Thursday, February 14, 2013

Is UKIP worth a vote? (2013)

From the February 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard 

A long-established favourite among wildlife TV devotees is the meerkat, those furry, bright-eyed, sociable dwellers in the African deserts using sentries standing straight up on their hind legs to spot approaching predators and ushering the others away into the safety of their burrows. Little wonder that they provoked such raptures. And then some whiz kid in an advertising agency woke up to the fact that ‘meerkat’ sounded very much like “market”. And from that swung out a campaign on TV, the internet and wherever, about a company which, for a fee, will inform us about the comparable costs of insuring cars or homes or of credit cards and loans... The slogan for all this was ‘Compare The Meerkat.’ Among the inducements to use this service there was the chance to be rewarded with a cuddly meerkat to take to bed. Or to buy a meerkat diary or calendar. Or a coffee mug. It threatened to be overwhelming.

Perhaps it was as a spin-off to this that the Minimalist web-site posted some photographs of meerkats alongside others of Nigel Farage, a founder and current leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). There are in fact some striking facial similarities between the two - which in some quarters may have been regarded as appropriate because political leader Farage pulls the same tricks as any insurance sales person, suggesting that the customers pay – but in this case with their votes – for some promised benefits of security and progress. ‘Well you're in luck, you're in exactly the right place! ... We always put our customers first!’ bellows Compare The Market while UKIP assures us that we can safely vote for them because they believe ‘ every area of policy, in listening to the people and giving them more control over the services they receive’.

From what is known about Farage, it is unlikely that he took umbrage at being likened to the meerkat. His friend and associate, MEP Godfrey Bloom, says that his lifestyle is ‘...appalling, he'd be the first to admit it. He drinks too much red wine and he smokes too much.’ Which is very different from the way things were under his predecessor, Lord Pearson, who felt he had to resign because he was ‘...not much good at party politics’ or perhaps, as one rather more specific opinion of him had it, ‘a bumbling toff; wealthy, out of touch and eccentric.’ But Farage may prefer to be judged by results: UKIP has recently notched up some impressive electoral performances – notably when it came second in the by-election in Rotherham last November – and he can claim to be one of the most easily recognised politicians in the country. In fact, a recent MSN poll named him as the top politician of 2012.

Since its inception UKIP has advanced on the electoral front, if only to occupy some of the ground left open by dissent within other parties and the anger of the LibDem membership at being in coalition with the Tories. Threatening by-election results left panic-stricken Tories asking whether their outlook might be more settled if they dumped Clegg and his LibDems in favour of unity with UKIP. Any such move might be hampered by Cameron's opinion in 2006 of UKIP as ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists...’ although his flexibility in such matters can be judged by his welcoming the LibDems into government in 2010 in spite of his recent assessment of them as ‘a joke.’ Farage was first elected as an MEP – which was by no means consistent with his trumpeted hatred of Europe – in 1999, making his name for such contributions to their debates as his description of Herman Van Rompuy, the President of the European Council, as ‘...having the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk’. He refused to withdraw or apologise and was penalised by the loss of ten days Members' allowance. He leads a group under the name of Europe of Freedom and Democracy, the principles of which enable it to accommodate a Mario Borghezio whose description of the re-election of Barack Obama was ‘Multiracial America has won, which I can't fucking stand’ and who, on a separate occasion, proclaimed ‘Vive les Blancs de l'Europe. And underlying these matters Farage is rated, in terms of his attendance, among the worst value for what he gives as an MEP.

He has kept up that style, regarded by his followers as challenging the more established and rigid political mannerisms. At the 2010 general election he was not impressed by the custom that the current Speaker of the House of Commons should not be opposed and stood for UKIP in Buckingham against John Bercow. On polling day, he unwittingly attracted further attention when he was a passenger in a private aircraft which nose-dived into the ground when the UKIP banner it was towing became entangled in its tailplane. Both Farage and the pilot were lucky to escape with their lives; Farage was seriously injured but shrugged off the pain as he hobbled about his business, seemingly unconcerned about what other disasters might be consequent on flying a banner-flaunting UKIP and his place in it. The pilot responded by threatening to kill Farage and the crash investigator. Eventually a sympathetic judge decided that he (the pilot, not Farage) was suffering from ‘a depressive disorder of moderate severity... clearly needed help’ and made him subject to a Community Order.

To any voters who can be said to be ‘depressive’ as a result of their betrayal by the political parties of capitalism, UKIP claims to be therapeutically energising, more hopeful, offering something unique. In fact, it can hardly be distinguished from the rest. Typically, its policies claim to deal with capitalist problems associated with wages, unemployment, crime, housing, the health service... It offers nothing to persuade anyone to make an exception and to go out and vote for another period of capitalism and its impotent leaders. There is, of course, one difference for UKIP, in the bizarrely damaging behaviour of its leader. To vote for it on that basis would be a symptom of clearly being in need of help.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Winstanley, Marx and Henry George ( 2012)

From the December 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Occupy movement has led to the ideas of these thinkers being discussed again at public meetings.

To mark the first anniversary of the Occupy camp at St Paul’s London Occupy organised a series of ‘New Putney Debates’ in October and November. Some took place in the same church in Putney as the original 1647 debates in Cromwell’s army. Two were devoted to the question of land.

The first, on 1 November on ‘Land and Democracy,’ was billed as:

‘Nearly 400 years ago the Diggers described the Earth as a ‘common storehouse for all’ and objected to land being kept in the hands of a few. Are landowners still oppressing the people today, and how should we respond?’

One response was given by Natalie Bennett, the new Leader of the Green Party, who argued her party’s case for a tax on land values. She quoted Churchill (when he was a Liberal Cabinet minister before WW1) and Henry George as favouring this.

Not being a product of labour, the price of land is determined entirely by demand and can command a higher price the more fertile it is or the more favourably it is situated (for example, in a city centre or near a railway station). Land prices rise whenever the land’s situation becomes more favourable (as when a town expands), the benefit of which is reaped entirely by the landowner without having to lift a finger. The idea of a Land Value Tax (LTV) is to tax away this windfall benefit.

Henry George (1839-1897), author of a widely-read book ‘Progress and Poverty,’ was hugely popular in America and was once nearly elected mayor of New York.  He advocated that a LVT should be the only tax. Hence the other name of the Georgist movement: ‘Single Taxers.’ Natalie Bennett, while favouring a LVT, didn’t go that far. She was challenged by a Liberal Democrat in the audience who said that it was her party’s policy too. She added that it had also been supported by Karl Marx.

This is true. One of the ten immediate measures (the first in fact) advocated in the Communist Manifesto by the Communist League of Germany for implementation had it come to win political control in 1848 was: ‘Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.’ Marx later explained (in a letter to F. A. Sorge in 1881) that, as a separate measure on its own, this was contradictory and criticised Henry George and others for ‘believing that if ground rent were transformed into a state tax all the evils of capitalist production would disappear of themselves’.

In the 1880s and 1890s Georgists and Socialists were rivals for working-class support, the Georgists arguing that to solve working class problems it was enough to tax away the rents of landowners while Socialists argued for the common ownership not just of land but of industry too.

It seems that this rivalry is being revived today, with many in the Occupy movement attracted by ideas of Henry George. This became evident at the second meeting on 9 November entitled: ‘A New Economy.’ The announcement for this started off well enough:

‘The foundations of the New Economy are: the means of life (water, food and housing) for all as a right; land and resources held in common and the benefits share,’

before petering out with ‘alternative currencies to foster greater equality and societal cohesion’.

It soon became clear that the organisers did not envisage ‘land and resources held in common’. What they wanted was a single tax on land values.  According to their handout, one of the ‘alternative currencies’ they had in mind was:

‘land backed interest free currency –spent into the economy to create infrastructure, rental income to fund citizens income and public services.’

In other words, the government would get money by taxing away the rental income, real or notional, of landowners (which these days includes not just the Duke of Westminster but those who own the leasehold or freehold of their homes) and using this to pay everybody a basic income as well as to finance its own expenditure. It is not clear that this is actually an ‘alternative currency’ since the existence of rental incomes to be taxed away assumes that there already is a currency. What they seem to mean is ‘land based interest free government financing,’ which would allow the government to dispense with borrowing money.

Whatever it is, it is not ‘land and resources held in common’. This was, in fact, specifically rejected by the speakers as unnecessary and leading to what happened in China under Mao during the period of the rural communes. This is the standard Georgist position, that common ownership of land would lead to tyranny and dictatorship, so private ownership of land is to continue in their scheme. They are not really opposed to capitalism either. (Henry George certainly wasn’t.) They even defended profit, saying that it was justified in that an element of risk was involved in contrast to interest which was a certain income. They cited Sharia Law as making this distinction too. Basically, what they are against is rent and interest but not profit.

Karl Marx came up at this meeting too when one of the speakers claimed that Marx agreed that landowners exploited both capitalists and workers. Actually, Marx’s position was that the capitalists exploited the workers but then were themselves exploited by the landowners. This is not at all the same, since it means that end exploitation by landowners would benefit only the capitalists and not the workers. Marx also looked forward to the time when: “from the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men” (Capital, volume 3, chapter 46).

It is rather surprising that pro-capitalist ideas should be advocated within the Occupy movement which even the new Lord Mayor of the City of London, Roger Gifford, recognised started off as anti-capitalist. As he told the ‘i’ newspaper (10 November), ‘What they were basically saying was: “We don’t like capitalism as it looks today, we want another system.”’ What the Georgists in the Occupy movement are saying, rather, is, ‘We don’t like capitalism as it looks today. We want to give it a new look.’

What this shows is that it is not enough merely to have an anti-capitalist gut reaction. You need to know what capitalism really is and how it works. Otherwise you are going to be confused and misled, whether by currency cranks or by land reformers.

At the first meeting, Gerrard Winstanley was favourably mentioned many times, even if he was misunderstood as merely advocating setting up agricultural communes. In fact he was far more radical than this, advocating the common ownership both of the land and of products made from it to which everyone would have free access without money –what the announcement for the second meeting called ‘the means of life (water, food and housing) for all as of right; land and resources held in common and the benefits shared’. In this, even though three centuries earlier, he was far in advance of Henry George and his single tax on the rental incomes of land that would be left in private ownership.

It is good that people are discussing the ideas of past thinkers such as Gerrard Winstanley, Karl Marx and even Henry George. It shows that they are looking for an alternative to the capitalist production-for-profit system. It is disappointing, though, that at the moment it is ideas that are not really anti-capitalist which seem to have the upper hand in discussions within the Occupy movement, at least in London.
Adam Buick

Capitalism No Better (2013)

The Cooking the Books column from the February 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Deborah Orr, who writes on economic matters for the Guardian from a vaguely Green standpoint, entitled her 28 December column, ‘It’s time for a better capitalism, one that creates jobs and provides security’, arguing that ‘the civil, civilised kind of capitalism we have long been promised could yet emerge from the rubble of the financial crisis.’

Her argument was based on what she sees some firms as doing in the current economic crisis:

‘After decades during which we have all be told that we must allow the market to decide, the market is making a pro-social and humane decision. It is choosing to sacrifice profits in order to save itself. This is what the sales are all about – companies slashing their profits in order to keep ticking over, providing jobs, maintaining a presence. Staying in the game is being valued above providing shareholder value.’

This is not what sales and their lower than usual prices are about. They are a business strategy designed to maximise income over expenditure, i.e., to make a profit by selling more at a lower profit rather than less at a higher profit.

Some firms, in the present economic crisis, may well be prepared to ‘tick over’, merely covering their costs without making a profit, just to stay in business. But this would not be the start of a ‘fairer’ capitalism in which firms seek merely to cover their costs so as to provide jobs for their workers and lower prices for their customers.

Doing this to try to survive the crisis would not be a ‘pro-social and humane’ decision, but a hard-headed business decision in the interest of shareholders, since if a company goes under – as Comet did before Christmas and Jessops, HMV and Blockbuster did in January – the shareholders lose nearly everything.

Surviving means that when the slump comes to an end and growth resumes, as it will sooner or later (even if later rather than sooner, as there is now talk of a triple-dip recession), the company is still ‘in the game’, ready to take part again in the chase after profits.

In imagining that companies accepting to make no or very little profit could prove to be permanent, Orr is being naive. Capitalism could not function on that basis. What would be the point for a capitalist to invest money in a business just to end up at the end of the accounting year with the same amount of money?

The aim of capitalist production is to end up with more money at the end than at the beginning. What Marx expressed as M-C-M’ where C is the purchase of the materials and labour to produce something. Orr’s ‘better capitalism’ based on M-C-M would not really be capitalism at all, just some unrealistic economic system that could never exist.

In any event, it is not the case that most companies involved in post-Christmas sales are just ‘ticking over’, still less aiming merely to do this. They are aiming to make as much profit as they can and they will be succeeding, even if for some this won’t be as much as in previous years. Others, on the other hand, benefitting from the disappearance of their rivals, will be making more than before.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

I wanted to boo! (1996)

Theatre Review from the August 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

John Gabriel Borkman by Henrik Ibsen (National Theatre)

John Gabriel Borkman is the story of a failed entrepeneur but, more than that, it is also the story of a failed human being.

Borkman the power-seeker does a deal with a friend so that the friend can marry the woman Borkman supposedly loves, whilst Borkman marries her twin. Caught embezzling the bank's funds he serves eight years in jail and then spends the next eight locked in his own room waiting for the call to come, waiting for "the man of vision" to work the financial miracle [sic] on which the well-being of the grateful citizenry supposedly depends.

The action of the play takes place over a few hours. The arrival of the woman he once loved, and now his sister-in-law, and his son's affair with a married woman, force Borkman out into the open - both figuratively and literally - and he dies of a heart attack on a freezing mountainside.

Writing in the programme Michael Ratcliffe notes that Ibsen, like his contemporary Marx, recognised that the pursuit of capital corrodes human relationships. But if Ibsen is, in consequence, critical of nineteenth century capitalism, this is not apparent in the play - or at least the current production. We are presented with a slice of bourgeois life: sisters who don't talk to one another, an aunt who tries to appropriate another's son as though he was a possession to be claimed, an estranged husband who has become almost a hermit, and so on. It isn't very edifying, but as played on the stage of the Lyttleton Theatre one would think it all very normal and unexceptional. Presumably the audience is supposed to be shocked by the pretension, the egocentricity, the cold inhumanity of most of those on display. But if shocks were intended they were certainly not realised when I saw the play in preview. Indeed the final scene in which the callous Borkman dies still muttering about his vision, and now apparently forgiven by his sister-in-law, fails to generate any of the feelings of disgust and anger which it so clearly warrants. Cast and director appear to be demanding our sympathy rather than stirring our revulsion and horror.

The audience seemed not so much sympathetic or affronted, as bored - apart that is for those happily clapping the reputations rather than the performances of an all-star cast, and enrolled members of the Institute of Directors. I wanted to boo. The play is presented in association with the National Theatre's Private Contributors. Presumably on behalf of the international capitalist class?
Michael Gill

The fall of Berlin (2002)

Book Review from the September 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

Berlin – The Downfall 1945, by Anthony Beevor, Penguin Viking.

For those able to recall the fall of Berlin in April/May 1945, Anthony Beevor's book is a powerful reminder of the horrific events that brought the war in Europe to a close. These final stages of suffering, death and destruction were only relieved by the hope that the war was near its end. At the time our knowledge was limited to what was made available through the press, radio and newsreel, all of which was heavily censored. Since then, the story has been re-told with more information becoming available. Anthony Beevor has had the advantage of access to archive material and, particularly since the fall of the Bolshevik regimes in Russia and East Europe, to the archives of the KGB.

He is able to tell us for example how the Russian campaign to take Berlin was partly shaped by the desperate need of Stalin and his henchmen to get their hands on nuclear materials. From Klaus Fuchs and other spies, Stalin was aware of the Manhattan Project (the American programme to develop the atom bomb). They were also aware of similar though less advanced research in Germany partly at the Kaiser Wilhelm Insitute for Physics which was situated west of Berlin at Dahlem, designated as part of the post war carve up to be in the American Zone of occupation. The huge numbers of Russian casualties were caused partly by the determination to occupy this research facility. As a result, the NKVD (later the KGB) were able to take possession not just of scientists but “250 kgs of metallic uranium; three tons of uranium oxide; twenty litres of heavy water”. This also reminds us that the death and destruction that marked the fall of Berlin was to continue for three more months in the Pacific culminating in the use of even more terrifying weapons, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

What happened at Dahlem with the arrival of Russian troops who, with their bitter knowledge of the atrocities carried out by German forces in Russia and East Europe, were in a frenzy of hate and revenge, was an accepted part of the Russian advance. At its convent, which was also a maternity clinic and orphanage, “Nuns, young girls, old women, pregnant women and mothers who had just given birth were all raped without pity”. Estimates from the two main Berlin hospitals ranged from 95,000 to 130,000 rape victims. One doctor deduced that out of approximately l00,000 women raped in Berlin, some 10,000 died as a result, mostly from suicide. “Altogether at least two million German women are thought to have been raped, and a substantial minority, if not a majority, appear to have suffered multiple rape.”

According to Anthony Beevor, “Stalin and his marshals paid little regard to the lives of their soldiers. The casualties for the three fronts involved in the Berlin operation were extremely high, with 78,291 killed and 274,184 wounded.” The numbers for German forces would have been similar but with many more civilian deaths. For those who lived, conditions became disease ridden and primitive. With the shelling and constant bombing, “Over a million people in the city were without any home at all. They continued to shelter in cellars and air raid shelters. Smoke from cooking fires emerged from what looked like piles of rubble, as women tried to re-create something of a home life amid the ruins.” The casualties amongst women were especially high. With the water system damaged many were killed queuing with buckets at the street pumps. One lingering image is of desperate women, shuffling up to fill the gaps in the queues caused by exploding shells.

On the 30 April Hitler and his bride of the previous day, Eva Braun, killed themselves. Just north of Berlin, Ravensbruck, the women's concentration camp was liberated. On the 1 May Goebbels and his wife Magda killed themselves together with their six children, all aged under twelve.

Anthony Beevor makes no attempt to be seriously analytical. He takes the war as given. His book is then a monumental description of its brutal closing events and the interplay of leading personalities, particularly as they acted out the final drama in the mad, hysterical atmosphere of the Fuhrer's bunker. It was in that closely confined underground space that extreme authoritarianism, blind fear and obedience, and a deranged ideology combined to produce a descent into utter self-destruction. As the main actors lost all contact with reality the author describes this descent as the “Fuhrerdammerung,” but nothing in Wagner's works could match the real life tragedy.

The absence of analysis in Anthony Beevor's book invites us to think about the causes of this death and destruction and to reflect upon the wider social context in which it happened. One response has been to simply say that Hitler was mad. It is very likely that this was true but it still leaves unexplained the reasons why millions gave him the political support from which developed of one of the most hideously cruel regimes of the 20th century.

The reading of page after page of destruction, rape and killing gives the impression that entire populations had gone collectively mad. This was despite the undoubted ability of all to co-operate in ways that could have enhanced the lives of everyone. Instead of a rational understanding of how we could best serve each other's needs through unity there prevailed the divisive and hateful ideologies of nationalism, leadership and racism. And it was the background of national economic rivalries that allowed these attitudes to fester and grow with such disastrous results.

But what have we learned since then? There is not much to be hopeful about. The huge gap between our mutual interests and the ideas we need to realise them seems to be as wide as ever. As a result, the destruction and the killing continues. One lesson of Anthony Beevor's book is that whilst our ideas remain out of harmony with our need for unity and co-operation we will always remain liable to be manipulated into elevating the miseries of death and destruction over peace, security and the pursuit of happiness.
Pieter Lawrence

Working Class Dismissed (2013)

Editorial from the February 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

David Cameron’s accent, though less plummy than some of his Tory predecessors, fairly tinkles with the sound of silver spoons being removed from their mahogany cases.  We Brits with our highly attuned class antennae know a toff when we hear one.  So when considering how it is that this man’s government is preparing to unleash a programme of ‘welfare reforms’ that seems set to devastate the lives of thousands of working people, cynics observe:  ‘How can you expect a man like Cameron to begin to understand the needs of ‘ordinary’ working people’ – many of whom, it is often said with real justification, live one payslip away from destitution.  

There is some truth in the observation, but Cameron’s ignorance of working class lives is not the source of his government’s attack, because, underneath the superficialities of accent and dress, class exists as part of what a capitalist economy is, and plays a leading role in government policy. 

Economic class is much simpler than the British, multi-tiered system of class identities.  It’s an objective matter of wealth: if you don’t have sufficient wealth not to have to work for a living then you are member of the working class.  It doesn’t matter whether you work in overalls or a business suit, on a building site or in front of a PC; if the only way you can support yourself or your family is to work for a wage or a salary, then economically you are working class.    If you can derive a good income from the wealth you own through rent, interest and profit, then you are a capitalist.   

Class defined in this way is not a doctrinaire attempt to stick labels onto people that may not want them.  It is not a personal or arbitrary decision, but an observable matter of social conflict.  The working and capitalist classes not only possess a different degree of wealth, but they use it in different ways: the worker uses it to live, the capitalist to extract more wealth from the worker.  This sets their material interests on a direct collision course.  Under threat of annihilation and bankruptcy in the capitalist marketplace the capitalist class is forced to reduce wages at every opportunity and to get more productivity out of its employees. The working class, to protect its standard of living, is forced to resist. 

Crucially, class also determines access to government power.  A capitalist government has no choice but to manage capitalism, and capitalism can only be managed in the interests of the capitalist class.  The government, whatever form it takes, must always place the interests of the capitalist class first.

The shiny, immobile features of David Cameron and his exclusive Eton education may be markers of his class, and he may lack understanding of the lives of workers, but the class issues that determine his government’s policy-making are not personal attributes of politicians.  In government, Cameron and his cabinet colleagues are representatives of the capitalist class, and it is in the objective interests of the capitalist class and not the working class that his government, or any government, must act.