Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Death penalty: state-sanctioned murder (2007)

From the March 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

The bungled execution of Saddam Hussein has raised this issue again. But executions in the US are no better.

It was while looking for background information on Stanley "Tookie" Williams, the Californian death row inmate executed in December 2005, that I discovered what Karl Hammond actually looked like, via the Texas Dept. of Corrections website. What a weird feeling! Until that moment the only thing I knew about his physical appearance was that he was black. You'll not have heard of Karl Hammond, but I came in contact with him back in the late 1980s when he was awaiting execution in Huntsville, Texas for the murder of an FBI secretary.

For six years I wrote to Karl, as often as possible, and managed to send him regular $25 money orders (sometimes a bit of an effort, as I was unemployed) to allow him to buy the day-to-day things you and I take for granted (toothpaste, soap, coffee, stamps, etc). And Karl always wrote back. He wrote long letters, his handwriting impeccable, his language fused with Texan inmate jargon. He wrote about his past life, about prison, about its dehumanising conditions, the callous and indifferent prison guards and the inmate fights they would initiate for their own amusement, the total lack of privacy, and his fears, but never about the crime that led him to death row. And I never asked about it. As far as I was concerned it was irrelevant. I was just totally against state sanctioned murder.

Early in the morning of 21 June 1995, I received a phone call. It was from one of his supporters - I had spoken to her before and she had a beautiful telephone voice. She told me that minutes earlier Karl had been executed by lethal injection. I honestly did not know how to reply. I had contacted so many human rights bodies, lawyers, governors and the like in the US regarding his execution date that I was sure he would get a stay at the very least. I really felt as if I had let Karl down. Undoubtedly many people involved with Tookie Williams felt the same that cold December morning.

Tookie's case was a bit different from Karl's, not that this implies he should have had more of a right to live, but Tookie was something of a celebrity among death row inmates and the anti-death penalty campaign. He was a one-time leader of the notorious Crips street gang. Whilst in prison he had penned nine books warning children and teenagers about the dangers of joining street gangs. He'd been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times and also for the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1993, he videotaped a message at San Quentin that was shown to 400 gang members, and he helped negotiate a truce between the rival Crips and Bloods gangs during the first-ever gang summit in Los Angeles. He had also written a "peace protocol" to help warring gangs work out their differences. He had undoubtedly prevented many a gang death and put many a would-be hood on the proverbial straight and narrow.

Were this not enough to make Governor Schwarzenegger re-think executing him, there was the fact that Tookie had spent 24 years awaiting execution. Twenty four years! If his crimes had been committed in Britain or anywhere else in Europe, I'm sure he would have been eligible for parole after that spell behind bars. Doesn't the Eighth Amendment to the US constitution refer to cruel and unusual punishment? Is 24 years in a prison cell, awaiting state execution, not cruel and bloody-well unusual?

Sadly, in the USA, the death penalty issue can be a popular vote winner and it seems that the Terminator was looking to up his ratings by ignoring pleas for clemency. Certainly Schwarzenegger was in trouble in the opinion polls, more so having appointed a Democrat as his chief-of-staff, so this execution was just another act of political expediency. Yeah, a sick trick indeed - George (Dubya) Bush actually got where he is today by signing the death warrants for 152 Texas inmates, my old friend Karl Hammond included.

Died in agony
The case of Tookie Williams has resurfaced in recent weeks. For, like Angel Nieves Diaz, a Puerto Rican, executed on 13 December last year. It turns out that Williams also took a long time to die - thirty-five minutes - and in agony.

With news spreading fast that Diaz's was another bungled execution, Governor Jeb Bush, brother of Dubya, announced he was suspending capital punishment in Florida. That same day, U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel put the breaks on the Californian state murder machine, insisting that death by lethal injection violated the U.S. Constitution's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Maryland followed suit within a week and also shut down its execution chamber, not because state authorities recognised lethal injection is "cruel and unusual," but ostensibly because the method of execution (lethal injection again) had never been the focus of investigation where the views of the wider public are considered.

The Death Penalty Information Centre, reports that 2007 began with 10 states putting executions on the back burner - 25 percent of states that sanction the death penalty - and in almost every case it is the lethal injection method that is the centre of debate. Diaz, like Williams, and many others before him, was supposed to die painlessly and quickly - or so the defenders of the lethal injection method believed, and as if this made state murder more acceptable. However, one of the three chemicals in the lethal injection process didn't enter his veins, and instead dispersed into the tissue of his arms, leaving 12-inch long chemical burns. Almost twenty-five minutes after the first of the three chemicals were injected, Diaz was still moving, contorting, blinking and apparently mouthing words. It was then that prison officials stepped forward to administer a second dose of the deadly concoction. How kind of them.

Tookie had taken longer to die and prison officials had not considered his massive 250lb muscular frame, injecting him with the same dose a man half his size would have received. Barbara Becnel, Tookie's advocate, and who had co-written several of his books on gangs, was at his execution. Speaking at an anti-death penalty convention in Chicago in November, she described the last minutes of his life:
"His feet and part of his body started contorting and distorting . . . could see he was in trouble . . . [he] died a horrible, excruciatingly painful death, where he not only woke up to the horror of his lungs paralyzed, so he was being slowly smothered to death, but the drug that makes your heart stop makes your veins feel like they're on fire at the same time as it causes a massive heart attack, so it's as if someone picked up a Mack truck and put it on your chest."

Execution by lethal injection followed the reintroduction of the death penalty in the USA in 1976, being the brainchild of a medical examiner with no knowledge of anaesthetics or pharmacology and without having undertaken any prior research. Regardless of this the lethal injection method of state murder became the preferred choice in all but one state that executes capital offenders.

Bursts of three chemicals are used to kill the prisoner. The first is a sedative, the second a paralysing, muscle-relaxing drug and the third causes a heart attack. Evidence revealed in an investigation last September shows that lethal injection is anything but the humane medical procedure its advocates profess. Witnesses to the last six executions in San Quentin claim it is likely the inmates suffered excruciating deaths. It was further revealed that the second, paralyzing drug in the lethal injection procedure is actually administered to conceal any outward visible signs of pain, observers believing the inmate is calm and quiet, when they could be inwardly screaming in agony, unable to move a muscle or cry out. Indeed, animals are put to death in a more humane way. Human Rights Watch have noted that animals fare better when being "put to sleep", with 30 US states banning the use of neuromuscular blocking agents like pancuronium bromide in animal euthanasia, lest the animal suffer undetected pain.

Racist and class-biased
Many point to the dissolute nature of the death penalty, to how it degenerates civilised society. It is all of this indeed, but, morality aside, state execution has always been racist and class-biased in the US. More than half of the 4,000 executed since 1930 have been black - some five times the proportion of African-Americans in the US population as a whole. Forty-two percent of all back men on death row are black, even though they make up some 6 percent of people living in the U.S. Almost 85 percent of those executed since 1972 have been convicted of killing whites. In that same period only one person has been executed for killing an African-American. In the history of executions in the USA, of 18,000 executions carried out, only 18 have involved a white person killing a black person.

Not so long ago, the US General Accountancy Office (GAO), the alleged non-partisan audit, evaluation, and investigative arm of Congress, put out a report addressing the racism endemic in capital cases. It stated:
"Our synthesis of the 28 studies shows a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing and imposition of the death penalty . . . In 82 percent of the studies, race of victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty", and "those who murdered whites were found to be more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks."

The death penalty rarely targets the rich and never the company directors knowingly responsible for corporate manslaughter. If you are wealthy, then you can afford the best legal representation money can buy. William A Schabas, in his book The Death Penalty As Cruel Treatment and Torture (1996), looks at the class dimension of capital cases. He writes:
"A majority of capital defendants are indigent, and they are normally represented by state-appointed counsel, since the professional fees paid are insufficient to attract experienced lawyers. At best, the accused is defended by an eager, well-meaning, but inexperienced advocate. At worst, counsel are lazy or incompetent or both."

In a system in which money tips the scales in favour of justice, the poor are clearly at a disadvantage. Presently, 90 per cent of death row inmates could not afford their own trial lawyers.

No doubt right now US government officials will be working on an execution protocol that removes the likelihood of prisoners dying agonising death. This however does not distract one iota from the fact that state sanctioned murder is barbaric and sickening. Changing the damned method of execution is not the solution - only the abolition of the death penalty would be.

However, while we, as socialists, would dearly welcome the abolition of the death penalty, for us, as a revolutionary party, it is a single issue amongst thousands of others, many equally deserving. We have no intention of appearing churlish, but whilst only a few dozen have been executed in the US in the past year, some 40,000 children die of hunger and its related illnesses every single day. Up to 655,000 people may have been killed in Iraq since the US-led invasion. And daily, thousands more suffer fatality through corporate manslaughter and bureaucratic negligence in every area of our society. The working class is murdered and battered and robbed and dehumanised every day.

Yes, we loathe the death penalty, as much as we detest every other injustice perpetrated against our class, but we locate the problem in a class war that is waged daily against us. Our duty is to respond by urging our class to end capitalism and, in so doing, finally eliminating all the social problems that presently plague us; forever changing a society that sees it poorer and more desperate members killing one another and thus ending up victims themselves at the hands of the capitalist state's killing machine.
John Bissett

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Suffer the little children (under Blair)

Latest post from the SPGB blog, Socialism Or Your Money Back

Commencing a letter to Labour Party Prime Minister Harold Wilson on 22nd December 1965, AF Philip, Chairman of the newly formed Child Poverty Action Group wrote:
"There is evidence that at least half a million children in this country are in homes where there is hardship due to poverty."

He ended his plea on behalf of Britain's deprived minors thus:
"We earnestly beg you to see that steps are taken at the earliest possible moment to help these families."

So confident that child poverty would be quickly eradicated by the amazing magical wand that Wilson often wielded, Labour suggested the CPAG would be obsolete within a year, the problem it was set up to help sort a thing of the past.

Forty-two years later the CPAG is still in existence and child poverty is still with us, despite 10 years of Labour reforms.

In the past week the United Nations has reported that children growing up in the United Kingdom suffer higher deprivation, poorer relationships with their parents and are exposed to more risks from alcohol, drugs and unsafe sex than those in any other wealthy country in the world. The report compiled by Unicef says that the UK is bottom of the league of 21 economically advanced countries, trailing the United States which comes second to last.

Over 16% of children now live below the official poverty line. Way to go, Blair. Forty two years after a Labour government promised to eradicate poverty it is as high as ever.

Replying to a letter from the CPAG on 20th January 2006, Tony Blair confidently wrote:
"I can promise you that we share your ambition to make child poverty history in our country. It is why we have publicly said we want to halve child poverty by 2010 and eradicate it completely by 2020."

What is nauseating about this is that Blair is telling the CPAG, who in 1965 complained that there were officially half a million children in poverty, that by 2010 he will halve child poverty - ie. slash the number of impoverished children from 3.4 million to 1.7 million. So 45 years after Labour said they would end child poverty the best they can offer is to set a figure which is thrice the 1965 figure as a bloody victory!!

Rather than distributing wealth and claiming to have as its priority the lifting children out of poverty and improving their education and prospects, Labour in facts redistributes poverty like no other government in the industrialised world. Of course, come election time, Blair and co will continue to depend on working class historical amnesia to carry them through to a fourth victory, confident their lies and betrayals and rampant hypocrisy will be concealed by surfeit of promises for the future and pathetic excuses for past failings.

Incidentally, if you do suffer from political amnesia, try clicking on this remedy: LABOUR SLEAZE
John Bissett

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Refusnikism (2007)

DVD Review of Sir! No Sir! from the forthcoming March 2007 Socialist Standard

David Zeigler's documentary Sir! No Sir! looks back on the movement within the military to end the Vietnam War, interviewing a wide range of soldiers who participated in the anti-war movement while in uniform or after returning from Vietnam This important history was subsequently forgotten, or more precisely, buried under an onslaught of myths created by the US ruling class.

The revised, Government-approved version of events is symbolized by the image of a shaggy hippy (usually a woman) spitting on a GI who has just stepped off a plane returning from Vietnam, and then calling him a baby killer. Never mind the fact, as the author of the book Spitting Image points out in the film, that this is a complete and utter fiction. But it is an effective lie, which sets the student and "middle-class" protestors on one side, and the hard-hat workers and working class soldiers who supposedly supported the war, on the other.

Back in reality, the film shows how opposition to the war within the military gradually emerges, first as isolated acts of individuals morally opposed to the war. At this early point there is no movement to speak of and the anti-war soldiers are often astounded to discover that many other soldiers support their stance against the war. As the GI-led anti-war movement grows, "underground" newspapers begin appearing on military bases, written and produced by radical soldiers, and the officers' heavy-handed crackdown on this spread of ideas only sparks greater interest. We see how so-called "GI coffee houses" spring up near the bases, offering soldiers anti-war literature and the chance to discuss the war.

The director himself worked as an organizer at one such coffee house outside of Fort Hood in Texas. But he made the film not as an exercise in nostalgia, but to set the historical record straight and provide lessons to the current GI movement against the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Already capitalists are expressing concern that the army is being "broken" in the war in these wars, which refers not only to the wearing down of equipment, but the wearing out of morale.

We know from historical experience, though, that even if today's wars are brought to an end, there is no guarantee that these soldier's children will not be stuck in another military adventure twenty years later. This is the bitter experience of no small number of Vietnam War veterans! In this sense, the true anti-war movement, rather than an anti-this-war movement, is the movement to replace the war-generating capitalist system with socialism.

The film does, however, end up providing socialists with a great deal of encouragement. It shows us that the capitalist class is not half as fearsome as it would have us imagine when its foot soldiers are entertaining second thoughts about war. So imagine the position of this class, this tiny minority, when the bulk of workers, soldiers included, want an end to capitalism and have a good idea of the sort of society that will replace it. Sir! No Sir! gives us a glimpse of the day when the capitalists will be frustrated generals without an army.
Michael Schauerte

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Lenin's What Is To Be Done? (1970)

From the July 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard

Review of Lenin's What Is To Be Done?

This work by Lenin, running to about 60,000 words, was written in 1901-2, at a time when the party led by him (which in 1917 obtained power in Russia and changed its name to Communist Party), was still one of several factions in the Russian social-democratic movement.

It was written immediately after an unsuccessful conference held in Geneva in 1901, called to unite the factions into a single party and was followed by a period of six years in which Lenin's Bolsheviks and the rival Mensheviks struggled for control of the Social-Democratic Labour Party. It ended with the expulsion of the Mensheviks and the formation of two separate parties.

What is to be Done? was printed in English in the nineteen thirties (published by Martin Lawrence) and also as part of volume 2 of Lenin's Selected Works (published by Lawrence and Wishart). A new translation was published in 1963 by Oxford University Press and a paper-back edition has now been issued by Panther Books (240p. 4s.). The paper-back edition has the advantage of an Index, and an appendix of explanatory notes. It differs from the pre-war edition (apart from the new translation) by the insertion of two passages which were added by Lenin in a later Russian edition and by the omission of a number of passages which the present translators consider would be obscuring rather than elucidating. It is difficult in some instances to understand how they reached this conclusion.

The new edition also has an Introduction by one of the translators, S. V. Utechin, which usefully summarises Lenin's somewhat involved text. Lenin's purpose in What is to be Done? was to explain and justify his ideas on organisation, strategy and tactics for the conquest of power against the views of his opponents, particularly the Mensheviks. (The terms 'economists' and 'economism' frequently used by Lenin refer to his opponents and their theories).

Lenin pointed out that, unlike some earlier controversies between the Russian factions which had been entirely internal to Russia, the quarrel in Russia in 1901 was part of the international dispute in the social-democratic parties, between those who claimed to be adhering to the theories of Marx and the 'Revisionists', led by the German social-democrat Bernstein, who urged that the movement should go over to the 'practical' work of reforming capitalism, by collaborating with democratic capitalist parties and participating in capitalist governments; that it should, in short, abandon revolution and become reformist and gradualist.

In Chapter 1, Lenin argued that the Mensheviks' demand for 'freedom of criticism' was a cover under which they were attacking basic socialist principles. Against this Lenin insisted that a political party, if it is to be effective, must have a sound and clearly defined theoretical basis. He was not impressed by the argument (so familiar in Britain) that it was more important to provide a broad umbrella under which all varieties of 'socialist' thought could keep up a show of being united.

He quoted at the opening of his preface something Lassalle had written to Marx in 1852: –

"Party struggles give a party strength and life . . . the best proof of the weakness of a party is its diffuseness and the blurring of clearly defined borders . . . a party becomes strongest by purging itself."

It is interesting to note that Lenin in 1901 shared the mistakenly high opinion Engels had in 1874 about the German Social Democratic Party. (In the original English edition a lengthy passage from Engels' Preface to The Peasant War in Germany was quoted by Lenin to show Engels' views. This passage is one of these left out of the new paper-back edition). Lenin was blind to the fact that the German Party's attempt to combine a socialist objective with a programme of popular immediate demands had inevitably undermined it and paved the way for Revisionism and reformism. In Chapter II and III Lenin criticised the school of thought which saw the future as a development of socialist theory out of spontaneous explosions of peasant discontent and the struggles of trade unions. He accepted that the unions had become more effective with experience but he argued that the growth of "trade union consciousness" did not produce socialist theory. In their unions, he wrote: –
"the workers did not have, nor was it possible for them to have an awareness of the irreconcilable contradictions of their interests with the whole modern political and social scene, that is. they did not yet possess Social-Democratic consciousness".

According to Lenin this "social-democratic consciousness", the theory of Socialism had to come from "the educated representatives of the 'propertied classes – the intelligentsia". He wrote: –
"The founders of modern scientific Socialism, Marx and Engels. themselves belonged by social status to the bourgeois intelligentsia".

To illustrate his theme he pointed to the difference between the English trade union official, Robert Knight, who did good work organising the boilermakers for concrete gains on the industrial field, and Wilhelm Liebknecht, who engaged more in "the revolutionary explanation of the whole of modern society" (the references to Knight are omitted from the paper-back edition).

Lenin was only partly right about this and drew a wrong conclusion. In order to be effective the trade unions had to work with the human material available, which meant that they had to consist of workers who were not (and mostly are not) Socialists and who were not concerned with deeper social questions but primarily with immediate issues of wages and working conditions of the particular group of workers in each union.

These conditions impede and delay the development of a Socialist outlook in the unions as organisations but do not prevent members individually from coming to full class-consciousness. (Two years after Lenin wrote What is to be Done? the Socialist Party of Great Britain Manifesto remarked of the trade unions that "in many cases a grasp of the class antagonisms necessarily arising from such conditions were obtained by the more virile and intelligent of their members").

While it is true that the advantages of education and leisure enabled men such as Marx and Engels to study and formulate in detail a comprehensive theory of Socialism it is not true that it is beyond the capacity of workers independently to move towards the same kind of theoretical comprehension, nor is it beyond the capacity of the working class as a whole to understand the broad outlines of Socialist theory.

Lenin covered himself on this by arguing that when workers do participate in working out Socialist theory they do so "not as workers but as theorists of Socialism". (Footnote on Page 89). He mentioned Proudhon and Weitling; there are many other examples of workers who helped to develop Socialist theory.

The London Communist Club was formed in 1840 by three German workers who had been active in the revolutionary movement and had been expelled from France in 1830 for participating in the Blanquist conspiracy. The three founders of the Club were Karl Schapper, a proof reader, Heinrich Bauer, a shoemaker, and Joseph Moll, a matchmaker.

This club, which had become the centre of revolutionary activity decided at a conference with the German Workingmen's Club of Brussels, in 1847, to invite Marx and Engels to prepare the Communist Manifesto.

Another example is Karl Pfaender, a journeyman printer, who was prominent in the Communist League before he encountered the views of Marx. This was also true of Frederick Lessner, a tailor. Some of the workingmen active in the Chartist movement had also developed communist views, among them J. F. Bray, believed to have been a journeyman printer, and of course Robert Owen, originally a mill worker.

Incidentally where did Marx and Engels learn their Socialism? Partly, at least, from inside the Chartist Movement and from German journeymen workmen; before then they were mainly concerned with philosophy and anti-religious ideas.

Lenin never accepted the possibility of working-class understanding of Socialism, hence his jibe that if Socialism had to wait for the intellectual development of the people it would have to wait for 500 years.

It was in line with this attitude that he wanted in Russia, not a political party of the working class, but a party "chiefly of persons engaged in revolutionary activities as a profession".

There was to be no democratic control from below. Instead there was to be "full comradely trust among revolutionaries". (Later on, when the "Comrades" were shooting each other they must have remembered this).

The purpose of this organisation was "preparing for, setting the time for, and carrying out the armed insurrection of the whole people".

Lenin, in What is to be Done? used various arguments in support of this policy of insurrection. Elsewhere he quoted something Engels had written 1851-2 in Germany: Revolution Counter Revolution. (See Marxism & Insurrection written by Lenin in September 1917. Vol. 6 of Selected Works pages 218, 291 & 581. Lenin attributed this quotation to Marx but it was later shown that Revolution and Counter Revolution had been written by Engels).

Writing there in 1851-2 Engels had discussed "the art of insurrection" (Chapter XVII of Revolution and Counter Revolution), but later on, in 1895, he pointed out how rare it was for insurrection to succeed even in the early days. He argued that success depend on the government armed forces "integrating", and went on: –
"The rebellion of the old style street fight behind barricades, which up to 1848 gave the final decision, has come antiquated". (Engels' 1895 Introduction to The Class Struggles in France 1848-1850)

Engels's estimate of the only conditions under which insurrection could succeed was to be confirmed by Trotsky in The Lessons of October 1917, in which he dealt with the way the Communists got power in Russia:
"The first necessity was an army that did not want to fight. The whole course of the revolution would have changed, if at the moment of the revolution there had not been a broken and discontented peasant army of many millions . . . " (Labour Publishing Co edition 1925 Page 167).

S. V. Utechin in his introduction to What is to be Done? argues that Lenin's tactics and theories of organisation were influenced only to a minor degree by "scattered ideas contained in those early writings of Marx" (p.42) and that in the main they derived from the earlier Russian revolutionary movement.
Edgar Hardcastle



An Edgar Hardcastle archive has recently been started up at the Marxist Internet Archive.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Patents: Capitalism versus Technological Advance (2007)

From the February 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

The technological dynamism of capitalism is undeniable. But the functioning of capitalism also means the shelving of many useful inventions.

Capitalism has been widely celebrated for its capacity for rapid technological advance. Thus Marx in the Communist Manifesto of 1848: "The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production." A century later Joseph Schumpeter declared that "creative destruction" is "the essential fact about capitalism" (Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 1942). And surely this fact has never been truer than it is today, in the age of microelectronics and bioengineering?

The technological dynamism of capitalism is undeniable, especially in comparison with earlier historical formations. This, however, is only half the story. The functioning of capitalism also entails the shelving or suppression of many useful inventions. One common cause of neglect is the limited purchasing power of those who stand to benefit from some discovery, as in the case of drugs to treat tropical diseases (see 'Nonprofit Production: Wave of the Future?' in last month's issue). Another key factor behind the non-use of inventions is the patents system.

A patent is a legally protected exclusive right to use a new product or process, valid for a fixed period of time (typically 20-25 years). Patent rights supposedly belong to "inventors" and promote technological advance by giving inventors a substantial material interest in the results of their work. It's a dubious rationale because most inventors are members of the working class and the patents on their inventions, like the windfall profits from them, belong not to them but totheir employers. If they're lucky they might get a small bonus. They go on inventing things because it gives them satisfaction. That's human nature.

Nevertheless, the patents system does encourage companies to employ research scientists and engineers and in some cases to exploit patented inventions or license other companies to exploit them. In many other cases, however, a particular invention is viewed primarily as a threat to profits from the sale of an existing product, demand for which it would undercut. It will then seem more profitable not to make the new product while using the patent to prevent anyone else from making it. According to various studies, 40-90 percent of patents are never used or licensed.

But what if the patent on the unwelcome invention is already owned by a competitor who plans to exploit it? Even in this situation there is often some action that can be taken to ward off the threat. Firms interested in developing new technologies tend to be financially weak and vulnerable. They may be threatened, paid not to use their patents, or simply taken over, patents and all. The permutations are endless: there are many ways to skin a cat, as they say.

Let's consider a few examples. They are taken from articles by Kurt Saunders, an expert on business law at California State University, and Linda Levine, an engineer at Carnegie Mellon University. (The articles are available at here and here.)

Quashing a "wonderful advance"
Anaemia is a worldwide scourge, with a disproportionate impact on women, children, and poor people (due to iron deficient diet). Even in the US it affects an estimated 3.5 million people. It is treated with a drug called erythropoietin (EPO), which promotes the formation of red blood cells. A big problem with EPO is that the body secretes it almost immediately, so doses have to be very high. That makes EPO very lucrative for AMGEN, the company that owns the patents, while the patient suffers distressing side effects and foots the bill.

Thus, a person on dialysis for kidney failure requires lifelong EPO at $10,000 a year. Most of the world's sufferers, of course, have no access to such costly treatment. In 1997, Gisella Clemons, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, discovered a protein binding factor for EPO - that is, a protein that sticks to it and blocks its excretion. Combining this protein with EPO increases take-up by 10-50 times, vastly reducing the dosage required and making the drug both safer and more affordable.

AMGEN was not interested. The company refused to make the more effective form of EPO themselves or to allow others to make it by giving them access to the patents in its possession. Martha Luehrmann, a colleague of Clemons, gave vent to her frustration:
"A wonderful advance that could save hundreds of thousands of children from anaemia and death stays on the shelf because the patent system protects a company that doesn't want to see any risk to its bottom line."

Another example from the pharmaceutical industry. Bloch, a medical researcher employed by Smith-Kline UK, devised a new dietary supplement for use in diuretic therapy. His supplement, a balanced combination of magnesium and potassium compounds, overcame the main defect of existing diuretic drugs, including Smith-Kline's own Dyazide - namely, potassium depletion and its effects (fatigue, dizziness, confusion, etc.). In 1974 Bloch and Smith-Kline concluded a licensing agreement by which Smith-Kline undertook either to develop the supplement itself or to surrender its exclusive rights to Bloch. In the event it did neither. Bloch went to court, where his claims were accepted but no effective action was taken.

Keeping products inefficient and dangerous
Many inventions have been suppressed in the motor vehicle industry. Several of these could have greatly improved the efficiency of fuel use and reduced or even eliminated polluting emissions. In 1936, for instance, Charles Pogue invented a carburettor that enabled a car to run over 200 miles to the gallon at speeds of up to 70 mph. More recently, Tom Ogle designed a car in which a series of hoses fed a mixture of gas vapours and air directly into the engine. Tested in 1977, it averaged 100 miles per gallon at 55 mph.

It is the oil corporations rather than the automobile manufacturers themselves that have the strongest interest in suppressing inventions that improve fuel efficiency and thereby reduce gasoline consumption. Thus, Exxon is said to have purchased and buried the design for a "momentum engine" with high fuel efficiency.

Patents do not last forever. For that among other reasons, many new products do eventually see the light of day, even if only two, three or four decades after being invented. Patent owners imposed such long delays on the appearance of many now familiar products. Thus, the fluorescent lightbulb was patented in the 1920s but kept off the market until 1938 in order to keep energy efficiency low and demand for electricity high. A "safe" (or at least safer) cigarette, from which much carcinogenic material had been removed, was invented in the 1960s but suppressed in favour of the more dangerous kind until the last few years. The same thing happened to the telephone answering machine, the plain paper photocopier, the auto-focus camera, emission control devices for motor vehicles, the electronic thermometer, and artificial caviar.

Patent law reform or social use of knowledge?
There are two divergent tendencies in patent law. On the one hand, patents are recognized as a form of property. An owner of property has the right to use that property or not at his or her discretion, and this applies to patents as it does, say, to land. On the other hand, legislators created patent law for the purpose of promoting technological advance in the public interest, so should the courts not try to discourage its misuse for the opposite purpose? Legal reformers like Saunders and Levine advocate changes to patent law that will strengthen the "public interest" tendency and impede the suppression of useful inventions.

The provisions of patent law do matter. The law already places certain restrictions on the rights of patent owners; otherwise inventions would be suppressed even more thoroughly. So legal reform might have a beneficial effect. But, as in other areas of industrial regulation, companies will find means of complying with the letter of any new requirements while thwarting their spirit. Let us suppose that the owner of a new patent is required to put it to use within a fairly short time interval or otherwise forfeits the patent (and Saunders and Levine do not suggest anything nearly as drastic). Could they not start production of the new product while "sabotaging" it to make sure sales of the old product would not be affected? For instance, the new product could be produced on a small scale and indeliberately slipshod fashion, sold at a very high price with hardly any advertising, and so on.

How much does it really matter if an invention has to wait a few decades before it is widely applied? Not very much, perhaps, if it's a new kind of camera or photocopier. The delay is harder to tolerate if it's an effective treatment for a previously incurable disease. And, with global warming upon us, new sources of environmentally harmless energy and new devices to raise energy efficiency are a matter of life and death for the planet. We can't afford to wait until capitalists finally find it profitable to make the switch to new technologies. It is high time to put knowledge and human creativity at the direct disposal of the community.
Stephen Shenfield

Monday, February 12, 2007

Free Software and Socialism

Latest post from the SPGB blog, Socialism Or Your Money Back

The law treats physical property and intellectual property (IP), much the same despite the fact that IP requires practically no labour to reproduce and does not spoil or wear out. The primary purpose of laws preventing people from copying music, software, literature, and other information, then, is to effect an artificial scarcity which helps secure profits for IP owners.

Independent software developers, angry with the restrictions imposed by commercial IP owners, began to voluntarily license their software copyrights under terms which guaranteed that the software would always be free for others to use, study, copy, and modify. Since most new software is created by refining and combining existing pieces of software, this licensing scheme essentially returned control of the means of production of software to the community.

The Free Software licensing scheme has since been popularised and adapted to other forms of IP, most notably artwork and literature. A case in point is Wikipedia, a large online encyclopaedia which is collaboratively edited by thousands of volunteers from all over the world. The facts that editors contribute voluntarily and without compensation, and that the project operates in a largely democratic fashion without a government, serve to refute the common anti-socialist argument that people will not work and cooperate without coercion. Though Wikipedia and other free content projects are not socialism, they are illustrative of how certain aspects of socialism could operate. If the artificial scarcity capitalism imposes on physical resources were abolished, as free licensing has done with certain informational resources, then what would be left to stop us from running the whole world through voluntary labour and free access?
SPGBer

Friday, February 9, 2007

Those responses to the BNP considered

Latest post from the SPGB blog, Socialism Or Your Money Back

In both the local and the national press of late, the BNP have come in for a hard time as they gear up for May's local elections. In recent weeks their policies have rightly drawn the disgust of readers in the letters pages of provincial newspapers - i.e the Shields Gazette carried many letters from angry readers after BNP leader Nick Griffin visited the town - whilst nationally the press has reported the hypocritical condemnation of the mainstream parties who have lost seat after council seat to the BNP in recent years. The grievances of "Joe Public" we can sympathise with - many workers can see through the thin veil of respect the BNP cloaks itself in and harbour no racist sentiments. What we find nauseating is the moralistic pontificating from the Blair and Cameron camps.

Considering the views of the Labour and Conservative parties on asylum and the former's part in so overtly upsetting the Islamic world in recent years, their concern for the apparent rising support for the BNP does seem a mite misplaced. Labour and the Tories may well abhor the policies of the BNP, but have been unsuccessful in confronting them where they have made significant political gains because to do so would mean acknowledging the shortcomings of a system they champion and which gives rise to the politics of race and hate.

If anything the BNP are the product of the total failure of all the reformist parties to make capitalism a fit society to live in. And this is not realy the fault of the mainstream parties, for they are controlled by the system and not vice versa, despite their claims and promises. When capitalism fails to deliver, when despondency and shattered hopes arise from the stench of the failed promises and expectations that litter the political landscape, is it any wonder that workers fall for the scapegoating rubbish of fascists and the quick fix they offer?

The hundreds of thousands of misinformed workers who fall for the BNP spiel at elections are the products of the demoralising system we know as capitalism, deluded into thinking that neo-nazi solutions to social problems - which they have been led to believe are largely rooted in the colour of a person's skin - would suddenly improve their miserable lives. In truth, a shortage of council housing and poorly maintained housing estates, low wages and pittance benefits are no more the fault of asylum seekers than, in fact, the mainstream parties who mistakenly believe capitalism can be run in the interests of the workers. At the end of the day the BNP simply put together a better package of lies and, just like the other reformist parties, promise voters little more than extra space at the trough of poverty - and tens of thousands, their minds numbed by the politics of reform fall for the scam.
John Bissett

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The Chinese Authorities don't like Socialism

All evidence points to the fact that the Marxist Internet Archive website has recently been experiencing a politically motivated attack on its server from the Chinese Authorities.

Remember that the next time an apologist for the state capitalist dictatorship - Chairman Mao franchise - gushes about the Market Socialist miracle of China or a right-wing political numpty tells you that the exploitative barbarism in Beijing is evidence that socialism can never work.

Cheers,
Darren
Inveresk Street Ingrate Blog

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Is Ian Paisley a socialist?

It is not often that the business pages of the capitalist press refer to socialism. Past experience suggests that when they do they make fools of themselves. A recent article in The Times (29 January) by Tim Haines confirmed this. "Northern Ireland", he wrote, "is in danger of replacing sectarianism with socialism".

If only this were true. Unfortunately socialism (common ownership, democratic control, production for use not profit, distribution according to needs) is not on the agenda there and in any event couldn't be since socialism cannot be established just in one country let alone one province. But this is not what Hames had in mind. After pointing out that state spending represents 60 percent of all spending in Northern Ireland, he went on:
"The Rev Paisley and Mr McGuiness will find little difficulty making common cause in asking for ever larger public spending to be showered, equitably, on their constituencies".

While it is true that politics in Northern Ireland is characterised by what on the continent of Europe is known as "clientelism" - where different politicians appeal to a different group of identified "clients" on the basis of getting material benefits for them in particular – Hames is wrong in thinking government spending and subsidies on and for the poorer sections of society is socialism. If it did then the Reverend Inane Paisley, with his client basis of poor Protestants, would indeed be a socialist. An absurd conclusion which is proof that the original proposition is wrong in accordance with the principle of logic the Ancient Romans used to call reductio ad absurdum.

Government spending on measures to help the poor has nothing to do with socialism. That's reformism not socialism. At most Paisley is a reformist, even a "leftwing" reformist compared with the UK Labour Party which used to take up this position (now it cuts back on benefits for the poor).

But if Paisley isn't a socialist, what about Martin McGuiness? He actually claims to be some sort of a socialist. At the special Sinn Fein conference to discuss policing in Northern Ireland on 28 January Gerry Adams proclaimed that his party's ultimate aim was "to bring about a 32 county democratic socialist republic." But this is just rhetoric. It means no more than the utopia of an all-Ireland Irish capitalist state reformed so as to work in the interest of workers in Ireland. But capitalism doesn't, and can't be made to, work that way. It's a profit-making system that can only work in the interests of the profit-takers not those who work for a wage or a salary.

In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein is the mirror image of Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party - it is the party of politicians who see the Catholic minority there as their "clients". McGuiness is no more a socialist than Paisley. He, too, only wants reforms to help his clients, the poor Catholics. Which is why Hames is right that the two of them should be able to get along quite well together in any devolved administration of capitalism in Northern Ireland that might emerge after the elections there next month. Not that either of them will be able to deliver on their promises, though both will be able to use the same alibi: that the British State didn't give them enough money.
Adam Buick

Monday, February 5, 2007

US Vacations?

From the Capitalism's Gravediggers Website

Long ago, technology promised that it would free us from the mundane tasks of life and work so we would have more free time to enjoy ourselves.

According to the Conference Board, which is a private research organization in the United States, that promise appears to have been broken. 40 percent of American workers will not be taking summer holidays in 2006. That is the lowest recorded percentage in 28 years. The Bureau of Labour Statistics in the U.S. gives us the fact that almost a quarter of American workers get no paid holidays. A third take only one week-long holiday per year.

The promise was not fulfilled because it was a trick. If society worked for workers we would have the free time to enjoy. But society works for the employers, so we are expected to produce more, and more, and more. And notably lately, with less, and less, and less. Workers now produce much more as a result of the technology we have developed. But the pressure is still constantly upon us to produce even more. When the paid hours run out, all that are left are the unpaid hours.

So workers work unpaid overtime, unpaid through their lunch "breaks," and through their "holidays." Perhaps some get paid for the hours they work instead of taking holidays, but it is a benefit due them from their employment contracts, and they are giving it back to the employer.

Do workers in the United States love their jobs and employers so much? Are they no longer interested in a break away from work?

Worker productivity is supposedly calculated based upon hours worked. Capitalism's Gravediggers suspects that those calculations do not include the unpaid hours and the worked holidays of workers in the United States. That would inflate their supposed productivity. If so, it still might be that American workers would show high productivity rates if those unpaid hours were included, but distortion is distortion.

Workers are played off against other workers, within a country and around the world. The need to be competitive is a feature of capitalist production, and is not inherent in production. When we replace production for profit with production for use, the promise of technology will finally be realized.
Steve Szalai

Friday, February 2, 2007

Junk Shopping

Pathfinders column from the February 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Just on the off-chance that any of its readers retained the dimmest flicker of enthusiasm for the annual cash-orgy known as Christmas, the Independent determined to render it even more pointless and masochistic by itemising with Scrooge-like malice the stupendous waste involved in the whole exercise (23 December, 2006). Thus we learned that six million trees, enough to form a line from London to the North Pole and back again, would be dumped or incinerated, ditto a billion greetings cards, enough to go round the world five times, 83 km2 wrapping paper, and 125,000 tonnes of plastic packaging. 40 percent of all festive food would go in the bin, and 41 percent of all children's toys would end up broken in landfill within 3 months.

Britain is, of course, triumphantly at the top of the household waste European league tables, disposing of more than 27m tonnes each year, 7m tonnes more than Italy, and a whopping 17m tonnes ahead of Germany, which has a population 25 percent larger (BBC Online, 9 October 2006). An area the size of Warwickshire - 109 square miles - is already landfill and landfill space is expected to be used up by 2016. According to a survey by the Energy Saving Trust, Britain also comes gratifyingly top in energy wastage, apparently because we leave our lights on, our TVs on standby and our phone chargers plugged in (BBC Online, 23 October 2006).

Pursuant on the popular media theme that we are all feckless children who need strong governance, even New Scientist can't resist having a dig at us, with talk of our 'adulterous' consumption - endlessly deserting our possessions for the novelty of younger, flashier models (6 January). The average domestic power tool, we are told, has an active lifetime of only ten minutes before spending thousands of years rotting underground. To be sure, they dig a little deeper and expose, without ever using the word, the alienation at the heart of production and consumption, blaming mass-production for the fact that we have no personal relationship with made goods, they have no history for us, they embody no 'narrative'.

Paradoxically, we don't care about these goods, but we depend on possessing them to give us our sense of identity. They have the power to remake us which we ourselves lack.

Socialists know this syndrome by the infelicitous term 'commodity fetishism', yet even Marx could surely not have imagined the stupendous energy that capitalism was destined to pour into this large-scale Junk Production. With our eyes glued always on the latest model, we ignore the rising range of waste as it towers behind us to the far horizon.

Of course there is nothing wrong with encouraging individuals to take more responsibility over what they waste, but one can't help feeling there is an agenda of misdirection behind much of what the media tells us about ourselves, focussing as they do on the relatively minor waste output of the domestic household and ignoring or downplaying the staggering waste produced by the capitalist system of production as a whole. Statistics from the UK Department of Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) reveal the true picture for total waste in Britain in 2004. Of a total 335m tonnes of waste produced annually, 32 percent is construction and demolition, 29 percent mining and quarrying, 13 percent industrial, 12 percent commercial, and just 9 percent domestic (Environmental Protection webpage).

So while you're being guilt-tripped into staggering down to the rainswept recycling bins with your bags of bottles, you'll be pleased to reflect that the real giants of junk production are clinking glasses in Downing Street.

It wouldn't be so bad if the waste produced by capitalism was simply accidental, an unfortunate by-product of a less than optimal method of doing things. Defenders of capitalism might argue that a certain amount of waste is inevitable in any society of mass production, given that the huge economy of scale, together with the normal operations of a competitive market, can sometimes lead to goods becoming so cheap as to be literally disposable. Thus we find that it is often cheaper to buy a new computer printer than to buy a replacement ink cartridge for the old one, that new battery-powered toys and gizmos can be cheaper than the batteries in them, and that as far as clothes go, Huxley's injunction from Brave New World still applies: spending is better than mending. Even more worryingly, the nature of mass-production enforces a uniformity of taste on the consumer, which in turn creates the 'need' for aggressive marketing. Arguably, if society didn't produce mountains of crap in the first place, it wouldn't need to work so hard to make us buy it all.

What is particularly hard to take for a socialist, or indeed anyone who dislikes pointless waste of time, effort and resources, is the way much of this can be described quite reasonably as deliberate. A friend relates how he was taken on a tour of the R&D laboratory of a famous plastic biro manufacturer, there to discover company technicians destruction testing the pen shafts. The idea, he was told, was not to make the shafts shatter-proof, but to make them shatter at the nib end after a predicted period of use, thus allowing the manufacturer to put less ink in the reservoir tube and thus save money, as well as forcing the consumer to buy at a faster rate. Planned or built-in obsolescence of this sort is one of the most iniquitous features of capitalist production, a true crime against society and against the environment, and it is rife wherever manufacturers can obtain either a monopoly or a cartel agreement to avoid the competitive pressure to improve rather than degrade quality.

In the PC world, chip manufacturers regularly change motherboard configurations for spurious reasons, ensuring that upgrades or replacements are impossible, while software giants like Microsoft deliberately remove support for older operating systems. Mobile phones, now the must-have streetcred accessory, ape the fashion industry with new styles and features every year while only 10 to 15 percent of old phones are recycled. The media likes to upbraid us as individuals for our shallow consumerist habits, but the fact is that the manufacturing industries are doing everything they can to make us buy, again and again and again, fearing as they do that our natural tendency is to be conservative and make do with what we've got.

It's not hard to imagine, in a social system designed around production for use instead of sale, how common sense would be applied to the mountainous problem of waste. In the first place, people in socialism, having to work voluntarily to produce, would be hardly likely to design faults and shortlife spans into their goods. Nor would they need to produce a vast array of 'brands' of varying quality. Many 'comfort goods', gadgets, gewgaws, gimmicks, fads, fashions and fripperies would just not be made, nor the need for them felt. Most packaging would go, and there would be no point in advertising materials. Some mass-production would of course be maintained, but many more things would be likely to devolve to local production, thus reducing the phenomenal amount of transportation presently required, and re-imbuing goods with that personal 'narrative' which makes us value and care for them. Production would continue to be led by technological advance, but not by novelty for its own sake, and the design and costing process would take into account both durability, reparability, and the disposal process at lifetime end as part of the overall production footprint. In fact, socialism would aim for zero-waste by converting every waste stream into a recycled resource stream. Most importantly, a key feature of a use-led society would be that consumption is a shared process, and many things which we now consider personal domestic items might actually be used more communally, either through more communal living habits or through an extension of the library system to include things like power tools, films, jewellery, kid's toys, even clothes, thus reducing the overall need for production in the first place.

Capitalism can of course address the problem of waste to some extent, but it doesn't have the power to stop trying to sell, sell, sell. We however have the power to switch off capitalism and its power-hungry display of commercialism. Socialism is still on stand-by. We just need to press the button.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

We are to be re-brainwashed!

From the SPGB blog, Socialism Or Your Money Back

Those in charge of the political affairs of British capitalism are worried. The nationalist propaganda that their predecessors pumped out for years -- justifying the British Empire on the grounds that the colonised peoples were inferior -- has come back to haunt them. A large section of the native working class still believe this crap, long after it has ceased to be any use to the ruling class. Now that there is a large minority of workers from or descended from people from the old Empire, our rulers want them, in the interests of national unity, to be regarded as fellow Britishers. So now they are going to "educate" workers that it is nasty and wrong to go on thinking that black people are inferior and cannot be British.

Of course people who have dark skin are not, and never were, inferior. All human beings are members of the same biological species -- homo sapiens -- and we all have the same capacity to learn. There is, if you like, only one race -- the human race. We are all citizens of the world, Earthlings.

But this is not what the politicians are proposing should be taught in the schools. They want to teach working-class kids "what is means to be British" as Jack Straw put it in a speech at Oxford University. According to Times (26 January), in true Jingo fashion he "called for a strong 'British story' to reflect the heroic nature of the country's history and foster a greater sense of citizenship".

So, although racism is now out, equally divisive nationalism is still in and is in fact to be stepped up. Schoolkids are to be taught, as before, that they are primarily members of a supposed "British nation" all of whose members allegedly have a common interest different from the subjects of other so-called "nation-States". The only difference will be that they will be taught that this British nation now includes dark-skinned people from the former Empire and that such people too can now proudly look down on "foreigners".

Socialists will try to do what we can to counter this nationalist state-propaganda by pointing out that nationalism is an ideology which ruling classes use to try to obtain the acquiescence and support of those they rule over and that wage and salary workers from all countries have more in common with each other than with their rulers. Ultimately, they have a common interest in establishing a socialist world commonwealth where there'll be no frontiers or nation-States just people speaking different languages and enjoying different tastes in dress, music, culture and the like but which everybody will be entitled to share in.
Adam Buick