Friday, June 28, 2013

Lord Byron and the Luddites (2011)

From the June 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

I recently had the opportunity to witness a fascinating historical re-enactment. It was the open air reading of a speech for a group of students. This reading was a reminder of how little the effects of capitalism, and the crisis that is capitalism, change. Two hundred years ago, in the midst of the trade depression during the European war against Napoleon’s France, English weavers rose up in a campaign of machine wrecking that has gone down in history as Luddism. Across Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire, groups of weavers attacked machines held by owners benefiting from the collapsing labour market.

The response of the masters was first to call in the militia and the army, and ultimately to make the very act of frame wrecking a capital offence. In the midst of this mayhem, we have another recognisable feature: the celebrity campaigner. In this case, it was the first modern celebrity himself, George Gordon, Lord Byron.

The poet used his position as the inheritor of a peerage to make a maiden speech in the House of Lords against the Frame Breaking Act. Not trusting himself to improvise a speech, he wrote it out beforehand. Although, by accounts, his delivery was poor (much as the modern re-enactment was), it is a clear example of what his hero, the poet, Alexander Pope meant when he wrote:

“True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest, What oft was Thought, but ne'er so well Exprest”

It was a finely crafted piece of prose. He used his skill with the pen to rally to the defence of those workers. He observed “As the sword is the worst argument that can be used, so should it be the last. In this instance it has been the first; but providentially as yet only in the scabbard. The present measure will, indeed, pluck it from the sheath; yet had proper meetings been held in the earlier stages of these riots, had the grievances of these men and their masters (for they also had their grievances) been fairly weighed and justly examined, I do think that means might have been devised to restore these workmen to their avocations, and tranquillity to the country.”

He was no socialist, but he had a clear sympathy for the predicament of the impoverished weavers, and the desperation that lay behind their actions: “they have arisen from circumstances of the most unparalleled distress: the perseverance of these miserable men in their proceedings, tends to prove that nothing but absolute want could have driven a large, and once honest and industrious, body of the people, into the commission of excesses so hazardous to themselves, their families, and the community”. In fact, a socialist speaker could hardly have put the case more plainly. In countering the outcry against these ‘mobs’ he asked: “Are we aware of our obligations to a mob? It is the mob that labour in the fields and serve in your houses –  that man your army and recruit your navy – that have enabled you to defy the world, and can also defy you when neglect and calamity have driven them to despair.”

The weavers, he asserted: “were not ashamed to beg, but there was none to relieve them: their own means of subsistence were cut off, all other employment preoccupied; and their excesses, however to be deplored and condemned, can hardly be subject to surprise”. Nor was this simply the reaction of those frightened by technology but of men “willing to dig, but the spade was in other hands”.

Throughout he deployed his famed wit to skewer the masters and the originators of the law, but it was at the end of his speech he was most scathing:

“[S]uppose one of these men, as I have seen them meagre with famine, sullen with despair, careless of a life which your lordships are perhaps about to value at something less than the price of a stocking-frame; suppose this man surrounded by those children for whom he is unable to procure bread at the hazard of his existence, about to be torn for ever from a family which he lately supported in peaceful industry, and which it is not his fault than he can no longer so support; suppose this man – and there are ten thousand such from whom you may select your victims, – dragged into court to be tried for this new offence, by this new law, – still there are two things wanting to convict and condemn him, and these are, in my opinion, twelve butchers for a jury, and a Jefferies for a judge!” (The full speech can be found online here:

A year later, in 1813, such a jury of butchers was sadly found, and 17 men were executed at York. Then as now, the masters had recourse to the bayonet and the noose. Then, as now, this was not forgotten.
Pik Smeet

Bone of contention (2007)

Book Review from the March 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Bash the Rich by Ian Bone, Tangent Books, £9.99. 2006.

Like the notorious Class War journal he founded and edited, Ian Bone’s autobiography is a rather mixed bag; chaotic, energetic, full of aggro and humour a-plenty, and containing some sharp but sometimes ‘prole-ier than thou’ political observations. Subtitled True-Life Confessions of An Anarchist in the UK, this honest and entertaining book details up to 1986 the political adventures of the man dubbed “the most dangerous ... in Britain” by the excitable Sunday People newspaper. This was at a time when Class War, the paper founded by Bone, was at its peak, baring its political arse at the establishment and urging fellow activists to ‘bash the rich’.

Before arriving at this point, the book explores Bone’s family background and the formative years of his political activity. An early success came when he launched a local paper where he was based in Swansea. After writing a pamphlet detailing the corruption of the local council, Bone and his allies produced Alarm, a paper which reached sales of up to 5000 a week. Having built up impressive momentum, Bone and three comrades stood in local council elections, but it’s a surprising omission of the book that the results are not mentioned here. Bone describes the paper as “an organ of organised class hatred;” one which focused on corruption, gossip and scandal, and made a virtue of its lack of political theory.

Whilst in some ways a welcome antidote to the convoluted and often po-faced theoretical treatises beloved of the Left, this lack of political oversight was a weakness, and one which was only partly overcome by Bone’s most successful project, Class War. He had come to recognise the limits of localised activities, and Class War was launched with the specific aim of putting “class and violence back at the top of the agenda.”  The idea was to link up those who were prepared to physically confront the State, from innercity rioters and miners’ ‘hit squads’ to animal rights activists and the occasional football hooligan.

In case it all seems to be about the (understandable) politics of revenge, Bone suggests that Class War was merely following in the hallowed tradition of popular mob violence. Aggressive direct action was not just intended to unnerve the well-to do, but to act as a rallying cry to a largely disinterested majority. However, the book isn’t really explicit enough on what kind of society the author wants direct action to lead to. It’s obvious what he’s ‘anti’, but the ‘pro’ bit needs fleshing out. This links to the issue of how such a society can be brought about, and what social force is necessary to achieve this.

One of the most thoughtful chapters comes near the end when Bone discusses the problems revolutionaries face in getting our fellow workers to take an interest in noncapitalist politics. He asserts that groups like the Anarchist Federation and the SWP seem to think that rational explanations of what’s wrong with capitalism are all that’s needed to effect revolutionary consciousness. “The truth, of course, is that people do not respond in a rational way, so painstakingly explaining injustice in rational terms gets you nowhere.” He then quotes with approval  Wilhelm Reich’s view that revolutionaries, “must find the connection with the petty, banal, primitive, simple everyday life of the broadest mass of the people...”. For Class War, a good old scrap was as good a method as any to achieve this.

Such methods, however, can backfire and alienate. If a classless, moneyless, stateless society is to be attained, it surely needs the conscious understanding and desire of a large majority. To be fair, the author does state that “violence wasn’t the answer to every question...” In fact Bone cites the 1985 riots of Broadwater Farm and the death of P.C. Keith Blacklock as a turning point for Class War, although the organisation wasn’t involved there. “We needed to embrace our class not marginalise ourselves by walking into the ‘loonie category’ noose being dangled before us.” According to Bone, Class War’s scabrous column, Hospitalised Copper “was funny. ‘Dead Copper’ wasn’t funny.”

Unfortunately, the book ends rather suddenly, on the eve of the Wapping Dispute in early 1986. Questions of tactics and direction were exercising the Class War collective, but it had some years yet to run before eventually coming to a halt. Maybe a volume two is in the pipeline, and if so it will hopefully also combine this refreshing mix of humour and politics. Bone has certainly had a great deal of fun along the way, and made sure that such enjoyment was reflected in the various projects he was involved in. To end with an example, the first two Class War conferences are said to have been preoccupied with sexual politics, and Bone recounts with wry discomfort how one contributor earnestly proposed  ‘forced bisexuality’ as a way of breaking with bourgeois convention.
Robert Whitfield

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Flawed Assumptions (2013)

Book Review from the January 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

What Went Wrong With Economics by Michael Reiss. Goldhurst Press. 2011

This is an interesting and provocative book that sets out to challenge a number of the received assumptions of conventional modern economics. The book is subtitled ‘The Flawed Assumptions That Led Economists Astray’ and this captures the essence of Reiss’s line of argument. There is an underlying supposition that if only economists really understood the market economy and its operation they would more effectively be able to recommend workable reforms to it.

Reiss makes some well argued points on occasion about the dynamic of markets, using a number of simplified, illustrative models (some taken from game theory or risk analysis) to explain his key points. Thus he shows that the dynamic of financial asset prices in capitalism is different to that for the prices of most other goods and services (e.g. when asset prices rise that often makes them more rather than less attractive to potential buyers – like those buying houses, or shares – on the basis that what goes up must continue to go up). He also discusses issues such as how statistical measurements within capitalism don’t always take into account such apparent market distortions – inflation measurements, for example, typically don’t include asset prices for houses, bonds, shares and so on, despite their prominence in the economy.

Reiss argues for a financial transaction tax on secondary sharedealing to stop stock market bubbles, and land reform and banking reform to address housing bubbles. He also argues against private pensions on the grounds that these also encourage asset price bubbles and crashes, and that the banks should not ‘create money’ for non-productive purposes like the granting of mortgages, share and derivatives dealing, and so on.

There are a number of problems with these so-called solutions to modern economic problems, however. One is that the proverbial genie is already out of the bottle and won’t go back in. If any government tried to implement these reforms they would only serve to prompt a massive outflow of capital to parts of the world economy that did not impose such restrictions. Such a capital outflow would cripple any economy and no government in the modern world would seriously contemplate it.

Also, Reiss is missing a trick, because he has focused almost entirely on what might be termed the financial and credit-based superstructure of capitalism as a system rather than its fundamentals. Indeed, it is illustrative that Marx and Marxian economics are not mentioned at all. This is a serious omission because Marxian economics explains why the surface phenomena within capitalism that Reiss rails against are the reflection of the deeper, underlying ‘laws of motion’ of the market economy.

To take one example, the problem within capitalism regarding housing and mortgages is not that large numbers of people are debt-slaves to banks and that this situation needs reforming (there are plenty of countries in the world where renting – part of Reiss’s favoured solution – is more common than buying houses using mortgages, and people there are no better off because of it). The real problem is that capitalism everywhere is based on an antagonistic system of income distribution where the vast majority of the population cannot directly access housing on the basis of need. Access to this housing is dependant instead on their ability to use their restricted salaries, wages or benefits to pay for it. But those who own the land and the houses (as well as the factories and offices, etc more generally) naturally wish to pay their workers as little as possible, so there is a clash of interests. It is this intrinsically class-divided aspect of capitalism, combined with the anarchic, unplanned nature of the market economy’s expansion that is a consequence of its competitive nature, which is the real issue. It is this that causes permanent social problems like poor housing and also periodic economic crises. Credit and asset price bubbles are an aggravating feature of this, but not its fundamental cause (for instance, there would have been no sub-prime mortgage crisis without an impoverished section of the working class in need of these sub-prime mortgages . . . ).

For Marx, the financial apparatus of capitalism and the periodic expansion and contraction of its credit system wasn’t the problem of itself, but essentially a reflection of it. Indeed, at root, it is focusing almost exclusively on this surface phenomenon rather than the deeper, underlying structural factors within capitalism that has led Reiss astray in this otherwise readable book. 

Capitalism is Sharia-Compliant (2013)

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

Sharia law bans lending money at interest, denouncing it, as Christianity used to, as ‘usury.’ So how come there can be such a thing as ‘Islamic banking?’

Sharia commercial law emerged as a way of regulating trade in pre-capitalist times in those parts of the world where Islam was the dominant religion. This trade was fairly extensive (think Silk Road) and involved buying goods in one place and transporting them to another where they could be sold at a higher price that would more than cover the expenses. Buying cheap to sell dear. Mohammed himself had been such a merchant.

Sharia commercial law was perfectly happy with a merchant making a money profit and distinguished this from a moneylender’s interest by seeing it as coming from the merchant using goods rather than money. The profit derived from the goods, not money. It is this concept that modern Muslim theologians have built on to get round their religion’s ban on making money out of money; this is all right as long as it involves using goods in the course of making the money.

In fact sharia commercial law developed many of the same practices that later emerged in Christian Europe. For instance, the word ‘cheque’ comes from the Arabic word sakk. The (London) Times Raconteur supplement on ‘Islamic Finance’ (16 April) quoted Harris Irfan, described as ‘a seasoned Islamic finance professional,’ as saying:

‘Trade finance ... fits neatly into the Sharia system because, rather than providing a loan and charging interest on it, the bank effectively buys the asset and then sells it to the end-buyer, with the mark-up being the profit.’

Discounting trade bills was precisely one of the origins of banking in Western Europe. There are ‘Islamic mortgages’ too:

‘Common forms of Islamic mortgages include ijara, in which the homebuyer pays rent until they purchase the property outright by a given period, and diminishing musharaka, which is an equity partnership where the homebuyer and mortgage-provider share ownership of the property until it is bought back in monthly instalments.’

The trick, then, is to make a loan of money appear to be a loan of a non-money asset and the Muslim theologians will declare it sharia-compliant. Property speculation easily passes the test as, like the merchants of old, it involves buying something cheap to sell dear later.

But what about bonds? Surely these, as an arrangement whereby you lend a government or a company money and receive regular fixed payments and get your money back at the end, can’t be sharia-compliant? But no, Islamic financiers have developed a product called ‘sukuk’ which is a bond in all but name.

This gets by the clerics by claiming that the stream of income that provides the regular payments comes from the asset in which the money is invested, not from the money itself. Actually, this is the case. Which means, ironically, that sharia commercial law has a more accurate explanation for banks’ interest than that of most economics textbooks. Despite appearances, money can’t produce more money out of nothing. The source of interest is always in the end, and in however roundabout a way, past or future production; in other words, from the use of non-money assets.

Sharia law condemns the appearance but not the substance; in fact it emphasises the substance. In Marxist terms it condemns M-M but not M-C-M (where M is money and C is commodity). Which is why it had no objection to capitalist production when it developed. Capitalism, Muslim capitalists will be pleased to learn, is sharia-compliant.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Class Struggle From Above (2013)

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

Some supporters of capitalism are getting worried. They are beginning to wonder whether Marx might not have been right. The latest is Michael Schuman in an article ‘Marx’s Revenge: How Class Struggle is Shaping the World’ in the Business & Money section of Time (25 March):

‘With the global economy in a protracted crisis, and workers around the world burdened by joblessness, debt and stagnant incomes, Marx’s biting critique of capitalism — that the system is inherently unjust and self-destructive — cannot be so easily dismissed. Marx theorized that the capitalist system would inevitably impoverish the masses as the world’s wealth became concentrated in the hands of a greedy few, causing economic crises and heightened conflict between the rich and working classes. “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole,” Marx wrote. A growing dossier of evidence suggests that he may have been right.’

The Marx quote comes from the last-but-one chapter of Volume 1 of Capital on ‘The Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation.’ The meaning of this passage has been a subject of controversy amongst those in the Marxist tradition. Some have interpreted it as meaning that Marx expected the working class to become more and more  ‘impoverished’ in an absolute sense as capitalism developed, ie. that they would come to have less and less to live on. Others (including us) argued that it meant only that workers would become worse off relatively, ie. in relation to the amount of wealth they produced that went to the capitalist class.

But irrespective of any long-term trend (which clearly has not been towards falling real wages), in the boom/slump cycle that is built-in to capitalism, real wages rise in the boom and fall in the slump, as Marx was well aware. This is what is happening today in the present slump: real wages are falling while the rich have continued to get richer.

‘The consequence of this widening inequality,’ Schuman noted, ‘is just what Marx predicted: the class struggle is back ... Society has been perceived as split between the ‘99%’ (the regular folk struggling to get by) and the ‘1%’ (the connected and privileged superrich getting richer every day).’

Actually, the class struggle never went away. It’s built-in to capitalism. What is happening today is that governments, acting in the interest of the capitalist class, have started an offensive to reduce our standard of living and we workers are trying to fight back. Not too successfully, as the increased unemployment that occurs in a slump has reduced our bargaining power.

Marx predicted, says Schuman, that ‘as the proletariat woke to their common interests, they’d overthrow the unjust capitalist system and replace it with a new, socialist wonderland.’ But, he reassures his readers, so far ‘Marx’s revolution has yet to materialise. Workers may have common problems, but they aren’t banding together to resolve them. Union membership in the U.S., for example, has declined through the economic crisis, while the Occupy Wall Street movement fizzled.’

As French labour historian Jacques Rancière pertinently pointed out to him, the protestors ‘aren’t aiming to replace capitalism, as Marx had forecast, but merely to reform it. ‘We’re not seeing protesting classes call for an overthrow or destruction of socioeconomic systems in place,’ he explains. ‘What class conflict is producing today are calls to fix systems so they become more viable and sustainable for the long run by redistributing the wealth created.’

True, sadly. But that won’t work as capitalism cannot be reformed to operate in the interest of the vast majority. The workers will still have a world to win.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The First Mass Movement in History (2012)

From the September 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Chartists struggled for political democracy in nineteenth-century Britain, but did they need a “revolutionary leadership” any more than we need one today?

The Chartist movement, which lasted from 1836 to the 1850s, has been described as the first mass workers movement in history. In some ways it was. Chartism was a movement composed mainly of the working class that demanded the enactment of the People’s Charter, which would grant the vote to working class men.

The vote had been extended to a wider section of the propertied in 1832 amidst widespread fears of unrest. Propertied political radicals, who had previously courted working-class support to advance the extension of the suffrage to them, declined to endorse further extension; supported the Poor Law of 1834, which instituted the workhouse; backed vicious anti-trades union prosecutions; and refused to repeal the newspaper ‘tax on knowledge’. Unsurprisingly, a surge of working class consciousness and independent political organization was the result.

Within this new movement were strands of thought associated with individuals such as James ‘Bronterre’O’Brien, George Julian Harney and Ernest Jones that stressed the need for the Charter ‘and something more’, which anticipatedthe later development of revolutionary socialism.

Working class consciousness and the democratic-socialism (at this time meaning variants of Owenite socialism) of many of the supporters of Chartism were only elements of a diverse movement. Rather than an early mass workers movement it is more plausible to see Chartism as a popular movement in which these elements were significant developments. Hence the survival of older radical forms such as the prominence of the ‘gentleman leader’in the movement, exhorting the working class from the orator’s platform, and utilising the threat of force as the dominant strategy. Prominent in this respect was Feargus O’Connor, a radical Irish aristocrat, whose oratory and newspaper, the Northern Star, dominated early Chartism and defined the mainstream of the Chartist movement.

There were others in the movement who, although often desiring the ‘something more’that they anticipated would result from the Charter, wished to moderate the element of social threat. These ‘moral force’Chartists were exemplified by the London Working Men’s Association which was influential in the early stages of the movement, and drew up the People’s Charter with the assistance of the wealthy political radical Francis Place. By taking a moderate approach they hoped to draw in the support of propertied political radicals who wished to advance the suffrage for their own ends such as abolition of the Corn Laws and free trade. The Birmingham Political Union, for example, was an important body in the early stages of Chartism, through which it hoped to advance the currency crank ideas of its leading member, the wealthy capitalist Thomas Attwood. This section dropped out of the movement, however, (along with most of the other early propertied supporters) when the gravity of the movement shifted towards the industrial centres, and the working class presence and the tone of social threat increased.

The increasingly resolute working class presence on the national political scene was expressed at the other extremity of Chartism by those on the ‘physical force’wing of the movement who wished to fan the flames of insurrection. Their approach was characterized by the deployment of extreme and provocative language to threaten the propertied into granting the Charter, backed up with secret organization and insurrectionary zeal. Exhortations for the people to arm were commonplace and intimidating torch-light processions took place in some localities (until they were banned). It is debatable to what extent many on this side of the movement really believed in the possibility of successful armed insurrection, but by 1839 this section was increasing in influence.

The insurrectionary element in the Chartist movement has fascinated left-wing historians who see in it a frustrated revolutionary potential from which a modern vanguard can learn lessons. Adding to this literature is a new history of the Chartist insurrectionaries of 1839 by David Black and Chris Ford (1839 –The Chartist Insurrection, London, Unkant Publishing, 2012, £10.99). It is a compelling read, telling the story of Chartism through the experiences of George Julian Harney and other ‘firebrand’Chartist leaders such as Dr. John Taylor and examining the ill-fated Newport Rising of 1839. The authors provide a vivid account of the revolutionary potential that had built up in Britain by the late 1830s, culminating in the aborted rising at Newport in which several Chartists were killed.

A successful rising in south Wales may well, as the authors claim, have resulted in a chain of risings. Their claim that it would have achieved “world historic importance”is questionable though. It may have extracted compromises on focal points of working class struggle such as the Ten Hour day, the poor law, bread prices and land monopoly. It may even have achieved further extension of the suffrage. But Black and Ford accentuate the existence of working class insurrectionaries in south Wales and elsewhere and not the rising’s shambolic failure in the face of a state resolutely set against the prospect of armed revolt by the Chartists. Indeed, the perceived threat of insurrection set the propertied against the Chartists in a way which the threat posed by their radical political demands did not. It was the overt social threat of: ‘peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must’, that meant the Chartists had to be defeated by the government on behalf of the propertied, even if ultimately its political demands could be conceded.

The authors seem disappointed at what they see as the paucity of revolutionary leadership within the Chartist movement. The proposed general strike in support of the Charter is regarded as a failed revolutionary opportunity because Feargus O’Connor refused to see it as a chance for the “revolutionary seizure of power.”Black and Ford argue that “the strike had an inexorable revolutionary logic: with no strike fund to draw on, the people would have to violate bourgeois property rights in order to eat” (pp.88-9). But most Chartists did not want a revolutionary seizure of power; they wanted an extension of the vote backed by the threat that if it was not granted then ‘force’might follow. Chartist leaders such as O’Connor did not want a showdown with the state via a general strike because he knew that the likely consequence would be defeat.

John Frost, the leader of the Newport Rising, is likewise characterized as a somewhat reticent and indecisive insurrectionary leader, not because he fell short as a revolutionary leader of proletarian revolution but because he did not see himself in these terms to begin with. He did not anticipate having to actually use force but believed, in line with the mainstream of the Chartist movement, that the threat of force would be sufficient to achieve Chartist objectives. He found himself a ‘gentleman leader’in a situation that escalated way out of his control. The Chartists at Newport, however sincere, walked into a confrontation that led to deaths and a subsequent display of the strength by state in which hundreds of arrests of Chartists were made across the country and John Frost, a broken man, was transported to Tasmania (a sentence of death having been commuted).

The authors suggest that Chartism was neither the tail end of radicalism nor the forerunner of socialism. But it contained plenty of the old in with the new. In their words, “In 1839 the ideas of Thomas Paine stood in dialogue with the socialistic ideas of Thomas Spence, Robert Owen, Bronterre O’Brien and Gracchus Babeuf” (p.199). Chartism was: “a conscious attempt by working-class insurgents to resolve …[capitalist] crisis by breaking the power of ‘Old Corruption’” (p.198). This is followed by the claim that “the movement undoubtedly did have revolutionary and socialist tendencies which persisted and developed” (p.199). It is clear that the intellectual inheritance of Chartism was a mixed bag of traditional radicalism and new Socialism. In trying to tell the story of insurrectionary Chartism, however, Black and Ford want to highlight a working class consciousness that is ripe for insurrectionary revolution. In so doing, although the story they tell was part of the Chartist movement, they highlight some voices in the movement at the expense of others.

Labour MP, John McDonnell, in the foreword to the book suggests that Black and Ford reveal that the threat to the British political establishment, even of revolution, in Britain in 1839 was closer than is often realized. This is indeed the main achievement of the book. But McDonnell also claims that the authors reveal a history that is suggestive of a possible “alternative revolutionary route” (p.xi) that could have been taken by British labour. This is to see a nascent revolutionary potential for seizing political power in the movement for democratic reform. Democratic reform, however, was expected, by those struggling to bring it about, to involve a significant shift in political power in favour of the working class and harmful to the propertied. Such a shift was anticipated, by supporters and opponents of the Charter alike, to result in measures beneficial to the working class. If revolution was on the agenda it was intended to achieve democratic reform from which the working class would benefit, not to advance a ‘proletarian’vanguard.

Black and Ford conclude that we should salute the Chartist insurrectionaries and seek to understand why they did not succeed in 1839. It is suggested that a major reason for their failure was weak revolutionary leadership. But, today, we have few positive lessons to learn from the bloody failure of past insurrections; less still do we need revolutionary leadership. Rather than inspiring an investigation into how such struggles can be harnessed by an enlightened cadre, it is the limitations of insurrection as a strategy for social change that strikes us. Armed insurrection was not necessary or even useful to the cause of democratic reform in Britain.

We should, of course, salute the Chartists but from a different perspective. They made bold and courageous sacrifices in the face of the determined opposition of the British state on behalf of their propertied opponents. And it is thanks to the struggles of the Chartists and of those who came after them that insurrection is more than ever a moribund revolutionary strategy. Since the late nineteenth-century the working class has possessed the political means to effect social and economic change. It is high time that we, the working class, had the confidence and knowledge to use those means for ourselves.

Democracy and Capitalism (2011)

From the July 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Why in the end the two are incompatible
Democracy, either as simply a word in our lexicon, an actually existing system or a utopian ideal, is a  concept which should be wide open for discussion. The term is bandied about to represent something which is generally poorly understood, something which is widely recognised as being the status quo but  with little or no thought given to the relationship between what we each individually mean when we use it and the situation on the ground to which we are referring.

Democracy is something alleged to be a system of popular involvement which leans towards majority consensus; but ask ten people, or a hundred, and get widely differing explanations of what it is or what it should be. It is a word that is ill-defined, misused, overused too ambiguously and has been hijacked by governments and elites to deliberately misinterpret their actions and so deceive a captive and poorly represented electorate.

For example – In the 'largest democracy in the world', India, how do the majority of the population on $2 or less a day consider they are being represented? And how many of the minority even pause to consider the possible effects of this lack of representation on the majority?

For example, in so-called 'developed' countries, many of which have just two or three major political parties becoming ideologically closer and closer so that there is little difference whichever is voted in, how can this false choice be deemed democratic? A choice between two or three closely related manifestos, differing in minor details but overall being variations of the same business-friendly agenda, distanced from the majority of the voters.

Existing political democracies
Electorates worldwide haven't had the true experience of involvement, of having had their voices heard, at any significant level to have resulted in a culture of expectation of inclusion in the various processes of so-called democracy. Rather than an expectation of involvement there is apathy, cynicism or a complaining mantra heard far and wide that governments don't listen to the people or that they put on a performance of listening pre-elections and then make wide ranging excuses for their negligence in following up on promises or manifesto declarations.

Polls show people in greater numbers becoming further and further removed from statements made by politicians both right and left on topics which impact on daily life – wages, working conditions, high unemployment, cuts in health care, education and general public spending, poor infrastructure, creeping surveillance, big-brother laws and questionable aggressive involvement in the affairs of other nations. And who can determine any significant difference between left and right whether in the US, UK or most other nations where all are beholden to corporate capitalism?

The current hierarchical systems of 'democracy' can never effectively represent the widely differing demands of majorities on wide ranging topics. What this system gives can more accurately be termed imposition. When people judge they are getting less democracy as time goes by – arrest on suspicion of almost anything, tighter control of cyberspace, personal information passed from agency to agency without consent, working conditions changed without consultation, retirement age increased, education budgets severely cut (all these currently in focus in many countries) – the discussion required is much more than how to take back lost ground and go on to gain more leverage. It becomes how to take control of the direction and quality of our own lives; in other words how to move forwards to a true and meaningful democracy.

“Capitalist democracy”
A UK government sponsored think tank, Wilton Park, concluded in a paper in 1996 that 'Democracy must not be confused with capitalism. The former is a political system while the latter is an economic system. Although many capitalist countries are democracies, capitalism can exist without democracy.'

According to Noam Chomsky, writing in On Power and Ideology and referring to the US as a 'capitalist democracy', true capitalism isn't possible, state intervention being a necessary component for several reasons: to regulate markets, to support business interests and to employ its means of violence in the international arena on behalf of  business.

Chomsky being a highly respected political commentator and activist over a number of decades, many would agree with this assertion and with his comment that democracy is a commodity – you can have as much of it as you can afford. It is probably pertinent to add to Chomsky's statement that true democracy also is not possible in capitalism because the system (and the market) is manipulated by the capitalists to fit their agenda by use of media, advertising and lobbying. The incompatibility of capitalism and democracy, which follow opposing principles, render democratic capitalism an oxymoron.

Apathy and complaint
Many so-called democracies tend to breed apathy for a variety of reasons. Decisions have long been made for people not by people, electorates distanced from their representatives, decisions made with no consultation process and 'leaders' believing they have been selected to take the reins and make all decisions on behalf of the voters. It's taken for granted that once elected the 'member' decides on behalf of the electors.

There is scant reference to the masses in times of major decisions – where to cut public spending, whether to involve a population in invasion or war, how to deal with the effects of harsh economic downturn. Even mass demonstrations against unpopular decisions can leave the elected unmoved and intransigent. As a result there has long been a culture of complaint, a collective feeling of  impotence with no expectation of being heard, even if seemingly listened to.

It is easy to recognise from both an individual and collective standpoint what it is, in work, in life, society, environment, that is required to be changed, removed, expunged; however it is not so simple to know exactly what should be put in its place or how to do it. Most people can more readily identify the negative aspects of their lives which they want rid of than they can imagine the positives to replace them. They have been part of a manipulative system for too long and have become passively compliant.

Anger and indignation can be positive motivating factors enabling people collectively to come to the realisation that if power won't heed the people then the people must act together, take hold of the power and make it their own if they are to become the active part of the decision making process.

Whereas emotional stimuli can play a useful part in rallying individuals to a cause overall a plan is vital. We need to understand not only where we're coming from but why and where we're headed. It's not enough to know what we're working against but significantly more important to understand and affirm what we're working to achieve. This largely entails each individual actively raising their own consciousness to higher levels of understanding and commitment which ultimately will lead to a majority of the working class pulling together in order to take control of their own collective destiny.
Politically to dissent is simply to disagree with an official decision, course of action or set of principles but the term of reference has become debased and it is now commonly understood to be something other than seeking to have an alternative view expressed overtly; it is often conveyed as being connected to some kind of subterfuge, a covert, possibly illicit movement to overturn an established regime.

Dissent, because it is seen to be too far outside the mainstream of traditional politics, becomes a threat. And what leads to dissent? Poor working conditions and levels of pay, high costs of food, services, fuel, etc., high levels of unemployment, high levels of homelessness and poor housing conditions, perceived injustices with regard to minority groups, creeping surveillance and curbs on freedom of expression, limited access to health care and education, widespread corruption in the corridors of power, inconvenient secrets leaked to the media revealing a catalogue of lies and deceit that the people aren't supposed to be a party to, oppression and repression; in general lack of democracy in one form or another. Any one or any combination of these issues, coupled with a particular geographical location and appropriate timing could lead to the blue touch paper being lit and then look out for the explosion.

Active dissent from the majority.
It is surely too narrow official, bureaucratic and parliamentary or oligarchical decisions which lead to all the states referred to immediately above – decisions taken which sideline, ignore, humiliate, debase and exclude the recipients from active participation in any of the decision making processes for surely  one does not dissent from decisions one had a free hand in making.

Real Democracy 
If democracy is to mean more than one vote nationally and another regionally every few years, an arrangement that most will agree displays a huge deficit of democracy and does little to represent public opinion, then an alternative system must be devised. An alternative system involving the general public in all decisions which impact upon them, their communities and local environments, one which embraces the notion that all are entitled to be active participants in the local and global community.

In order to invert the current system with the outcome that it will be society at large's decisions that are to become the norm means that each community's ideas and plans will be presented, discussed and decided upon by those within those communities. All discussion in the public domain; no minorities behind closed doors weighing up pecuniary advantage. The will of the people – so often disregarded – the will of the people on an ongoing basis, not just for the moment when they put their tick in a box, but the ongoing will of the people, giving ongoing legitimacy to all decisions in the best interests of all.

Hierarchies are necessarily divisive in their manner of imposition, patriarchal minorities holding onto power in situations opposed by their electorates until forced to give concessions or step down. Governments don't easily give up their power and use various means to cling on through thick and thin whether in Africa, Asia, Europe or the Americas. Noam Chomsky has said, 'Propaganda is as necessary to bourgeois democracy as repression is to the totalitarian state.' The purpose of both to keep control.

In contrast the ethos of true democracy, with a horizontal structure, has a unifying factor with people working together for the best outcomes for all. Real democracy must mean a system of common ownership, production and consumption, moving from a system of passivity to one of proactivity and empowerment by sharing responsibility for decisions and outcomes. In a true democracy people would have real choices in all areas of their lives, not choices manufactured to suit business, market and monetary interests.
Janet Surman

Capitalism Kills: The Bangladeshi Garment Factory Disaster (2013)

From the June 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

The collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory building in Savar, near Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh, on 24 April this year was another example that the global economic system that we live under, known as capitalism is injurious to the health of the working class. Actually, capitalism kills people; it kills the working class of this world in its pursuit of profit through commodity production. The week before, on the other side of the world, a fertilizer plant had exploded in Texas on 17 April killing 14 workers.

The day before the collapse a crack had been detected in the building’s structure and the workers had been sent home, halting production. The next day the workers returned in the morning to be informed the building had been inspected and declared safe and the workers were ordered by managers to return to work. The initial death toll under the 600 tonnes of rubble was 76 workers but after three weeks of recovering bodies the death count had climbed to over 1,000workers, mainly young women. Around 2,500 workers were injured in the building collapse and 34 bodies were too damaged or decomposed to be identified.

The Rana Plaza building housed the garment factories of manufacturers New Wave Style, New Wave Bottoms, and others. These garment capitalists employed 3,122 workers. The lives of the garment workers are a cheap commodity for the garment capitalists as their labour power is purchased cheaply. The garment workers are paid $38.50 (£24) per month. According to the International Trade Union Confederation, a Vienna-based labour rights group, garment workers in Bangladesh are among the lowest-paid in the world.

New Wave supply clothing retailer Primark (2010 revenue £2.7 billion) who are owned by the FTSE 100 food processing company Associated British Foods (2012 profit: £583 million). New Wave also supply Italian clothing retailer Benetton (2011 revenue: €2 billion). The Rana Plaza manufacturers also supplied garments to Mango (owned by the Andic brothers; net worth: $4.8 billion), and Matalan (founded in Preston in 1985 and now with a revenue of £1 billion).

The Bangladeshi garment industry is worth $20 billion (£13 billion), employs close to 4 million workers and accounts for 80 per cent of Bangladesh's exports. Sixty per cent of the garment exports go to Europe and 23 per cent to the USA. Bangladesh has the second largest garment industry in the world after China. Following the building collapse there were protests on Workers’ Memorial Day and May Day. The President of the Bangladeshi Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association expressed the concerns of the capitalist class when he worried about 'the disruption in production owing to unrest,' but the Bangladeshi Finance Minister said about the garment building collapse: 'the present difficulties... well, I don't think it is really serious – it's an accident.’

The Rana Plaza building collapse follows recent incidents in which workers have been killed in the Bangladeshi garment industry. In April 2005 the Spectrum sweater factory building collapsed killing 64 workers; in December 2010, 27 workers were killed in a fire in a factory that made clothes for Gap; and in November last year a fire at the Tazreen Fashion Factory which produced garments for Walmart and IKEA killed 117 workers. The Rana Plaza disaster even outstrips the devastation of the Karachi garment factory fire in September last year which left 289 Pakistani garment workers dead. Since the disaster there has been another fire, at the Tung Hai Sweater factory in Dhaka on 8 May, killing 8 people.

Doug Miller at Northumbria University said 'Factory owners can't make money on the original order – the price has been set too low – so will therefore find someone who can – subcontracting to producers of ever-declining standards. In Bangladesh you have a glut of buyers in search of a cheap product wanting to place enormous orders; and capacity is built hurriedly. Factory installations are shoddy; workers locked in and lead times are too tight.’

Brad Adams at Human Rights Watch said: 'Given the long record of worker deaths in factories, this tragedy was sadly predictable. The government, local factory owners, and the international garment industry pay workers among the world’s lowest wages, but didn’t have the decency to ensure safe conditions for the people who put clothes on the backs of people all over the world.'

Trade unions are almost non-existent in Bangladeshi garment factories. Aminul Islam, a trade unionist who worked for local labour groups affiliated with the AFL (American Federation of Labour), had his phone tapped, was subject to police harassment and was once abducted by state security agents and beaten. In April 2012 he was trying to solve a labour dispute at factories that produced shirts for Tommy Hilfiger when he disappeared and has not been seen since.

The history of capitalism is littered with the deaths of the working class: 146 garment workers were killed in the New York City Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911; the Senghenydd Colliery disaster in South Wales in 1913 killed 439 miners; but nothing we hope can surpass the devastation at the Bhopal Union Carbide Plant in India in 1984 when between 4,000 and 20,000 people died. Warren Anderson, CEO of Union Carbide, never faced prosecution because the US government refused to extradite him to India, citing lack of evidence.
Steve Clayton

A Football Focus

Book Review from the August 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

Soccernomics, by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski. HarperSport. 2012. £8.99

A couple of years ago Kuper (who is a writer on the Financial Times Weekend Magazine) and Szymanski (a sports economist) wrote an eye-catching book about soccer called Why England Lose. This is the expanded and updated version under a new title, and it proves a thought-provoking read. It looks at the economics of individual football clubs and the soccer industry as a whole and goes on to use statistical approaches to deconstruct and explain fan loyalty, racism in football, and why some clubs and countries appear to gain a competitive advantage over others.

One of the book’s key findings is that, contrary to the assumptions of many, clubs that pay large transfer fees don’t necessarily buy success. Indeed, in most cases they only succeed in racking up debts. (Arguably the one recent exception to this has been Manchester City.) Based on an analysis of Premier League and Championship clubs in England over ten years, the authors argue: “It seems that high wages help a club much more than do speculative transfers . . . [over time] the size of their wage bills explained a massive 92 per cent of variation in their league positions”.

Also of interest is the chapter, ‘The Curse of Poverty: Why Poor Countries are Poor at Sport’. The authors construct tables of countries’sporting prowess (not just in football, but in other major sports where there is a genuine global competition, and in athletics too). The key finding is that there is a close correlation between a country’s sporting performance and its position on the UN human development index, which measures life expectancy, literacy, education and living standards.

The authors also analyse the changing nature of modern football fandom and find that increasing numbers of supporters –especially those of the larger clubs –are shopping in the postmodern supermarket.  They turn their attention to whether football fanaticism means suicide rates increase when teams get knocked out of major tournaments. The ‘bread and circuses’argument of Marxists seems to gain some justification because their research demonstrates that perceptions of social cohesion within capitalism increase during major sporting tournaments, especially where the national team is participating, even leading to a noticeable fall in suicide rates. People’s underlying condition or situation in society hasn’t changed, but for a few brief weeks they feel less isolated from the human beings around them. But then, of course, the usual sense of alienation and ennui kicks in again.

One of the author’s key arguments is that just as capitalism more generally relies on knowledge networks and ‘social production’, so do sports like football. Indeed, they contend that the greatest concentration of soccer clubs in advanced industrial capitalism is in Western Europe and it is here that the greatest advances in both fitness and tactics have been developed. This includes the notion –seen most clearly in the Champions League –that the best way to win games is ‘fast passing’based on split-second touch football, rather than dribbling or the long-ball. 

There is also a fascinating chapter on the nature of the European teams that win big tournaments, with many of them for a long period in Europe being from smaller provincial cities (Nottingham Forest, Borussia, Monchengladbach, etc). While the authors do seem to exaggerate to make a point on occasion, they go a long way to explain why clubs from large metropolitan areas and capital cities (which often tended to underperform in the past) are now increasingly dominating European competitions. And their predictive powers based on this analysis appear to be good –when this book came out they argued that Chelsea or Arsenal would soon be the first London club ever to win the Champions League. It must have happened before the ink was dry.

Was Marx Wrong About Class? (1966)

From the June 1966 issue of the Socialist Standard

Classes in Modern Society by T.B. Bottomore is a revised edition of a book which first came out in 1955. It is a book which discusses Marx's theories in a scientific manner and so is worthy of serious consideration. By and large Bottomore gives an acceptable outline of Marx's views, though there are a number of points that we would challenge (as on the questions of violent insurrection, ever worsening crises, and State ownership as the negation, rather than as a form, of private ownership).

Stratification, or as Bottomore puts it, "the division of society into classes or strata, which are ranged in a hierarchy of wealth, prestige and power," has been a feature of most human societies including modern society. Many theories have been put forward to explain this phenomenon and it is no exaggeration to say that discussion has centred round the theories of Scientific Socialism on the question. For Socialists were the first to put forward a theory of class. This theory is a part of historical materialism, the general Socialist theory of history and society. Stratification is explained in terms of property and technology. A thing is the private property of an individual or group if that individual or that group has a right in fact against the other members of the society to use the thing owned.

Thus a "class" is made up of people who are in the same position with regard to the ownership and use of the means of wealth-production. The other aspects of stratification-prestige and power-are determined by this property aspect. Conflict between the class which monopolises access to the means of wealth-production and the excluded class is inherent in all class societies. From this it follows that a classless society is one in which there is no private property so that all are in the same position with regard to the means of wealth-production. The socialist theory does not say that the prestige and power aspects of class have no influence on historical development. They do, but this influence cannot be explained without reference to the property aspects and in the long run cannot overcome the changes demanded by the development of technology.

The socialist theory is not the only theory of class. Other theories have prestige or power as the determinants of class. The dominant school in modern sociology explains class in terms of prestige and style of life. This too is the popular usage of such terms as: working class, middle class and upper class. In the socialist theory the working class is made up of all those who have to get a living by selling their ability to work. In the sociologists' theory the working class is to be explained without reference to the property aspect and are people who enjoy themselves in certain ways. These different uses lead to endless confusion.

Thus Bottomore, although at one point he admits that strictly speaking many of the "middle class" are members of the working class by Marx's definition, somewhat inconsistently supports the view that the socialist theory has been invalidated by the emergence of "a new middle class" made up of "office workers, supervisors, managers, technicians, scientists, and many of those who are employed in providing services of one kind or another." Socialists would not deny that workers in these jobs may have a different style of life from those who work in factories, docks and mines. They would merely deny that this is in any way a valid or relevant criticism of their theory of class.

According to the style-of-life theory of class there is no necessary conflict of interest between the various classes; modern society is not stratified horizontally into antagonistic classes but into a hierarchy of non-conflicting classes.

Other theories of class emphasize the power aspect and see classes delineated in terms of those who give the orders and those who carry them out. This theory is more familiar to Socialists as it has traditionally been that of the Anarchists. Like the socialist theory this poses a necessary conflict between the two classes that make up society. It can be said to be inadequate as it puts the cart before the horse: the power to give orders is a product of economic domination while the necessity to obey orders is a product of economic subjection. But, asks Bottomore, if this is so how can the class society of Russia be explained where the ruling class is economically privileged through its political domination? This, he claims, cannot be "comprehended by the Marxist theory in its most rigorous form." Here Bottomore does raise an interesting point, which illustrates one aspect of the particular development of capitalism in Russia.

It is often claimed that the socialist theory of the growth of class conflict leading to the creation of a classless society has been proved wrong. Can this be said to be so?

Socialists concede right away that on one point at least Marx was wrong: on the question of the timing. Bottomore himself uses this argument in a passage which incidentally makes it quite clear that he sees the idea of a violent insurrection against capitalist rule as central to Marx's theory:

“The rise of the working class in modern societies has been a more protracted affair than Marx supposed, and it has only rarely approached the state of decisive struggle with the bourgeoisie which he expected. In the future a similar gradual development appears most likely, but the end may still be Marx's ideal society, a classless society.”

It can be argued that Marx expected the overthrow of capitalist rule to be violent but in any case this was not central to his theory. Bottomore himself quotes Marx on the possibility of the workers getting power by the vote rather than by insurrection. This idea was developed by later socialist thinkers such as Engels in his 1895 Introduction to The Class Struggles in France, Kautsky in The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, Lucien Laurat in Marxism and Democracy and by the Socialist Party. If this passage were just a rejection of violent insurrection Socialists could not object to it. But it is more than this as it assumes that a classless society is already evolving out of capitalism. Which is an altogether proposition from that which the Socialist Party accepts: that it is the necessary preconditions of a classless society (rather than a classless society itself) that are gradually evolving today.

The evolution of the working class has been and still is in the direction Marx expected. In the socialist theory the working class is to grow in numbers, in organisation and in understanding.

On the first point there can be no argument. The number of those forced to get a living by selling their ability to work has increased both absolutely and relatively and this process is still going on as professional people and peasants join the ranks of those working for a wage or salary.

Effective democracy is not just a political matter. It is a social condition expressing a certain stage in the development of the working class. For democracy--especially the vote and the free expression of ideas -- is a form of organised working class pressure on the owning class. Before its advent the only means of pressure was unorganised violence, rioting and looting. The vote and the determination to keep it is a means of organising this pressure. Democracy also allows for the further organisation of the working class. When Marx wrote, jobs like politicians, managers and administrators were all filled from the ranks of the wealthy. Now from local councillors and J.Ps to Cabinet Ministers and even Governor Generals such jobs are done by people from the working class. In politics again workers are no longer prepared to follow a wealthy man just because he is wealthy. These are significant changes showing a growth in working class competence. To appreciate their extent we need only compare the modem working class in Britain with what it was a hundred years ago or with the illiterate mass it still is in some parts of the world.

The trade unions too are an expression of working class organisation. These have grown from isolated and weak local unions into influential and permanent national unions. This process is still going on as sections of the working class which were never organised on a large scale before now begin to do so.

It is no exaggeration to claim that today the working class run society from top to bottom. There is no job which they cannot, and do not, do. Socialists then are justified in concluding that with regard to organisation too the trend has been in the expected direction: towards a working class capable of running social affairs without the help of the wealthy.

In the field of ideas there have been changes too. Bottomore refers to the criticism of the socialist theory as it ignored nationalism-"the social bond of nationality has proved more effective in creating a community than has that of class". This may well be true but nationalist ideas are not as strong or as crude as they once were. To rally workers behind them the owners have to do more than beat the drum and wave the flag; they have to produce arguments about humanity, justice, freedom and peace. Degrading religious ideas about the necessity of submission are also declining. On the other hand vague internationalist, egalitarian and humanist ideas are more widespread. Arguments about poverty such as were current in the past --"survival of the fittest", "over-breeding"- are just not acceptable today.

Here again Socialists are justified in seeing in this decline in crude nationalist and religious ideas and in theories openly defending inequality and poverty a step in the direction of the evolution of socialist understanding.

We are not claiming that these processes described by Bottomore as "the rise of the working class," are automatic or go on without resistance. This is by no means the case. Their motive force is in fact the struggle of the working class which Socialists expect will develop into a conscious struggle for Socialism -and we can see in the world as it is today trends towards the development of this movement of the immense majority for a self-administering world community.
Adam Buick

A challenge to the unions (2002)

From the September 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

One of the proud boasts of the more advanced capitalist states is that they are democratic. In fact, government leaders hardly ever stop going on about it. Certainly in the more liberal countries, legal rights provide for freedom of expression and political organisation. In Britain, these were won after long, bitter struggles against the predecessors of present Tories and Lib Democrats who resisted the growth of democracy sometimes with ruthless state violence. But they will be the last to let these facts of history stain their present dedication to the democratic ideal. We are all democrats now – or are we?

Do the freedoms won in Britain mean that we live in a democratic society? Far from it. We may be able to promote political discussion, put up candidates and vote but what about our participation in decisions which directly affect all our lives such as what goods shall be produced, and how they should be distributed? Our lives depend on these decisions but where is the democratic participation? There is none. And then again, most of us spend most of our waking hours either at work, getting ready for work, or recovering from work. But how many of us have any say in how the places where we work and the work itself is organised?

What say do we have about how the real resources of labour and materials should be allocated to solving our problems. We have no say in any of these decisions.

September sees the Annual Conference of the TUC whose founding members in the 19th century were in the forefront of the movement for democracy. But that was some time ago and a lot of people would say that since then the TUC has rather lost its way. The TUC now gives the impression of being part of the status quo and as a result no longer seems to have a progressive role. Should the battle for democracy be content with our right to elect governments to rule over us when a truly democratic society would involve all people in the important decisions affecting our lives? Socialists can suggest how trades unionists can recall the early struggles for democracy and rejoin that battle. In doing so, they would re-capture their vision of a better world and play a constructive part in working for it.

In the past many trade unionists looked to nationalisation as a means of building a democratic society but this has been a diversion that led nowhere. For example, in the case of the coal mines it was believed that under nationalisation the miners would run the mines for the benefit of the community. In fact the Coal Board replaced the mine owners and the miners went on being exploited. In its worst forms nationalisation subjected millions around the world to the brutalities of state capitalist regimes which suppressed democratic rights. Foolishly, some people still believe in nationalisation but experience shows that we should now put that myth behind us and make a proper distinction between nationalisation and common ownership.

A recurring complaint of the TUC and others is that the world is now largely under the control of the multi-national corporations who are able to move production to sources of cheaper labour plunder natural resources and corrupt local politicians and officials. All this is true but where are the practical ideas for bringing it to an end? In fact, the entire organisation and running of factories, offices and services is under the authoritarian control of boards of directors and their managers. These are the hierarchical structures from which the great mass of people are excluded.

Elected councils
Within this authoritarian structure it is true that trade unions do the best they can to protect the interests of their members but their struggles are mostly defensive and as a result they are compelled to fight the same battles over and over again. The time for the trade union movement to break out of this narrow defensive role is long overdue. An organisation like the TUC, with its research departments, is well placed to conduct discussions with socialists on how production and the work place could be democratically organised. With common ownership, control of production by boards of directors and their corporate managers would immediately cease. The exploitative operations of the multi-nationals would be brought to an end. This would leave workers with the job of carrying on with the useful parts of production and services and for this they would need to be democratically organised. At this point control of all units engaged in production and distribution, services such as schools and hospitals, and useful parts of the civil service and local administration etc., would switch to management committees or councils elected by the workers running them.

Unlike boards of directors and corporate managers, works committees would not be responding to the economic signals of the market. They will be responding directly to the needs of the community. In this way, the links connecting production units and services in socialism will be far more extensive than the buying and selling that connects capitalist units with their suppliers and market outlets. One immediate difference would be that access to information throughout the world structure of production would be unlimited. There will be no industrial secrecy, copyright or patent protection. Discussion about design, materials or technique will be universally open and the results of research will be universally available. As well as having access to world information systems, production units will operate in line with social policy decisions about priorities of action. This would indicate the ways in which particular industrial and manufacturing units would need to adapt or possibly expand their operations. This would require some units to take on more staff and this again could be administered by elected management committees

As well as sorting out the environment and energy supply we can anticipate now that possibly the biggest job in socialism would be to provide housing together with essential services like water and electricity plus furniture and equipment for all people. No doubt the most urgent task will be to stop people dying of hunger but the supply of comfortable housing will require a vastly greater allocation of labour than any necessary increase in food production. This means that a great surge of required materials and equipment will flow through the units producing building supplies. A structure of housing production that is generally adjusted to the market for housing under capitalism, which is what people in socialism would inherit, will in no way be able to cope with a demand for housing based on need. So, within the wider context of a democratically decided housing policy, in which questions of planning and the environment would have been taken into account, the job of implementing housing decisions would eventually pass to the committees or works councils throughout the construction industry.

What we would see in these arrangements is not just the replacement of corporate management with democratic control, we would also see the liberation of the community’s powers of organisation and production from the shackles of the profit motive.

For many years now the TUC and the trade unions in general have languished in a role which provides little scope for action beyond preparing for the next self-repeating battle with employers. They tend to be bogged down in bureaucracy and run by careerists and timeserving officials for whom the future means little more than their pensions. It has to be said that this does present itself as a sterile accommodation with the capitalist system.

But in fact the unions could bring a great deal of experience to bear on the question of how a new society could be organised democratically in the interests of the whole community. Certainly in the developed countries they have organisation in the most important parts of production. They have rulebooks that allow them to be run locally and nationally in a generally democratic manner and they also enjoy fraternal links across the world. All this is already in place. By setting their sights beyond the next wage claim and by becoming part of the socialist movement, once a majority is achieved, they could so easily become part of the democratic administration of industry that would replace the corporate bosses and their managers who now organise production for profit.
Pieter Lawrence

Bitcoin or Bit Con? (2013)

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

‘Don’t write off Bitcoins as just another bubble,’ wrote Matt Ridley in the (London) Times (19 April), ‘Demand for the virtual currency proves people don’t trust governments with their money.’ But what are Bitcoins?

The Bitcoin scheme is an attempt to create a digital means of payment which has all the advantages of cash and none of what are seen by its supporters as the disadvantages of being issued by the state.

When a note or a coin is used in payment it passes physically from one person to another who can in turn use it to make another payment. In other words, cash circulates and is untraceable in that it doesn’t bear the mark of who happens to own it at any time. The Bitcoin scheme aims to create this for electronic payments (electronic payments do of course exist today but are not untraceable).

This was a technical challenge but the geeks who thought up the scheme (maybe only because it was a challenge) solved it by requiring anybody buying or selling with their electronic money to adopt a pseudonym and by incorporating into the software encryptions and procedures to confirm transfer of ownership and to prevent double spending as well as to create new bitcoins until a total of 21 million is reached.

So, technically, it works. In fact there are claims that, being untraceable, it works too well in that it allows money laundering, drug dealing and tax evasion (just as cash does but not ordinary electronic payments). Also, people have reportedly been speculating on the exchange rate between bitcoins and conventional currencies going up or down, leading to the bubble Ridley mentioned.

But there’s also the ideology behind it. Because it’s a means of payment that has nothing to do with the state, it is being touted by free marketers (or ‘libertarians’ as they are called in America), of which Ridley is one. They have visions of it replacing state-issued money and solving the problems of depreciation, inflation and financial crises which in their view go with it. Currency cranks see it as a way of ending both the US Federal Reserve and the commercial banks’ supposed power to create additional purchasing power out of thin air.

This is not going to happen, if only because bitcoins can only be used via the internet, but also because capitalism cannot do without a state and because for most people cash and identifiable electronic payments are more convenient. But suppose that it did. This, as the Gegun Kapital und Nation Group have pointed out in their excellent article on Bitcoin (, would not solve the economic problems of capitalism since these are not caused by some flaw in the monetary system but by the very nature of capitalist production and of money capital. A fixed money supply, as envisaged under the Bitcoin scheme, would not prevent booms and slumps but it would constrain the accumulation of capital:

 ‘While clearly a state intervention, the central banks’ issuing of money is hardly a perversion of capitalism’s first purpose: growth. On the contrary, it is a contribution to it. Systematic enmity of interests, exclusion from social wealth, subjection of everything to capitalist growth – that is what an economy looks like where exchange, money and private property determine production and consumption. This also does not change if the substance of money is gold or Bitcoin. This society produces poverty not because there is credit money but because this society is based on exchange, money and economic growth.’

Monday, June 24, 2013

Socialism is the Only Alternative (2013)

From the June 2013 Socialist Standard

On 22 June a People’s Assembly Against Austerity is being held in central London, with the support of various leftwing groups, trade unions, and Labour and Green Party politicians. Its aim is to ‘mobilise’ people to oppose the present government’s austerity policies. But to what end? To get the government to change them? To elect a government that would reverse them? Or to get rid of the system which, when in an economic downturn, requires the government to impose austerity?

Given that we are living in a period of capitalist crisis, what are the chances of any government being able to abandon austerity? Some of those present seem to think that this is feasible. The Communist Party of Britain, for instance, are proposing a ‘people’s budget’ to ‘stimulate economic growth and reduce growing social inequality,’ involving such measures as ‘invest in health, education, housing, public transport and the environment,’ ‘launch a massive public sector house-building programme,’  ‘nationalise the banks and direct funds into manufacturing, small businesses, cooperatives and housing,’ as well as renationalising the railways and utilities and increasing pensions and state benefits.

This assumes that capitalism can be reformed into a system responding to people’s needs instead of a system geared to accumulating capital out of profits. That they are thinking in terms of capitalism, even in its private form, can be seen from the answer they give to the question they themselves pose of ‘where would the money come from?’

‘Introduce a 2 per cent Wealth Tax on the super-rich’; ‘Reverse the recent cuts in corporation tax for the biggest companies’; ‘Impose a financial transaction tax on the City bankers and speculators.’ So, the super-rich, profit-seeking big companies and City financiers are to continue to exist but be taxed more.

This is pie-in-the-sky reformism. It’s not going to happen and wouldn’t work anyway. Any government which tried it would, by putting profits and profit-making under pressure, provoke an even bigger economic crisis. If you accept to work within capitalism (as does the ‘People’s Budget’ and similar proposals to ‘Tax the Rich’ and ‘Make the Bosses Pay’) then you have to accept that profits have to be made and capital accumulated (with its by-product, the rich getting richer). You can’t make the capitalist leopard change its spots and it is futile – in fact counter-productive – to try.

The main problem with such proposals is not that they are not going to work, but that they spread the view that they could work and so reinforce reformist illusions about capitalism being able to be reformed to function other than as a profit-driven system where profits have to be put before people. What this does is delay people coming to understand that capitalism can’t be reformed in these sorts of ways and that the only way forward is socialism. It helps prolong capitalism.

As socialism will be based on the common ownership and democratic control of productive resources there will be no obstacles, as there are under capitalism, preventing production being oriented towards satisfying people’s needs, as for housing, healthcare, education , transport and other services.

It is all very well being ‘against austerity’ but the cruel fact is that, when capitalism is going through one of its recurring crises, there is no alternative within the system to austerity. It is not the government that is to blame but the capitalist system. In imposing austerity all that governments are doing is what is required by the way capitalism works.

Of course austerity should be resisted to the extent that it can be – that’s what trade unions and such organisations are for – but without illusions. The most that can be achieved is a few mitigations here and there or a different distribution of the cuts, but they cannot be avoided.

This is not defeatism. It is realism. The only alternative to the present austerity is neither a change of economic policy nor a change of government. It is a change of system, from minority ownership and production for profit to common ownership and production directly to meet people’s needs, in a word, to socialism.

Socialism is, quite literally, the only realistic alternative to the present austerity. That’s what those who call themselves socialists should be advocating. Enough of ‘People’s Budgets,’ ‘Tax the Rich,’ ‘Make the Bosses Pay’ and other such reformist nostrums. Let’s campaign for socialism.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Who Was Blanqui? (2013)

From the May 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Louis Auguste Blanqui was the quintessential angry revolutionist, insurrectionist, conspiratorial socialist, who was in conflict with every French government from the 'July monarchy' of Louis-Philippe, the 1848 National Assembly, Napoleon III's Empire, to the Third Republic. Anarchist Michael Bakunin was won over to ideas of socialism through the influence of Blanqui. Blanqui lived for 76 years and spent 44 of those years in prison! Blanqui was nicknamed 'L'Enfermé' which translates as the 'the enclosed' or 'the locked one' or even 'the prisoner'. Engels in the 1874 article The Program of the Blanquist Fugitives from the Paris Commune wrote: 'Blanqui is essentially a political revolutionist. He is a socialist only through sentiment, through his sympathy with the sufferings of the people, but he has neither a socialist theory nor any definite practical suggestions for social remedies. In his political activity he was mainly a "man of action", believing that a small and well organized minority, who would attempt a political stroke of force at the opportune moment, could carry the mass of the people with them by a few successes at the start and thus make a victorious revolution.'

Blanqui, the revolutionist prisoner of the French state wrote a curious book while imprisoned which was published in 1872 but was unknown until re-discovered by Walter Benjamin in 1938. It is called L'Eternité par les astres which translates as Eternity According to the Stars and is a formulation of a theory of the Eternal Recurrence of Time which is commonly associated with the philosophy of Nietzsche in the 1880s. The origin of the idea of the Eternal Recurrence of Time can be located to the poet Heinrich Heine, Marx's good friend in Paris in the 1840s although, quaintly, Heine envisages the altering of time experience. With Nietzsche there is no existential comfort; it is quite literally the eternal recurrence of every moment ad infinitum. To Nietzsche this is 'the greatest burden' or 'heaviest weight', but with a belief in 'amor fati' (love of one's fate) coupled with a nobility of the spirit one can avoid the trap of nihilism and endeavour to engage in a life of existential authenticity and have an impact on time and existence.

But with Blanqui, 44 years in prison has reduced this permanent revolutionist to seeing himself eternally as the confined man; bourgeois society is hell on earth, and every defeat and suffering of the working class in history are replicated throughout history. He does not envisage a socialist future, writing: 'Until now, the past has for us, meant barbarism, whereas the future has signified progress, science, happiness, illusion! This past, on all our counterpart worlds, has seen the most brilliant civilizations disappear without leaving a trace, and they will continue to disappear without leaving a trace. The future will witness yet again, on billions of worlds, the ignorance, folly, and cruelty of our bygone eras.' Nietzsche's psychological conceit is here an astronomical hypothesis of resignation and defeat. Blanqui's pessimistic 'weltanschauung' is reminiscent of Lenin's statement of the future when he wrote, 'if socialism can only be realised when the intellectual development of all the people permits it, then we shall not see socialism for at least five hundred years.'