Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Democracy as a Way of Life

From the September 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard

Unfortunately, democracy is one of those carelessly uttered words (like freedom, peace, love, justice etc.) that is constantly misused and prone to expedient adaptation. HL Mencken, for instance, mischievously declared: "Adultery is democracy applied to marriage." Politically, however, its misuse is contemptuously cynical and rarely funny, so it is especially important for socialists to be as precise as possible when explaining it. For us it is the heartbeat of every activity and has been so ever since the party was founded in 1904.

Perhaps the best conventional definition is to be found in Chambers: "A form of government in which supreme power is vested in the people collectively, and is administered by them or officers appointed by them." Replace the word government with society, or better still community a word without what the Austrian philosopher, Martin Buber described as "the attendant structural poverty of society" and, give or take a semantic quibble or two, it moves some way towards a basic definition that even socialists would find acceptable.

William Morris wrote very well about democracy and every place visited in his book about a future society (News From Nowhere) is veritably imbued with the democratic spirit. Points of view are exchanged in a charming, tough, frequently highly opinionated manner. Yet every discussion, as it should, displaying a deep and mutual regard for the right to differ. Here is a passage in which he explains the mechanism of democracy most beautifully:

- "Said I 'So you settle these differences, great and small, by the will of the majority, I suppose?'

- 'Certainly,'
said he; 'How else could we settle them? You see in matters which are merely personal which do not affect the welfare of the community how a man shall dress, what he shall eat and drink, what he shall write and read, and so forth there can be no difference of opinion, and everybody does as he pleases. But when the matter is of interest to the whole community, and the doing or not doing something affects everybody, the majority must have their way . . . in a society of men who are free and equal the apparent majority is the real majority, and the others, as I have hinted before, know too well to obstruct from mere pigheadedness; especially as they have had plenty of opportunity of putting forward their side of the question.'"

Morris was well aware that democracy could not be left to mature on its own like a good wine but needs to breathe out of the bottle, kept fresh by continual practice. This is something we endeavour to do in the Socialist Party but we cannot honestly claim that it is easy to get everything right. Since we assert that a stateless society is a viable proposition and recognise democracy as essential to its function, we are obliged to pursue it now to better understand its complexities and the difficulties that can arise. Unquestionably, even in the most enlightened community, because it would depend upon the co-operation of free (and potentially awkward) individuals, minorities would sometimes experience dissatisfaction and frustration. Giving rise to what most anarchists darkly refer to as "the tyranny of the majority". To deny the possibility, indeed, probably the likelihood of this problem, would be absurdly complacent and Socialists do not do so.

In a letter to Commonweal (the journal of the Socialist League) on 5 May 1889, Morris wryly observed: ". . . experience shows us that wherever a dozen thoughtful men shall meet together there will be twelve different opinions on any subject, which is not a dry matter of fact . . . and often on that too . . ."; an observation the accuracy of which may be swiftly confirmed whenever Socialists repair to the pub.

Anarchists, of course, might contend that in democracy the majority actually constitutes authority and Morris concedes that, for all it is worth, it might be so defined. But when free, uncoerced human beings voluntarily enter into a process where inclusive, open and (if necessary) prolonged debate concludes with a majority decision to describe it as authoritative is the logic of the absurd. To call it tyranny, a word redolent with connotations of oppression and cruelty, makes a mockery of language. Later, in the same letter, a dagger thrust is delivered: "For if freedom means the assertion of the advisability or possibility of an individual man doing what he pleases in all circumstances, this is an absolute negation of society . . ."

Morris readily acknowledges that a number of anarchists might well add a qualification: that in pursuing their own freedom they would feel obliged to consider the effect of their actions upon the freedom of others. Such an acknowledgement clearly recognises that it is not sufficient to regard democracy as a purely administrative, decision making, regulatory mechanism. Crucially, its very essence of principled and graceful conciliation needs to pervade the everyday interaction between members of any community aspiring to live co-operatively. One day, perhaps, it may no longer be considered necessary to use any. One day, perhaps, it may no longer be considered important to use any particular word to describe such eminently reasonable behaviour.

In another splendidly succinct passage in News From Nowhere, Morris explains that leaders have no role in a democratic society: ". . . a man no more needs an elaborate system of government, with its army, navy and police, to force him to give way to the will of his equals, that he wants a similar machinery to make him understand that his head and a stone wall cannot occupy the same space at the same moment." Sadly, the idea that homo sapiens might co-exist harmoniously, without any kind of government or leaders not to be confused with the essential administration of things is dismissed by most people as impossible.

When Socialists speak of a community based upon co-operation, of free access, of democratic administration but the absence of government; a society where the fundamental needs of every human being could be met; often the listener will nod sagely and sigh: "Yes, that would be very nice but it's impossible it's against human nature." Yet such an exchange though seemingly fruitless is frequently redeemed when, oddly enough, the sage immediately excludes himself from this gloomy conclusion, protesting: "It's not me, it's the other people who would fail."

A famous piece of graffiti states "Democracy is too good to share with just anybody." It makes us smile but makes a sinister assumption which is all to prevalent an elitist assumption that most human beings are congenitally incapable of becoming free enough to co-exist without coercion. That only a select few will ever be able to develop their potential to the required level. This pernicious notion has been carefully nurtured by all those who control the system, whatever name they choose to call themselves. For capitalist 'democracy' depends on containing that potential.

In order to do so they rigorously maintain a callous, exploitative and hierarchical system based on domination and privilege. By means of increasing propaganda and economic control, the self-belief of most of the population is seriously undermined. Reluctant to assert themselves, the subservient majority seek security through conformity, mistakenly assuming that they lack the power to change things. An unhealthy situation largely accepted not only as 'normal' but also immutable and inducing a condition of political acquiescence; for which the ruling powers are extremely grateful.

Since the only possible basis for creating an enduring, truly democratic, community is through the conscious choice of strong, independent, politically aware individuals, it might seem to be, at best, a distant prospect; but it need not be. Thankfully, though, the shared capacity of human beings to develop their conscious potential may become dormant but it can never be eradicated. Our present predicament was perfectly expressed by Thoreau, who wrote: "millions are awake . . . but only one in a million is awake enough . . . We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake . . . by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep."

Like all Socialists Morris was confident that this reawakening was within our grasp, once the last great illusion of our powerlessness had been overcome. In his lecture The Society of the Future, he said: "Therefore my ideal of the society of the future is first of all freedom . . ., the shaking off the slavish dependence, not on other men, but on artificial systems . . ." And later: "First you must be free, and next you must learn to take pleasure in all details of life; which, indeed, will be necessary for you, because, since others will be free you will have to do your own work."

One of the most pernicious untruths ever perpetrated is that there is some kind of unbridgeable chasm between independence and co-operation. Socialists are right to emphasise the significant determining factors of our social and political environment but also to reject the discredited notion of absolute determinism. Democracy, far from being an impossible concept, is something unconsciously we frequently exercise. In the relationship we have with our families, friends and colleagues; in the common courtesies we regularly show to one another; in the underlying decency of the behaviour of most human beings. A concept far more practical and sensible than the lunatic world of market manipulation and state control that presently masquerades as reality.

Socialism and democracy are complementary; more than complementary indivisible. In the sense that a democratic society can only result from free, conscious choice, it is a by-product of freedom. But in both a social and a political context freedom can only exist as a by-product of democracy. Whichever way round it is will not matter, when it is thriving in that community yet to be established, where though it still rains, we still quarrel and new problems confront us every day we have learned to accept that, just occasionally, we may be wrong but rejoice in the fact that tomorrow we retain the incontrovertible right to be wrong again.

Richard Headicar

Are Gypsies The Problem? (2005)

From the October 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

When a 'land for sale by auction' notice appeared at the end of a cul-de-sac in Billericay, Essex, the reaction was swift and well organised. A letter expressing concern that the land might be bought and occupied by members of the travelling community with a detrimental effect on the value of their properties was immediately prepared by two residents and delivered to 180 houses in the vicinity. Within days a meeting was held and a limited company set up with some 45 neighbours contributing to the eventual purchase price of £75,000. The land purchased is part of a 'field', thickly overgrown mainly with hawthorns, most of which is owned by a property company in the anticipation that its green-belt status will some time be changed.

Whether or not the fears of residents in this instance were well founded, the near impossibility of finding legal stopping places means that Gypsies and Travellers have been forced into confrontational situations with local authorities and with members of the settled community in the areas where they are encamped.

It is estimated that in England there are between 4,000 and 5,000 vans and from 16,000 to 20,000 Travellers and Gypsies either in transit or without a legal place to stay (Environmental Health Journal, April 2005, online). The shortage of sites means that Travellers are forced to move on, to the detriment of their health and their children's education. It also means that many more than were intended are stopping on legal sites. This for example is the situation at Crays Hill in Basildon, also in Essex, where there are some 30 legal plots on a site but more than sixty are occupied illegally. Similar situations can be found in various parts of the country.

The plight of Gypsies and Travellers is not a popular cause. In 1973 Jeremy Sandford wrote in his book Gypsies of the situation for Gypsies who had always been vulnerable to attack from those who "perhaps from envy of their free and easy ways" want to drive them from "our hedgerows, commons and public places" but were now faced with legislation which effectively outlawed their way of life. He also stated in his conclusion that at the present rate of progress "it may well be into the 2000s' before there was a place on a site for every British gypsy". However far from there being progress the situation has become much worse.

The 1960 Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act had "forced families to move off agricultural land onto lay-bys and car parks." A government survey revealed the extent of traveller poverty: more than two thirds were living on sites without access to running water or rubbish disposal (Helen O'Nions, The Marginalisation of Gypsies, 1995). The 1968 Caravan Sites Act had the prime purpose of remedying this situation. Local Authorities were mandated to provide "adequate accommodation for Gypsies residing in or resorting to their area". However, the sites that were provided by councils were not necessarily to the liking of Gypsies in that they made insufficient allowance for their lifestyle. For example the collecting of scrap metal and keeping of animals could be forbidden, and there would not be room for the gathering together of extended family groups. Councils had additional powers to remove Gypsies not on designated sites. The Act did not work as intended, not least because councils found ways around the duty to provide sites. By the time the Conservative government removed the statutory obligations in 1994 one third of Travellers had no legal place to stay. During the Thatcher era thousands of traditional stopping places disappeared.

In what is seen as an attempt to make Gypsies abandon the nomadic way of life the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 ended the duty for local authorities to provide sites and removed government funding for them. It also became a criminal offence for caravans to stop on the highway, unoccupied land, common land or land without consent. Gypsies were encouraged to buy land and develop their own sites, but because of the restrictive criteria set by councils some 80 per cent of these applications are turned down. This is why some have resorted to buying and moving on to land before seeking planning permission. The position whereby green-belt land could be considered for Gypsy sites ("a recognition of the difficulty of finding suitable sites in suburbia") was ended on the grounds that "Gypsies enjoy a privileged position in the planning system". Ironically councils were given encouragement to allow building and development on green-belt sites.

The Labour government has resumed the funding of sites and has increased the amount it intends to spend on them. However it has not put the responsibilities of councils back to the pre-1994 position. The Housing Act 2004 placed a duty on local authorities to include Gypsies and Travellers in their local housing assessments and "demonstrate how these needs will be met", with the Secretary of State having powers to direct a local authority to produce a plan. Brentwood is the first council to be challenged in this way. If the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is successful in getting Brentwood to comply it will encourage other councils "to get on with the job". Many councils do not need encouragement; the Environmental Health Journal cites the example of Norfolk, whose Traveller Liaison Group has already produced a Traveller protocol and has five authorised sites and is planning a transit site.

Basildon council has 106 authorised sites but still does not have enough places for all of the Travellers who wish to stop in the district. Wakefield claims to have one of the largest authorised Traveller sites in the country and is the first council to announce plans to apply Anti-Social Behaviour Orders to particular illegal encampments. These require a lower standard of proof than normal court proceedings but the Gypsy Council is advising Gypsies to challenge the orders through the courts.

In some instances local people protesting about illegal traveller sites are also sympathetic to the plight of Gypsies and Travellers; for example, the Cottenham Residents' Association and the Gypsy and Traveller Law Reform Coalition forwarded a joint statement to the Government pointing out that the provision of adequate sites by all local authorities would address the acute shortage of sites and also bring an end to illegal and unauthorised encampments.

Whilst emphasis is put on the problems caused by illegal sites and the excess numbers who are stopping on authorised sites, the widespread perception is of Gypsies and Travellers as people who live outside of the constraints which the settled community are bound by, who do not contribute in work or taxes but commit crime, spoil the environment with their rubbish and generally cause trouble by their very presence in an area.

Gypsies and Travellers are much like other people; most of them do work, though not necessarily in full-time wage labour, and they do pay taxes. A study for the Rowntree Foundation among New Age travellers found that nearly half of those surveyed were in work and many more had worked at some time during the year. Most of the accusations regarding criminal behaviour are unsubstantiated but as in the rest of society some commit crimes. Ironically many thousands of Gorjios (non-Gypsies) choose to take caravan and camping holidays, and cook meals in their gardens; some dump their old sofas and other rubbish in country lanes.

Gypsies have maintained their identity through many centuries of prejudice and discrimination. They may choose to call themselves Travellers but not all Travellers are Gypsies and not all Gypsies are of a single group. Changes in their lifestyle have inevitably been made. The most obvious being the disappearance of horse-drawn caravans which had earlier replaced bender tents. We have shown some of the things which have made the itinerant life more difficult over recent years including legal restrictions, the disappearance of traditional stopping sites (some after hundreds of years in use), constantly being moved on. Other factors are the reduction in casual farm work, and restrictions imposed on scrap metal dealing.

I live in that cul-de-sac in Billericay but as a Socialist did not take part in the anti-Traveller action of the others. That would be to target a group of fellow workers for problems caused by capitalism. Could the reasonable enough demands of the Travellers be met within capitalism? Possibly. It may be that local authorities will be persuaded to fulfil their obligations but, since they are faced with competing demands on their finances, probably at the expense of other local services. But what will never be able to be ended under capitalism is the competition between workers for jobs, housing and amenities arising out of the artificial scarcity that is built-in to it and which gives rise to and sustains divisive prejudices amongst those who are not socialists. It was precisely because there are so many problems which cannot be solved within the capitalist system that I became a Socialist.
Pat Deutz

The Rise and Fall of the NHS (2005)

From the April 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

The National Health Service is trumpeted as the finest achievement of the Labour Party throughout its entire history. For years Labour supporters when tackled on the non-socialist and pro-capitalist nature of the Labour Party would reply with the one riposte, 'Ah, but what about the NHS?' Regarded by many Labour supporters as a socialist measure and holding out a promise of solving one of the most distressing problems of being a worker, being looked after when you were ill, it is hardly surprising that it was seen as a huge step forward in working class emancipation. One reform out of the multitude of reforms put into practice by a reformist party has survived — has it worked?

What did the NHS claim to do at its inception? Its chief architect Aneurin Bevan was very sure of his aims: it was to be an institution which would take care of all the medical needs of the working class for evermore and, hold your breath, without charge. However expensive the treatment might be medical attention could be obtained for all. For free! But it left a question hanging in the air, why was it only the working class who needed this ambitious solution? There was no problem for the capitalist class, who didn't need a health service. They could obtain all that was available from existing medical services by paying for it.

However, in the context of the time and given the pro capitalist inclinations of the Labour Party it was a bold, even visionary solution to the poor state of health of the mass of the working class after a long period of economic depression followed by six years of war. A situation, that had already been a serious cause of concern for government before the war. (Though in some respects the wartime diet plus the fact that unemployment had virtually ended for the duration had improved health standards). The NHS plan struck an immediate chord with the mass of the working class who saw in it a promise for massive changes for the better in the post-war period. Carried away by the prospect of free teeth and glasses for all, the NHS helped to allay the grim years of rationing and shortages and helped to secure a second term for the Labour Government.

Bevan is usually given sole credit for the NHS, but the real picture is slightly different. Like its companion, the Beveridge scheme for social security, it was implemented by the Labour Party but had the support of other parties, who generally recognised that some form of welfare was badly needed. So the NHS did not spring from nothing, as with the big bang theory of the Universe.
There had been health provision for the working class before the war that was free of charge, but it had been very haphazard, with some areas over supplied and others very badly neglected. Also it relied upon charity. It was not there by right and most people saw a big difference. Bevan promoted a scheme that would abolish the stigma and unpredictability of charity and was comprehensive and open to all. And he had to fight for it, even against opposition within his own party, and from the British Medical Association, who saw a threat to their own power within a government run scheme. But once the scheme had been publicised there was no going back.

Yet those were minor obstacles compared to a force that neither Bevan nor the Labour Party has ever properly understood, the forces of capitalist economics.

Money problems
The NHS had to be paid for, and the money had to come from the capitalist class. Ever since its inception the history of the NHS has been a story of trying to provide adequate funding. Every government has looked for ways to find the money and cut the costs, and every government has failed. The original set-up has been modified, tinkered with or altered repeatedly, all, we are told in the interests of efficiency. And every government produces a fresh plan with a fanfare of trumpets that promises to solve all problems. Bevan initiated a reform that would prove to be one of the biggest headaches of all time for his own party or for any party trying to run capitalism, including Margaret Thatcher, who thought she had the magic formula to solve all problems, privatisation, but ended up by spending as much as anyone.

In truth there are many factors within capitalism which augur badly for the NHS. Although the trend for well-established capitalist countries is to gravitate from a production economy to a service economy, this can have problems. Manufactured goods, once they are into full mass production generally go down in price, notwithstanding inflation because they embody less labour.
But not all wealth can be mass-produced. Many jobs that require intensive labour-power cannot be made more productive by technology. But wages paid have to come into line with those of production workers where fewer workers still produce as much or more. This is why it is so expensive to have such things as electrical or building work done. Nursing comes into this category: you can't replace a nurse by a machine (although they do their best). So, if there are going to be enough nurses to run a health service the total cost of nursing care has to go up. In addition to which, nurses have to be trained to manage the increasing technical demands of modern health care.

The government try to overcome this problem by the well-used tactic of recruiting from countries with lower wages, such as the West Indies, South Africa and Poland. Another tried and tested solution favoured by employers is that of up-grading, i.e. allowing some tasks to be undertaken by those not previously regarded as having the necessary skills; for example, encouraging nurses to undertake minor surgery, thus relieving some pressure on doctors.

But this is minor, compared to the increasing costs of drug treatment, which have risen to astronomical proportions since the NHS was founded. When Bevan dreamed up his panacea for the working class of Britain, which was going to be the envy of the world, the practice of medicine was not as advanced as it is today. Drug treatment, as we know it today, apart from the heavy reliance on aspirin and the wartime use of penicillin, was unknown. Modern medical science was more or less born during the Second World War and it has made giant strides since, especially with regard to costs. Developing a modern medical drug can cost millions of pounds. And, as every reader of any newspaper must have noticed, new, 'wonder drugs' are launched with astonishing frequency, generally leading newspaper articles somewhere asking indignantly, "Why cannot this life saving drug be made available to anyone who needs it?" The pressures on the NHS are relentless, all of them making for increasing costs.

Population trends are swelling the numbers of old in relation to the young, and as we all know older people tend to have more illnesses, and their illnesses are more likely to take the form of expensive operations such as hip replacements. All these items are creating big problems for the NHS. and resulting in intensive press coverage, most of it highly critical, especially when it comes to waiting lists. It must be pointed out that this does not just apply to the NHS. Other capitalist institutions, paid for out of taxation levied upon the wealthy, are being cut, notably the armed forces, the police force and the fire service. And private (more or less) firms, which cannot apply technology to reduce costs (read, manpower), like the post office, are cutting the numbers of branches. So, what does the future hold for the NHS and its equivalents in other capitalist countries?

As the longest running institution of its kind the NHS is probably the creakiest in Europe, but there is nothing special about British capitalism that makes it more likely than any other to undergo decline. Most European countries are already showing signs of strain in funding their welfare systems and what applies to the UK must inevitably follow with them.

The conclusion must be that to fulfil the professed aims of Bevan for a health service that would cover the needs of the working class was never more than a pipe dream. No government will dare to upset their masters to the extent necessary to maintain a decent health service. The most likely prognosis is that it will carry on much as now with an increasing bias towards private hospitals and treatment that is paid for at the point of consumption. In fact it never lived up to its hype from the beginning; within months charges were being introduced for dental and optical services. There is no such thing as an adequate health service within a capitalist system of society and there never can be. It seems the current trend is to go back to something similar to pre NHS. and have a two tier system where what you get will be what you pay for. The rise in private hospitals and health insurance is a potent symbol of this trend.

No doubt most workers will conclude that any deficiencies in the NHS can be put right by a change of government and that it lies within the power of the political process to achieve a viable health system. This is a fallacy. The money system we live under is inherently biased towards satisfying the demands of a minority ruling class who are only concerned with having a working class fit enough to go to work and fight their wars for them. Capitalism can never be run in the interests of the majority and in any case will always throw up new problems of ill health as it progresses. The rickets and tuberculosis of the Victorians are being replaced by more sophisticated illnesses such as heart failure, stress and obesity of a more modern age, not to mention AIDS.

In a socialist society where the capacity for wealth production, unhampered by the colossal waste endemic to this one, can be released to the full, human values will predominate and energy can be concentrated on the causes of disease and its prevention. Issues such as the need for pharmaceuticals to make billions of pounds in profit will not exist. The NHS has managed to carry on so far as a more or less viable service largely due to the dedication and hard work of its members but this cannot last forever.
Cyril Evans