Sunday, August 9, 2009

Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain (108)

Dear Friends,

Welcome to the 108th of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

We now have 1524 friends!

Recent blogs:

  • Oscar Wilde: the soul of man under socialism
  • The New Scramble for Africa
  • Ordinary people
  • Quote for the week:

    " ..The only thing that one really knows about human nature is that it changes. Change is the one quality we can predicate of it..." Oscar Wilde, The soul of man under Socialism (1895).

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    Is the working class still the agent of socialism?

    Originally posted on the Socialism Or Your Money Back blog, this book review is from the February 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

    G A Cohen departed this world on the 5th of August and one of his major works has been reviewed in the Socialist Standard which is worth a peruse.
    If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? By G A Cohen. Harvard University Press, 2001.
    In 1978 Cohen wrote a basically sound (if tedious) book called Marx's Theory of History: A Defence. In this series of lectures given in 1997 but only published as a paperback last year he explains why he now thinks Marx was wrong after all.
    He claims that Marx's agency for the socialist revolution was the "industrial" working class which would form the majority of the population but that this has not come about because of the rise of modern technology which has resulted in the "industrial" working class forming a shrinking proportion of the working population. However, Marx was well aware that the development of the division of labour and specialisation would lead to the development of a section of the working class not involved in direct factory work.
    When workers are trained to perform certain tasks for example, they have to be taught and instructed, and this involves teachers and instructors. The teacher or instructor can teach or instruct inside the factory or outside it in a school or college. It is absurd to regard the teacher as an industrial worker when employed inside the factory but a "middle class" professional when employed in a school or a college. The function they perform is exactly the same and so also is their relationship to the means of production – they are still teaching or training future workers and they are still reliant on a wage or salary in order to survive.
    As industry becomes more complex and as technology develops there is a need for an increasing army of educators, organisers, researchers and the like. As a result the proportion of "front line", factory workers shrinks. This change in the composition of the working population does not alter one iota their relationship to the productive wealth of society, nor does it alter the fact that it would be in their interest to overthrow capitalism. There is no justification for regarding factory workers as being exploited whilst teachers, lecturers, organisers, researchers, etc are able to escape this exploitation. It is true that most of these "white collar" workers would deny that they are being exploited but so also would most factory workers.
    Cohen claims that workers in advanced industrial countries are no longer exploited (not that he defines what he means by exploitation). His claim is that exploitation now takes place in the factories and sweatshops of underdeveloped countries and that only these fit Marx's description of the industrial proletariat. However, he goes on, these again cannot be regarded as the agents of revolutionary change as they do not constitute the majority of the population in these countries because they are swamped in a sea of peasants. He does not pay any attention to the fact that the "exploitation" of his workers in the underdeveloped world has led to the undermining of the incomes of factory workers in the advanced countries.
    He concludes from this that there is no hope of a revolutionary transformation of capitalist society and that only a development of altruistic attitudes can usher in a better and different world. He can only come to this pathetic conclusion by either ignoring or not understanding the capitalist system.
    Most liberal political philosophers who claim to strive for "a just and equal society" view modern society as being stratified from top to bottom into different income and status groups ("social classes") and that it can only be a question of redistributing wealth more "fairly" within these groups. Other political philosophers see this as posing a potentially serious problem in that it could lead to a slacking of effort on the part of the top strata as this could affect their efficiency and effectiveness "in the pursuit of the general good". In other words, that there is still a need for some inequality in order to provide an incentive for those able and willing to take on demanding, responsible positions in society.
    Volumes and volumes are written on this theme and writers like Cohen demonstrate their learning and cleverness by finding loopholes in each others' theories and developing their own irrelevant versions of the same. What they have to say and write has no bearing on what is happening in the real world. For the real world is not merely made up of a population stratified into different income groups. It is true that the working class can be divided into different income groups. But between these groups there is no direct opposition, tension and conflict – they are just groups of people having different characteristics in terms of income, education and status.
    The real world is a world in which the population is divided into two main groups obtaining their incomes in distinct and completely different ways. One group obtains its income from the ownership of the productive wealth of the world and the other group obtains its income from the sale of its labour power to the owners of productive wealth. The first group has to attempt to continually increase the productive wealth its owns by continually revolutionising their productive techniques and by attempting to reduce or limit the income of the non-owners. To do this they have to accumulate as much wealth as possible under given market conditions. The whole system depends upon, and is defined by, this compulsive need of capitalists to accumulate wealth. To think that it is possible to intervene or halt this process through any system of redistribution of incomes – either through taxation or "rich" egalitarian political philosophers foregoing part of their incomes – is unrealistic nonsense. The social system such philosophers wish to reform bears no resemblance to the social system they conjure up in their analyses.
    Nowhere is Cohen's pathetic position more clearly demonstrated than in his belief that he and his fellow philosophers are "rich". They are not rich even by comparison with other salary earners; when compared with the incomes of the capitalist class their incomes are pitiful. What is more, like most workers they have to consume their incomes in order to survive at the prevailing standards of comfort of their peers. The individual consumption of the capitalists, on the other hand, although often colossal when compared to the individual consumption of workers, is normally only a small proportion of their income as they are compelled to accumulate most of it in order to survive as capitalists.
    Lewis Hopkin.

    A deficit of logic (2009)

    Book Review from the April 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

    The Credit Crunch. Graham Turner. 2008. Pluto Press.

    Graham Turner has made a number of appearances on BBC2’s Newsnight in recent weeks, helping Paul Mason deconstruct the credit crisis and slump.

    Turner is a Keynesian of sorts and a fan of ‘quantitative easing’ i.e. of central banks flooding the financial markets with liquidity in the hope that this will get banks lending again, literally giving people more money to spend. As history demonstrates though – and Marxian economics explains – the practical effect of this is further doses of currency inflation as it is likely to accelerate the continuing overissue of inconvertible paper currency that has been going on since the Second World War.

    This book is currently one of the most widely available explanations of the financial crisis in UK bookshops. But in essence it is a confused book and Turner seems to think that the reason the Keynesian remedy hasn’t worked on any previous occasion is because the policy levers weren’t pulled in quite the right order, or at quite the right time.

    As an illustration of the book’s confusion, there are a large number of pages discussing in great detail what Turner apparently sees as the supposed significance of trade deficits and surpluses in various countries affected by the asset price bubble. But then he concludes, all of a sudden and for no particular or stated reason – much in line with the historical evidence but against the line of his own argument presented here – that ‘It does not matter that much whether a country is running a trade deficit or a surplus: a bubble is a bubble, and there are far too many around’. Indeed.

    Though it includes some interesting and useful statistical data and graphs, after this point it was difficult to take the book entirely seriously and George Cooper’s rival explanation in the Origin of Financial Crises (reviewed in March) is clearer, more in accordance with reality and much to be preferred.

    Green-lite reformism (2009)

    Book Review from the August 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Fuelling a Food Crisis – The impact of peak oil on food security. By Caroline Lucas, Andy Jones and Colin Hines. (See here for more details).

    Current methods of food production and distribution are having a negative effect on the environment. The facts of the case are set out in this report by Green Party MEP Caroline Lucas and the two others, on behalf of the Green Group in the European Parliament, even though the measures they offer are no more than “green-lite” reforms.

    They show that the increased industrialisation of farming, particularly following the end of WW2, means that current methods now consume 50 times the energy input of traditional agriculture and in the most extreme cases “100 fold or more.” “Including energy costs for farm machinery, transportation, processing and feedstocks for agricultural chemicals – the modern food system consumes roughly 10 calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food energy produced.”

    The UK has developed an increasing dependence on imported food. Figures from the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) show that between 1988 and 2002 imports in tonnes increased by 38 percent and that 50 percent of all vegetables and 95 percent of all fruit consumed in the UK now come from overseas.

    How necessary are these imports for the consumers? The 'New Economics Foundation', in its UK Interdependence Report for 2006, published a list of food imports and exports, showing a two-way process of similar products travelling in opposite directions being both imports and exports simultaneously: in 2004, UK imported 10.2 million kilos of milk and cream from France – and exported 9.9 million kilos of milk and cream to France. The figures traded between UK and Germany for milk and cream were 15.5 million kilos to and 17.2 million kilos from the UK. UK imported 1.5 million kilos of potatoes from Germany and exported 1.5 million kilos of potatoes to Germany. UK imported 44,000 tonnes of frozen boneless chicken and exported 51,000 tonnes of fresh boneless chicken (countries not specified).

    These examples are a tiny fraction of the crazy methods of the globalised food trade which have scant regard for either environmental protection or actual consumers.

    A report for DEFRA in 2005 on “The Validity of Food Miles as an Indicator of Sustainable Development” concluded:
    “Transport of food by air has the highest CO2 emissions per tonne and is the fastest growing mode. Although air freight of food accounts for only 1 percent of food tonne kilometres and 0.1 percent of vehicle kilometres it produces 11/ percent /of the food transport CO2 equivalent emissions.” (
    Whilst the UK imports almost twice as much food as it exports vegetable and fruit imports account for over 60 percent of its food air freight. This is the upside-down world where there are, on the one hand, international agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while, on the other, trade agreements to exchange foods internationally involving unnecessarily flying foodstuffs around the globe, so increasing the emissions.

    Food has to be transported but all transportation is at cost to the environment. How it is transported and how far are not decisions about which the consumer is consulted. Individuals could make a difference by the choices they make using their own moral code – providing they are equipped with all the available information – but, like travel, unrestricted flying, expansion of airports etc., individual actions make little impact. Action groups can and do make differences by boycotting certain food outlets or companies to affect their stance on political, humanitarian or moral issues (apartheid South Africa, NestlĂ©'s infant food formula sold in countries where customers had no access to clean water for mixing it, Fair Trade products) but these successes, whether small or substantial, don't address the root problem and there's always the need for yet another campaign.

    Also topsy-turvy are the various goals set for using crops as alternative fuels. The authors quote George Monbiot that “It has been calculated that meeting the EU's target for 20 percent of transport fuel to come from biodiesel by 2020 would consume almost all of Britain's croplands.” Presumably, attempting to achieve this target would imply relying even more heavily on imported food with all the associated extra environmental damage, plus the damage to domestic farmland and the environment from growing a monocrop.

    Then there is the environmental impact of modern industrial agriculture's use of fertilisers:
    “The manufacture of synthetic fertilisers is particularly energy intensive and accounts for around one third of the UK's agricultural energy consumption. It has been estimated that 40 percent of world food protein now relies on synthetic nitrogen fertilisers.” “The fourth most traded bulk commodity in world shipping trade after iron ore, coal and cereals is fertilisers and their raw materials.”
    Peak oil and natural gas are not seen as a problem for future manufacturing in the fertiliser industry as there are sufficient coal reserves for 200 or so years at current production levels. “The consequences in terms of climate change, however, would be catastrophic. Additionally, production of ammonia from coal is 70 percent more energy intensive than production from natural gas.” Fertilisers are both big business and big polluters. Damage is caused during production, during distribution and to soil and water post-use, upsetting natural soil balance and leaching into water sources.

    The authors conclude:
    “The mandatory rules of trade that promote the interests of agribusiness, industrial production and long distance transport, and that force countries to compete to produce each other's food at the expense of domestic production . . . are a disaster for food security, particularly in poorer countries, as subsistence farmers are increasingly put out of business or forced into export production instead.”
    As alternatives to this environmentally destructive madness what do they recommend?
    “Relocating our food systems will require a complete change of direction, away from the policies of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy and the rules of the World Trade Organisation . . . Instead, the central aim of trade and food policy should be a just and environmentally sound food security programme, for all nations."
    They go on to list some measures (i.e. reforms) that "would be instrumental in helping to meet the challenge." For instance,. "Production methods would have to meet key environmental and animal welfare standards, as well as provide healthy food . . . the reduction of fossil fuel use would need to be prioritised across the framework." Other proposed measures include fair wages and adequate income, national import controls as a prerogative of all countries, reduced profit margins for food processors and supermarkets, restricting the market share of individual supermarkets, promoting self-reliance and ending subsidised dumping, and rewriting the EU Treaty and the rules of the WTO.

    The trouble is that each one of these reforms, or something similar, has been promoted, implemented, tried, reworked and discarded in favour of whatever is the latest fad. They are offering palliative treatment when only invasive surgery will do. As for agriculture and the environment, there is plenty of evidence pointing to how to get well and truly onto a sustainable path worldwide. Studies and statistics abound from universities, national and international farming networks, coalitions on food sovereignty, and organic farming which demonstrate that traditional intensive farming methods can out-perform industrial agricultural methods and are more beneficial to the health of both people and the environment. People may desire this change but the economic framework of capitalism won’t allow it.

    "At a time when water tables are falling, temperatures are rising as a result of climate change and oil supplies will soon be shrinking the need for decisive action could not be more urgent." Without a doubt. But, whilst the authors set out a wealth of solid information, and display a desire both to improve the lot of worldwide farmers and to ensure enough healthy food for all, their focus throughout their report on the monetary costs of everything – inevitable in a capitalist world – is their downfall for it is this very element that is fuelling both the food and the environmental crises.
    Janet Surman