Saturday, June 30, 2007

Bragging Rights

Book Review from the July issue of the Socialist Standard

The Progressive Patriot by Billy Bragg

Singer and songwriter Billy Bragg has produced an engaging and enjoyable read, in an attempt to search for a meaning to his working class upbringing and his relationship to the place he was born, Barking in Essex.

This is a romp through political and economic history as well as a look at popular music and culture as Bragg experienced it growing up in the 60s and 70s. The chapters that work best are those where Bragg examines his family origins in East London, analysing key historical events from a family perspective and using the historical artefacts they left behind to do it, from pictures of dockland trade union struggles to wartime diaries and gas masks. As might be expected, the chapters focusing on Bragg's formative musical influences are good too, and he has an ability to set them in a social and political setting in a way that links his personal development to wider developments: most notably the vestiges of the hippy era, punk rock and 'Rock Against Racism'.

His ultimate aim though is to 'reclaim the flag', finding a meaning and purpose in Englishness that transcends and even nullifies the Little Englander nationalism of the Euro-sceptics and the outright racism of the BNP. This is a more difficult task and one that is inherently problematic. For while having pride in tangible places that have meaning to those who live there (in Bragg's case, Barking) is one thing, having patriotic pride in entirely artificial constructs such as nations is another thing altogether.

In effect Bragg tries to create a left-wing English nationalism that rivals the leftism of the nationalist parties in Wales and Scotland, as if Welsh and Scottish nationalism had somehow been a force for radical politics (rather than another nationalist dead-end) that England can emulate in some way. He writes intelligently about England and the Empire, and the methods through which it came about, yet can still find time to bemoan the fact that England was the only country in the last World Cup without its own parliament, passport and national anthem.

If Bragg's anti-racism and pride in his class is highly commendable, then this experimental flirting with nationalism (whether English, British, or any other) is as dangerous and misplaced as his long-documented support for the Labour Party. While the book is entertaining and worth reading, it suggests that his 'search for belonging' that is the book's subtitle, still has some way to go.
DAP

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Play Pen Proletariat

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

The tv that we watched as kids . . . and the message it holds.

As a parent of a mentally retarded daughter whose mental age is stuck permanently at two, I get to watch a lot of TV programs and videos designed for young children.

While many parents may try to protect their children from the realities of life under capitalism, those realities inevitably start to intrude at quite an early age. Children become aware, for instance, that a mysterious thing called money is needed to get things and that some people have much more of it than others. However, many of the programs they watch present an ideal play world in which a benevolent parental figure like Barney or the Bear in the Big Blue House looks after all their needs and teaches them an egalitarian ethic of give and take, taking turns, and fair shares. The most isolated and self-contained play world is, no doubt, that of the Telly Tubbies, who play together harmoniously in an empty idyllic landscape, fed and kept clean by the robot Noonoo.

Some programs do set the children’s play against a sporadically glimpsed background of adult life. Some attempt may even be made to reassure children regarding some of the adult problems that affect them, such as divorce. And yet the most discomfiting realities remain concealed.

You would never guess from Sesame Street, for instance, that the great majority of Americans live in racially segregated areas. Although Sesame Street is evidently an inner city neighborhood, everyone seems to live in modest comfort, no one is on drugs, and any hint of violence is taboo. The employment relationship, which dominates most people’s lives, is relegated to the margins of awareness by making most of the main adult characters self-employed (Maria and Louis have a fixit shop, Alan has a store, Gina is a vet, etc.). Other programs are set in a community of family farms, achieving the same effect.

Rather than avoiding the issue of employment, one British series openly glorifies the institution. Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends are trains and other animated machines on the Island of Sodor. They all work for a man named Sir Topham Hatt, who is forever telling them off for “causing confusion and delay” when they forget his instructions and follow their own inclinations.

The most honest children’s program I have seen is a cartoon called Arthur (an eight-year-old anthropomorphic aardvark). It confronts the viewer with social inequality as a problematic phenomenon, featuring characters in families at various economic levels, from Buster and his impoverished single-parent mother to Muffy, the spoiled daughter of a wealthy businessman. When Francine is embarrassed at having a trash collector as her father, he demonstrates to her and her friends the social value of his work. And Arthur himself learns that injustice is also a real problem when he is unjustly accused of stealing money that belongs to his school. Of course, he is vindicated at the last moment. Certain limits must be observed, after all, when revealing to children the existence of injustice.

Stefan

Check out this event: 'Capitalism, conspiracies and credulity'

Hosted By: Socialist Party
When: Tuesday Jun 19, 2007 at 8:00 PM
Topic: 'Capitalism, conspiracies and credulity'
Speaker: Adam Buick
Where: Chiswick Town Hall
Heathfield Terrace (Corner of Sutton Court Road)
London, W4
United Kingdom
Nearest Tube: Chiswick Park
Description:
Socialist Party

Click Here To View Event

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Economists - not on this planet

From the WSM website

Most modern textbooks will contain a variation of the following famous definition of economics as: 'a science which studies human behaviour as a relation between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.'

This makes economics the study of the logic of choice in conditions of scarcity. This is not how most people would understand the term, but check for yourself and you will see that the word scarcity occurs again and again in textbook definitions of economics. Paul Samuelson in his Economics, in a very widely studied economics textbook, speaks of a "large scarcity" and says that if goods were not scarce then there would be no role for a science of economics. So, on these definitions, economics is seen as the study of the production and distribution of scarce goods.

The Scarcity Dogma
This definition, however, can only be sustained by giving a peculiar meaning to the word 'scarcity.' The normal sense of scarcity is that of shortage, implying that something is in short supply in relation to the claims on its use. The scarcity theory economists, however, define scarcity to mean the absence of unlimited supplies. Since no good produced by humans is, or can ever be, available in unlimited amounts all such goods are, by definition "scarce".

They reinforce this with a second assumption - that human wants are unlimited. This provides a fall-back position, since, if human wants are infinite, even on the normal meaning of scarcity as shortage of relation to uses goods are always going to be in short supply. But this assumption of human wants being infinite is equally dubious since, while human wants might be great, they are not unlimited. Nor do they exist outside particular social and historical contexts but are determined by the society in which particular humans are living at a particular point in time and are in practice always limited.

This school of economics (which is the dominant one today) needs the scarcity assumption - whether based on an unrealistic definition of scarcity or on an unrealistic assumption of infinite human wants, because it is the basis of its claim that the best way to solve the perpetual either-or problem, which they see humans facing when it comes to deciding what to produce, is to have recourse to money, prices and markets. They want to be able to prove that the present economic system, under which most wealth is produced for sale on the marketplace, is the best one possible. They need the scarcity assumption, in other words, so that they can beg this question.

The scarcity school of economics is right to see economics as the study of the way in which what to produce and how to produce it are determined under a market system. Where they go wrong is in making such a system the outcome of "scarcity".

Scarcity, in their peculiar sense, has existed throughout human history, but the market system - where everything, including the mental and physical energies of humans, has a price and where everybody has to have money to obtain what they need - only began to come into existence comparatively recently, about 500 years ago, and has only come fully into existence in places like America, Europe and Japan within the last 100 or so years. It is still not fully developed in most of the rest of the world.

The basis of the market system is not some eternal scarcity, but the separation of most people from the access to the land which enables them to produce their own food, clothes and houses. In other words, its basis is the dispossession of the majority of the population of all productive resources except their own ability to work and the concentration of the ownership of these resources into the hands of a small minority of the population. It is this, not scarcity, that makes money, prices and the market the universal features of life they are today.

We have now reached a definition of economics: the study of the production and distribution of wealth that is produced to be sold on a market. Economics is the study, not of scarce goods but of marketed goods.

What is wealth?
Wealth "is any material object or service that serves to satisfy some human need or want." An individual item of wealth is known in economics as a good.

Some goods essential to human life, such as the air we breathe and the heat and light of the Sun, are provided spontaneously by nature without humans having to do anything and so are called 'free goods'. Most goods, however, including others equally essential to human life such as food, have to be produced in the sense that humans have to exercise their mental and physical energies to obtain them, even if all that it involves in some cases is picking a fruit from a tree. Most goods, in other words, are products of human work.

When humans produce a good they are not creating something out of nothing; what they are doing is transforming parts of nature into something useful to them. This transformation may, as is the case of the picked fruit, only consist in changing the place of some nature-given material; generally speaking, however, a change of form is involved as well as a change of place.

Production, then, is the process of transforming parts of nature into goods. Apart from "free goods", all wealth is the product of human beings working of materials originally supplied by nature.

Any activity that transforms parts of nature into something useful to humans is productive activity. This is so even if the transformation is merely a change of place, so transportation is a productive activity. So is storage, as preserving the usefulness of some good. Some products of labour are intangible, such as a haircut, and are known as 'services'.

Some people have argued that only tangible goods are wealth, and that therefore only labour that results in some physical product is productive. But they are wrong. The only difference between a tangible and an intangible good, or service, is that in the latter case the product is consumed as it is being produced, but it remains a product.

Goods can be divided into two main groups. First, those which are directly consumed by humans to meet their personal needs, or 'consumer goods'. These may be consumed as they are being produced (some services) or in one go (as food and electricity are) or over a period of time (as clothes, and furniture, and houses, are).

Second, those which are used to produce other goods, or producer goods (also known as 'intermediate goods' and as a 'means of production'. These are consumed (used up) of course but to make other goods and now by humans directly. They include materials extracted from nature, semi-finished goods, tools, machines, buildings, fuel and means of transport.

The basis of the market system is not some eternal scarcity, but the separation of most people from the access to the land which enables them to produce their own food, clothes and houses. As Sir William Petty (1623–1687) put it, labour is the father of material wealth, the earth is its mother.

However, humans are tool-making and tool-using animals and, apart from very basic productive activity such as picking fruit from a wild tree, production involves a third element: the tools and machinery humans use to transform nature-given materials into wealth. These producer goods are of course derived from the other two since they will have been fashioned into their existing form by past human labour working on nature-given materials.

The 'distribution' of wealth is simply the way in which what has been produced is distributed - i.e. divided up - shared, amongst the members of society.

The Market System
Samuelson describes the present economic system (his ideal system) as follows:
Everything has a price - each commodity and each service. Even the different kinds of human labour have prices, usually called wage rates. Everybody receives money for what he sells and uses this money to buy what he wishes. (His emphasis.)

So, under the market system the vast majority of goods (though by no means all, as we shall see in a moment) come to be produced for sale. A good that is produced for sale is called, in modern economics, an 'economic good' (or, in Marxian economics, a "commodity"- note the difference with Samuelson's use of the same word above to mean simply a tangible good). The concept economic good excludes a whole range of non-marketed goods such as housework, vegetables grown in your garden, do-it-yourself repairs and voluntary work. This in itself confirms that economics is concerned not with the production and distribution of wealth in general, but only with the production and distribution of wealth that has been produced for sale.

Goods produced for the market have an 'economic value' in addition to their capacity to satisfy some human need or want, or use value. This economic value is measured by the quantity of other economic goods they can be exchanged for. It is generally expressed in money as their price.

This means that under the market system the basic underlying physical factors involved in production - nature-given materials, human mental and physical energies, and producer goods - all come to have a monetary value. They become 'capital'. Hence "capitalism" as another name for the market system.

In its original sense capital is a sum of money lent out as interest and is still used to mean this today. Under the market system there is another way - it is in fact the overwhelmingly predominant way - in which those with capital, or capitalists, can make money, and that is to use it to purchase productive resources with a view to using them to produce wealth for sale. It is this that turns them into capital. (Note: somewhat confusingly, economists also use the word capital in another sense to refer to fixed produced goods such as buildings, machinery and plant only, thus excluding stocks of raw materials and of finished products and work in progress as well as the case to pay wages and for fuel and services, which accountants, more logically, count as capital).

The act of purchasing productive resources to engage in producing goods for the market is called 'investment' and the monetary gain that results is called 'profit'. The total monetary value of the new wealth produced is a given country over a given period is called either the 'national income' or the 'national product' (the two have the same monetary value). It is distributed by being bought by the members of society out of the monetary income they receive and which is initially generated at the point of production in the form of either wages and salaries or of profits.

It is these relationships, which only arise when the great bulk of wealth is produced for sale, that form the subject-matter of economics. Economics is the study of the factors governing the production and distribution of wealth under the market system of production for profit.


Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Links and then some . . .

From the Socialist Banner blog:
  • The G-8 Pledge

  • From the Socialist Courier blog:
  • Class and the class-room

  • From the Mailstrom blog:
  • American Hunger Pains

  • From the Socialism Or Your Money Back blog:
  • The hanging gardens of Bombay
  • Snapshot on Chomsky
  • The Haves and the Have-Yachts
  • Email to a singer/songwriter (2004)

    From the March 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard

    It is a habit of mine to write to all sorts of people including those odd people who are called celebrities. Sometimes they even reply. Gorbachov didn't when I asked for his definition of socialism. The same question to Tony Benn elicited an advertisement for his books. Neil Kinnock, dealing with the same question, sent me a brochure that he obviously thought had something to do with socialism. Dennis Skinner telephoned me and agreed that the Party he represented in parliament had nothing to do with socialism. Prominent Trotskyites and Gerry Adams never replied and Mitterrand, then President of France thanked me for putting the question to him but did not offer an answer.

    I thought I had kicked the habit but, when someone who knows how much I like Dick Gaughan, the Scottish singer/songwriter, sent me his website address, I found the challenge irresistible. Gaughan writes and sings working class songs in a most evocative way and claimed to be a socialist. Word was that he had politically regressed to Scottish nationalism but, whatever he was, he has talents that I think could serve socialism so I decided to drop him an email which is set out hereunder.

    Sent:
    December 16, 2003 9.57PM
    Subject: Revolutionary Change at the Base of Society

    Hello Dick,

    I have just now learned of your interesting website. What I know about you is that you made a tape with others, when poor Arthur Scargill was playing Canute against the background of the inevitable logic of capitalism. I liked that tape; I played it over and over and I wept for those who were suffering the brutalities of the system, the women especially, making their sad stand against the inhuman rationale of the market system. I liked your singing and your songs because you were trying to apply salve to the hurt and indignity that some members of my class were enduring. Your heart was, and probably still is, in the right place; so many hearts are but, unfortunately, that is not true of so many heads.

    In a rational world we would have been trying to close down coal mining because men should not be unnecessarily exposed to the hard and dangerous conditions that coal mining involves and because, like all fossil fuels, coal is a major pollutant. But, in a rational world, closing mines would be a progressive move in the interests of miners and society as a whole and there would be no victims.

    Like all of the other social problems that affect our class, mere want and destitution, the economic murder of millions of people by price-fixing starvation, wars, violence and crime, the miner's problems arose out of capitalism. I think you will agree that is a system of social organisation driven by the expectation of profit and based on the exploitation of the working class whose labour is the source of all social wealth.

    The core question here must be is there a viable alternative to capitalism. If there is, why does the working class, the overwhelming majority of the population, armed with the franchise and the power of its numbers, not end that system and institute this alternative form of social organisation? Obviously these questions assume that that capitalism, in spite of its wars, its built-in necessity for scarcity within the world of potential abundance it has created, and all its other gross contradictions, is accepted by the working class who vote for it and fight for it and without whose support it could not exist. If this assumption is right, and I challenge contradiction, then the problem must lie in the fact that the working class deliberately rejects the socialist alternative to capitalism or is largely ignorant of the fact that such an alternative exists.

    Of course we know that the very small minority of capitalists who control our lives through there monopoly of the means of life also own the means of opinion formation which they operate by economic bribery and which is the conditioning medium in the lives of our class. A more indirect weapon of the capitalists are the churches, teaching a class-based morality, and the money oriented political industry that is capitalism's nearest approach to democracy.

    What have we in our arsenal? We have the enlightening logic of the material conditions of capitalism which inexorably demonstrates that meaningful social change within that system is impossible. That a system based on our exploitation, never did, does not and can not function in our interests. Additionally, we have socialism on offer, the vision of a world-wide society of common ownership and production solely for use in a community of free access democracy.

    Given this, what is the strategy of the Left? Historically, it has given us Kautsky and Bernstein, Keir Hardie and the Fabians, Lenin and Trotsky. They have offered us for socialism the idea that capitalism can be run in our interests, which is like suggesting that the slaughterhouse can be run in the interests of the cattle; they have given us totalitarian state capitalism with its absolute colossus of brutality; they have given us Blair and "the stakeholder society"; they have established the justification for capitalism's "philosophers" to assert that we have reached the end of history and that henceforth there can be no hope of a revolutionary change at the base of society.

    And the "Old Left"? It, in its internecine diversity, still defends the old forms, still defends the old concepts and blames failure on the myriad of people who, over the decades, it nominated to "lead" the working class.'Forward to the Past' is its slogan as it strives for new ideas to have its people running capitalism. They are all socialists, of course, but none of them are prepared to say what they mean by socialism or communism, both of which terms were used interchangeably by the pioneers of the socialist movement.

    Capitalism has gained immeasurably from the confusion of the working class; from the nationalism and patriotic bullshit indulged by the Left; by the promoted notion that we can have capitalism without exploitation and its kindred evils. That confusion has largely been the gift of well-intentioned Left reformers chasing the multitude of separate issues that capitalism throws up, like a mad dog chasing leaves in a November forest.

    I believe that the liberal arts, poetry, music, song, the play, the film, can all be used to create a cultural ambience which helps people to question the values of capitalism and build an appetite for real social change. I believe that you are among those who have a talent for such work. Go on! Tell the workers that they are wasting their time when they struggle to make some aspect of capitalism better, to make capitalism more acceptable! Use your undoubted talent to define real socialism in ways that may move those who would disdain a political tract.

    I hope that you will consider such a course or, alternatively, that you will accept my challenge to show the flaws in my argument. Especially, I hope that you will not be offended by my remarks; if giving offence was my purpose I would do so in different language and, anyway, I have insulted many who deem themselves a lot more important than you or me!

    Thanks for 'listening'.

    Socialist Regards

    Richard Montague

    Monday, June 11, 2007

    George Monbiot, carbon trading and turning up the heat

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

    Who Will Verify the Verifiers?

    A review of leading British environmental thinker, George Monbiot's, latest book, 'Heat', and the dangers of global warming and how to tackle it.

    Friday, June 8, 2007

    June Socialist Standard

    Editorial

  • Goodbye To Bambi
  • Regular Columns

  • Pathfinders Old Bones
  • Cooking the Books #1 Economic Cycling
  • Cooking the Books #2 Back To The Seventies?
  • Greasy Pole Baldwin versus Blair
  • 50 Years Ago Communist Commotion

  • Main Articles

  • The Illusion of Freedom We are always been told that we live in a free society, but do we?
  • Camouflaging Class Rule Our society is routinely described in terms that camouflague the reality of exploitation and class rule.
  • What Free-Access Means Socialists often describe socialism as a society where there will be free access, but what could this mean in concrete terms?.
  • Maoism as a class society: illusion and reality Both supporters and opponents saw China under Mao as an egalitarian society without hierarchy but this was an illusion.
  • Unvarnished history of the Panama canal The story of the building of the Panama Canal at the turn of the last century is an expos√© of the operations of the capitalist system.
  • Philosopher, heal thyself Marx said that philosophers only interpreted the world. To what extent has the philosopher Julian Baggini done this?
  • Charity versus equity Commentary on a recent action aid letter citing a number of manifestations of the iniquities of global capitalism.

  • Letters, Reviews & Meetings

  • Letters to the Editors 'Labour Leaders' & 'Thieves and Robbers'
  • Book Reviews Oil Wars edited by Mary Kaldor, Terry Lynn Karl and Yahia Said & A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle

  • Meetings London, Manchester & Birmingham.
  • Voice From The Back

  • They Call It Democracy?; Prisoners of Want; They Call It Truth?; Tough at the Top ; Down and Out Down Under; So What's New?
  • Thursday, June 7, 2007

    Voice From The Back - They Call It Democracy?

    From the June 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

    THEY CALL IT DEMOCRACY?
    One of the greatest cons of all time is to call the USA a perfect example of democracy. Very rich people make all the decisions and American workers are told to wave flags and sing hymns. "America is on course to stage the world's first billion dollar election with candidates already raising in excess of $100 million, fully 19 months before voters choose which one will be the next US President." (Times, 3 April) Lets face it who is donating $26 million to Clinton, $20 million to Obama or $17 million to Giuliani? Giant corporations or individual millionaires are the only ones with that kind of bread. The rich not only dictate how you live, but they are trying to dictate how you think.

    PRISONERS OF WANT
    "Murderer and kidnapper Michael Sams has said he is better off in prison than he would be living as a free pensioner. Sams, 66, was jailed for life in 1993 ... Sams, from Nottinghamshire, wrote to prisoners' magazine Inside Time to oppose a call for convicts' pensions. He said he had better living conditions inside Whitemoor jail, Cambridgeshire, than many people on the basic pension. In his letter, Sams wrote: .. "Materially, we OAPs in prison are far better off than those in the community. .. "Most struggle to keep warm in winter, afraid to put the heating on, barely eating, let alone getting three square, ready-made, meals per day." (BBC News, 18 April) What a society capitalism is! It treats murderers better than old workers.

    THEY CALL IT TRUTH?
    In 1917 Hiram Johnson in a speech to the US Senate said "The first casualty when war comes is truth." This perceptive view was recently re-inforced when Private Jessica Lynch of the US army exposed the lies of the Pentagon in her testimony to Congress. "The Pentagon said initially that she was shot after emerging from her vehicle, guns blazing, before being abducted. It later emerged that she was injured in the ambush and was incapable of fighting. She was taken to an Iraqi hospital by Iraqi troops and owes her life to Iraqi doctors, who even tried to return her to American troops. Speaking to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Ms Lynch told of waking up in hospital with terrible injuries, unaware that the Pentagon was circulating "the story of the little girl Rambo from the hills of West Virginia who went down fighting". "It was not true", she said yesterday. (Times, 25 April)

    TOUGH AT THE TOP?
    "What has the world come to when £1m isn't enough to make you a millionaire? These days you need nearly £6m to live a millionaire's lifestyle, according to the results of research by luxury life-style co-ordinator Carbon Black, which interviewed 200 millionaires in the UK to study their spending habits. ... David Bonderman, a Texan millionaire, celebrated his 60th birthday by paying the Rolling Stones a reported £4m to play for him and 2,000 guests, but Sir Phillip Green, billionaire retailer, beat him in the show-off stakes by spending a reported £5m for a toga party on his 50th birthday party." (Observer, 29 April) Although it is so tough for the extremely rich to survive amidst soaring costs of Rollers, jet planes and hiring pop bands for your knees-up, there is some consolation to be found in the following figures. "The combined wealth of the UK's richest 1,000 people has risen by 20% - or £59bn - in the last 12 months. According to the Sunday Times Rich List 2007, the steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal again tops the table with £19.25bn, up more than £4bn on last year after acquiring Arcelor, the world's second-largest steelmaker behind Mittal Steel." (Guardian, 30 April)

    DOWN AND OUT DOWN UNDER
    "Health standards among Australia's Aborigines are as poor as those among the white population before the advent of penicillin nearly a century ago, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). A WHO report found that Aborigines still suffered from leprosy, tuberculosis and rheumatic heart disease, all of which were eradicated decades ago in other developed nations. In some parts of New South Wales the average life expectancy for Aboriginal men was 33." (Independent, 2 May) Whenever capitalism invades the territory of indigenous people living in a pre-capitalist society the consequences are disastrous. The plains Indians of USA, the forest-dwellers of the Amazon and the Australian aborigines all of them slaughtered and impoverished by the advance of capitalism.

    SO WHATS NEW?
    "British doctors will take the historic step of admitting for the first time that many health treatments will be rationed in the future because the NHS cannot cope with spiralling demand from patients." (Observer, 5 May) What is historic about that? Everything that is produced inside capitalism whether it be food, clothing, shelter, education or health care is always available to the rich, and they make sure they get the absolute best. How often at your local doctor's surgery or emergency ward in a hospital have you found yourself rubbing shoulders with millionaires?


    Friday, June 1, 2007

    Maoism as a class society: illusion and reality

    From the June 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Both supporters and opponents saw China under Mao as an egalitarian society without hierarchy but this was an illusion.

    The image of Maoist China conveyed in the poster art and other propaganda of the regime was that of a regimented and spartan but egalitarian society, without hierarchical class distinctions. Curiously enough, anti-Maoist propaganda conveyed a very similar image: several authors, for instance, dehumanized the Chinese under Mao as "blue ants." In accordance with its egalitarian image, Maoism is commonly classified as a leftwing - indeed, "extreme left" or "ultra-left" - ideology. The blatant inequalities of post-Mao China have served only to enhance the image in retrospect.

    And yet the image was always an illusion, a meticulously maintained lie. The rich memoir literature that has become available since the "thaw" of 1978 begins to dispel the illusions and portray the realities of Maoist China. And one of those realities turns out to be a class structure that differs in detail but not in broad outline from that of the "old China."

    The class geography of Chongqing
    In her autobiographical Daughter of the River, Hong Ying gives us a moving account of growing up in the 1960s and 1970s in a working class family in the provincial city of Chongqing. She maps the local landscape into three sharply divided domains.

    First, the hilly slum district on the south bank of the Yangtze River, where the author used to live - "the city's garbage dump," its "rotting appendix," crowded with ramshackle wooden sheds and with hardly any sewers. The residents are mostly "coolies" - unskilled labourers; it is very rare for a youngster to pass the college entrance exams. So it was before "liberation"; so it was in her time; so, judging by the photos in the book, it remains today.

    Second, on the north bank, the city proper. "The centre of the city," she observes with bitter irony, "might as well be in another world, with red flags everywhere you look and rousing political songs filling the air [and] youngsters reading revolutionary books to prepare themselves for the life of a revolutionary cadre" – like the cadres (officials) who ridicule and humiliate her when she tries to get her father the pension to which as a disabled sailor he is entitled.

    And third, though she has never set eye on them, "the summer houses of the rich and powerful, hidden amid the lush green hillsides surrounding the city." Here, it must be admitted, a minor change has occurred: "Once occupied by Chiang Kai-shek's closest aides and his US advisers [Chongqing was the Kuomintang capital in 1937-45], they now accommodated high-ranking Communist Party officials."

    Decoding the official "class struggle"
    So China under Mao was, like China before Mao and China after Mao, a class-divided society. And, as in any other class-divided society, class struggle existed in various forms. However, the real class struggle between the real classes that made up the society was obscured by unrelenting official propaganda about an illusory "class struggle" ("Never forget class struggle!") that was actually something else entirely.

    In Maoist China the authorities assigned every citizen an official "class" label or political "hat." A great deal depended on this hat, from political influence and social respect to work assignments and access to medical care – not to mention the chance of ending up in a labour camp or on an execution ground. Most labels referred not to current social position but to the alleged former status of the person or of his or her parents and grandparents in the old society. Thus, "poor and lower middle peasants" ("red" categories), "upper middle peasants" (an intermediate category), and "rich peasants" and "landlords" ("black" categories) were currently all collective farmers. The harshest treatment (justified as "class struggle") and most unpleasant jobs were reserved for "landlords," who became a hereditary caste of pariahs like the Indian untouchables.

    The real function of the labels was to measure the presumed degree of loyalty to the regime. Party leaders in good standing, irrespective of family background, belonged to the "red" category of "revolutionary cadre." Both prime minister Zhou Enlai and secret police chief Kang Sheng were sons of big landlords and Mao's own father was a small landlord, but that did not count against them. Conversely, worker or poor peasant origin provided very limited protection to those who challenged party policy: a "class" label could be arbitrarily changed or the malcontent could be dumped in the catch-all category of "bad element."

    So we must decode the official "class struggle" as a continuing campaign to crush all actual and potential dissent. In official discourse "proletariat" (working class) was a codeword for the regime (or whichever faction controlled the regime at any given time). When workers went on strike in 1966-67, they were accused of falling under the influence of class enemies wielding the weapon of "economism." In other words, they were tools of the capitalist class striking against themselves!

    The Cultural Revolution: a campaign against bureaucracy?
    Many Maoist sympathizers acknowledge that China under Mao was a highly unequal society, but put the blame on Mao's opponents within the leadership - the notorious "capitalist roaders" supposedly headed by Liu Shaoqi. Mao himself and those who helped him launch the Cultural Revolution were, we are asked to believe, fighting against the party bureaucracy for a classless society.

    This "anti-bureaucratic" interpretation of the so-called Cultural Revolution is at variance with the official definition of its purpose. It was basically a brutal witch-hunt, assisted and supervised by the secret police, against anyone suspected of disloyalty to the "Emperor." So intended targets did include many specific bureaucrats suspected of opposing Mao's policies, but not the bureaucracy as a whole. True, in some places control over the movement was lost for a time, and Red Guards started deciding for themselves whom to attack. One organization even denounced the "butcher" Kang Sheng, who acted promptly to isolate and arrest its activists. In Hunan a Red Guard alliance called Sheng-wu-lien published a manifesto redefining the enemy more broadly as "the new bureaucratic bourgeoisie." Denounced as a "counter-revolutionary" by Mao himself, Yang Xiguang, author of the manifesto, was jailed for ten years and narrowly escaped execution. (For more on Sheng-wu-lien, see here. On Yang Xiguang, who died in Australia in 2004, see here and his book Captive Spirits: Prisoners of the Cultural Revolution.)

    At least since 1949, all top party leaders have lived and worked under extremely privileged conditions and in virtually total isolation from ordinary people. In Beijing they cloister themselves (and their servants) inside the Zhongnanhai complex, while in summer they vacation together at the seaside resort of Beidaihe. We get a sense of the unhealthy, claustrophobic and paranoid atmosphere of this environment from the memoirs of Mao's personal physician, Dr. Li Zhisui (The Private Life of Chairman Mao). Jiang Qing, Kang Sheng, and other members of Mao's faction were certainly no less privileged, corrupt or cynical than his opponents. It is absurd to cast them as champions of the people.

    The Red Guards appeared to be attacking privilege, but appearances were deceptive. First, they only attacked the privileges of those who had already been identified as "class enemies" on other grounds. Second, the net result of their rampage was merely the redistribution of privilege and property within the elite. Some individuals temporarily or permanently lost positions of power, while others - favoured Red Guard leaders and assorted opportunists - were elevated into the nomenklatura. The numerous antiques that Red Guards confiscated from well-to-do homes ended up not in public museums and art galleries but in storerooms where army generals and their wives took their pick -- as did Kang Sheng, himself a keen collector (John Byron and Robert Pack, The Claws of the Dragon).

    Styles of capital accumulation
    What then were the real policy differences between Mao and the "capitalist roaders"?

    Any state capitalist regime must pursue the long-term goal of capital accumulation within the context of great-power competition. In this respect there is no difference between Mao's "Great Leap Forward" (1958-61) and the "Four Modernizations" of the post-Mao period. But there is an important difference in strategy and style of management. Mao, a romantic with a pre-scientific mentality, relied on unrealistically ambitious and consequently disastrous campaigns. Aiming to overtake Britain in steel production, he forced the peasants to neglect agriculture and build small "backyard" furnaces that produced junk, plunging the country into history's greatest famine. The "capitalist roaders" wanted a more rational, steady and sustained strategy for the accumulation of national capital. Mao's idiosyncratic impulses kept on messing things up for them.

    What did Maoism mean for ordinary people? Some of Mao's policies may have been of benefit - for example, the (now defunct) "barefoot doctor" program that attempted to make basic medical care available to the rural population. On balance, however, the modest positive impact of such policies was surely outweighed by all the suffering, repression, waste and disruption for which Mao was responsible.
    STEFAN

    Oil Wars (2007)

    Book Review from the June 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Oil Wars. Mary Kaldor, Terry Lynn Karl and Yahia Said, eds: Pluto Press

    The basic idea behind this volume is the distinction between two kinds of oil-related wars. Old oil wars were about achieving security of oil supplies by directly controlling territory or influencing those who ruled it. The new wars differ in that countries with large oil supplies often have weak governments and are characterised by disorder and terror. Case studies of Nigeria, Angola, Chechnya, Nagorno Karabakh, Aceh and Colombia are employed to illustrate this point.

    Nigeria, for instance, is a typical petro-state, heavily dependent on oil for taxes and exports. In the Niger Delta, oil exploration and production have aggravated poverty and had a devastating effect on the environment. Various military regimes used oil revenues for their own ends, while protest movements have often been corrupted by the prospects of getting an income from the oil. In Angola most of the oil is produced offshore and the petroleum industry is a true enclave sector, with little contact with the war-torn parts of the country. So it's seen by the big international oil companies as a reliable supplier, since the fighting barely affects production.

    In the former Soviet Union, oil has become a pawn in global power politics. A pipeline from Baku to Tbilisi would bypass Russia, which is therefore unwilling to allow an independent Chechen state. In Aceh in Indonesia the industrialisation resulting from the exploitation of oil and gas has led to the dispossession of local farmers and the growth of cities with massive unemployment. The Casanare area of Colombia has seen oil reserves produce great wealth for the local rulers, but this has not trickled down to most of the population: 'Instead, people have lived in permanent fear and insecurity.'

    The concluding chapter argues that 'geopolitical competition, which is the key characteristic of "old oil wars", is counterproductive if the aim is to secure the supply of oil.' Instead, cooperative strategies should be pursued - as if this were just a matter of choice rather than an impossible dream within the competitive society of capitalism.

    A Socialist conclusion would be that living somewhere with large oil reserves may not be a blessing at all, as you're likely to be subject to violence and massive social and environmental disruption, whether in new- or old-style wars.
    Paul Bennett