Monday, November 9, 2009

Free is cheaper? (2009)

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

On 12 October the London Evening Standard converted itself from a paying into a free newspaper, claiming to be the first “free quality newspaper”. That’s a bit pretentious since, as class-conscious Londoners know, the Evening Standard has been a consistently anti-working class rag opposing any strike by London workers, and a rag remains a rag even if it’s free.

Ironically, a couple of months earlier its business page had commented:
“It had to happen: after the £1 store, came the 99p variety, and now the 89p shop is on the way. Retail Week says the Annauth family, who dreamt up the 89p store ("at least l0p cheaper than elsewhere") in Dorset, will create 20 jobs. They intend to open other branches. Soon, there will be the 79p store, then 69p. In fact, why not have the ‘nothing store’ and have done with it?” (17 August)
Why not indeed and that’s what will happen in socialism (though the quality will be much higher than the shoddy sold in these shops today). But we’re living in capitalism, so how can a paper be free and still make a profit? From advertising, stupid. What newspapers are selling is not so much news to their readers as advertising space to advertisers. To this they do of course have to attract readers and so contain material of interest to them or which fits in with their views or prejudices. But that’s not their main purpose, nor their main source of income.

The more readers a paper has the wider the audience of potential buyers it can offer advertisers. Requiring people to pay inevitably puts some off and so reduces readership. Hence the rise of the free, give-away paper. There are already a number of London-wide free papers and competition from them has affected Evening Standard sales. So, under its new owner, Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev, its business strategists have decided to bank on an increased readership from being free bringing in more in advertising revenue than the loss of revenue from sales. As Dan Sabbagh explained in the Times (9 October):
“This is a title that sold about 450,000 copies as recently as five years ago, but competition from freesheets (including News International's thelondonpaper) pushed its paid-for sales down to 110,000 in August. At that sort of level, cover price income of a miserable £10 million or so is so small that it might be worth gambling on a massive increase in advertising income by printing twice the number of copies and giving them away.”
Even before he became a socialist Marx had remarked that “the primary freedom of the press lies in not being a trade” (www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1842/free-press/ch06.htm). That’s a good point. The commercial newspapers, which proclaim themselves the “Fourth Estate” and trumpet that they are essential defenders of our “freedom”, are not a free press at all. What they mean by freedom of the press is the freedom for them as newspaper businesses to print what they like without government interference or any degree of democratic control.

The only free press today is small-circulation magazines like us whose main concern is to get ideas across, not to make a profit. And in socialism all papers will be free to take and read – and free also of commercial advertising.

Billion dollar bribery

From the November 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

The news that the Serious Fraud Office have asked the Attorney-General to prosecute BAE on corruption charges has raised a hornets’ nest of speculation in the British press about ethics, bribery and business practices. BAE is accused of paying millions of pounds in bribes to win contracts for aircraft in South Africa and the Czech Republic and the sale of air traffic control equipment in Tanzania./p>

In the past the SFO have investigated allegations of bribery by BAE in Saudi Arabia to win the £43 billion al-Yamamah deal. This was eventually dropped when Prime Minister Tony Blair intervened to retain the fighter contract on the grounds that thousands of British jobs were threatened. He never mentioned the real reason for turning a blind eye, Christian gentleman that he is - the immense profits that were in jeopardy!/p>

So how come the SFO are prepared to proceed with the prosecution of BAE in this case? It would seem that BAE and the SFO were in negotiations about an out-of-court settlement that would have seen BAE pay an enormous great fine of millions without admitting any guilt, but these behind-the-scenes negotiations have broken down probably over the size of the fine or the extent of admitted culpability. We will probably never know the full extent of the skulduggery and chicanery that is going on in this behind-the-doors trickery, but it has been reported that the SFO was looking for up to a £1 billion fine and the BAE was only offering in the region of tens of millions./p>

The reaction of the British press has been interesting. Some of them have suggested that bribery is the accepted modus operandi with some foreign governments and that Britain should not tie its hands behind its back when dealing with rivals for these lucrative contracts. Others have claimed that if guilt is admitted this may harm BAE in future negotiations for contracts with the USA - their single biggest customer./p>

The journalist Antonia Senior in her support for BAE is particularly frank in her analysis of the past practices of British commerce. "We may be incorruptible at home, but when dealing with Johnny Foreigner all bets are off. The moral transgressor is the receiver of bribes, not the payer. It's Johnny's fault, of course; we can't expect the same standards from a foreigner. This jingoistic hypocrisy has long been a feature of British adventures abroad, whether they are in the military or economic line. We lied, bribed and slaughtered our way to an empire that we subsequently imbued with Christian piety. The pursuit of profit at the expense of morality has been the basis of our foreign policy for as long as we called ourselves British." (London Times, 2 October) /p>

The BAE bribery case is by no means unique. At the end of September the SFO successfully pursued Mabey & Johnson, the bridge builders for a bribery deal in Iraq and obtained a £6.6 million fine. Indeed this success may have emboldened the SFO to turn the screws on BAE. Whether BAE is eventually prosecuted or some old pals act wins the day it is impossible to tell, but this latest episode is just another example of the duplicity, fraud and criminality that lies at the heart of world capitalism.

Richard Donnelly

Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain 119

Dear Friends,

Welcome to the 119th of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

We now have 1528 friends!

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    15th November - Matewan

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    "In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all." Marx & Engels, Communist Manifesto, 1848.

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

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    Ya Basta!

    Book Review from the November 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Enough. By John Naish: Hodder £7.99.

    Naish coins the word enoughism to describe the idea that most people’s material wants are satisfied, so we should not aim to consume yet more. In a world where more people are obese than starving, we need to draw a limit to what we eat or otherwise buy. If you are earning the median income for the country you live in, striving to earn more is unlikely to make you happier, and even the filthy rich (with over $125 million) don’t feel much more contented than the average worker. Don’t try to earn more by working more, since long hours of employment are bad for you. Working over 41 hours per week is likely to give you high blood pressure, while voluntary work tends to increase the life span.

    It is surprising to be told that ‘In the Western world we have now effectively have everything we could possibly need’. This ignores the extent of homelessness and other kinds of want that exist even in relatively prosperous societies; one child in three in Britain lives in poverty, for instance. Even basic needs like food, warmth and shelter are not met for many, many people.

    But Naish does have some interesting things to say about consumer society. With many goods, we are offered not a genuine choice but a whole range of trivial ‘options’ that are really all the same (whether it is a matter of shampoo or digital cameras). Cars and fashion are further clear examples of where people are pressured into having the latest innovation. All-you-can-eat buffets are becoming increasingly popular: though don’t they really show that people are not that well off after all, as well as how they behave in a society of scarcity when the constraints are temporarily removed?

    It’s unlikely that socialism will be a kind of consumer paradise, and the notion of enoughness will probably apply, since there will be no profit motive to persuade people into having the latest of everything. We have no reason to think that he’s a socialist, but Naish does see some of the implications of a truly human society when he writes of the need to ‘explore anew our old, nourishing and truly sustainable natural human resources – qualities such as gratitude, generosity and the urge for human connection’.

    Paul Bennett

    Afghanistan – lying about dying (2009)

    From the November 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard
    The pressure to misinterpret the deaths, as the bodies come back, as nobly purifying is a cynically orchestrated propaganda exercise intended to justify the war.
    Among the rituals so consoling to our Servants of the People in Westminster is the solemn roll call of the names of recently fatal casualties of the Afghanistan war proceeding to formulaic assurances of grief, of sympathy for family and friends and an assertion, defiant of a mass of disruptive facts, that from the dead will blossom a victory to bring a happier, freer Afghanistan and a safer Britain. All of this will happen, argue the MPs, through some process so far undefined. Meanwhile it is notable that the casualties' names are exclusively those of members of the British armed forces; the fighters on the other side and the hapless Afghan people who die terrified in their homes from the blast of the missiles do not get a mention. It is all very satisfactory for the Honourable Members on the green benches, dreaming of their expense claims while scheming of how most effectively to avoid any too probing questions from their constituents about the policy of satisfying the appetite of that voracious war.
    This is reflected in the style of the heavily publicised repatriation of the dead soldiers, brought in flag-draped coffins to a military airfield and, after a ceremonial unloading, paraded through the streets of the nearby town – all carefully orchestrated and recorded by the TV news cameras. It would be a very brave person who defied this official smothering of doubts about the reasons for the troops being in Afghanistan. Part of this disreputable process is the eulogising of the dead who, one after another, are remembered, each in their own way, as a rare combination of courage, good humour, compassion, intellectual power...An example of this receptive attitude was a full page article by Audrey Gillan – who has some direct experience of Afghanistan – in the Guardian of 23 September about the late Corporal Michael Lockett: “...one of the most affable and funniest...one of the most courageous...handsome face and bright blue eyes flickering...Each time I met him I admired (him) more...” In another case – which did not have the advantage of being written up by a doting journalist – a dead soldier was praised because he had “loved” being a sniper – loved, in other words, practising his craft of abruptly and clinically killing people as if there can be no higher human talent.
    Two Friends
    But among the hysteria a more sombre and realistic event intruded – a young man by the name of Barry Delaney in a woman's dress weeping for his best friend Kevin Elliott who was killed in an ambush in August. Three years ago the two agreed that if Elliott was killed Delaney would attend his funeral dressed like a woman. On his last leave Elliott told Delaney that he was terrified to go back to Afghanistan and could see no proper reason for the British army being there. Delaney is chronically unemployed, living in Dundee where there is a persistent problem – which Elliott avoided by joining the army when he left school at 16. In this context it is particularly pertinent that the Ministry of Defence report a 25 per cent rise in army recruits in this year of the recession – more than at any other time since 2005.
    Delaney and Elliott do not conform to the stereotype so lovingly fostered onto us by media hacks. Elliott told of many ingloriously gruesome episodes, such as while trying to leave the battle under fire having to scoop up from the dust the body parts and internal organs of another soldier. Experiences like that are likely, in every case except the most hardened or resistant, to devastate a person's morale so as to insert unforeseen, unwelcome and unmanageable aspects into their personality so damaging as to make the effect endure for a long time after the immediate experience has expired. The Guardian quotes Professor Tim Robbins, former head of trauma and stress services at St. George's Hospital: “If we are asking people to do appalling things, to take part in regular firefights and hand-to-hand combat, you get to the stage where it de-sensitises them to violence”.
    Prisoners
    The durability of these effects was illustrated by a recent survey by NAPO, the Probation Officers' trade union, which estimated that there are over 20,000 ex-service personnel – over twice as many as are in Afghanistan – being processed by the criminal justice system such as police, courts, prisons and the like. Of these 8,500 have committed offences serious enough to get them sent to prison, making a tenth of the total prison population and the largest singe identifiable occupational group there. In many cases their offences were the immediate result of excessive consumption of alcohol or drugs, or both. The most common offence was for domestic violence, usually by men on their wives as an anarchic response to the stress of the discipline required by a close living relationship. Typical examples are, firstly, by a man who went through two spells in active war zones: “Hard to reconcile the devastation, horror and distress of the war with the comfortable life” and, secondly, a man who in his first few days in the Iraq war saw a friend blown up; he now has nine previous convictions beginning in 2005, of which two were for domestic violence and he is known by his ex-partners as a “Jekyll and Hyde” character. Facts like these throw serious doubt on the official propaganda, abetted by the media weasels, that the British forces in Afghanistan are unique in being impeccably mannered and humane. In addition they raise the question of whether Kevin Elliott was driven to join up when he left school because the army offered him better prospects than a life on the bread-line.
    Torture
    An example of how soldiers, of whatever nationality, are liable to respond to the everyday stress of militarism was the case of Baha Mousa, who was working as a receptionist in a Basra hotel until the day in September 2003 when 120 British soldiers (from a group known as “The Grim Reapers”) raided the hotel and took him, with nine others, into detention at the Battle Group Main camp. It was there that Baha Mousa – called “fat boy” or “fat bastard” by the soldiers – was subjected to a process of “conditioning” – or more accurately torture – until he died with 93 separate injuries to his body including a broken nose and fractured ribs. A video recording shows Baha Mousa, with other detainees, hooded and forced into stress positions, being screamed at, abused and threatened. At the subsequent enquiry there was evidence suggesting that Baha Mousa was arrested and tortured because he had complained after seeing some of the soldiers breaking open a safe in the hotel and stealing money. One of the soldiers admitted to this but probably did not help his case by saying he wanted the money “to make a collage”. There was a court martial but, in what looked suspiciously like a closing of ranks, the blame was focussed on only one of the soldiers, who then had to plead guilty to inhumane treatment while the others were acquitted. Counsel for the Ministry of Defence did his best for his majestic client by apologising for the “brutal violence” and “appalling behaviour” of the soldiers. Which left just the government and the media to do their best to plaster over such an embarrassing episode and insist that things are different now, as the soldiers go about the business of killing and of being killed in Afghanistan.
    Distress
    The pressure on us to misinterpret the deaths, as the bodies come back, as nobly purifying is a cynically orchestrated propaganda exercise intended to justify the war, to obscure the fact that the great powers' interest in Afghanistan does not arise from any concern for the people of that country but from its position in an area vital to the interests of those powers, rather like the situation when it was an unwilling participant in the “Great Game” of Victorian imperialism. It is almost as a grisly tradition, that those same powers should readily support any Afghan tribal ruler no matter how corrupt and repressive – and that so many of the attempts to control the place through conquest have failed. It is hardly surprising that some of the soldiers should begin to ask why they are there and what the end will be for it all. The official response is to promote a massive lie with insidious propaganda fashioned to strait-jacket any tendency to dissent from the popular delusions. The killing goes on as the government gambles that their lies will be more acceptable than the distress of facing reality.
    Ivan