Monday, February 1, 2010

Christmas bombers (2010)

From the February 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

The son of a Nigerian banker wasn’t the only one on a bombing mission at Christmas.

A Nigerian Muslim, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, thought he could contribute to solving the world’s problems by getting on an American airliner from Europe to the US. on Christmas Day 2009, and then trying to blow it up just as it approached Detroit. This appeal to violence can be (and has been) seen in many prominent figures, from Bush and Blair to the Islamist extremists. Though, curiously enough, those who plan and defend their own violence are the most vocal in denouncing violence committed by the other side. In fact both sides, in any of the disputes raging round the world at the moment, claim that their own violence is only made necessary because of the violence coming from their opponents. The truth of the matter is that capitalism produces violence as inevitably as water freezes when it gets cold enough.

Those who start the violence off and direct it, of course, suddenly become shy and retiring when it actually has to be done. When will you hear about a radical imam, who has preached many lengthy sermons about the holy duty of jihad, and about the unimaginable happiness awaiting suicide bombers in paradise, with seventy-odd virgins each (though surely they must be running out of virgins by now?) – when will you hear about that sermonizing radical imam taking his own advice and becoming a suicide bomber himself? Probably about the same time that you hear about President Obama and Prime Minister Brown risking death by serving as private soldiers in hostile territory in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Incidentally, the regular announcement that another British soldier has “given” his life in Afghanistan is simply wrong. A soldier killed after being sent to a belligerent foreign country by the British government has not “given” his life: he has had it taken from him. He has had it stolen by a system of society that unavoidably gives rise to continuous discord and struggle, which from time to time turns into open armed conflict, resulting in combatants on both sides being awarded brief unwanted moments of celebrity as dead heroes, followed often by long-term suffering, financial and other, for their bereaved families.

As for this Nigerian who failed to blow up the plane, and therefore failed to kill himself and 290 other passengers and crew – of assorted nationalities and religions – does this failed suicide bomber believe that when he finally dies perhaps years hence, does he believe he will then go to paradise and get say thirty-six virgins (half the full quota) for a good try? That might be thought ludicrous; but it isn’t more ludicrous than many beliefs passionately held by those who have failed to use their common sense in order to work out why exactly so many human beings (under the pressures of competing capitalist states) spend their entire existence not trying to co-operate with the rest of the human race in order to make things better for all of us, but in trying to murder other human beings.

So Abdulmutallab has now gone on trial in the United States, charged with “trying to use a weapon of mass destruction [a bomb] aboard a U.S. aircraft”, a crime which is punishable by imprisonment for life. This underlines the reality: what you do is not counted good or bad in itself: it is held to be good or bad according to where you do it and who you do it to. All those who dropped “weapons of mass destruction”, or bombs, from US and allied aircraft on to towns and cities across Iraq, which (along with the rest of the military onslaught) resulted in the deaths of perhaps half a million Iraqis, and all those who ordered these bombardments, are regarded in the US (and its allies) as having performed a noble duty.

Abdulmutallab came to Britain to study. He spent three years at University College, London, between 2005 and 2008. Nor was he was scraping along among the down-and-outs: his father was a banker in Nigeria. It would be interesting to hear from those who support the present system why a man who was at London’s university for three years, consorting with Britain’s academic elite, and presumably not living among the poorest of the poor, was so impressed by what he saw and experienced there that not long afterwards he turned out to be so hostile to Western society that he was found trying to murder some hundreds, a random selection, of his fellow humans.

After living in London, Abdulmutallab went to Yemen, a territory much of which was fortunate enough to be ruled by the British for over a century up to the 1960s. Encountering the British Empire at first hand should surely have made the Yemenis allies and supporters of the British for ever, but for some reason al-Qaeda is a powerful force in the country. Since Abdulmutallab had lived both in the UK and in Yemen, the blame game started immediately. Gordon Brown grabbed valuable publicity (he has to fight an election by May, so he loses no chance of headlines) by calling an international conference to consider the “terrorist threat from Yemen”. In fact, this was hot air, even more obvious than usual: there was already going to be an international conference on Afghanistan in London on 28 January, so Gordon Brown’s new emergency summit was merely going to be held “in parallel” with this already-arranged conference. This was followed some days later by an announcement by the Yemeni Deputy Prime Minister, to the effect that Abdulmutallab had “joined al-Qaeda in London”. So each country blamed the other for driving Abdulmutallab into al-Qaeda.

The US response to attacks by Islamic extremists was to establish a prison at Guantánamo Bay. Photos from this establishment proved so harmful to US propaganda about “American freedoms” that President Obama has promised to close it (though he has failed to keep to his declared timetable). The US authorities now believe that 20 percent of the prisoners released from Guantánamo Bay have since “turned to terrorism”. Does this mean that the US accepts that 80 percent of those released from Guantánamo Bay were not terrorists at all? The Guantánamo Bay prisoners were mostly poor Asians, seized at gunpoint, interrogated by methods that amounted to torture, and thrown into a specially unpleasant jail, built in Cuba so that its inmates would not be able to access the boasted impartiality and safeguards of the American judicial system, and held there for years in humiliating conditions without trial, so they could never find out what they were accused of and try to offer a defence. It would seem amazing that these men (never having had the chance of hearing about socialism, and however indifferent they may have been to the conflict before their incarceration) did not on release immediately fly into the welcoming arms of al-Qaeda, on the grounds that if two forces are fighting each other, then if you hate the one you have to support the other. If after all their gruesome ill-treatment by the Americans only 20 percent have actually “turned to terrorism” since their release, it implies that most of them never were terrorists.
Alwyn Edgar

A world without money - Les amis de 4 millions de jeunes travailleurs (1979)

From the July 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard (Thanks to LibCom collective for originally posting this on their website.)
The following article is a translation of extracts from a pamphlet published in France with the title Un monde sans argent : le communisme.

We publish it because not only does it give a clear enough picture of future society, but it also shows what we have always held, that the spread of socialist ideas does not depend exclusively on our own efforts because capitalism itself generates the idea of socialism.

The pamphlet was published by a group with the curious name of 'Les amis de 4 millions de jeunes travailleurs' ( the friends of the 4 million young workers ), which seems no longer to exist, at least not under this name. As far as we know, those who produced this pamphlet developed their ideas quite independently of us even though the phrase 'a world without money' is one we have used for years.

Two further points can be made. First, by 'communism' they mean what we mean by 'socialism', i.e. the classless, moneyless, Stateless society that will immediately follow capitalism. In other words, they don't subscribe to the common Leninist distortion which has 'socialism' ( really state capitalism), with money, wages, the State, as a society existing between capitalism and communism. For us, the words 'socialism' and 'communism' are exact synonyms and thus interchangeable. Although we ourselves exclusively use 'socialism' to describe future society, we don't object to this being also described as 'communism' ( after all, this was the term Marx used ). Second, we have very serious differences with them over how to achieve socialism/communism, since they reject electoral action and expect the change-over to be inevitably violent. In fact we can go so far as to say that their tactics, if applied, would not lead to the sort of society they desire and so ably describe.

Editorial Committee
Socialist Standard July 1979

Communism is the negation of capitalism. A movement produced by the development and very success of the capitalist mode of production which will end by overthrowing it and giving birth to a new kind of society. In place of a world based on the wages system and commodities must come into being a world where human activity will never again take the form of wage labour and where the products of such activity will no longer be objects of commerce.

Communism does not overthrow capital in order to restore commodities to their original state. Commodity exchange is a link and a progress. But it is a link between antagonistic parts. It will disappear without there being a return to barter, that primitive form of exchange. Humanity will no longer be divided into opposed groups or into enterprises. It will organise itself to plan and use its common heritage and to share out duties and enjoyments. The logic of sharing will replace the logic of exchange.

Money will disappear. It is not a neutral instrument of measurement. It is the commodity in which all other commodities are reflected.

Gold, silver and diamonds will no longer have any value apart from that arising from their own utility. Gold can be reserved in accordance with Lenin's wish, for the construction of public lavatories.

Marx and Engels set themselves the task of understanding the development of capitalist society. They did not concern themselves much with description of the future world such as had monopolised the efforts of the utopian socialists. But criticism of capitalism cannot be completely separated from a commitment to communism. The historical role of money and the state can only be really understood from the viewpoint of their disappearance.

That Marx and Engels did not talk more about communist society was due, without doubt paradoxically, to the fact that this society, being less near than it is today, was more difficult to envisage, but also to the fact that it was more present in the minds of the revolutionaries of their day. When they spoke of the abolition of the wages system in the Communist Manifesto they were understood by those they were echoing. Today it is more difficult to envisage a world freed from the state and commodities because these have become omnipresent. But having become omnipresent, they have lost their historical necessity.

Marx and Engels perhaps grasped less well than a Fourier the nature of communism as the liberation and harmonisation of the emotions. Fourier, however, does not get away from the wages system, since among other things he still wants doctors to be paid, even if according to the health of the community rather than the illnesses of their patients.

Marx and Engels, however, were sufficiently precise to avoid responsibility for the bureaucracy and financial system of the 'communist' countries being attributed to them. According to Marx, with the coming of communism money straightaway disappears and the producers cease to exchange their products. Engels speaks of the disappearance of commodity production when socialism comes. And don't let anyone speak to us about an error of youth, as a whole rabble of marxologists has acquired the habit of doing. Our references are the Critique of the Gotha Programme and Anti-Duhring.

What is property ? This is not so simple a question to answer. Witness the polemic between Marx and Proudhon. The latter had proposed that 'property is theft'. Proudhon well understood that property does not originate in nature. It is the product of a society where reign relationships of power, violence and the appropriation of the labour of others. It is said that property is theft, while theft is only defined with reference to property; this is to turn round in circles.

The problem becomes more complicated when you go on from property to the abolition of property. Should all property, whether involving means of production or personal possessions, be abolished ? Should it be done selectively ? Should there be a radical break with all property and anything that resembles it ?

Communism chooses this last proposition. It is not a question of transferring property titles but of the simple disappearance of property. In revolutionary society no-one will be able to 'use and abuse' a good because they are its owner. There will be no exceptions to this rule. Buildings, pins, plots of land will no longer belong to anyone, or if you like, they will belong to everybody. The very idea of property will rapidly be considered absurd.

Will everything then equally belong to everybody ? Will the first-comer be able to put me out of my house, take my clothes off me or take bread from out of my mouth just because I will no longer be the owner of my house, my clothes or my food ? Certainly not; on the contrary, each person's material and emotional security will be strengthened. It is simply that it will not be the right of property that will be invoked as a protection, but directly the interest of the person concerned. Everybody will have to be able to satisfy their hunger - and be housed and clothed - at their convenience. Everybody will have to be able to live in peace.

The right and the sentiment of property will die out in communist society because scarcity will disappear. People will no longer have to cling to an object for fear of not being able to enjoy it any more if they let go of it for a single instant.

By what magic do you intend to bring out this fabulous era of abundance ? the bourgeois will ask ironically. There's no magic about it. We will be able to make abundance appear because it is already here under our feet. It is not a question of creating it but simply of liberating it. It is precisely capital, through submitting people and nature to its yoke for many centuries, that has made abundance a possibility. It is not that communism is suddenly going to produce abundance but that capitalism artificially maintains scarcity.

In communist societies goods will be freely available and free of charge. The organisation of society to its very foundations will be without money.

How can we prevent wealth being grasped by some at the expense of others ? Won't our society, after a moment of euphoria while people help themselves to existing resources, risk sliding into chaos and inequality before sinking into disorder and terror?

In developed communist society the productive forces will be sufficient to meet needs. The frantic and neurotic desire to consume and hoard will disappear. It will be absurd to want to accumulate things : there will no longer be money to be pocketed nor wage-earners to be hired. Why accumulate tins of beans or false teeth which you won't use ?

In this new world people will not have to constantly pay and keep accounts in order to feed themselves, travel about or amuse themselves. They will rapidly lose the habit. From this will spring a feeling of being genuinely free. People will feel at home everywhere. Not being constantly under surveillance, they won't be tempted to cheat. Why seek to lie or build up secret stocks when you are certain of being able to have your fill?

Gradually the sentiment of property will disappear and will appear retrospectively as somewhat odd and mean. Why cling to an object or a person when the whole world is yours?

The new people will resemble their hunting and gathering ancestors who trusted in a nature which supplied them freely and often abundantly with what they needed to live, and who had no worry for the morrow, over which in any case they had no control. For the people of tomorrow, nature will be the world they will have themselves fashioned and the abundance will be created by their own hands. They will be sure of themselves because they will have confidence in their strength and will know their limitations. They will be without worry because they will know that the morrow belongs to them. Death ? It exists. But it is pointless crying over what is inevitable. The point is to be in a position to enjoy the present moment.

3. Democracy
What is more beautiful than democracy : the sovereign power of the people ? As much as the term capitalism can be embarrassing, to the same extent the term democracy arouses support. Everyone is for democracy, whether it is royal or republican, bourgeois or popular. To reproach their adversaries people will call them insufficiently democratic.

Anyone who sets themselves against democracy will at best be seen as nostalgic for absolute monarchy. In general people prefer to label them as fascists. The keenest to do so are often the marxists and marxist-leninists who forget what the founding fathers said about democracy, and who are anxious to conceal their own taste for power and dictatorship. Hypocritically, some of those who are still guiltily nostalgic for stalinism will reproach us for being stalinists.

Democracy appears as the antithesis of capitalist despotism. Here where it is well known that a minority is in charge, one claims to oppose to them the remaining power of universal suffrage.
In reality capitalism and democracy are partly linked. Democracy is the fig leaf of capital. Democratic values, far from being subversive, are the idealised expression of the real and less noble tendencies of capitalist society. Communists no more claim to realise the trilogy "liberty, equality, fraternity" than they do "work, family, fatherland".

If democracy is the consort of capital, how is it that dictatorship and capitalism so often coexist ? How is it that the majority of mankind live under authoritarian regimes ? How does it come about that even in democratic countries the operation of democracy is constantly hindered?

Democratic values and aspirations are the consequence of the solvent character of capital. They correspond to the ending of the insertion of the individual within a community and a network of fixed relations. They also correspond to the need to maintain an idealised community, to regulate conflicts, and to limit quarrels for the good of all. The minority yields to the decisions of the majority.
Democracy is neither a simple lie nor a vulgar illusion. It draws its content from a shattered social reality for which it seems to be a reunification. Within the democratic aspiration there is a search for community, a will to respect others. But the basis on which it takes root and seeks to develop prevents this from succeeding.

Democracy is often still too dangerous for capital or at least for certain interests in power. That is why they constantly seek to impose limits to it. With few exceptions these limits and even simple dictatorship are presented as victories of democracy itself. What tyrant doesn't claim to govern, if not by the people, then at least for the people?

Democracy, which can seem to be a excellent means of absorbing workers struggles during periods of calm, sees itself abandoned without shame as soon as the defence of capital requires this. There are always a few intellectuals and politicians who are most surprised to find themselves so easily sacrificed on the alter of the interests of the powerful.

Democracy and dictatorship are opposed but not unrelated forms. Since it implies the submission of the minority to the majority democracy is a form of dictatorship. While a junta of dictators may well have to resort to democratic mechanisms.

It is sometimes forgotten that fascism, nazism and stalinism were involved in imposing on themselves both terrorist processes and regular elections. They liked to oppose the broad masses and popular justice to the handfuls of "traitors", the "unpatriotic" and those who were "anti-party".

Communism is not the enemy of democracy because it will be the friend of dictatorship and fascism. It is the enemy of democracy because it is the enemy of politics. That said, communists are not indifferent to the regime under which they live. They prefer to fall asleep quietly in the evening without wondering whether tonight someone will come to take them from their beds and convey them to prison.

The critique of the state must not be substituted for the critique of politics. Some take on the machinery of the state but only the better to save politics. Just as certain educationalists criticise schools in order to generalise education into all forms of social relation. For Leninists everything is political. Behind every manifestation of capital, they see an intention, a design. Capital becomes the instrument of a political project to which it is necessary to oppose another political project.
Politics is seen as the domain of liberty, action and manoeuvre as compared to economic fate. Economy, the domain of the production of goods is dominated by necessity. Economic evolution and crises appear as natural phenomena which escape human influence.
The left is accustomed to stressing the possibilities of politics, the right is accustomed to stress the needs of the economy. It's a false debate.

More and more politics appears as the carbon copy of economic life. During a certain period it could play a role of compromise and alliance between social layers.
Today the importance of politics as an intervention in the economy has increased. But at the same time the political sphere has lost its autonomy. There is only a single politics of capital which compels both left and right regardless of the specific interests of their social bases.
While the state appears to be a more or less definable institution, politics is born and reborn from all the pores of society. Although it finds its expression in the action of a particular layer of militants and politicians, it is supported by, and finds an echo in, the behaviour of everybody. This is what gives it its strength and conveys the impression that all social solutions must be political.
Politics follow from, and are supported, by the dissociation between decision and action, and by the separations which set individuals against one another. Politics first appear as the permanent search for power which animates men in capitalist society. Democracy and despotism seem to be the only ways of regulating problems between people. The introduction of democracy into families or couples passes for a new stage in human progress. Above all this expresses, in perhaps the least worst way, the loss of the deep unity which can unite human beings.
Communism does not separate decision and execution. There will no longer be a division between two groups or even between two distinct moments organised into a hierarchy. People will do what they must or what they have decided to do without posing the question of whether they are a minority or a majority. These are notions which presuppose the existence of a formal community.
The principle of unanimity reigns in the sense that those who do something will be in agreement from the start, and that the agreement provides the basis and possibility of common action. The group does not exist independently of, or prior to, the action. It is not split apart in voting to then be reunified by the submission of one part to the other. It is constituted in and by the action, and by the capacity of people to identify with and understand the point of view of others.
It is not a matter of systematically rejecting all voting and any submission of a minority to a majority. But then these are just technical forms to which one cannot give an absolute value. It may be that the minority possesses the truth. It may be that a majority yields to a minority considering the importance of what is at stake for that minority.
Is communism the advent of liberty ? Yes, if one understands by this that mankind will have more choice than now, that they will be able to live in agreement with their tastes.
What we challenge is the philosophy which opposes free-will and determinism. This separation reflects the opposition of man and the world, individual and society. It expresses the rootlessness of the individual and his inability to understand his own needs in order to satisfy them. He can choose between a thousand types of work, a thousand forms of leisure, a thousand loves and be influenced in a thousand ways because nothing truly affects him. No certainty lives within him. He doubts everything and first of all himself. In doing this he is ready to support everything and often believes he has chosen it. Liberty presents itself as the philosophical garb of misery. Doubt as the expression of freedom of thought when really it signifies loss, the inability of man to situate himself in his world.
In the course of the revolution man loses his chains but finally becomes linked simultaneously to his desires and to the necessities of the moment. He becomes passionate once again and begins to understand himself. The extraordinary climate of joy and tension within insurrections is linked to the feeling that everything is possible and at the same time that what one does must be done urgently. That one must no longer hesitate and be blown back and forth between petty tasks. Subjective and objective constraints merge together.

Calling on Beelzebub (2010)

Editorial from the February 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Off Haiti the USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier, enables military helicopters to transport food, water and medical supplies to people on the island who desperately need them. USAF air traffic controllers guide planes from all over the world carrying other supplies and equipment to land safely at the airport at Port-au-Prince. A US hospital ship and naval vessels from other countries wait offshore.

Socialists are perhaps not alone in seeing the irony of organisations that normally deal in death and destruction being called in to deal with a situation caused by a Nature that has wreaked death and destruction. For armed forces are just that – bodies of trained men and women whose mission is to kill and maim people and to destroy and demolish buildings. Just as at the very same moment other military helicopters and planes from other aircraft carriers are doing in another part of the world, Afghanistan.

Still perhaps we should at least be grateful for small mercies and not complain when, for once, the armed forces put aside their weapons and do something useful for a change. In any event it is what the people of the world want. It is clear that people all over the globe do genuinely feel for their fellow humans when they are hit by an earthquake as in Haiti or by a tsunami as in and around the Indian Ocean five years ago. They want to help and they do help in whatever small way they can. A sign that, deep down, people do consider themselves as members of a single human community, as people of the planet Earth.

Only a callous buffoon of an American money-seeking bible preacher could say that the earthquake was an act of a god angry at the people of Haiti for some sin they are supposed to have committed. The scorn with which his claim was greeted shows how far removed we now are from the times when this would have been the standard explanation, accepted even by the victims.

Humans are not able to prevent earthquakes but, quite apart from the fact that much that could be done to mitigate their consequences is not done for reasons of cost, a united socialist world provides a better framework than capitalism for dealing with these inevitable Acts of Nature. That today armed forces have to be (partially) diverted from their normal destructive activities to deal with these natural disasters brings out that under capitalism, with its division of the world into competing states, there is no permanent international rescue service of trained men and women, having its own helicopters, landing craft and, yes, even aircraft carriers. As there could and no doubt will be in a socialist world. Without guns of course.