Monday, May 4, 2009

Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain (95)

Dear Friends,

Welcome to the 95th of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

We now have 1483 friends!

Recent blogs:

  • Overlords and underlings
  • Capitalism versus nature
  • Oscar Wilde and socialism
  • Quote for the week:


    I be so tired when I spit, all my words slur together

    Got so many calluses my hands are like leather

    Watching MTV in your big-ass chair

    Trying out slang words while you're combing your hair

    "Your productivity is whack, bring that box here fo-sheezy [for sure]

    Go get some coffee player, punch out before your leave"

    Got your feet up on the desk nodding off to sleep

    While I lift, push, pull, dig, sweat, and sweep

    I could work hard all my life and in the end still suffer

    Because the world is controlled by you lazy muthafuckas

    The Coup, Lazy Muthafucka, Party Music, 2001.

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    Capitalism, but not as they know it

    The Cooking the Books column from the May 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Eric Hobsbawn and Amartya Sen have both written interesting stuff. Hobsbawm on the history of capitalism in Britain and Sen on how famines are not caused by a shortage of food but by the collapse of some people’s legal entitlement to it. But their comments on the current crisis are confused.

    In an article in the New York Review of Books, reprinted in the Guardian (14 March), entitled “Capitalism Beyond the Crisis”, Sen questions “whether capitalism is a term that is of particular use today”, arguing:

    “It seems to be generally assumed that relying on markets for economic transactions is a necessary condition for an economy to be identified as capitalist. In a similar way, dependence on the profit motive and on individual rewards based on private ownership are seen as archetypal features of capitalism. However, if these are necessary requirements, are the economic systems we currently have, for example, in Europe and America, genuinely capitalist?”

    Citing increased state funding over the years of the armed forces, the police, health and education as examples of non-market, non-profit economic activities, he concludes: “the idea of capitalism did in fact have an important role historically, but by now that usefulness may well be fairly exhausted”.

    The market and profits certainly are central to capitalism, and state spending certainly has increased compared with some past periods, but is state spending really non-capitalist or is it not rather part of the necessary overheads of running capitalism? Capitalism and the state have always co-existed. In fact the state helped capitalism come into existence and expand and is needed to maintain it today. State spending on armed and police forces is patently aimed at serving capitalist interests at home and abroad. State spending on education and health is essentially aimed at providing employers with a fit and trained workforce and so too is pro-capitalist.

    Hobsbawn also thinks we should be looking towards a society that is neither capitalist nor socialist, as in the title – “Socialism has failed. Now capitalism is bankrupt. So what comes next?” – of a recent article of his in the Guardian (10 April) brings out. But his definition of capitalism is as wrong as his definition of socialism. He contrasts “the centrally state-planned economics of the Soviet type and the totally unrestricted and uncontrolled free-market capitalist economy”.

    Arguments can go on about whether Russia was some form of capitalism or some new exploitative class society, but it was clearly not a classless society based on the common ownership and democratic control of productive resources with production directly to meet human needs and not for sale on a market, i.e. not socialism.

    The case for saying that it was still a form of capitalism – best described as state capitalism – is that wealth there still took the form of “an immense accumulation of commodities” as articles for sale, produced by a class of people obliged to sell their working skills for a wage or a salary on whose unpaid labour a privileged class lived.

    As an historian of capitalism Hobsbawn must know that, if defined as a “totally unrestricted and uncontrolled free-market” economy, “capitalism” has never existed because there never has been a time when market forces alone have exclusively determined how an economy has worked. States have always intervened to try to distort the market in favour of particular capitalist groups as well as to engage in the activities Sen mentions.

    As class ownership, production for sale with a view to a profit, wage labour and surplus value still exist – as they patently do, whatever the degree of state activity – “capitalism” is the best term for describing the existing economic and social system.

    History matters

    Book Review from the May 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Why History Matters by John Tosh, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008

    At the completion of the invasion of Iraq in July 2003, British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a speech to the US Congress in which he declared: “There has never been a time ... when, except in the most general sense, a study of history provides so little instruction for our present day” (Quoted by Tosh, p.5). Gordon Brown, with a Ph.D in history and current Prime Minister, supported that invasion.

    Blair was probably speaking out of ignorance rather than deceit, for that was not the first time British military forces had invaded Iraq. In 1914 Britain acted alone in invading Iraq (then called Mesopotamia) to drive out the Ottoman Turks. Britain then administered Iraq as a Mandate of the League of Nations until 1934, and remained in a position of informal influence until the Iraqi monarchy was overthrown in 1958. Strategic interests were the initial motivation for the invasion, but important oil reserves were known to exist. As Marian Kent's study of this period shows, “by 1920 Mesopotamian oil ... had come to occupy a major place in British military and diplomatic concerns in the Middle East” (Oil and Empire: British Policy and Mesopotamian Oil, 1900-1920, 1976. Quoted by Tosh, p.2). History matters.

    Politicians are often ill-informed, but Alan Greenspan, the long-time head of the US central bank, admitted that the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq was really aimed at protecting Middle East oil reserves. “I thought the issue of weapons of mass destruction as the excuse was utterly beside the point”, he said (See here.). How are we to explain these events? What processes are involved and what is a proper historical perspective? For John Tosh, a professional historian, “public history” matters because it can provide the basis for informed and critical understanding of the present. But there is no place for causation in this understanding of history: the invasions of Iraq in 1914 and 2003 were wars for oil, as Tosh would probably agree, but for him the causes were unique and all we can learn from history is their similarities and differences: there is no underlying structural cause. This is an unconvincing and inadequate theory of history given the regular occurrence of wars and other social problems thrown up by capitalism. History matters more than that.

    Socialists have a materialist conception of history in which we view the past in the context of the development of the forces of production (productive technology) and relations of production (economic classes), and analyse social development to better understand the present and possible futures. The state and its machinery of government have historically favoured the interests of the economically dominant class - presently the capitalist class. It is in their interests that wars have been prosecuted in Iraq for oil, or for their strategic interests as in Afghanistan. This follows a regular pattern in capitalism, and using a materialist historical perspective we can see the capitalist process at work and predict that as long as we have capitalism we will have wars. We cannot predict where and when, but they will happen: the forces and classes driving history will always make them likely, and since the end of the Second World War there has always been a war being fought somewhere in the world. An understanding of the materialist conception of history would provide a rational motivation for revolutionary political action by us, the subordinate class in society, to end capitalism as the cause of war in the modern world. History matters because your life may depend on it.

    Lew

    Bloggers at loggerheads

    The Greasy Pole column from the May 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Advice for anyone who assess themselves as alluringly qualified to rescue the world from a deadly combination of economic disintegration and ecological catastrophe: pay heed to the example of Gordon Brown. Divesting himself of his rumoured persona of brooding neurosis occasionally relieved in volcanic tirades, the Prime Minister genially hosted the recent London G20 conference, promoted as a mechanism to flush out and eliminate every threat to the world’s harmony and health. As the assembled world leaders, deaf to the clamouring protesters outside – and to the thwack of police batons on their bodies – steamrollered on, smilingly massaging each others’ shoulders and self-esteem, Brown blossomed like an unusually poisonous nightshade. Around the world which the conference was supposed to have as its concern, banks and industries were choking almost to death and millions of workers were being ejected into poverty deep enough to be immediately life-threatening; meanwhile Brown went about the business of bolstering his appeal to remain as the occupant of Number Ten, strutting his fantastic stuff as the new Saviour of the World. Whether this act was effective to the extent of being sufficiently deceptive to the British electorate will be clear come the next election.

    But meanwhile…

    We were told that G20 would be a seminal gathering, in the sense that its terms of reference were to design a cleaner, safer world in control of its economy and its environment. As a side line its timing was clearly fortunate for Gordon Brown but his luck is not in for, whatever euphoria G20 may have encouraged among Labour supporters, it would have been immediately damaged by the emergence of real politics as represented by the murky strategies of governmental “advisers” Damian McBride and Derek Draper. These two set out to damage the Tory leadership through publicising some salacious allegations about them and their families. This is known as “briefing” against – another example of New Labour’s distortion of the lexicon, which defines briefing as a process of summarising a clutch of complex facts into an easily assimilated and presentable form. Far from embarrassing the Tories this provoked a mass panic among the Labour benches, as one minister after another rushed to assure us that they had also been victims of such smears which, as every right-thinking person knows, should have no place in politics: “vile, horrible and despicable” raged Ed Balls – who once worked closely with McBride when they were at the Treasury with Brown as Chancellor – “we all need to work to raise standards and to stamp this out”. This may have been unwelcome to McBride, who has been paid a lot of money over almost ten years to do just this kind of “work”.

    Draper

    A similar confusion may be affecting Draper, who was abandoned to his fate by the very people in the Labour Party who until recently might have been seen as his stalwart friends. A “special adviser” to Peter Mandelson in the early days of the Blair government, Draper’s naiveté and self-regard were to cost him dear when, in 2001, he boasted to an undercover reporter that, as an intimate of the “17 people who mattered” in the government he could be trusted to arrange rewarding meetings with them. This episode revealed him to be vulnerable as well as unusually conceited; a nervous breakdown preceded him fleeing to America to train as a psychotherapist. He came back here in 2004 to set up in what is described as a “successful” psychotherapy practice (it is to be hoped that that is the opinion of his patients and not just another example of his tendency for over-positive self-assessment). Impressed, and perhaps not a little envious, of the progress up the greasy pole of some of the people – like David Miliband and Liam Byrne – he had once been on a level with, he scraped his way back into Labour politics. An invitation to lunch at Chequers last November must have convinced him that he was on his way back and earlier this year he set up the web site LabourList, with plans to open another, to be called Red Rag, to compete with the scandal aimed at Labour leaders by the Tory blog ConservativeHome. This progress – if that is what it was – came to an abrupt halt with the exposure of the e-mails between Draper and McBride.

    Anger

    The distasteful episode has raised a lot of anger among grass roots Labour supporters, some of whom responded to Draper’s apology on LabourList: “What you have done is outrageous and disgusting, and no apology is enough” and another “You complete half-wits. Yet another weekend spent with one’s head in one’s hands every time the news comes on”. But such people are of too humble a standing to be treated with anything other than contempt by the likes of Draper and McBride, who were more readily impressed when they were disowned by the party leaders insisting that LabourList had nothing to do with the party and that Draper was used as only a part-time volunteer – and then by Gordon Brown raging that “When I saw this first I was horrified. I was shocked and I was very angry indeed. The person who was responsible went immediately”.

    Such emergencies need to be understood. Those who have been immunised by experience against the conceits and fantasies of political leaders recognise that the rulers of class society can have no effect on the system which, they deceive themselves, is open to their manipulation. That is the only useful assessment of their behaviour and of their relationship with us.

    Ivan