Saturday, June 26, 2010

The crisis: what is to be done? (2010)

From the June 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard
We look at David’s Harvey’s latest book The Enigma of Capital.
We are living through the biggest capitalist crisis since the 1930s – a crisis with economic and ecological, not to mention social and political, dimensions. No one knows for sure what’s going to happen or what to do next. In this context, what we need as a matter of urgency is understanding. We need to know what the crisis is, why it has arisen, and what, if anything, can be done about it. David Harvey, an acclaimed geographer and professor of anthropology, points to some of the answers to these urgent questions.
The Enigma of Capital (Profile Books, 2010) opens with an account of the recent history of the economic crisis, from the first signs of trouble in the US ‘subprime’ mortgage market in 2006, right up to very nearly the present day. This account is in the style of and largely taken from the liberal and financial mainstream press. Harvey then moves on to analyse what is really going on behind this standard account. This is helpful because no economist or financial journalist has been of any use in predicting the crisis or explaining why it has happened. Harvey rejects the search for a scapegoat – Alan Greenspan, Gordon Brown, irresponsible borrowers, greedy bankers, and so on – and instead argues that crises are an inevitable and necessary feature of the normal working of capitalism.
His basic argument is a Marxian one. Modern societies are driven by the capitalists’ search for ever-more profit. Competition forces capitalists to reinvest at least a portion of that profit, again in the expectation of yet more profit. This leads to ‘capital accumulation’ on an ever-expanding scale, and this circulation process, much like the blood in the body, must keep flowing if profitable investment – and therefore the socially necessary production of goods and services – isn’t to have a scary heart attack. But as the years pass, certain scares are inevitable – and the problems get worse as the amount of capital searching for profitable reinvestment gets larger and larger.
Harvey’s analysis
Harvey identifies seven main risk factors: money capital scarcities (where’s all the money going to come from?), labour problems (e.g., insufficient supplies of cheap, ‘flexible’ labour), disproportionalities between sectors (one sector overexpands in its search for profits), natural limits (e.g., scarcities of natural resources), unbalanced technological and organisational changes (including competition and monopoly and so on), indiscipline in the labour process (workers slacking off or organising unions for example) and lack of effective demand (consumers’ ability to pay for goods and services). He argues that any one of these can be a clot in the free flow of capital. But capitalism cannot tolerate such clots for long without dying.
Like the human body, capitalism is a dynamic system that is very good at sorting out its own problems. It patches itself up, and gets going again – but always at the price of storing up future problems for itself. So, to take recent examples, a crisis of profitability in the 1970s led such figures as Thatcher and Reagan to dampen down wages by crushing unions, creating unemployment and importing cheaper immigrant labour from abroad. This was successful for a while, but created a new problem: a population of unemployed or badly paid workers does not make for the vibrant and ever-expanding consumer markets capital needs to prosper (there can be no growth without sales). This problem was solved by recklessly extending credit to ever more people, regardless of their ability to repay. This in turn led to a crisis of overindebtedness in the working class, which led to a crisis of confidence in debt instruments, starting with subprime mortgages in the US, which led us to where we are now – the supply of credit drying up, leading to blockages in the flow of capital, in turn leading to rising unemployment, the loss and devaluation of capital, and so on. The economic ‘stimulus’ measures (the defibrillator) haven’t worked, so now we are being promised Thatcher-style austerity (a fat-free diet) for the working class.
A crisis can be understood as those times when socially produced wealth returns to its ‘rightful owners’, the capitalist class, and as an opportunity for that class to consolidate its power over both the working class and the political machinery of the state (it was a commonplace in some sections of the financial press that, whoever won the general election, the government would be forced to do the bidding of ‘international investors’, i.e., the capitalist class). The capitalist class then uses that power to claw back as many as possible of the gains and reforms won by previous rounds of class struggle and political action. ‘Balance’ and health is restored to the operation of profitability, and the flow of capital can continue. Hence the necessity as well as inevitability of crisis under capitalism.
Leninist fly in the soup
So, what is to be done about all this? Harvey is right to insist that nothing less than what are usually dismissed as ‘utopian’ answers will do. The crisis is rooted in the system. Capitalist attempts to solve the crisis will mean more austerity and misery for everyone apart from the smallest minority. A systemic problem cries out for systemic solutions. In this, we agree with Harvey. True, the influence of Leninism in the book, especially in the final chapter, is something of a fly in the soup. Eating around the fly becomes increasingly distasteful as we get near the end of the meal – Harvey’s criticism of what he calls ‘actually existing communism’, i.e., the state-capitalist dictatorships in the former Soviet Union and so on, is mild to say the least, though at least he is good enough to confirm that what most people call ‘socialism’ is actually just “democratically managed or regulated capitalism”.
Genuine socialists with weak stomachs may baulk at this. But if so, they will miss out on some good, solid, political nutrition. Particularly interesting are three points of strong agreement between Harvey and us.
The first is the importance of what he calls ‘mental conceptions’ in revolutionary change, i.e., the importance of ideas and what is usually dismissed as ‘utopian’ politics. Without a change in what people think about the prospects for change and for socialism, as Harvey rightly points out, there can be no alternative other than a return to some form of capitalism.
The second is his insistence, somewhat against the fashion among other anti-capitalist theorists, on the importance of capturing and transforming the state. There is, he says, “no way that an anti-capitalist social order can be constructed without seizing state power, radically transforming it and reworking the constitutional and institutional framework that currently supports private property, the market system and endless capital accumulation. To ignore the state and the dynamics of the inter-state system is therefore a ridiculous idea for any anti-capitalist movement to accept”. We wholeheartedly agree.
The third is his insistence that the crisis does not mean that capitalism is ending. Capitalism is a dynamic system that has always solved its own problems in the past, and will do so again, whatever the cost to the rest of us – and the cost this time could well be environmental disaster, perhaps even catastrophic war. Capitalism will never fall on its own, says Harvey. It will have to be stopped and the power of the capitalist class ended by concerted political action. And although the prospects for such change do not seem that good at the moment, a crisis will at least tend to make the question of alternative social systems seem more relevant and urgent. In other words, good capitalists always view crises as opportunities. It would be wise if the people they rule over did the same.
There is plenty of room, then, for both agreement and disagreement in Harvey’s book. As a book, it is a bit of a loose, baggy monster – it is overlong and repetitive, loosely and sometimes vaguely written (things happen “big time”, without quantification or referencing), and seemingly hurriedly and lazily assembled from the professor’s lecture notes. His writing mostly seems aimed at a general audience, and yet technical terms and Marxian jargon go unexplained, and ideologically loaded and potentially confusing words and phrases are used without apology or caution. But most of these faults can and should be overlooked because the substance of his argument is sound and deserves as wide an audience as possible. In addition, his analysis of the importance of urbanisation and the ownership and control of land and resources in modern capitalism is an important modern updating of Marxian theory, expanding on some insightful and prescient comments by Marx in Capital.
Harvey also has an extremely useful model for thinking about how capitalism moves and changes, through the interconnected development of seven ‘spheres’ of activity, again derived from Marx, but avoiding the determinism and one-sidedness of many of Marx’s later followers. Harvey helps us understand, in relatively straight-forward English, what’s really going on behind the stories we read in the mainstream press, and therefore helps us think clearly about what it might be possible to do in the future. As Harvey says, “Questioning the future of capitalism itself as an adequate social system ought, therefore, to be in the forefront of current debate.”
Stuart Watkins

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain 150

Dear Friends,

Welcome to the 150th our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

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    Darwin on human evolution (2010)

    From the June 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard
    150 years ago in June the famous confrontation over evolution took place between Bishop Wilberforce and TH Huxley. We begin a three-part series where we look at Darwin’s theory of human evolution and the reaction of Marx and Engels to it.
    The Origin of Species (1859) was, arguably, the most shattering book of the 19th century, and Darwin’s most famous book. It was not, of course, his only book, nor was it the one in which he dealt with the evolution of the human species, even though it sparked off the “Man’s place in nature” debate. In fact, it took Darwin just over 11 years to publish his first book on the human species, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). Yet it did not have the same social impact as The Origin, and it is unlikely that the same celebratory hoopla will accompany its 150th anniversary in 2021.

    Unlike The Origin, there is no evidence that either Marx or Engels bought a copy or even read The Descent, as there are no references to it in their collected works. However, the fact that Engels continued to discuss Darwin and Darwinian literature, especially in the context of German socialism, most importantly in Anti-Dühring (1878), and wrote the uncompleted The Role of Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man in 1876 (he broke off the work in order to write Anti-Dühring, which makes extensive references to Darwin), shows that he kept up an interest in at least some of Darwin’s later writings.

    Darwin on Human Descent
    The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex was published on the 24 February 1871, in two large volumes, at around 700 pages in length, and selling at 24 shillings (The Origin cost 15 shillings). The first print run was of 2,500 copies (compared to 1,250 for The Origin), increasing to 4,500 by the end of March, and 7,500 by the end of the year.

    The Descent was the first of Darwin’s works to deal with the human species, and was followed in 1872 by The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. Originally, Darwin had planned to discuss emotions in The Descent, but, as with much of his work, the material on it just piled up and required a separate volume. The only other published work dealing with humans was A Biographical Sketch of an Infant. This was published in Mind, the first psychology journal, and was based on observations of his first child, his son William (affectionately called Doddy) carried out 37 years earlier.

    This latter fact shows that Darwin had from the beginning included human beings in the scheme for his big book on Natural Selection (The Origin was only an abstract of this proposed big book) and it would not be something he needed to think anew for The Descent. In 1839 he had written:
    "Looking at Man, as a Naturalist would any other Mammiferous animal, it may be concluded that he has parental, conjugal and social instincts, and perhaps others. The history of every race of man shows this, if we judge him by his habits, as another animal. These instincts consist of a feeling of love (& sympathy) or benevolence to the object in question. Without regarding their origin, we see in other animals they consist in such active sympathy that the individual forgets itself & aids & defends & acts for others at his own expense." (cited in White and Griffin Darwin: A Life in Science, 1995, p.248)
    Publish and Be Damned!
    The application of natural selection to the human species would be the ynchpin in the argument against critics, and it is likely that, as with other criticisms he rehearsed before the publication of The Origin, he would be aware that any failure to meet his critics would be fatal to the future of the concept of natural selection as a naturalistic explanation. So rather than being a late issue in the debate, Darwin saw it as being a necessary foundation from the very beginning of his studies.

    Nevertheless, Darwin was famously reluctant to include the human species in The Origin. Even in 1857 (22 December), he wrote to Alfred Russel Wallace about his reluctance to write about human evolution:
    "You ask whether I shall discuss Man; I think I shall avoid the whole subject, as so surrounded with prejudices, though I fully admit that it is the highest and most interesting problem for the naturalist."
    In The Origin, he famously wrote that the application of natural selection to human kind would be possible only in the far future:
    "In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researchers.... Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” (Darwin On the Origin of Species, 1859; Penguin edition, 1968, p. 458)
    But although he didn’t discuss the human species, everybody knew he did. His readers were from the very beginning eager to jump the species gap. It was the human implications of natural selection that they were keen to discuss. Whilst it took Darwin until 1871, by which time the heat of the controversy had cooled somewhat, to publish his views on human evolution in the two volume The Descent, others were not so reticent.

    Unwilling or unable to defend his position, or the all too obvious implications of it, in the bear-pit of public debate, Darwin left it to his bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley, to defend the theory from religious onslaught. Barely six months after the publication of The Origin, the famous British Association debate between Huxley and Bishop Samuel (Soapy Sam) Willberforce took place in Oxford on 30 June, 1860. It was here that Huxley brilliantly replied to Willberforce’s snide query as to whether Huxley was descended from an ape on his father’s side or his mother’s side, by retorting that he would rather have an ape for a grandfather than a man who misused his gifts to obscure scientific discussion by rhetoric and religious prejudice.

    By the time Darwin came to publish The Descent, a number of others had already dealt with the issue of human origins: Huxley, Haeckel, Lubbock, Galton, Wallace, Tyndall, and Bagehot. But the Master had not spoken and the public were keen for him to make his pronouncements and settle the matter. Darwin dreaded this expectation. It is not improbable to think that he was glad that others has spoken first (and perhaps too hastily and without adequate evidence), but at least they had taken the first mad hail of flak. By now, some of the heat had been taken out of the battle, and there might be less anger directed his way. However, he knew he was going to be on the receiving end of some fury. As he wrote in a letter to St George Mivart, "Whenever I publish my book I can see that I shall meet with universal disapprobation, if not execution."And at Christmas 1870 he told Batholemew Sullivan that The Descent “would disgust you & many others.” But after 11 years he was ready to show the world his views on the human species. However, even the political climate seemed against him. Radicals and agitators were causing problems and Darwin feared he might be depicted as a black-caped anarchist.

    Darwin’s fear of all hell breaking loose on him was not confirmed. To his relieved surprise, the reviews were muted. It seemed that the other Darwinians had successfully shifted the reading public towards acceptance of the evolution of the human species.

    What he included in The Descent was to some degree conditioned by what his supporters had written earlier. In particular, unlike Huxley, who had dealt only with human physiological evolution, Darwin wanted to discuss the origins of some of the mental and moral faculties of humans in terms of natural selection. This was necessary as a riposte to what Wallace, especially, had said in his articles of 1864 and 1870. Wallace had come to the conclusion that whilst natural selection could account for human bodily development, it could not do so for human mental development and the brain. To explain human mental development, Wallace resorted to the idea that humans were endowed with mind by an unseen spiritual power. Such a position was anathema to Darwin and he had written to Wallace saying that he feared that he might have murdered their child (that is, natural selection). It was, therefore, essential for Darwin to show that natural selection could account for human intellectual and moral features, without the resort to some ineffable “unseen spirit.”

    Wallace did in fact have a good enough reason to believe that the human mind had raised humans above all other animals, ensuring that they were not subject to the Malthusian hell that would later frighten and disgust Huxley in his lectures on Evolution and Ethics (1893). For Wallace it was the human ability to create objects that would compensate for any natural weaknesses in dealing with the struggle for existence. In some respects, this difference is similar to that recognised by Marx and Engels, but they dealt with it materialistically rather than by an idealistic unseen spirit. (while Wallace became a believer in spiritualism).
    Ed Blewitt
    Next month: Marx’s criticism of the ideology of “Darwinism”.

    Saturday, June 19, 2010

    Hypocrisy Exposed (2005)


    Book Review from the December 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Simon Schama: Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution. BBC Books

    Forget Schama the TV historian - this is a solid piece of research into a sordid piece of British and American history from the late 18th and early 19th century. The European colonists in America rebelled against their British rulers, leading to the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

    This was the period of slavery and the slave trade, and many black slaves (and 'free' blacks) saw through American protestations about liberty and supported the loyalist (i.e. British) side. Some black people fought on the patriot (American) side, though slaves were excluded from the American army and giving arms to any black people was anathema to many, especially in the south.

    But once Britain had been defeated, the question arose of what would happen to these black 'loyalists'. Some escaped slaves were recaptured by their owners, but most managed to avoid this dire fate and were given certificates by the British commandant of New York, stating that they were free to go where they wished (i.e. they were no longer slaves and subject to the orders of their owner).

    In 1783 many loyalists, both white and black, were shipped off to Nova Scotia to start a new life. But the 3,500 black settlers there were subject to appalling discrimination, being always last in line for such things as food supplies and allotment of land. Consequently, many of the former slaves travelled (in some cases, returned) to Africa, specifically to what later became Freetown in Sierra Leone.

    Under the initially somewhat paternalistic regime of the Sierra Leone Company, they attempted to establish a settlement of their own where they could produce their own crops and trade with local chiefs. In principle, everything was run democratically, with each head of household having a vote, including women. Says Schama, 'the first women to cast their votes for any kind of public office anywhere in the world were black, liberated slaves who had chosen British freedom'.

    But this freedom was illusory: in 1800 the black residents of Freetown rebelled against mistreatment but were savagely put down, by a Company army partly consisting of Maroons (former Jamaican slaves who now fought on the British side). Two of the leaders were hanged.

    Schama effectively exposes the hypocrisy of the rulers on both sides. The British government scoffed at the Americans' pretensions to freedom while owning other human beings, and Americans condemned a system where the poorest inhabitants of British cities were little better than slaves. He also brings out the courage and tenacity of slaves and ex- slaves who fought for some dignity in their lives.
    Paul Bennett

    Blow-out

    The Pathfinders column from the June 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    The deep-water blow-out currently gushing gigantic quantities of crude into the Gulf of Mexico threatens at the time of writing to be the biggest environmental disaster in US history, and already the blame slick is reaching into every inlet and niche of government and the oil industry.

    The fact that there could conceivably be industrial disasters in socialism means that, for socialists, the big question is how we would manage affairs better. What, if anything, would a democratic, communally-managed global society do different?

    In the first place, we would have to ask whether we are really so desperate for oil that we are willing to maintain an industry now recognised as one of the most dangerous in the world. In a moneyless society, who would volunteer to risk their lives, when other sources of energy remain untapped, unexplored or undeveloped? There have been 858 fires and explosions, and 55 deaths, in the Gulf since 2001, yet new drilling licences have been granted every year by the hundreds. Many of these, like the one BP got for Deepwater Horizon, are a ‘categorical exclusion’ exempting the operator from scrutiny by the Environmental Protection Agency and intended only for projects where environmental damage in the event of failure is expected to be ‘minimal or non-existent’ (New Scientist, 15 May).

    Even supposing that socialism could not break the addiction to oil, a very large supposition indeed and one too great to explore here, the question arises whether as a responsible collective we would dare push the drilling technology to its limits and well beyond our knowledge and ability to recover from a catastrophic failure. What is striking about this affair is the lack of preparedness shown by all parties. The Gulf spill is at nearly twice the depth required to crush a Navy submarine, making direct human intervention impossible. The blow-out preventer failed. The huge 125 tonne containment dome failed. The robot-teams trying to shut off the valves failed. The secondary drilling shaft may work but will take another two months. The ‘plume’ problem was not anticipated. The injection of dispersant at the well-head had never been tried, and may have contributed to the plume problem. Even the amount of oil coming out has been consistently underestimated, with BP at first playing for a safe 1,000 barrels a day, then later revising this to 5,000 while independent researchers estimate between 5 and 14 times as much as this (Guardian, 17 May).

    BP have been criticised already for this downplaying and reluctance to provide information, but it’s easy to see their motives. In socialism there would be no stock market share-price to consider, or corporate image to protect, or litigation to avoid, all of it leading to a tendency to talk down the scale of the disaster and be tight-lipped with information in the interests of damage limitation. BP stock prices have fallen sharply, its ‘green’ image is in tatters, and already over a hundred lawsuits in Louisiana have been consolidated into a class action which will sue BP for hundreds of millions, a figure itself dwarfed by the cleanup costs which BP are of course trying to offload onto the Swiss company Transocean who ran the Deepwater Horizon rig.

    “It is incumbent upon us to inform all of our neighbours, not just the islands, but those countries that could be affected by disasters that happen within our territorial waters”, says the US State Department (BBC Online, 19 May). Perhaps pro-capitalists will miss the irony here but socialists certainly won’t. In socialism these neighbours would have been consulted, and the risks made known, before any drilling went ahead, not merely informed after a disaster they had no say in preventing.

    It is also not likely that, given consultation, socialist engineers would ignore or overlook published research which anticipated all the above problems. A report in 2000 revealed that blow-out preventers (BOPs) might fail at depths of a mile or more, causing catastrophic pollution. BP and Transocean can scarcely say they didn’t know this, as they co-authored the report (New Scientist, 15 May). The problem of deepwater ‘plumes’, where oil and water emulsify into gigantic underwater columns which never reach the surface and therefore cannot be contained by any known surface collection methods, may have astonished local oceanographers in the Gulf but was already known from experiments off Norway in 2000 (New Scientist, 22 May).

    It is also vanishingly unlikely that socialist society would entrust such drilling to an operational team found responsible (BP were fined $87m plus a further $50m to settle criminal charges) for 270 safety violations which led to 15 deaths in an explosion in 2005. And in another court judgment in Texas in December 2009 BP were fined $100m and branded ‘serial polluters’.

    The cost of the cleanup plus litigation to BP is estimated at between $1 – 2bn , but this has to be set against the year’s profit BP is expected to make from its drilling operations of around $20bn, so even in a worst case scenario it’s still cheaper for BP to pay out for cleaning up and court costs than avoid the disasters in the first place. In fact, BP is cleaning up in more senses than one.
    And what of the future, now that the US government is aiming to raise the corporate liability cap from $75m to $10bn? The likelihood is that deepwater drilling will move to fields with no such regulations. One recent find off the Falklands is a case in point, and in waters three times deeper than the site of the current spill. The mind can only boggle at what will happen if a drilling operation there suffers a similar blow-out.

    Socialism, and its productive and extractive processes, will be driven primarily by consideration of human need, and the way to define and then provide that need will be one of socialist society’s most pressing debates. In capitalism there are no such concerns. It follows the money, wherever it leads, even into the depths of hell, while human society and the environment inevitably get dragged down with it.

    Socialist Meeting in London: Class struggle and climate change

    Socialist Party public meeting

    "Class struggle and climate change - the politics of personal consumption."

    "We keep being told, these days, to reduce, re-use and recycle, to cut down on the meat, the car, the pets and the foreign holidays, to turn down, switch off, unplug and stand-by. The moral pressure-front of climate change is firmly upon us, yet when we take a look at the figures we find that the domestic share of consumption and waste is a small part of the overall picture, and that the lion's share is neither in our control nor even in the control of governments. It is in the hands of the tiny percentage of the Earth's population whom luck or inheritance have made into the super-rich. These are the people defecating on the global doorstep and then blaming the rest of us for the smell.

    It's enough to make any class-conscious worker spit and say to hell with recycling. But that would be a big mistake."

    Speaker: Paddy Shannon

    Saturday, June 19th

    6pm

    The Socialist Party Head Office,

    52 Clapham High Street,

    London SW4 7UN.

    (nearest tubes: Clapham North and Clapham Common.)

    Website: SPGB

    Email: spgb@worldsocialism.org

    Socialism Or Your Money Back Blog

    Arty capitalist (2001)


    Book Review from the February 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Supercollector: A Critique of Charles Saatchi. By Rita Hatton & John A. Walker (Ellipsis: London, 2000).
    This book is frustrating to say the least, due mainly to the authors' naïve, sub-Trotskyite standpoint. However, it still gives quite a useful overview both of Charles Saatchi as a "super-collector" and of capitalism's ongoing relationship with art in general.

    Saatchi, better known perhaps as a high-flying advertising guru, is described as someone who, as a player on the art market, "could be said to have taken control of the means of production and distribution". This indeed seems to be the case, as his influence on contemporary art is immense. He is someone with the means to buy, show, advertise and sell art in vast quantities. It can even be said that the ludicrously named "young British art" (yBa) movement (if you can call it that) "was possibly the first movement to be created by a collector". The way it all works is described thus:
    "By seeking out new art before it became well known and expensive, Charles and Doris Saatchi were able to buy it relatively cheaply. If and when it increased in value they could re-sell it and use the profits to buy yet more new, cheap art . . . The beauty of the scheme . . . was that the increase in fame and monetary value of the art they had acquired was due in part to the very fact that they had bought it and—once they had a gallery of their own—exhibited it and memorialised it in catalogues" (p. 121).
    Art buyers may be investment managers who need never actually see the artwork in question—the market value and the likelihood of it holding or increasing its value is the important thing rather than any aesthetic qualities. Works of art tend to hold their value well even in times of recession so they will always be a good punt for the anxious capitalist investor. The very fact that Saatchi has been seen to buy work by a particular artist is one way in which it is signalled that work by this individual is "valuable" and therefore worth buying. For producers of art then it became important to get noticed by a big-time buyer and reseller like Saatchi if their work was to become saleable. It became advantageous then for artists to produce work that fitted the profile of the stuff he and others had been buying—producing art entirely to meet prevailing market demand. Until that is the super-collector finds something else "new" and "sensational" which he can buy into cheap, exhibit and sell at a profit. The views of one art critic, Robert Hughes, are summarised like this:
    "To meet the demand for so many shows in cities around the world ... fashionable artists ... are compelled to raise productivity and operate on almost an industrial scale"(p. 79).
    Industrial capitalist relations between buyer and seller of labour demand industrial methods to keep up with demand for the commodity. It could be argued that this has been reflected in the sort of art that has been produced lately, especially in Britain. We hear for example of Damien Hirst's Some Comfort Gained from the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything; a piece of work consisting of two cows sliced into 12 parts and preserved in glass and steel cases which Charles Saatchi bought for $400,000 in 1996. No doubt abattoir workers may be wondering how the "artistic process" behind this piece differs from what they have to do day-in, day-out. This is an important point as "conceptual" art like this is just that: a "concept" thought up by an artist, who will then often hire other people to actually make it.

    Piles of bricks, bits of cow or heaps of electrical goods (such as Turner Prize-nominated Tomoko Takahashi's Line-Out) are basically everyday objects which have been recycled as "art" and given a massive price tag. Essentially we all know that there is no difference between Tracy Emin's unmade bed and our own, other than that one is labelled "conceptual art" and worth a fortune and the other is an unmade bed. This sort of stuff can be produced quickly though, which is no doubt why it has proved so popular with the art market. The most striking thing about conceptual art is probably the lack of concepts. At best the ideas that inspire much of it seem to be superficial poses, and the almost total lack of any bodies of theory or ideology behind the recent art "movements" is surely a testament to this. An interesting point this book does make is that of the links between conceptual art and advertising (the two fields with which Charles Saatchi is personally associated). Both aim at instant impact, sensation or controversy and both do so to sell a product and mask a total lack of real substance or meaning.
    Ben Malcolm

    Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain 149

    Dear Friends,

    Welcome to the 149th our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

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    The battle of ideas (1999)

    Editorial from the August 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

    We really know very little about the complex process by which people become socialists. But we do know that advocates of socialism and supporters of capitalism are very far from entering a level playing field. There are powerful social forces that combine to keep the present system going. The schools and universities teach us, subtly and sometimes not so subtly, that buying and selling, handling money, seeking employment, voting for leaders every few years, thinking in national terms, and so on, are all part of the "real world" in which we live.

    The newspapers and journals we read don't need screaming headlines urging us to choose capitalism—their "news", features and advertising unite in assuming a capitalist world. The TV programmes, films and videos we watch and the radio programmes we listen to are similarly slanted. We are sometimes entertained by sagas from pre-capitalist times, but never stimulated by scenes depicting a possible socialist future. The books we read, whether fiction or non-fiction, are overwhelmingly non-political, which means they carry the covert message: "Don't even think about changing the system—better still, don't even think there is a system." Even the theatre, whose plays occasionally feature ideas that socialist reviewers can relate to, is routinely a place where our imagination is invited to venture no further than the bounds of private property society.

    In a world of conformist and consumerist education, mass media, popular culture and entertainment, can we expect conversations between individuals to be any different—perhaps less capitalistic, maybe on a higher plane? We can expect, but we shall be surely disappointed. In the family circle, among friends or neighbours, on the way to work, at work, at play, you can hear variations on a sadly small number of themes. The talk is topical and predictable. It emanates largely from the media: what we saw on the box, what we heard on the radio, what we read in the paper. The antics of our leaders or the royals, what numbers won the lottery, how the match was won or lost, what's in fashion, the latest crime, what's good for the "economy" (even the skint may regurgitate views on that last one).

    If capitalism relied on the support of capitalists to keep it going it wouldn't last a day. It is kept going by the ideas and behaviour of workers. Most of the population—not socialists, of course—passively and sometimes actively participate in their own exploitation. Socialists living in capitalism are exploited but strongly object to being so—and we do all we can to explain to others the nature of this exploitation and the way to end it.

    Wednesday, June 16, 2010

    Socialism and freedom of thought (1984)

    From the November 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Like it or not, this is George Orwell's year and Big Sister is watching us. Is what we are writing prohibited? Are we indulging in crimethink? Well, Orwell's Newspeak, the systematic reform of language making impossible any thoughts dangerous to the state, has not come about, even though under Thatcherspeak any criticism of the leader is out of order. So how free are your thoughts, comrades and enemies?

    Exploiting freedom
    For the working class freedom of thought is no problem. Across machines on the shop floor, around the coffee vendors and over the counters the working class of Britain freely express their views on all the personalities in the news, using what was described by Orwell as the filthiest language in the world. Amid the current debate over whether the media prescribes upper class culture to the masses or distortedly reflects working class culture, it's the really vulgar piss-takes of our betters that grab me. In a world where humour was a hundred per cent effective Orwell's observation would have been true - the antidote to an army of goose-stepping jackboots is a laughing raspberry. But it is not so. The unorganised and undisciplined freedom of thought displayed by the working class presents no problem to the democratic capitalist states (although it may be.a problem to the states Orwell called totalitarian); it just becomes institutionalised in risque comedy and semi-legal journals like Private Eye. Revolt is respectable when it makes money by the normal channels.

    Anything goes then. Except that the protestor may often lament:

    "Look what they've done to my song,
    It's the only thing' I ever did half right
    And it's turning out all wrong!"
    Orwell's problem
    What's it like on our side of the fence? The enemy of free thought may not only be the state; it may be imposed from within and come with the acceptance of a political allegiance. This was Orwell's problem. Since 1934, he said, everything I've written has been for democratic socialism and against totalitarianism. When Animal Farm was in the press he described it to a friend as a squib that was politically not okay. Insofar as Animal Farm parodies the Russian revolution it was okay by Orwell's political preference for democracy and the milk and water of the ILP. But if taken to suggest that any change in the capitalist farmyard is doomed to failure and corruption, then it is not okay, neither by Orwell nor by us. However taken, the maxim of the creative writer (also of the muck-raking hack) is "publish and be damned". Orwell's feeling was that the creative springs of a writer dried up in the pursuit of a party line. He was not alone. Barltrop, writing in The Monument, puts into the mouth of ex-socialist Bob Reynolds the saying, "Bah! You can't think in Organisations!" Yet it is easy to find many writers for whom the opposite is true.

    While writing the anarchic and cynical poetry of The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot was putting together his notes on the possibility of poetic drama; concluding that such a thing was impossible without a central directing mythology shared by the writer and an audience. A decade or so later he was received into the Anglican church and realised his poetic drama in Murder in the Cathedral and Four Quartets - manifestly better poetry than his earlier work, although in content drivel to we unbelievers.
    In an era before party politics Shakespeare toed the line of patriotism and reverence for monarchy. His work is shot through with gorgeous bombast about the nation and the holiness of the crown that ruled it. Indeed, many of his major plays lose their coherence if you discount his line. Contrarily, the puritans in revolt against kingship produced a flood of literature and their heir John Milton wrote at least two books of very powerful blank verse about imaginary characters in the wildest setting. There were then at least three committed individuals who could write.

    Roads to freedom
    Neither current nor historical examples suffice to help you decide on this question of free thought versus political allegiance. It is something all writers must try for themselves and may not even be easy to identify, as it is possible to mistake the drying of the creative spring for political caution in the pen. Orwell's solution to the problem may be helpful here.

    From early on Orwell's journalism has a strong political slant; but his novels of the period are, on his own admission, mostly potboilers with slight political orientation. His political and creative writings were divorced from each other. Not only this. When you examine Orwell's essays and journalism up to 1945 you find an incredible mixture of way out Trotskyism alongside outrageous nationalism. Orwell welcomes revolt in the streets and blood running down the gutters, then asserts that "England, my England!" does more than bring a lump to our throats, for:
    "The suet puddings and the red pillar boxes have eaten into your soul and this side of the grave you will not escape the marks they have left upon you."
    Orwell's creative and political writings are in tension here, as are his personal politics. He is a professed democratic socialist who writes turgid novels with slight political significance and he is a professed patriot who writes political essays in favour of violent insurrection for the good of the country. Orwell obviously wanted to change society, but was unclear as to how to do it and feared the consequences. So he wrote about socialism gone wrong. His tensions were resolved with the writing of Animal Farm and 1984.

    I do not wish to impute this to Orwell as the only motive for his writing, but offer it as a plausible analysis to introduce the questions which a real socialist in the SPGB faces over freedom of thought.

    Class freedom
    The social preoccupations of writers may lead them to concentrate on the conditions of work in a particular industry, as with Zola's Debacle and Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Other writers may be so little concerned with social matters as to write novels almost wholly devoted to the internal lives of the characters they have created, Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse is an instance. Writers who are concerned with the internal troubles of their own creatures are obviously "free" to write as they wish; but as their focus is away from the social and on to the individual it is likely they will take the current social arrangements for granted and strive for a fit between society and characters at odds with the world. Some of Pinter's plays display this focus and development. The freedom of such writing is often scorned as "bourgeois freedom", because such writers are apt (precisely when they are most free) to reproduce unreflectively the prejudice of an age.

    A marriage of these two concerns is possible. Franz Kafka conducted his bewildered characters through such a complicated parody of East European society in the 1920s as to fuse the social and the internal into the life of The Castle. Writers concerned with social conditions, and particularly those who work from a committed position, deliberately restrict themselves as to subject and so are unfree. But they can temper their unfreedom, especially when they are concerned to push society in a certain direction. For the revolution which they seek - once set in motion - will endow their work with prophetic and revolutionary powers. It will have been about future society.

    The committed writer in the SPGB works for the freedom of a class and claims that, with the emancipation of the working class, all reactionary utopias will cease to have any dynamic meaning. For the creative writer it is a matter of weighing up the importance of projects. The project of socialism is by definition social, the project of the writer is by definition individual. At the social and democratic level you have a right to hold views when the majority are swayed by them, if not then your individual view is subordinate to the majority, always assuming that time and consciousness will produce a socialist revolution. At the individual and creative levet you have a right to any view, always assuming that time and consciousness will turn your creation embodying those views into "literature". Which, then, is most important to you?

    Socialist freedom
    In practice the focus which socialism gives to a writer may hardly be felt by some, but may seem very intrusive to others. Members of our party have written plays for children, fairy stories, revenge novels, linguistic philosophy, articles in women's magazines and technical stuff, in addition to political comment. Some, by adopting another persona, even get a sort of living out of fiction with a social twist. A few find intolerable the need to watch for deviations from the party line when writing what they really think, so they leave us, convinced that the party is 'a dictatorship over thought. Which is a pity. Writing for socialism is not in principle different from writing within a genre - as with the Spenserian stanza or the five act play - in each case you strive for an effect within a form. But neither the existence of free-floating discussion in consciousness-raising groups, nor the success of formless literature such as some of the Beckett plays prove that socialists will multiply if we relax and open our columns to the querulous. Outlets for socially aware writing of uncertain political direction are many, but there is only one Socialist Standard and we are determined to keep it free from non-socialist thought.
    B.K. McNeeney

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010

    Massive reform programme (2010)


    Book Review from the June 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    The Real Venezuela – Making Socialism in the 21st Century. By Iain Bruce, Pluto Press 2008

    Venezuela, since Chavez, has been both hailed as champion of the poor and underclasses and also excoriated by leaders of the global capitalist hegemony. In this book Bruce takes no side but over a period of several years and a number of visits to various parts of the country – urban, rural, factories and farms – he has interviewed 'ordinary folk' involved in co-operative initiatives ranging from the workplace to community planning, land reform and literacy programmes.

    Throughout Bruce attempts to discover if the reality of various initiatives lives up to the rhetoric by comparing plans discussed at earlier visits to any noticeable changes several months or two or three years later, and, as would be expected, his findings are mixed. Whilst adult illiteracy was eliminated in a relatively short time and vast improvements in health care have been afforded to all by means of the Health Mission involving 20,000 Cuban medical staff, bringing visible, tangible changes especially to the poorest, some other workplace initiatives have floundered. Bruce offers a number of explanations for these failures later in the book after further investigation following up on his earlier interviews.

    A recurring theme, endogenous development, (development created from within the country; Chavez - “if we want to put an end to poverty we have to give power to the poor”) is referred to as being one of the building blocks of the revolution, “socialism for the 21st century”. The call to empower the poor in opposition to the IMF's view is manifest in the idea that spending on the poor is seen not as an expense but as an investment; education being a tool of empowerment so that those previously “buried in silence, obscurity and neglect have suddenly emerged” and become “protagonists both of their own individual stories and of the nation's collective drama”.

    As Bruce points out, all around the world, especially in the last 50 years, the poorest communities with almost no resources and few formal skills have constructed and installed infrastructure for themselves with no official help. Barrios, slums, shanty towns, call them what you will, in cities such as Jakarta, Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg and Caracas, communities housing millions and millions of the world's poorest – not helpless and passive as often claimed, but proactive and self-reliant and most of whom are underemployed and/or work in the informal sector, all of this revealing a history of self-organisation.

    The chapter on 'Democracy at Work' gives an account of the attempt at a “radical extension of democracy” at Venezuela's second biggest aluminium plant ALCASA which was “intended to be a test-bed and catalyst for a much wider change”. He lays out the history, the hopes, the set-backs, the workings of co-management, the divisions of labour, the participatory budget and the aim of spreading this model to other factories. Carlos Lanz, the president of ALCASA in 2005 was interviewed at length and he spoke of how the criteria of quality and efficiency would have to change and that to traditional indicators of efficiency and effectiveness would have to be added other categories such as social and environmental pertinence or appropriateness. “Profitability and growth, per se, are not the objective, but human development is.”

    Two years later one of ALCASA's activists explained some of the failures to Bruce, citing that ALCASA was an isolated example and a reminder that, “if you can't build socialism in a single country then you certainly can't build it in a single factory”. The overwhelming challenge facing any part of this move towards 'socialism for the 21st century' is that Venezuela is bogged down by the logic of capitalism and although there are many efforts to encourage and instil the alternative logic they are forever met with the incompatibility and antagonisms of the two systems.

    In some areas Bruce notes examples of great achievements from communal councils including one where a mayor closed down his social development department because “the community has shown that they are running it better”, and there are many inspiring accounts of successful outcomes to community-inspired initiatives. However, it must be stated that many of the challenges faced by this ongoing attempt to transform society come from being entrenched in a monetary system which continues to allow ample opportunity for graft and corruption, pre-established managers and bureaucrats wanting to hold on to their privileges and mafia-like organisations intent on keeping a hold on their share of the spoils.

    All the way through the book, in the examples cited of substantial success, partial success or abject failure, the challenges relate directly or indirectly to the fact that products still have to be bought and sold, imported and exported to meet the requirements of the market and trying to set up an alternative logic of production continually clashes with the logic of capitalism. There is no mention from individuals interviewed or encountered in this book of abolishing money either sooner or later but there is recognition that there is still a long way to go and according to Bruce at the time of writing, mid-2008: “It looked as if it could go either way.”

    We may judge the current stage of proceedings as being a massive reform programme but there are those who truly believe there are real possibilities for socialism here. In any case there are both cautionary tales and positive examples well worth discussing.
    Janet Surman

    Thursday, June 10, 2010

    The “tesco-isation” of charity

    Some charities, such as the NSPCC, are now run as businesses.

    Every Little Helps

    While nineteenth century writers like Charles Dickens and Charles Kingsley were questioning its institutional morality the law held that it was an offence to be cruel to animals but not to children. Indeed, when the law was eventually changed the first prosecution had to be brought by the RSPCA and to describe the victim as “a small animal” because that – as distinct from “a small child” – was the sole description then recognised in law. Contributing to the impetus for change was the foundation in Liverpool in 1883 and later in London of a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children which in 1889 became a National Society, with branches across Great Britain and Ireland. It was in that year that the first Act, commonly known as “the children's charter”, passed through Parliament, making child cruelty an arrestable offence, establishing guidelines on the employment of children and – perhaps not so welcome – outlawing begging. Since then the NSPCC (although officially it has a royal charter it has kept the “National” in its title to prevent confusion with the RSPCA) has carried on a persistent struggle in one of the more distressing – and persistent – areas of society.

    Charity

    At present it runs something like 180 local projects working to raise public consciousness about child cruelty, to provide support to families where the stresses of survival may erupt into frustrations which are taken out on the children and to intervene in cases when active abuse has been identified. There is also a telephone helpline and an on-line service offering advice and information. Among its most successful ventures has been the Full Stop campaign, with its harrowing images of neglected and battered children, which raised a total of £250 million during the eight years up to 2007. Overall the NSPCC's income during 2009 was £150 million of which £116 million came from donations.

    But this is 2010; British capitalism is in the throes of an historically damaging slump when the financiers and the manipulators who lurk in advertising and public relations are keen to advise anyone they think is in need of their uniquely brilliant recipe for survival. The Tory MP Gerald Howarth has called the NSPCC “completely incompetent” – although this could be his response to their pushing too competently for the reduction of the homosexual age of consent to 16. Not surprisingly Fathers4Justice has chimed in, with accusations of promoting a “portrayal of men as violent abusers” – and has emphasised its point by a brief invasion of the Society's headquarters. Most tellingly, doubts have been expressed about the Full Stop campaign actually being of benefit to any children. Analysts have been picking over the bones of all this and it seems they have diagnosed a need to go with the swing and so have prescribed a new, exciting Brand NSPCC.

    Marketing

    The last Chief Executive of the NSPCC was Dame Mary Marsh, who held the job between 2000 and 2009. Before that she was in school headships, including at the then trendy Holland Park in London. During her time at the NSPCC it trebled its income and launched Full Stop. After which, it seemed, she decided to re-invent herself as founding director of the Clore Social Leadership Programme whose name largely speaks for itself and for its intended role in what Dame Mary calls “the third sector”.

    In rather different style she also became a non-executive director of the massive HSBC Bank. Coming after her was Andrew Flanagan, whose experience of organisations like the NSPCC was practically nil. But he brought other prospects for he has a definite pedigree in media and marketing, including ten years as chief executive at Scotland's biggest media firm SMG where he was in charge of the company's takeover of Virgin radio and of Ginger Productions, owned by the allegedly “talented” Chris Evans. Flanagan says at the time he was (unfortunate phrase) “looking for something to get my teeth into” and he found the offer of the top job at the NSPCC “hard to resist”, the meaning of which he is happy to elaborate on: “...Things are going to be a lot tougher... The board felt someone with business skills might be better able to steer it through...there was great enthusiasm (in the NSPCC) and deep passion for the cause but business had perhaps more to offer in terms of in innovation and efficiency”.

    Workers who once earned their living at the mothballed Corus steel plant or in the derelict motor factories in the Midlands would have learned the true meaning of that ominous phrase. Those who toil and worry about protecting vulnerable children might not have been so prescient.

    Closures

    It did not take long for the meaning of “innovation and efficiency” to become apparent. Something over 40 NSPCC projects will be closed across the country, including the newest treatment and therapeutic facility in Bath. Another victim will be at Barrow, which was established after local people raised £180,000 to fund a branch there, and where a Face Book – Save Safe NSPCC Barrow – attracted well over 1,000 friends. A joint letter by Flanagan and the NSPCC chairman in the Guardian of 19 February 2010 asserted that the planned closures will allow for new services which will “focus on priority areas of abuse”. One aspect of this “focus” has resulted in the closure of the Society's final salary pension fund, with its attendant threat to the living standards of retired workers. It brings to mind the phrase used by Iain Duncan Smith, ex-Tory leader who recovered from his spell as one of John Major's Eurosceptic “bastards” to take charge of David Cameron's Social Justice Policy Group, that there has to be a process of “Tescoisation” of charity organisations. Which will mean running Child Protection Services as a retail business, keeping a strict eye on costs, competition and prices – and getting rid of redundant workers. Except that there will be no Club Card rebates and that every little will not count.

    Redundancy

    Which leads us to the matter of redundancy. The word means superfluous, no longer needed. How does this concept fit in with child cruelty? Has the problem reduced so that children are safe enough not to justify any organised support and observation? In December 2007 a NSPCC statement, based on Home Office information, showed that there is no cause for complacency. Although there is some yearly fluctuation in the figures for known incidence of child homicide, the overall rate in England and Wales has stayed roughly similar since the 1970s. Each week one to two children are killed by another person and each week at least one child dies from cruelty. Every ten days in England and Wales one child is killed at the hands of the parents. Among those figures are some of the most horrifying, sickening examples of children dying after prolonged suffering – of repression, neglect and violence. Like Maria Colwell, beaten to death by her stepfather in 1973 – which enforced the recognition of non-accidental injury of children as major social problem. Which did not save Victoria Climbié, battered and starved, in 2001, Peter Connolly in 2007, savagely beaten over a long period and more recently Khyra Ishaq whose parents starved her and her siblings until her death exposed what was happening in that appalling house. After each such tragedy the gutter press wallow in hypocrisy, ministers roll out meticulously worded statements and appoint an enquiry chaired by some superannuated judge or senior civil servant. There is a bulky report which concludes with assurances that “lessons have been learned ... measures will be put in place so that this does not happen again“. But “this” does happen again – a fact which suggests that the problem is being viewed from the wrong direction.

    Poverty

    An article in the British Journal of General Practice for 1 September 2008, written by Jane Roberts, a GP in Easington Co. Durham, the “most deprived ward in the (Primary Care) Trust” reviewed some of the evidence that child cruelty, while not exclusive to any socio-economic group (there are examples of some pretty awful treatment to the children of very rich families) has a perceptible link with poverty. Easington has four times as many children on their child protection register as Durham, the richest ward in the Trust. This local example is typical of the wider situation. A 2008 NSPCC report on child abuse commented that “...most children on child protection registers are from low-income families and the most commonly identified stress factors in all registered cases of child abuse are unemployment and debt, which are closely related to poverty”. The report then quoted a conclusion (which must have been deflating for them) of the University of York's (Living With Hardship 24/7, November 2007), that “...we will not end cruelty to children without ending child poverty”.

    But this conclusion, depressing as it is, needs to be seen in proportion. If poverty is the basis of the maltreatment of children, where and to what effect does poverty originate? We have had too many assurances to deal with it, like Blair's florid pledge to lead a government whose “...historic aim will be for ours to be the first generation to end child poverty” to give any weight to them. A great many motivated people devote themselves to palliating, unrewarding work in this field. But poverty is too complex, too staminal; it is the ground where masses of social sickness flourish – brutality to children, crime, alienation, disease...And so it will remain for as long a society is tolerated which rends its people into two opposing classes, based on the privileges or denial of ownership. Every little helps is not enough. The cure of child abuse has to begin with massive historical change.

    Ivan

    Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain 148

    Dear Friends,

    Welcome to the 148th our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

    We now have 1569 friends!

    Recent blogs:

  • Yours for World Socialism
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  • Left Unity
  • Quote for the week:

    "For nearly 40 years we have raised to prominence the idea of the class struggle as the immediate driving force of history, and particularly the class struggle between bourgeois and the proletariat as the great lever of the modern social revolution; ... At the founding of the International, we expressly formulated the battle cry: The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself." Marx and Engels, Strategy and Tactics of the Class Struggle, 1879.

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    How shall we vote?

    From the June 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Part of the deal for the Tory-LibDem coalition government is that there’s to be a referendum on electoral reform. But is electoral reform really necessary?

    We might as well give our answer straightaway: No, it isn't. A majority seeking to replace capitalism by socialism only requires one thing of an electoral system under capitalism – that it should allow a majority opinion to reflect itself as a majority of seats in parliament. Socialists are not interested in whether the system ensures a strong and stable government of capitalism nor in whether it ensures a fair representation of capitalist political parties. As the existing electoral system in Britain does allow a majority viewpoint to be translated into a majority of seats, we see no point in diverting any of our energies from our task of working towards the emergence of a socialist majority to supporting electoral reform within capitalism.

    Voting in socialism

    However, since socialism will be a fully democratic society we do have an interest in what is and what is not a fair electoral system since such a system will be an essential part of the democratic decision-making and administrative structure of socialist society.

    From the point of view of democratic theory, an electoral system should ensure that the persons elected really are representative. The case against the first-past-the-post system that applies in Britain is that it does not necessarily do this when there are more than two candidates. This is because it allows a candidate to be elected with less than 50 percent of the votes (that is to say, against the will of a majority of the voters), as were most MPs, of all parties, in the recent general election.

    There are various ways of avoiding this. Organising a run-off between the top two candidates in a second ballot (as in France) or, what amounts to the same thing, allowing voters to place the candidates in order of preference (1, 2, 3, 4, etc) and, if no candidate gets 50 percent, to eliminate the bottom candidates and redistribute their votes amongst the others until one of them does reach this figure. This system, known as the Alternative Vote (the mysterious AV the media talks about), is widely used in trade unions for the election of their officials and is the system that is to be voted on in the proposed referendum.

    A variant of AV, known as the Supplementary Vote or Instant Run-off, is already used in England for the election of mayors. Under it voters vote 1, 2 only (or just “1” if they want) and, if no candidate gets 50 percent, then the No 2 votes of the third and other candidates are redistributed between the top two. In other words, there is no chance of the candidate finishing third getting elected, as is possible under pure AV.

    The system favoured by the Liberals is neither of these but the Single Transferable Vote (STV), which is used in regional and local elections in Northern Ireland and in local elections in Scotland. Under it voters again place the candidates in order of preference but in a multi-member rather than a single-member constituency. A candidate is not elected unless, and until, after successive redistributions of the votes of the bottom candidates, they obtain a certain quota of votes. It is frequently described as a system of proportional representation even by its partisans but in fact it is not. It is essentially a system, like the Second Ballot and the Alternative Vote, for ensuring that those elected attain a minimum level of representativity. It is only incidentally that, in a context of competing political parties, it ensures the representation of minority parties enjoying a certain minimum, but not necessarily low, level of support amongst voters.

    As all the above systems are compatible with democratic theory, no doubt, depending on historically-inherited circumstances and the preferences of people in a particular area, they will continue into socialist society for the various delegate bodies that will form part of its democratic decision-making structure, along with other systems such as choice by lot (as for juries today).

    Party Representation

    Proportional representation, properly so-called, is a different matter as it presupposes the existence of competing political parties and was in fact devised precisely for such parties. It requires multi-member constituencies (which can be the whole country, as in Israel and in Scotland and Wales for the election of MEPs) and party lists rather than individual candidates. A great variety of PR systems exist (a different version, mixed with first-past-the-post, is used in mainland Britain for the election of regional assemblies in Scotland, Wales and London) but these are all based on the principle that the seats should be allocated to parties in more or less strict proportion to the number of votes obtained.

    The essence of democracy is popular participation not competing parties. In socialism elections will not be about deciding which particular party is to come to ‘power’ and form the government. Politics in socialism will not be about coercive power and its exercise and so won't really be politics at all in its present-day sense of the ‘art and practice of government’ or ‘the conduct of state affairs’. Being a classless society of free and equal men and women, socialism will not have a coercive state machine nor a government to control it. The conduct of public affairs in socialism will be about people participating in the running of their lives in a non-antagonistic context of co-operation to further the common good.

    Socialist democracy will be a participatory democracy rather than the choice every four or five years, with or without proportional representation, between rival bands of professional politicians that passes for democracy today.

    Adam Buick

    How capitalism moves

    A Cooking the Books column from the June 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Last month’s general election was dominated by “the economy” but the politicians never learn. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, they were still claiming to be able to control the way the capitalist economy works.

    You might have thought that the Labour Party would have become more cautious about such claims following the exploding of Gordon Brown’s claim to have put an end to boom and bust. But no. “The economy is coming out of recession thanks to Labour’s measures”, claimed a leaflet put out for the Labour candidate in Streatham.

    The economy does seem to be beginning to come out of the biggest slump since the end of the last world war, but this was bound to occur sooner or later as the movement of the capitalist economy is cyclical. A period of recession and stagnation is followed by a period of expansion just as a period of expansion is followed by a period of recession, each period creating the conditions for the other. This in accordance “the economic law of motion of modern society” which Marx said in his Preface to Capital he had set out to lay bare.

    The Labour government happened to be in office when the recovery stage of the cycle showed some modest signs of beginning. But if they want to claim credit for this by virtue of simply been in office at the time, then they should also accept responsibility for the recession that preceded it when they were also in office. In fact they and their policies were responsible for neither. Uncontrollable capitalism was.

    The other parties, naturally, claimed that the Labour government had been responsible for the recession – and that their policies would bring it to an end.

    “We’ll cut Gordon Brown’s waste and debt to get our economy moving”, promised the election address of the Tory candidate in Vauxhall, “Labour are now the party of unemployment. Conservatives will get Britain working again by boosting enterprise”.

    The LibDems were no different. “Labour promised us economic stability, but they have failed”, said a leaflet put out on behalf of their candidate for Richmond Park. “Only the Lib Dems and Shadow Chancellor Vince Cable have a plan that will get our economy moving forward again.”

    But no government has the power to get the economy “moving”. All governments do is preside over the workings of the capitalist economy as it moves forward and backwards of its own accord, irrespective of what they may or may not do.

    So why do politicians claim to have a power they do not have and make promises on this basis? There are only two possible answers. They either take us for fools or they are fools themselves.

    Tuesday, June 8, 2010

    Socialists in the election

    From the June 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    In the general election the Socialist Party stood one candidate, if only to show that we hold that a socialist-minded wage and salary working class can use the ballot box in the course of establishing socialism. Elsewhere we advocated a write-in vote for “World Socialism”.

    The constituency, Vauxhall, just south of the Thames in central London, is one we had contested a number of times before. We had expected our opponents to be only the ordinary capitalist parties – Labour, Tory, LibDems and Greens – but in the event there were also candidates from the Christian Party (an attempt to introduce the US “Christian Right” here), the English Democrats (who want a separate parliament for England), the Animal Protection Party (hunt saboteurs challenging the sitting Labour MP, Kate Hoey, who is chair of the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance), and Workers Power (a breakaway Trotskyist group).

    We met most of these candidates in three well-attended hustings, the last one in a church near the Oval attracting up to 200 people. The Post Office distributed 56,000 of our manifestos to households in the constituency.

    As the Green Party candidate said he was an ‘ecosocialist’, this meant that there were three candidates saying they stood for socialism. This provided a case study of the difference between our and their approaches. The Green Party is not of course a socialist party and does not claim to be, even if individual members such as their candidate in Vauxhall do. Basically, the Green Party stands for a return to small-scale capitalism. Their election address made the same sort of promises as the main capitalist parties, only even less realistic – a minimum wage of £8.10 an hour, a non-means tested pension of £170 a week, a million new jobs installing free insulation in “every single home” and (of course) “protect our NHS”.

    The Trotskyist candidate made even wilder promises (seemingly on the basis of take what the openly capitalist parties are offering and multiply by three), such as:

  • “Create three million new jobs – tax the rich to fund a huge programme of public works.
  • £9 an hour minimum wage for all.
  • Six weeks paid holiday as a minimum for all workers.
  • Cancel mortgage interest for working people.
  • Scrap council tax – for a local wealth tax.
  • Jobs for all, funded by taxing the rich and taking over the banks
  • Benefits to be at level of minimum wage.
  • Stop fare rises – slash bus and tube prices – make it free by taxing the rich.
  • For pensions tied to average male earnings.
  • Automatic and total payment [for pensioners] of all utility bills - gas, electricity, telephone and internet connection.
  • (from The Anticapitalist Manifesto for Vauxhall)

    All of this assumes the continued existence of the rich who are to be taxed – and so the continuation of capitalism as a society where there are rich people, whose income comes from the exploitation of workers.

    We, on the other hand, argued that, as capitalism was the cause of the problems, the only way to lastingly solve them was to replace capitalism and its production for profit and wages system with socialism, a society of common ownership, democratic control, production solely for use, and distribution according to the principle ‘from each their ability, to each their needs’. We didn’t advocate any reforms to capitalism, just socialism.

    As a German group put it in a comment on the election they sent to us:

    “Even fringe left-wing parties like Respect bow to the dictates of ‘realism’ and respect private property through their demands of ‘taxation on the big corporations and the wealthy to fund public services’ – a demand which requires big corporations to make the kind of profits which can then be taxed” (See Here).

    Precisely. So, all the measures in the Trotskyist manifesto were supposed to be implemented under capitalism. Ridiculous. We doubt whether even their proposers believed this possible. In the event nobody else did either. True, we didn’t do much better but the point is: when Trotskyists with their programme of “transitional” reforms are getting the same sort of vote as us who are advocating only socialism, what’s the point of advocating reforms and not socialism? You might as well advocate taking over the bakery (and the wheatfields) rather than bigger and better crumbs.

    The result was: Hoey (Labour) 21,498; Pidgeon (LD) 10,847; Chambers (Con) 9,301; Healey (Green) 708; Navarro (English Democrats) 289; Martin (Christian) 200; Lambert (Soc) 143, Drinkall (Workers Power) 109; Kapetanos (Animal Protection) 96.

    Christian Fascism: the best response

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

    In American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (Free Press, 2006), Chris Hedges warns of the danger presented by the section of the US political spectrum usually known as the Christian right – a danger to democracy, tolerance, science and intellectual freedom. His warning concerns not Christian revivalism in general (traditional evangelists like Billy Graham, he points out, were concerned with saving souls not politics) but a specific highly political tendency called “dominionism” that aims to establish the world empire of a reborn “Christian America”.

    Dominionist preachers like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, R.J. Rushdoony and Rod Parseley propagate their worldview through a vast array of “megachurches” and publishing houses, home schools and universities, museums and broadcasting outlets. (The programming of Paul and Jan Crouch’s Trinity Broadcasting Network is carried on over 6,000 television stations at home and abroad.) Theirs is a relentlessly simplistic worldview, supposedly based on the Bible as the literal Word of God, that denounces all opponents as servants of Satan and eagerly anticipates the miraculous horrors of the Apocalypse.

    The dominionists are hostile to real science and deny global warming as well as evolution. Their “Gospel of Prosperity” celebrates unbridled capitalism and extravagant consumption. A long-term aim is government based on biblical law.

    A purely American Fascism

    Hedges makes out a convincing case for regarding dominionism as a variety of totalitarianism and fascism. In certain ways, however, the dominionists differ from earlier generations of fascists in the United States, even though they too used the Christian label. Dominionist symbols are purely American; they admit to no connection with classical foreign fascisms (Italian, German etc.).

    Comparing the new Christian fascists with the Ku Klux Klan, for instance, we find that each focuses on a quite different set of enemies. They renounce hatred for blacks, Catholics and Jews – the three bugbears of WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) bigotry. Instead, they appeal to Christians across racial lines, work with Catholics on issues such as abortion and prayer in schools, and cultivate a close alliance of convenience with the Zionist religious right, despite the divergent apocalyptic expectations of the two groups. The main targets of their hostility are those they call “secular humanists” – a catch-all for all who oppose them, non-fundamentalist Christians as well as atheists and agnostics – and also Islam.

    A highly lucrative business

    How do the dominionist preachers finance their activities? Partly by fleecing their flocks, who pay a “tithe” of 10 percent of income in addition to other donations. Other money comes from sympathetic capitalists, including Amway founder Richard DeVos and beer baron Joseph Coors. Finally, the Bush Administration, with which they had close ties through the Council for National Policy, enabled them to tap federal funds for “faith-based” social service initiatives – an arrangement that Obama has left intact.

    We may reasonably doubt whether the big capitalists and politicians who support the dominionists care all that deeply about religious dogma. Their main interest presumably lies in the prospect of intensified control over and exploitation of the working class.

    Indeed, for the preachers themselves religion is, apart from anything else, a highly lucrative business. Their opulent lifestyles suggest that they divert a significant portion of the various cash flows into their own bank accounts. Evidently they have overlooked certain biblical passages – for instance, Jesus’ well-known remark about the camel who tried to pass through the eye of a needle.

    Our attitude as socialists

    The danger presented by “Christian fascism” is a real one. It threatens us as socialists at least as much as it threatens all other “servants of Satan”. Our ability to spread our ideas depends on tolerance of minority opinions. Moreover, people whose minds have been addled by belief in magic, miracles and divine texts are unlikely to be receptive to socialist ideas.

    So we cannot say: “It doesn’t matter which group of capitalists have the upper hand; they are all equally bad because they all represent capitalism.” Of course it matters.

    Faced with the threat of fascism, socialists share a certain amount of common ground with non-socialists concerned to defend democracy and science. Both, for example, seek to debunk “creationism” and explain current scientific thinking about evolution.

    However, we must not jeopardise our identity as socialists by joining broad “anti-fascist” blocs that inevitably accept the continued existence of capitalism. One reason is that as socialists we have a unique contribution to make to effective action against fascism.

    Real versus illusory community

    In his book Hedges describes how vulnerable people are recruited into dominionist churches. The target of “seduction” is someone whose history and circumstances (family breakdown, abuse, addiction, isolation, etc.) make it especially hard to bear the absence of community in capitalism. The church offers an illusion of community and the victim snatches at the bait, only later to discover, when escape has become very difficult, that he or she has paid a high price in submission for yet another illusion.

    The soil in which fascism grows is the impersonal and alienating conditions of life under capitalism, especially at times of crisis. Hedges appears to understand this. But there is a disconnect between analysis and conclusion. He calls for more determined resistance to Christian fascism, but offers no hope of a more communal way of life that might counter the emotional appeal of fascism. Only socialists, by holding out the prospect of real community, can act effectively to undermine the illusory community of fascism.

    Stefan

    Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain 147

    Dear Friends,

    Welcome to the 147th our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

    We now have 1568 friends!

    Recent blogs:

  • Unrealistic alternatives
  • Trade unionist extraordinary
  • Democracy – and ‘democracy’
  • Quote for the week:

    "Only by the propaganda of Socialism among the rank and file of the trade unions will they be made capable of understanding their position as wage slaves, and the consequent necessity for the abolition of capitalism, and not of patching it up, as advocated with monotonous persistence by the misleaders we have been dealing with. Having arrived at this understanding, the workers will recognise that their political power must be put to an infinitely better use than that of providing fat jobs for nimble-tongued tricksters, shepherds put over them by their wily masters—the achievement of their own emancipation, to wit. Then the workers will at once wrench themselves free from the strangle-hold of these Labour garroters, and hurl them to perdition together with that system of labour-exploitation of which they are part and parcel." Jack Fitzgerald, Labour Leaders and their Prey, 1909.

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!
    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    The race to the bottom

    From the June 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Could Western corporations do without sweatshop production?

    Sweatshops are workplaces where the working conditions are extremely poor and health and safety laws are not enforced or are non-existent. News reports of fires which have killed dozens of people because fire doors were locked in sweatshop factories are not uncommon. Wages are very low, there may be bullying and intimidation, especially of anyone trying to improve conditions. Hours are long and the work itself may be very demanding and even dangerous. Sick workers cannot take time off and are penalised if they leave the factory. Sub-contractors for European, Japanese and American corporations refuse their staff breaks, monitoring the times they go to the toilet and harassing and humiliating staff. Profit comes before safety, before any quality of life the workers may have, before any idea of comfort.

    Developing countries are producing an increasing amount of the world’s manufacturing production. This is symptomatic of the new international division of labour, whereby Western countries close their factories at home, where wages rates are higher, and invest in factories in the ‘Third World’ as the labour costs are so much lower. Unfortunately for the ‘Third world’ workers, it was not undiluted joy at the prospect of having jobs and a bit of money. The labour costs might be cheaper because the cost of living is cheaper, but the wage rates can be so low that workers find it hard to survive in Thailand and Cambodia for instance.

    Western corporations used to be able to distance themselves to a certain extent from the conditions in their sub-contractors assembly plants, because of the geographical distance between, say, Britain and China. People in Britain did not necessarily realise that when they bought an item of clothing from Umbro, a British company, it was actually made in China in sweatshop conditions, conditions that would just not be acceptable in modern day Britain.

    Campaigns by Human Rights agencies, such as Oxfam and the Clean Clothes Campaign, have publicised the conditions suffered by workers in the sweatshops. Although companies may try to say that they are not responsible for the conditions of work in the firms they sub-contract out to, campaigners have appealed to the sense of fair play and compassion in consumers. Although not all consumers are worried by the idea of sweatshop conditions for the people who make their clothes, the corporations do not want a bad image in the media and have produced corporate ‘codes of conduct’ and company policies which try to improve their standing in the public eye as well as (maybe) alleviate some of the worst problems.

    How far they have managed to clean up their image or help people in sweatshops in the developing world is debatable. According to Oxfam, the ‘race to the bottom’ was inevitable as you cannot have very cheap clothes and also give your workers a decent standard of living. Although British workers also suffered from sweatshops in the past, a mixture of increased unionisation, philanthropy and labour laws helped to improve conditions for the working class.

    The question of how far can Western corporations distance themselves from sweatshop production can only really be understood by looking at the bigger picture, which is: why is the pursuit of profit, to the detriment of all the finer things in life for the working class, so all pervasive?

    The main goal in capitalism is the pursuit of profit. Profit is put before needs. This is why millions of people do not have enough to eat – they simply don’t have the money to buy food. The world is quite capable of growing enough food for everyone and more, but no money means no food for poor people. Poor people are stuck if they cannot improve their wages and conditions due to merciless capitalists, unless they either migrate legally or illegally to another better paid job in another country.

    According to philosopher Iris Marion Young, we cannot blame consumers directly for the misfortune of the sweatshop workers, but we can accept political responsibility and change the process. She said that, although many individuals are involved, from the manufacturers to the consumers, they should all play their part in improving the lot of the ‘Third World’ workers. This is unrealistic in a capitalist world. Capitalist corporations are there to make money and all we can do is alleviate the symptoms – unless we cure it completely by changing the economic system in which we live. There will always be someone who wants to make even more profit, by forcing poor conditions on the workers, or moving the factory elsewhere to where the labour laws are laxer, as happened from Mexico to China, when some macquiladoras (or assembly plants) in Mexico were closed so the capitalist corporations could find cheaper labour elsewhere. And consumers may not even know where else to buy their clothes.

    So, although Oxfam and the Clean Clothes campaign have brought the attention of the media to the practices of manufacturers, still people cannot see it for themselves ‘next door’ so are immune to the suffering. The suffering is too far away. They would help their next door neighbour but that is in close proximity. People at a distance are ‘out of sight, out of mind’. When even photos can be taken different ways, people would be overwhelmed if they did not block out some charitable appeals.

    Some people think that the third world workers can work themselves out of poverty, in the way of the ‘Asian tigers’, without realising that the odds are stacked against them and they cannot repeat the success story of say, Hong Kong. The workers are very much subjugated and repressed in these assembly plants. It is difficult to see where they could help themselves, anyone found trying to start a union is quickly out of a job.

    The Western corporations are just trying to do what they have to do in capitalism: make the biggest profit they can. If they don’t their rivals will undercut them and they will eventually go out of business or be taken over. It is a dog-eat-dog world, and whereas people have to acquire visas and passports, corporations and capital have relative ease of flows across the world. Money eases the wheels of commerce, but the migration of people can be very much resented and resisted, as in Mexico with the self-styled American Border Patrol.

    Capitalists, who make up the richest 5 percent or so in the world, may not be ‘bad’ people: they may give to charity, go to church and be kind to children and animals. But back at work, the system makes them behave in a ruthless race to make the biggest profits. If they don’t, they go under. Charities like Oxfam and the Clean Clothes Campaign are just whistling in the wind. They may dampen down the worst excesses of the capitalist profit-seeking, but they can never stop exploitation until and unless they help to usher in a world, where people are free to enjoy their lives instead of making millions for the very few rich capitalists at the top.

    Veronica Clanchy