Friday, August 31, 2007

Misplaced Admiration (1997)

The following article appeared in the Socialist Standard ten years ago, in the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana. It is reproduced here from the pamphlet, 'A Socialist Life -  a collection of articles from the Socialist Standard 1995-2000' by Heather Ball.

Do I care that Diana Spencer was killed in a car crash in Paris? I do, but not to order and never in the way I am expected to care. In almost all cases we humans are saddened by death. We know that without any doubt we must all come to an end and to know how this will take place or where or when is probably at the back of most of our minds. But I find it incomprehensible that I should be expected to grieve to distraction over a woman I have never met, was never likely to meet and had no desire to meet. Not only that but I now find that an assumption is made that I will automatically become involved in some of the sickening hypocrisy that we have all witnessed in the wake of her death, and I must say I find this deeply insulting to my intelligence.

If Diana preached that we should not discriminate against people with AIDS, so what? If she told us that land mines should not be used to kill civilians, so what? Is there something intrinsically clever or wise about this? So many of us have said the same. But Diana was listened to and admired because like everything else under capitalism she had been "packaged", her money and her position entitling her to be "right" in the eyes of those people who are impressed by such things.

She was a princess and princesses, unlike other people, apparently, KNOW these things. Wealth had made her attractive and interesting, ensuring therefore, that when she spoke about AIDS victims, the homeless children, then she would be taken much more seriously than when we lesser mortals give voice on similar subjects.

So only the successful and the wealthy have that priority of wisdom, while the rest of us are seldom consulted except for one day every five years when we have the dubious honour of being invited to put a cross against the name of some remote person who knows and understands less than we do.

So what is it about human beings that they often cannot differentiate between what is real and matters and what is cosmetic, contrived and overly sentimental? Centuries of conditioning must be one of the reasons why the human race resorts to adulation of the rich and the powerful, the sages, the clever ones, those who know what is best for us, whom we allow to enslave us, resulting in an almost innate inferiority. The media and the system under which we all live encourage this. It is to their advantage.

Many of us will have worked all our lives to change this system of society, while others believe that belonging to a trade union or joining the Labour Party will increase the chances of a better life for the working class, believing that reform will bring about change and benefit us all. Socialists know that only by eradicating capitalism can we begin to redress injustice and poverty and look towards a sensible and rational life for us and our children and their children.

Meanwhile, my heart aches for those who do not dare to trust their own judgement, who fawn on the shallow figures in our society and make gods and goddesses of them because they have never considered that the power to change what is sick in this world lies in their own hands.
Heather Ball


Hope Over Experience (2007)

Book Review from the September 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Pirates of the Caribbean – Axis of Hope. Tariq Ali. (Verso Press)

A need to "counter systematic disinformation by the corporate media networks" coupled with the "revival of hope and the emergence of a modest alternative to the status quo" is the stated motivation for this book. One wouldn't expect neutral views on any topic from Tariq Ali, but however strongly he presents them they are backed up with ample evidence of and references to the truths he is presenting. What one would expect and what one gets is a well-written, clearly argued book exploring the growing movements (mainly in South America) against the Washington Consensus which "can allow no enemies of globalization."

Included is a reminder of the ravages of primitive accumulation affecting the whole continent; a brief history of Venezuela's politics, dictatorships juxtaposed with spells of democracy and the odd coup thrown in; military control; states of emergency; mass protests following IMF restructuring; massacres and decades of exclusion for 80+ percent of the population. The background to the founding of the Bolivarian groups (in the army and air force starting in 1978) by young army officers including Chavez. Ali's sources telling of the programme of political interventions in Venezuela are many, including one 1960s senior CIA officer. He lists books, documents and websites for those wishing to delve further. Two of the many interesting footnotes, one re: V .S. Naipaul's refusal to be drawn into the disinformation racket after the 2002 coup attempt and the other re: a soon to be published book by Gregory Wilpert which totally supports "with a wealth of facts" the Irish documentary film "The Revolution will not be Televised."

Ali is overtly supportive of the moves in South America against the Washington Consensus and points to the ways the balance of power is changing.

There is a section on Bolivia outlining the struggle of the people to oust Bechtel and their water privatization scheme described as the democracy from below that is feared by neo-liberal elites everywhere. Also offered is an insight into Evo Morales' search for "a form of radical social democracy that is totally unacceptable to the Washington Consensus and its institutions." Ali suggests we should all look at strength in unity (e.g. Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia), "All Andean paths that divert from the neo-liberal motorway will be worth exploring." He gives some details of his first trip to Cuba in 2005 and reminds us of the 1962 Second Declaration of Havana expounding that their struggle was continental and anti-imperialist, as Chavez and Morales say now. Visiting the University of Information Technology he discovered Richard Stallman's free software GNU/Linux to be the system of choice. When Ali met Stallman earlier in Caracas, at which time Stallman was 'Linuxing the country' and looking to do the same in Cuba, Stallman told him that China, too, had been very interested until they learned they couldn't charge users for the facility.

The appendices prove informative too, with first-hand information, straight from the mouths of several involved horses, information we are not privy to from the general media. Evo Morales' speech 'In Defence of Humanity' in Mexico City talks of ending selfishness and creating solidarity and mutual aid, of organizing and uniting against the (neo-liberal, imperialist) system, of strengthening the power of the people. The messages from this book are rousing, loud and clear, if, unfortunately, they are not the whole story; end of neo-liberalism and of empire, but no mention of the end of capitalism. According to Tariq Ali, "Hope has been reborn and that is half the battle won." However inspirational it may be socialists suspect that this will in all likelihood be another triumph of hope over experience.
Janet Surman

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

People Who Obsess Over Political Personalities

Reproduced with kind permission from the Commie Curmudgeon Blog:

People Who Obsess Over Political Personalities: Why Do They Even Bother, and Why Do They Call It Politics?

Trying to get some inspiration for my more political blog here . . . and the resources are scarce. I've been thinking lately about how a lot of people who consider themselves to be concerned about politics, and who are talked about as being "political," spend so much time talking about or targeting some politician or political leader or political leader's dirty tricks . . . This seems to be a particularly favorite pastime of some "political" journalists. Yet, to me, this stuff gets pretty boring, and it isn't even really politics.

I'm getting pretty tired of people obsessing over Bush and his corrupt cronies or some evil character in the Bush administration. (Same goes for lower-level politicians, of course.). It's true that we have a particularly nasty and mostly stupid character in the highest office, but it would be more interesting to me, rather than talking about what an evil or stupid bastard he is, to talk about how he got there in the first place, what system we live under that would grant someone such power - or grant anyone such power, for that matter - and what function those in power serve in the bigger scheme of things.

If I'm interested at all in politics (and at times I've been told that I was obsessed with politics, of a sort), then it's not the kind of "politics" which focuses endlessly on this or that crook or murderer and all the sad little scandals surrounding him or her. If I want to think about a political or social situation in terms of individuals, I'd rather focus on the individuals who don't have fame and power, who have to struggle from day to day. And this is not just, solely a product of my political beliefs (I don't think) or some idealistic desire to stand up for the "ordinary" person. Frankly, I just find focusing on that "ordinary" person, somebody who almost nobody knows about, to be much more interesting, especially when I can start thinking about how that individual's struggle relates to the bigger social picture.

And if I want to think about making political changes, it's interesting to me only if I can think about the bigger picture, rather than just targeting some powerful individual as though stamping out that individual is going to change things in the long run; that is, in any truly political sense.

It is true that it can be gratifying to see the demise of this or that evil, stupid bastard. But in the long run, unless we think about changing the whole system, what's the point? Eliminate one petty dictator or crook and another one will come up to replace him (or her, of course) soon enough. As the saying goes, it's kind of like stamping out cockroaches - and ultimately, just about as interesting.
Richard S.

Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain (9)

Please feel free to repost or forward the message below:
Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain (9)
Dear Friends,
Welcome to the ninth of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.
We now have 678 friends!
Recent blogs:
(1) Death of a child
(2) Maximilien Rubel: Anti-Bolshevik Marxist
(3) Beggar's belief
This week's top quote:
"That which comes directly face to face with the possessor of money on the market, is in fact not labour, but the labourer. What the latter sells is his labour-power. As soon as his labour actually begins, it has already ceased to belong to him; it can therefore no longer be sold by him. Labour is the substance, and the immanent measure of value, but has itself no value. ... That in their appearance things often represent themselves in inverted form is pretty well known in every science except Political Economy." Marx, Das Kapital, Volume 1, Chapter 19.
Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!
Robert and Piers
Socialist Party of Great Britain

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Friday, August 24, 2007

Free Access to What? Some Problems of Consumption in Socialism - a follow up

Letter from the August 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Editors

Might I make one or two observations on Stefan's excellent thought-provoking article (Free Access to What? Some Problems of Consumption in Socialism ) in the July 2007 issue. While free access to goods and services is a distinctive - indeed, defining - feature of genuine socialism, there is a danger of reading too much into this. We sometimes talk about this institution of free access being underpinned by material abundance - or the technological capacity to produce such abundance - but this can create a somewhat misleading and unfortunate impression of socialism being some kind of cornucopian consumer paradise in which our every whim will be accommodated. This is not so and I would hate to imagine that the case for socialism might be perversely interpreted as lending unintentional ideological support to the consumerist values that animate capitalism.

We need to distance ourselves from these kinds of unfortunate connotations that the term "free access" might conjure up. By "free access" is simply meant the absence of any kind of quid pro quo exchange relationship that underlies access to goods and services in capitalism. While one's access to goods and services in socialism will not be linked to one's productive input this does not mean a severing of consumption and production. Even today, in a capitalist society, producers are not really a separate set of individuals from consumers. Yes, I know there is the complicating factor of the non-productive capitalist class of conspicuous consumers, but by large most people are both consumers and producers. However, the atomistic tendencies within capitalism foster a kind of schizoid attitude towards production and consumption in as much as we see these as quite separate spheres with wage labour in the productive sphere being merely a means to an end - to gain an income with which we can purchase commodities in the consumption sphere.

In socialism, this conceptual split between consumption and production will tend to disappear along with an atomistic or egocentric view of the world inculcated by market competition itself. In socialism, of necessity, we will recognise far more clearly and starkly than is the case today that we mutually depend upon each other and that we all benefit by ensuring the needs of our fellows are met. Such empathetic understanding will promote a kind of virtuous circle of sustainable development and is precisely why I would characterise socialism as a moral economy.

In practical terms that might well mean ceasing or curtailing the production of certain kinds of goods - as Stefan suggests - in order to ensure the increased output of higher priority goods. Indeed, a socially agreed hierarchy of production goals will be a very important influence on the allocation of relatively scarce resources. A self regulating system of stock control will reveal the availability of different factor inputs and enable decision makers to identify those inputs which most constrain or limit the output of any given good. If the supply of a particular input is scarce in relation to the different demands placed upon it, it makes sense to be able to sort these different demands into some sort of order in which they ought to be met. This is precisely where a socially agreed hierarchy of production goals will come into play with priority in resource allocation being given to important goals such as meeting basic human needs (like providing adequate nutrition and housing) possibly at the expense of other less important goals such as the production of certain luxury goods. The less important such goals are the more likely are they to be starved of the necessary resources for their manufacture.

Which leads me to my final point. Stefan refers to the possibility of "restricted access" to certain goods possibly involving a coupon system. It occurs to me that an important criteria for such restricted access may derive from what I call a "compensation model". Basically it boils down to this - that in socialism we will inherit many of the spatial inequalities of capitalism and indeed may have to cope with this for some time. An obvious example of this is in the form of housing stock. Houses today are highly variable in quality. For a while at least, some people will still have to live in relatively poor quality housing.

The compensation model suggests that, in return for having to put up with living under these relatively disadvantageous circumstances, such individuals should be compensated in terms of having priority access to those goods at the luxury or frivolous end of the socially agreed hierarchy of production of goals. This is not only a question of natural justice; it will help to ease some of latent tensions that might arise in the development towards a fully rounded and mature socialist society.
ROBIN COX, Alpujarras, Spain

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Conspiracy of Dunces

The Pathfinders column from the August 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Whatever is the point of psychology? Is it really a science if most of its theories are not testable, its tests not controllable and its predictions not reliable? Worse, it takes no account of cultural and political context, focussing on the individual as if they live alone on a desert island, which removes the very large but, for psychologists, awkward possibility that society and not the individual is the problem. Whatever useful insights it may have afforded over the years could be as nothing to the damage it has done to individuals and to social preconceptions about individuals, condemning people in droves to a panoply of 'isms' and 'ologies' and 'opathies' rather as Soviet doctors used to diagnose political dissent as a mental illness to be treated by hospital confinement in a gulag. Generations of mentally unstable people may well have been relentlessly tortured by well-meaning practitioners of 'obvious' truths which could turn out to be wrong, such as the idea that it is best to relive your childhood potty traumas instead of letting sleeping dogs lie (New Scientist, February 3). Small wonder many recovered mental health patients themselves regard 'therapist' as two words.

Psychology, like string theory, exists in the grey hinterland somewhere out of reach of mainstream science but still disproportionately influential in the intellectual zeitgeist, somehow not quite untrue enough to disregard completely, but frustratingly beyond any concrete and reliable quantification. But whereas the nutty and mind-bending world of quantum mechanics can at least point to its equations as evidence of its roots in solid ground, psychology has its feet in shadow and its head in the clouds, as amorphous and elusive as the mind-states of the individuals it claims to illuminate.

A recent article in New Scientist about the perennial phenomenon of conspiracy theories inadvertently underlines just how bovine psychologists can be in their mutual conspiracy to ignore the real world around them (July 14). Beginning with the mildly interesting observation that those who believe one conspiracy theory are more likely to believe others, and that the 18-35 age range, and those in the lower income brackets, are the most susceptible, the article goes on to propose the intriguing idea that major events cannot, in the popular mind, have trivial causes, because our worldview cannot allow it. Positing ourselves as rational creatures in a supposedly ordered and rational universe, we shy away from the hideous tyranny of randomness, that force of nature which defies our control and thus denies us our sense of meaning and 'place'. Thus, Princess Diana didn't die because a driver got drunk, it was all a vast conspiracy involving the top echelons of power. Ditto JFK, who ninety percent of Americans believe could not possibly have been offed by one lone nutter with a rifle and some personal issues but rather good eyesight. Ditto 9/11, whose reverberations spanned the globe like Krakatoa, and which clearly couldn't have been simply the work of a few homicidal amateurs who got very, very lucky.

As with so many arguments in psychology, there is something in all of this, though not much. True, people like a sense of order, and in an ordered world, effects ought not to be wildly disproportionate to their causes. Yet people don't automatically create a conspiracy theory out of their children getting randomly run over in the street, or losing their job, or suffering some other deep and personal tragedy. And why not? Because in these cases, they are usually in possession of the facts. And this is the key social difference which, as usual, the psychological explanation removes from consideration.

People don't fall for conspiracy theories because of some metaphysical hunger for proportionality, but because they know - and those in the lower economic reaches know particularly well - that the working class in general, like the proverbial mushrooms, are kept in the dark and fed on shit, and that in such solitary confinement, imposed by shadowy jailers with almost biblical power over the means of communication, almost anything might be true.

So, no real need to invoke psychology at all. Put any sentient, self-aware animal in an environment where they can't trust their senses, and pretty soon they'll stop functioning 'rationally' and display all the signs of being mad as hatters.

What is particularly unfortunate about conspiracy theories is not that they foster a view of the world as hopelessly in thrall to some shadowy elite with god-like power, because this is largely true. What it incorrectly encourages is the much more damaging idea that this elite is actually much cleverer than the rest of us.

In fact, politics, even geo-politics, is not brain surgery, and world leaders, despite their privileged backgrounds, are not exceptionally gifted individuals. Anyone who can run a corner shop could run a country, given the same infrastructure and advisors as the present incumbents, and allowing the same level of incompetence in an economic system which is anyway chaotic, unpredictable and accident-prone. They may not do any better, but they wouldn't do any worse.

And thus the central mistake of conspiracy theorists is the notion that anyone is really in control of anything. Did Blair force the UK population into war with Iraq against their will, based on power and intelligence they didn't have? No, he lied through his teeth and then held his nerve, while the protestors held a couple of big demos and then gave up, satisfied that they had done their bit. He didn't really have the power to go to war, he just bluffed the working class into believing he did.

And the resulting quagmire of blood in Iraq illustrates perfectly why the cultural institution of leadership, based as it is on this assumption that there are 'experts' who know better than us, can be so catastrophic. Just as science in the US cannot advance until the reactionary moron in the White House is removed, so it is only with the retiring of Blair that a new administration can start to make tentative noises about 'reconsidering' the Iraqi affair. A socialist democracy is one which presupposes that everyone is in possession of the facts and that there is no leader whose decisions cannot be reversed, even when the disastrous consequences are screaming at everyone.

Yet the notion that those in control know what they're doing is hard to shift, even as news comes that many biohazard centres have failed to report accidents and leaks, because there is a culture of silence, reinforced by the unexpected jailing of one scientist who did report losing some vials of plague (New Scientist, July 14), and that you can buy dirty bomb materials like caesium in the US because nobody checks your credentials (New Scientist, July 27).

Fortunately perhaps, those whose messianic task is to attack the institutions of 'western imperialism' by removing limbs and heads from innocent workers, are no more competent than anyone else. What is overwhelmingly apparent from the recent stories of the failed London bombers, with their rucksacks full of soggy chapatti flour, and the bizarre and shambolic episode of the two doctors and their astonishingly low-tech attempt to set fire to Glasgow airport, is the towering ineptness of these suicidal warriors of the new order. As New Scientist couldn't help wondering, with their medical knowledge and access to drugs and radioactive material, why on earth the two Glasgow doctors couldn't have come up with something more imaginative than a Range Rover with a few gallons of petrol on board. Still, on reading the protestations of innocence made by those other men who were amazed to find themselves being prosecuted, and just recently jailed, for loudly and persistently advocating mass-murder in the wake of the Mohammed Cartoons affair (they claimed they were making 'a joke'), it is clear that IQ is not an inexhaustible commodity among terrorists any more than it is in the establishment.

Can all this possibly be explained by the Peter Principle, we ask? This is the famous idea, formulated in his 1968 book by Dr Lawrence J. Peter, that in a hierarchy every member tends to rise to his or her level of incompetence. The subversive corollary of this, which Dr Peter took some care to avoid stating explicitly, concerned as he was primarily with business organisations, is that all hierarchical organisations, including the capitalist system itself, are necessarily run by idiots.

Surely not, you protest. Wouldn't such a world be insanely self-destructive, out of control and in defiance of every principle of common sense and good management? It cannot be so. The conspiracy theorists, for one, would never allow it.
Paddy Shannon

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain (8)

Dear Friends,

Welcome to the eighth of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

We now have 656 friends!

Recent blogs:

1) Engels on Thomas Muenzer
2) Boom goes bust

This week's top quote:

"Indeed, in my opinion, nothing has contributed so much to the corruption of the original idea of Socialism as the belief that Russia is a Socialist country and that every act of its rulers must be excused, if not imitated.
And so for the past ten years I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the Socialist movement." George Orwell, Preface to the Ukrainian Edition of Animal Farm, March 1947.

Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

Robert and Piers

Socialist Party of Great Britain

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Borders Crossed

From the August 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Does immigration cause working-class problems, or is rather that capitalism needs immigration?

It is all too easy to blame immigrants for causing or at least aggravating problems such as unemployment, bad housing or crime. Whether it is a matter of people from Eastern Europe or South Asia in Britain, or Hispanics in the United States, or Germans in Switzerland, a finger can always be pointed at 'them' for making things worse for 'us'. Socialists, however, prefer to take a wider view, to see processes like immigration as part of world capitalism and its historical development.

In the first place, there are many arguments in favour of immigration made by supporters of capitalism. Workers are more productive in developed than in so-called developing countries, so migrants can produce more in the UK or US than in (say) Mexico or Indonesia, causing the global economy to expand. It tends to be the younger, brighter, more adventurous who migrate, and they are prepared to do the 3D jobs (dirty, difficult, dangerous) that other workers are reluctant to take on — in transport or the hotel industry, for instance. Migrants send remittances to their families back home, thus boosting the local standard of living, and (unlike much official aid) such remittances genuinely go to workers and peasants rather than to bureaucrats or corrupt dictators. Population in the country that migrants go to is kept up by younger migrants, so avoiding the supposed problem of disproportionately many elderly. Allegedly, then, everybody benefits from migration, and free movement is moreover a basic 'human right'. Some writers would compare restrictions on migration to apartheid in South Africa, one of the cornerstones of which was strict laws about where black people could live and work.

Arguments along these lines are found in books such as Philippe Legrain's Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them — which should really be called Immigrants: Capitalism Needs Them. For that is what is really being claimed. Migrants provide capitalists with a supply of cheap, flexible labour, which they have not had to pay to educate, into the bargain. Even before capitalism, there were labour shortages, solved by immigration — the period after the Black Death in the fourteenth century is an example. But capitalism, with its insatiable appetite for labour power, is the true era of increased demand. Acute shortage of workers after the Second World War led to the importation of workers from the West Indies. During the oil boom in the Gulf, large numbers of cheap labourers migrated, including nearly five million to Saudi Arabia. Lebanon, too, has many immigrant workers from Syria, who perform much of the unskilled labour. In Scotland many employers are concerned that the country's population has fallen below five million, and look to immigrants to make up the shortfall. This year, British farms have lost large parts of their strawberry crop, because there are not enough immigrant workers prepared to come and pick the fruit, which highlights the fact that capitalism sometimes needs immigrant workers to keep profits up.

Rival capitalists, however, take different views on the usefulness or otherwise of immigrant labour. In the US, Bush recently attempted to set up a formal guest worker system. 'Illegal' immigrants currently there would have been allowed to apply for citizenship, at a price of course. But the Senate defeated the bill, preferring to maintain border security. One employer who supported the reform commented that its opponents were 'destroying the economy to save the US border' (BBC News Online, 29 June).

Over the centuries many different peoples have migrated to the British Isles, from Vikings to Italians, Jews to Africans. In both World Wars the British Army contained many troops from overseas (almost a third in the Great War). Many cherished British institutions were developed by migrants — not just Marks and Spencer but Moss Bros, Burton's, ICI and meals on wheels. Even the figureheads at the top of the tree are migrants: the royal family was French after the Norman Conquest, and later German. Queen Victoria, often seen as one of the greatest British monarchs, had almost all German ancestors, and she and Prince Albert spoke German to each other.

As such examples might suggest, movement across national frontiers was once less encumbered than it is now. The Aliens Act of 1905 and the imposition of passports during the First World War led to all the paraphernalia of visas, border controls, illegal immigration and so on. Immigrant ships could now be turned back, and customs officers could refuse entry to those deemed unable to support themselves. But the whole border and migration system is very expensive to maintain, another reason why many capitalists dislike it. In 1999, for instance, the Immigration and Naturalization Sevice in the US had a budget of over $4 billion, mostly spent on the border with Mexico.

It is often objected that migrants move from one country to another in order to claim benefits and live off the backs of 'indigenous' people. But there is no reason to think this is true in the vast majority of cases. Benefits are low, and most migrants are not entitled to them anyway. The migration journey can be expensive and hard, often indeed fatal, with many dying at sea on leaky boats or while trying to cross a frontier. Migrants are rarely well off in the country they move to, forming an underclass with little if any security of employment or housing. A committee of the British parliament described official attitudes to migrants and paying benefits to them as 'a deliberate policy of destitution', a rare example of straight talking from such a body.

Margaret Thatcher famously talked of people afraid of being 'swamped' by immigrants, a refrain taken up by the British National Party and MigrationWatch. The latter want strict limits on numbers of migrants, while the BNP want to stop immigration to the UK completely and start a programme of 'voluntary' resettlement. Even workers who do not support such ideas may still blame migrants as convenient scapegoats. This is often based on totally wrong ideas, such as that the proportion of immigrants in the British population is far higher than its true figure of four percent, or that asylum-seekers receive much more in benefits than the measly sum they actually get.

The Socialist response to all this is simply to point out that poverty and social disruption are caused by capitalism, a social system which requires the vast majority of the population to rely on selling their labour power to survive. With or without immigration there will be unemployment, homelessness, crime. Migration is the other side of globalisation, the massive increase in the interdependence of various parts of the planet. Investment is directed overseas, as capitalists look for the biggest profit they can extract and build factories or sweatshops in China, Thailand, and so on. But at the same time some jobs have to be done in the developed world — foodstuffs can be grown half way around the world, but the cooks, waiters and dishwashers have to work in restaurants in London or Manchester.

Equally, talk about migration undermining indigenous culture is so much hogwash. A nation is not something natural but an artificial idea that has been constructed over the centuries, based on accidents of geography and history. From fish and chips to curry and pizza, food in Britain is a mixture just as much as the inhabitants of these islands are. Globalisation may be leading to a unitary world culture, but Starbucks and American television are more responsible for this than migration.

"Open borders" is a capitalist slogan, not one that Socialists endorse. Socialism will be a world without borders and with no concept of migration, where we will all be at home anywhere.
Paul Bennett

Monday, August 13, 2007

Howard Zinn’s ’Marx in Soho’

"Marx in Soho – A Play on History" Howard Zinn. South End Press

Witty, imaginative, to the point, with the ability to stir the emotions from frustration and anger to amusement, hilarity even, this was originally conceived as a traditional play which Zinn later reworked into this monologue. Zinn read Das Kapital (Volume 1 at least) before the age of twenty and was excited to recognize "certain core truths" about the value of labour, surplus value and the division of the classes, i.e. labour was the source of all value; labour produced a value beyond its meagre wages; surplus value went into the pockets of the capitalist class.

The play was written at the time when the collapse of the Soviet Union brought on much gloating from the media and politicians because "not only was 'the enemy' gone, but the ideas of Marxism were discredited." Zinn wanted to show "that Marx's critique of capitalism remains fundamentally true in our time." The opening of the play has Marx, having been granted an hour to return to Earth to defend his stance of a century and a half earlier, arriving in the wrong Soho – New York, not London – to point out the relevancy of his writing to today's working population (the audience). Zinn states that the major events are historically accurate but that there is some literary licence regarding his meetings with Bakunin and the relationships within his own family (especially with Jenny and Eleanor) and although most of the dialogue is invented he uses Marx's own words liberally.

This is a refreshingly different approach to bringing the fundamental ideas of Marx home, stressing, by using humour, just how relevant the principles of Das Kapital still are. "Did I not say 150 years ago that capitalism would enormously increase the wealth of society but that this wealth would be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands?---(reads from newspaper)—'Giant merger of Chemical Bank and Chase Manhattan Bank. 12,000 workers will lose jobs---Stocks rise.' And they say my ideas are dead."

Commonly held confusions about communism and socialism are laid bare here with Marx becoming angrier as he (from this end of the 20th century perspective) looks back at Stalin's legacy. He barks out "Socialism is not supposed to reproduce the stupidities of capitalism." Industry, war, national borders, prisons, the Paris Commune, education, all subjects are covered with relevant jibes at the current political situation – "because people voted, it was thought they had a democracy. A common mistake."

Marx's anger builds as he remonstrates at the slowness of succeeding generations to accept and act on what he foretold but, realizing that he only has limited time to get his message across at this, his second coming, he mellows somewhat, reiterates the basic premises and leaves us with hope for the future – if we get off our asses!

This book is fun and will serve both to rekindle and enliven the tired socialist spirit and to encourage and further motivate active participation by armchair socialists.
Janet Surman

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Red Crosses for Johnson & Johnson

From the Socialist Courier blog:

Capitalism cares little for society other than as a milk-cow for profits and further profits. Socialists are rarely shocked by the depths of decency that capitalists will go to accrue profits.

Johnson and Johnson is suing the American Red Cross, alleging the charity has misused the famous red cross symbol for commercial purposes. The lawsuit asks for sales of disputed products - also including medical gloves, nail clippers, combs and toothbrushes - to be stopped and unsold items to be handed over to Johnson and Johnson. The firm is also seeking damages equivalent to the value of such goods sold in supermarkets such as Wal-Mart.

Johnson and Johnson claim a deal with the charity's founder in 1895 gave it the "exclusive use" of the symbol as a trademark for drug, chemical and surgical products. It said American Red Cross had violated this agreement by licensing the symbol to other firms to sell certain goods. The lawsuit argues that the firm reached an agreement with the charity's founder Clara Barton about the commercial use of the symbol for certain products. It maintains that the charter did not give the charity the right to engage in commercial activities which would conflict with a private company.

The American Red Cross described the lawsuit as "obscene", adding that it believed the firm's actions were financially motivated.

It said many of the products at issue were health and safety kits and that profits from their sale had been used to support disaster-relief campaigns.
Alan Johnstone

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Chomsky on Anarchism and the State

Hat tip to Alan J of Mailstrom blogging fame for finding the excerpt from a recent Chomsky interview.
We have issues with Chomsky's characterisation of Lenin and Trotsky actions as being part of the "orthodox Marxist" tradition but, for all that, it is an interesting excerpt. The whole interview with Daniel Mermet can be accessed
here.

Daniel Mermet: Critics tend to lump you together with the anarchists and libertarian socialists. What would be the role of the state in a real democracy?
Noam Chomsky: We are living here and now, not in some imaginary universe. And here and now there are tyrannical organisations - big corporations. They are the closest thing to a totalitarian institution. They are, to all intents and purposes, quite unaccountable to the general public or society as a whole. They behave like predators, preying on other smaller companies. People have only one means of defending themselves and that is the state. Nor is it a very effective shield because it is often closely linked to the predators. But there is a far from negligible difference. General Electric is accountable to no one, whereas the state must occasionally explain its actions to the public.
Once democracy has been enlarged far enough for citizens to control the means of production and trade, and they take part in the overall running and management of the environment in which they live, then the state will gradually be able to disappear. It will be replaced by voluntary associations at our place of work and where we live.

DM: You mean soviets?
NC: The first things that Lenin and Trotsky destroyed, immediately after the October revolution, were the soviets, the workers' councils and all the democratic bodies. In this respect Lenin and Trotsky were the worst enemies of socialism in the 20th century. But as orthodox Marxists they thought that a backward country such as Russia was incapable of achieving socialism immediately, and must first be forcibly industrialised.
In 1989, when the communist system collapsed, I thought this event was, paradoxically, a victory for socialism. My conception of socialism requires, at least, democratic control of production, trade and other aspects of human existence.
However the two main propaganda systems agreed to maintain that the tyrannical system set up by Lenin and Trotsky, subsequently turned into a political monstrosity by Stalin, was socialism. Western leaders could not fail to be enchanted by this outrageous use of the term, which enabled them to cast aspersions on the real thing for decades. With comparable enthusiasm, but working in the opposite direction, the Soviet propaganda system tried to exploit the sympathy and commitment that the true socialist ideal inspired among the working masses.

DM: Isn't it the case that all forms of autonomous organisation based on anarchist principles have ultimately collapsed?
NC: There are no set anarchist principles, no libertarian creed to which we must all swear allegiance. Anarchism - at least as I understand it - is a movement that tries to identify organisations exerting authority and domination, to ask them to justify their actions and, if they are unable to do so, as often happens, to try to supersede them.
Far from collapsing, anarchism and libertarian thought are flourishing. They have given rise to real progress in many fields. Forms of oppression and injustice that were once barely recognised, less still disputed, are no longer allowed. That in itself is a success, a step forward for all humankind, certainly not a failure.


For details of the latest Socialist Standard, click on the picture below:

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Strictly For The Birds

From the August 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

In his latest book on evolution, The Ancestor's Tale, Richard Dawkins offers a "sociobiological" explanation for money. Apparently, it goes back to the time when our ancestors were still apes. He supposes an upright ape-man using his freed hands to carry back food to "trade favours" with other members of his troop, and comments:
"Chimpanzees are known to share meat for favours. In historic times, this kind of I.O.U. became tokenised in money" (p. 82).

In a new chapter added to the second edition in 1989 of The Selfish Gene he gave another example: birds needing to have another bird to pick nits off their head since they couldn't do it themselves. The first bird to nit-pick another has no guarantee that the other bird will reciprocate, but, according to computer models, the ideal situation, which Dawkins says will therefore be brought about by natural selection, is one where all the birds will nit-pick each other in return for being later nit-picked themselves. He again opined "money is a formal token of delayed reciprocal altruism".

What, you may ask, have meat-sharing chimps and nit-picking birds to do with money? Nothing in fact, but this is typical of how "sociobiologists" attempt to explain a human social practice in terms of biology.

If this sociobiological theory of money were true, this would mean that money would have originated within separate human societies when, supposedly, instead of people doing each other favours for free they started to ask for an IOU which they could later use to get someone else to do them a favour. The trouble is that this is not what anthropologists have discovered about how money began. In The Evolution of Culture, which came out as long ago as 1959, Leslie A. White, wrote: "commercial exchange originated in intersocietal relations", i.e., between not within societies.

The earliest human societies were communistic; what was gathered and hunted was shared in accordance with customary rules which amounted to "from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs". There was no barter or money.

Shells and stones found far from where they would normally be indicate that, even in these early days, there could have been some trading between different tribal communities. For millennia this would have been on the basis of barter, but this is not the same as "delayed reciprocal altruism". Something that took a certain amount of time to produce would exchange for something that took more or less the same time, and immediately on the spot.

Nor did money originate as an IOU. At a later stage, when, after the break-up of tribal communism and the coming of private property, trading became more widespread and began to appear within societies, barter was found to be too cumbersome. What then emerged was something that could be exchanged for anything else – a universal equivalent, or money. But the object filling this role had to have a value of its own by virtue of being a product of labour. Otherwise nobody would accept it.

According to White, all sorts of things have served as money in the past: cowrie shells, beads, dog's teeth, bundles of unthreshed rice, sacks of beans, copper axe blades, cattle. In the end, following developments in the techniques of metallurgy, the precious metals silver and gold emerged as the money-commodity. First as weights, then as coins, then paper and metallic tokens for them. But this evolution had nothing to do with some biological urge in people to do each other favours which they expect to be returned. Money arose out of producing goods for sale instead of directly for use. It will disappear when socialism is established and production for use and distribution "from each according to abilities, to each according to needs" restored.

Dawkins should stick to studying birds (or devouring priests).

The Scramble For The North Pole

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

Last Thursday a Russian mini-submarine descended to the seabed two-and-a-half miles under the North Pole. But this was not just a scientific expedition and achievement. The main aim was to plant a Russia flag there. In other words, to claim the sovereignty of the Russian State over the area.

Why? Why do you think? Oil of course:

"The US Geological Survey estimates that some 25 per cent of world oil reserves are located north of the Arctic Circle" (The Times, 3 August).

Until recently extracting these reserves was not a realistic prospect but the beginning of the melting of the polar icecap as a consequence of global warming has made this more possible, if not yet practicable. Hence the posturings and the manoeuvrings of the countries bordering on the Arctic Sea -- the US (Alaska), Canada, Norway, Denmark (Greenland) and Russia.

It's unlikely to come to war and will in all probably be settled through diplomatic negotiations and an agreed carve-up and sharing of the profits made from exploiting the seabed resources of the area. But Russia's move confirms that diplomacy is not just a question of abstract "right" but that "might" also enters into it. Which is why universal disarmament is a pipe-dream under capitalism.

Ironically -- or maybe alarmingly -- access to the oil reserves of the Arctic has been made easier, through the melting of the Arctic icecap, due to the very burning of fossil fuels that has contributed to global warming. If these reserves, too, are burned that would contribute even more to global warming and to the melting of the icecap -- and to rising of sea levels everywhere.

In 1970, when mining the seabed became a practical possibility, President Nixon (of all people) proposed that "the natural resources of the seabed" should be regarded as "the common heritage of mankind". Of course all he meant was that the profits of seabed mineral extraction should be shared amongst all the capitalist states of the world.

But the phrase is a good one. Making the natural and industrial resources of the planet "the common heritage of mankind" -- of all the people of the world rather than of all the capitalist states of the world -- is the only basis on which these resources can be used rationally and for the benefit of all.

Adam Buick

Friday, August 3, 2007

Voice From The Back - The Filthy Rich

Voice From The Back Column from the August 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

THE FILTHY RICH
"Somewhere in the world, 100-foot yachts are derided as 'dinghies' ... and 'true wealth' starts at a hefty $10 million. That's 'Richistan'. The term, which journalist Robert Frank defines as a 'parallel country of the rich,' is also the title of his new book about its inhabitants, whom he calls Richistanis. The book got its start in 2003, when Frank, who reports for The Wall Street Journal, picked up a fresh, full-time beat: the new rich..... From 1995 to 2003, the number of millionaires in America doubled. During the same period, the number of households worth $5 million, $10 million and $25 million, respectively, all doubled. In 2005 alone, America minted 227,000 new millionaires." (USA Today, 17 June) As you are reading this in the Socialist Standard and not the Wall Street Journal it is unlikely you belong to Richistan, you are more likely to be a subject of Povertistan.

WEALTHY GET WEALTHIER
"The 2007 World Wealth Report, from Merrill Lynch and Cap Gemini, indicated that the number of ultra high net worth individuals - with $30 million or more to invest - in Britain rose by 10 per cent last year to about 3,750. About one in six of Europe's 23,460 super-rich now hails from the UK. ... Globally nearly 10,000 more individuals joined the ranks of the super-rich, taking the total to about 95,000." (London Times, 28 June) So much for the Labour Party's promises about a more equitable society.

BIBLICAL WEATHER FORECASTING
The owning class spend a great deal of money in keeping the Meteorological Office running but a reverend gentleman has come up with a super wheeze to save that expenditure. "The floods that have devastated swathes of the country are God's judgment on the immorality and greed of modern society, according to senior Church of England bishops. One diocesan bishop has even claimed that laws that have undermined marriage, including the introduction of pro-gay legislation, have provoked God to act by sending the storms that have left thousands of people homeless. ... The Rt Rev Graham Dow, Bishop of Carlisle, argued that the floods are not just a result of a lack of respect for the planet, but also a judgment on society's moral decadence." (Sunday Telegraph, 1 July) Simple really - read your bible, do what the bishops say and you can close the meteorological offices and get rid of redundant mops. Floods — what floods?

THE FAILURE OF REFORMISM
"Social mobility is more difficult for children in Britain than for those in most other wealthy countries. A study by the London School of Economics found that poorer children born in 1970 had less opportunity to improve their economic and social status as adults than those born in 1958." (London Times, 3 July) Fifty years of reforming British capitalism and the end result is abject failure.

THE CHURCH GOES COMMERCIAL
"A prominent Polish cleric known for preaching against communism and for his anti-Semitic remarks said on Tuesday he planned to launch perfumes, clothing and cafes branded with his image. Father Henryk Jankowski took part in strikes which led to the end of communism in 1989 as part of Solidarity movement. He was later suspended from preaching for a year after insulting remarks about Jews. ... Jankowski, who already has a wine branded with his image under the name 'Monsignore,' said he would be on the panel for 'castings' of waitresses for the 16 cafes he plans to open in major Polish cities." (Yahoo News, 3 July) Wine making? Cafe owners? What about that story about Jesus casting money changers from the temple? On Sunday mornings priests can preach against materialism but capitalism rules the rest of the week.

BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU
"Every day in London, an average person is captured on camera 300 times — on a bus or subway, in stores or office buildings, or simply walking on the street. Britain is home to 20% of the world's closed-circuit cameras, according to a report issued last year by the nation's independent Information Commissioners Office. That may make Britons the most closely monitored people in the world. There are 4.2 million such cameras throughout the country, or one for every 14 people." (USA Today, 4 July) Modern Britain is even more closely monitored than dreamt of by Orwell in his dystopia 1984.

CHARITY AS A STATUS SYMBOL
The immense wealth enjoyed by the British capitalist class is well illustrated by their charity donations. "Two tycoons have in the past few days earmarked stupendous sums for charity: hedge fund manager Chris Hohn, a prime mover in the fight to take over ABN Amro, is giving away £230m, and Peter Crudas, the founder of CMC Markets, is donating £100m. ... The rich have complex motivations for their philanthropy; a real desire to do good may be mixed with wallet-waving competition between Masters of the Universe. Some hope to disarm critics who are uneasy at the gap between rich and poor. Others have so much money they genuinely don't know what to do with it." (Observer, 8 July)

Thursday, August 2, 2007

World Without Borders

Editorial from the August 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

We live in a world which has the potential to adequately feed, house and provide clean water and decent medical care for every single man, woman and child on Earth. The resources exist to banish material want as a problem for members of the human race. Yet millions throughout the world are malnourished, live in squalor or are actually dying of starvation or starvation-related diseases. The big question that faces the human race is: what can be done about it?

For some years, pressure groups concerned with the plight of populations in the less developed countries have urged bankers and governments in the richer nations to cancel the Third World debt. They imagine that if the billions of dollars in loans and interest owed by governments in Africa, South America, and Asia were written off then the crushing burden of poverty suffered by the mass of people in those regions would begin to lift. A fresh way would be open for development, they argue. Food subsidies and health programmes would attack the deaths from malnutrition and disease. Education and housing would raise the quality of life for millions.

These things would not happen. The cancellation of the debt would leave the curse of world poverty intact. The beneficiaries would be amongst the ruling elites who own and control production and distribution in the debtor countries. They are the ones who through their governments owe the money but they are not poor. Amidst the poverty of the masses they live in luxury. Holding power often with brutally oppressive methods they care little for their populations. Their aim is their own self-enrichment. Why should we want to bail them out? Why should we want to ease the way for the rising capitalists of the underdeveloped countries to accumulate capital from the exploitation of workers?

There is of course a case for the populations of the advanced regions giving aid and assistance to the people in areas where infrastructures, services, means of production and distribution are poorly developed. This is the compelling case that those with advantages should put themselves out to help those in need. Most people will accept this but it cannot happen under world capitalism which keeps even our ability to help others in economic shackles — or reduces it to the pathetic levels of charity. The tragic illusion which is misguiding those organising the Cancel the Debt campaign is their belief that the devastating problems of world capitalism can be tackled by re-arranging its finances.

The things that are desperately needed — food, clean water, housing, sanitation, transport, medical services and so on — can only be provided by useful labour, of which there is an abundance throughout the world. Finance is part of a system which operates as a barrier to useful labour producing what people need. Useful production must be freed from the constraints of profit and class interests. Only useful labour applied through world cooperation in a system of common ownership can solve the problems of world poverty.

World socialism could stop the dying from hunger immediately, and provide the conditions for good health and material security for all people across the Earth within a short time. It would do this by producing goods and services directly for need.

World socialism will operate with one simple and ordinary human ability which is universal — the ability of every individual to cooperate with others in a world-wide community of interests. For too long has indignation at human suffering been dissipated by useless causes. How much longer must the price of failure be the misery of countless millions?

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

'The Right To Hunt Landowners'

From an undated 1990s issue of the Socialist Standard (and also used as a text for a leaflet for a Countryside Alliance march)

The good old English sport of sending hungry hunting hounds to chase aristocrats through the woods, catch them and rip them to pieces, has been slow to take off as a popular pastime. Despite claims that these predatory parasites are a foul rural presence, serving only to infect the countryside with their conceited greed and indolence, it has been hard to find dogs with sufficient brutality to enjoy the so-called sport. Those who favour such hunts claim that it is nothing more than a healthy rural tradition, misunderstood by town dwellers, and that ripping duchesses and viscounts to shreds is the most human way to rid nature of those who have only survived historically by plundering and murdering others. The Royal Society for the Protection of Useless Aristocrats has been long split on the issue, with one section accepting that such blood sport is "just a bit of harmless fun", while others prefer the idea of culling – or permanent quarantine in the House of Lords.

This laboured account would be funnier were it not for the harsh reality that rich, privileged, barbaric bullies, most of whom are brutalised at birth by hereditary right and public-school conditioning, do indeed defend their right to chase around the countryside with packs of hounds in order to savage and tear apart defenceless animals. Their callous defence is mounted in the name of sport. And because it is traditional for these parasitical killers to dress up in the costumes of their class and indulge their pleasure in watching deer, foxes and other animals being ripped apart, they respond with well-rehearsed cries of arrogant immunity to human behaviour when their ritualised sadism is opposed.

These depraved beings, who rejoice in their right to inflict pain on animals, are in the same class and historic tradition as those who proclaim the inviolable right to cast the peasant off their land and into destitution and starvation. The same haters of freedom who smashed down the communal utopia of the Diggers when those early communists sought to hold the land in common as a store of wealth for all; the same bullies who until a century ago enjoyed the propertied right to flog peasants and rape their daughters, and still today treat those who work on the land as if they are indebted to the landowners who steal the fruits of their labour. Looking at this savage minority of ruthless parasites, bleating their message of outrage against those reformists (destined to parliamentary defeat) who dare question their freedom to kill for pleasure, it is hard not to wish on them the fate of a frightened cornered fox, surrounded by a pack of dogs trained for the kill.

That, however, is not the socialist way. Why should we lower ourselves to their brutal customs? As Shelley reminded us: "We are many, they are few." They are not worth the bullets which it would take to shoot them. Nor are they important enough to lead us from our hostility to the cause of violence, however guilty the victim has been conditioned to become. No the aristocrats need not fear our blood sports; the victory of our consciousness of human solidarity over theirs of class oppression will be reward enough for us.

But look what these parasites are doing to the land. They spray it with chemical pesticides, killing off whole species of birds, butterflies and plant life in their quest for profits. They have fed cattle upon cheap and lousy diets, creating the BSE crisis and whole varieties of food adulteration which makes us and our children all the potential victims of their profit-lust. They have dumped millions of tons of soil into the rivers which pollute the water which we are charged to drink. They have pursued, in the name of efficient "factory farming", the most obscene practices of cruelty to animals which are tortured for the sake of making a few more pounds for their avaricious owners. They have contracted out farm management to City firms which seek to push down agricultural wages, casualised skilled farm work, thrown wage-slave-farm-workers onto the scrap-heap of the unemployed, and destroyed whole rural areas in the name of agribusiness.

The landowners, who protest for their freedom to enjoy themselves in exhibitions of collective brutality, remain free to rape and vandalise the countryside. As Graham Harvey observed in his book The Killing of the Countryside, "they [the landowners] favour a countryside devoted entirely to industrial-scale food production, with the products traded on world commodity markets in exactly the same way as coffee and copper…Since this 'progressive' view of farming is supported by big business and the City, it is the one most likely to prevail. If so, the current losses of birds and flowers from our landscape will turn out to be merely the first casualties in a long process of attrition."

The beneficiaries of this rural plunder are the very few. One percent of the population owns half the land in Britain and two percent owns three-quarters of it. A mere 600 landowners own half the land in Scotland. These capitalist-farmers are subsidised by huge grants to support their manipulation of the market. They receive millions of pounds and euros in return for taking land out of cultivation so as to keep profits up. Their protest for the right to hunt and murder animals for fun is no more worthy of support than a campaign to reintroduce slavery or to bring back the deportation of criminals. What is a worthy campaign is the one to rid the world of the parasites we have described above and their counterparts the world over, who will stop at nothing to make a profit, whether through our toil and sweat or the plunder of the natural environment. This same campaign envisages the workers of the world uniting to take control of the planet on behalf of its rightful owners, to free production from the artificial constraints of profit and to establish a global system of society in which each person has free access to the benefits of production. If you agree with us, even only slightly, then please get in touch.
Steve Coleman