Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Capitalism breeds inequality (2010)

From the March 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard
A recent report shows that the reformist actions of the Labour government have not been able to reverse the inequalities that capitalism generates.
Minister for Women and Equality Harriet Harman, who won the Labour Party deputy leadership by talking up left wing and egalitarian credentials, set up a National Equality Panel to look into inequality in UK society, and report back. That the report, An Anatomy of Economic Equality in the UK (summary at the following link), has come out in the period of the run up to a general election, at which Labour are desperately trying to cling onto their heartland support and produce clear red water between themselves and the Tories, is surely purely coincidental.
Some of the information this panel has produced is extremely useful and well worth reading. Although it mostly contains data that has been made available elsewhere, its focus on equality is thoroughly worthwhile and it does draw all of the current knowledge on the state of equality in the UK into one place. This graph, for example, tells a sorry tale:
Graph 1: Full-time weekly earnings at 2008 prices, 1968 to 2008, men



Source: NEP, based on 1968-1996 New Earnings Survey (NES) (GB),1997-2008 ASHE (UK).
Not only, as the headline writers all noticed, has the gap between the top and bottom earners widened over the last forty years (quite radically) but also it has risen quite markedly as compared to median earnings. What is most startling of all is that the lowest paid workers have barely gained any substantial increased over all that period. So much for the idea propounded by Tories of the ‘trickle down effect’ of gains for the rich becoming gains for the poor. Likewise, so much for the social democrat notion that growth of the economy overall will abolish poverty. Through most of that period, the British economy has grown, and clearly only grown to the benefit of those at the top.
To be fair to Labour – and this has been noted for much of their time in office – what they have achieved is a slight slow-down in the growth in the gap between rich and poor. Much of the reason they can do no more than that is down to the changes in the economy since the 1970s, with the transfer of productive industry to the power houses of east Asia. Further, structural unemployment has persistently remained since the late 1970s effectively preventing any remedy through the labour market. As the BBC’s Mark Easton notes: “The problem for the politicians is that measures to reduce social or income inequality will always be controversial because they mean neutralising the advantages of wealth – a prospect that those with money and influence will fight hard against.” ('Is Inequality Iniquitous?')
Labour has struggled to try and create conditions of social equality, but cannot and will not act against the very structures and systems that create it. It is like someone campaigning to mitigate the effects of slavery without trying to abolish slavery itself.
What the report shows, but does not foreground, is that the top 1 percent of earners earn over £2,000 per week. Indeed, it is notable on the graph of incomes, that there is a sudden and noticeable spike at the top end of the graph, reflecting the small number of people who have astronomical incomes.
Graph 2: Half of the population has income below and half above £393 per week

The chart below demonstrates this further – the top 1 percent have more than double the income of those at the start of the top 10 percent of earners.
Graph 3: People at the cut-off for the top tenth those at the cut-off for the bottom tenth. The top times the median.

Source: DWP, based on HBAI dataset. Incomes are adjusted no children. For a single person, divide actual net income 1.2; for a couple with 2 children under 14, by 1.4 etc (allowing and 0.33 for children aged 14 or over, or additional adults
This of course is income; the statistics on total wealth are worth noting as well:
“Median total wealth (including personal possessions, net financial assets, housing and private pension rights) is £205,000. The 90:10 ratio is almost 100, with the top tenth of households having wealth above £853,000, and the bottom tenth having less than £8,800. The 90:10 ratio is so high because the poorest households have such little wealth. However, even looking more narrowly at the top half of the wealth distribution, those in the top tenth have more than 4.2 times as much wealth as those in the middle, twice the corresponding ratios for earnings or household income. 1 per cent of households has total wealth of more than £2.6 million.”
The authors of the report clearly advocate reducing inequality. They address the various philosophies that claim that social inequality is necessary or even just. They maintain, though, that international comparisons of economic output do not correlate to great inequality, and that some much more equal societies than Britain are more productive and succesful.
Further, it’s clear that the inequalities they discover do not relate to life choices, but in fact reflect the cumulative effects of various advantages and disadvantages produced by background, and yes, class. Although most of the differences they highlight are between different parts of what we would understand as the working class (anyone whose main economic asset is their ability to work) the conclusion that inequality at birth stays through life remains a stark and significant fact.
Most tellingly of all is their revelation that the share of wealth for the top two thousandth of the population (the very, very, very, rich) is back to where it was in the 1930s. Thos gap narrowed towards the 1960s, but since 1969 their share of ‘post tax’ income has trebled from 0.5 percent to 2.5 percent. For the top 1 percent they have gone from 4.7 percent in 1979 to 10 percent by 2000. Put another way, a century of Labour and Labour governments has not dented the power and wealth of those at the top of society. That, as opposed to any specific failure of the current Labour administration, is the lesson that socialists need to draw from this report’s findings.
For those who would deny that inequality is a problem, it must be sufficient to show that inequality in wealth and social status translates into a shorter, iller life, with less knowledge and personal development. The findings of this report must not be allowed to lie gathering dust on political correspondents and professional politicians’ book cases, but must be made a spur to show the rotten truth of our present system of society, and become a weapon in the arsenal of overturning it in its entirety.

Pik Smeet

Monday, March 29, 2010

Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain 141

Dear Friends,

Welcome to the 141st of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

We now have 1565 friends!

Recent blogs:

  • An inconvenient future
  • Eat shit and die!
  • Capitalism breeds inequality
  • Quote for the week:

    "Under private property ... Each tries to establish over the other an alien power, so as thereby to find satisfaction of his own selfish need. The increase in the quantity of objects is therefore accompanied by an extension of the realm of the alien powers to which man is subjected, and every new product represents a new potentiality of mutual swindling and mutual plundering." Marx, Human Requirements and Division of Labour, 1844.

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    Voice From The Back

    From the March 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    CAPITALISM IS WORLDWIDE

    Members of the working class are taught in schools from a very early age that the country they were born in is somehow special. We are taught to be proud of the country wherein for generations our family has been exploited. We wave flags, sing patriotic songs and are taught to mistrust workers from other countries. The owning class suffer from no such xenophobia. They are prepared to exploit workers of any nationality, creed or so-called race. To them profit is much more important than patriotism. Here is a recent example from the Brighton College newspaper. "Workers at a Sussex-based electronics firm were today left "devastated" after being told in a video message that manufacturing at their factories is to end and 220 jobs moved to Korea and the Czech Republic. Unite said Edwards planned to cease all manufacturing at its Burgess Hill and Shoreham factories. The announcement was made to employees via a video message, which the union said was "tactless"." (The Argus, 13 January)

    A GRATEFUL NATION

    Capitalist nations are continually in conflict with their rivals and inside capitalism economic rivalry leads to military action. During these actions the press praise "our boys" in uniform and regale us with tales of heroism. Nothing is too good for "our boys" they claim, but the reality is far different. "Britain's military veterans are too often descending into alcoholism, criminality or suicide because of a lack of support from the Government according to the Mental Health Foundation. Veterans under 24 are two to three times more likely to kill themselves than civilians of the same age. An estimated one in five veterans and Service personnel is said to have a drinking problem. The charity said: “More needs to be done to help veterans stay well." (London Times, 28 January) Having risked life and limb in pursuing the interests of their masters in these hellish conflicts the heroes of yesterday are thrown on the social scrapheap.

    CLASS DIVISION

    Socialists are often pilloried because we look at the world from a class perspective. We are accused of being outdated, old fashioned and living in the 19th Century. All that Marxists stuff about class division has been outdated by the new dynamic capitalism of the 21st Century we are told by our critics. A recent government sponsored health review seems to give the lie to that notion. "Healthy living is cut short by 17 years for poorest in Britain. The poor not only die sooner, they also spend more of their lives with a disability, an "avoidable difference which is unacceptable and unfair", a government-ordered review into Britain's widening health inequalities said yesterday. ... Not only is life expectancy linked to social standing, but so is the time spent in good health: the average difference in "disability-free life expectancy" is now 17 years between those at the top and those at the bottom of the economic ladder, the report says." (Guardian, 11 February)

    MOTHER OF THE FREE

    At the last night of the Proms exploited members of the working class like nothing better than to bawl out the words of Land of Hope and Glory. Poor, deluded workers image that there is something superior about being born on a piece of dirt thrown up on the Atlantic Ocean. They never realise that it is an accident where you happen to be born, and indeed that it was probably an accident that they were born at all. This misguided nationalism is fostered by governments and the media. Britain is superior to Johnny Foreigner with his deceitful regimes. No underhanded politics in dear old Britain says the patriot critical of foreign powers, but what is the reality? "MI5 faced an unprecedented and damaging crisis last night after one of the country's most senior judges found that the Security Service failed to respect human rights, deliberately misled parliament, and had a "culture of suspicion" that undermined government assurances about its conduct. The condemnation by Lord Neuberger, the master of rolls, was drafted shortly before the foreign secretary, David Miliband, lost his long legal battle to suppress a seven paragraph court document showing that MI5 officers were involved in the ill-treatment of a British resident, Binyam Mohamed." (Guardian, 11 February) Yet another example of how the quest for markets soon overcomes any ethical scruples. Not so much a case of Britain Rules The Waves as Britain Waives The Rules.

    Friday, March 26, 2010

    It’s about all of us

    Cross-posted from the World Socialist Party of the United States website

    In an article Peter Rachleff, a professor of History at Macalester College in St. Paul, reminds us of some statistics concerning the USA.

    Between 1979 and 2005, the mean after-tax income of the top 1 percent of income earners rose 176 percent while that of the lower half rose less than 10 percent. In 1970, the average CEO earned forty times as much as the average worker. By 2010, it has become nearly 400 times.

    80 percent of all the wealth in the U.S. is owned by the 10 percent at the top of our economic ladder, with some 38 percent of the wealth the property of the top 1 percent alone. The bottom 90 percent of the ladder has to share only 20 percent of the wealth.

    “American workers have long organized in unions to gain a share of their productivity increases, assure fair treatment on the job, expand benefits, and lay a foundation for a secure retirement…For two generations, workers purchased cars and homes, sent their children to college, and enjoyed a genuine retirement…As the unionized percentage of the workforce shrank from 30 percent in the 1950s to 20 percent in the 1980s to little more than 10 percent in the 21st century, unions’ ability to defend their members’ wages, benefits, work rules, job descriptions, and rights on the job melted away…” Rachleff writes.

    But he also describes that a union can fight back. Its success rested on the ability to make their struggle about “all of us.” To adopt an encompassing approach which pulls together its diverse membership , that builds alliances with the community and organises the support of other unions.

    The WSP’s advice to workers would be :-

  • 1 ) Try to push wages and salaries as high as they are allowed to go by the owners and management.
  • 2 ) Organise democratically to achieve your aims, without reliance on leaders, who will often sell you down the river.
  • 3 ) Recognise that any union struggle is necessarily a defensive one as there can be no real and lasting victory within the profit system. So ready yourselves for the inevitable next battle.
  • Alan Johnstone

    Marxism. Last Refuge of the Bourgeoisie? (1985)


    Book Review from the January 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

    The important part of the title of this posthumous work by Paul Mattick (he died in 1981) is the question mark, since Mattick did not regard Marxism as "bourgeois" at all. He did, however, want to explain how "Marxism" had become an ideology of regimes and movements which had absolutely nothing to do with Marx's aim of a classless, stateless, wageless world community.

    The first part of the book is devoted to a discussion of Marxian economics, where Mattick sets out to explain why so many academics have come to imagine themselves as Marxists without having understood at all what Marx's aim was. Thus many learned works have been published on value and price, and the so-called problem of the “transformation" of the one into the other, without the authors understanding that Marx aimed at the abolition of the price system and that for him "value was a historical category [that] is bound to disappear with the ending of capitalism" Clearly, the "transformation problem" fades into insignificance in the face of a proposal to abolish both price and value. Similarly, those academics who use Marx's ideas to make policy recommendations to governments have failed to realise that "Marxian theory aims not to resolve 'economic problems' of bourgeois society but to show them to be insoluble". As Mattick puts it, “Marx was a socialist, not an economist".

    When Mattick writes about Marxian economics. therefore, he is on the same wavelength as us, even if we can't always agree with him. As, for instance, over the supposed economic breakdown of capitalism which Mattick believed in for the whole of his political life and which he still, in this, his last book, expected to finally spark off the socialist revolution.

    The second part (which is more lucid and can be read separately before, or without, the more difficult first part) deals with "Marxism" as a political and ideological movement. Here Mattick has some very pertinent things to say, pointing out that German Social Democracy in its heyday before the First World War saw socialism not as the abolition of the wages system and the control of production by the producers, but as the control by a democratically-elected government of the one Great Cartel towards which they saw capitalism tending.

    This state-capitalist conception of "socialism" was later abandoned by them (in favour of a frank acceptance of the mixed private/state capitalist status quo) but was inherited, and to a large extent achieved, by the Bolsheviks. The Russian revolution, says Mattick, was "a sort of bourgeois revolution" in which "the historical functions of the Western bourgeoisie were taken up by an apparently anti-bourgeois party". And the following comments could just as easily have come from us:
    "The Bolshevik regime had no intention to abolish the wages system and was therefore not engaged in furthering a social revolution in the Marxian sense..."
    "...The capitalist system was modified but not abolished. The history made by the Bolsheviks was still capitalist history in the ideological disguise of Marxism."
    In this way "Marxism" became the ideology of state capitalist regimes, a theory of the totalitarian control of society by a minority, whereas Marx had always stood for a society without classes and without any machinery of coercion. It is a pity that there will be no more books from the pen of Mattick to make this point.
    Adam Buick

    Empty Hope

    The Cooking the Books column from the March 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    “Fresh blow to hopes of consumer-led recovery as squeeze tightens on pay” ran the headline of an article in the London Times (21 January) by Gráinne Gilmore, reporting on official figures for wage growth in the three months to November:

    “Average pay excluding bonuses rose at an annual rate of 1.1 per cent for the period . . . Private sector staff saw no pay rise at all in November. . . Analysts said that companies were cutting workers’ hours and pay to try to limit redundancies . . . Colin Ellis, European economist at Daiwa Securities, said: ‘The lack of any pay increase in the private sector will weigh on consumption during 2010, much as weak wages have in Germany.’”

    She didn’t say who was hoping for a “consumer-led recovery” but this was always an impossible dream. As should be clear from her report, consumer demand depends largely on what people are paid. In other words, it is largely made up of what wage and salary workers have to spend. Which depends on the level of employment; which in turn depends on what those who own and control productive enterprises (or who act for them) decide to produce according to what they think are the prospects of selling it profitably.

    The economy, and its ups and downs, is not driven by consumer demand, but by capital accumulation, i.e. by profits being invested in expanding production. The ups and downs of consumer demand in fact reflect, not cause, the ups and downs of the economy. Paul Mattick put it well in his Marx and Keynes: “The business cycle is not caused by variations in social consuming power, particularly not that of the workers; rather the cycle determines these variations”.

    When production is expanding so is employment and income from employment. Workers have more to spend and, on the basis of the assumption that their employment is secure, are able to borrow against future expected income and so can spend even more. Some economic observers, perhaps influenced by what they were mistaught in college about capitalism being a system of production for consumption, jump to the conclusion that it is this increased consumer spending that is causing the economy to grow. But this is an illusion. Consumer spending is booming because the economy is booming, not vice versa. This becomes clear when the economy stops expanding, as it did in the second quarter of 2008 and in fact began to contract. When this happened consumer spending fell too.

    Consumer demand will never recover of its own accord. How could it? Workers can’t simply spontaneously increase their income. It will only revive when production and employment do. And that depends on the prospects of profitable production reviving. Which the squeeze on pay Gilmore reported on will in fact be contributing towards.

    Capitalism is a system geared to profit-making, not to meeting needs, not even to restricted, paying needs.

    Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain 140

    Dear Friends,

    Welcome to the 140th of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

    We now have 1562 friends!

    Recent blogs:

  • The Price of Everything
  • Thicker than water?
  • Ethics
  • Quote for the week:

    "The founders [of the United Nations] sought to replace a world at war with a world of civilized order. They hoped that a world of relentless conflict would give way to a new era, one where freedom from violence prevailed…. But the awful truth is that the use of violence for political gain has become more, not less, widespread in the last decade." Ronald Reagan, 26 Sept 1983.

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    Thursday, March 25, 2010

    Tuesday, March 23, 2010

    Football Fortunes

    Cross-posted from the Socialist Courier blog

    Every day in the newspapers and on television we are told of the fabulous incomes of some of the footballers in the Premier League. Some are reported to be earning £140,000 a week.

    To most workers this appears a fortune and yet it is chicken-feed compared to the immense wealth of people like the Russian multi-millionaire who at present owns the Chelsea football club. Of course the majority of professional footballers have to struggle by on more ordinary incomes like most workers.

    At the other end of the scale from the well-heeled Premier footballers and the millionaire owners we have the poor makers of the footballs. "The city of Sialkot in Pakistan produces as many as 60 million hand-stitched footballs in a World Cup year. The firms here are running out of new workers since child labour was abolished. Western buyers may have a clear conscience, but the children of Sialkot now toil in the local brickworks instead. ...Shaukat is a strong, 20-year-old man. He has been working for this independent stitching factory, Danayal, for eight years. Danayal produces handmade footballs for professional leagues. ...At the entrance to the factory there's a notice board showing the current rates of pay. Depending on the model, his employer pays between 55 and 63 Pakistan rupees per ball ($0.65 to $0.75). "On a good day I manage six balls," says Shaukat. That's eight hours work. "That's not a lot of money," he says as he pushes a needle through the thick synthetic leather and stitches together two patches. His boss is standing close by so he quickly adds: "But it's not little either." He gets paid every Saturday and has to feed a family of six with his wages.". (Spiegel on line, 16 March)

    That is how capitalism operates - immense wealth for the millionaire owners and penury for the working class.

    Richard Donnelly

    Monday, March 22, 2010

    Swing with The Internationale

    From the closing credits of Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story', Tony Babino belts out what is now my favourite version of The Internationale:

    "Speed it up", indeed.

    Saturday, March 20, 2010

    Socialist Guide to Marx’s Capital (3. Labor Theory of Value)

    Cross-posted from the World Socialist Party of the United States website

    We have seen, then, that capitalism is no different from any other form of society insofar as wealth must be produced through the productive activities of human beings. This goes without saying, for without such wealth production no society (or the people living in it) could continue to exist for very long.

    The key difference in the case of capitalism, though, is that this indispensable wealth takes the form of commodities, which simply means that the things produced are exchanged on the market.

    People today are so accustomed to this capitalist world, where everything has a price, that the word “commodity” itself has become more or less synonymous with “product,” but Marx draws an important distinction between the two terms and the reader of Capital needs to be aware of that specific usage.

    A commodity, as a product produced for exchange, thus has two aspects. On the one hand, it is a thing that satisfies some human want or another, while on the other hand, it is a thing with a certain value or worth on the market. In other words, the commodity is a unity of “use-value” and “exchange-value,” as Marx puts it (borrowing the same basic terminology used earlier by Adam Smith and David Ricardo).

    Use-value presents little mystery, as it is simply a matter of how the qualities or properties of a thing satisfy “human needs of whatever kind”—such as the usefulness of clothing in keeping us warm or food in satisfying our hunger.

    Since the usefulness of things is hardly unique to capitalism, an examination of use-value does not shed much light on this specific mode of production. A tomato for instance would have the useful property of satisfying hunger whether it was a commodity sold in a supermarket or a non-commodity grown in someone’s backyard for personal consumption.

    So Marx quickly turns from use-value, to consider the phenomenon of exchange-value, which is the aspect that characterizes the commodity as such. As exchange-value, any two commodities (of a given quantity) can be equivalent to each other. As an example, Marx ponders the significance of the following equation:

    1 quarter corn = x cwt of iron

    This sort of equation, Marx says, “signifies that a common element of identical magnitude exists in two different things” so that both are “equal to a third thing, which in itself is neither the one nor the other.” The task, therefore, is to uncover the “third thing” that both commodities are reducible to. In other words: What is the common factor that determines or regulates the exchange of commodities?

    The stock response to that question, which will earn a student good marks in Economics 101, is that this value depends on the fact of “supply and demand.” It is true that this explanation accounts for the rise and fall of prices, but Marx pointed out in a pamphlet entitled “Wages, Profit and Price” the limitations of this explanation:

    “Supply and demand regulate nothing but the temporary fluctuations of market prices. They will explain to you why the market price of a commodity rises above or sinks below its value, but they will never account for that value itself. Suppose supply and demand to equilibrate, or, as the economists call it, to cover each other. Why, the very moment these opposite forces become equal they paralyze each other, and cease to work in the one or the other direction. At the moment when supply and demand equilibrate each other, and therefore cease to act, the market price of a commodity coincides with its real value, with the standard price round which its market prices oscillate. In inquiring into the nature of that value, we have, therefore, nothing at all to do with the temporary effects on market prices of supply and demand.”

    Supply and demand, however much it might account for price fluctuations, does not explain why prices fluctuate around a certain level. This means that we need to look elsewhere to find the common factor that fundamentally determines exchange-value.

    One thing that commodities in common, as already mentioned, is that they each have some use-value or another. But it is precisely because their use-values are qualitatively different that the commodities are exchanged for each other in the first place. So it is fruitless, Marx argues, to look to some “geometrical, a chemical, or any other natural property of commodities” as the common factor that regulates exchange.

    After setting aside use-value as a possible explanation, Marx briefly presents his own conclusion: “If then we leave out of consideration the use-value of commodities, they have only one common property left, that of being products of labor.”

    Here Marx seems to be on rather shaky ground, for we know that there are things sold on the market that are the product of little or nearly no labor that still fetch high prices, like the autograph of a celebrity, for example. How can Marx reach this conclusion that labor is the only possible “common property” that can determine exchange-value?

    It must seem to many people that Marx is trying to get by with a circular argument, where he limits the discussion to commodities created by human labor and then, lo and behold, discovers that “labor” is the common factor that regulates exchange.

    That is how it appeared to the Austrian economist Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk (1851–1914), who created the template for subsequent criticism of this labor theory of value. In Karl Marx and the Close of His System, Böhm-Bawerk described Marx as “one who urgently desiring to bring a white ball out of an urn takes care to secure this result by putting in white balls only.”

    Marx of course, like anyone else, was well aware that there are all sorts of “commodities” that are the product of little or no labor. In Chapter 3 of Capital, for instance, he notes that, “things which in and for themselves are not commodities, such as conscience, honor, etc., can be offered for sale by their holders, and thus acquire the form of commodities through their price” (my italics). And later in Capital, particularly in Volume 3, Marx goes on to examine a number of these sorts of formal commodities, such as the price of land or stocks. But Marx draws an important distinction between those commodities in form only (i.e. anything with a price) and the commodity in the fundamental sense that is analyzed in the first chapter of Capital.

    We need to return to the opening paragraph, examined earlier, to better grasp this conceptual distinction. There Marx reminds us that material wealth is necessary to sustain any form of society. And it goes without saying that this wealth is created through human labor of some kind or another. Marx pointed out this undisputable fact as follows in a letter to his friend Ludwig Kugelmann: “Every child knows that any nation that stopped working, not for a year, but let us say, just for a few weeks, would perish.” Here we have the great, precondition for any society: human beings must create useful things via labor.

    The difference in the case of capitalism, of course, is that the material wealth created via labor takes the form of commodities. The commodity in the most fundamental sense is thus premised on the commodity as product of labor (or as the capitalistic form of material wealth).

    At first glance it might seem that Marx is making an arbitrary premise to suit his argument, but in fact he is simply starting from reality as it exists under capitalism, as noted in the opening paragraph—namely, the fact that under capitalism the wealth necessary to sustain any society overwhelmingly takes the form of commodities. It is the commodity as the “elementary form” of wealth that Marx analyzes at the beginning of Capital.

    So there is an absolutely crucial distinction between Marx’s key concept of the commodity as the capitalistic form of social wealth and the “commodity” in the superficial sense of anything with a price (whether a product of labor or not). Those who ridicule Marx for limiting his initial analysis of the commodity to products of labor are ignoring, or choosing to overlook, the great social fact that “every child knows” with regard to the need for labor to sustain a society. From this perspective, the conclusion that “labor” is the common factor underlying exchange-value should not seem as arbitrary as it might at first glance.

    Marx defines this “labor” more exactly as the “socially necessary labor-time required to produce any use-value under the conditions normal for a given society and with the average degree of skill and intensity of labor prevalent to that society.” This is the labor that “forms the substance of value,” according to Marx.

    Marx set out to uncover the common factor underlying the phenomenon of exchange-value and he does so by arriving at the underlying concept of “value,” determined by the quantity of labor expended to produce the given commodity. This concept, specific to commodity production and capitalism, would have no basis to exist in a socialist society, where the whole aim is simply to produce useful things to satisfy human needs, rather than commodities to be exchanged on the market.

    But for the analysis of capitalism, the concept of “value” is central, for it is at the very core of an understanding of how things are produced and distributed in that society.

    Michael Schauerte

    Thursday, March 18, 2010

    Who bailed out the bankers?

    From the February 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    They tell us that we “the taxpayers” did? But it’s not as simple as that

    People are angry at the banks. They blame them for causing the crisis. They blame them for having to be bailed out and then still paying their top people obscene bonuses. They see them as producing nothing, just making money out of shuffling money around.

    Some of these criticisms are justified. Some are not. Banks don’t produce anything useful, even if they perform a useful, in fact an essential role, under capitalism. On the other hand, they didn’t cause the crisis, even if they did overstretch themselves like any other capitalist business does when faced with easy profits. It is this general capitalist drive for profits that causes crises from time to time. They were bailed out, but not by us.

    Not by us? Weren’t they bailed out by the taxpayers and aren’t we the taxpayers? Yes and no. They were bailed out by the government, whose main source of income is taxes, but, no, we are not “the taxpayers”.

    True, anybody in employment can produce their payslip and point to a deduction for income tax. But who actually pays this to the state? You don’t. Your employer does. In fact you never see the money that is deducted from your gross pay. It was never really yours. Putting it on your payslip is a bit of creative accounting. What’s important is the bottom line – your net pay, what you actually take home.

    Even if you did have to actually pay income tax yourself, as you do with some taxes (council tax, for instance), it wouldn’t make much difference since it’s your net pay – what you have to live on – that’s important for the labour market. Apart from the fairly short term this has to reflect the economic fact that, if you are not paid enough, you won’t be able to keep your working skills in proper working order and your employer won’t be getting what they are paying for.

    If, instead of your employer paying “your” income tax, you had to pay it yourself the employer would have to let you take home more to cover this so as to allow you enough after-tax money to keep your skills in working order.

    It’s the same with sales taxes such as VAT. This increases the cost of living, and so the amount of money you need to fully reproduce your working skills. It’s not really paid by you, but is passed on to your employer.

    In the end, then, whoever physically pays them to the state, taxes fall on employers (and other property owners). We wage and salary workers are not the real taxpayers. They are.

    It is true that the profits, out of which members of the capitalist class pay taxes, originate in the surplus value that productive workers create over and above the value of the mental and physical energies they sell to their employer for a wage or a salary. So, yes, ultimately taxes and bailouts to banks do come from the wealth workers produce. But not directly. We’ve already been fleeced. Taxes fall on those who have fleeced us. They are the ones who, via the state, bailed out the banks.

    They didn’t like having to do this, even if they recognised its necessity. And they don’t like the banking capitalists exaggerating. Hence their attempt, via the media, to mobilise us against “the bankers”. But the excesses of the bankers, outrageous as they are, are not really our problem. It’s a case of thieves falling out, over what’s already been robbed from us. Certainly bankers are useless parasites, but parasites on parasites – on those who directly exploit productive labour.

    Not all the money to pay for the bail-outs came from taxes. Some came from money the government borrowed – from other capitalists. The capitalist class, as taxpayers, don’t like this either because it means that a portion of the taxes that fall on them has to go to repay with interest those capitalists who lent the government the money. That’s what servicing the so-called ‘National Debt’ (actually the debt of the capitalist state) involves: a transfer of wealth from one section of the capitalist class to another section. So, again, not our problem. It’s their debt not ours.

    Except that the capitalist class – and their political representatives in the Labour, Tory and Liberal parties who are vying with each other with talk of a ‘new Age of Austerity’ and ‘savage cuts’ – have started a campaign to defray some of the costs of these payments to their fellow capitalists by cutting down on the payments and services they reluctantly provide for the working class. But then, under capitalism, workers always get the shitty end of the stick. Which is one good reason why we should not put up with capitalism any longer.

    Adam Buick

    The Philosophy of Money

    Book Review from the March 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Money by Eric Lonergan. Acumen, 2009

    This is an unusual book, written by a hedge fund manager. It verges between conventional orthodoxy and the highly unorthodox. In many respects it is as much a book about philosophy, thinking and perception as it is about economics, and not unlike recent works by George Soros in that respect.

    Lonergan has read Marx, Hayek and many of the key financial analysts of the contemporary era, from Markowitz to Shiller. He has provided a synthesis of their views about markets and money, underpinned by his philosophical readings from his earlier academic studies. These at times border on the insightful but ultimately disappoint.

    His discussion of inflation is an obvious case in point. As early as the first chapter he writes:

    ‘Many people believe that their money is stored in a safe at the bank, if they think about it at all. Ignorantly, we think of a deposit with a bank as money; indeed, in most of economics deposits are referred to as “money”, and are categorized as such in official statistics, which is misleading. Deposits are not money: they are loans we make to banks’ (pp.11-12).

    This is quite true and one of the reasons ‘credit creation’ ideas still peddled by some economists are erroneous, along with theories which try to explain rising prices with reference to the expansion of bank deposits. However, he also says:

    ‘…the solution to a banking panic is effortless and disconcerting: a central bank merely needs to say that it will create as much money as is needed, and provide this to the banks, and everyone should calm down’(p.12).

    Later, he writes of ‘an irrational fear of inflation’ (p.133), but these fears are not necessarily irrational. This magazine has chronicled for decades how an excess issue of inconvertible paper currency (beyond that needed for production and trade) leads to an artificial bloating of monetary demand known as inflation. This has been a consistent phenomenon since the late 1930s/early 1940s and in some periods, such as at times in the 1970s, has been quite significant.

    At present, the extent to which a tactic like ‘quantitative easing’ can lead to cost price bubbles and can lead to an excess note issue will be the extent to which underlying inflationary pressures will re-emerge with a vengeance within the capitalist economy. Lonergan clearly missed the relevant chapters in Marx’s Capital where the inflationary process – and the explanation for it – is discussed, or has at least failed to apply it to the contemporary situation. It would certainly help explain to him why inflation is a monetary phenomenon created by governments through central banks which cannot, of itself, solve any of the other economic problems endemic to capitalism.

    DAP

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010

    Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain 139

    Dear Friends,

    Welcome to the 139th of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

    We now have 1562 friends!

    Recent blogs:

  • Building a future
  • Free Trade, Fair Trade or No Trade?
  • Danger: capitalism at work
  • Quote for the week:

    "As capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one single life impulse, the tendency to create value and surplus-value, to make its constant factor, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus-labour. Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks."

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    Solidarity

    Cross-posted from the Vaux Populi blog

    The world we live in. The Tories attack Unite for seeking solidarity from the American Teamsters Union (according to the BBC). Now, the international solidarity of the workers is a principle of trade unionism, so it is in fact a good thing that workers are seeking one anothers' support. Just look, though, at the vitriol being poured on the BA workers for daring to stand up for themselves. Compare with the flood of stories about government cuts being needed to restore 'confidence' in the economy (e.g. here. What they mean by confidence is giving in to the overall policy demands of financiers, who will withhold their economic resources until their demands are met.

    We are in the grip of a sustained capital strike, and yet the press turn vicious on any attempt by workers to mount a strike to defend their own interests.

    As a note, the Tories are attacking the link between Labour and Unite, because Unite as the biggest union in the country is basically shouldering the cost of the Labour Party now. Labour loyalist Luke Akehurst rebuts the allegations.

    The point, though, is that the link is hurting both parties, the interests of political parties and trade unions are not the same. further, by linking themselves to a party that will form government under capitalism, the unions are signing a paycheque to those who will have to implement capitalism's attacks against the workers.

    We support, fully and utterly, the BA workers and Unite and the Teamsters in their efforts to stand up to their employer, a struggle we all share an interest in. We share, though, an even greater interest in getting rid of the wages system all together, and Unite the Union would do better to try and raise their aims to Unite the Workers, for socialism. Unite members in Lambeth and Camden can do this by voting for our candidates.

    Monday, March 15, 2010

    Brave New Epsilons (2010)

    The Pathfinder Column from the March 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Imagine going to a job interview in twenty years time. Chances are, you’ll have to take along your ID, your CV, and your personal genomic profile. One of the gene variants an employer might be looking for is Epsilon 4, which is thought to significantly increase your likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Some notable genome self-publishers like Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker are choosing not to publish the Epsilon 4 part of their genome, perhaps understandably. As one researcher remarks, “I wouldn’t want to know whether I’ve got one and I certainly wouldn’t want other people to know” (New Scientist, 13 February).

    The problem for workers is, genome-sequencing is already in the 3-figure dollar range and it won’t be long before we will be expected to provide a genome survey in order to get work, just like house sellers will now be required to provide the buyer with a house survey. The more privileged members of this brave new capitalism will no doubt ‘do a Pinker’, but workers in all probability will not be allowed to keep quiet about Epsilon 4, or anything else for that matter, and will be entirely at the mercy of what the bosses decide they don’t like. Unless more workers start inserting copies of this magazine into their jeans, we could all end up as Epsilon-class workers.

    ‘Just out driving my new Toyota Prius. Text later. Can’t stop.’
    Possibly last month’s best SMS joke. In the midst of the fuss over the large-scale recall of the accursed vehicle, some engineers are doing the predictable thing and, with a knowing stroke of the greying whiskers, remarking that “O’course, they be too damn complicated these days, too much to go wrong. That’s their problem right there, I tell ‘ee.” Although the Prius problem was entirely and mundanely mechanical, speculation also centres round another of Toyota’s products, the Lexus. The more that modern car designs move from mechanical to electronic systems the greater the risk of electromagnetic interference (EMI), and designs like the Lexus with electronically-controlled acceleration or ‘drive by wire’ are now thought to be at risk of EMI-induced ‘sudden unintended acceleration’(New Scientist, 13 February).

    Meanwhile, reports that increasing sunspot activity is likely to interfere with sat-nav systems provide a double-whammy (‘Sat-nav devices face big errors as solar activity rises’, BBC Online, 10 Feb). One can envisage whole convoys of flashy car drivers all roaring off down arbitrary highways like bats into hell, the blind leading the blindingly fast. Still, it could be worse. At least dodgy cars are being recalled these days. If the free-market capitalists got their way we might return to the unregulated days of the notorious Ford Pinto, whose manufacturers allegedly decided to pay off accident fatalities’ families rather than stop selling the dangerous car. All in all it makes you think about oiling that pushbike.
    Public no longer believes poll findings, poll finds
    Two recent polls commissioned by the Times newspaper and the BBC suggest that the UK public are becoming more climate sceptical, no doubt because they imagine the unusually heavy snow on their front lawn has blanketed the entire world and heralds a ten thousand year ice age. As the snow piled up, so did the column inches, with journalists speculating about why climate catastrophe has fallen so out of favour (see for instance ‘Climate scepticism 'on the rise'’, BBC poll shows’, (BBC Online, 7 February).

    Favourite theories are the East Anglia email scandal, the hopeless effort at Copenhagen, and most recently the raw wet omelette served on the face of the International Panel on Climate Change by their careless and spectacularly erroneous claim that Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035, rather than the original and more accurate date of 2350. Interestingly this error has been traced back to an article in New Scientist, which observed that the panel has been ‘severely criticised for citing a non-peer-reviewed magazine’ (see New Scientist, 23 January, p5 – in a very small box).

    But wait a moment, isn’t everyone getting a bit carried away? Scientists can make mistakes, can’t they? In fact the ability to make and identify mistakes forms the basis of all science. There may be some buffoons out there bonkers enough to think that if scientists get one thing wrong then they must have everything else wrong too, but that surely can’t apply to the whole population.

    In all the journalistic hoo-ha about rising climate scepticism there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of poll scepticism, yet are the polls really significant or just a blip? As most people no doubt realise, polls are the journalist’s best buddy but make for unreliable real-world guides, especially in areas other than elections where they are unlikely to be corroborated later by hard facts. In the first place, they can be designed to produce the findings the poll-funders are looking for (or else, if they don’t, the funders don’t publish the findings). Even supposing the funder is genuinely disinterested in the findings (the BBC and Murdoch-owned Times are not climate sceptics so presumably weren’t hoping for this result, unless the idea was to manufacture some controversial headlines) there is no peer-review or general oversight of the polling methodology employed. What suggests the polls are a blip is the timing. One would, for instance, have to question the wisdom of asking people standing in two feet of snow whether they were especially concerned about global warming at the present time. One further wonders whether the BBC and the Times will be doing follow-up polls in flaming June or blue-sky July. Finally there is the question, admittedly a cynic’s recourse: do people tell pollsters the truth anyway, or merely make a little devilment out of the business? Why would they lie, you might ask? But equally, why shouldn’t they? Anyone who doesn’t believe this is possible has clearly never filled in a market survey report on branded products. In view of all this, does anyone apart from material-hungry journalists actually believe in polls? Maybe we should have a poll and find out.

    Note to self
    Lastly and a propos none of the above, a quick word from our BBC economics advisor Robert Peston:“It's plainly better for banks to make profits, than not (unless you are actively working for the destruction of capitalism)” (BBC blog entry, 16th February). Ok Bob, now there’s an idea...

    Saturday, March 13, 2010

    Socialist Guide to Marx’s Capital (2. The Starting Point)

    Cross-posted from the World Socialist Party of the United States website

    Marx begins his examination of capitalism in Capital with the analysis of the commodity; and he succinctly explains the reason for his starting point in the first paragraph:

    “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’; the individual commodity appears as its [wealth’s] elementary form. Our investigation therefore begins with the analysis of the commodity.” (Penguin edition; p. 126)

    The term “wealth” is used here not to refer to riches in the form of money, but rather to the material wealth essential to any form of society: the products produced and consumed by human beings to sustain and improve their lives.

    Material wealth is the basis for the existence of any society, including socialism, but only under capitalism does wealth overwhelmingly take the form of products that are bought and sold on the market; which is to say, only under capitalism does wealth appear as a “vast accumulation” or “vast heap” [1] of commodities.

    Commodities of course existed prior to the emergence of capitalism, as did money, but it is only under the specific mode of production of capitalism that the bulk of material wealth—the vast majority of products of labor—take the commodity form.

    It is true that some things produced under capitalism are for the direct consumption of the producer rather than for exchange (like tomatoes grown in a backyard garden), but such products are clearly an exception to the prevailing commodity production. A quick glance down the aisles of Wal-Mart is enough to confirm Marx’s observation that capitalist wealth appears as a vast accumulation of commodities. It was true in 1867 when Capital was published and is even more the case today.

    There is nothing arbitrary, then, about Marx’s starting point, as it is based on two undisputable facts: (1) material wealth must be produced in any form of society; (2) material wealth overwhelmingly takes the commodity form in the specific case of capitalism.

    Marx is not starting with some abstract concept that only exists in his own mind, but rather with an objective observation concerning capitalist society. (We will see later that nearly every misinterpretation of Marx’s “labor theory of value” is based on an inability to appreciate his starting point in Capital.)

    In examining capitalism, Marx naturally concerns himself primarily with understanding the specific functioning of this mode of production, which sets it apart from other forms of society. So he begins with the examination of the commodity as the specific form of products of labor under capitalism or “elementary form” of capitalist wealth.

    The defenders of capitalism, in contrast, attempt to present the commodity and other economic forms of capitalism as if they were common to any form of society; which is to say, they try to portray capitalist production as synonymous with social production in general—or argue that it is a reflection of some unchanging human “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another” (Adam Smith).

    That first paragraph of Capital teaches (or at least reminds) us though that the commoditization of wealth is only a widespread phenomenon “in those societies where the capitalist mode of production prevails.” There is no iron-clad law, in other words, that products of labor need to pass through the market before their useful qualities can be enjoyed.

    The “unchanging law” of human society is not commodity exchange, or the need for money to mediate that exchange, but rather the simple fact that material wealth must be produced and consumed in order for a society and the people within it to continue to exist.

    There are specific reasons—specific social or class relations—that account for why products of labor take the commodity form under capitalism (as Marx explains later in Chapter one). And once we understand those reasons why commodity production is necessary under capitalist social relations, we can already begin to understand what sort of different social relations will be necessary to move beyond the historical stage of commodity production.

    The fact that we are so immersed in capitalism, however, where we have to pay for almost everything we consume, often blinds us to this simple historical fact that human beings under feudalism and other pre-capitalist forms of society managed to produce and distribute (the bulk of) material wealth in a way that did not involve buying and selling.

    Marx overcomes this capitalist-induced myopia by treating capitalism as one historical mode of production (among others), which functions in specific ways under its specific social relations. He teaches us to distinguish between what is general to any form of society, and what is specific to capitalism—as in the distinction mentioned earlier between “material wealth” and its “commodity form.”

    Footnote

    [1] This is from the translation of Hans Ehrbar, available on his website (http://www.econ.utah.edu/~ehrbar/akmc.htm). Ehrbar has translated Capital and other works by Marx; and in the annotated version of his translation he guides the reader through the text, while pointing out many of the mistranslations of the Penguin and International Publishers editions of Capital. His website is an essential resource for anyone interested in studying Capital.

    Michael Schauerte

    Ordinary people (1999)

    From the July 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

    From as far back as I can ever remember, probably from the first time I became aware of my social environment, I have found myself wincing at the term "ordinary people". Politicians use it when speaking of the electorate. It is used mostly to delineate the working class and it has become a derogatory description either for people who are not members of the establishment, or for those who do not get themselves in the news. What the word conjures up, for me at any rate, is a picture of thousands upon thousands of dull, drab powerless people, hollow-eyed and mindless, trudging to work with no other thought in their heads than sullen obedience to their masters. Perhaps somewhere there are workers who appear like characters from Brave New World, but that is not my experience.

    There have always been people who crave attention; they become local councillors, trade union leaders, MPs. Maybe some of them start out with altruistic motives and, are therefore, surprised at how being in the limelight makes them feel extraordinary. Surprise must soon turn to elation because it could be tempting to feel, once you are in the news, that you are in some way an authority, that your every word is received like pearls of wisdom escaping from the lips of the Oracle. Yet it is a myth that leaders know better than we do and possess the God-given right to direct our lives.

    I once heard a man on a radio programme announce, when asked a question about the preparation of vegetables before cooking them, that, yes, it is preferable to rinse them lightly under the tap. Now isn't that something? I didn't know that, did you? He didn't say anything else. He didn't need to. He was an expert. Another time I listened with horror to Paul Boateng telling parents that it was perfectly all right to smack their children, when I had spent most of my life believing that it wasn't. But he is one of those with the authority (and the audacity) to inform the rest of the nation that a belt round the ear does our kids the world of good. Some people will believe him. He is extraordinary, after all.

    My dictionary says: Ordinary—usual, common, normal, not specially good. I don't know anyone like that. In my street lives a builder. Among other things he builds marvellous flint walls, poetry in themselves. He erected the conservatory which acts as an extension on the back of my house and he worked with a skill which I found fascinating. When Henry plies his trade he does it lovingly and gracefully and so for the first time in my life I began to value people who built things. But that is not all that Henry does. He has an allotment where he grows spectacular vegetables, row-upon-row of whatever is in season. I am on the receiving end of some of those vegetables and they are wonderful to behold. Sometimes he will take a cabbage, a green pepper or a bunch of carrots from the proffered bag and comment on how fine it is. He says it with pride and I know he is remembering buying the seeds and sowing them in the ground. He would have nurtured them as tenderly as if they were his own children until they were ready to be harvested. And at the end of the season he would set about preparing the soil for his next act of creation. Henry doesn't say much, but is he ordinary? Never. Scratch the surface of anyone you know and you will see what I mean.

    My own mother would have come under that awful heading "ordinary". Though bowed down by poverty and five kids she played the piano. Neighbours would come to our front gate to listen to her. I would be moved to tears at the pieces she played with such feeling. I used to wonder that if she hadn't been my mother then who would she have been? I felt a little jealous that inside my mother dwelt another person—a woman who could produce such beautiful musical sounds. She wasn't ordinary.

    Ordinary under capitalism means you haven't been discovered or there isn't a market for you. It means, too, that you are there to be told what to do. Your opinions are of no consequence unless the powers-that-be have created you or you are rich and powerful enough to create yourself. You are mostly not defined by your uniqueness but by your market value. When I give an acquaintance the Socialist Standard to read and they come across something I have written, they will often ask "Do they pay you?" When I answer in the negative they quickly lose interest in my modest efforts as though there can be little merit in them unless they bring in the filthy lucre. My response to people who ask what I like doing is always that I like writing. They invariably ask "Are you a professional?" So little in life has real value unless it is rewarded with money. Yet the majority of us would surely blossom without the daily grind.

    My little daughter once wanted to be a nurse. She spent happy hours heaping blankets upon her father as he snoozed in his armchair, sticking imaginary hypodermic needles into his arms and wiping his brow with a tea towel. All this soon altered as her working life loomed large. True she could have grown out of her desire to heal the sick but in the end what must focus our minds is how much we can get paid for the countless hours spent away from home for the best part of our lives. Most of us do it without understanding that there is another way of organising our time. But that does not mean we are ordinary.
    Heather Ball

    Friday, March 12, 2010

    Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain 138

    Dear Friends,

    Welcome to the 138th of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

    We now have 1564 friends!

    Recent blogs:

  • What is common ownership?
  • The social revolution
  • America and the S-word
  • Quote for the week:

    "The most dangerous man, to any government, is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost invariably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And if he is not romantic personally, he is apt to spread discontent among those who are." H.L. Mencken, 1880-1956.

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    Pieces Together

    From the March 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    PEACE PRIZE ?

    "President Obama is planning to increase spending on America's nuclear weapons stockpile just days after pledging to try to rid the world of them. In his budget to be announced on Monday, Mr Obama has allocated £4.3billion to maintain the U.S. arsenal - £370million more than George Bush spent on nuclear weapons in his final year. The Obama administration also plans to spend a further £3.1billion over the next five years on nuclear security. The announcement comes despite the American President declaring nuclear weapons were the ‘greatest danger’ to U.S. people during in his State of the Union address on Wednesday. And it flies in the face of Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to him in October for ‘his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples’." (Daily Mail, 29 January)

    DEBT RIDDEN BRITAIN

    "There has been a huge rise in the amount of money that banks are writing off as bad debts on their credit cards. Bank of England figures show that the total value of the write-offs doubled to £1.6bn in the third quarter of 2009. In each of the two preceding quarters, the figure had been about £800m. It totalled £3.2bn during 2008. The figures reflect the impact of the recession and are an acknowledgement by the banks that the money will never be repaid by defaulting borrowers. By contrast, the value of mortgages written off in 2008 was just £408m, and has averaged £260m in each of the first three quarters of 2009." (BBC News, 19 January)

    THE GAP WIDENS

    "The richest 10% of the UK population are now more than 100 times as wealthy as the poorest 10%, according to the Anatomy of Economic Inequality. The study shows that by 2008 Britain had reached the highest level of income inequality since soon after the second world war. Household wealth (including cars and other possessions of the top 10% amounts to £853,000 or more, while the poorest 10% amass £8,800 or less." (Observer, 31 January)

    "CARING" CAPITALISM

    Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer has compared giving people government assistance to "feeding stray animals." Bauer, who is running for the Republican nomination for governor (of South Carolina), made his remarks during a town hall meeting in Fountain Inn that included state lawmakers and about 115 residents. "My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior. They don't know any better," Bauer said." (Greenville News, 23 January)

    Socialist Guide to Marx’s Capital (1. Intro)

    Cross-posted from the World Socialist Party of the United States website

    This series of short articles will examine the first volume of Marx’s Capital from a “socialist perspective,” which is to say, with an eye to how an understanding of capitalism can contribute to our understanding of socialism.

    I should recognize the obvious fact, right away, that a worker hardly needs to read Capital to arrive at an anti-capitalist position. Life under capitalism is negative advertisement enough for that social system.

    Who knows, there may have been a budding capitalist at some point in time who mistook Capital for a how-to guide, and part-way through reading it saw the error of his ways and converted to socialism. But it is not a polemical work aimed simply at fostering a hatred of capitalism (even though there are memorable passages throughout that attest to Marx’s own steady-burning hatred for this class-divided system).

    Capital is not a book in which Marx simply lists up a bunch of social problems under capitalism to stir up the reader’s moral outrage against that system. Rather, he clarifies how problems (for workers) emerge inevitably from the fundamental nature of capitalism; from its irresolvable contradictions and insurmountable limitations.

    One might wonder, though, why socialists would need to exert such effort to better understand a social system they are seeking to replace? Doesn’t it make more sense to concentrate on explaining socialism than wasting time analyzing capitalism?

    Certainly it is true that some Marxian economists have carved out a nice career for themselves as experts on capitalism, to the point where they might even be reluctant to bid farewell to that object of study. Revolutionary socialists do not necessarily share the mania of some academics for examining capitalism in its minutiae; nor do they think that such scholarship offers tremendous benefits to the revolutionary movement.

    Yet socialists do need to have the clearest understanding possible of the nature of capitalism as one historical “mode of production” among others that have existed up to now. This is because once we have arrived at a deeper understanding of the capitalist system of production, to the point where we have a clear idea of its essential limitations, we will be well on our way to a better understanding of what socialism means and how this new form of society resolves problems that can never be resolved (even though reformists never give up trying!) under capitalism.

    So it is not a question of choosing between examining capitalism or explaining socialism — the two tasks are completely interrelated. This series will attempt to examine and explain some important aspects of Marx’s analysis of capitalism presented in Capital as a means of arriving at a better understanding of what socialism means, how it is a realistic possibility, and why it is so necessary.

    Michael Schauerte

    Thursday, March 11, 2010

    “...Less Equal Than Others...”

    The Greasy Pole column from the March 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    As the snowdrops and daffodils signal an approaching spring – and another general election – anyone who has doubts about the government being in a panic should remind themselves that one of Labour's top electoral strategists, plotting to steer the party to another term of chaotic fumbling across the face of British capitalism, is Harriet Harman. Yes – she who alone survives of those breezy, achingly ambitious Blair Babes who so cheerily arranged themselves for the cameras on that May morning in 1997 when nothing seemed beyond them. There were Margaret Beckett; Ruth Kelly; Patricia Hewitt; Hazel Blears; Caroline Flint...but none of them hung on to a place near the top of the greasy pole. Only Harriet Harman, whose very name once had John Prescott displaying his stock of seaman's expletives like flags at a ship's mast, got there. Notwithstanding that while declaring herself an opponent of selective education she took care to get her son into an exclusive grammar school some way from her home saying that “we did it for our son.” Or that she voted in February and March 2003 in favour of attacking Iraq but feebly excused this, when she was campaigning for Labour's Deputy Leadership in June 2007, as due to her not being in possession of the full facts.

    Survivor

    Meanwhile, apart from now being Deputy Leader and Chair of the Labour Party, Lord Privy Seal, Leader of the House of Commons and Minister for Women and Equality, Harriet Harman has taken on the monstrously demanding job of trying to dissuade a betrayed electorate from descending into a sense of outraged alienation and political apathy. But perhaps all of this has followed because, reacting to what has befallen her, Harman has become a survivor. In 1998 it seemed to be all over for her when, after just a year in charge at the Department of Social Security – notable for persistent clashes with junior minister Frank Field over Labour's plans to “reform” the “welfare” system – she was abruptly sacked. Yet three years later she bounced back as Solicitor General since when, if we disregard some typically indiscreet gaffes, her progress has been pretty – although at times bewilderingly - smooth. Which is not to say there may not be trouble ahead; Labour has decided that the class system is a likely vote winning issue in the election and Equality Minister Harman has been chosen to spearhead their campaign.

    Class

    This was an interesting choice, if only because of her secure family background and social connections – apart from anything else she is the niece of an earl and (according to an “amateur genealogist”) related through her aunt's marriage to none other than Old Etonian David Cameron. Harman has done her best to re-assure us on this matter, arguing inside the Labour Party against an all-male leadership on the grounds that men “cannot be left to run things on their own” and suggesting that in the next parliament there should be 39 openly gay MPs. More significant are her views on class society, its nature and effects: “Persistent inequality of socio-economic status – of class – overarches the discrimination or disadvantage from your gender, race or disability...The public wants an equal society, one where there is not a yawning and growing gap between the bottom and the top”. While the first part of this statement is valid enough it avoids the question of how “the public” views class society and how susceptible they are to the argument, tirelessly pumped at them by their leaders, that it is the very inequality in the class structure, protective and enhancing, that drives capitalist society to the benefit of everyone whatever their class. This all avoids the vital question of why this Minister with the job of adjusting us into an “equal” society is a member of a government which over 13 years of power has failed to deal with this “overarching” problem – and why it should suddenly be so urgent.

    Poverty

    There has been no lack of promises, explicit or otherwise, from the Labour government since 1997 but let the most recent, in their 2005 election manifesto, suffice: “Our vision is clear; a country more equal in its opportunities, more secure in its communities, more confident in its future”.That drivel would have impressed only the most impenetrably blinkered; the rest would have preferred to rely on their real experiences of Blair and his government. There is plenty of evidence about this, the most recent being the National Equality Panel report An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK. Among the report's findings are: the richest ten per cent are more than 100 times as wealthy as the poorest; the top one per cent each possess a total household wealth of £2.6 million or more; being born into a disadvantaged class does intensive damage to a person's chances in education and beyond, affecting whether they realise their potential and so improve their life chances. At the same time Save the Children told us that 13 per cent of UK children are living in severe poverty.

    When politicians like Harman hold forth on this situation they offer only confusion, encouraging an assumption that a person's social situation and prospects can only be judged by reference to insignificant changes in their income. But this does not even approach the heart of the matter, the key to which is the ownership of the means of life by a minority class who live off their privileges while the other class depend on employment with all that means in terms of class misery – insecurity in their livelihood, homes, survival and expectations. This is the authentic meaning of class society and of the inequalities which will endure despite the politicians' rhetoric.

    Ivan

    Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain 137

    Dear Friends,

    Welcome to the 137th of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

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    Voltaire.

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    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    People before profits?

    Book Review from the March 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    People First Economics. Ed. David Ransom and Vanessa Baird, New Internationalist Publications .2009.

    Here is a book with contributions from twenty or so well-known writers, economists, politicians, activists and professors; inspiration for readers who seek to be part of a 'fairer world’. In one way or another all the contributors succeed in pointing out major flaws in the capitalist system and all have their ideas on how many things could be improved to work better for more people. Recurring themes include restructuring the tax system, transparency in the tax system, putting an end to corporate tax dodging, closing tax havens, prosecution of the guilty, cancellation of Third World debt, protection of the environment, reducing inequalities, investing in sustainability. I don't recall an example of a call for a non-capitalist alternative, just adjustments although some of them quite major.

    A former derivatives trader possibly overcome by guilt or remorse reveals the predator/prey relationships in banks and finance companies. 'Replacing the interest-based money system is the critical struggle of our time. It is not a system we can reform. We must simply defeat it because if we don't it will defeat us.' How it will be possible to defeat the interest-based money system is left open to conjecture but as he reveals in his article no-one was interested in taking up his new 'debt-free' home finance product because debt expansion is more profitable than debt reduction. He is listed as a financial adviser.

    Other suggestions are to regulate and control, to put social services back into the hands of communities, away from the market, to use local currencies, to expand the commons and to share the common wealth. The closest we get to a socialist alternative comes from Nicola Bullard, an Australian researcher, campaigner and writer with 'Focus on the Global South' who reminds us that Marxists (and some others) agree that capitalism destroys nature and alienates society but that the main objective of the G20 is to put it back on its feet again after the recent 'crisis’. Her way forward is three-fold: expand the common good by decommodifying goods and expanding open-source; cool the planet by using appropriate agricultural methods, and share the common wealth – meaning a fairer sharing of profit between labour and capital, tax reforms etc. She ends by proposing that it should be possible for all to live in a system of economic production and consumption where the commons is for all and wealth is shared by all but owned by none.The chapter 'Equality is better – for Everyone', written by Richard Wilkinson of the University of Nottingham Medical School and University College London and Kate Pickett of the University of York and the National Institute for Health Research and taken as an edited extract from their book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better is interesting in its focus on various measures of well-being. What they show is that the wider the difference in monetary terms between rich and poor in any society, the greater are the problems within those societies, from rates of mental illness, teenage birth rates, prison populations, distrust of others within society, life expectancy and murder rates, which confirms that socialism (a more equal society will not be found) should be hastened and welcomed by all.

    The final three chapters focus on climate change but again largely promote regulation and reform and the final paragraph of the final chapter pretty much sums up the tone of the book, 'The current movement…is an opportunity to be ambitious, to challenge the central precepts of the capitalist system at its roots and replace it with a new set of economic power relations founded on principles of justice, redistribution and collaboration' – as if to say that money can be retained but a new system can be organised around it without the negative aspects that now abound.

    There are plenty of optimistic suggestions but you would have to believe that those who currently have the power – corporations, the mega-wealthy and their media and puppets in governments – are actually seeking such a wide-ranging, inclusive solution for it to have any possible chance of success. If this were the case then they would surely have already been working towards it.

    Janet Surman

    Sunday, March 7, 2010

    Tilting at windmills with a banjo (2010)


    From the March 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard
    Pete Seeger is now in his 90th year. His songs have always been better than his politics.
    It was strangely moving: a frail lanky figure complete with banjo, lurching up on stage proceeded to gasp his valiant way through several of the best-known songs in the American folk pantheon. Pete Seeger at ninety, demonstrating that he can still enthral an audience. The casual onlooker would have difficulty believing that this unthreatening personage came however, ready-stamped with his own unique Government Health Warning.

    “The most boycotted, picketed, blacklisted performer in American history”, he had endured a lifetime of threats, assaults, been labelled “traitor”, “Khrushchev’s Songbird” and suffered trial and conviction at the insidious hands of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

    Others viewed him differently, observing his enormous contribution to the collection and preservation of traditional music and how almost single-handedly he had rescued the five-string banjo from oblivion. A devout Humanitarian, abstemious, monogamous, unimpeachably principled, he is the trust of his patriots.

    Born of well-heeled, musical New England stock in 1919, Seeger’s life compass was pretty much set for him at an early age. His father, in company with folklorists John and Alan Lomax belonged to that 1930s Popular Front “intellectual” coterie who, combining Radicalism and Patriotism, embraced the Folk genre as America’s “true” music and a vehicle for awareness-raising and social change. “Communism in Twentieth Century Americanism” ran its slogan, boldly – if bafflingly.

    Seizing the baton, Seeger commenced his own musical and political odyssey presently, in 1940, forming the Almanac Singers, an amorphous, motley, Leftist crew whose proclaimed aim was, nevertheless to “change the World”. Performing such numbers as “Talking Union”, they supported labour rallies and, the Hitler/Stalin Peace Pact being current, opposed the War with their “Songs for John Doe”.

    When, however, Germany attacked Russia the following year, the horrified group found the bulk of its repertoire rendered instantly obsolete. A massive rethink – and rewrite – ensued. Where once it had been confrontation, strike and “Franklin D. listen to me, You ain’t gonna send me across the sea”, employee and employer alike were now urged to unite behind the Military to “Deliver the Goods” and then skip merrily “Round and round Hitler’s Grave”. Remaining a “card-carrying Communist”, Seeger was nonetheless sufficiently chastened by this experience to never again identify quite so closely with the Party’s front-line tactics, instead lending his voice to more general issues.

    The post-war years were difficult ones for an American Left struggling to radicalise an increasingly affluent, and hostile, Working Class. The Almanacs disbanded and in the prevailing “anti-Red” climate, Seeger encountered not only the FBI’s close scrutiny but also frequent exclusion from union events and marginalisation within the Communist Party itself. Fleeting commercial success with a new group, the Weavers, failed to salvage his finances and he found himself obliged to scour the continent playing small venues and universities, unwittingly in the process, founding what would eventually become known as the ‘College Circuit’.

    Inevitably subpoenaed by McCarthy’s HUAC, he eschewed the usual “Fifth Amendment” route; that no citizen under the Constitution need incriminate themselves, opting instead for a head-on First Amendment plea; that the Committee itself was unconstitutional. For his pains he received a 10-year sentence which although never implemented and eventually overturned, nevertheless seriously blighted his life for several years.

    The 1960s saw Seeger affiliating with the current “good causes”, plucking his banjo at Civil Rights rallies (an unfortunate instrument given Negro memories of stereotypic minstrel shows) and supporting the anti-Vietnam War movement. He was however becoming perceived as “Middle Aged”, “Old Left” rather than “Hippie”, “Student Power” and his “acoustic” music upstaged by the strident, electrified offerings of the rising Dylanite generation.

    Remarkably too, he continued to adhere to the broad “Soviet World View”. Having remained silent over the momentous events of 1956 – the denouncement of Stalin and Russia’s brutal intervention in Hungary – he now displayed similar reticence over its intrusions into Czechoslovakia and the obvious tribulations of working-class life in Castro’s Cuba. But knavish, duplicitous, surely not? Myopic, naïve, more probably. increasingly disillusioned, he embraced Environmentalism, focusing particularly, and continuingly, on the campaign to clean up his “Dirty Stream”, the Hudson River.

    Seeger has persistently overstated the power and value of song in political struggle, citing no less an authority that Plato: “Rulers should be careful about what songs are allowed to be sung.” Pursuing the rather Hegelian notion that the idea precedes and informs the action, he maintains that the “right song at the right time can change history” and whilst, for sure, songs have a certain rallying function, no way can his assertion that they triggered the Civil Rights Movement and shortened the Vietnam War be upheld. Fellow-Almanacers Bess and Butch Hawes were much closer to the truth in pointing out that “songs; ideas can only appear when events provide the material”. Perhaps they’d been taking a peek at Marx.

    Unable to fully comprehend the nature of the capitalist system he professes to despise, its impersonal, all pervading imperative for profit and the root cause of the multitudinous socio-economic and environmental problems afflicting humanity; lumbered also with a Leftist/Bolshevist mindset he has never managed to transcend, Seeger has sought solution through a whole range of single-issue campaigns and support for assorted pseudo-socialist, state capitalist regimes. A successful lawsuit, for instance, by residents against General Electrics for polluting the Hudson, laudable in itself, was hailed as a great victory for “localism” and “community” rather than an opportunity to ponder the competitive, cost-cutting forces that had brought about the pollution in the first place. And all the while, the authentic socialist model of a democratic, classless world society of common ownership and free access has awaited his perusal. Painful as it is to criticise a clearly well-intentioned if Quixotic figure, Seeger’s political life does serve as vindication of our founding principle of campaigning solely for the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by socialism.

    So what is left? Well, laying aside more than a few political stomach-turners, there is a rather wonderful body of song. We can, for example, teach subversive little numbers, “Cindy”, “Froggie Went A-Courtin’”, to our offspring and (in our cups) declaim “the warnings, dangers, love we’d ring out incessantly all over the bloody place – if only we possessed the requisite hammers”. Perhaps also, in more sombre (and sober) mood, we’ll quietly croon the hauntingly-beautiful “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, even if, of necessity we think of Pete himself and his ilk at the mournful refrain:

    “When will they ever learn,
    When will they ever learn?”
    Andrew Armitage