Monday, June 30, 2008

The return of bleak times (2008)

Editorial from the July 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard
Last month both the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Governor of the Bank of England announced, as they tucked into a slap-up meal at the Mansion House in the City of London, that austerity was returning.
First off was Mervyn King. He warned that real take-home pay would not keep up with rising prices. "It will not be an easy time,“ he said, “and I know that some families will find it particularly difficult.” Alistair Darling made it quite clear that the government was going to help ensure this, declaring that "continued restraint on pay is required from both the public and private sector”.
It’s the same old story. Profits are being squeezed by rises in the price of oil and raw materials and the government is trying to protect them by squeezing wages. This, at a time when wages are themselves being squeezed by rising food prices and gas and electricity bills.
This was not what Gordon Brown promised when he was Chancellor. “My Budget choice is to lock in stability and never put it at risk”. he said when introducing the 2005 budget, “at all times putting Britain’s hard working families first.”
In that same speech he proudly proclaimed that his policies had conquered the stop-go, boom-slump cycle. “Britain”, he said, “is today experiencing the longest period of sustained economic growth since records began in the year seventeen hundred and one.” He wasn’t worried then about rising oil prices. The British economy could take it:
“In any other period an oil price rise of over 100 per cent and rises in industrial materials and metals of around 50 per cent would have led to a surge of British inflation. But inflation - which went as high as 20 per cent in the 1980s and 10 per cent in the early 90s - has, every year in the last eight years, been 3 per cent or less - the least volatile and most stable of all the major industrialised economies.”
Even in his last budget speech as Chancellor in 2007 he was still under the illusion that he had banished the business cycle, proclaiming “that after 10 years of sustained growth, Britain's growth will continue into its 59th quarter – the forecast end of the cycle – and then into its 60th and 61st quarter and beyond”.
He got out just in time. He had been lucky: the up phase of the business cycle in the British economy had happened to coincide with his period as Chancellor.
As socialists who know how capitalism works – how it can’t be controlled by governments and how it can never been made to work in the interest of wage and salary workers – we knew that sooner or later Gordon Brown would have to eat his words. And now he has to.
Now the crunch has come it is not “Britain’s hard working families” that are being put first, but profits. As it has to be, and always will be, under capitalism.

'My Militant Tendency'

From the Inveresk Street Ingrate blog.

This blog doesn't usually do poetry - see Cactus Mouth Informer for a poetry overdose - but I got a message via MySpace from an Irish poet, Kevin Higgins, advertising his latest collection, 'Time Gentlemen, Please', and I like what I've read of his poetry so far.

I'm guessing that Kevin contacted the unofficial Socialist Standard MySpace page because he spotted the 'S' word.

As he writes:

"Several of the poems deal with my own past experience as a member of Militant from 1982-94 and throw some critical and satirical light of the Left as it was and has become – the title of one of the poems being My Militant Tendency - while others attempt to deal with the political situation now."

If this interview from the Galway Advertiser is anything to go by, it appears that he has travelled quite a distance from his political past:

“From the age of 15 to 27 I was an active Trotskyist,” he says. “I was the leader of the anti-poll tax campaign in the London Borough of Enfield when I lived there. From the age of 27 until, say, 38, a couple of years ago I thought it was a pity socialism was clearly now not going to happen. I was in a kind of mourning, I suppose. But now I think that, for all its faults, the society we have is far preferable to anything the ‘comrades’ would bring, were they, Lord protect us, ever to stumble into power.”

I'm not using this an opportunity to have a dig at the Millies. It's his take on his former comrades, and obviously plays some (small) part in the poetry he now writes and, to be honest, it's not the first time that I've read (or heard) a former Millie voice their concerns in such terms. I don't think it's a peculiarity of that version of the Fourth International. I'd venture that it's part and parcel of the whole Leninist tradition and, anyway, any politics which mistakenly roots itself in substitutionism should always carry a health warning.

And I'm also self-aware enough to see I wee bit of my youthful self in this poem:

My Militant Tendency

It's nineteen eighty two and I know everything.
Hippies are people who always end up asking
Charles Manson to sing them another song.
I'd rather be off putting some fascist through
a glass door arseways, but being fifteen,
have to mow the lawn first. Last year,
Liverpool meant football; now
it's the Petrograd of the British Revolution.
Instead of masturbation, I find socialism.
While others dream of businessmen bleeding
in basements; I promise to abolish double-chemistry class
the minute I become Commissar. In all of this
there is usually a leather jacket involved. I tell
cousin Walter and his lovely new wife, Elizabeth,
to put their aspirations in their underpants
and smoke them; watch
my dad's life become a play:
Sit Down In Anger.

More of Kevin's poetry can be viewed here. Details on the newly published collection and a background bio on its author can be viewed here.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Peace sells but who's buying?

From the Socialism Or Your Money Back blog

They are Islamic Fundamentalists, not big on democracy, have WMDs and are getting more. Another war on the cards then? No - it's called buisness and the people in question are Britain's staunch allies: the House of Saud.

"A controversial deal with Saudi Arabia catapulted Britain to the top of the world arms export league last year, as UK firms won a record £10bn in orders from overseas, official figures show.

The figure amounts to a third of all worldwide export orders for military equipment, ministers and arms companies reported. An essentially political, government-to-government contract - the sale of 72 Eurofighter/Typhoon aircraft, for £4.4bn, to the Saudis - accounted for Britain's number one position, the figures make clear.

The Ministry of Defence says the terms of the contract - called Salam, Arabic for peace - and the total expenditure involved are confidential. But officials make it clear that when upkeep, spares and training were included, the deal could amount to £20bn spread over many years. The figures last year were also boosted by orders placed by Oman and Trinidad and Tobago for patrol boats.

The companies involved - chiefly BAE Systems and the VT Group - were praised by the trade minister, Digby Jones.

"As demonstrated by this outstanding export performance, the UK has a first-class defence industry, with some of the world's most technologically sophisticated companies," he said.
From here

A trade minister praising sophisticated killing machines and a contract called "Peace"...? Orwell, anyone?

Graham C Taylor

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Evo Morales: A Call for Socialism?

From the June 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

On 21 April, 2008, President Evo Morales of Bolivia delivered the opening address to the Seventh Session of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York. His speech included the following passage:

“If we want to save the planet earth, to save life and humanity, we have a duty to put an end to the capitalist system. Unless we put an end to the capitalist system, it is impossible to imagine that there will be equality and justice on this planet earth. This is why I believe that it is important to put an end to the exploitation of human beings and to the pillage of natural resources, to put an end to destructive wars for markets and raw materials, to the plundering of energy, particularly fossil fuels, to the excessive consumption of goods and to the accumulation of waste. The capitalist system only allows us to heap up waste. I would like to propose that the trillions of money earmarked for war should be channelled to make good the damage to the environment, to make reparations to the earth.”

Despite the striking anti-capitalist content of most of this passage, the last sentence reveals that Morales does not have a clear conception of the socialist alternative. He still thinks in terms of the money system.

The accurate way of posing the problem focuses not on the waste of money but on the waste of real resources of all kinds – the waste of nature and its bounty, of human life and labour, of knowledge and its potential. True, money represents or symbolizes some – far from all -- of these real resources, but in a very inadequate and distorted manner. To substitute the symbol for the reality is a mystification.

Nevertheless, I would like to argue that Morales is a good deal closer to a true understanding of socialism than most of the so-called “left” in Latin America or elsewhere. The very fact that he is addressing a world forum about the future of the species and the planet suggests that he is seeking an alternative at the global rather than national level. Although nationalization forms part of his domestic policy (the oil and gas industry in Bolivia was nationalized in 2006), he does not equate nationalization with socialism.

The model of the ayllu

In a number of interviews Morales has been asked what he and his movement – the Movement for Socialism (MAS) – understand by socialism. Thus, Heinz Dieterich of Monthly Review (July 2006) asks him what country the socioeconomic model of the MAS most closely resembles. Brazil? Cuba? Venezuela? Morales does not like the way the question is put. (“[Socialism] is something much deeper. … It is to live in community and equality.”) He talks instead about the traditional peasant commune or ayllu of the indigenous peoples of the Andes, based on communal landholding and “respect for Mother Earth.” He himself grew up in an ayllu of the Aymara people in Oruro Province; in some parts of Bolivia such communities still exist.

In another interview, to journalists from Spiegel, Morales says: “There was no private property in the past. Everything was communal property. In the Indian community where I was born, everything belonged to the community. This way of life is more equitable.” As the World Socialist Review, published by our companion party in the United States, comments: “This is more than just a variation on the leftist copout that socialism is a goal for the distant future; it is, on some level, an acceptance of it as a real alternative to capitalism” (See here.)

Rejecting vanguardism

Another indication that Morales is closer than most of the “left” to a genuine understanding of socialism is his opposition to the Bolshevik idea of the “vanguard party.” The MAS, he tells Dieterich, “was not created by political ideologues or by a group of intellectuals, but by peasant congresses to solve the problems of the people.” It has always rejected the pretensions to “leadership” of Leninist groups of different varieties -- followers of Stalin, Trotsky, or Mariategui (a Peruvian Bolshevik who has had great influence on the left in Latin America).

Of course, Morales is not only a thinker with more or less clear ideas about capitalism and socialism. He is also head of the government of an underdeveloped country that has to operate within the parameters of a capitalist world. As such he is no position to realize his more far reaching aspirations. At most, he has been able – like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela – to divert some of the proceeds from the sale of oil and gas to making some improvement to the life of the impoverished indigenous communities.

The fact remains that an internationally known figure has stood up at the United Nations and called upon the world community to bring the capitalist system to an end. Morales’ concept of socialism may be less clear than we would like, but it does at least bear some relation to the real thing. Viewed from the time when the UN and its specialized agencies are converted into the planning and coordinating centre of world socialism, this will, perhaps, be regarded as a milestone in its history.

Stephen Shenfield

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain (52)

Dear Friends,

Welcome to the 52nd of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

We now have 1265 friends!

Recent blogs:

  • Anglo-Marxism
  • Questions Answered - and Asked
  • The museum piece
  • Top quote for our 1st anniversary:

    "The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working Men of All Countries, Unite!" Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848.

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    Sunday, June 22, 2008

    Power and Privilege

    From the Marx and Coca Cola blog


    And this man wants to be president. From MSNBC :

    Senators John McCain and Barack Obama released their Senate financial disclosure statements on Friday, revealing that Mr. McCain and his wife had at least $225,000 in credit card debt...The bulk of the McCains’ obligations stemmed from a pair of American Express credit cards that are held in Cindy McCain’s name. According to the disclosure reports, which present information on debts in a range rather than providing a precise figure, Mrs. McCain owed $100,000 to $250,000 on each card.

    Unlike the millions of Americans who can't afford to pay their bills, because wages haven't risen in years, and are using their credit cards just to get by, Cindy McCain's:
    filing, however, indicated that she had substantial holdings in property and stocks — including shares in Anheuser-Busch, which this week became the target of a takeover bid that is expected to send its value climbing. Her land holdings included parcels in Arizona and California, one of which was sold last year for a profit of more than $1 million.

    In other filings, the McCains have reported total household assets of $24.6 million to $39.5 million. In recently releasing a summary version of her 2006 tax return, Mrs. McCain reported income that year of more than $6 million, some $300,000 of which was derived from her salary as the chairwoman of Hensley, which was founded by her father.

    But here's the punchline courtesy of Huffington Post:
    In fact, according to a prior disclosure form filed in May that was provided to The Huffington Post, a significant amount of the McCains' credit card debt is being held by American Express at an interest rate of zero percent.

    I'm sure that has nothing to do with the fact he's a US senator. Mavericks don't need to pay their bills.

    Wednesday, June 18, 2008

    Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain (51)

    Dear Friends,

    Welcome to the 51st of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

    We now have 1262 friends!

    Recent blogs:

  • Wage-labour versus capital
  • The London bombings: recruiting killers
  • Friday Pep Talk!
  • This week's top quote:

    "And with respect to the mode in which these general principles affect the secure possession of property, so far am I from invalidating such security, that the whole gist of these papers will be found ultimately to aim at an extension in its range; and whereas it has long been known and declared that the poor have no right to the property of the rich, I wish it also to be known and declared that the rich have no right to the property of the poor." [John Ruskin, Unto This last, Essay III, 1860.]

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    Sunday, June 15, 2008

    The happy slave syndrome

    From the June 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

    The following is a transcript of a talk from a recent SPGB Day School.

    For some of us our wage slavery can buy us a comfortable, prosperous lifestyle and personally rewarding work; for others it means being discarded; for most of us perhaps it’s something in between. But in any event, the sole purpose of the capitalist system is to make a profit out of us and to accumulate capital, and no amount of TV property programmes, cars, foreign holidays, latte coffee, or shopping makes any difference to that.

    A certain proportion of us are able to believe that ‘we’re all middle class now’, because some of us at least can afford to accumulate a certain amount of stuff. But this is an illusion; there is no middle class. We’re all working class in the economic sense that we have to sell our labour in order to live, with the exception, of course, of the small number of capitalists who can live entirely on the labour of others. The rest of us are all, economically speaking, working class by virtue of the fact that we have to let ourselves be used, to sell our labour power, to live.

    And yet, how readily we embrace the illusion! From the ‘minnows’ of the Wall Street stock boom in the 20’s to Margaret Thatcher’s new homeowners and the ‘Sids’ of working class share ownership, and now, in Russia, China and India, we reach out again and again in individual aspiration, setting aside the hope of banding together and ending our exploitation. We try to win in the rat race instead of trying to abolish it, thereby ensuring that the capitalist class goes on mining our lives for profit. We are like the credulous ‘natives’ of imperial mythology, marvelling at our handful of pretty beads while the white man robs us of everything.

    Our hope has been dashed in so many ways. Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot have poisoned our understanding by pasting the word ‘socialism’ onto the very opposite, their barbarous tyrannies. Labour movements have been disabled by the capitalists’ increased ability to move capital and workers round the world. Reformist parties have caved in to the needs of capital to the point of embarrassment. We find dumb serenity staring at a screen or through a windscreen.

    Nevertheless, beyond this, I think that we ourselves have been structured to accept this system. One way of looking at the way capitalism has formed us and we form it in turn, is through a consideration of our psychological defences, a psychological term for the means we use to manage our lives in the face of threats to our stability.

    We all try to find ways of defending ourselves psychologically. It’s natural and necessary. We couldn’t get through the day if we were constantly overwhelmed by the world, if we were totally impressionable. However, a defence can distort our awareness of reality, in this case, of how we are made use of, and so we shape ourselves to the economic circumstances, in order to be able to tolerate them.

    The first means of defence I want to look at is ‘projection’. To project can be to imagine that some outside figure or power possesses something that is part of ourselves. For example, a woman who had an unfriendly piano teacher as a child, might project her love of music into her daughter, and want her to do well. Both she is impoverished by her projections,missing out on an opportunity to be creative herself.

    In a similar way, I think that we project our capacities into money, we imagine that money holds great powers, although in reality those powers belong to us.

    We have the ability, all of us, working together as citizens of the world, to run the world together democratically, as equals, with no need for money or other forms of domination. But we act as if we don’t. We project our own functions and capacities into money, we attribute those qualities to money and deny them in ourselves. Money is endowed with the same sort of status as a god, it seems to be the source of everything; but of course we are, as the people of the world, self-evidently, the source of everything. Nothing comes from money; money is an agreed convention; it’s a fiction that holds and wields all the power we can’t bear to own. We are like our fictitious piano woman – she could play the piano but she sees all of that in her daughter. The analogy is that we could run the world, but we let money run it instead.

    We also project into money our adult capacities and onto money the status of a parent on whom we depend. In relation to money it is as if adults are babies or small children, unable to judge whether we need something or not. It is money, the stern parent, that tells us we can’t have things. This parent can be so stern that for many of us money refuses us enough to eat, refuses us medical care. It can deny us the barest dignity in old age, or even life itself. When we can’t have something we need, we say ‘Where’s the money going to come from?’ And this can apply equally to goods which are, in reality, either plentiful or scarce.

    It works the other way too. We assume that our wants are limitless and that, if money weren’t an obstacle, we’d just accumulate things endlessly and not know when to stop. Money then can be an overindulgent parent, that lets us be completely spoilt, that offers us no limits. Money can give us victory over the social and human limitations that come from considering others. If you’ve got enough money you don’t have to give any thought at all to other people, and in this society that’s just about the highest form of freedom we can imagine. When we are living in a wasteful and reckless way, we say ‘We are prosperous now and this is what we want! Nobody can tell us what to do!’

    So the centre of decision making is located outside ourselves. If we can’t afford it we can’t have it, and if we can afford it we have to have it.

    Money starves us or it fattens us up, but either way, it is money that is in control, enabling our labour to be siphoned off and gathered together as profit.

    This oppresses us, but it also frees us of responsibility. If we project our power elsewhere then we are excused the work of taking responsibility for it. Living in a socialist society, having assumed our own power, will indeed be hard work and a lot of it will unfortunately be the boring slog of going to meetings and trying to sort out our relationships with each other socially, and make decisions. In a sense, we don’t want to grow up – far better to leave it to the parents to tell us what to do, while we just gripe from the sidelines.

    The second defence mechanism I’d like to discuss is that of ‘identification’. To ‘identify’ means we fuse or confuse our identity with that of another. For example, I might watch a Clint Eastwood film and feel, for a while at least, as if I too am hewn from granite. But it also means the taking in of another person, so that I might recognise enduring traits in me that are like my own father or mother, for example.

    In this case of our adjustment to capitalism, we identify with the powerful. We prefer to imagine that we are all pocket capitalists. Instead of recognising that the owners of capital might be using us, we imagine ourselves to be in control, and the owners of capital to be our servants. We think we are sophisticated, knowing consumers who know a bargain when we see one, and companies exist to meet our every caprice and whim, rather than the reverse.

    Campaign groups try to publicise the exploitation of suppliers that is the cost of low prices to ‘the consumer’. I wonder whether, identified with the capitalist class, we in some way enjoy supermarkets acting as our agents in pushing other working class people to the limit so we can feel we’re getting a bargain. Isn’t there a seductive joy in being able to feel like the oppressor, like a proxy slave owner with all these poor little people slaving away so we can pick our week’s shopping off the shelves? And what about the fast food customer bullying and patronising the person serving the burgers? Isn’t there an element of acting like the lord of the manor in that behaviour? Isn’t that part of the deal, that you get to boss somebody about?

    However, the supermarkets’ own marketing patter describes our slavery accurately enough, though they put it in advertising code . They describe us as ‘discerning consumers with an eye for price’; decoded, that means that we’re broke and overwhelmed with debt. They say we are ‘leading today’s high pressure, busy lives’. That means we’re overworked, sweated labour just like in Dickens’ time, but repackaged as living some kind of exciting fast-lane lifestyle. We’re not even consumers, not really. The capitalist is the ultimate consumer. The cost of our labour is the total value of keeping us going, keeping us fed, housed, entertained and all the rest of it, so low prices in the shops means that we are cheaper too. The rich are sophisticated consumers of our labour and they certainly know a bargain when they see one.

    My argument, in short, is that we are characterologically adapted to the capitalist system; that we feel no need to get rid of it because of the firmness of our defences against knowing just how merciless it really is. How could it be otherwise, when we have created it and lived in it for so long? This view has the virtue of explaining why we stubbornly hold onto this exhausting, murderous society of rich and poor, user and used; but I can see how it might appear to be a pessimistic outlook.

    However, I don’t think it is. It seems to me that that hope lies in a paradox here; paradoxically it is in admitting our slavery that our freedom lies.

    Our difficulty is in realising that, no matter how seductive the consumer society is, we are still wage slaves, and our lives are lived, as Fromm says, ‘for purposes outside ourselves’. And it seems to me that if enough of us were to face up to that seemingly unbearable fact, and start to take back our capacities and set about using them, then that could be the beginning of the end for capitalism. It could also be the beginning of a completely new system, where our common purpose is the fullest development of every single person in the world.

    Peter Rigg

    Wednesday, June 11, 2008

    Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain (50)

    Dear Friends,

    Welcome to the 50th of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

    We now have 1261 friends!

    Recent blogs:

  • Democracy – and ‘democracy’
  • The happy slave syndrome
  • Worldcon
  • This week's top quote:

    "Most workers believe that if only prices came down or were at least stabilised their chief troubles would be over. They should remember that while it is true that at present hundreds of thousands of workers cannot afford to buy a house on mortgage, exactly the same was true between the wars when prices of houses and prices in general and wages) were only a fraction of what they are now. For the workers capitalism means hardship whether prices are high or low or falling or rising." Edgar Hardcastle, The ABC of Inflation (1972).

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    Tuesday, June 10, 2008

    Relearning history

    From the June 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Don’t believe what you were taught in school or hear from the media about benevolent Britain. We look at some books that give the other side of the story.

    For those caught in their long-held conviction of the benevolence of British history, of the goodwill and generosity extended by successive governments to subjects of colonial conquest around the world; for those whose history books told stories of great white men’s great adventures into darkest Africa, of fantastic voyages to unknown shores lasting years and necessitating the loss of many lives, of returning heroes laden with treasure and tales of faraway cornucopias; for those who retain romantic visions of countries conquered and occupied for reasons of honest trade and incidentally to improve the lot of indigenous populations, to bring them civilisation and democracy; for those who considered the invasion of Iraq an aberration, an atypical intervention, something outside the realms of normal government procedure, blatant lies deliberately told to the populace as a cover-up for an illegal act; for those who cling to the fallacy of their leaders being beyond reproach because it’s not “British” to collude behind the scenes or to manipulate events. They always play the game by the rules and British justice is known to be above reproach. After all, didn’t we invent cricket?

    For all those – it’s time to re-learn history, this time the real history, to have the scales removed from the eyes, to be confronted with the hard evidence, undeniable facts revealed from previously secret documents painstakingly investigated and compiled by those who seek the truth for humanity’s sake. This time to have the courage to question one’s enduring beliefs in the light of authentic revelations. This time to see through the obfuscation and downright lies that have been the staple diet fed to us by our elected representatives, generation after generation, with the purpose of pursuing their own secret agenda, extending personal interests and cementing alliances with powerful allies often with complete disregard for international law, agreements and that detail of small importance, public opinion.

    The following are a sample from investigative journalists and historians known as tenacious and imperturbable individuals resolutely determined to get the truth out into the public domain.

    Birth of the corporation

    The history of the East India Company, a forerunner of the modern shareholder/corporate set-up is a story of ‘executive malpractice, stock market excess and human oppression.’ Nick Robins says in The Corporation that Changed the World that he set out to address the issue of the company’s social record as a corporation, something which he believes no other history of The Company does. Compared with today’s “corporate leviathans” the East India Company “outstripped Walmart in terms of market power, Enron for corruption and Union Carbide for human devastation.” From its origin in 1600 as an aggressive spice trader, using guile, bribery, mercenary armies, piracy and plunder it moved on to take control of Bengal and Bengal’s cotton fabric industry. Robert Clive (of India) decimated the weaving industry and, as an eerie precursor to current day India’s farmers’ suicides as a result of impoverishment by transnationals, weavers amputated their own thumbs rather than be forced to spin thread for less than starvation wages.

    Later came Warren Hastings, responsible for pushing opium into China (illegally), causing the later “Opium Wars” and eventually forcing Chinese ports to open to trade. Despite the British government’s initial protests at the opium trade they were soon persuaded by the company’s Governor General in India that the revenue was growing too quickly to be abandoned. Nick Robins shows only too well that “a peculiar amnesia continues to hang over the role that corporations such as the East India Company had in the creation of the modern world.”

    Public statements; Private record

    Covert military action, support of military dictators, direct and indirect responsibility for millions of deaths around the world since the end of World War Two, support for various regimes that would surprise a lot of the British public. From previously secret files, now released into the public domain (even if still partially censored) Mark Curtis, in Unpeople. Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, reveals that “British ministers’ lying to the public is systematic and normal”, that “the culture of lying to and misleading the electorate is deeply embedded in British policy making”, that “the policy makers are usually frank about their real goals in the secret record” and that “humanitarian concerns do not figure at all in the rationale behind British foreign policy.”

    A strategy beyond propaganda, ‘perception control’ (thought control to you and me) “is designed to counter the major threat to British foreign policy: the public.” How many in Britain know – that British forces fought in Vietnam? And that in breach of the Geneva Accords also supplied arms to the US for use in Vietnam? About Britain’s support for Idi Amin? Support for Pinochet? About the “dirty war” in North Yemen in the 1960s where the British engaged with the wrong side for purely political reasons?

    With enormous discrepancies between public statements and private files in both Labour and Conservative terms of office it is shown quite clearly that successive governments have nothing but contempt for their electorate. Curtis recommends the reader to undergo “a personal transformation, decolonising the mind of accepted truths and received wisdom.”

    Media and government united in deceit

    The role of the media, controlled by monopolies of multinational companies, requires ever more scrutiny; however, much of the public still tends to take their pronouncements at face value. Within the world of the media, integrity and the search for the truth is the main motivator of only a minority. It is interesting how mud tends to stick though, even when thrown at the innocent. People remember the breaking of a story but are often more unsure or forgetful about the outcome. The “no smoke without fire” syndrome. Take, for instance, the Scargill affair in 1990 when Maxwell’s Mirror launched an all-out attack on Arthur Scargill. According to Seumas Milne (at the time a journalist with the Guardian and author of a subsequent book The Secret War Against the Miners), Arthur Scargill and “Scargillism” were and had been “the enemy within” to Maxwell’s media empire, the “modernising” Labour Party leadership (Kinnock et al), the Conservative government and Thatcher in particular (she had voiced this comparison of the miners with the Argentinian junta that had invaded the Falklands two years earlier) and to British security and intelligence agencies. The two year smear campaign against Scargill came close to the end of two decades of determined effort by the Tory party “and Margaret Thatcher above all – to avenge absolutely and unequivocally their double humiliation at the hands of the miners in the historic strikes of 1972 and 1974.” A vendetta against the miners which was aimed at destroying the NUM and, as collateral damage if necessary, the British coal industry too. Maxwell’s Daily Mirror smear campaign, Milne asserts, would never have taken off had it not been for “the monopoly ownership grip of multinational companies on great swathes of the media” and too many compliant journalists happy to report what they knew to be fabrication as fact. It was the perfect distraction of public attention from Scargill’s warnings of the government’s intention to bring down the coal industry. The campaign worked as planned except that ultimately Scargill was acquitted of all and any crimes and the corrupt were only found to be amongst his accusers. Ironic, but another result for a government against its people.

    The Chagos Islands (inc. Diego Garcia)

    A tiny archipelago, home to some 2000 people living in “conditions most tranquil and benign” (1950s Colonial Office film), a group of islands so small as not to warrant a place on a page of the 2002 Peters World Atlas. It can only be found like fly droppings inside the back cover. But, starting with Harold Wilson’s, seven successive governments have clung together around a huge lie – a lie they fabricated and used against the islands’ inhabitants since they started removing them from those islands in 1968 – that they were merely transient workers. In fact they were first taken there as slaves by the French in the eighteenth century and became British in 1815 after Napoleon’s defeat. Now the islands are home to around 4000 US troops plus all their support personnel and paraphernalia, swimming pools, golf course, two of the longest military runways in the world (used for bombing Afghanistan and Iraq) and suspicions that captives are being “rendered” there for “serious interrogation.” The US are seeking to extend their current lease, which expires in 2016, for another ten years at least, for islands which are deemed too risky (with spurious claims about climate, water shortages etc.) for the original British inhabitants to return to, even though there have been two High Court rulings allowing them to do so. (See Freedom Next Time by John Pilger).

    To compare and contrast the forced removal of these British citizens (compensation of about £1,000 GBP per person) with Britain’s resistance to the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands (also with a population of about 2,000) in 1982 at a cost of £2 billion pounds is poetic irony; an order-in-council agreed by the Queen in 2004 to ban the islanders from ever returning home for one population, for the other a Christmas broadcast by Tony Blair in 2006 telling them, “It is your right to determine your future.”

    Why must these atrocities be kept secret from the public? Simply because if too many of us get too angry for a sustained period and decide collectively to get active it’s all over for them. Justice and morality are values we have been tricked into believing are at the core of the leadership of our society, propaganda of the most despicable kind used against the very people they are mandated to represent. They may be immoral and pervert justice but that doesn’t negate our individual humanity and desire for honesty. It may even strengthen our resolve in the search for the truth. It reveals the rottenness of the establishment, not of the people. We, the people, can decide to reject that establishment and work together towards a truly representative democracy.

    What has to be remembered and given serious consideration is this; if we do nothing after being party to such a revelation in a book, credible newspaper account or reliable TV documentary the atrocity, injustice, inhumanity, chauvinism or deceit will still be there and will continue to affect those afflicted by it and the lie will still be a lie and we will still be the recipients of the lie. When these shameless lies are put firmly into the public domain it is the public’s responsibility to guard against collective amnesia, to constantly remind ourselves and each other of the accumulation of crimes committed in our name.

    Janet Surman

    More Socialist Standard articles by Janet Surman can be accessed here.

    Monday, June 9, 2008

    The way the world can feed itself

    From the Cooking the Books column of the June 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

    That was the headline of an article in the Sunday Times (27 April) by their Economics Editor David Smith. The way he endorsed was allowing “large, technologically sophisticated agro companies” to take over food production from peasant farmers in Africa and elsewhere. Yes, but what will happen to the millions of dispossessed peasants this would create? How will they be able to get money to buy food? But at least he conceded that it is technically feasible to produce enough food to feed the world’s population.

    It might have been expected that the recent increase in the world market price of wheat and rice and the resulting food riots in Haiti and other countries would lead to a revival of the views of the Reverend Thomas Malthus, the 18th English parson turned economist, who argued that world poverty and starvation are due to overpopulation, to not being able to produce enough food for everyone. But no. All the pundits and all the spokespersons of international capitalist institutions such as the World Bank and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) seem agreed that the problem is not that enough food cannot be produced to feed the hungry, but that the hungry cannot afford to pay for the food that has already been produced. As Peter Smerdon, Africa spokesman for the WFP put it in an interview with the LondonTimes (8 April):

    “it is not a question of availability as one saw in previous drought-induced famines. ‘People can suddenly no longer afford the food they see on store shelves because prices are beyond their reach. It is about accessibility . . .’”

    In fact, it seems to be generally admitted that food production could be increased and, indeed, will be increased in response to high prices.

    David Smith made the same point we made here in February:

    “Set-aside subsidies have been an important part of the common agricultural policy. Farmers have been paid not to produce. Last September, however, EU ministers agreed on a zero set-aside rate for 2007-8, to boost grain production by 10m tons”.

    Meanwhile in rice-growing Thailand:

    “Fields that have lain fallow are being ploughed and planted; in wet and fertile central Thailand . . . farmers are contemplating three or even four harvests a year, beyond the usual one or two” (London Times, 28 April).

    This raises the question of why in a world where there is mass hunger in some parts – 1 billion in “absolute poverty” and a further 854 million who are “food insecure” (London Times 8 April) – this land wasn’t used before to produce more wheat or rice. The answer is obvious: it wasn’t profitable, the price wasn’t high enough.

    The ironic thing is that this extra food production will not benefit those in “absolute poverty” since they still won’t be able to afford to buy it. And if prices fall again, as they might well do since the rise is partly due to a speculative boom amongst commodity traders, then the land will be taken out of production again. That’s the way the market works. But what a way to run the world.

    There is an obvious solution: produce food directly for people to eat. But, first, the land and all the rest of the world’s resources, industrial as well as natural, will have to stop being the private property of rich individuals, multinational corporations and states and become the common heritage of all humanity. On this basis enough food could rapidly be produced to eliminate starvation immediately and, within a few years, to provide every man, woman and child on the planet with an adequate diet.

    Sunday, June 8, 2008

    The nature of business

    From the Cooking the Books column in the June 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard
    Remember the scenes in January last year when hundreds flocked to Branscombe beach in Devon to scavenge for the cargo of a beached container ship? Some saw this as confirmation of the popular prejudice that it is "human nature" to grab, grab, grab. Actually, it was a manifestation of human behaviour in a society where normally everything has to be paid for when something becomes unexpectedly and temporarily available for free.
    But that's not the main lesson of the incident. This April the Marine Accident Investment Branch (MAIB) of the Department for Transport published its report on what happened (See here for the report). The report didn't just deal with the technical aspects of why the hull cracked and why the ship had to be beached to avoid a serious oil spillage but looked at the wider context too.
    In section 2.10 on the "Container Ship Industry", the MIAB observed:
    "Without the ability to quickly ship large quantities of containers across the oceans, containerisation would be generally constrained within the continents. However, the commercial advantages of containerisation and intermodalism such as speed and quick turnarounds appear to have become the focus of the industry at the expense of the safe operation of its vessels. The industry is very schedule driven, and operators inevitably have an eye on the timetable when making key decisions".
    On the particular accident last January, the report went on:
    "In this case, the decisions to sail: without an operational governor; sail in excess of the maximum permissible seagoing bending moments in order to allow greater flexibility for the time of departure; to operate at near maximum bending moments when underway; and to keep the ship's speed as fast as possible when pounding into heavy seas, were symptomatic of the industry's ethos to carry as much as possible as quickly as possible".
    This wasn't the first time the MAIB had pointed this out. The report quotes from a previous report put out in September 2007 on another accident:

    "Working practices relating to the planning, loading, transportation and discharge of containers are largely unregulated and have been understandably focussed on the need to maximise efficiency and speed of operation. While key industry players will attest that safety is of paramount concern, evidence obtained during this and other MAIB investigations into container shipping accidents suggests that in reality, the safety of ships, crews and the environment is being compromised by the overriding desire to maintain established schedules or optimise port turn round times".
    Something will no doubt be done to tighten up the regulations – or rather the unenforceable "code of best practice" – if only because accidents cost the shipping companies money. But the real question is why weren't proper safety measures already in place? The answer is the commercial pressures that all firms are subject to under capitalism. The shipping companies are all in competition with each other for business, and those who can deliver quicker get the contracts.
    It is not human nature to grab, grab, grab, but it is the nature of capitalist businesses to take risks and cut corners with safety to win the battle of competition and make more profits.
    Adam Buick

    Football: a capital idea

    From the June 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Football is now a commodity packaged and sold to make money for the clubs’ shareholders.

    Football fans were given something meaty to chew on recently when the English Football Association appointed an Italian, Fabio Capello, as manager of the national team. Capello, in turn, brought with him a bevy of besuited Italian colleagues to help him to ensure that England qualify for, and preferably do well in, the next major tournament, the 2010 World Cup.

    Most football fans, including large sections of the press, have been tearing their hair out in frustration because the England team hasn’t been doing too well recently in comparison with the top national sides. (Let’s leave aside the fact that England isn’t strictly speaking a nation and that the United Kingdom actually has four ‘national’ teams). The crunch came when the previous manager, Steve McClaren, failed to ‘lead’ England to the 2008 European Championship finals this coming summer. He was considered not to have enough charisma or technical know-how for the job. Capello was seen as the best qualified manager to take over. The only fly in the ointment was his nationality, but for the sake of getting the right man, this was overlooked and those who would have preferred an Englishman breathed a collective sigh of resignation. At least this foreigner, with his no-nonsense approach and impressive managerial CV, might knock a bunch of spoiled, overpaid players into shape and win something.

    This is not the first time a foreigner has been involved in English football, although based on the press coverage and fan reaction, we’d have been forgiven for thinking so. Only a few years ago, the England team was managed by a Swede, Sven-Goran Eriksson, but, perhaps because he spoke good English and was temperamentally more like an Englishman than Capello, he was more readily accepted. More significantly, there is now a proliferation of non-English players in professional English club football, to the extent that some sides rarely field an English player at all. In this sense, the game in some quarters is truly cosmopolitan.

    Looking farther back, the reality is that there has always been a foreign or non-local element in English football. Almost from its inception as an organised sport, in the late nineteenth century, players moved around from club to club if their services were required. Thus we had, firstly, northerners playing for southern clubs and vice versa, then Scots playing for and managing English clubs, then English players and managers moving abroad to foreign clubs as their overseas counterparts came in the opposite direction, only more recently in far greater numbers. At every stage of increasing “foreignness”, there were many objectors.

    But after the inevitable cries of horror, each encroachment of ‘foreigners’ into the game is accepted as long as it helps ‘your’ team to win. For the fans, winning is an end in itself, a kind of vicarious success and reflected glory. For the players, it means a better living (sometimes, in the case of the top players, dramatically so). For the clubs, it is a means of making profits, or at least avoiding losses and staying in business. So if foreign players and managers can help in the process of winning, most people involved in the game are satisfied, albeit grudgingly in some cases.

    The other side of the coin is that employing foreign players and managers is regarded as a failure for the national game. The general view is that the England team is not good enough because, as a result of the foreign influx, there aren’t thought to be enough good English players or managers bubbling up through the system.

    Shame, we are told, and we hear players saying that to play for their country is the greatest honour. But interestingly, club managers aren’t so patriotic – they don’t like ‘call-ups’ for fear their players get injured and reduce the chances of winning for their club.

    The issue of club versus country or national versus foreigner in football is a reflection of the confused attitude to nationalism in capitalist society in general. After all, organised football is entirely a product of capitalism. The same is true of all modern professional sport. Its increasingly ruthless and competitive nature is a direct result of the increasingly ruthless and competitive society it is a part of. Here are some more examples which show the increasing pervasiveness of capitalism into sport as in everyday life.

  • Sponsorship is a big money-spinner: thus we see a proliferation of company logos on team kit and perimeter fencing. ‘Lesser’ sports get away with even more crass commercialism, such as the large RBS logo painted into the centre of rugby pitches and angled directly at the camera such that it is almost constantly in view.
  • Merchandising is an integral aspect of any football club’s everyday activities: typified by the annual introduction of new strip to keep up sales of replica shirts.
  • Pressure to succeed becomes ever greater: at some clubs, huge sums are paid for what are seen as star players and managers (regardless of nationality), who are then discarded almost as a matter of routine after a year or less if they don’t bring instant success.
  • As in many other areas of capitalism, the top strata of football are awash with money while there’s precious little to spare lower down, with many of the smaller clubs are living from week to week.
  • We have the absurd situation of millionaire players bullying referees who until recently didn’t even get paid to do the job.
  • There is regular tinkering with the laws of the game to make it a more entertaining, and thus saleable, ‘product’.
  • Clubs are now known as brands – even some players such as Beckham.
  • Returning to the nationality issue, the increase in foreign ‘trade’ reflects the increasingly global nature of capitalism: witness the recent proposal of the Premier League for an extra match per team each season, to be played at various venues around the world – there can be no other reason than that of generating more profit.
  • The game is ultra-competitive: mistakes by players or referees are more and more costly; at a far lower level we have pushy parents on the touchline at school matches bullying their children to play harder and be more like the heroes they worship.
  • So much rides on success that you have to have a winner. This is particularly ironic in football when roughly 25% of matches are drawn. The draw is increasingly unacceptable, hence the increasing number of penalty shoot-outs to replace replays.
  • The desire to win also perversely means a fear of losing – for many decades the game has been over-defensive, with too few goals.
  • Teams are run on almost military lines, with the players being routinely drilled like soldiers by their coaches and disciplined by referees and organising bodies.
  • Football is now a so-called ‘middle class’ game and lower-paid fans are being priced out. To watch even a modest club play can cost three times as much as a cinema ticket.
  • Most of the above observations are commented on weekly in the national press. Most football fans agree that money coupled with the overweening greed of the big clubs is spoiling the game. Alas, lasting solutions are never suggested since most fans and journalists are as blinkered by the constraints of money-based society as the sport’s practitioners.

    The only way to stop the rich clubs getting richer and the poor clubs getting poorer is not to limit the amount of money in the game or to distribute it more evenly – a virtually impossible task anyway – but to take the money out of football altogether. And that in turn means abolishing money in all other areas of life. And how do we stop foreigners being brought in to manage the national team? Well, why don’t we try abolishing nationality? The national football team is a product of the nation as a competing political unit in capitalism, and in a nationless society would have no role.

    Rod Shaw

    Wednesday, June 4, 2008

    Pieces Together

    From the June 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

    BIG BROTHER IS LISTENING

    “Hundreds of benefit fraudsters have been caught out by lie-detector technology. More than 370 people were identified fiddling their benefits in Lambeth, South London. As part of the pilot project, Lambeth Council staff phoned 2,000 residents and used Voice Risk Analysis, which picks up tiny changes in the voice that show a person is lying. Benefit staff then made further checks to see if claims needed investigation. A total of 638 people were investigated and 377 were caught lying and had their benifits stopped or decreased.” (London Times, 21 April)

    AN EXPENSIVE TIPPLE

    “While the global credit crunch has forced many consumers to rein in spending, one Beijing-based billionaire has splashed out a record $500,000 on 27 bottles of red wine, London based Antique Wine Company said on Saturday. The anonymous Chinese entrepreneur bought a mix of vintages of Romanee Conti, a Burgundy wine and considered to be among the world’s most exclusive with only 450 cases produced each year. The client bought 12 bottles of Romanee Conti 1978, two bottles of the 1961, 1966, 1996 and 2003 and single bottles of the 1981, 1990, 1992, 1995, 1999, 2001 and 2002. “It is the highest price that has ever been achieved for a single lot,” Managing Director Stephen Williams of the London-based Antique Wine Company told Reuters on Saturday. “I don’t think he has bought this as an investment -- he has bought it to drink,” he added. “The fine wine industry is completely immune from the global credit crunch.” (Yahoo News, 19 April)

    HEATHROW HOMELESS

    “Each night, scores of London’s homeless men and women take advantage of modern travel delays by posing as stranded passengers in order to sleep in a warm, safe place. ... Those contacted included a man sleeping under his coat, another conspicously hiding behind an open newspaper, and a woman clutching a duty free bag, who insisted she was waiting for a flight, only to whisper when police were out of earshot, “I can’t afford electricity. It’s warm here. Please let me stay.” (London Times, 21 April)

    100 YEARS OF POVERTY

    The columnist Richard Morrison on pensions “The old age pension is 100 years old. When Asquith introduced it in 1908, it was five shillings a week - a sum that was regarded as shamefully low by progressives in his party. But if even that paltry figure had kept pace with the growth in Britain’s GDP, the state pension should now be £161 a week. The actual figure? £90.70p. Some progress.” (London Times, 30 April)

    Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain (49)

    Dear Friends,

    Welcome to the 49th of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

    We now have 1260 friends!

    Recent blogs:

  • Should the left consider socialism?
  • Human nature and human behaviour
  • The cloying embrace of the New Age
  • This week's top quote:

    "When communist artisans associate with one another, theory, propaganda, etc., is their first end. But at the same time, as a result of this association, they acquire a new need "the need for society" and what appears as a means becomes an end. ... the brotherhood of man is no mere phrase with them, but a fact of life, and the nobility of man shines upon us from their work-hardened bodies." Karl Marx, Human Needs & the division of Labour (1844).

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    Monday, June 2, 2008

    D.H. Lawrence and Political Poetry

    Originally published on the Mailstrom blog.
    I don't profess to be an expert on poetry . School gave me a fondness for the war-poets and the only anthology of poems i ever possessed was by Wilfred Owen . I have read and enjoyed Oscar Wilde's The Ballad of Reading Gaol and i have also enjoyed Percy Shelley's The Mask of Anarchy .
    It was a pleasnt surprise for me to come across in a socialist journal a few of D.H. Lawrence's more biting political poems originally published in 1929 in a volume called Pansies .


    O! Start A Revolution

    O! start a revolution , somebody !
    not to get the money
    but to lose it forever .

    O! start a revolution , somebody!
    not to install the working classes
    but to abolish the working classes forever
    and have a world of men .


    Kill Money
    Kill money , put money out of existence .
    It is a perverted instinct , a hidden thought
    which rots the brain , the blood , the bones , the stones , the soul.

    Make up your mind about it all:
    that society must establish itself upon a different principle
    from the one we’ve got now.

    We must have the courage of mutual trust.
    We must have the modesty of simple living.
    And the individual must have his house , food and fire all free - like a bird.


    Money-Madness

    Money is our madness, our vast collective madness.

    And of course , if the multitude is mad
    The individual carries his own grain of insanity around with him.

    I doubt if any man living hands out a pound note without a pang;
    And a real tremor , if he hands out a ten-pound note.
    We quail, money makes us quail .
    It has got us down , we grovel before it in strange terror .
    And no wonder, for money has a fearful cruel power among men .

    But it is not money we are terrified of ,
    it is the collective money - madness of mankind.
    For mankind says with one voice : How much is he worth ?
    Has he no money ? Then let him eat dirt , and go cold -

    And if I have no money , they will give me a little bread ,
    So I do not die,
    but they will make me eat dirt for it .
    I shall have to eat dirt , I shall have to eat dirt
    if I have no money

    It is that I am afraid of .
    And that fear can become a delirium .
    It is fear of my money-mad fellow-man.

    We must have some money
    To save us from eating dirt .

    And this is wrong.

    Bread should be free ,
    shelter should be free ,
    fire should be free
    to all and anybody , all and anybody , all over the world.

    We must regain our sanity about money
    before we start killing one another about it .
    It’s one thing or the other.


    How Beastly The Bourgeois Is

    How beastly the bourgeois is
    especially the male of the species -

    Presentable , eminently presentable -
    shall I make you a present of him ?

    Isn’t he handsome ? isn’t he healthy? Isn’t he a fine specimen ?
    doesn’t he look the fresh clean englishman , outside ?
    Isn’t if god’s own image ? tramping his thirty miles a day
    after partridges , or a little rubber ball ?
    wouldn’t you like to be like that , well off , and quite the thing ?

    Oh , but wait !
    Let him meet a new emotion , let him be faced with another man’s
    need ,
    let him come home to a bit of moral difficulty , let life face him with
    a new demand on his understanding
    and then watch him go soggy , like a wet meringue .
    Watch him turn into a mess , either a fool or a bully.
    Just watch the display of him , confronted with a new demand on his intelligence ,
    a new life-demand.

    How beastly the bourgeois is
    especially the male of the species -
    Nicely groomed like a mushroom
    standing there so sleek and erect and eyeable -
    and like a fungus , living on the remains of bygone life
    sucking his life out of the dead leaves of greater life than his own .

    And even so , he’s stale , he’s been there too long .
    Touch him , and you’ll find he’s all gone inside
    just like an old mushroom , all wormy inside , and hollow
    under a smooth skin and an upright appearance .

    Full of seething , wormy , hollow feelings
    rather nasty -
    How beastly the bourgeois is !

    Standing in their thousands , these appearances , in damp England
    what a pity they can’t all be kicked over
    like sickening toadstools , and left to melt back , swiftly
    into the soil of England .


    Wages
    The wages of work is cash .
    The wages of cash is want more cash .
    The wages of want more cash is vicious competition.
    The wages of vicious completion is - the world we live in .

    The work-cash-want circle is the viciousest circle
    that ever turned men into fiends.

    Earning a wage is a prison occupation
    and a wage - earner is a sort of gaol-bird
    Earning a salary is a prison overseer’s job ,
    a gaoler instead of a gaol-bird .

    Living on your income is strolling grandly outside the prison
    in terror lest you have to go in .And since the work-prison covers
    almost every scrap of living earth , you stroll up and down
    on a narrow beat, about the same as a prisoner taking his exercise .

    This is called universal freedom


    WHY?
    Why have money?
    Why have a financial system to strangle us all in its octopus arms?
    Why have industry?
    Why have the industrial system ?
    Why have machines , that we only have to serve?
    Why have a soviet , that only wants to screw us all in as parts of the machine?
    Why have working classes at all , as if men only embodied jobs?
    Why not have men as men , and the work as merely part of the game of life?

    True , we’ve got all these things
    industrial and financial systems , machines and soviets, working
    classes.
    But why go on having them , if they belittle us ?
    Why should we be belittled any longer?

    The Mosquito Knows
    The mosquito knows full well, small as he is
    he’s a beast of prey.
    But after all
    he only takes his bellyful ,
    he doesn’t put my blood in the bank.

    DH Lawrence

    Sunday, June 1, 2008

    Las Vegas and the environment

    From the June 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

    In the US the so-called "richest country in the world", millions are so desperate for more money (and/or are bored to tears with their lives) that gambling is a major industry. Las Vegas in Nevada grew up to supply this demand. Now no one in their senses - if human considerations were the only issue - would think of siting a city in the Mojave Desert, 22,000 square miles of desolation in the south of California and Nevada, and the west of Arizona and Utah. Much of it is elevated: its highest peak is 11,918 feet, but it also descends to 282 feet below sea level, in Death Valley, where temperatures range from below freezing on winter nights, to 130 degrees Fahrenheit (54 centigrade) on summer days. The Mojave Desert has less than ten inches of rain per year. But this is where get-rich-quick entrepreneurs - and they did get rich quick - built Las Vegas. (And according to some accounts, much of the money came from the Mafia.)

    With monumental disregard for the environment, they built enormous casinos and hotels and entertainment palaces all dedicated to a single end - sucking in many thousands of hopefuls from all over the US (and abroad), and encouraging them to lose their money twenty-four hours a day. The whole place is ablaze with lights; great fountains shoot into the sky; in the "Venice" complex, gondolas travel down wide canals; lawns are supplied by endless irrigation. It now houses 1,900,000 people, and of course water has to be pumped in, 90 percent of it from Lake Mead, a man-made reservoir on the Colorado River thirty miles away. (Several small communities were drowned when the lake was flooded.) In February this year the reservoir stood at only 50 percent of capacity. University of California researchers have concluded that if present climatic trends continue, Lake Mead will be empty in 2021.

    However, building in Las Vegas is going ahead at frantic speed to make the city still bigger, the profits still fatter, and the water problem still greater. Despite the current worsening economic conditions, a number of prestige projects - hotels, casinos, plazas, apartment blocks - are going ahead so fast that a Times reporter (8 April) said there were fears that "all this financial pressure is resulting in sloppy construction practice. Over recent months nine workers have died in eight accidents at various sites: one man was cut in half when a counterweight" for a lift fell on him. (There would no doubt have been an outcry if this had happened to an owner instead of to a worker.) But beside all that, another gigantic project is going forward called "the City Centre". The journalist said a local told him it was "a city-within-a-city. They say it's gonna cost more than $8 billion: the most expensive private land development in American history. Only in Las Vegas, huh?"

    Well, just before you put all this down to the boneheaded Americans, rather than to boneheaded capitalism, here's another item in the very same paper - this time from Spain. Catalonia (the north-east part, round Barcelona) and Valencia, just south of it, including the Mediterranean coast down to Alicante, have had less rain than at any time since 1912. Farmers fear for their crops; "water reserves there are at 19 percent of capacity - they must be shut down when they reach 15 percent because there is too much sediment near the bottom"; and Catalonia is considering bringing in water from elsewhere by boat or train. It is also thinking of a new desalination plant (to take the salt out of seawater), but it seems that such plants produce a lot of carbon dioxide, held responsible for feeding global warming, so that would make things worse in the long run. Catalonia wanted to take more water from the River Segre; but Aragon, on the other side of the river, refuses to let it. "Catalonia accuses its neighbour of hoarding water for unsustainable developments, such as a 'European Las Vegas' with seventy hotels, five theme parks and several golf courses planned for a desert region." Only in capitalism, huh?

    Alwyn Edgar