Saturday, November 20, 2010

World poverty: cause and effects (2010)

From the November 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard
How should poverty be measured if at all?
Part of the measure of statistics is that, however well-meant the goal, there are bound to be flaws and weaknesses. Any individual's subjective assessment of their own poverty will likely be quite different from that of an objective report. Over the years different studies have listed different requirements to be included into what constitutes poverty, but how many of these have consulted with the subjects of the report as to their own assessment of their situation? If poverty is to be eliminated, how it is manifested in different parts of the world, how it impacts differently on people of different regions and particularly its causes need to be thoroughly understood.
“Our aim should be to set the poverty line at a level where people can actually have a standard of living which we would consider morally acceptable,” says David Woodward in a July/August New Internationalist article. The article, based on a report which he co-authored with Saamah Abdallah, (See here.) explains the pitfalls and openings for misinterpretation of such economic-based poverty lines as the well known dollar-a-day as used in measuring the Millennium Development Goals. At least, he says, the dollar-a-day approach put poverty on the agenda 20 years ago – but the discrepancies in interpretation are so wide as to be almost meaningless and could make huge differences in the numbers of people being either included or, worse, excluded. Woodward proposes instead a 'Rights Based Poverty Line' – not based on income but as a starting point for agreed indicators such as economic and social rights, health, education and nutrition. This aims to be a more far-reaching attempt to identify those in need (and to ameliorate their conditions?) – a worthy goal no doubt within the capitalist system and one which will gain the support of many altruistic (dare I add misguided?) folk as they learn of it.
The focus of any of these studies in general is measuring poverty – how many, how much, how little, how widespread? – with little, if any, reference to why it is as it is or how it could be dealt with. If income levels are the problem who's going to agree to raising wages to the necessary level on the scale the studies show to be necessary? If it's social services which are inadequate where is the money to be found to raise them to the required level? No figures are given but it's pretty obvious that any solution in the current structure of the world's order would have to be in monetary terms.
Address the cause or ameliorate the effects?
The question that socialists would wish to see addressed more widely is why should we be expected to declare a position on what is acceptable as a baseline; why should we be discussing minimum adequate shelter, required basic living standards, access to sufficient food, clean water, health care, education and a minimum daily wage? In a world of from each according to ability to each according to need, a world of voluntary work and free access there will be no need to set base lines to keep people from falling below, needs will be self-determined and self-fulfilled with no requirement for money. Yes, we recognise the intolerable level of poverty in the world, the huge numbers with little or no access to clean drinking water, widespread hunger, the appalling lack of health care, deaths from treatable diseases and the millions caught up in wars and occupation not of their making. We recognise all this and more and we recognise the huge numbers of people worldwide who work hard in the belief that they can improve some of the conditions for some of the people. We also recognise that with all the hard work, time and money injected into so many projects over so many years that whilst there may be some temporary amelioration conditions for the majority are actually deteriorating. Our position is clear. We must address the cause not the effects. This is the big discussion that fails to hit the headlines.
The effects
Statistics may not always be totally reliable, or be biased one way or another, intentionally or not – and they can also put you to sleep – but it sometimes helps to shock us back to reality when we see them presented in an unusual or unfamiliar way. Sometimes it's the seeming impossibility of juxtaposed figures that can bring us to question the accuracy and then recognise all over again the sheer iniquity of the capitalist system. The numbers vary between reports but reveal that 55 percent of India's population, 645 million people, are living in poverty (a new Oxford University study); 51 percent of the world's poor, 844 million, live in South Asia and 28 percent, 458 million, in Africa (the Multidimensional Poverty Index – MPI ); that poverty in eight Indian states exceeds that of the 26 poorest African countries combined; that contrary to the Congress Party-led government's claims that economic growth has been inclusive figures show extraordinarily high levels of poverty among India's castes and tribal peoples; that using the $2 a day household income benchmark India is home to 828 million (75.6 percent of their population) below the poverty line compared with 551 million (72.2 percent) in sub-Saharan Africa. These millions are all individual people – often the same people in different studies – but they add up to an awful lot of noughts and between them they have pretty well nothing to their names.
The cause
Now for the wealthy. The ones on the right side of the tracks. The year 2010 has so far recognised 49 US$ billionaires in India who between them have amassed nearly 31 percent of GDP, four times the global average, which adds up to a staggering $340,900,000,000 (Forbes magazine).
In summing up How Poor is Poor Woodward recognises that a global poverty line fixed in monetary terms “is too unwieldy and can give wildly inaccurate results” and goes on to state that no improvements in our understanding of measurements of poverty are of any use ”unless effective action is taken not merely for poverty reduction but for a permanent eradication of the blight of poverty in a meaningful sense”. However poverty is measured it is simply another set of statistics revealing effects not causes and is of little benefit to any impoverished persons. To return to my earlier point 'permanent eradication' can only come from the worldwide decision to eradicate the cause, the blight of capitalism. We do have that choice and for the world's vast majority the day can't come too soon.
Janet Surman

Friday, November 19, 2010

"What's Wrong With Using Parliament?"

Via the SPGB's MeetUp Page:


Saturday, 20th November 5pm.

Official launch of The Socialist Party's latest publication:

"What's Wrong With Using Parliament?",

with an introduction by Stair.

"Stair has had a long interest and involvement with what he may have described at one time as "anti-authoritarian politics".

Housmans was one of the destinations he had on his agenda pre-internet on numerous trips to London when further exploring these ideas.

His employment meant he did his "time" in the "retail and service sector" and will talk about his experience of the attitudes and positions of his fellow workers and how some of these observations tie into the question of "how we get from here to there", a classless, wageless, moneyless, stateless society.

This pamphlet comes at a time when many people are questioning the destructive effects of capitalism and also with it a rejection of leaders and the traditional left. This is something that can be encouraged. The aim of the pamphlet is to show that there is another view of social change that may be a "blind spot" with those who get involved with "anti-capitalist", "activist" or/and "anarchist" politics".


Location: Housmans Bookshop

5 Caledonian Road,

Kings Cross,

London N1 9DX

Rich Politicians

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

CBS News reports that although the basic pay for members of Congress is $174,000, nearly half — 261, to be exact — are millionaires (there are 535 total members of the House and Senate). Just 1 percent of Americans overall can say the same. 55 members had an average calculated wealth of $10 million or more in 2009.
While the economy has generally faltered over the past two years, congressional members actually saw their collective personal wealth increase by more than 16 percent between 2008 and 2009.

The wealthiest member of Congress is Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), whose holdings exceed $303.5 million. Rep Jane Harman (D-Calif.) is close behind with $293.4 million, and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) rounds out the top three at $238.8 million. In the House, five Democrats and five Republicans make up the 10 wealthiest members, while in the Senate, six Democrats and four Republicans make up the top 10.

The median wealth of a House member in 2009 stood at $765,010, while the median wealth for a senator in 2009 was nearly $2.38 million.

The most popular company among members of Congress, CRP found, was General Electric, in which 82 current members invested. The second most popular company was Bank of America, which 63 members invested in.

FN Brill

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Things about capitalism (2010)


Book Review from the November 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. Ha-Joon Chang (Allen Lane)

Three things Ha-Joon Chang doesn’t tell you about capitalism. As a form of society it’s only a few hundred years old. It won’t last forever. And it will be replaced when a majority of the world’s people stop supporting it and organise a better alternative.
The author makes no bones about supporting capitalism: “This book is not an anti-capitalist manifesto…my criticism is of a particular version of capitalism that has dominated the world in the last three decades, that is, free-market capitalism…there are ways in which capitalism should, and can, be made better.”

It takes two pages to list the headings of the 23 ‘things’, in no particular order. Four are on the market: no such thing as a free market; free-market policies rarely make poor countries rich; we are not smart enough to leave things to the market and financial markets need to become less efficient. Three are on economics: greater macroeconomic stability has not made the world economy more stable; we are living in planned economies and good economic policy does not require good economists. Three are on the US: it does not have the highest living standard in the world; its managers are overpriced and what is good for GM is not necessarily good for the US. The 13 remaining ‘things’ can be filed under miscellaneous’.

Ha-Joon Chang knows a thing or two about Marx and Marxism. He understands that Marx “argued that the fundamental problem with capitalism was the contradiction between the social nature of the production process and the private nature of ownership of the means of production”. Unfortunately he equates Marxism with central planning, which he says led to the unravelling of ‘communism’ in the late 1980s.
In his concluding chapter the author offers eight mostly disputable points:

  • 1. “The profit motive is still the most powerful and effective fuel to power our economy and we should exploit it to the full.” No – the profit motive applies to and benefits only the tiny capitalist class at the expense of exploiting workers.
  • 2. We should build our new economic system on the recognition that human rationality is severely limited.” No – this is too pessimistic an assessment of human rationality.
  • 3. “We should build a system that brings out the best, rather than the worse, in people.” Yes – capitalism certainly doesn’t.
  • 4. “We should stop believing that people are always paid what they ‘deserve’.” Yes – socialists never started believing that.
  • 5. “We need to take ‘making things’ more seriously.” Yes – a system based on making things is better than one based on making money for the minority.
  • 6. “We need to strike a better balance between finance and ‘real’ activities.” No – we need to get rid of finance as an impediment to real activities.
  • 7. “Government needs to become bigger and more active.” No – government of persons needs to give way to administration of things.
  • 8. “The world economic system needs to ‘unfairly’ favour developing countries.” Yes – but not in the way the author means it. The world socialist system may at first need to favour populations which have the greatest deprivations.
  • Stan Parker

    THAT Student Demo

    Cross-posted from the Socialism Or Your Money Back blog

    THE REVOLUTION BEGINS...AGAIN

    On Wednesday 10 November, a demonstration, long planned and organised jointly by the University and College Union and the National Union of Students, took place in central London to protest against the government's cuts in education funding. The demonstration was expected to be the usual poorly attended, tame and boring affair – marching from one spot to another, waving placards, and chanting slogans.

    The reality was somewhat different. Around 52,000 university workers and students attended, and the demonstration quickly turned into "something resembling a Mardi Gras carnival", as a reporter for Red Pepper magazine put it. "The young faces and large grins, combined with incessant whistle-blowing, trumpet blasting and drum beating, all mixed together to form … a fun-filled, party-like atmosphere." A breakaway from the march, 200 strong according to a reporter from the Guardian, then broke into and occupied 30 Millbank, the Conservative party's campaign headquarters. Once inside, the demonstrators quietly staged a protest – alongside some minor scuffles with the police and a broken window, ludicrously blown up out of all proportion by the mainstream media – and issued some inspiring propaganda:

    "We stand against the cuts, in solidarity with all the poor, elderly, disabled and working people affected. We are against all cuts and the marketisation of education. We are occupying the roof of Tory HQ to show we are against the Tory system of attacking the poor and helping the rich. This is only the beginning."

    Commentators from both the Leninist and anarchist left predicted that the day marked the beginning of a new politics – another Poll Tax-style rebellion, according to some; a mass revolutionary insurrection a week Wednesday, according to others. Did the English revolution begin that day at Tory HQ?

    We in the Socialist Party are more cautious. We welcome any upsurge in the militancy and resistance and organisation of our class. But we also know, from bitter experience, that work of an altogether quieter, patient, more political kind is also needed. The skirmishes in the class war must be fought if we are not to be reduced to beasts of burden. But as human animals capable of rational thought and long-term planning, we must also seek to stop the skirmishes by winning the class war, and thereby ending it. This is only possible if the capitalist class is dispossessed of its wealth and power. That means that the working class as a whole must understand the issues, and organise and fight for these ends themselves – by organising a political party for the conquest of state power that will convert the means of production into the common property of the whole community.

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010

    too rich to know you are getting robbed

    Cross-posted from the Socialism Or Your Money Back blog

    Megamillionaire feng shui master Tony Chan traveling by private jet to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, was picked up by a car-service driver and paid for the trip with his American Express card -- and that car-service driver then used the card number to rack up almost eight hundred thousand dollars in charges over the next few months.

    Chan is so rich that he didn't even realize he was being bilked. It was only after a bank-security specialist noticed a suspicious pattern of activity on the card - some of which hit $19,000 in one month alone - and notified authorities that the $794,986 scam was uncovered.

    From here.

    Sunday, November 14, 2010

    Extracting the Miguel (2010)

    The Pathfinders Column from the November 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    When the shift started on August 5 most people had never heard of the San Jose mine, and could barely point to the Atacama desert on a map. By the time the 33 miners were rescued on October 14 the mine was front-page news worldwide and the site tented like Glastonbury with journalists and press photographers.

    What happened in between, from the moment the mineshaft collapsed and bottled up the miners in a mile-deep tomb, is a fairytale of capitalism in action, together with feelgood ending.
    First, the collapse itself. Maybe somebody’s fault, maybe not. Accidents happen, who knows? The mine was already ‘crying’ rocks from the tunnel roofs so they knew something was wrong, but they went in anyway, being offered double-pay.

    "Hopefully this will teach us not to chase money, but to be humble and treasure our friends and family instead," said one miner’s sister. Easy to say afterwards, but sometimes to escape poverty people will take big risks. Will it teach the mine-owners not to chase money but to be humble and treasure their families instead? Hardly.

    The film-script almost writes itself. Tom Hanks will be down there, gritty and long-suffering, wearing a large moustache and a fake accent. They have air, but only 48 hours rations, the first rescue attempt aborts after another collapse, and nobody’s going to reach them for weeks, if not months. Can they survive alone, in the dark and fetid heat? Can they keep together and keep sane, against the odds, until the first pilot drillbit breaks through?

    On the surface, drill teams work heroically round the clock, effort and money no object. The President is on hand, the Minister for Industry is camping there permanently, the eyes of the world are helicoptering overhead. A bit of science and diagrams to keep us hooked, nothing too difficult. Will they or won’t they make it? We hold our breath.

    And then... breakthrough – the first book deals smash through the rock and scatter among the buried men, followed by a blast of cool, refreshing sponsorship offers. Pretty soon every company who can send a product down a hole in the ground is vying to get a piece into the action and five seconds of on-screen logo time. Yes, trauma or triumph, capitalism knows how to extract the most out of any situation.

    And then, up they come, designer sunglasses and media contracts in place, a teary-eyed President on hand to drape them in the flag, sing the national anthem and praise God and all things Chilean as his own popularity rating winches through the roof faster than any bullet capsule. These men are made for life, with a thousand job offers to share among them, and all the nightmares and the PTSD to come might even seem worth it.

    So, a rousing saga of how humans pull together to pull out the stops when their brothers need their help, a fairytale of our times, the stuff of legend.

    It wouldn’t be the stuff of socialism though. Rather than thanking God and their bosses for getting them out, why weren’t they blaming God and their bosses for sending them down in the first place? In a moneyless socialist society those men couldn’t have been economically blackmailed into doing anything so dangerous. It is highly debatable whether socialist extractive industries would be going to such lengths to extract gold or copper, but even supposing they did, and that machines could not be used instead, the socialist approach would be to make the mine safe first rather than to throw technology at the problem afterwards. As Bernard Shaw once put it: ‘it’s better to build a fence at the top of the cliff than a hospital at the bottom.’ But in capitalism, where the private company has to pay for the fence whereas the state has to pay for the hospital, logic functions somewhat differently. With a wage-slave workforce you don’t have to rely on volunteers to walk towards the abyss, and in the event of accidents you can count on victims not being able to afford the kind of lawyers you can buy.
    Still, the prolonged tale and likely success guaranteed global media interest so at least the world had a chance to ignore all the thousands of industrial accidents that happen every year without happy outcomes, all the result of capitalism’s ruthlessly extractive nature, both of natural and human resources.

    These 33 miners got out in one piece, and good luck to them, but the carnival of capitalism at the drillhead shouldn’t disguise that basic truth. Most workers don’t get celeb status for their sufferings, they just get shat on and forgotten.

    Sludge funds
    Meanwhile, what happens if you mix large amounts of rust, quicklime and radioactive trace metals and then add the Danube? Answer, a hell of a lot of recrimination. While the Chilean President has declared in a moment of unguarded recklessness that legislation on deep mining will be tightened up so that accidents like San Jose don’t happen again, over in Hungary there are axes poised over heads as their own mini-Gulf disaster leaves their neighbours seeing miles of red. Mining companies in Europe are apparently notorious for not spending money on double-walling toxic waste as is standard in other industries (New Scientist, 16 October) and there is no legislation in place to make them do it. 8 people died and 100 were injured by this tsunami of red gunk, and it would only have cost the company the price of a second back-up wall to prevent it. But no doubt it was more ‘financially astute’ to let the state provide hospitals for the victims.

    Saturday, November 13, 2010

    The Caspian Sea: oil and gas versus caviar (2010)

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

    The overwhelming focus of mainstream Western literature on the Caspian Sea and its environs is on their vast oil and gas resources – on controlling them, extracting them, and “getting them out” to the European and world markets. Close attention is always paid to the commercial and strategic competition between the Western powers – mainly the United States and the European Union – and their rivals for control over the Caspian region – Russia, China and Iran.
    As for the people who actually live in the region, they get a look-in only insofar as they may assist or impede Western business in this worthy endeavour. Nonhuman species, of course, are ignored completely.

    A unique ecosystem
    And yet the inland sea that we call the Caspian is a unique ecosystem. It once abounded in wildlife, including many marine species found nowhere else (the Caspian seal, the Caspian gull, etc.). Already weakened by overfishing, untreated sewage, and other human damage, the ecosystem of the Caspian Sea – like those of the Gulf of Mexico, northern Alberta and southeastern Nigeria – is now being rapidly degraded by oil pollution.

    Even though oil and gas development is still at a fairly early stage, the worst affected parts of the sea, such as the waters around Baku and Sumgait in Azerbaijan, are already devoid of life. The whole ecosystem is probably doomed. For one thing, the sea level is steadily rising – one effect of the region’s geological instability (as a landlocked water body, its level is independent of that of the world ocean). A rise of 2.5 meters since 1978 has inundated almost 800 rigs. These submerged rigs are a major and ever expanding source of oil seepage.

    Recently I translated a series of papers about the Caspian issued by a Russian international relations institute. I was intrigued to discover that the Russian analysts, unlike their Western colleagues, dwell at length on the ecological costs and risks of Caspian oil and gas development.

    The caviar factor
    It is revealing to consider why this should be so. It does not reflect any general Russian concern with protecting the environment. Russian experts do not seem to worry overmuch about the ecological effects of oil and gas development in Siberia or the Arctic (see MW, September 2007 Socialist Standard). Some factor specific to the Caspian must be involved.

    That factor is fish – but above all, sturgeon, and especially its roe, known as caviar. As Bystrova points out:
    “Even comparatively recently, the Caspian was capable of an annual yield of 500-550,000 tonnes of fish, with the bulk of the catch consisting of valuable varieties (sturgeon, white salmon, etc.). In the 1970s and 1980s the Soviet Union produced 2,500 tonnes of black caviar annually, which was about 90 percent of world output... The biological potential of the Northern Caspian is about $37 billion. This sum is comparable with the value of the enormous hydrocarbon deposits recently discovered in this part of the sea. But while Caspian oil and gas will in time be used up, biological resources, if rationally exploited, are renewable and therefore practically everlasting.”
    The Russian oil company Lukoil operates in the North Caspian, so Russian hydrocarbon and fishing interests are in conflict here. This makes for a certain ambiguity in Russian policy. Nevertheless, Russia is much more inclined to favour constraints on Caspian hydrocarbon development than are Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, which depend much more heavily on Caspian oil and gas. Iran aligns itself with Russia out of concern for its own fisheries (it has enormous amounts of oil and gas, but not in the Caspian).

    Crossing the Caspian
    The Russian literature especially emphasizes the real ecological dangers of transporting oil and gas from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan across the Caspian Sea, either by tanker or through underwater pipelines laid on the seabed. Russia itself relies on south-north land pipelines and has no need for trans-Caspian routes. However, Western businessmen and politicians seek to avoid routes into Europe through Russian or Iranian territory, so they fund projects that envision crossing the Caspian very appealing.

    Western analysts never seem to mention the environmental problems associated with underwater pipelines. Are they deferring to the enthusiasm of their masters or are they just ignorant? In either case their silence is remarkable, because some of these problems cast doubt on the feasibility of using such pipelines at all. The Caspian seabed is steeply inclined in many places, consists of loose and crumbly material, and is prone to gas releases, eruptions of mud volcanoes, frequent seismic tremors and occasional earthquakes. Any of these events could easily set off a landslide that breaks and displaces a section of an underwater pipeline.

    Again, Russian policy experts have no general objection to messing about with geologically unstable land masses. The Yamal Peninsula in northeastern Siberia is every bit as unstable as the Caspian, but that is never given as a reason to stop exploiting its huge deposits of natural gas.

    Playing cards
    As we see from this example, ecological concerns are not, after all, completely ignored in the game of capitalist politics. Like all other concerns, however, they are constantly reduced to cards in the hands of players in the ongoing competition among sectoral and national sections of the world capitalist class. Each card is played when and only when the player holding it decides that it is convenient and profitable for him to play it. And so it will go on until we gather our strength and intervene, confiscate the cards and close down the game.
    Stefan

    Blunt instrument of justice?

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

    It did not need George Orwell's 1984 to make us aware that a system of privilege propagates itself through verbal distortions so that war is indeed peace, freedom slavery, ignorance strength and a Ministry of Truth conveyor-belts lies while our security depends on being watched by Big Brother. Consider, for example, this thing called “justice”. This is what people are supposed to “get” from a court if they breach the arrangements which are made to protect the pointedly weighted structure by which the lesser mass of people monopolise life's essentials and prevent access to them by the greater mass, no matter how acute their needs. A few years ago, when it was considered necessary for the long-established but mal-functioning Home Office to be split up there emerged from some part of it a new Ministry of Justice, with a number of Ministers to administer its affairs. What kind of match is there between these exalted personages and the protective concept of justice and how devotedly, effectively, do they nurture it in their work in government?

    Reigate's Donkey

    Step forward Crispin Blunt, since 14 May this year Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice responsible for, among other matters, prisons and probation. Since 1997 MP for Reigate, notably verdant even among Surrey's leafy constituencies. Educated at Wellington public school and Sandhurst with the inevitable commission in the Army which made him so attractive to the Tories in Reigate after they had de-selected Sir George Gardiner when his Eurosceptic ravings became too strident for them. After Gardiner, Blunt was soothingly reassuring; he was, as the chairman of the constituency Conservative Party put it, “...happily married with two children”. It was almost as if Blunt could have held that seat for as long as he wanted, growing stout and bald and querulous on the back benches – had he not revealed a tendency to become famous for particularly embarrassing gaffes. To begin with there was, even before he had been voted onto the green benches, his dismissive assessment of the local electors he hoped would put him there when he reckoned that “You could put up a donkey as the Conservative in Reigate and it would win” – tested out when Gardiner walked a donkey called Crispin along the High Street there. And after the donkey had duly taken his seat in the Commons his style of claiming expenses was shown to be not of the high standards expected of an officer and a gentleman as, after being told he could not claim for a second home because he lived there with his children he bought a larger place, claiming £16,000 for stamp duty and fees then a total of £87,728 second home expenses which included £417 for the repair of a water wheel.

    Parties Inside

    Meanwhile there was the work of administering the administration of justice whatever that meant. Somewhere along the line Blunt had become converted to the ideas now being espoused by his boss as Minister of Justice and Lord High Chancellor Kenneth Clarke. The theme of this is the “rehabilitation revolution” which is in fact driven by the need to manage reductions in budgets before any concern for helping prisoners to better cope with life outside the prison walls. In his first speech on the issue, Blunt outraged the tabloids by stating an intention to scrap a ban, imposed under Labour in 2008 after rumours circulated about a wild “ horror-themed fancy dress” party in a prison, on any further “inappropriate events”. Blunt described the ban in unparliamentary terms as “daft” – meaning unhelpful to the kind of “reforming” regime which prisons exist for – in theory at any rate. But in the predictable hysteria about murderers and rapists having obscene fun “at the taxpayers' expense” Blunt's intention was swept away – almost taking him with it under an effectively public reprimand from Number Ten. As a blunder it was on a par with the donkeys of Reigate. And how many more, his friends and enemies asked, would there be?.

    Marriage

    They did not have to wait long for an event which was more revealing – and thereby more damaging – than any blunder. Blunt's 20-year marriage must have been as comforting to the Reigate Tories as his love of cricket. Victoria Blunt is a daughter of a wealthy American family who abandoned her career as a banker to support him in his political ambitions. “She gave up everything for him” said one acquaintance “She is the perfect MP's wife and would attend every fete and garden party..” But this, as another put it, “...was all built on a lie” – which became clear in August when Blunt abruptly announced that he is gay and was leaving his family to “come to terms with my homosexuality”. In itself this was not particularly shattering but there was more to it for his stated opinions have not been noted for any relaxed attitude towards gays. He voted against giving them the right to adopt and against allowing lesbian couples equal access to IVF treatment. In 1998 he opposed a move to scrap the ban on openly gay men joining the armed forces, pronouncing that “Military ethos has been progressively undermined . Letting overt gays in is another stage in the process” and on another occasion he complained about “a much greater strand of homosexuality which depends for its gratification on the exploitation of youth”. Such views, although without any real supporting evidence, must have convinced many constituency Conservatives that they had chosen the right man to replace the reviled Gardiner.

    It may be different now among the lawns and trees as around Westminster sharply dressed civil servants suck through the froth on their cappuccinos while offering the very lowest odds on Blunt being shaken out in Cameron's first re-shuffle. Blunt's wife was said to be “...completely traumatised”. Well, naturally. But did Mrs. Blunt's lucrative time as a banker not teach her anything about the ruthless cynicism essential to finance and commerce? Did her long intimacy with politician Mr. Blunt leave her vulnerably uneducated about the same atrocious features of capitalist politics? Does she now wonder about the nature of this thing called justice and why an exposed practitioner in deceit should have been in a position to inflict it on us?

    Ivan

    Friday, November 12, 2010

    Pieces Together

    From the November 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    KICK 'EM WHEN THEY ARE DOWN

    "Disabled people will be hit with more than £9bn in welfare cuts over the next five years, a think tank has warned. Demos suggests the government's plans will see 3.6m disabled people and carers lose about £9.2bn by 2015. It said moving those on incapacity benefit who were reassessed as fit to work to jobseeker's allowance would account for half of the losses" (BBC News, 9 October).

    GRIM PROSPECTS

    "A million people are expected to lose their jobs in the next four years as a result of the Government's decision to cut public spending by £83 billion, according to a report out today. Nearly 500,000 jobs are likely to be cut in the private sector as the Government stops building schools, hospitals and roads and cancels other contracts. This is on top of about 500,000 job losses in the public sector as employers reduce budgets by about a third and lay off civil servants, town hall staff, nurses, teachers and police officers" (London Times, 13 October).

    HUNGER INCREASES

    "UN food agencies said Wednesday that 166 million people in 22 countries suffer chronic hunger or difficulty finding enough to eat as a result of what they called protracted food crises. Wars, natural disasters and poor government institutions have contributed to a continuous state of undernourishment in some 22 nations, including Afghanistan, Haiti, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan, the Food and Agriculture Operation and the World Food Program said in a new report" (Associated Press, 6 October).

    REFORM FAILS AGAIN

    "West Africa's cocoa industry is still trafficking children and using forced child labour despite nearly a decade of efforts to eliminate the practices, according to an independent audit published by Tulane University. A US-sponsored solution called the Harkin-Engel Protocol was signed in 2001 by cocoa industry members to identify and eliminate cocoa grown using forced child labour. A child-labour-free certification process was supposed to cover 50 per cent of cocoa growing regions in West Africa by 2005 and 100 per cent by the end of 2010. But independent auditors at Tulane University's Payson Center for International Development said in a late September report that efforts have not even come close to these targets" (Globe and Mail, 8 October).


    The Meaning of the U.S. Midterm Election Results

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

    For Republican politicians and the corporate media, the U.S. midterm election results are supposedly evidence of “a massive conservative trend sweeping the nation.”[1] Proclaiming the victory of his party on election night, top House Republican John Boehner declared that “the American people have sent President Barack Obama a message through the ballot box to change course” – and he was not calling on Obama to steer further to the left.

    There has clearly been a significant decline in public support for Obama. However, there is no massive conservative trend in national opinion. The real picture is more uncertain and more complex.

    The majority did not vote

    One point will suffice to deflate the overblown rhetoric. The American people have sent no one a message through the ballot box to do anything, for the simple reason that the majority of the American people – 58.5%, to be more precise – did not vote.
    Well, nothing unusual about that. Voter turnout in the United States is low. In fact, a turnout of 41.5% is rather above average for midterm elections: it usually lies between 30% and 40%. Turnout in presidential elections, and in congressional elections held in the same year as presidential elections, is considerably higher, in the 50—60% range, though this is still low by international standards. In the 2008 congressional elections 57% voted.[2]

    How likely people are to vote depends heavily on such factors as age and income. People with higher incomes are more likely to vote than the poor, while the elderly are more likely to vote than those of working age. Moreover, these differences are especially wide when overall turnout is very low. People with higher incomes and the elderly vote disproportionately for the Republicans. That is why the Republicans tend to do better in midterm elections than in presidential election years, even when there is no real shift in public opinion.

    In the November elections Republican candidates won 54% of the total vote. It is equally true to say, taking turnout into account, that slightly over a fifth of Americans (22%) voted for Republicans and slightly under a fifth (19%) for Democrats. This hardly represents a groundswell in public support for the Republicans. Due to the way the electoral system works, the votes of just 3% of citizens made all the difference between a Democratic and a Republican landslide. It is also striking that a lower proportion of Americans voted Republican in 2010 than in 2008 (25%).

    “Progressive” Democrats did well

    The “tea party” movement has swept many new Christian fundamentalist and other extremist Republicans into Congress. This would seem to support the thesis of a massive conservative trend. At the same time, however, there has been a marked shift in the composition of congressional Democrats that points in a different direction.

    The Democrats in Congress are divided into several groups. To simplify matters, let us compare the relative positions of the groups furthest to the “right” and “left”—the “Blue Dogs” and the Progressive Caucus. The elections have reduced the number of Blue Dogs in the House of Representatives by over half, from 54 to 26. In contrast, the number of “progressive” Democrats has fallen only slightly, from 79 to 75. As a proportion of all Democrats in the House, the Blue Dogs have fallen from 22% to 14% while the progressives have risen from 32% to 40%.[3]

    So while the Democrats as a whole suffered a major setback in the elections, many if not all “progressive” Democrats did quite well. To take one important example, although the Democratic Party lost its traditional hold on the once industrial but now largely deindustrialized Midwest, with dozens of incumbent Democrats losing their seats, in Ohio’s 10th Congressional District the “progressive” former presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich defeated his Republican opponent by the safe margin of 53% to 44%. By distancing themselves from Obama, many “progressive” Democrats were apparently able to capture a share of the protest vote of Americans who had backed Obama in the presidential elections but were now disappointed in him.

    The electoral successes of “progressive” Democrats give socialists some grounds for hope. That is not because the “progressives” are socialists or even close to being socialists: their reform program basically aims to make the U.S. more competitive in the context of world capitalism, whose continued existence it assumes. Nevertheless, they have shown that it is possible to withstand the hostility of the corporate media and find other ways to establish and maintain contact with ordinary people. If they can do it, socialists can too.

    Breakup of the two-party system?

    Thus, the trend revealed by the election results is not clearly conservative in nature. The change in the relative strength of the Democratic and Republican Parties is less significant than it appears. But there has been a further strengthening in the position of the extreme “right” within the Republican Party and of the “extreme left” (by the standards of U.S. politics) within the Democratic Party. In other words, American public opinion is undergoing a process of polarization.
    This raises the question of the future shape of the American party system. The two-party system is deeply entrenched, but under extreme stress its breakup is surely conceivable. Both the Democratic and the Republican Party are now more deeply divided than ever before. Should one or both of them split apart over the next few years, the result could be a more varied and changeable political landscape with three, four, or even more large national parties.[4] The political process might then no longer be under such tight corporate control, placing socialists in a somewhat less constraining political environment.

    Stefan

    Notes

  • 1. Reese Erlich, therealnews.com/t2
  • 2. Figures taken from the following site
  • 3. Democracy Now link
  • 4. See the speculations of the activist film maker Michael Moore at following link
  • Wednesday, November 10, 2010

    Slums and Slumps: Housing under Capitalism

    From the November 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    In 1942 the Beveridge Report identified five giant evils that government social policy should aim to overcome: Want, Disease, Ignorance, Idleness and Squalor. The last of these referred to housing, and more generally to town planning and the environment. The report was, by the standards of such documents, tremendously popular, selling thousands of copies. Newspapers in Nazi Germany were forbidden from mentioning it, on the grounds that it would represent an enormous propaganda victory for the enemy.

    Beveridge effectively laid the foundation for the post-war welfare state and the introduction of, among other things, the National Health Service. On the fiftieth anniversary of the report, the academic Ben Pimlott assessed its success. Want and squalor still existed, he argued, with plenty of beggars and homeless people in central London: ‘for the majority, there is less hunger and disease than in the Forties, but for the millions in the minority, there is much more’ (Independent, 1 December 1992).

    And despite the decades of legislation, the ‘housing problem’ indeed remains, although its precise nature varies somewhat over time. The overcrowding and unsanitary conditions that were rife in (say) the early twentieth century are largely, though not entirely, things of the past, but housing is one of the biggest failures of the efforts to slay Beveridge’s giants and so shows how reforms cannot banish capitalism’s problems.

    In some cases, government policies have been a contributing factor to not just bad housing but loss of life and other disasters. The Housing Subsidy Act of 1956 gave local councils bigger subsidies the higher the tower blocks they built, on the basis that this meant more and cheaper homes in a particular area. In May 1968 the Ronan Point block in east London collapsed after a gas explosion, and four people died. The block had been built using pre-cast concrete panels, which had the ‘advantage’ of not requiring skilled construction workers. But this method of building was intended to be used for six storeys at most, and Ronan Point had twenty-two.

    There are many ways of looking at the effect that the recent rise in house prices has had. Between 1959 and 2009, for example, real earnings rose by 169 percent but house prices rose by 273 percent, making houses less affordable than fifty years ago. For many years the average house price has been around three times the median wage, but by last year it was over six times as high. Many workers are forced to rely on the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ as a way of scraping together a mortgage and getting on the property ladder. Some take on mortgages that they will not pay off until well into their sixties, or put off starting a family because of worries about the affordability of housing. In the current recession, the lesser availability of mortgages means that more are forced to rent (though in no way are they ‘choosing’ to rent as is sometimes claimed).

    The recession has also led to a dramatic rise in the number of repossessions, though in the UK not as yet to the levels seen in the 1990s. In 1991, for instance, 75,000 homes were repossessed, as against 46,000 last year. In the US, there were 92,000 repossessions in April this year alone, an all-time high. Behind each of these cases is a human tragedy of various degrees, from homelessness to far worse housing conditions, along with general financial melt-down. Landlords who went in for buy-to-let in the hopes of an easy return are turfing out tenants, sometimes changing the locks so that people are made homeless with just the clothes they are wearing (Guardian, 23 June).

    In 2000 the government launched the Decent Homes programme to upgrade social housing, with the aim of this being completed by the end of this year. But deadlines slipped so that eventually 2018 was the target year. In the first quarter of this year, just sixty new local authority homes were completed, a figure which reflects among other things the impact of government policy which has emphasised and tried to promote home ownership at the expense of renting. The National Housing Federation recently warned that waiting lists for social housing are at record levels, and ‘an entire generation…would be left with little hope of ever being allocated a social home’. Recent cuts in housing benefit mean almost a million people will lose £12 a week, which is a lot for those on the lowest incomes. Some people, of course, have no trouble finding suitable homes. The W8 postcode in the Kensington area of London is the UK’s most expensive, with the average house costing £1.5million. But even that has desirable and somewhat less desirable areas, with Kensington Palace Gardens as the priciest street in the country, properties there averaging £18million.

    It is often implied that there is something ‘natural’ about wishing to own your own house rather than being dependent on renting, but actual housing demand in fact varies widely across a person’s lifetime and, indeed, in different places. In many parts of continental Europe, for instance, home ownership is at much lower levels than in Britain, and far more people live in flats as opposed to houses, without this being seen as in any way unnatural.

    The number of homes built goes up and down from year to year (425,000 in 1968 for instance, but just 156,000 in 2009) in a way that has nothing at all to do with people’s demands or needs for somewhere decent to live. Rather it has everything to do with the market, what property companies can make a profit from and what people can afford. According to one standard source, ‘the building industry exists to meet human needs’ (David Donnison and Clare Ungerson: Housing Policy, 1982). If only this were true! Like all industries under capitalism, it exists in fact to make a profit, which is why capitalism will never be able to provide secure and decent housing for all.

    In fact it can sensibly be said that there is no ‘housing problem’ at all. People know how to build houses, there are plenty of people with the requisite skills and sufficient supplies of materials. But if you can’t afford the rent or mortgage, then you don’t really count as far as the profit system is concerned. So it’s a problem of poverty in truth, one that would not exist in a society that aimed at meeting human needs rather than making profits for the few.

    Paul Bennett

    Tuesday, November 9, 2010

    Disabled or not enabled?

    From the November 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Capitalism sees the unproductive disabled as a drain on profits. Socialism will promote the good life and society for all, regardless of health condition.

    In feudal society, disabled people faced widespread superstition and persecution. However, the rural production process and the extended nature of the feudal family allowed many of the disabled to contribute to economic life. Extended families were able to provide networks of care for their mentally or physically disabled members. But this way of life, which had lasted many thousands of years, was about to change.

    The Industrial Revolution

    The rise of capitalism forced people off the land. Production for the market began on a scale small enough to be carried out in the home, and therefore disabled people could still play a role. But this gradually became harder. Larger scale machinery concentrated in factories increasingly destroyed the old cottage industries and family structures. People had to find work away from the home or patch of land.

    The new factory workers could not have any impairment which would present them from operating the machinery. The profit-seeking need to have efficient machines established being able-bodied as the norm for workers. This undermined the position of physically impaired people within the family and community.

    Poor Law officials and an expanding medical profession invented names for the poor who were unfit for employment: the sick, the insane, defectives, the aged and infirm. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries most of the disabled were segregated into workhouses, asylums, prisons and special schools. According to Colin Barnes, this had several advantages over outdoor relief: “it was efficient, it acted as a major deterrent to the able-bodied malingerers, and it could instil good work habits into the inmates” (Disabled People in Britain and Discrimination, 1994).

    The recent past

    Two world wars saw disabled people, who were previously considered incapable of factory work, play a substantial part in wartime production. Large numbers of wounded servicemen prompted legislation to encourage training and employment for disabled people. In practice this largely meant the expansion of sheltered workshops paying below minimum wages.

    Medical advances led to disabled people living longer and some to carry out activities of which they were previously incapable. The disabled began to reject their labelling as deviants or patients and to speak out against discrimination. The Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) argued that disability was a social relationship of oppression, rather than a biologically determined condition:

    “In our view, it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society” (Fundamental Principles of Disability, 1976).

    Contemporary capitalism, with its ageing population and technological advances is very different from its Victorian counterpart. Today the workforce is as likely to suffer from mental stress or depression as from other workplace injuries. People with mental health problems have the lowest employment rates of all impairment categories, at only 21 percent. Over one third of the total disabled population of working age is unemployed and on state benefits.

    The public spending cuts include further attacks on the living standards of pensioners, who comprise the biggest proportion of the disabled, population.

    Socialism

    The replacement of a society based on production for profit by one based on production for needs will not of course mean the disappearance of disabled people, but it will certainly change for the better the way they are treated.

    Whether someone enjoys perfect health or suffers slightly or severely from an ailment of some kind will make no difference to the free and equal access they will have to the goods and services society is able to produce.

    Men and women in difference states of health will be able to contribute to the work of society in different ways. They will be in a position to balance the needs of themselves, others, the community and world society with their own physical and mental abilities and tastes.

    It may be that a few diehard supporters of capitalism will suffer withdrawal symptoms and even go a bit loony in the new circumstances. Their plight will be treated with care and compassion.


    Stan Parker

    Planning for plenty

    Book Review from the November 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Red Plenty By Francis Spufford (Faber 2010)

    This book proclaims itself to be a novel about an idea: the idea of effectively administering communist plenty. More specifically, the idea of plenty as it manifested in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 60s when politicians, mathematicians, cyberneticists and economists all took the idea of surpassing American affluence seriously.

    The novel unfolds through a series of sympathetic vignettes, in which people living in the USSR deal with the mundane every day pressures of totalitarian government and the failures of the economic system: a woman giving birth without drugs, the poverty of a collective farm, a fixer wheeling and dealing his way through a world of business favours, the cramped living conditions that were nevertheless a step up from the old communalkas of rooms partitioned by curtains. The highly skilful prose leads us into the minds of the various actors, from Nikita Khrushchev down to a couple living in a Moscow apartment, and shares their aspirations and frustrations. The same skill is applied to the technical details of the workings of a Soviet built computer, scaling down to the electrons racing around in a pentode, up to an explanation of what a pentode is, and how they worked in computers.

    Everything is backed up by footnotes. In fact, though, the footnotes are themselves as much a part of the novel as the main text, as they explain the ways in which the author has confabulated characters, contracted time and re-jigged events to make a more convenient narrative. They also give citations and inform the reader of what really happened, and give links to websites for further information. Not only, therefore, is the burden of interpreting the text thrown onto the reader in contradistinction to the normal fictional practice of drawing the reader into the text world and allow them to swallow its reality but also the reader has to decide how to integrate these footnotes into their reading – look up after each page? Read them all at the end? Read them after each chapter? This makes the text into a critical exercise, appropriate for a novel about ideas and critical thinking.

    The story fluctuates around the person of Leonid Kantorovich, a genuine mathematical genius who developed linear algebra solutions while working for a plywood firm. The problem was finding the most efficient way of assigning work to various machines in order to produce outputs in the correct ratios to fulfil the planned targets of finished goods. Although the text does not go into much detail of the precise maths (it does cite various sources that no doubt would) it does illustrate, roughly, his approach to resolving simultaneous equations with unknown variables. From which, he developed an idea of using ‘objectively determined valuations’ in effect opportunity costs, to improve and rationalise on planning. These valuations would be used to derive planned prices. Together with cyberneticist colleagues, Kantorovich tries to get this method applied to Soviet planning to supplant the complicated system of guesswork employed by the planners at the time (which is also depicted in detail).

    The story shows the subtle games played between the planners and the managers of plants – up to and including cunning acts of sabotage to get the latest machinery. It also shows how the system, despite its claims to be placing the economy under rational control, in fact made it even more ad hoc and chaotic – Khrushchev ends his days fulminating over his lack of control of the political machine. It is, though, the illusion of control that means the apparatchiks eventually decide they do not want to cede control of planning to a cybernetic machine, and the project is quietly shelved, and the Soviet computer programme is closed down and the decision taken to just buy in US IBMs.

    The novel repeatedly returns to the idea that even amidst the Soviet hell there was a utopian core of humane ideas that were continually thwarted by the shortages and chaos of production, the kernel of the idea of abundance. What it helps portray is the immense task of consciously planning a complex economy, and the serious and rational attempts of practical minds to make it work. It is enough to make any socialist think. Helpfully, the exhaustive footnotes and bibliography provide an excellent resource for any socialist who wants to delve in-depth into the question. This includes writings by modern day western cyberneticists who continue to see Kantorovich’s methods as a means to even surpass pricing and have an economy in kind, and continue the debate.

    PS

    Monday, November 8, 2010

    Not disillusioned enough

    From the November 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    It is good that so many of Obama’s followers are disillusioned. But they are not half as disillusioned as they need to be.

    The once fervent supporters of Barack Obama say that they are more and more “disillusioned” with his politics. And the word should be apt since so many of them were intoxicated by the illusion that one single politician could transform a rotten social system. It seems, though, that many of those who describe themselves as disillusioned are accusing Obama of breaking his promises, rather than blaming themselves for falling prey to a naïve illusion.

    This seems a bit unfair to Obama, who made no secret during his campaign of his “moderate” political outlook. A central theme of his campaign, in fact, was the need for bipartisanism to counter the trend towards politics becoming too “ideological”. Those who now criticize Obama for being yet another spineless Democrat were not paying adequate attention to the statements he made during the campaign. Obama made no secret two years ago of his deeply-held principle of never sticking to any principle. He has never claimed to be anything but a “pragmatist”, which is a nicer way of saying “opportunist”.

    There was, of course, that promise Obama made about bringing about some sort of change, but isn’t it a bit unfair to hold him to such a sweeping and vague promise? And things have changed – just not for the better. Over the past two years, millions of Americans have experienced the dramatic change of losing their job or home (or both).

    Principled spinelessness

    Those painful, negative changes might be easier for some to stomach if Obama had cracked down on Wall Street or ended the senseless wars in the Middle East. But instead he has left many Bush Administration policies intact; and even the few important policy changes that Obama has implemented have been tainted with his “principled spinelessness” (most notably, his healthcare reform that leaves the parasitic insurance companies in place and even presents them with opportunities for expansion).Yet here again Obama has more or less been true to the positions he held prior to the presidential election. Even if we go back a bit further, to his book The Audacity of Hope, published in 2006, we see that he proudly displayed his essentially “conservative” politics. Far from making promises to leftwing Democrats or posing as a progressive, Obama was careful to define himself as a political pragmatist, ready and willing to work with the Republicans.

    Moreover, one of Obama’s traits, as the book reveals, is a concern to not be caught in outright lies. He rarely resorts to statements that directly invert the truth in the style of Bush’s “We don’t torture” or Nixon’s “I am not a crook.” Rather, Obama likes to underscore the complexity of reality and the need for pragmatic solutions.

    Wishful thinking

    The idea that President Obama has broken his promises can only seem valid to those who – against all the evidence he provided – fashioned an image of him as the country’s progressive saviour. These are the people who helped make The Audacity of Hope a bestseller, but one can’t help wondering if they got past the first few pages. Anyone who managed to at least read the prologue would have encountered the following passage, which might have given them pause for thought:

    “I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views. As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them.”

    Had his readers reflected a bit on this insight, they might have questioned whether the “Obama as saviour” storyline was not simply a case of wishful thinking. But perhaps that is like asking someone in love to consider the possibility that the object of their love is not quite perfect.

    Obama’s warning in the prologue might be easy to overlook, but it is followed by countless examples throughout the book where he lays out quite clearly his conservative credentials and deep-rooted affection for the capitalist system, including a prominent passage in that same prologue where he informs the reader that (contrary to what those at Fox News might have believed) not an ounce of “socialism” will be found in the subsequent pages:

    “I believe in the free market, competition, and entrepreneurship, and think no small number of government programs don’t work as advertised…I think America has more often been a force for good than for ill in the world; I carry few illusions about our enemies, and revere the courage and competence of our military…I think much of what ails the inner city involves a breakdown in culture that will not be cured by money alone, and that our values and spiritual life matter at least as much as our GDP.”

    Obama “thinks” a lot of things in the book, and surprisingly few of his thoughts are in harmony with the views of his leftwing supporters, who worked so hard to get him elected.

    Boots on the ground

    Take his views on foreign policy, for example. This is an area where the views of the “anti-war” candidate Obama were thought to differ sharply from the hawkish approach of Hillary Clinton (now his Secretary of State!), not to mention the belligerent policies of Bush and McCain. In fact, Obama made it perfectly clear in The Audacity of Hope that he would deploy US troops when necessary, because “like it or not, if we want to make American more secure, we are going to have to help make the world more secure”. Rather than rejecting Bush’s absurd and counter-productive “war on terrorism”, Obama wrote that “the challenge will involve putting boots on the ground in ungoverned hostile regions where terrorists thrive”. And lest the reader imagine that such military force would only be used in retaliation, Obama claims that “we have the right to take unilateral military action to eliminate an imminent threat to our security”. It is something of a mystery how Obama managed to convince so many that he was a foreign policy “dove” while at the same time publishing such views.

    But the surprising gap between what Obama himself pledged to do and the sort of president many of his supporters hoped he would become is not limited to the realm of foreign policy. For domestic policies as well, the real Obama has turned out to bear almost no resemblance to the second coming of FDR that more than a few had predicted or expected. At this point, I suspect, many “disillusioned” Democrats would be satisfied with a pale imitation of LBJ.

    Yet how can Obama be blamed for those false expectations? In his book, even while recognizing that FDR “saved capitalism from itself” through his New Deal reforms, Obama does not fundamentally criticize Reagan for setting about dismantling aspects of the welfare system. He even says that there is a “good deal of truth” in “Reagan’s central insight – that the liberal welfare state had grown complacent and overly bureaucratic”. And Obama, not surprisingly, praises Clinton, who “put a progressive slant on some of Reagan’s goals,” for achieving “some equilibrium” by creating a “smaller government, but one that retained the social safety net FDR had first put into place”.

    Hardly the stuff of “socialism”

    Obama is not so forthright in explaining his own welfare policies, but he implies that welfare should be a bare minimum. We should be “guided throughout,” he writes, “by Lincoln’s simple maxim: that we will do collectively, through our government, only those things that we cannot do as well or at all individually and private,” leading to “a dynamic free market and widespread economic security, entrepreneurial innovation and upward mobility.” This is hardly the stuff of “socialism” – or even of West European social democracy.

    But there were many, even self-described socialists, who thought that Obama, whatever his statements during the campaign, would be compelled by the economic crisis itself or a growing working class movement, to enact policies similar to the New Deal of the 1930s. This expectation allowed such leftists to adopt the stance of backing Obama in the election without explicitly supporting his politics – adopting the posture of “critical support” of which they are so fond. (I can’t help wondering, though, why such “socialists” can’t set a goal higher than once again “saving capitalism from itself”.)

    Yet in the midst of the continuing Great Recession, Obama has not budged from his belief that the solutions to the problems plaguing the United States can be found lying in the middle of the political road, so to speak, just waiting to be picked up. This is the belief he wrote about back in 2006, and his policies in office have been based on it.

    An anti-Bush without Bush

    Still, it was understandable that so many were drawn to Obama, despite his relative honesty regarding his own conservatism. Millions were sick to their guts of Bush and the Republicans and it was indeed “time for a change”. The cautious, compromising attitude of Obama could even appear principled compared to the reckless pigheadedness of Bush. The charisma of Obama was based on his self-presentation as the anti-Bush. Clearly, Obama appeared at the opportune time, when much of the population was desperate to believe that the country could change for the better, after eight long years when everything Bush touched turned to shit. This was the basis for the foolish – or “audacious” – hope that Obama could, almost single-handedly, set things right.

    Obama’s once overpowering charisma has faded away, however. Now that few can remember exactly what it felt like to loathe the neocons, he no longer glows in the reflected light of the burning rage against Bush. Obama without Bush is a far less compelling act – like a “straightman” in a comedy duo who decides to go solo.

    So people went from the naïve view that Bush is the root of all evil to the equally simplistic idea that Obama could uproot that evil. And now we have a sense of disillusionment due to the persistence of deep-rooted problems despite the election of Obama. Yet the idea that Obama has betrayed us is based on the initial illusion that he could rescue us from problems that are deeply rooted in capitalism itself. This notion, in turn, is no different from the superficial idea that those problems arose from Bush’s stupidity or mendacity. It is pointless to transform Obama from a saviour into a new scapegoat.

    It is good that so many of Obama’s followers are disillusioned. But they are not half as disillusioned as they need to be! Only when millions of people finally give up the illusion that capitalism can be fundamentally reformed to somehow create a more humane world will we be on the road to real social change.

    Michael Schauerte

    Cable and capitalism (2010)

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

    “Capitalism”, the Business Secretary Vince Cable told the Libdem Conference in September, “takes no prisoners and kills competition where it can.” (London Times, 22 September). He was of course playing to the gallery, but no minister in the Blair and Brown governments ever dared to utter such harsh words about capitalism. They were too scared even to mention the word “capitalism” for fear of upsetting the business world whose interests they knew they were there to serve.

    Not that Cable is against capitalism. He’s merely in favour of government intervention to curb its excesses. As one of the Tory Prime Minister’s aides was reported as saying ,“Vince is simply spelling out what happens when you have uncontrolled capitalism”. And, as he himself said, “the Government’s agenda is not one of laissez faire”, adding “markets are often irrational or rigged.”

    He – and the rest of the Con-Dem government – are in favour of government intervention to try to get capitalism to work as in theory it is supposed to, with competitive markets keeping prices down and allowing only normal profits to be made in the long run.

    If, because of monopolistic practices or rigged markets, some capitalist firms are permanently able to make abnormally high profits this will be at the expense of the profits of the rest of the capitalist class. Not that this will restrain the firms in question – they go for maximum profits, taking no prisoners. So, it’s up to the government to restrain them in the overall interest of the capitalist class as a whole. It’s part of its remit as the executive committee of the ruling class.

    Even so, Cable upset the business world. Richard Lambert, the current director general of the CBI, denounced Cable’s “emotional language”, saying “Mr Cable has harsh things to say about the capitalist system; it will be interesting to hear his ideas for an alternative.” A former CBI director-general, Digby (now Lord) Jones condemned his remarks as “rabble-rousing” and unworthy of a member of the government. (The London Times, 23 September) reminded him that “the Business Secretary’s principal task is to help companies to earn profits.” Even the former Labour Chancellor, Alistair Darling, still loyal to business, joined in, criticising Cable for “denouncing business and the City in general” which he said was “extremely damaging to our reputation abroad” (Evening Standard, 24 September).

    In response, Cable rather cleverly added to the pre-released text of his speech the words “as Adam Smith explained over 200 years ago.”

    He was referring to the following passage from part II of chapter X of Book I of Smith’s The Wealth of Nations:
    “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”
    While Smith provided the theoretical basis for the policy of laissez faire implemented in Britain (by state intervention) in the 1830s and 1840s – and which resulted in children being sent down the mines – he was under no uncritical defender of the behaviour of capitalists, as director-generals of the CBI might like to think.

    In any event, Cable was not offering an alternative to the capitalist system and is well aware of his duty as Business Secretary “to help companies earn [or, more accurately, reap] profits”. That, in fact, is the duty of all governments.