For example, "urban foresters" went after valuable lumber.[26] Other entrepreneurs sold looted liquor. The cases of large-scale organized looting by armed groups (their weapons also probably looted) that received so much publicity must, I think, have been of this character.

Brinkley reports an interesting conversation between Lieutenant Colonel Bernard McLaughlin of the Louisiana National Guard and a man selling liquor at a makeshift bar. When McLaughlin tells the bartender he is shutting him down, the man replies that he is "just being entrepreneurial." Why shouldn't he make some money? McLaughlin gets angry at this appeal to "true American" values. "This is looting. You looted that . . . That's a 15-year felony. That's a 3-year mandatory minimum sentence." The man submits and McLaughlin proceeds to smash his bottles one by one. And yet the preceding account makes clear that McLaughlin's real objection to such bars has nothing to do with the provenance of the alcohol. He doesn't want the locals drinking alcohol because it further dehydrates them and makes them quarrelsome and disorderly.[27] Would he have allowed the bar to stay open if it was selling -- or giving away -- only looted fruit juice, soda, and bottled water? Legally, however, looting remains "a 15-year felony," be its social consequences good or bad. Property is sacred.

The bartender might also have tried to point out in his defense that historically all capitalist enterprise is based on looting. Early capitalism looted land and other resources from peasants (in Europe) and from indigenous peoples (throughout the Americas and other colonial territories). The looting even extended to the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of human beings, such as the ancestors of most victims of Hurricane Katrina. Marx called it the primitive accumulation of capital. Looting is as American as cherry pie; the looters of New Orleans are keeping up an old American tradition and should surely receive all the credit due them as good patriots. But . . . it depends on who you loot, doesn't it?

Race and class
With few exceptions, the rich live on higher land ("the house on the hill") while low-lying areas prone to flooding are reserved for the poor. This rule of class geography applied in full to New Orleans, perhaps the most socially polarized city in the US. During the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the city leaders even had a levee dynamited to flood some poor black neighborhoods with a view to saving the rest of the city.[28]

For this as well as other reasons, the victims of Katrina -- the quarter of the city's population still in New Orleans when disaster struck -- were overwhelmingly poor. True, they were also overwhelmingly black, but that wasn't their immediate problem. Better-off blacks were able to look after themselves. It was their position at the bottom of the economic pile that blocked their escape. They did not have bank accounts or credit cards they could draw upon if they left town. Many lacked direct access to news of the approaching storm because they were illiterate and had no TV set. Above all, of course, they had no cars.

Most criticism of the city authorities has focused on their failure to organize the evacuation of the car-less by bus. I would like to draw attention to another failure, one that commentators have failed to notice. Even without specially organized evacuation by bus, the transportation resources needed were readily available and deliberately wasted. The long streams of cars in which better-off New Orleanians fled danger the weekend before the hurricane struck had enough spare room for all the people who did not have cars of their own.[29] The trains that left New Orleans that weekend also had many empty seats.[30]

These resources were readily available physically. Why then did no one even think of using them? The answer lies in the customs, laws, and institutions of capitalism. Few people have any problem with owners of resources surplus to their own needs denying those resources to those who do need them. And deference to the money system with all its absurd paraphernalia is unthinking and automatic.

Similarly, many people have become quite sensitive to discrimination on the basis of race or sex. But discrimination on the basis of economic status or class is hardly noticed, although it is even more pervasive and just as harsh in its effects.[31] It was this kind of discrimination that trapped Katrina's victims.

After the hurricane struck, the importance of economic status for those who remained in New Orleans declined sharply. Money temporarily lost its social power: whether you had money or not, there was no way you could legally buy the things you needed. Even if (to take a hypothetical case) you were a billionaire you had no choice but to "loot." In this situation the relative importance of racial harassment increased. Being black exposed you to more insulting and contemptuous treatment at the hands of the police. It was because you were black, and therefore a "criminal," that police officers pushed you back at gunpoint when you tried to cross the bridge across the Mississippi to the mostly white suburban community of Jefferson Parish on the "West Bank" -- pedestrians' only escape route from the flooded city.[32]

Americans don't live in tents
How important are race and/or class in accounting for government negligence regarding the survival and welfare of the victims of Katrina? Various commentators have argued that black people in the inner cities, being without cars or credit cards, were "off the radar screen" of government planners. In fact, many of those who don't have cars or credit cards are not black and do not live in the inner cities -- poor rural whites in areas like the Appalachians, for example. Presumably they too are "off the radar screen." The general point, however, is right on the mark. Ivor van Heerden of Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center recounts how at a meeting of disaster planning officials he argued that tent cities should be established for refugees, as in other parts of the world. The response was a rising tide of laughter, culminating in a woman exclaiming: "Americans don't live in tents!"[33] If Americans for some reason have to be away from home they stay at hotels, don't they? If they can't afford to do that they obviously aren't Americans. As they are not citizens of any other country either, it follows that they are stateless and therefore more or less without rights.

I don't doubt that racism is alive and well in the United States, but it does seem to me that what we are dealing with here is a combination of race and class prejudice in which the element of class is more important than people generally recognize. Prosperous and "respectable" blacks are not primary targets of this prejudice and may be carriers of it. Mayor Nagin is a case in point. As we have seen, he bears a heavy share of responsibility for the suffering of the Katrina victims, many of whom, misled by an exaggerated race consciousness and an underdeveloped class consciousness, had voted for him.[34]

The comparison with 9/11 is pertinent in this context. Many ordinary working people were killed or injured in the attack on the World Trade Center, but a substantial proportion of the victims were "important" people, more or less prominent members of the capitalist class. I believe that this was a crucial factor in producing such a serious and far-reaching government response. All the victims of Katrina were "unimportant" people, whose interests are never taken much into account.

What next?
The idea of moving New Orleans to a safer location has been indignantly rejected. The city is being restored in the same place as before, using super-exploited migrant labor. Many poor black New Orleanians now dispersed throughout the US lack the resources to return and rebuild their old homes. Some of the land thus vacated will be abandoned; some will be grabbed by property developers for new casinos and hotels.

Due to the political clout of those property developers as well as for budgetary and other reasons, effective flood control measures along the Gulf Coast are not to be expected. There will be new hurricanes, new disasters -- Hurricane Ray? Hurricane George? -- until New Orleans and Southern Louisiana are finally abandoned to the waves. Then everything will be repeated along the new coastal strip 20 miles or so to the north. Assuming business and politics as usual.

Or will a new voice make itself heard? A voice that will say: Enough is enough!

[1] I have drawn on three main sources:
(a) the scientifically informed analysis of Ivor van Heerden and Mike Bryan, The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina -- the Inside Story from One Louisiana Scientist (New York: Penguin, 2006);
(b) the account of Douglas Brinkley, The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast (New York: HarperCollins, 2006); and
(c) the collection of critical essays by social scientists at the Understanding Katrina website.
[2] This does not apply in full to the most powerful eruptions, which cause damage even at very great distances. Thus, the eruption of the island volcano of Krakatoa (present-day Indonesia) in 1883 set off giant waves that killed over 36,000 and spread dust worldwide, cooling the global atmosphere by 1.2 C. and harming harvests in subsequent years.
[3] The nuclear power plant at Medzamor in Armenia is one example.
[4] Dynes and Rodriguez, Understanding Katrina website.
[5] In addition, many New Orleanians had concluded (rightly or wrongly) from past experience that there was no need to take very seriously warnings not accompanied by a mandatory evacuation order.
[6] Brinkley, pp. 22-3.
[7] Van Heerden and Bryan, pp. 161-2.
[8] The same applies to other work undertaken by the US Army Corps of Engineers, notably dredging. See van Heerden and Bryan, pp. 159-60.
[9] Joseph Scanlon, Understanding Katrina website.
[10] Neil Smith, Understanding Katrina website.
[11] Van Heerden and Bryan, pp. 264-8.
[12] Wachtendorf and Kendra, Understanding Katrina website.
[13] On the situation inside FEMA see the analysis by Graham on the Understanding Katrina website.
[14] Understanding Katrina website.
[15] Even at the height of the disaster the e-mail messages of these political appointees were full of empty chatter and silly jokes. They were concerned to get home on time. See Brinkley and also Jasper, Understanding Katrina website.
[16] This is not, of course, a full discussion. Other factors are involved, such as the structure of the party system. The weakness of party structures leaves American politicians more vulnerable to the pressure of special interests.
[17] Van Heerden and Bryan.
[18] For example, in the week following Katrina the number of murders was average for the city (four). See van Heerden and Bryan, pp. 124-8. [19] Brinkley, p. 202; Understanding Katrina website, Kaufman. 
[20] G. Hansen and E. Condon, Denial of Disaster (San Francisco: Cameron and Co., 1989).
[21] Lukes, Understanding Katrina website.
[22] Kaufman, Understanding Katrina website. See also Dr. Greg Henderson in Counterpunch, 8/1/2005.
[23] Brinkley, p. 378.
[24] Brinkley, p. 278.
[25] Brinkley, pp. 514-5.
[26] Brinkley, p. 307. Entrepreneurial looters also operate in other devastated zones -- in Chechnya, for instance.
[27] Brinkley, pp. 601-602.
[28] Brinkley, pp. 7-8.
[29] A simple calculation demonstrates this. Three-quarters of the population did have cars and used them to get out. Therefore, even assuming that the average number of people in each car was 3 (the usual assumption is 2.5), those cars that were not fully loaded could easily have accommodated the quarter of the population without cars.
[30] The last train before the hurricane departed at 8.30 p.m. on Sunday night with many empty cars (Brinkley, p. 627).
[31] The relationship between class and racial discrimination is a complex matter. They are closely connected and may be fused together in such a way that it is very difficult to disentangle them.
[32] Kaufman, Understanding Katrina website. The local authorities for which these police officers worked gave retrospective approval for this action. The fear of poor city blacks, extending even to women with young children, pervaded the communities around New Orleans. They refused to admit evacuees, making it necessary to transport Katrina victims all over the country.
In floods that occurred in the days before the civil rights movement, the National Guard used to surround the disaster zone in order to prevent blacks fleeing (personal communication).
[33] Van Heerden and Bryan, pp. 65-6. See also the interview with Senator Obama on ABC's This Week quoted by Virginia Dominguez on the Understanding Katrina website.
[34] For further discussion, see Kristen Lavelle and Joe Feagin, "Hurricane Katrina: The Race and Class Debate," Monthly Review, Vol. 58 No. 3, July--August 2006, pp. 52-66. Other articles in this issue also deal with the complex interplay of race and class in American society.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Most Dangerous Song in The World - A Rewrite

From the September 2006 issue of the Industrial Worker, paper of the Industrial Workers of the World. This issue can be read as a PDF here. The author of the piece, Len Wallace, is a long term IWW member and well known radical musician.

The International (originally L'Internationale) is perhaps the most dangerous song in the world and just may be the most well known. Whistle or hum the tune in any country around the globe and eventually someone will recognize it.

It has become the anthem of all those seeking a fundamental change in society. Many have been jailed, even executed, for the mere singing of it. During the filming of the movie 'Dr. Zhivago,' cast members sang it on the movie site in Spain. The song had been banned by the fascist Franco regime. When the police heard the song in the distance they thought a rebellion was at hand, thinking it signalled the death of the fascist Generalissimo.

Debout! les damnes de la terre! Debout! les forcat de la faim!

With those forceful first words, Eugene Pottier, an elected member of the Paris Commune of 1870-71, member of the Federation of Artists and of the International Workingmen's Association wrote the poem that would soon become the international battle cry of the world's working class. They are words of condemnation against every injustice and the exploitation of capitalism.

The literal translation of those first two lines: Arise, you condemned of the earth! Arise, you imprisoned in hunger!

England's socialists translated these words as: Arise! ye starvelings from your slumbers; Arise! ye criminals of want.

In the United States the radical publishing company Charles Kerr Publishers gave us the following translation: Arise, ye prisoners of starvation! Arise, ye wretched of the earth!

For over one hundred years The International has been our song of continuing struggle, the call to the final battle, of radically remaking the world, and a song of hope. Workers have sung it at rallies, on picket lines, on the streets and barricades in times of revolution.

Interestingly, various competing factions of those considered "the Left" (anarchists, IWWs, Trotskyists, social democrats, Leninists) have endorsed their own versions, made known in the chorus.

The Charles Kerr version of the chorus read: 'Tis the final conflict; Let each stand in his place. The International Shall be the human race.

Note that at the time of the translation in the late 19th century, it calls for each to stand in "his" place, denoting the worker as male.

The "International" in the original song refers to the International Workingmen's Association (the so-called First International), which ended in bitter internal disputes. TheSecond International, dominated by the orthodox Marxism of the German Social Democratic Party was fractured by the First World War and disputed positions toward the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The Third International was dominated by the official Leninism of the USSR until it was officially dissolved. A Fourth International was proclaimed by the competing adherents of the Trotskyite movement and a current Socialist International exists as successor to the Second representing social democratic parties.

You can sometimes identify the various movements and factions competing for the allegiance of the working class by the words they sing to the last two lines of the chorus. The Industrial Workers of the World handed down two versions. In the 1923 edition of its Little Red Songbook, "Songs of the workers to fan the flames of discontent," the last lines read: "The International Union Shall be the human race".

 Later editions of the songbook noted a clearer reference to the concept of organising all workers in one monumental industrial union for industrial democracy: "The IndustrialUnion Shall be the human race."

I came across an old version sung by workers influenced by the Communist Partyof Canada circa 1934: "The International soviets Shall be the human race."

Trotskyites often sang the following words, denoting their acceptance of the supposedly vanguard role of a Leninist political party: "The International Party Shall be the human race."

In a version learned from the former Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (now Democratic Socialists of America), I was given this version: "The international working class Shall free the human race."

It's a rather good version, at least noting that a true International organization does not exist with the astute recognition that only the actions of the world's working class can indeed free the human race.

But even here there are slight differences. Some would sing, "The international working class shall free the human race" while others sang "The international working class shall be the human race." By merely changing "be" to "free" the entire meaning of the chorus is changed. It is one thing that workers worldwide fight for human emancipation, it is another thing to say that the working class will become the people. The latter denotes that everyone will, after the revolution, become working class - anathema to those who wish to abolish the working class and all classes.

Yet The International has remained apart of the history of the world's working class for over 130 years. Millions of workers have rallied to it and its singing has given them courage and hope. Ruling powers fear it, prohibit it and discourage it.

Sadly, just as those who consider themselves part of anti-capitalist Left have eschewed any notion of fundamentally breaking with capitalism through the "abolition of wage labour," they have forgotten the words to this song. Occasionally it is sung at May Day rallies (hummed by those who do not know its words, tangentially knowing that the song is somehow "revolutionary" and "important").

Many have criticised the lyrics of the song as outdated and stilted, reflecting a language of a past century. England's Billy Bragg rewrote a new version for that very reason. His chorus reads: So come brothers and sisters, For the struggle carries on, The internationale Unites the world in song, So comrades come rally, For this is the time and place, The international ideal, Unites the human race.

For many years I remained faithful to the original (with small changes) simply because it is a part of working-class fighting history. And I say shame to those who consider themselves revolutionaries who do not know the words. Songs and poetry are action. You cannot change the world if you are afraid to sing.

So, to this end, I offer a new version of the first verse that hopefully remains faithful to the message of Pottier's original (utilising in part the work of others). It is not there to replace the original, but to make all consider what we are fighting for:
"Arise you workers from all nations, For history has but one demand, The world youâve built by your own labour, Can be yours at your command."
The old ways now must be abandoned, So let us rise to Freedom's call, To raise this earth on new foundations, And fight to build a world for all.
"It's the final battle, Let each stand in place. The international working class, Shall free the human race."

Len Wallace

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Thirty-Five Billion (2006)

From the August 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

I've been toying with the figure $35 billion which I heard the other day - toying with it because I, like most folk I've spoken to about it since, couldn't grasp the sheer enormity of it. What did it actually represent?

So I decided to do my own in-home research using the New Internationalist World Guide latest edition's figures (UN statistics).

This is what I came up with: $35,000,000,000 is the equivalent of (GNI is gross national income):
1) 1 year's GNI of $35,000 for 1,000,000 people in USA
2) 1 year's GNI of $1,000 for 35,000,000 people in the Philippines
3) 1year's GNI of $480 for 70,000,000 people in India
4a) 1 year's GNI of $240 for 140,000,000 people in Mali or
4b) 10 year's GNI for total population of 14 million in Mali
5a) 1 year's GNI of $100 for 350,000,000 people in Ethiopia or
5b) 5 year's GNI for total population of 74 million in Ethiopia.

Now, if just one person owned all that wealth they'd have to put it somewhere safe, in some kind of bank or shares or whatever where it would be safe and accumulate, e.g. a 1 percent return over 1 year would produce $350,000,000 in interest; a 5 percent return $1,750,000,000; 10 percent $3,500,000,000 and so on assume compound interest kicking in and you'll have to do your own figures or find an expert; however, you get the picture.

Of course when you've managed to accrue enough after a few years to be able to give away the lion's share without noticing any difference at all in your own life style people will applaud you and say what a wonderful, altruistic person you are.

What would you choose to do with your fortune? Beat malaria? Wipe out the debt of several Highly Impoverished Nations? Bring clean water to some of the millions without? Fund schools or hospitals in perpetuity from your foundation's coffers? The possibilities are endless.

But, surely, one person wouldn't actually have so much money! How would one person acquire enough in the first place to be able to put money to work to accrue more money? Simple, just use other people, lots and lots of people, to do the work for less than it's worth to produce the goods on your behalf and pocket the difference.

The less you manage to pay your workers and the more you're able to sell your goods for to other workers, the better the profit you'll make, enabling you to be the one to choose how to improve life on the planet for the unfortunate masses.

How can it be, however intelligent, hardworking, honest and/or altruistic, that one person's 'gift' can be equal to the income of all the people of Ethiopia, men, women and children, for 5 years?

How can it be that one person should be able to choose how to affect (or not to affect) such a multitude of people, albeit in a positive way? How can it be that so many people have so little choice in their own lives? It's the system, my friends, the system that puts profit above all else - how else could it work?

The system that uses and abuses people all around the world, the system that can't work with full employment, universal healthcare and satisfied bellies, but must rely on chasing profit around the globe whatever the consequences for the planet and its inhabitants.

Imagine 1,000,000 US citizens giving up their whole year's income. Imagine the entire population of Mali having no income at all for 10 years. Imagine one man having that much spare cash. I don't doubt that you know which particular man I'm writing about - the second richest man in the world, Warren Buffet, who's decided to donate not $35 billion but $37 billion to the charitable foundation of the richest man (Bill Gates).

But what's $2,000,000,000? Well, 3 years GNI for the Maldives . . . Am I knocking Bill Gates, Warren Buffet et al? No, I'm knocking the system which allows, nay encourages, a small minority to exploit the vast majority in an unequal relationship.

The capitalist system cannot work with equal relationships. There have to be (a few) winners and (many) losers. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, the right to clean water, enough food, access to health care, a comfortable home, to raise one's children in a cooperative rather than a competitive society in a well-husbanded world environment in the knowledge that there is a sufficiency of all our basic needs and no good reason for anyone to go without.

This is the only fair system. If you're content with the status quo then carry on as before. However, if you've taken the time to read this far the chances are you're not content. If you're sick and tired of hearing the same old political fixes on offer and are looking for real answers then take a few more minutes to look at the only alternative. It could be the best thing you'll do this year.
Janet Surman

For more information on the revolutionary alternative to capitalism, please contact:
Socialist Party of Great Britain
World Socialist Party of the United States
Socialist Party of Canada

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Foreign Takeovers: a non-issue (2006)

From the August 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

A recent poll shows public opinion in Britain is becoming increasingly perturbed by the changing ownership of the companies that make up the British economy, but does it matter to workers who owns the company that exploits them?

The poll, conducted by Harris Interactive at the beginning of June, found that the acquisition of British companies by those based in other countries is causing major concern, with "more than two thirds of people saying it is now 'too easy' for overseas predators to acquire businesses here," (Financial Times, 19 June 2006) and urging government intervention.

The poll comes after 18 months of intense acquisition and take-over activity on the London Stock Exchange that reaped acash bonanza for the shareholders of a number of well-known companies and shows no sign of abating. The feverish activity has been fuelled, in large part, by foreign-based companies buying UK companies in deals that in the first 10 months of 2005 were worth 70 billion pounds - twice the value of such deals for the whole of 2004. In one week alone in November 2005, four potential deals involving P & O, Pilkington, O2 and Mowlem were reputedly worth £24 billion.

More recent events have aggravated the unease. The announcement that Peugeot was to close its Ryton car factory, destroying 2,300 jobs, was accompanied by persistent rumours that Gazprom, the Russian oil and gas company, is about to take over Centrica in a period of rising gas and electricity prices. The timing of the Harris poll also coincided with the finalisation of the Spanish company Ferrovial's bid for the British Airports Authority, which owns Heathrow, Gatwick and Stanstead airports, among others.

The reason behind all this is not difficult to discover. As noted in the [London] Observer on 6 November last year, "The reason for the activity is simple: five years of belt tightening following the technology boom has left UK plc in robust health. Returns on equity are higher than they have been for years and cash generation has been strong, leaving balance sheets healthy." Since profits in these companies have remained 'healthy' it is evident that it is the working class who have experienced the 'belt tightening' - foregoing improvements in living standards, motivated, one suspects, by the fear of losing their jobs. Growth in company profits in the last few years is not the outcome of a general increase in sales but a consequence of cost savings. All too often these savings are secured by holding down wages, intensifying working conditions and, where necessary, terminating jobs - the destruction of the livelihood of men and women with all the misery and dislocation this entails.

Behind the concern expressed in the survey is the misguided belief among working people that they have a stake in making sure that companies retain their British ownership. Many appear to hold the view that foreign companies cannot be trusted to maintain existing employment levels and have the unsubstantiated conviction that workers will enjoy greater job security when the ownership of their workplace resides with people born in the same country.

It is taken it for granted that those who own the factories, raw materials and land, and those who sell their labour power forwages and salaries within the same country, automatically share a 'common interest,' when the opposite is actually the case. Capitalism has divided the world into two irreconcilable but interdependent groups - the working class and the capitalist class. Despite the fact that the interests of these two classes are antagonistic, the relationship is also strangely symbiotic. The working class own no means of producing wealth and are dependent, through wages and salaries, on those who do, while the owners of the means of production are dependent on a subordinate working class to sustain their position of power and privilege.

The working class exchange labour power for money which allows them to gain limited access to the necessities of life. In this exchange the worker produces value greater than that of their own labour power. This value belongs to the capitalist. Calls for the 'right' to work, sometimes heard in times of economic depression, are therefore no more than a demand for the'right' to be exploited by anyone willing to offer employment. Arguments about 'fair wages' are simply abstractions that acknowledge the power of the capitalist class to dictate the condition of life over the subordinate working class. Society as presently organised cannot be operated in any other way and workers who never look beyond this truism fail to comprehend thatan alternative society that does not work against their interests can be established - but that society is not capitalism.

Production in capitalist society is geared strictly to the generation of profit - extracted from the working class when goods are produced and released when they are sold on the market to those who have the money to buy. Individual companies are dependent on generating and attracting capital to reinvest in order to continue operating.

Capital always chases profit, moving from less successful companies to those where profit expectation is higher, without regard to the effect on employment or human welfare. Capital does not discriminate between the relative merits of the products and makes no distinction between the production of bombs and the production of bandages as long as the risk is as low and the activity as profitable as possible.

Wage labour and capital are in constant conflict. The capitalist class is continuously seeking to reduce the workers' share of the social product to expand the accumulation of capital and has become an uncontrollable independent power without regard for human need, seeking out opportunities to grow anywhere and everywhere across the world. Globalisation is merely the newest name for a process that has been ongoing since capitalism was first established.

Capitalism is an intensely predatory economic system. In the competitive struggle for survival many companies may be driven from business by competitors, while others, attracted by rising profits or a desire to suppress competition will be taken over or merged with rivals. Employment is dependent upon generating profit, which means that the real function of the world's working class is not to make products or provide services but to generate and thenincrease these profits. Working people in every country are trapped in an economic system where they must sell - and there by relinquish control over - their physical or mental energies simply to earn money to buy the things that enable them to resume the same routine, week on week to the end of their working lives. This vicious circle will continue until capital is abolished and capitalism brought to an end.

The conclusion reached in the Harris poll is indicative of worker confusion - a misguided belief that it is somehow less painful to be exploited by the portion of the owning class based within these boundaries than by that based elsewhere. The cause of poverty and insecurity is not the threat of 'foreign' companies but the economic system that sustains the international class monopoly over wealth creation and draws strength by exploiting working people in every country. As long as capitalism is allowed to continue it makes little actual difference to the working class who owns their place of employment - they will remain expendable wage or salary earners.

For as long as workers are deceived into viewing the world from a 'national' perspective, they will fail to understand their condition in capitalism. The working class is deluded by nationalism. Such beliefs actively encourage people to co-operate with their 'national' exploiters operating within boundaries determined purely by historical accident. Nationalism conceals the real nature of capitalism, turns worker against worker and serves to impede working class solidarity. The world's working class have no reason to be antagonistic to other workers but must unite against their common class enemy: the world's capitalist class.
Steve Trott

Friday, August 4, 2006

Commodity Markets (2006)

The Cooking the Books column from the August 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

"1p and 2p pieces are now worth more on the commodities market than in the high street", reported the [London] Times on 12 May. Pre-1992 copper coins are 97 percent copper and, as the price of copper had reached a record high of $8,312 a tonne, they had, theoretically, come to be worth more than their face value. "Commodity prices yesterday", the report went on, "continued their bull run as traders bet that demand from fast-growing economies such as China would continue. Platinum, nickel, zinc and copper prices hit a new high".

Socialists, too, talk about "commodities". We say that capitalism is "the highest form of commodity production"; that workers' ability to work is today a mere "commodity", bought and sold on a market; that people's needs, and life generally, have become "commodified".

The meaning that the financial pages of the papers attach to the word is much more restricted. For them, it refers only to primary products, not just metals such as platinum, nickel, zinc and copper but also to oil and to agricultural produce such as coffee, sugar and wheat. These are indeed commodities in the Marxian sense in that they are items of wealth produced with a view to being bought and sold, but they are not the only things that are commodities.

In the Marxian sense, anything produced with a view to being sold is a commodity. Capitalism is the "highest form ofcommodity production" in that under it most items of wealth are produced as commodities. In addition, the human capacity to work, our mental and physical energies, take the form, as something bought and sold, of a commodity. In fact, this is what distinguishes capitalism from "simple commodity production", where this is not the case. Under capitalism anything, even if not originally produced to be sold, can, and increasingly does, take the form of a commodity, from honour, sex and influence to body parts and past works of art. There is a market for all these things. The tendency of capitalism is for everything to become "commodified".

But to return to the commodities of the financial pages, the [London] Times report was unusually frank in admitting that gambling is involved in "commodity markets". The primary products on sale on these markets have two types of price: a "spot" price, which is the price on the day, and a "futures" price, which is a price at which someone agrees to buy or sell the product at some set future date.

The economics textbooks say this is to allow the users of the product to plan ahead. This is true but you don't have to besomeone who actually wants copper or oil or wheat or whatever to intervene on a commodity market. When you buy something there is no physical transfer of the product but merely a change of ownership.

Gamblers can offer to buy a product in the future at a given price even though they don't want it, in effect betting that the spot price at that time will be higher. In which case they sell - transfer ownership - and walk away laughing with a bigger bank balance, while the product goes to someone who will use it to produce something.

It's nice to know that while millions are suffering from malnutrition there are others gambling on the future price of wheat.What a way to organise the production and distribution of the things humans needs to live and enjoy life.

Wednesday, August 2, 2006

For Whom The Bell Tolled (2006)

From the August 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

July saw commemorations for the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Civil war which lasted until 1939. Usually little heard of outside historian and left circles it remains a conflict shrouded in myth, heroism and controversy.

For most of the early 20th Century Spain had been in turmoil, the monarchy fell, in 1931 - and liberals and conservatives were still struggling over the future shape of society. Trade unions - heavily influenced by anarchism (especially in Catalonia and Barcelona) were more like paramilitary forces, fighting a pistolismo war with employers and the state who were brutally trying to suppress them into brutal poverty. The worker's movement was split, however, and there was a large Socialist Party (PSE, chiefly a Labour party of the traditional type) with its trade union federation the UGT, with the anarchists in the syndicalist CNT.

Some (these days, those with long memories) use the example of Spain as an incident in which the capitalists would turn to arms and civil war to stop a rising socialist movement, but this ignores several features of the events that lead up to the civil war.

Although often portrayed as a war to defend democracy from insurgent fascists, it is fair to say that political democracy did not command strong support from all sides of the political spectrum. Indeed, in 1934, Largo Caballero, the "Spanish Lenin", lead an abortive revolt with a general strike that was crushed in Madrid, and the miners in Asturias managed to take control of their whole region before being put down - a genuine uprising. This attempt at violent revolution terrified the professional and ruling class of Spain, and set the stage for later tensions. By February 1936 Caballero and the leadership of the Spanish Socialist Party were out of prison and instead part of the newly elected popular front government which won by the slimmest of majorities.

This front consisted of liberals, Basque and Catalan separatists, the PSE and the Communist Party. Although the working class parties were the larger, the liberals actually headed the government - something which was not conducive to stable rule. The PSE itself was not united, ranging from Fabian-like reformists through to die hard revolutionaries. So it is clear that there was not a solid considered demand for revolutionary change. The Asturias rising, had, frightened the horses, and the right began to plot their own uprising.

In the background to all of this, political assassinations and murders continued apace - with partisans of the right and the left at each others' throats. Churches were burned down, political offices wrecked, chaos was spreading throughout society. The sort of everyday politically motivated chaos we have seen so many times since - currently in Iraq, for example.

At the head of the rightwing were the Falangists, a genuinely radical fascist grouping determined to smash the socialists. They were joined by conservative Catholics (representing a large landowning interest), monarchists and the military. It would be the military, under General Francesco Franco, who would provide the main vehicle for the National Front's resistance.

On 18 July 1936 Franco issued a pronunciamento the traditional announcement that preceded Spain's many previous military coups. Unlike them, however, this was a call for a massive social struggle, and one that both sides had been waiting for. Carnage began immediately - radio officers shot their ship's captain rather than hand them over the order. The barracks in Barcelona was surrounded and eventually vanquished after bloody struggle - a national general strike was called.

There followed a savage war - with estimates of the number who died varying from three hundred thousand to a million. It was a thoroughly modern war of the people in arms - aided with zeal heroism and determination against the organised efficiency of a professional army. Although the advantage nominally lay with the loyalist Popular Front government forces (they had the money) they were deeply divided and Franco took the bulk of the army especially the experienced troops.

The "international community" reacted by imposing an arms embargo on both sides - the same sort of trick the Major government used to back the Serbs in their war in the former Yugoslavia. Despite this embargo, some of the great European powers saw this as a chance to flex their muscles. Mussolini's fascist government sent troops and armaments. The German Nazis sent the Condor Legion - and Spain quickly became a training yard for the new form of aerial warfare practised by the Luftwaffe. On the loyalist side aid was given by the Soviet Union through the auspices of its International Brigades - recruited by Communist Parties in various countries. Others, such as George Orwell, volunteered independently.

The international brigades to this day hold a place of honour for many in Britain, especially among the Labour Party some of whose members revere them as defenders of democracy and anti-fascists leading the way in a war that could have stopped fascism before the great slaughter of world war two. Many died, bravely; and their defence of Madrid reads like something from an epic poem. Their enthusiasm made them have a great impact on the war, but not enough to actually save political democracy in Spain.

What started as a local struggle quickly developed into an imperialist battleground, a proxy battle for the tussle between Germany and Russia. This aspect quickly overrode the local concerns - the communists were able to punch above their weight of support thanks to their gift of arms, and they quickly joined with government forces in suppressing the elements of social revolution and independence thrown up by anarchist groups throughout the country. Communist Party torture chambers were discovered after some of their strong holds fell.

This is the source of much of the political recriminations springing from that war. Trotskyists accuse the anarchists of failing to organise a vanguard party and seize power (which was, apparently offered them, much as Baldwin offered the reigns of government to a shocked TUC in 1926). Anarchists point to the role of the Stalinists in liquidating their advances, and point, with some justice, to their achievements. The Trotskyists accuse the Stalinists of selling out Spain in order to demonstrate to the capitalist powers that the USSR had no designs on spreading a world revolution.

In some areas revolutionary committees controlled all the major infrastructure and industry - money was replaced by varying types of voucher system (although in some places they simply instituted controlled prices and wages). Democracy ran throughout the anarchist columns, with democratically elected officers accountable to their troops. The ad hoc nature of these efforts - heroic and imaginative though they were - coupled with the fragmentation of Spain, the ongoing warfare and the continued existence of the market throughout the supply chain eventually meant that they were doomed to failure.

Eventually Franco triumphed, and went on to rule Spain until his death in 1975 - to that rare reward for dictators, death in office. His period of authoritarian rule, built on the back of smashing an independent workers' movement and suppressing the regionalist tendencies of the Basques and Catalans meant that a reasonable orderly transition to capitalist business as usual was possible.

The Spanish civil war has an immense ability for people to read their own interests and perspectives into it. It was a melange of heroism, imagination and daring do mixed with calculated cruelty, brutality, murder mayhem and brute stupidity. It is difficult to blame anarchists who took up arms to defend themselves and their unions from murderous bosses; but we can perhaps look to the rejection of political democracy that preceded the civil war and gave the armed authoritarians the support they needed to break cover and launch their assault.

It is vitally important today to remember that socialists must be the standard bearers of civilisation - the defenders of the political democracy and the peace that we will need to successfully manage the transition to production for use. Rubble doesnt make a good basis for building socialism.

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Anarchism and Marxism (2000)

Book Review from the August 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Anarchism, Marxism and the Future of the Left by Murray Bookchin. AK Press. 1999.

Murray Bookchin is on the same wavelength as us in that he, too, stands for a classless, stateless society of common ownership in which money becomes redundant and the principle "from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs" applies.

But the agreement does not stop there. He recommends Marx's analysis of how the capitalist economic system works ("As a study of the capitalist economy as a whole, it [Capital] has no equal today. Marx's economic studies are central to any socialist analysis",). In this book, largely a collection of interviews, he also argues that, although capitalism can offer the occasional palliative, it can never be reformed so as to work in the interest of the majority. And he defends rationalism, science and technology against the current wave of New Age mysticism and self-indulgent life-stylism (including fighting the police on demonstrations) that has infected the Green and anarchist movements. He opposes so-called "identity politics", seeing this as essentially seeking a better deal for women, gays and blacks within capitalism as well as being divisive.
So where do we disagree? As a boy Bookchin had been a member of the US Communist Party's youth section, then he became a Trotskyist. By the 1960s he had come to call himself an anarchist and wrote a series of influential articles that were later published as Post-Scarcity Anarchism. His main argument was that current scientific knowledge and technology had made it possible to establish more or less immediately a decentralised society which would not only eliminate material want but also allow the state and hierarchies to be dissolved and money to be abolished.

In one of the essays called "Listen Marxist!" he gave the vanguardists with their advocacy of "proletarian dictatorships" and "transitional states" a real trouncing in the same sort of way we do. Only he mistakenly attributed the source of their views to Marx, whereas the essay should have more accurately been called 'Listen Leninist!'. Interestingly enough, while still disagreeing with Marx (as over questions of history and the need to win control of the central state) he backtracks considerably in this book on his earlier criticisms.

The major disagreement between him and us is precisely over this last point of the need for the majority to win control of the central state in the course of establishing socialism. In classic anarchist fashion he opposes this on the grounds that, supposedly, it would lead to the perpetuation of the state under new management. He accepts that to win control of the state the majority would need a party but argues that any party must inevitably reflect the state.

He is on very weak ground here as, contrary to classical anarchism (indeed, some other anarchists regard him as not being an anarchist for this), he is in favour of those who want a decentralised, classless, stateless society participating in local elections. But this too involves organising as a party. But if such a party, operating at local level, can organise itself on democratic, non-hierarchical lines why can't a party contesting national elections do so?

Bookchin does in fact advocate co-operation between local "libertarian municipalist" parties, so why couldn't they constitute a federation based on the principles of delegated democracy to win control of central state power without becoming a statist party? And if they could, why not do it? Surely this would be a better strategy than working to win control of local councils in the hope that when a majority of them had been won "the nation-state's power would be sufficiently diminished that people would withdraw their support from it, and it would collapse like a house of cards"? Far better, if only to minimise the risk of violence, to organise also to win a majority in parliament too, not to form a government of course but to end capitalism and dismantle the state.
Adam Buick