Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain 133

Dear Friends,

Welcome to the 133rd of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

We now have 1565 friends!

Recent blogs:

  • Cab ride to capitalism
  • Masters of War
  • Pitiful Copenhagen
  • Quote for the week:


    "You have the right to free Speech

    As long as

    You're not dumb enough to actually try it"


    The Clash, Know Your Rights, 1982.

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    'Klingons to privilege'

    From the Inveresk Street Ingrate blog:

    SPGBer Max H. joins in the recent fun of photoshopping that daft 'honest dave' poster:

    SPGBers who like that sort of thing tell me that Cameron has a passing resemblance to a Star Trek character called 'Data'. What do I know. Buck Rogers was my sci-fi fix as a kid.

    More of Max's excellent Cameron posters on his website Capitalist Money Madness. I especially like these two.

    Engels defrocked (2010)


    Book Review from the January 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    The Frock-Coated Communist: the Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels. By Tristram Hunt

    In February last year we reviewed John Green’s biography of Engels, and now along comes another. This one was launched with far more hype, coming as it does from a well-known publisher and being written by an up-and-coming academic and TV historian. Both contain ‘revolutionary life’ in their sub-titles, and even feature on their front covers versions of the same portrait of Engels at the age of twenty.

    And of course both books tell essentially the same story. Engels was born to a capitalist family in Germany in 1820, and rebelled against his upbringing but was forced to spend twenty years working for the Manchester branch of the family firm. He supported Marx financially, till in 1869 he was able to retire, and the next year he moved to London. Besides helping Marx’s research into capitalism, he wrote classic works such as The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.

    Where Green saw Engels as something of a proto-Bolshevik, Hunt has a more balanced view in this respect. ‘Contrary to Lenin’s later assertions,’ he says, ‘Engels was no vanguardist.’ He appreciated, too, that workers could come to power using the ballot box. Nor was he a Fabian or a supporter of the reformism pursued by the German Social Democrats. Despite some claims to the contrary, he was not responsible for the horrors of Stalinism, and did not corrupt Marx’s ideas in any way.

    But Engels was not perfect, by any means. He had some anti-Irish prejudices, but he later put these aside. He does not seem, though, to have modified his anti-Slav views, which led him to call for the disappearance of ‘entire reactionary peoples’. He was against homosexuality, and was not sympathetic to the women’s movement. In the 1840s he apparently slept with the wife of Moses Hess, a former associate with whom he and Marx had fallen out, and then boasted that she was in love with him. Yet ‘the womanising Engels ended up authoring the foundation text of socialist feminism’ (i.e. Origin).

    As Francis Wheen did when writing about Marx, Hunt concludes by noting how contemporary Engels now seems, when read in the context of economic recession and globalisation.
    Paul Bennett

    Thursday, January 21, 2010

    Poverty in New York

    From the Socialist Courier blog

    A letter to the press from Joe Berg, Executive Director, New York City Coalition Against Hunger is very revealing:

    "In 2008, even before the economic downturn had its worst impact, 1.5 million city residents lived in poverty, 104,000 more than in 2000. More than 1.3 million New Yorkers are now forced to use food pantries and soup kitchens. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, there are 45 percent more people staying in city homeless shelters nightly than when Mayor Bloomberg took office, with levels at an all-time high. On Jan. 7, there were 36,961 people, including 15,727 children, sleeping in city shelters, enough to fill Madison Square Garden two times over. While the number of billionaires in the city dipped slightly in the last year (from 64 to 56), their combined net worth still equaled more than 27 times the yearly income of all 1.5 million New Yorkers in poverty." (New York Times, 11 January)

    Richard Donnelly

    Wednesday, January 20, 2010

    Getting better

    Book Review from the January 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Things Can Only Get Better by John O'Farrell

    It could not have been easy for them but Tory Party activists did an effective job in denying that there was any genuine suffering in this country while their party was in power. It was, they argued, largely a delusion. Millions of people were imagining they were unemployed, there weren't really hundreds of applicants for one job. Tens of thousands were being evicted from their homes because they imagined they couldn’t afford to pay the mortgage. Beggars on the streets were actually rich people, taking time off from fat cat jobs as commodity brokers or financial consultants. This general idea—that anyone experiencing the more extreme kind of poverty had only themselves to blame—was popular enough to help keep the Tories in power for 18 years. And that in itself was the cause of a kind of suffering for at least one man which, although real enough in its effect, had its origins in a delusion as powerful as the one which afflicted and comforted the Tory faithful.

    John O'Farrell, a Labour Party activist for some of those 18 years, is better known as one of the writers of the TV political satire Spitting Image and occasional contributor of jokes to Labour leaders like Gordon Brown. He has written a book—Things Can Only Get Better (Doubleday, £9.99)—about how he suffered as one Tory victory followed another, as Labour split and blundered, electing leaders like Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock while Thatcher swiped them all with her handbag and, with her impenetrable arrogance, rubbed her opponents' noses into the misery of defeat.

    Leaders

    All the way from posh, leafy Thames-side Maidenhead, O'Farrell was almost bred into becoming a Labour supporter. His father was a kind of political anorak and his mother was active in liberal-lefty causes like Oxfam and Amnesty International—although his brother regarded politics as not so much a closed book as one which had not yet been written. None of the family seemed to have any clear idea of why they should work for a Labour victory apart from some undeveloped notion that it would make the world a better place. But that is the kind of motivation which drives football supporters onto terraces each Saturday, to exult or despair, or pop fans to hope their favourite comes out on top:

    "I had wanted Labour to win in 1970 because my dad did, just as I had wanted Dana to win the Eurovision Song Contest because my dad did."

    Having settled on which team he would support and decked himself out with the appropriate rosette, O'Farrell had to endure a series of humiliating defeats. In 1979 the Labour manager, genial Jim Callaghan, could be blamed because he opted to delay the kick-off. His successor was even worse; eccentric supremo Michael Foot led the team in 1983 to a historic thrashing. Then came the younger livelier Neil Kinnock who first had to prove that his reputation as a fiery left-winger belonged to the days when he was trying to make a name for himself, before he too could preside over a losing team. In 1987 Labour's defeat proved one thing—that a meticulously cynical and stage-managed campaign does not guarantee victory. In 1992 it was if anything a more bitter defeat as the party confounded a great many of the experts in expectation and lost to the team of grey, boring, whining John Major.

    Passionate

    Throughout these desperate times O'Farrell because deeper and deeper involved in Labour politics, invigorating a near-deceased ward party in Tory Wandsworth. At a quarter to ten on polling day in 1987 an exhausted volunteer came into the committee rooms suggested there was no point in going out again as the polling stations closed at ten o'clock. "Is it worth it?" screamed O'Farrell. "We lost Leicester South by seven votes last time round! Seven poxy votes! You could easily get seven votes out between now and polls closing. Is there anything more important that you can think of doing during the next fifteen minutes?" the volunteer went out again. Labour lost the seat by 57 votes.

    No wonder somebody as passionate about the Labour Party suffered so much at their defeats—just like football fans when their team is relegated. In 1983:

    "Why I stayed up to watch the results is a mystery to me. I suppose it was for the same reason that I cannot help slowing down and glancing across at horrific motorway accidents."

    In 1987:

    "As I walked through the Shaftesbury Estate at two in the morning I looked at all the houses with people asleep in their beds, blissfully ignorant of what a terrible thing they had done."

    And in 1992:

    " . . . when exactly were we likely to beat them? Never, was the simple answer. Never, ever, ever."

    Support

    This brings us to question what "support" is all about. Why do people "support" a football team? Why support Manchester United and not Brentford? Or Arsenal instead of Torquay? Why "support" the Labour Party and not the Tories? Or the Liberal Democrats or the Natural Law Party? O'Farrell thinks ". . . other people's lives can be improved through the existing political system, whether on a local or national level, and that we all have a moral obligation to try to make this happen". That, except for the bit about a "moral obligation", is all right as far as it goes: but why should it then lead to supporting the Labour Party? O'Farrell goes on about " . . . the simple basic precepts of left-wing politics . . . helping people worse off than themselves . . . granting more freedom . . . improving living standards and fighting inequality". But when he got involved in politics we had just come through a period of 15 years 11 of which had been under Labour government. Those governments, under Wilson and Callaghan, had not exactly covered themselves in glory as far as working-class interests went.

    Their records on wars such as Biafra and Vietnam was sordid and shameful. They had fought the working class on many occasions when groups of them had tried to protect their living standards against Labour's assaults. The infamous Winter of Discontent had followed from Chancellor Healey's attempts to impose a five percent limit on wage rises which, after years of restrain and promises of a better future, was the last straw. Callaghan did not lose in 1979 because the working class were swamped in prosperity but because they were fed up with the misery of Labour rule.

    Another book

    As might be expected, O'Farrell greeted Blair's victory in 1997 by getting drunk. The British people, he thought, had finally come good. What does he now think after nearly two years of Labour rule? What about the attacks on the benefits of single parents? What about the insidious smear that disabled people and compliant doctors are conspiring to defraud Social Security? What about tightening the screws on the unemployed? What about harassing damaged and disturbed youngsters? What about Blair's cosy relationship with mega capitalists like Murdoch, Sainsbury and Bernie Ecclestone? What about his eager support for Clinton's threats to start up another war in the Gulf?

    It is time for another book from O'Farrell. This time he might call it something like "Sorry. But After All The Suffering, The Hard Work And The Expectations Labour Won—And Things Did Not Get Better".

    Ivan

    Monday, January 18, 2010

    Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain 132

    Dear Friends,

    Welcome to the 132nd of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

    We now have 1559 friends!

    Recent blogs:

  • Labour and the reform of capitalism
  • Government or democracy?
  • Who's going to clean the sewers?
  • Quote for the week:

    "Politicians hide themselves away. They only started the war. Why should they go out into a fight?... They leave that all to the poor." Black Sabbath, War Pigs, 1970.

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    Sunday, January 17, 2010

    Financial alchemy (2010)

    The Cooking the Books column from the September 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard
    When the Bank of England introduced "quantitative easing" last year is was popularly described as the government having recourse to the printing press. This was not meant to be taken literally – the Bank of England did not arrange for more notes to be printed – as it was done electronically. Nor, as Charles Bean, a deputy governor of the Bank of England explained in a speech to the London Society of Chartered Accountants on 13 October (see here), was it the same process that leads to more currency (notes and coins) getting into circulation (through banks being put in a position to have to convert some of their reserves with the Bank of England into cash).
    Bean described it as "a programme of large scale asset purchases financed by the issuance of extra reserves". A new fund called the Asset Purchase Facility was set up to which the Bank of England has so far lent £200 billion. This did not come out of the Bank's existing assets but was literally created out of nothing:
    "Technically what happens is the following. The Asset Purchase Facility buys assets funded by a loan from the Bank. In turn, the Bank funds that loan through additional reserve creation. If that sounds like financial alchemy, consider how the money flows through the system. When the Asset Purchase Facility buys a gilt from a pension fund, say, it can be thought of as paying with a cheque drawn on the Bank of England. The pension fund will then bank the cheque with its own commercial bank, so the latter now has a claim on the Bank of England – that is what reserves are. In reality, these payments are not made by cheque, but rather are carried out electronically. But the principle is the same, though one key difference is that we pay the Bank Rate to the commercial bank on its claim on us, as well as charging the Bank Rate on the loan we make to the Asset Purchase Facility."
    So, what is involved is a circulating IOU from the Bank which can be used to buy financial assets and which, from an accounting point of view, takes the form of a notional increase in the reserves which the commercial banks keep with the Bank of England, except that it is the Bank not the commercial banks that has increased these reserves.
    Will this cause inflation? After all, what the Asset Purchase Facility spends does represent an increase in purchasing power. However, the immediate aim is not to cause a rise in the general price level but a rise only in the price of government bonds and stocks and shares:
    "If the Asset Purchase Facility buys gilts from pension funds or asset managers, they will then have to look for another home for their money. As it is not very rewarding just to hold it on deposit, they are likely to look to put their money into other assets, including equities and corporate bonds. Thus not only does the price of gilts rise as a consequence of the Asset Purchase Facility's initial purchases, but also the prices of a whole spectrum of other assets".
    This limited aim seems to have been achieved as prices of bonds and shares on the stock exchange have risen, helping to repair some black holes on financial company balance sheets. But there is supposed to be a wider aim: to "boost spending and activity" as Bean put it. Which hasn't been achieved. Bean, in fact, honestly admitted that if and when economic activity revives there will be no way of telling whether or not this was due to quantitative easing "for the simple reason that we can never know with precision what would have happened in its absence".
    The intention is that, as the real economy recovers, the process will be reversed. The Asset Purchase Facility will sell the bonds it purchased and repay its loan from the Bank of England. The Bank will then liquidate the corresponding commercial banks' reserves with it. If this happens there will be no general inflationary effect as the extra purchasing power pumped into financial markets will be taken out again. But this could be years away. In the meantime the extra purchasing power will continue to go towards financing a stock exchange revival, even perhaps a speculative bubble – while the real economy goes its own way, recovering in due course for real economic reasons not through financial alchemy.

    Why are we waiting? (2009)

    A Short Story from the September 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Reflections of a man in a queue
    What are you waiting for? For a certain little lady to come by? For world peace? For that moment when you can slap a parking ticket on that stationary vehicle whose owner has committed the heinous crime of being one minute longer than they should have been? For the chance to appear in ‘Big Brother’? For the dentist to call you in and prove that you have nothing to fear but fear itself? For the weekend when your life feels like it belongs to you and no one else? For the arms of Morpheus to envelop you? For the price of petrol/train season ticket to become more affordable? For your team to win promotion this season? For someone to bid on that eBay item you’re trying to sell? For the replacement of a social system predicated upon the pursuit of profit, profit and more profit?

    The local newsagents/post office. Lunchtime. Three counter positions. Two of them closed. Surprise, surprise! Long queue building up behind me. Metaphorically, I pull out my flask, sandwiches and copy of the Beano and settle down for a long wait. I try uttering the mantra, “patience is a virtue,” but this doesn’t work as my concentration is disturbed by the mucky magazines in my eye line. Ian Drury’s song, starts running through my head, “In my yellow jersey, I went out on the nick. South Street Romford, shopping arcade, Got a Razzle magazine, I never paid, Inside my jacket and away double quick.” (Razzle in my pocket)

    Last time I was rooted to one spot for so long without moving was in a traffic jam just outside Worcester. On the satnav I watched an hour of my life go to waste as I fumed in the queue. I’m just on the point of turning to someone and saying, “When I was a lad we didn’t have queues this long you know!” Fortunately, I manage to avoid turning into bore number 147.

    I move through ninety degrees and peruse those behind me. I’m not that sensitive to other people’s moods but even I could sense their resentment. Their blood pressure is rising exponentially with every minute of inactivity that passes. I gauge this by the angry flush which is appearing on their faces and the muttered imprecations which are beginning to sound more and more and like an audition for a collective of Wiccan worshippers in that Scottish play by Shakespeare.

    I too join in the muttering. I am debating with myself whether I should give in to an overwhelming urge to fix them with a glittering eye and expound upon the benefits of a social system based upon production for use, not profit.

    After all, my fellow wage slaves are the ones who actually run the system on behalf of a minority.

    Waiting for Godot is a play by Samuel Becket. There are two characters called Estragon and Vladimir who, in a two day time frame, engage in various activities whilst waiting for a character called Godot to arrive. In the first scene Estragon after trying hard to remove his shoe, and failing, says, “Nothing to be done.”

    “Nothing to be done!” has resonance amongst those who are constantly propounding empirical reasons why this global social system, capitalism, has fulfilled its historical purpose and needs to be replaced. “Nothing to be done!” is an oft-repeated response from other members of the working class when real socialism is explained to them.

    Go on the comments section of some internet blogs or media sites. Amongst the jeering, insults, and puerile name calling you will find countless posts complaining how tough times are and how they are going to get tougher. These tirades are often directed at individuals, e.g. politicians, organizations, e.g. political parties, or institutions, e.g., the European Union, who appear, in the eyes of those posting, to hold some malignant influence over their lives. For the sake of veracity, it has to be said, that ‘socialism’ is often cited in less than complimentary terms.

    It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the ‘socialism’ referred to as being more scary than the bogeyman is state capitalism as practised by the ex-Soviet Union and by regimes such as North Korea, Cuba and others today. Moaning and whinging seems to be becoming an art form. In the art of not doing anything. A pervasive fatalistic air is apparent. Amongst many who are who are posting on the internet anyway, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it,” (Karl Marx). Well, here’s the tough love; whining about it ain’t gonna change anything!

    The local branch of the bank that likes to be international and local at one and the same time. Mid-morning. Once upon a time there were five counter positions. Now there are only two. One of which is shut. Yet another queue. The frustrations emanating from the increasingly exasperated wage slaves wasting time trying to avail themselves of the banks ‘services’ are palpable. Are those queuing behind me are aware of their role as wage slaves within a capitalist system that daily exploits them in its ever more desperate attempts to fulfil it’s raison d’être? The thing about capitalism is that it’s fulfilled its historical function to lay down the necessary social conditions for a transition to a wageless, moneyless, leaderless, classless, stateless society. It’s just that the vast majority of paid and unpaid members of the working class don’t know that yet.

    The couple at the counter finally sorts out their business. She apologies to us all for keeping us waiting. I say out loud, it’s not your fault, it’s the banks. In my mind I’m screaming, “We don’t need banks! Abolition of the wages system! Free access of goods and services! From each according to his/her abilities, to each according to their needs! Had I said all this aloud in one of the temples of the moneychangers what response would I have got? Would I have been dragged kicking and screaming into a police van or into a conveyance to the local mental health hospital. Well! What a looney! (Political correctness in the use of language hasn’t permeated to my part of the world). Elimination of money? Cor, we might be getting seriously peed off wasting our life in this queue but that suggestion is just ridiculous. Isn’t it? Hell, I don’t want to bring back more counter positions in banks and post offices. I want a social system where money and the need for financial transactions of any kind are no longer necessary.

    “I'm so tired, Tired of waiting, Tired of waiting for you.” (Ray Davies and The Kinks). I’ve reached an age where “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near” resounds much more loudly nowadays. I think I can legitimately describe myself as a ‘grumpy old man.’ Thing is, I don’t think that you have to be old to be grumpy and dissatisfied to know that there’s something wrong with the way that we live. Like the Kinks I’m getting increasingly frustrated waiting for the transition to a better social system which will supersede the one we have now. Capitalism has outlived its usefulness and is inhibiting the personal, and collective, growth of everyone on this planet. The problem is this better life isn’t going to happen without us all putting in some serious effort to bring it about. “It's your life, And you can do what you want.” So what do you want to do? Are you happy with your life? It’s down to us all. What are we waiting for?
    Dave Coggan

    Friday, January 15, 2010

    Haiti - An Un-natural Disaster

    From the Socialism Or Your Money Back blog:

    The earthquake in Haiti and similar misfortunes are presented as unavoidable natural disasters. To some extent, this is true. But it ignores the consequences of the deliberate pursuit of profit at the expense of environmental protection. It is not a coincidence that the number of victims of recent disasters such as the Asian tsunami and the Katrina hurricane and now Haiti are clearly related to the degree of their poverty.

    The reality with earthquakes is they kill only if we let them. They are inevitable, but the death toll is not.

    It is collapsing buildings that take lives, not tremors in the ground. Throughout the animal kingdom, creatures have adapted to survive in their surroundings, but in our environment, where earthquakes are a fact of life, though nature challenges us to do something to protect ourselves, capitalism compels us to surrender safety to monetary profits and savings. No matter how severe earthquakes are, if buildings were properly built in the first place, then the vast majority of people would survive. This does not happen under capitalism, particularly in poorer countries, since the unavoidable pressure to make and save money affects what does, or more importantly, does not happen. There are pressures to build quickly and slapdashly to meet housing needs by landless labourers forced by poverty to find work in urban areas; inferior materials and construction methods are used in accordance with market forces, with poor people getting poorly-built homes; building inspectors are persuaded by politicians or back-handers to ignore breaches of rules so that businesses get the cheap employees they want and workers get hovels they can afford; landowners lobby governments, hand over party "donations" or resort to simple bribery to have new housing built on their land, even if it is unsuitable or downright dangerous. With, moneyless, socialism human needs and safety come second to nothing.

    Though seismologists don't know precisely where or when earthquakes may strike, general areas of risk are identifiable. In a socialist society, how we respond to this information would be very different. There would be far greater freedom for those in danger to move to safer areas—action under capitalism that can involve huge financial losses from writing off unsafe homes, shifting businesses to where workers then live, adapting that region's infrastructure to aid in exploiting the new workforce etc. And those who, for whatever reason, chose to reside in seismic zones, they would then have access to the best buildings capable of withstanding the most powerful of quakes. Although Japanese and Californian architects have designed “active buildings”, some on top of massive rubber shock absorbers or with computerised counterbalancing systems that identify and counteract seismic shocks, what's the likelihood of such sophisticated technology being used under capitalism on multi-storey dwellings in poverty-stricken areas for workers on subsistence wages? Using superior designs, building methods and materials, there is no reason why populated areas should suffer any loss of life or major disruption after experiencing very powerful quakes.

    The surviving victims of the disaster in Haiti need food, fresh water, clothing, medication and many other items. Some of those needs are being met, but not nearly enough. Governments of the richer countries have offered niggardly help. Ordinary citizens, appalled by the extent of the tragedy as revealed by the media, have responded generously to appeals by the charities.In times of natural disasters volunteers are never lacking, nor slow to offer assistance, whether practical or monetary.Humans are endowed with the ability to sympathise and empathise with their fellow humans. Humans derive great pleasure from doing good, are at their best when faced with the worst and will go to extraordinary lengths to help alleviate the suffering of others.

    Most natural dangers are well known and socialism would not need to leave communities exposed to them. This would avoid many disasters. Also, contingency plans would exist throughout the regions and at a world level for the relief of any catastrophe. Emergency supplies of food, clean water, medical supplies would be maintained at strategic points whilst machinery, equipment and helpers would be moved quickly to the area of crisis. The present appeals for money are a pathetic substitute for the availability of real resources and the freedom that communities in socialism would have to immediately use them.

    We have access to more comprehensive information and news coverage about world disasters than any previous generation of humans, and yet it appears that people don't feel driven to bring about an end to such catastrophes. It seems our society has been influenced to believe that nothing can be done. That big death tolls from quakes, volcanoes or droughts are inevitable. What efforts do the media make to change this, by explaining both capitalism's culpability and socialism's solutions? If people don't understand, then all there will be are yet more channel-changing "Not-another-disaster. There's-nothing-I-can-do " indifference.

    Alan Johnstone

    Added Note:

    Well worth a read is an article from Rosa Luxemburg about a volcanic eruption on the nearby island of Martinique in 1902.

    Utterly perverse (2000)

    Theatre Review from the March 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard
    Widowers' Houses. National Theatre Company
    My affection for the theatre is such that I rarely feel moved to walk out, and on those occasions when the thought crosses my mind I invariably quickly conclude that things can only get better. Not unusually my optimism is rewarded, and they do. But a couple of weeks ago I achieved a first. Not only did I want to talk out, but I wanted to do so whilst shouting abuse at the director. Indeed had I been on my own I think I might have done so.
    The occasion for this singular experience was a National Theatre production of Bernard Shaw's Widowers' Houses, directed by Fiona Shaw, which is currently on a UK tour. Widowers' Houses, Shaw's amazing first play, was first produced in 1892. Written as a black comedy of manners, the play demonstrates how, given the imperatives of capitalism, landlords must necessarily exploit their poor and needy tenants, and that all those who are involved in the system are inevitably tainted as a result.
    Fiona Shaw is a marvellous actress, whose performances have given me much pleasure. She is also a sparky, intelligent woman with, so I understand, an Honours degree in philosophy. But her directorial debut sees her perfidiously misinterpreting Shaw's masterpiece. The play as written is a biting, ironic attack of the unpleasant facts of live in Victorian England. But the play as performed is stripped of its historical, economic and political reference points, and infused with an arbitrary erotic sexuality and unlikely melodrama, to the point where it becomes meaningless. "Did you understand that?" said the man next to me to his partner at the end of the show. "No," said his partner without qualification. And it was easy to sympathise.
    Director's often reinterpret great pieces of drama, sometimes to telling effect. Shakespeare is a frequent target and the result can occasionally be thrilling. I recall a recent performance of Richard III in which the king was a Hitler-like dictator living in 20th century Europe. And film buffs will likely be familiar with Paul Douglas's account of Macbeth, with the central part being played by a gangster, Joe Macbeth, living in 1920s' Chicago. But Ms Shaw hasn't so much reinterpreted her namesake's play as perversely misread it. On this occasion she might properly be called Fiona Unshaw.
    The words spoken by the actors often don't match their actions. Early on Harry Trench, a young doctor with aristocratic connections who is enjoying a Rhineland tour with his older travelling companion Cokane, meets Blanche Sartorious, the wealthy daughter of a rich slum landlord. This is familiar territory, and the resonances with Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, which had been performed for the first time only few years earlier, are very clear. Trench hasn't been formally introduced to Blanche and the conventions must be observed. As the redoubtable Blanche tries to have to find a way of prompting the dithering Harry to speak to her father so that she can acknowledge that she has already spoken briefly to him, Shaw describes Harry as "stammering" and "looking at her piteously". But in this production he doesn't stammer or look piteous. Rather he drags Blanche behind an awning where the audience see them immediately begin to copulate.
    This deliberate undermining of Shaw's intentions would be bad enough, were it not that matters immediately get worse. The highly-charged sexual encounter has been seen by Blanche's father. His reaction in real life can only be imagined, but Shaw has given him words which meet his intentions, and not the behaviour which Ms Unshaw has conceived. The Shaw line reads, "Sartorious (gravely): 'I intended you to accompany us' (on our walk), Blanche." You can imagine the audience's wide-eyed disbelief. Many people laughed uproariously at the sheer absurdity of it all. Rarely have I felt more sympathy for an actor having to speak such a foolishly inappropriate line.
    Further liberties are taken. Speeches are jettisoned, the author's stage directions wilfully ignored or countermanded, Blanche becomes pregnant, and Sartorious's rent collector appears in drag.
    How the National Theatre can allow such a travesty to tour is beyond me. It is an unworthy, tawdry show. Better to spend part of the entrance fee on a copy of the play, and re-read Shaw's biting attack on the inhumanities and injustices that are forever part and parcel of capitalism. Whereas I read the play with increasing pleasure, Ms Unshaw's production had my blood boiling with barely suppressed rage.
    Michael Gill

    Thursday, January 14, 2010

    Protect and Survive (2006)


    Book Review from the April 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Jared Diamond: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. Penguin Books

    This is another erudite yet readable book by Jared Diamond, following on from The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee and Guns, Germs and Steel. His theme this time is how and why past societies have or have not collapsed, and how an understanding of such issues may be of help in the present-day world. The Maya civilisation of central America, for instance, collapsed in the early tenth century CE, after a period of 700 years or so. A number of contributing causes can be distinguished: population outgrew available resources, deforestation reduced the amount of available farmland, fighting among the Maya increased, a severe drought occurred, and the rulers had no interest in long-term concerns.

    Diamond distinguishes five points that are generally relevant to societal collapse: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbours, friendly trade partners, and a society’s responses to its environmental problems. Often, for instance, forest will be removed and soil eroded, or newly-introduced animals may eat native species or destroy crops: all this may cut the numbers who can survive in a particular area. Destroying unrenewable resources is particularly crucial. Unfriendly nearby societies can also play their part in disrupting production and everyday life. Globalisation has increased the importance of other (not necessarily nearby) parts of the world: China, for instance, accepts untreated garbage, including toxic waste, form other countries (for a fee, of course).

    Like his other works, Collapse is wide-ranging and thought-provoking, containing much material that we can’t do justice to here. A useful chapter on the Rwanda massacres of the 1990s makes the point that it was not a simple matter of Hutu against Tutsi. Many other factors played a part, including population pressure and falling world coffee prices. The final chapter asks what all the facts and theories that have been marshalled before mean to us today, emphasising ‘the unsustainability of a world in which the Third World’s large population were to reach and maintain current First World living standards.’ Diamond’s conclusion is that we need ‘the political will to apply solutions already available’, as if it were merely a matter of convincing politicians to do the right thing.

    In fact he is far too uncritical in his acceptance of capitalism as the framework within which present-day problems have to be solved. He is well aware that companies exist to make profits, not as charities concerned to protect the environment. Yet, he says, it is not enough to blame companies, for ‘ultimate responsibility’ lies with us, ‘the public’, since we supposedly have the power to make destructive environmental policies unprofitable, e.g. by means of consumer boycotts or pressurising politicians to pass laws that force businesses to clean up the mess they have created. Sadly, this ignores the fact that capitalism needs profits and, while companies will sometimes be keen to play the environmental card if it suits them, they have to put profits first. No amount of legislation or boycotting can change this.

    So the c-word to ponder is not ‘collapse’ or ‘climate’ but ‘capitalism’. And the political will that matters is the will to replace capitalism with a sensibly-organised society, within which problems can be tackled in a way much more likely to yield effective solutions.
    Paul Bennett

    Pitiful Copenhagen (2010)

    From the January 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard
    Given the competitive nature of capitalism any agreement on trying to deal with climate change was bound to be feeble and inadequate.
    If we were living in a rationally-organised world, and a problem such as the threat of a too rapid global warming arose, a co-ordinated global response would be organised as a matter of course. If it was generally agreed amongst scientists specialising in the field that the problem had been caused mainly by the burning of fossil fuels, then steps would be taken to cut this back and to phase in alternative sources of energy. The problems encountered in doing this would only be technological, not political or economic, as there would be no vested interests manoeuvring and lobbying to prevent or delay what needed to be done from being done.
    But of course we are not living in a rationally-organised world. We are living under capitalism where there are vested interests galore – of the states into which the world is artificially divided, of the capitalist corporations seeking to make a profit by supplying some market or other. Certainly, the United Nations exists but it is only the arena in which these vested interests jockey for position and advantage, as was too plainly evident at the UN conference in Copenhagen last month on climate change.
    The media concentrated on the differences there between the developed capitalist countries (misleadingly called “the rich”, as if everybody there was rich) and the developing capitalist countries (cynically, but accurately, called “emerging markets”). The representatives of the newer capitalist countries argued that as the long-established capitalist countries had been responsible for the past emissions of CO2 that scientists say is causing global warming, they should pay the cost of putting this right.
    This is what the arguments there were all about – who is to bear the burden of cutting back on CO2 emissions? It wasn’t just a North-South clash. Each capitalist state had its own interests (those of its capitalists) to defend, with those more dependent on or with more reserves of coal or oil dragging their feet. Because, if the use of fossil fuels is to be cut back or is to be made more expensive this would affect them proportionately more. Their production costs would go up more, putting them at a competitive disadvantage on world markets. Which is why President Bush notoriously declared about the Kyoto Treaty.
    “I made the decision . . . that the Kyoto treaty didn’t suit our needs. In other words, the Kyoto treaty would have wrecked our economy, if I can be blunt . . . I walked away from Kyoto because it would damage America’s economy, you bet. It would have destroyed our economy. It was a lousy deal for the American economy.” (Interview with Trevor MacDonald, ITV, 4 July 2005).
    He was right. The US would have suffered economically if it had signed. Obama is taking a less confrontational approach, but he still has to bat for US capitalist industry, arguing for the continued use of coal and oil but introducing new technology to try to stop so much of the CO2 getting out into the atmosphere.
    Chris Harman in his book Zombie Capitalism quoted some relevant statistics which show why the EU has been more keen than the US to cut back on burning fossil fuels:
    “The national structures within which accumulation takes place depend to very different degrees upon carbon energy. The US was self-sufficient in oil until the early 1970s, its structures of accumulation and consumption became very highly dependent on oil and that means that today it has 20.2 tons of carbon emission per person; the main West European states lacked domestic oil resources, developed rather different structures of accumulation and consumption (with petrol, for instance, about three times the cost it is in the US), and so have far only 8.8 tons of emissions per person; China's rapid industrialisation and urbanisation are based on massive amounts of coal and its total emissions are close to that of the US figure, even though its emissions per head in 2004 were only a little over a sixth of the US figure and 40 percent of the West European figure. These enormous differences mean that measures that seriously cut back on emissions would hit firms based in different countries very differently. It is this which explains why the European Union seemed more committed to action against climate change in the early 2000s than the US; its national states stood to gain from measures that would proportionately hit US-based industries more than their own” (pp. 316-7)

    World Carbon Dioxide Emissions, 2006 (Million Metric Tons CO2)
    Source: Energy Emission Administration
    The OPEC countries, led by Saudi Arabia (where they still really do believe that the Earth is flat), are, for obvious reasons, opposed to reducing oil consumption. In the manoeuvrings before the opening of the conference, their representative was reported as saying “if you cut your oil use we want compensation” (London Times, 2 December). So do they all.
    It is the differing economic interests of the various capitalist countries that work to make any international action to deal with this world problem feeble and inadequate. It’s the same with other world problems, even purely capitalist ones. Baron (then simple Mr Peter) Mandelson, when he was the EU Commissioner in charge of trying to negotiate a reduction in tariffs on world trade, remarked (before the Doha Round ended in failure):
    “If, after seven years, you cannot complete a trade round, what does that say for your prospects of reaching a deal on climate change?” (London Times, 21 July 2008)
    What indeed?
    Some are well aware of what the obstacles are. Thus pioneer global warming scientist James Hansen said just before the conference started:
    “The fundamental problem is that fossil fuels are the cheapest form of energy. As long as they are, they are going to be used” (London Times, 3 December).
    However, naively, he sees the solution as imposing a carbon tax to raise the price of fossil fuels, so making the price – and so the use – of alternative fuels such as renewables and nuclear proportionately more competitive. But that’s easier said than done as who is going to make the US and China pay this tax that would undermine their competitiveness? In fact, as Copenhagen showed, nobody can impose anything on these two powers, the Nº1 and Nº2 CO2 emitters.
    Lord Oxburgh, then chairman of Shell UK, speaking at the Greenpeace Business Lecture in January 2005, pointed out:
    “Whether you like it or not, we live in a capitalist society. If we at Shell ceased to find and extract and market fossil fuel products while there was a demand for them, we should fail as a company. Shell would disappear as any kind of economic force” (Independent, 26 January 2005).
    These are the hard facts of current economic life which those campaigning against climate change are up against. As long as they are cheaper, coal and oil will be used. And no capitalist corporation in that line of business is going to commit economic suicide by not seeking to make profits from supplying this paying demand for coal and oil.
    If those concerned about the threat of a too rapid climate change would think the matter through they should be campaigning not for capitalist governments and corporations to change their spots but for the end of capitalism.
    Adam Buick

    Wednesday, January 13, 2010

    Capitalism against ecology (2010)


    Book Review from the January 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    The Ecological Revolution – making peace with the planet by John Bellamy Foster. Monthly Review Press N.Y. 2009.

    Recalling the goals of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the principal document – Agenda 21 – was intended to launch a new age of sustainable development for the 21st century. But a decade later at the second summit in Johannesburg, it 'had turned out to be about sustaining capital accumulation at virtually any ecological cost.'

    The book is a compilation of earlier articles, mostly from Monthly Review of which Foster is the editor, or from talks given at various venues around the world, e.g. the Marxism Conference 2002 in London, the Climate Change, Social Change Conference 2008 in Sydney, and adapted for this edition. As a consequence there is some recurrence of themes, however the repetition of key points in different contexts tends to reinforce their significance overall.

    Organised in three sections, The Planetary Crisis, Marx's Ecology and Ecology and Revolution, Foster lays out the most up to date information and statistics on climate change and peak oil, etc from credible sources. One recurring theme is that society needs to be reorganised, 'away from the imperatives of accumulation, exploitation and degradation of the natural environment' and that 'the necessary change must be revolutionary in nature.' A reference in chapter 7, A Planetary Defeat, is to The Johannesburg Memo, written by 16 environmentalists who pointed to the abject failure of governments which, after committing to curb environmental decline etc., continued supporting policies which are gradually making all things worse. Again, the Johannesburg Memo, 'as long as corporations' long and short term interests diverge from the public interest no tinkering, reforms, regulations, or World Summits will change the status quo.'

    The chapters of part one cover the workings of capitalism, the reasons the blame lies there and Foster's explanations of why things won't change without a system change. Part two is an analysis of various interpretations of Marx's connection to or disconnection from ecology and how different interpretations have tended to be uppermost at different periods of time. In the longest chapter, Marx's Theory of Metabolic Rift, Foster discusses what he sees as renewed emphasis on Marx and Liebig's treatment of soil fertility and ecological implications from agronomists and ecologists, especially regarding soil science and the struggles over agribusiness v. organic agriculture. He also points to Marx and Engels's emphasis on 'the need for the movement to address the alienation of nature in the attempt to create a sustainable society.' According to Foster the essential starting point for a truly revolutionary social ecology should be Marx's 'Good Ancestor' analogy. 'More than ever the world needs what Marx and others called for – the rational organisation of human metabolism with nature by freely associated producers.'

    Part three contains Foster's argument that only a socialist revolution will suffice to generate conditions of equality, sustainability and human freedom and would necessarily draw its major impetus from the struggles of the working populations and communities at the bottom of the global hierarchy. Basic human needs must be ahead of all other needs and wants. 'There is the need for a revolt from below in support of social and ecological transformation, pointing beyond the existing system.' 'The transition to socialism and the transition to an ecological society are one.'
    Janet Surman

    Tuesday, January 12, 2010

    Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain 131

    Dear Friends,

    Welcome to the 131st of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

    We now have 1560 friends!

    Recent blogs:

  • Marx on terrorism and censorship
  • Is Britain Going Fascist?
  • Did Jesus ever live?
  • Quote for the week:

    "My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. .... With him it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell." Marx, Afterword to the Second German Edition of Capital, 1873.

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    The Hell That Is Poverty (1999)

    Theatre Review from the November 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Love On The Dole by Ronald Gow and Walter Greenwood. National Theatre.

    I remember my mother telling about Love on the Dole when I was growing up in Manchester. Walter Greenwood had pitched his novel about the evils of unemployment, and the grinding poverty that is its inevitable accompaniment, in Hanky Park in Salford. The family home was still in Salford, close to Hankinson Park where Greenwood was born, and when I read the novel as a young man there were still dozens of Hanky Parks in the grimy old town: the night school I attended three times a week was close by one such example; Lowry used others as the subject material of his paintings; and Granada TV identified and tarted up another which became Coronation Street. But until a few weeks ago I had never seen Ronald Gow's play of Greenwood's novel. It was revelation.

    Throughout the year, under the banner of NT 2000, the National has been "charting and celebrating the progress of drama through the 20th century, as represented by 100 plays". In the main these celebrations have been, regrettably, modest in nature, typically consisting of a couple of extracts from the chosen play, and conversations perhaps involving the author and original cast members. But now three plays which had proved popular earlier in the series, and which had never been produced at the National, had been chosen for "full readings" on the stage of the Lyttleton. Love on the Dole was one of these.

    I confess I was unprepared for the impact of Greenwood and Gow's play. With only a few props and with scripts to hand the cast quickly transported us to the early 1930s and to events which on the one hand appeared as though through the mists of time, and yet on the other seemed achingly familiar. "Aw, God, just let me get a job," pleads Mr Hardcastle, with furniture pawned and his daughter about to sell herself as a prostitute. And later in total despair, as he dropped to his knees and beat the floor in helpless frustration, crying "God, gimme a job," I couldn't but remember Alan Bleasdale's Boys from the Blackstuff, and Yosser's plaintive catechism which somehow summed up the 1980s, "Gissa job, Mister. Gissa job."

    It says much for the power of the play that actors like Alison Steadman and Jack Ellis, Kathy Staff and Julie Legrand, were prepared to invest time, energy, and commitment in a single performance on a wet Monday evening. A couple of weeks later when I returned to the National to buy a copy of the script I discovered that the man at the cash desk had taken a small part in the production. He told me that the actors had been amazed at the impact of the play on both themselves and the audience. "We could see that people were clearly moved by the reading, as we were ourselves."

    Love on the Dole may be belittled because it was written as a novel rather than as a play, but on the evidence of this reading it is one of the most important pieces of drama of the century. Its authenticity is clear. Its characters are real, and their concerns are our concerns. It speaks to people because it paints a picture of life as it is; life as it will continue for as long as the mechanics of capitalism hold sway, and periodically determine that countless millions of people will be thrown on the dole.

    And one final note. Not for the first time the programme is revealing. First performed in 1934, by the end of the following year Love on the Dole had been seen by more than one million people on stages up and down the country. But the British Board of Film Censors would not allow "this very sordid story in very sordid surroundings" to be filmed in the 1930s. Two years after the Board reached its decision the same members of the working class whose sordid story had been so powerfully described in Love on the Dole, but seen as unsuitable for filming, were being invited to volunteer to fight in the Second World War—in defence of freedom and democracy, of course.
    Michael Gill

    Chomsky on (A) Global Super-Power (2004)


    Book Review from the July 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard
    Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance. By Noam Chomsky.
    This is the latest in a long line of books by Chomsky on US ‘foreign’ policy. Like the others, it presents a devastating critique of the American ruling class’s support for dictatorships and readiness to use military might to get their way.
    One of the key points of this text is the extent of the USA’s current ambitions. With effectively no rivals, the US can aspire to ‘permanent global hegemony by reliance on force where necessary’. This strategy involves ‘preventive war’: invading (or just threatening to invade) countries which step out of line or present any kind of challenge to US power. The US has a virtual monopoly of large-scale violence, can almost do what it likes in the global arena, and intends to keep things this way.
    While the exact degree of US aims is new, it is of course just an extension of previous policies. In the early part of the 20th century, British companies were driven out of Venezuela, leaving US firms in charge of its vast oil industry (as they still are today). While other countries were weakened in the Second World War, the US emerged as economically dominant and strategically secure. It moved to gain effective dominance over the Middle East, which had the extra advantage of giving it control over Japan’s energy supplies. In 1958, independent Arab nationalism was fought with help from Israel and Turkey, while the same year mass slaughter in Indonesia “eliminated the mass-based political party of the poor and opened the doors wide to Western investors” . This last quote unfortunately reveals one of Chomsky’s shortcomings: his uncritical enthusiasm for reformist anti-Western movements which in reality stand for a more nationalist version of capitalism. (This kind of logic has reached its nadir in his endorsement of John Kerry for US president, as a lesser evil than Bush!)
    In more recent years, the US has consistently supported tyrannical dictators and then claimed credit for their overthrow. At the same time it has done its best to undermine any government that did not bow down before it, as in Cuba and Nicaragua, leading to the conclusion that the US is ‘a leading terrorist state’. Domestically, the tactic has been for whichever faction is in power to maintain it by instilling fear in the population – 9/11 of course made this much easier. At the same time, the government has cut back on welfare spending, from schools to social security. Chomsky’s summary of all this is:
    “Maintaining a hold on political power and enhancing US control of the world’s primary energy sources are major steps toward the twin goals that have been declared with considerable clarity: to institutionalize a radical restructuring of domestic society that will roll back the progressive reforms of a century, and to establish an imperial grand strategy of world domination.”
    Note that this passage again shows Chomsky’s support for allegedly-progressive reforms which in fact do not challenge the power of the capitalist class or modify the subordinate status of workers.
    The ambitions of the US rulers are no longer confined to terra firma, as they wish to extend their control to space. This is not an arms race exactly, as the US is the only real competitor in the militarisation of space. Ballistic missile defence (BMD) is yet another tool for global dominance, designed to make the US practically impregnable yet able to strike almost anywhere. In some variants, BMD will be so all-embracing that the US will effectively ‘own’ space (the jargon is ‘full-spectrum dominance’). US hegemony is apparently seen as more important than mere human survival (hence the book’s title).
    Chomsky’s persistently ironic style will not be to everyone’s taste, but his book does give a thorough picture of the leading superpower’s plans for all our futures.
    Paul Bennett

    Sunday, January 10, 2010

    State monopoly capitalism

    Cooking the Books column from the January 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    David Cameron is on record as attacking ‘markets without morality’ and ‘capitalism without a conscience’. It’s all part of his attempt to rebrand the Tory party from the openly nasty party it was under Thatcher to a caring party, in the hope that this will bring in a enough votes to win the next election. One of those he has called in to help do this is a former theology lecturer, Phillip Blond, who the media have dubbed a ‘Red Tory’ for his critique of ‘unfettered capitalism’.

    According to the London Times (25 November), Blond “argues that successive governments sought to deregulate for the sake of market competition, but ended up creating monopolies that dominate Britain’s high streets, arguing that this created ‘state-sanctioned monopoly capitalism’.”

    ‘State monopoly capitalism’ was a term employed, indeed coined, by the old Communist Party. For instance, in the 1968 edition of their programme The British Road to Socialism they stated that “Stage by stage British capitalism has developed into monopoly capitalism . . . Monopoly capitalism, the basis of imperialism, has now developed to state monopoly capitalism where the capitalist state is intertwined with the great banks and monopolies” and called for “a broad popular alliance drawing on all those whose interests are threatened by state monopoly capitalism”.

    Although this ‘broad alliance’ was envisaged as including non-monopoly capitalists, it has to be admitted that there was a difference between this and what Blond has in mind. They wanted to go on to ‘state-monopoly capitalism’ such as then existed in Russia, whereas he wants to go back to a non-monopoly capitalism with lots of small and medium-sized businesses competing against each other.

    Actually, ‘monopoly capitalism’ is not an accurate description of present-day capitalism. Certainly, most sectors of production and distribution are dominated by a small number of large companies, but this is not a monopoly situation where there is only a single seller. It is rather what economists call an oligopoly situation, domination by a few big companies (from oligos, the Greek word for ‘few’).

    So, a more accurate description of modern capitalism would be ‘oligopoly capitalism’, even though the term sounds barbarous and is not likely to catch on (but ‘oligarch’ did).

    Marx identified a built-in tendency under capitalism towards ‘oligopoly’, though he called it the concentration and centralisation of capital, a trend which has been amply borne out as, through mergers and take-overs, the number of firms in all sectors of industry has become fewer and fewer. It is this trend that Blond wants to reverse. As do the Green Party and the former editor of the Ecologist, Zac Goldsmith, who will be standing as a Tory candidate in the coming general election.

    They won’t succeed of course because the concentration and centralisation of industry corresponds to the logic of capitalism and cannot be overcome by government action. If the Tories win, the most that would happen is that steps would be taken – or rather would be continued – to stop any one oligopolistic firm becoming too powerful. Other capitalists don’t like this as it allows the firm in question to hold them to ransom and make them pay over the odds for some product or service. Which is why there is trust-busting legislation in the US and a Competition (formerly Monopolies) Commission in Britain. But no government is going to try to break up the oligopolies into smaller, more competitive firms, whatever the small business element within the Tory party might dream about. State-sanctioned oligopoly capitalism will survive.

    Saturday, January 9, 2010

    Xenophobia in Russia

    The Material World column from the January 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Informative letter from Russia on the extent of nationalist, xenophobic and even fascist prejudices there.

    After the collapse of the Soviet Union – a despotic empire that in many ways preserved the most reactionary traditions of tsarist Russia – the shameful phenomena of chauvinism and xenophobia not only did not disappear, but became even more deeply entrenched. There are a whole series of reasons for this.

    First of all, the so-called “democratic revolution” of August 1991 was neither democratic nor a revolution. The old state apparatus continued to exist. The previous ruling class – the nomenklatura or state bourgeoisie – remained in power and divided up state property among themselves, becoming its “legal” and openly private owner. At the same time, the old pseudo-left, pseudo-communist demagogy was thrown out as superfluous.

    It is quite obvious that the “new” owners have no need of any human rights, freedom or democracy. On the contrary, the powers that be want “strict order” and a “firm hand” to safeguard their own security and that of their property. The ideologies most suitable for this purpose are nationalism, chauvinism and xenophobia.

    Our criminal bosses have been more than successful in instilling these ideologies, especially in recent years. Officialdom and the church drum “patriotism” into people’s heads. Combined with the growth of social problems and the dirty war in Chechnya, all this yields extremely poisonous fruit. According to various sociological studies, democracy is an important basic value for only 10 – 15 percent of respondents. A very large part of the population, perhaps a majority, wants a dictatorship established in the country. Something like 80 percent of our fellow citizens suffer (to varying degrees) from racialist and nationalist prejudices, especially against people from the Caucasus and Central Asia as well as blacks and Jews. Over half of our people feel distrust, contempt and hatred for foreign countries – in particular, for the United States and Western Europe.

    All this is very alarming. It is also very frightening that in a recent poll 41 percent described skinheads and other members of Nazi groups as patriots, guardians of order, people trying to solve real problems, or simply as fighters for the purity of the race. Only 19 percent had a categorically negative attitude to them.

    Chauvinist, racialist, xenophobic and antisemitic literature is produced on a massive scale. It is on sale everywhere, even in kiosks at the State Duma. Can you imagine Nazi literature being sold today at the German parliament? No? It’s hard to imagine here too.

    A couple of years ago I saw an unforgettable scene outside the main post office in Moscow. A stall with three piles of books, all luxury editions. On the right – Hitler’s Mein Kampf in Russian. On the left – a collection of the works of the Marquis de Sade. In the middle – an antisemitic book by the “great writer of the Russian land” Alexander Solzhenitsyn entitled Jews in the USSR and in the Russia of the Future – written, it appears, in 1968 but until now hidden from the wider public. An amazing spectacle!

    Such things are going on in our country everywhere. I have the impression that this sort of propaganda is conducted purposefully and encouraged from above. Even newspapers that are traditionally considered “democratic” are becoming statist and conservative. However, there are no genuinely democratic media outlets in Russia.

    Literally all the propaganda to which we are exposed, including that of the “opposition”, portrays reactionaries, great power nationalists and fascists as “left-wing”. They would have us believe that the Communist Party of the Russian Federation – full from top to bottom of people who talk about saving Russia by beating the “Yids” and “aliens” – is a communist or left socialist party. According to the means of mass disinformation, the fascist bloc “Homeland” (Rodina) is also supposed to consist of “leftists” of some sort.

    There is and can be no such animal as a socialist, communist or leftist who is also a traditionalist, chauvinist, xenophobe, antisemite, racialist or nationalist. These are absolutely incompatible things!The popular weekly Arguments and Facts recently featured (over two issues) an enormous interview with the fascist Ilya Glazunov, who went on and on about the Masonic Conspiracy and the Great Russian Empire. Without the tiniest critical commentary, of course. Perhaps this was an example of what Vyacheslav Kostikov (Yeltsin’s former press secretary), in another issue of the same magazine, calls “the rational and healthy Russian nationalism that we need.”

    Even the politicians of the “liberal” Yabloko party – I have talked personally with a number of them – frankly describe themselves as Russian nationalists. When I saw fascists from Russian National Unity distributing antisemitic literature at a Yabloko event I asked the organizers why they allowed it. Their response to my objections was to call me an extremist and I was forced to leave. Such are our present-day “democrats.”

    Vladimir Sirotin, Moscow (translated by Stefan)

    Climate change: business as usual

    From the January 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    What should we have expected from such a large gathering of the world's elites if it wasn't this?

    Authorities against protesters seeking to have their views heard. Police in force wrecking the long-made plans of people to shut down the port of Copenhagen for a day to draw attention to their agenda. Police employed by authorities to silence the voice of a mass of individuals trying to express the views of millions worldwide who recognise that their elected so-called representatives do little, if anything, to represent those views.

    The voice of protesters had to be kept within certain bounds. There were no invitations to send in their chosen representatives to address any part of the summit and what did the former Danish minister and president (of the greater part) of the climate summit, Connie Hedegaard, mean when she said that the minority of protesters who were using violence were still too many and that they should have acted using their democratic channels? Surely if the ‘democratic channels’ brought forth democratic results then all those folk on the streets around the world would have stayed at home? Property owners may have been afraid of damage to buildings and vehicles but how does that compare with the fear of the tens of thousands outside the venue and the other multitudes in demonstrations around the world – the fear that those inside would continue their damage to the world and all its inhabitants through lack of appropriate action? A fear compounded by a document leaked on the second day which revealed that Denmark, US and UK proposed to transfer oversight of any future treaty from the UN to the World Bank, the very institution already loathed by the majority of protestors for its dire and damaging policies.

    Costs vs Opportunities

    For any who hold on to hopes of capitalism discovering a new method of delivery, a kinder, more equitable, better regulated version of itself , let's look at a few examples of what Copenhagen and the climate change debate is all about. If you thought it might be about reducing those nasty emissions think again. It's about markets – carbon markets, and specifically about the buying and selling of the right to pollute. Carbon trading lies at the heart of global climate policy and is projected to become one of the world's largest commodity markets, an approach which attempts to tackle climate change via the route of business as usual (see Oscar Reyes at Carbon Trade Watch and Transnational Institute).

    Early on at Copenhagen US State envoy Todd Stern said that Obama had no plans to sign up to Kyoto, except possibly for offsets and a market-based trading system, ‘We're not going to do Kyoto, and we're not going to do something that's Kyoto with another name.’ (See here.)

    Later there was some commentary on BBC World Radio to the effect that US would cut emissions by 17 percent, which to some sounded like a move forward. However cutting their emissions from 2005 levels (which was the proposal) by 17 percent would return them only to their 1990 levels, the year that was to be the benchmark from which we were all to reduce according to Kyoto. Further BBC commentary said that the US was “grappling with domestic difficulties and can't offer more.”

    A 19-page UK Draft Options Paper on Renewable Targets reveals much about the aims of the UK delegation. “The costs of increasing renewable technology use to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is around three times higher than allowing flexibility in reduction options through emissions trading.” (Note – don't reduce your own emissions but pay for other emissions elsewhere where it's cheaper).

    “Full flexibility to invest in renewable energy in other parts of the EU and, even more helpfully, (my underlining) in the developing world would deliver us the least cost outcome to meet the 2020 target”(e.g. invest in solar energy projects in North Africa rather than transferring to renewable energy at home.) From this and plenty more in the document, “flexible options, maximum flexibility, 'flexibility-based' options” etc., it is clear that the priority is about costs to business not to the environment and ‘helping developing nations’ is just a way of keeping costs down.

    Carbon emissions as a commodity

    Friends of the Earth, in a document, A dangerous obsession, offer detailed explanations of all aspects of the climate change debate. According to them offsetting “institutionalises the idea that cuts can be made in the developing world in place of cuts in the developed world when the science demands cuts in both.” And, “ At the current rate taking a per capita basis an 80% reduction in developed country emissions by 2050 with no offsetting would still not ensure the levelling off of per capita emissions by 2050. Offsetting only exacerbates the situation increasing inequalities in the production of carbon emissions further.” (See here.)

    As to the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) which is an integral part of offsetting, it is supposed to reward new, previously unplanned projects but a number of studies have shown it to be virtually impossible to know when a project really is additional and to prove it. According to Larry Lohmann, carbon trading specialist, of www.cornerhouse.org.uk, “This makes impossible any distinction between fraud and non-fraud rendering any attempt at offset regulation ultimately pointless.” He has also written about carbon being “a magnet for hedge funds, energy traders, private equity funds and large global investment banks – Barclays, Citi-Group, Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, BNP Paribas and Merrill Lynch.....”

    Friends of the Earth report that carbon trading had reached $126 billion by 2008 of which $92 billion was made up of transactions of allowances and derivatives under the EU ETS (emissions trading scheme), UK being one of the leading proponents of such trading. “In 2007 Gordon Brown aimed to give global carbon trading a central role in delivering emissions reductions and foresaw an opportunity for huge growth on the world market.” Larry Lohmann reports that Wall Street has projected carbon markets to be around $2 trillion or more by 2020, and that they could become the dominant 'commodity', displacing oil, which begins to reveal the scale of the carbon derivatives market being created. Compare these figures with those promised on the last day of the Copenhagen meetings with Obama as the mouthpiece – $10 billion by 2012 and $100 billion by 2020 from the developed to the developing nations to help them mitigate their emissions (as long as they meet the requirements of course – no free lunches here). Oscar Reyes, in an article “Taking care of business”, says that the rapid growth has already spawned more complex markets where carbon credits are bundled together, then sliced up and resold, the same structures that caused the recent financial crisis.

    First there has to be a commodity, in this case the somewhat intangible carbon emissions. A security, whose value is derived from the value of an underlying commodity, is one step removed from the commodity; a derivative is one step removed from the security which makes derivatives two steps from the commodity. For most of us carbon emissions as a commodity are several steps removed from reality. These aspects of trading carbon reinforce the primacy of the market and governments' willingness to allow the market to dictate the rules. The history of sub-prime and corporate lobbying point to the likelihood of another bubble and collapse – this time involving a pseudo-commodity.

    The Unequal Struggle

    On a very simplistic level the question could be asked what is it we want to achieve, do we take seriously the need to reduce emissions overall worldwide or do we choose to create another money-making business by gambling, guessing, playing with the idea of carbon as commodity? It may be guessing, gambling and playing with money – but with our habitat? Larry Lohmann again: “Carbon Trading as it exists now is damaging, ineffective and fundamentally flawed and seeking to reform it is a waste of precious time and energy in the face of the urgent threat of climate change.”

    What stood in the way of an agreement at Copenhagen was not the world's population or the demonstrators, who are to be applauded for keeping many of the rest of us focussed on the events. It was capitalism with its big business interests, lobbyists, banking and financial corporations all with revolving doors to their lackey governments standing shoulder to shoulder against the people. Perhaps the biggest tragedy of Copenhagen is the fact that, although totally dissatisfied and disillusioned, many people still cling to the hope of the ‘leaders’ coming to their senses and taking control before it's too late. So, in this forum meant to save the world and its inhabitants from the ravages of global warming and climate change but where business as usual has been seen to be the overriding concern, we must recognize the unequal struggle for what it is – them against us; power against the people and, unless collectively we abandon hope's triumph over experience, it will ever be thus.

    Janet Surman

    Thursday, January 7, 2010

    Horror-Scope for Non-Socialists

    From the January 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Even the newspapers which consider themselves to be posh run horoscopes. They are always extremely vague – when did you see a horoscope that got down to details, and said that if you go to your local shopping centre, and go into the third shop past Tesco on the right, they’ll give you a big bag of gold? So here are some forecasts which are much more likely to be fulfilled – for non-Socialists.

    If your birthday is in –

    January

    You will contribute to the profits of the company running the National Lottery, since you haven’t worked out that the odds against you getting a big prize are about 14,000,000 to one. In fact you’d have more chance of getting rich if you took a spade and started digging for buried treasure on the nearest field – if you can square the landowner.

    February

    You will believe that the present recession was caused simply by a few bankers thinking more of their own profits than what was good for the rest of us. You will forget (a) that all capitalists work on the slogan “Stuff you, Jack, I’m all right”, and (b) capitalism has always had booms and slumps, and will go on having them even if bankers give up their bonuses.

    March

    You will be appalled to read about “terrorists” who deliberately explode a bomb in a Western city and kill innocent people. You will not be appalled by Western governments exploding many bombs in Asian countries, killing vast numbers – equally innocent. You will think it’s worth slaughtering half a million foreigners to bring in a new group to exploit a whole country.

    April>

    Having read about global warming, you will try to recycle most of your rubbish, and use fewer plastic bags, and even install solar panels on your roof – ignoring the fact that many capitalist companies make large profits running operations which help to ruin the environment, and will go on doing so until a socialist society puts the interests of all the people first.

    May

    You will turn out on a rainy night and vote for a party which claims it will run capitalism for your benefit, and when you find (unsurprisingly) it continues to run capitalism for the benefit of the capitalists you will vote for a different party which claims it will run capitalism for your benefit. Then you will go back to supporting the first party, and so on endlessly.

    June

    As you endure a dull, boring job, which still leaves you short of money, you will concentrate your dislike on your fellow-worker who’s just been made foreman, or has got some other minor promotion, while at the same time you will continue to ignore all the members of the owning class, who live well without any work at all on what you help to produce.

    July

    Some capitalists support the E.U. (bigger area of operations, bigger profits), some capitalists support withdrawing from the E.U. (smaller area, more chance of controlling events); you will get involved in heated arguments to prop up one group of capitalists or the other. Why not leave capitalists to support themselves (they always do), and instead support yourself and your own interests?

    August

    You will get annoyed about the foreign origins of some of the other workers brought in by the capitalists to work for them; despite the fact that workers divided among themselves – by things that don’t matter, like skin-colour – will not even be able to defend their wages and conditions within the present system, much less create a better society.

    September

    You will never see the significance of the fact that everywhere, whatever the form of government, new people always come to power offering to “change” things – Barack Obama is just the latest example; but if this is already such a marvellous system, as the press, T.V. and all the rest of the media are always saying, why should “change” be so attractive?

    October

    Having voted for the continuation of capitalism, a system in which strife and wars are inevitable, you will be astounded when British soldiers, going to war overseas, are killed and injured, and you will go on marches which demand: “bring our boys home”. Then you will continue voting for parties supporting capitalism – and therefore supporting violence.

    November

    You will contribute all your loose change to a charity which gives a hot dinner on Christmas day to a few homeless people. You won’t give any money, or effort, to your fellow-workers who struggle all their lives trying to bring about a society in which there won’t be any homeless people, or any need for degrading charity.

    December

    Next Christmas you will listen to arguments from religious people who say secularists have stolen their holy day, and from secularists who say religious people have stolen the age-old midwinter festival, without realizing that the owners of the big stores and shops, their cash registers merrily ringing, have stolen it from both of them.

    Alwyn Edgar

    Wednesday, January 6, 2010

    Capitalism and the New Decade

    Editorial from the January 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Two thousand years ago Emperor Nero reputedly stood on the private stage he had had built in his palace and played music while his city burnt around him. A thousand years later Copenhagen's King Canute tried to command the tides to impress his subjects. Plus ca change: last month, despite intensive efforts, the expensively-assembled representatives of global capitalism spent two weeks in Copenhagen fiddling while the planet warmed, and the sea-level rose.

    But despite appearances to the contrary, capitalism enters a new decade in rude health. The economic disruption to production and the credit system of the last two years may have been severe, but it is a necessary consequence of the need for the market system to maintain its essential objective, that is profitability at all costs.

    Against that imperative, millions of jobs globally are being sacrificed. The spending promises of politicians around the world are being revised and reforms abandoned. Schools, housebuilding and hospitals are shelved as a consequence of the massive diversion of financial resources into propping up the house of credit cards that drove capitalism for much of the last ten years.

    The decade started with a mini-slump in most western economies - relating to the high-tech and internet sectors primarily - and has ended with an almighty "correction".

    Politically the decade also started with global capitalism in some apparent disarray as protesters closed down the WTO trade talks in Seattle in the last days of the 20th century and in the process gave birth to a movement of sorts under the banner of anti-globalisation and (less commonly) anti-capitalism. These back-slapping/back-stabbing summits have been a regular occurrence over the last ten years as the political whores who serve the interests of the global pimp class battle it out over their respective pitches.

    And so the much-heralded Copenhagen climate change conference in December all but collapses. Despite their best effort, our leaders, decision-makers and opinion-formers (various democrats, dictators, corporate flunkies, sycophants, charities, popstars and other hangers-on to the coat-tails of capital) singularly failed to find a way to reconcile the differences between the old (developed) capitalist nations in decline and the developing nations on the up. It's like picking sides in an argument between the neighbour on one side who has always thrown their rubbish out the window onto the street, and the other neighbour who is threatening to start doing the same. Capitalism in 2010 may have fewer emperors and kings, and its subjects are becoming harder to impress, but the end result is much the same

    The last ten years then have seen an undoubted decline in confidence in leaders and in "capitalism" (albeit loosely defined). Entering 2010, the task of socialists - and anyone sympathetic to the case for a radical, democratic, participative change in society - is to further undermine the shaky ideology of capitalism, to challenge the ideas which encourage the majority to continue propping up this system, and to clearly put forward the case for a moneyless, wageless, stateless and classless global society.

    This Sporting Life

    Originally posted on the Socialist Courier blog

    There was a time when sport was supposed to be a pleasant physical exercise. The popularity of association football inside capitalism made it an activity much adored by workers too unfit to play it themselves, but keen to follow the efforts of their local sporting heroes. With the development of capitalism football has just become another business opportunity. Its development more likely to be followed by financial journalists rather than football ones.

    "Manchester United is exploring a bond issue as part of efforts to refinance its £700m debt, with the English Premier League champions in talks with two banks about how to reorganise its borrowings. JPMorgan and Deutsche Bank are advising the football club on its options. It is one of a number of clubs whose debts have alarmed football authorities. People familiar with the situation said the options under consideration included the issue of high-yield bonds. These would be used to refinance bank debt or payment-in-kind notes – an instrument that allows borrowers to roll over cash interest payments – which helped Malcolm Glazer, the US sports franchise owner, and his family take over Man United in 2005 in a £790m leveraged buy-out. The club would be the latest company to take advantage of the recovery in bond markets to refinance debt." (Financial Times, 2 January)

    Every activity that capitalism touches it turns into commodities.

    Richard Donnelly

    Obsolete minority action (2001)


    Book Review from the November 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Obsolete Communism. The Left-Wing Alternative. By Daniel & Gabriel Cohn-Bendit. AK Press, 2001.

    Books written by participants in events are always interesting if only because they are part of the documentary evidence as to what happened. The book by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who was prominent in the student movement which led to the "May events" in France in 1968, and his brother Gabriel (who wrote the theoretical parts) is no exception. Written in 1968 shortly after the events, and now republished by AK Press, it gives a good insight into what many of the radicalised students thought.

    The Cohn-Bendits called for a revolution without leaders to abolish the wages system. They were therefore implacably opposed to Leninism and its concept of a centralised vanguard to lead the working class. A large part of the book in fact is devoted to exposing, on the one hand, the French Communist Party (PCF) and its claim to be the sole legitimate representative of the French working class and, on the other, how the Bolsheviks, under Lenin and Trotsky, introduced state capitalism into Russia, with their vanguard as the new managerial ruling class imposing one-man management in the state-owned factories and bloodily suppressing working-class resistance in Krondstadt in 1921. In fact the English title does not convey the full anti-Leninist significance of a literal translation of the original French title – Leftism: Remedy for the Senile Disorder of Communism – which was an obvious play on the title of Lenin's 1920 pamphlet Leftwing Communism: An Infantile Disorder.

    The rest of the book is devoted to describing and analysing the events themselves – student occupation of the universities, street battles, followed by a general strike with many factory occupations involving at its height some 10 million workers – and including a good analysis of the role of universities under capitalism (to train cadres to run industry and the state on behalf of the capitalist class).

    A revolution without leaders to abolish the wages system? Implacable opposition to Leninism and all its works? We can go along with that; in fact it's what we have always said and done. But that's as far as our agreement can go. The Cohn-Bendits envisaged "the revolution" as involving the overthrow of the government by mass street demonstrations and the occupation, and then the running, of workplaces by the workers. They argued that this could be sparked off by a "militant minority" provoking the state to drop its mask, as the students did by occupying the universities and provoking the police to try to dislodge them. In fact, they imagined that they nearly sparked off such a revolution, if only the students and others had taken over the finance and education ministries on the night of 24 May and if only the workers had had the self-confidence not just to occupy their workplaces but to have restarted production under their own control and management.

    If only. Such a scenario would only have had any chance of working if workers were already socialist-minded; but they weren't. This is not to say that the workers in France in 1968 were not discontented, nor that they should not have gone on strike. But it was discontent with their treatment under capitalism, not with capitalism as such.

    The Gaullist regime, installed in 1958 following a mutiny by the army in Algeria, had imposed a virtual wage freeze for ten years and the employers had managed their businesses in a particularly authoritarian way. The PCF and the trade union federation it controlled, the CGT, tried to keep the issue as one of economic demands (higher wages and benefits, more consultation of workers, etc). The Cohn-Bendits criticised them severely for this but, ironically, when the PCF did finally introduce a political element by calling for a change of government (not what the Cohn-Bendits wanted of course) they played into De Gaulle's hands. He immediately called an election on the theme "Who governs: Me or the Communists?" and got the answer he wanted.

    Ironically too, although views such as those expressed here by the Cohn-Bendits got a boost, the main conclusion that most of the "militant minority" drew from the failure of May 1968 to overthrow capitalism was that this was because there hadn't been a strong enough vanguard party to direct the events. After 1968 Leninism, in the form of Trotskyism, Maoism, Castroism, Guevaraism, Ho Chi Minhism, flourished as never before and, although such views are now not as popular as they became in the 1970s, we are still suffering from this legacy.

    While his brother Gabriel remained an anarchist, Daniel Cohn-Bendit eventually abandoned the claim to be a revolutionary to become an open reformist. He now sits as a Green Party member of the European Parliament. Clearly he was wrong to have gone reformist, but at least he now recognises that a "militant minority" cannot provoke a non-socialist-minded working class into carrying out a socialist revolution.
    Adam Buick