Saturday, January 29, 2011

The great debt swindle

The Cooking the Books column from the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Channel 4’s sponsorship of right-wing propaganda masquerading as objective journalism hit a new low in November last year. The storm surrounding the broadcast of the widely condemned Great Global Warming Swindle had barely settled when the channel issued a new swindle, Britain’s Trillion Pound Horror Story, made by the same people. The previous programme was a propaganda offensive on behalf of those who deny (and profit from) climate change. This new programme aimed to achieve a similar victory (for the rich) on the economic front.

That the programme was propaganda and not journalism was signalled to the alert viewer early on when the presenter, Martin Durkin, said he wanted to put the size of Britain’s accumulated debt, £4.8 trillion, into perspective – supposedly the whole point of the documentary. How did he go about achieving this?

Well, firstly, he quite rightly drew attention to the fact that many people struggle to make proper sense of very large numbers (how many zeros are there in a trillion?). A brief explanation and a moment’s thought will end this struggle. But we’d be no nearer understanding. Is four trillion a big number? When compared to the number of digits on our hands or pounds in our bank accounts, well, yes. But when we’re talking about state debt? If so, just how big?

To answer that, it would be necessary to put the number in a comparative context. Is the British debt a big one in comparison to other Western countries? In comparison to GDP? Is it big compared with what it has been historically? Who is the debt owed to and why? How much does it cost to service the debt? What would be the consequences of restructuring or defaulting? Five minutes with Google will turn up the answers to these questions. But Durkin tried a different tack. He put the size of the debt into context by telling us how big a pile of banknotes it would make (helpfully reminding his audience that a banknote is very thin indeed) and how long it would take to chuck the debt out of a window. A puzzling strategy, until you understand that the aim of the programme was not enlightenment, but ideological justification for slashing state spending (most of the debt is made up of future liabilities for the state pension and pensions for public-sector workers).

Durkin’s key, unchallenged dogma was the idea that the private sector creates all the wealth in society, and the public sector is a parasite that damages economic health by sucking up that wealth to line the pockets of pampered bureaucrats. This was smugly presented as an unquestionable truth and used to batter opponents. But it’s rubbish. The truth is that wealth – the totality of a country’s useful things and services – is socially produced by workers in both the public and private sectors. What’s not so obvious is why so much of this wealth flows into a small handful of private pockets in the form of money, some of which then ends up in the state’s coffers.

This is indeed something of a mystery. But it’s not an impenetrable one. Getting to the bottom of it would require the kind of popular documentary we desperately need. But we’d do best not to rely on Martin Durkin ever making it.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Wikid Games

From the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Wikileaks is currently under heavy attack.

In order to make it impossible to ever fully remove Wikileaks from the Internet, Wikileaks is currently mirrored on 1426 up-to -date sites (from WikiLeaks website)


Once upon a time, if you wanted to keep a secret, you locked it in a drawer and held the only key. When states wanted to keep secrets, they used huge underground warehouses with security locks and armed guards to store the vast quantity of information compiled by their spies, spooks and secret police. Most of this information was useless, and most of it never saw the light of day. Then the information revolution happened.

A very large wired information network looks exactly like a sieve, and that's essentially what it is. Information leaks out of it in any number of ways, on purpose or by accident. When you can hold the personal details of 50,000 people on a pen-drive no larger than a cigarette lighter and when these can fall out of pockets on the tube train home, the potential for leakage is gigantic. Then there is email, which is not secure and which has become the preferred mode of communication for all businesses and public services. Just a few emails brought about 'Climategate' in 2009, in which a few careless phrases by researchers at the University of East Anglia fatally undermined the authority of the Independent Panel on Climate Change.

The recent WikiLeaks' exposure of the private lives and opinions of the world's movers and shakers has been so prodigiously covered in the press that the details are scarcely worth covering again, yet from a socialist standpoint the furore deserves to be set within a wider context than the conventional media never discusses. The capitalist class, as indeed all hitherto ruling classes, owes its power not only to its private ownership and control of wealth but also its private ownership and control of information, and inevitably socialists must ask themselves to what extent the overthrow of the latter is likely to lead to the overthrow of the former.

While controlled leaks have always been a tool of government, or internecine feuds within government, it was rare until recently for damaging information ever to escape and when it did, retribution was punitive. When in the 1970s Philip Agee, a CIA agent working in the UK, published an exposé of CIA operations including names of operatives, the US authorities reacted with fury, had him deported and mounted a smear campaign against him involving sex allegations and alcoholism that ran to 18,000 pages (Guardian, 19 December). In 1971 Richard Nixon was tape-recorded speaking thus of Daniel Ellsberg, another Pentagon mole gone public: "Let's get the son of a bitch into jail.... Don't worry about his trial. Try him in the press."

Mud, glorious mud
The founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, has made no secret of his involvement in the leaks, so one would be astonished not to see governments trying to fling whatever mud they could at him. And sure enough, he is currently on bail in the UK and facing possible extradition to Sweden to answer sex crime allegations, followed by a possible further rendition to the US to face a lifetime wearing an orange jumpsuit in a certain Cuban seaside resort.

That these allegations are a frame-up is a conclusion that many people have leapt to with a conviction thus far unsupported by the known facts, however it is undeniable that the whole business looks damned fishy. If the UK or Swedish authorities go one step further and allow the Americans to get their hands on him, the affair may well blow up to become the Dreyfus case of the 21st century.

But how do you try a website? WikiLeaks is a game-changer for state security forces and radicals alike, challenging the whole notion of secrecy and calling into question what if anything can be kept secret. The universal state condemnation of WikiLeaks rings increasingly hollow and comical when one looks at the massive public support for it. The vast number of mirroring sites – sites that duplicate WikiLeaks – means that WikiLeaks could not realistically be shut down without shutting down the internet.

It isn't only source websites which pose a problem for state security, it's also destination sites. If you wanted to leak a confidential document in 1950, there would only be a few newspapers or small printing presses to leak it to, most of whom would not risk touching it. Conventional media tend to have a symbiotic, back-scratching relationship with government which ensures that newspapers are self-regulating so direct news bans – D notices – are rarely invoked. Media bosses are capitalists themselves and have no interest in rocking the boat. But the other side of the information equation is publication and distribution, and the internet has created unlimited scope for both.

Thus Wikileaks can sidestep conventional media and leak to anywhere, even to the Socialist Standard if it chose to, which means that the capitalist class has for all practical purposes lost control of the mass media. It cannot hope to strike mutually agreeable deals with every media outlet, especially not those avowedly hostile to it, and any attempt to coerce or threaten such outlets would be likely to blow up in its face and make matters worse.

Off with their heads
Aside from the allegations against Julian Assange, Wikileaks itself is not however above criticism. Its foundation in 2006 is shrouded in some mystery. Founders allegedly include Chinese dissidents, mathematicians, technologists and journalists, yet none have been identified. There is supposedly an advisory board of 9 members, yet one 'board member' has said that his involvement is minimal and that the board is merely 'window dressing'. One volunteer told Wired Magazine that Assange considers himself "the heart and soul of this organisation, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organiser, financier, and all the rest". Indeed, WikiLeaks is not even a Wiki anymore because Assange has removed public editing access to it, and has moved away from being a mere whistleblowers' conduit to a full publisher in his own right. Whether or not he set out to do so, Assange does seem to be going for personal glory but in doing so is drawing down all the fire on himself. One-man-bands don't play well when they're playing against the state. One way or another, American and European state agencies are out to get WikiLeaks which is why the obvious move is to go for a decapitation strike against Assange himself.

Even if they succeed in bringing down Assange, there is no stopping what he started. This month a former Wikileaks advisor is set to found a new website called OpenLeaks, which aims to avoid the problems WikiLeaks has encountered, specifically by being governed democratically and by remaining as a conduit for anonymous information rather than empire-building into a publishing enterprise. At heart is the open source philosophy which holds that cooperative and transparent endeavour is more productive and progressive than the secretive and territorial ethos which underpins most capitalist activity: "Our long term goal is to build a strong, transparent platform to support whistleblowers – both in terms of technology and politics – while at the same time encouraging others to start similar projects" (Wikipedia, OpenLeaks). There is a parallel here with file-sharing sites, which started as centrally controlled databases (Napster) that were easy to target and kill, before evolving into distributed peer-to-peer systems which had no centre and could never be nailed down and neutralised. There is a further parallel to be made here with democratic models in politics. Socialists oppose leaders and vanguardist leadership-based groups on the left, not only in fact but also in theory, because top-down hierarchy structures are too easy to neutralise. In fact, as a distributed, egalitarian and transparent organisation, we could lay claim to being the original political Open Source movement.

All of a Twitter
There is a momentum of workers' disgust at capitalism at the moment, at least in the western countries, starting with the sub-prime collapse which exposed nonsensical business logic, then massive bail-outs and bankers bonuses, together with squalid parliamentary expense fiddles, followed by the most savage cuts in living memory and attacks on the poor and those on benefits. Anyone who thought 'the yoof of today' could never be motivated by politics is having to eat their words as students pour onto the streets, camcorders in hand to record and upload police cavalry charges onto YouTube just as the police attempt to deny them. Meanwhile 'hacktivists' attack banks with massive Denial of Service offensives and the spontaneously organised UK-Uncut group occupy and picket the stores and offices of banks, mobile phone companies and high street stores accused of large scale tax avoidance. Though one could always quibble with these activists' grasp of the bigger picture over tax, or their tactics in singling out individual companies when, after all, they're all at it, you've got to admire how the digital native generation are mobilising their opposition in ways that the ruling class has not anticipated and is ill-prepared for.

The grubby game that is capitalism is being exposed as never before in its history, and more people are getting to know about it every day. The genie is out of the bottle, and there's no putting it back in. These are interesting times for socialists.

Paddy Shannon

Monday, January 24, 2011

Cable unconnected?

The Greasy Pole column from the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

In those heady post-election days last May Cameron and Clegg, smirking at the media assembled in Number Ten's garden, assured the nation that Coalition would be the only remedy to the maladies which Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling had so cruelly brought down on our innocent heads. One of the most conspicuous advantages sprouting from this venture into the New Politics (a phrase with implications rather more menacing than they were ready to acknowledge) would be the governmental presence of Vince Cable, influencing official policy on the economy. With all that what could possibly go wrong?

Well just a little over six months later the answer is that an awful lot is going wrong – and not only with what are called the ordinary people who fear for their chances of surviving the cuts but also for the Coalition itself, which can hardly be described as stable and united. For one thing there is the Alternative Vote, suspected by Tories nervously sitting on wafer-thin majorities as a convenient back-door into Parliament for any thrusting LibDem. And then, more calamitous, there has been the schism within LibDem ranks over their surrender to raising university tuition fees after they had in the mass signed that pledge not to do any such thing. Even worse – leading for them on this issue has been the hitherto saintly, all-knowing, all-wise Vince Cable who had the job of working out the details of the policy and then trying to persuade the rest to go along with it.

Joke
Cable rocketted to national prominence in December 2007 when, as stand-in leader while the LibDems were electing a successor to Ming Campbell, he drew attention to the new Premier Gordon Brown's “…remarkable transformation in the last few weeks from Stalin to Mr Bean, creating chaos out of order rather than order out of chaos”. (We should not be misled by the consequent rapturous laughter into rating this feeble effort at a joke as historically amusing – MPs are irritatingly liable to relieve their boredom in that way. Even if it had the effect of giving Cable some much needed publicity). Cable's leader Nick Clegg is not famous for making jokes – perhaps because of his sensitivity in the matter after David Cameron said he was one. But he does display a kind of infant passion to develop the necessary political cunning. Looked at in that way it is not difficult to detect a possible strategy involving Cable's allocation to defend the rise in tuition fees.

Train Wreck
It is, after all, not so long ago that Cable was a serious contender for the leadership and – after the Mr. Bean joke and Clegg's first fumbling among the front bench there was expressed regret among the LibDems that he had been so easily allowed to drop out. It could not have helped his case to have to defend the official party line in what Clegg expected to be a “train wreck” of a debate – before which Cable behaved like someone suffering from a serious head injury, apparently unable to decide whether to oppose, or support, or abstain on the increase according to whether he was talking about keeping a pledge or defending Coalition unity or what he called the national interest. In the end, of course, he gave in to blatant, self-interested ambition and held on to his wretched job by going along to the Commons where, professorial spectacles clinging perilously to the end of his nose, he mounted an emphatic defence of the policy which he was supposed to have grave doubts about.

Shell Oil
It is clear from Cable's record that he is no stranger to doubt and confusion. Beginning as a Liberal he moved to Labour then the SDP before returning to what had been re-invented as the LibDems. During this journey he experienced what must have been a seriously instructive spell in the 1970s Scottish Labour Party, including a period as a Glasgow councillor. Eventually his multiple attempts to get into Parliament yielded him the verdant, pricey seat of Twickenham. Heavily qualified as an economist, he was a university lecturer and a Treasury Finance Officer in Kenya. From 1995 to 1997 he was Chief Economist to the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell. During that period the suppression of the people of Nigeria whose lives had been devastated by the Shell operations became an international scandal as the murderous military dictatorship of Sani Abacha developed in intensity and barbarism. In an abrupt loss of his famous powers of grasping a situation, Cable denied any responsibility in, or knowledge of, those calamitous events: an interviewing journalist found him “deeply evasive and avoiding all questions”, another who later asked a spokeswoman for a comment was told “…he does not feel that he knows enough about the latest developments to be able to comment”.

Confidence
This kind of record is important in sizing up a political ruler who, with an eye to winning high office, is touting for our support. In the case of Vince Cable we have to consider his reputation for unwavering prescience about capitalism's endemic crises which enabled him to sprout into prominence with his (distinctly unoriginal) forecast of the doom which would follow the credit boom. But how usefully did he apply this? In fact he allowed his insights to languish unattended, unspoken. Asked whether he had publicised the disastrous image in his book The Storm he lamely replied: “No, I didn't. That's quite true… But you're quite right…I haven't been to the States for years and years, so I wouldn't claim to have any feel for what's been going on there.” This unconvincing blather leads us to question what gain there is for human society in putting our confidence in leaders such as Cable. How could he be any more reliable and effective than the hordes of malicious swindlers before him? What is stopping us from preferring to have confidence in ourselves to change the world as it needs to be?

Ivan

Proper Gander

From the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

“Success and money motivate me. My first word wasn’t ‘Mummy’ – it was ‘money’”. This came from the deluded mouth of Shibby Robati, one of the latest bunch of wannabes to appear on The Apprentice (BBC1). The programme brings together sixteen of “Britain’s brightest business prospects” to compete for a job with a “six-figure salary” working for entrepreneur Lord Alan Sugar. Each week, the contestants are split into teams who compete to win a task, usually to promote and sell a product. Someone from the team which makes less money is ‘fired’ at the end of each episode, until Lord Sugar is left with his new apprentice. Contestants fall into two categories: those whose ego outweighs their talent, and those whose talent is outweighed by their ego. Take, for example, Stuart Baggs, presumably an eight-year old who’s sneaked onto the show, who boasted that “everything I touch turns to sold”. Or Melissa Cohen who, with all the self-awareness of concrete, said “I’m charismatic. I’m intelligent. I’m a damned good businesswoman. I’m at the top of my game and I’m unbeatable”, before she got fired in week four.

Laying into these charm-vacuums is easy because they put themselves forward and are therefore ‘fair game’. But any criticisms should be accompanied by a little guilt, because there’s something sad about how those taking part in The Apprentice have been shaped by the business world. Even allowing for the selective editing to emphasise their faults, none of the contestants are likeable. There’s hardly any warmth on display – you wouldn’t want to go for a pint with any of them. And if you did, instead of a chat they would start pitching to you about how they would market Guinness. Sugar-daddy Alan at least has some wit to lighten his boardroom eviscerations, but who would aspire to the iciness of his co-judges Nick Hewer and Karren Brady? Unfortunately, the young contestants have fallen for a narrow, corporate definition of ‘success’, which hinges on how sharp your suit is and how many people you can trample on. The result? A winner who is 20 percent mannequin and 80 percent smugness.

Mike Foster

E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class (1968)


Book Review from the December 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Making of the English Working Class by E. P. Thompson

Thompson's excellent work, 800 pages long and first published in 1965, has now been brought out as a paperback. Applying the Marxist view that men make their own history but only out of the materials at hand, Thompson traces the formation of working class consciousness (by which he means the awareness among industrial workers that they were a separate class in society apart from the ruling landed and commercial oligarchy and manufacturing middle class) under the impact of the industrial revolution between 1780 and 1832. But this was not a passive process; working class consciousness was forged out of the struggles of London artisans, weavers, field labourers and Irish migrants against oligarchic government and the factory system.

The early working class is often seen as an ignorant rabble. Thompson exposes this myth and shows how the independent craftsmen who spearheaded the resistance to capitalism, in the Midlands and the North as well as in London, were in fact well-informed and literate with their own view of what society should be like - basically a simple and stable community with a secure place for all.

Wilkes and Liberty, Tom Paine and radicalism, the Corresponding Societies, the pernicious effects of Methodism, Peterloo, the early trade unions, the Cato Street Conspiracy, Robert Owen and Owenism are among the names and events in radical and working class history examined in detail.

Thompson's book deserves a place on every socialist's bookshelf alongside Thorold Rogers' Six Centuries of Work and Wages, the classic history of the workers in England which it (to a certain extent) replaces and certainly supplements.
Adam Buick

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Engineering the Earth

The Pathfinders Column from the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

A new theme has recently emerged in the debate on climate change – geoengineering. This newly coined word – literally, “engineering the Earth” – refers to the prospect of deliberate large-scale human intervention in the climate system to counter global warming. The Royal Society has a useful report online: Geoengineering the Climate (2009); popular accounts include James Fleming’s book Fixing the Sky (2010). Opponents of geoengineering have responded with a counter-report: Geopiracy: The Case Against Geoengineering (ETC Group, 2010).

Geoengineering schemes

Geoengineering schemes are numerous and diverse, but almost all fall into two broad categories.

  • (1) Schemes to remove CO2 (carbon dioxide) from the atmosphere. Special installations (“scrubbers”) might suck air through a spray of lye – an alkali that binds with the acidic CO2 in the air, producing washing soda. Or the oceans could be “fertilized” with iron particles to foster the growth of CO2-absorbing plankton. Another idea is to use carbon-eating microbes. Planting forests also falls into this category.
  • (2) Schemes to redirect solar radiation – either to reflect it off the Earth’s surface or atmosphere or to deflect it away from the Earth altogether. These schemes are of three types:
  • (2a) Reflection from the surface. The albedo (reflectivity) of the Earth’s surface would be enhanced by such means as painting roofs and roads white, genetically engineering crops and grasses with more reflective foliage, and covering deserts with reflective polyethylene-aluminium sheeting.
  • (2b) Reflection from the atmosphere. One scheme of this type is “cloud bleaching”, in which an armada of robot ships equipped with giant fans plough the seas and propel water aloft to make clouds more reflective. Another popular scheme has spaceplanes continuously injecting aerosols, probably masses of tiny sulphate particles, into the stratosphere. This would mimic the dimming and cooling effect of large volcanic eruptions.
  • (2c) Deflection away from Earth. Light-scattering material – say, aluminium threads or small disks – would be placed in Earth orbit or further out toward the Sun, shielding the Earth from part of the solar radiation. Another idea is to use locally available glass to build a huge mirror on the Moon.
  • These schemes vary widely in terms of likely effectiveness, lead time, risks and costs. Many would counter global warming but create or exacerbate other serious environmental problems. Aerosols may harm the ozone layer and further disrupt the monsoon cycle – also a likely effect of covering deserts or bleaching clouds. Where would all that CO2 removed from the atmosphere go? Stored underground, it would be bound to leak; dumped in the oceans, it would soon turn them into a vast lifeless acid bath. And what if a space-based system to deflect solar radiation suddenly broke down for unknown technical reasons?

    Politics of geoengineering

    The most active promoters of geoengineering are corporate-funded American think-tanks. These are the same think tanks that churn out propaganda denying that global warming exists! But the contradiction is only apparent. While logically inconsistent, both these positions make it possible to argue that there is no need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, thereby safeguarding the immediate profit interests of the corporate sponsors.

    Largely in reaction to such exploitation of the theme, some environmentalists reject geoengineering altogether, rightly arguing that technological fixes cannot solve what is at root a social problem. The Geopiracy report quotes Albert Einstein as saying: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

    Nevertheless, scientists make a cogent case when they argue that it is necessary to combine sharp cuts in greenhouse gas emissions with carefully selected geoengineering measures. Global warming has been even more rapid in recent years than predicted by the most alarming past projections. The process now has such powerful momentum that even if emissions were to cease completely and immediately – a hypothetical achievement beyond the capacity even of world socialism, supposing it magically conjured into being – geoengineering might turn out to be the only way to avert or at least minimise the catastrophes in store for us.

    Cheap, quick and scary

    The twin priorities of a socialist world community, if it existed, might have to be to move as quickly as possible to a technological structure with near-zero greenhouse gas emissions and to embark on a diverse and environmentally acceptable geoengineering program, if indeed such a programme could ever be found. Such a programme might comprise various Earth- and space-based elements as insurance against particular elements proving less feasible or effective than expected.

    Assuming the continued existence of capitalism, the crucial criteria in selecting schemes for implementation, whether at the national or the international level, will be financial cost and lead time. Capitalists always hate spending more than they absolutely have to, even if it is for the purpose of saving the planet. A short lead time is essential because they will delay even that minimal expenditure until forced to respond to serious threats to the stable functioning of their system – the inundation of London and New York, perhaps. But then they will demand quick results.

    Indeed, some analysts have already guessed what this (relatively) cheap and quick fix is likely to be – the “doping” of the stratosphere with sulphate aerosols. Unfortunately, this scheme is also one of the scariest. Besides the threats to ozone and the monsoon cycle, the filtering of sunlight will have a homogenizing impact on the regional and seasonal climatic pattern. Writers speculate about the psychological impact of the day sky never being blue, only a dull greyish white – although by way of compensation we are promised redder sunsets.

    Stefan

    Thursday, January 13, 2011

    Muddle class (2011)

    The Cooking the Books column from the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

    “‘Triple crunch’ will see lower middle classes £720 a year worse off” read the headline in the Guardian (25 November) reporting on a study about the prospects over the next few years of those currently earning between £12,000 and £30,000 a year. Economics Editor Larry Elliott commented “once upon a time this group would have been dubbed lower middle class”. No, it wouldn’t. They’d have been called “working class” and most of them today would still regard themselves as this.

    You can of course define class in any way you like, and sociologists have come up with all sorts of ways – by occupation, by income, by leisure activities, by dress, by accent. George Orwell once described his family of origin as “lower-upper middle class”. The term “middle class” is in everyday use but generally to refer to occupation rather than, as in the Guardian report, income. Even we socialists sometimes use it in this way in conversation, but the correct Marxian position is that classes are defined by their relationship to the means of production.

    If you don’t own any means of production yourself you are working class because you are dependent for a living on going out onto the labour market and trying to find an employer to buy your working skills. This, whatever your occupation or income (so the working class is not confined to manual workers in industry, as some leftwing political groups mistakenly think). In a country like Britain that’s the vast majority of the population. If you own enough means of production to employ others without having to work yourself (even if you choose to) you are a member of the capitalist class.

    So what about the middle class? Who are they? Or, rather, who were they? Historically, in Britain, they were rich people who were not landed aristocrats and whose income derived from the profits of industry and trade rather than the rent of land. In the 19th century they were a group that was conscious of their class interest and waged a class struggle against the landed aristocracy to further it, achieving success with 1832 Reform Act which gave them more political power and the Repeal of the Corn Laws from 1848.

    When Marx was examining capitalism there really were three distinct classes defined by their relationship to the means of production: the big landowners (the “upper” class), pure parasites whose income was derived from being in a position to extort a payment from land-users; the capitalist class (the “middle” class) who invested in production for profit; and the working class (the “lower” class), who produced the wealth on which the other two classes lived.

    In other words, the middle class was the capitalist class as the class between the upper, landowning class and the lower, working class.

    Since Marx’s time the “upper” class and the “middle” class have merged into a single, capitalist class. So, far from us being “all middle class now”, there is no longer any middle class (the middle class of yesteryear having become the upper class). It’s rather the case that “we are all working class now” – including most doctors, lawyers and scientists. As Marx and Engels pointed out already in 1848:
    “The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with revered awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-labourers”. (Communist Manifesto)

    Tuesday, January 11, 2011

    A mining incident (2011)

    From the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
    Mining accidents are frequent such as the recent ones in Equador, Columbia, China, New Zealand. Many without the coverage nor with the happy outcome of the Chilean incident. A socialist who worked in the mines as a Bevin Boy in the 1940s recalls conditions there and the fear miners have of rockfalls.
    In a coalmine the roof is held up – when the coal is extracted from beneath it – by posts made out of H-section steel. In the mine where I worked, Penallta Colliery in the Rhymney valley, near Ystrad Mynach in South Wales, most of the coal seams were something under five foot, so most of the posts were about 4ft 6in. They were expensive, and so were the flatter pieces of steel which went across the top of two of these posts. My lonely job was to go round and see that all these steel supports were retrieved as the coalface went forward, not merely left behind and lost. (Only about one employee in six in a coalmine is actually digging out the coal – they are called colliers; all the others are getting the coal back to the pit shaft, repairing the tunnels, moving the conveyor belts forward, building stone packs behind the conveyor belts to stop the roof at the coalface collapsing too quickly, looking after all the machinery, and doing all the other ancillary jobs.) I went most days into the “N” district (which was about two miles from the pit shaft) down the No.3 road, or tunnel. The tunnel roof was getting very unstable, as well as very low. With half a mile of rock and earth above it, the roof of each tunnel gradually sinks, until it is “repaired”, that is hacked out again to a reasonable height. In the old days, when the tubs of coal were pulled out along the rail tracks by horses (and they were horses, though they were always called pit ponies), the tunnels had to be repaired as soon as they got below about seven feet, because horses won’t crawl on their knees. You could explain how necessary it was to maintain profitability, but a horse pretends not to understand. Men, however, will crawl if necessary, so as to keep their jobs. I’m not sure what that tells you about the comparative intelligence of horses and men.

    Now in due course horses were replaced by engines. Every so often along each tunnel they would build an engine, which pulls a long thick steel cable (winding it round a rotating drum like a barrel), fastened to the front of a train of tubs; when the train arrives at the engine, the cable is unhitched, and another cable, running along to the next engine, is fastened to the front tub instead; and the train resumes its progress to the pit-head. (In South Wales the tub is called a tram or dram, and the train is called a journey.) But when horses were abandoned, you didn’t have to repair the road (or tunnel) so often; it could go down to about four foot high, or just high enough to let the tubs, loaded with coal, pass underneath. Men, naturally, are prepared to walk long distances bent over almost double. Human beings who have been brainwashed, or forced by economic necessity, into spending their working lives half a mile underground, accept worse than that without complaining.

    If a road is not repaired in time, the great pressure (from both above and below) to squeeze it flat will take over, and the tunnel collapses. Every time I made my solitary trek along the No.3 road, the roof was more and more unstable. Little bits would fall out of the roof as you passed, and you wondered if your steel-capped boots were going to create enough disturbance to make the whole thing cave in on top of you. When a roof is on the point of collapse, any little agitation might be enough to bring it down. As you went along, bent down to get under the low roof, you would squint sideways to try and see what was happening. Shakespeare says that cowards die many times before their deaths: that was me, all right, every time I went down the No.3 road. One day I made my usual fearful way along this tunnel, and I could see it couldn’t hold up much longer. Little runs of dust or small stones were falling from the cracks. But luck was on my side, and I got through the bad bit of the road, perhaps a couple of hundred yards, to the next engine. At an engine, of course, you were safe. If an engine is destroyed it costs money to replace, while if a man dies you just get another one free of charge; so when a roof over an engine got a bit dodgy, it was made secure immediately. (An ordinary bit of tunnel is allowed to get worse and worse before the mine management finally has to take men from other work in order to repair it; you might lose money doing that too soon.) This particular day, as soon as I got to the engine, and sank trembling on the bench to wipe the nervous sweat from my brow, a great roar came from behind me, an overwhelming noise. A huge cloud of dust billowed past. I felt a great sense of relief: I almost laughed. It had missed me! Now they would have to repair the road, to allow the miners to get in and the coal to get out. I would never have to walk under that rotten roof again. Almost certainly, my progress along the tunnel, with boots kicking against the rocks and the rails that made up the tunnel floor, had been enough to tip the crumbling roof over the edge.

    When the noise subsided, I took a few tentative steps back along the tunnel, and stared up at the great hole in the roof which had been opened up by the fall. Then I resumed my walk towards the coalface. Not far along, I met one of the No.3 district firemen (the name in South Wales for foremen – besides their electric head-lamps they had a little Davy lamp, with an open flame, to test for gas) coming back to see what the noise was. I showed him, so he said, “Well we’re cut off. There’s been a fall in the face between the No.3 and No.2 roads.” This sounds much worse than it was. The colliers in the face were already working to clear the fall there, and a couple of hours later you could get along the face and out of the district that way. It took them longer to clear the fall on the No.3 road, and when it was repaired, it became (comparatively) almost a pleasure to walk along it – if you can fancy strolling along a hole eight hundred metres deep in the earth, where only your cap-lamp stands between you and absolute, total, blackness.
    Alwyn Edgar

    Monday, January 10, 2011

    Allotments are not enough

    Book Review from the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Life Inc. By Douglas Rushkoff. Vintage Books 2010

    One Christmas Eve, the media theorist and author Douglas Rushkoff was mugged outside his apartment in Brooklyn, New York, but when he warned his neighbours about the crime via a community website, he received not thanks nor sympathy but a tirade of abuse. His neighbours were angry that reports of crime in the neighbourhood would drive down property prices. How did it come to this? How did our neighbours come to be more concerned with the market price of their house than with the wellbeing of the community they live in? How did people come to act more like corporations – concerned only with the value of their assets – than like human beings? Those are the questions Rushkoff sets out to answer.

    The problem, according to Rushkoff, is ‘corporatism’. By this he means the rise then global dominance of big corporations, and the suppression of every aspect of life that comes into conflict with the need of those corporations to make profits. This dominance then became so total that we internalised corporate values and came to treat life itself as if it were a corporation, with no right to exist or say anything unless whatever it was doing or saying brought home the dollars. Rushkoff’s argument is wide-ranging and detailed, sweeping from the origin of the corporation in the 16th century to modern-day consumerism, the globalisation of finance, individualism, New Age spirituality and the cult of home ownership. The book is full of arguments socialists will perhaps already be aware of, but with plenty of new and interesting details, including some entertaining journalistic investigations into the attitudes of those who run corporations, and the delusions of those who are their most desperate victims. Rushkoff gives an excellent account of how the world went mad, and is particularly good at showing how an abstract-sounding historical analysis actually plays out at the level of individual human lives.

    He even touches upon the concept that would have made his book better still – capital. But because he does not define or develop or investigate this key concept, his book all but ignores the most important part of the story. Like so many utopian thinkers before him, he proposes to lop off the bits of society he doesn’t like, without considering whether these might be socially necessary aspects of the normal functioning of capital – the functioning of which is to be left intact while the reformer goes about his business. In other words, Rushkoff does not consider whether the real cause of our problems might not be the corporation as such, but the circulation and accumulation of capital, of which the corporation is merely a form that has proved to be particularly useful. To use Rushkoff’s own words from a slightly different context, our problems are “everything to do with excess capital’s need for a place to grow”, with “the needs of capital”. The corporation meets those needs perfectly. Just not human needs.

    This may seem like nitpicking, but the full political importance of the criticism emerges when Rushkoff comes to his proposed solutions. He says he has no problem at all with ‘commerce’, for example, and if he has a problem with the circulation of money as capital, then he doesn’t mention it. (His analysis of money in the book doesn’t make it entirely clear, but he seems to associate the circulation of capital with ‘saving’, which he sees as necessary and good, but in need of being separated from money’s role as means of circulation.) But these are the key forces that give rise to the corporation and to the problems Rushkoff quite rightly wants us to rebel against. He is therefore urging us to swim against the tide, when it might be more sensible instead to climb out of the water.

    There is a strange contradiction in Rushkoff’s argument. He insists that he is not interested in building a ‘utopian’ nor a centralised, political movement for social change. Resistance to the system is, he says, ‘futile’, because the flexibility, ingenuity and sheer power of corporations will always defeat any opposition. This certainly has some truth to it: any oppositional movement must take extremely seriously the power of capital to flee – or better, incorporate and sell – rebellion. But Rushkoff proposes instead a series of measures that are equally doomed. He says we must take the power back by buying from local organic shops, patronising local cafes, growing our own veg, making our own local money, using less petrol in our cars, coaching our own children for the local football team, and so on. Every one of these acts, according to Rushkoff, is “another nail in the coffin” of the system. But he’s already shown us in the rest of the book that the wealth and power in society is concentrated in a very few hands, and defended by the state.

    It’s not at all clear why the all-powerful corporations that can brush off mass movements for social change as a minor irritant should tremble and topple if we plough what little spare time we have into an allotment. Nor does he seem to realise that the very enterprises he wants us to support rely on working-class wages – wages that are earned almost entirely from working all day in big corporations or for the state – to survive at all. Never mind the clever green sales pitch: small business enterprises are as dependent on big capitalism and big corporations and state subsidy as the rest of us.

    The problems we face as a society are too big and too systemic for these kind of small-scale, easy answers, and any proposed solutions must be as inevitably political as they are social and economic. The fact that even brilliant, big thinkers such as Rushkoff fight shy of these obvious facts, even while they are forced by the reality of their investigations into all but admitting them, reveals a great deal about the ideological victories of the past thirty years – and of where the most important political battles remain to be fought.

    Stuart Watkins

    Monday, January 3, 2011

    The cold reality of state power

    Editorial from the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

    There are plenty of reasons for socialists to be cheerful as we go into the New Year. Our class is once again on the move, fighting to protect its interests, and talking about its future. This is a very good thing. But New Year optimism always gives way in the end to the gloomy realism of a bleak January morning. It is in this spirit that we point to some worrying counter-developments.

    On 3 December, Spanish air-traffic controllers walked off the job and called in sick en masse in protest at the imposition of worse working conditions and longer hours. The right of workers to take collective action to protect their interests, including withdrawing their labour, would be considered by most to be a fundamental human right. But under capitalism, the right of capital accumulation to proceed uninhibited is also a fundamental right. Between equal rights, force decides. So the Spanish state declared martial law, sent in the military, and armed police forced the workers back to their desks under threat of a six-year prison sentence. That’s the freedom of labour for you.

    Meanwhile, the newspapers have been dominated over the past couple of months with revelations from the WikiLeaks website, which leaked secret communications between US diplomats and their seniors, and earlier posted evidence of atrocities by Western armed forces against civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. The real significance of these leaks is not so much their content – informed opinion was already aware of most of what was going on. It is that the leaks threaten to make ‘informed opinion’ available to more people. This is, from the point of view of the ruling class and its state, a disaster. First you give people information about what’s going on in the world. The next thing you know they’ll be wanting a say in it. That’s not conducive to flexible labour markets. And so the more extreme sections of the US commentariat called for the murder of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange; the website has been under continuous attack ever since from hackers and businesses; and Assange has been threatened with extradition to the US to face espionage charges. That’s the freedom of information for you.

    Finally, a growing protest movement in the UK against the cuts in state spending on education and other vital social services, led for now by students and university lecturers’ unions, is facing increased state repression. Demonstrators, mostly young adults and children, have been provoked and terrorised by armed police, ‘kettled’ for hours on freezing cold streets without access to food, water or toilet facilities, and then savagely beaten with truncheons. No one is spared this state thuggery: a disabled man with cerebral palsy was beaten by the police and dragged from his wheelchair across a road, and one young man had to have emergency brain surgery after a beating. A death at the hands of the state thugs cannot be very far away. And yet all the talk from the media and the police is of increasing the repression – snatch squads, targeted searches and water cannons have all been mooted. That’s the freedom to protest for you.

    What we’re facing is the simple fact that our class enemies hold state power, and will use it, ruthlessly to protect their interests and defend themselves from the threat of democracy. Which is why the Socialist Party argues for the prime importance of taking state power out of their hands.