Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Market's end (1989)

Book Review from the February 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Market and Its Critics: Socialist Political Economy in Nineteenth Century Britain by Noel Thompson, Routledge

This book unwittingly  confirms our view that the word "socialism" originally meant what we insist it continues to mean: common ownership and production solely for use. Written by a supporter of the market, it criticises the pioneer socialists of the nineteenth century for having seen socialism as necessarily involving the abolition of both market mechanisms and monetary calculation. According to Thompson they were guilty of throwing "the market baby out with the capitalist bathwater" and he actually says that the socialist commonwealth described by William Morris in News from Nowhere cries out for the introduction of the market to make it work!

Despite this rather quaint position, Thompson is scrupulously honest in his description of the views of nineteenth century critics of capitalism, from Charles Hall, Percy Ravenstone and William Godwin right at the beginning of the century through writers such as William Thompson, Thomas Hodgskin, John Gray and John Bray on to William Morris, H.M. Hyndman, Laurence Gronlund, Edward Bellamy, Robert Blatchford and Peter Kropotkin. There are also less interesting chapters on the Fabians and the so-called "Christian Socialists", in whose tradition we would not claim to be and who, in any event, did not envisage the disappearance of the market.

The first group to work out clearly the essential features of the alternative to the competitive, profit-seeking capitalist market economy that rapidly developed around them were the followers of Robert Owen, who were also the first to coin the word "socialist". For them the alternative to capitalism lay in the organisation of the production and distribution of wealth in accordance with the principle of "from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs". They at least realised that the organisation of production and distribution on this basis necessary involved the disappearance-of-private property, buying and selling, money and prices, and the introduction of free access to goods on the basis of self-determined needs as well as the replacement of monetary calculation with calculation purely in physical terms—to match productive capacity and wants. As the Owenite journal The New Moral World, put it in 1835, "our enlarged resources for the creation of wealth" mean that "the necessity for attaching money—value to any production whatever "can be superseded and that "no money price will be known".

Towards the end of the century socialist critics of capitalism saw such a system as: applying on a society-wide basis, but they retained the understanding that there was no role whatsoever for market mechanisms and monetary calculation in such a socialist society. As Thompson himself explains:
As regards the allocation of resources and the matching of supply and demand at an aggregate level, there was, however, a general tendency to move from the idea that economic calculation would proceed in terms of value to the idea that such calculation could be conducted in purely quantitative or physical terms. This was a conviction that was largely rooted in the belief that under socialism production would be for use rather than exchange and that in such circumstances social utility, rather than exchange value, could be a direct guide as to what and how much to produce . . . Such production for use rather than profit involved a concern with the concrete material characteristics of needs and the means of satisfying them rather than any abstract notion of value. It involved a deliberate matching of goods with wants that did not involve or require their valuation.
Thompson throws up his arms at what he regards as such economic naivety, but this is indeed what socialism implies. So-called "market socialism" (with which Thompson appears to sympathise) is an absurd contradiction in terms. Any society which retains market mechanisms just can't be regarded as socialist, at least not without violating the original, historical meaning of the word.
Adam Buick 

Socialism and rock music (1985)

Letter and reply from the April 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

In many ways the music business is a prime example of all the workings of the capitalist system: the exploitation of talented, sincere musicians for the profit of the record company shareholders - even if they wouldn't know the difference between a crotchet and a quaver - along with the enormous waste involved in the socially useless task of selling people something that left to their own devices, they would probably want anyway (or - even worse - in some cases would never buy if it wasn't for the thinly-disguised associations of the product with "social success").

Rock music is an extremely attractive means of social control for the ruling class. For besides being hugely profitable (and better still, free of industrial strife - when did you last hear of Paul McCartney downing guitars in support of a pay claim?) it serves as an effective mechanism whereby youth rebellion may be channelled away from establishment targets and in on itself. Just as sexism and racism divert ordinary people from the real source of their problems, so it is that the rivalry in youth sub-culture between Punks and Teds and Mods and Rockers, is merely a smoke-screen obscuring the one real issue that faces young people - the choice between capitalism and socialism.

We would, then, hardly expect rock music to play an important role in the propagation of socialist views. This, I contend, is not true. Most readers will know of at least one artist/group that were marketed as anti-establishment rebels, only to become part of the establishment themselves at a later point and, in so doing, make a fortune.

The Clash- one of the most prominent political punk bands - have often poured scorn on the hypocrisy of those who betray their class in such a way: songs such as Death or Glory ("He who fucks nuns will later join the church") and White Man in Hammersmith Palais ("You think it's funny, turning rebellion into money") spring readily to the mind. The Clash are obviously not alone in this and there are many examples of musicians condemning, through their music, the business within which they work.

But what of critiques of capitalist society as a whole? Again, one thinks of The Clash who, in their early stages of their career, were known for their sympathies with the Red Brigade and other violent left-wing factions. The Clash, however, while frequently and virulently condemning the more obscene endemic ills of capitalism, never really escaped the mill-stone of their marketing image of pseudo Rolling Stones rock'n'roll rebels and as a consequence were never able to proffer a socialist society as a solution to the evils they had identified. For all that, it is probable that The Clash did at least awaken some young people to the insanity of the society within which they lived and for that reason should not be condemned too harshly. It is important to note that The Clash were successful mainly because their songs were relevant and comprehensible.

Compare the down-to-earth approach of The Clash with the intellectual ramblings of Green of Scritti Politti. Whereas The Clash expressed themselves in the language of ordinary workers. Scritti Politti's lyrics were incomprehensible to all but a student of politics and those fortunate (?) enough to know one. The capability of rock music to put over socialist ideas to a mass audience is, however, being realised by a growing number of artists, and we shall look at two of these.

The first is Paul Weller, formerly of The Jam and now of The Style Council. Over the years Weller's political attitude has matured from "rebel without a cause", prevalent among many punk bands, through a reformist stage before eventually settling into the full-blooded "socialism" of his current writings. The fact that for the past seven years he has remained a major figure on the British rock scene is evidence that he is able to influence many young people. Songs like When You're Young ("It's so hard to understand, why the worlds your oyster but your future's a clam") and Going Underground ("It's the kidney machines that pay for rockets and guns") set out a case against capitalism. More importantly, recent releases such as Money-Go-Round (the sleeve-notes for which state: " . . . was God an astronaut or a socialist? . . . For the potential beauty and goodness he has given us, I would have to insist the latter") and The Whole Point Of No Return ("The laws made for and by the rich") outline a case for socialism. The latter song was taken from the album Cafe Bleu, whose extensive sleeve-notes outline socialist ideas of production for the use of the community rather than the profit of a few.

Another major socialist rock musician/songwriter to emerge along with punk was Elvis Costello. Possibly an even more incisive critic of capitalist society than Weller, one of his most recent albums - Punch The Clock - contained two very important socialist songs. the first, Shipbuilding, Costello introduced on a recent concert tour as "a Falklands lament". A poignant ballad, it points out the tragic irony of parents constructing the means of their children's destruction with lines such as: "Somebody said that someone got filled in, for saying that people get killed in, the result of this shipbuilding". Further, in the line: "With all the will in the world, diving for dear life, when we could be diving for pearls", he highlights the pathetic situation where people like the Cammell-Laird shipworkers and the miners waste valuable energy in desperate fights for the dubious "right" to be exploited when, if only they could see the true nature of their problem, a socialist society could be theirs.

The other song of note was released on the eve of the June 1983 election. This track, the vitriolic Pills and Soap, presents a scathing attack on the hypocrisy of the capitalist press, using lyrics such as these to illustrate the point: "Four and twenty crowbars jemmy your desire, out of the frying pan into the fire. The King is in his counting house, some folk have all the luck. And all we get is pictures of Lord and Lady Muck. That come from lovely people with a hard line in hypocrisy, there are ashtrays of emotion for the fag-ends of the aristocracy".

Weller and Costello are not alone in their use of music to spread socialist ideas. It should be plain that the medium of rock music must not be ignored by socialists in their struggle to enhance the workers' political awareness.

Stuart Harrad (Norwich)

Reply
Stuart Harrad makes some interesting observations about popular music and the profit-system. All of the evidence around us suggests that the potential creativity and social enjoyment of music are stunted and restricted by the way society is presently organised. Capitalism is a social system based on buying and selling, where almost everything we experience from the cradle to the coffin has a price on it. The majority of us - members of the working class - sell (or try to) our working abilities by the week or month to an employer. Under such a social system the inspirational and imaginative possibilities of music are imprisoned by economic laws.

Referring to the way that some of the Beatles' songs were appropriated for profit by 'entrepreneurs' in the music industry, Paul McCartney said recently, "It was a funny thing, but to begin with we hadn't realised that someone could actually own a song". Although some music artists become quite wealthy, most do not. The tycoons of this industry (the owners of large companies like RCA, EMI, CBS and so forth) acquire their great wealth through the combined labours of the thousands of people needed to produce a record and distribute it. Consider the number of people who work in the recording studios as technicians and engineers; the people who work in the factories producing records, compact discs and cassettes; the people who transport these, once they are made, all over the world and the people who work in record shops. Then there are all the workers involved in the organisation and presentation of concerts. All of these workers are in a condition of relative poverty. Although the results of all of this work involve thousands of people, most remain faceless and anonymous because the music industry reflects the elitist culture of capitalism, a society based on the minority ownership of the means of life. This economic basis of society has produced an ideology consistent with the view that the people "at the top" are there through merit, which is of course a fallacy. Those who have the largest stakes in the music industry are no more magnates on account of their musical knowledge or proficiency than the great landowners are in their positions by virtue of their abilities as farm workers or gardeners.

As Stuart Harrad observes, the ant--establishment theme of much modern music is often useless because it channels dissatisfaction into cults of rebellion which offer no alternative to the social system which has produced their misery. During the 1960s Bob Dylan wrote many poetic and piquant indictments of aspects of the capitalist system. The argument for socialism, however, was never explicitly advocated, with the result that many of Dylan's appreciators became cynically acquiescent in the profit system. Poverty, degradation and war would have to continue while the answer was "blowing in the wind". Many of those who excitedly sang that "the order is rapidly fading" were to find that this sort of protest movement would not dismantle capitalism and that the times they weren't a-changin'. In the 1970s, with rising unemployment, especially among young people, Punk rock stuck two fingers up at some "traditional values" and snarled at the glossy glamour enjoyed by a minority. But as with the protest movement of the sixties there was despair and rebellion without a constructive solution. In a spirit of nihilism, Johnny Rotten and The Sex Pistols sneered that there was "no future in England's dreamland". In one sense they were right but by telling only part of the story they were probably responsible for producing more cynicism about political change.

Like television companies and major newspapers, the large record companies are owned and controlled by people from that small minority of the population whose privileged economic position puts them in the ruling class. There is, therefore, a degree of reluctance for promotion to be given to anyone wishing to make serious and sustained criticism of class-divided society. As Elvis Costello noted:
You either shut up or get cut up
They don't wanna hear about it.
It's only inches on the reel to reel
And the radio is in the hands of
Such a lot of fools tryin' to
Anaesthetise they way you feel . . .
(Radio, Radio. 1980)
The Specials made a similar criticism when they sang:
And catch 22 says if I sing the truth
They won't make me an overnight star . . . 
(Gangsters. 1979) 
In a world straining with so many grotesque and unnecessary social problems it is conspicuous that so much popular chart music is void of social comment. Amongst the myriad of bland ballads and instantly forgettable fandangos there are, of course, songs which are enjoyable although they have no political comment. Socialists do not have common views as to what constitutes "good music". However, it is worth considering why commercial success is so widely enjoyed by songs which do not question the bleakness of present society. This must be partly because they are meant to be lighthearted—an area of fun completely divorced from the everyday problems we are plagued with—and partly because we are socially conditioned to develop certain sorts of taste.

That workers are basically stupid is an erroneous and arrogant assumption often made by various left wing political parties. Workers, the argument runs, should not be approached directly with the case for a classless, moneyless society because they will properly understand it. Instead they need to be baited with isolated issues and by unsuccessfully wrestling with these problems for long enough they will eventually become socialists. There is no evidence to support this contention; in fact all the evidence suggests that the subjects of this sort of political engineering usually become disillusioned and cynical or fall for some other dead-end pursuit like fascism. Workers are not stupid but sometimes stupefied. But this state is very open to change, as is testified by the great efforts that the ruling class put into the continuing process of conditioning people to accept the status quo. But the con trick is becoming difficult to sustain. As a recent letter to a music paper explained,
. . . As long as the majority of the world's population put their trust in leaders to build a fairer capitalist society we will be in the same position of degradation and poverty. Because capitalism is a system out of control of even the minority who own and reap the benefits, it is a system which is by its very nature must produce periodic crises, of which the present world recession is but one. The only sensible solution to this anarchy of production is for a class-conscious working class to take away the ownership and control of the world's resources and to democratically run it in their own interest. Until we have this majority we shall have to exist on the crumbs thrown to us by the parasitic minority.
(Gary Cornwell, New Musical Express, 23 February 1985.)
Culture Club can sing that "war is stupid" and Frankie Goes to Hollywood lament that "when two tribes go to war, a point is all that you can score", but this sort of thing will not shake the ideology of capitalism. The ruling class would agree: from their point of view war is a costly and damaging interruption to their parasitic way of life. Warfare is an endemic feature of a system which periodically produces conflict when economic rivalries cannot be settled around the summit table. Again, look at some of the songs about money. While Abba's Money, Money, Money probably did not have anyone breaking out in a nervous sweat at the Stock Exchange as the record rose in the charts, Pretty Green by The Jam and Money by Pink Floyd were more direct in their questioning of the need for a property society and its means of exchange. But even then it is probably the case that the lyrics of these songs struck a chord mainly with workers who had already considered the case for the abolition of private property. Without further comment lyrics can easily be misinterpreted and it is always possible, of course, that the rare songs that socialists often cite as significant were really written for an entirely different reason.

It is true that no popular song has had lyrics expressing the ideas contained in the Declaration of Principles of The Socialist Party. "But", an observer could suggest, "there are some songs which, because of their message, must serve to raise the social consciousness of the tens of thousands of workers familiar with the lyrics." In a chart song called The Lunatics, The Fun Boy Three sang,
I see the faces of starvation
But just cannot see the point
'Cos there's so much food here today
That no one wants to take away . . . 
The recent Band Aid single, Feed the World, made a comparable, if more vague, point. Mass malnutrition and starvation co-existing with our potential to produce enough food for everybody is an inherent contradiction of a social system which operates on the basis of profit of the few rather than social need. Feed the World, however, was more of a moral imperative than an urge to social revolution. In this sense Band Aid was an appropriate name for a group whose solution to famine within the profit system is comparable with advocating sticking plasters as a remedy for malaria.

Some of the fundamental contradictions of capitalism are doubtlessly made clearer by this sort of song; it is certainly more likely to provoke serious thought about social change than ditties about walks in the park or inquiries such as "Do you think I'm sexy?". The danger is that where a response to social problems is presented, it is given obtusely by vague hint or innuendo and if workers are ever inspired to formulate political ideas as a result many different sorts of conclusions may be drawn. If no coherent argument is being advocated by the artists (and really it cannot be, given the idiom in which they work) then no purposeful group of socialists can be produced by the music. At best, commentators like Paul Weller (who would, as an SWP supporter, presumably vote for the Labour Party and another dose of the profit system at an election) and Elvis Costello give occasional inspiration to socialists with some of the emotive poetry they write about capitalism. On the subjects of militarism and sexuality, for example, Costello  has written some poignant material about the way behaviour and aspirations are affected by the profit system.

Popular songs with a political slant are always open to misinterpretation. The playwright David Hare once stated that you can produce a play to highlight the atrocities of fascism and always have a certain number of people leave the theatre thinking that the Nazis had the right idea. The same subtleties of song lyrics carry the same susceptibility to misunderstanding. It is difficult to compress the argument for socialism on to a single track, so get the 12 inch version—The Socialist Standard!
Gary Jay






Don't take me to your leader (1994)

From the July 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard

On 23 April, one of the most comprehensive criminals in recent history died. Cunning and unscrupulous, he was a liar, this blackmailer, pimp, cheat and murderer - his name was Richard Milhous Nixon. From the ambitious opportunism of his collaboration with the Senator Joe McCarthy, his actions blighted countless lives. Yet he has been buried with honour, praised by Billy Graham and portrayed by much of the media as a "nice guy" president with a few human failings but a brilliant talent for foreign policy. (How could we all have misunderstood him so badly?) Even more astonishingly, tens of thousands of his victims were mourners at his funeral.

There is, of course, a commonly-shared reluctance to speak ill of the dead until a decent interval has elapsed. Partly because our genuine capacity for love and forgiveness but also because of a deeply-felt hope that similar discretion will prevail following our own demise. Without the constraint of this tradition many funerals would almost certainly engender scenes of excruciating unpleasantness and possibly violence.

Should a popular entertainer, royal or political leader expire, however, the level of cant becomes positively nauseating. Most especially in the case of the latter when particularly imaginative elaborations are normally required to imbue the corpse with virtue. The purpose being to induce a degree of public forgetfulness sufficient to maintain the illusion that the deceased had somehow contributed anything of use to society.

Later, when it becomes necessary to deflect awkward questions concerning the probity of the new leader, it may be deemed advantageous to release details of a few choice indiscretions that severely impugn this posthumously-granted sanctity.

Although the idea of the philosopher king or benign dictator has always intrigued political writers, the concept of an altruistic leader is clearly contradictory. Power, authority and privilege - the spoils of leadership - inevitably embrace corruption and it may reasonably be assumed that anyone possessing the integrity to make an honest leader would never seek to become one. At the very least it implies a sense of superiority. As H.L. Mencken explained: "I am strongly in favour of common sense, common honesty and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible for public office."

Putting the same point from a different perspective Simon Cameron, a 19th century American politician declared: "An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought."

A recent poll revealed that most people hold an extremely unfavourable opinion of politicians and view their promises with considerable suspicion: a number expressed contempt. This is hardly surprising since not a day passes that new examples of duplicity transpire. Unfortunately, so pervasive is the myth of the indispensability of leaders that the usual response to these disclosures is resigned acceptance rather than outrage - it is simply fulfilling expectations.

For rulers, such resignation represents a significant capitulation to centuries of suppression, exploitation and "education". Providing welcome confirmation that they are moving ever closer to the Machiavellian ideal of a controlled, if occasionally complaining, majority lacking the self-belief to challenge authority. Socialists, though disappointed by the apparent extent of working-class indifference, regard such a conclusion as premature.

Consciousness cannot be privatised, nor its evolution contained by the narrow dictates of political expediency. For as long as human beings exist so does the potential for radical change and if rulers think otherwise then it is they who are most seriously deluded.

The inability of capitalism to deliver the goods and its harrowing social consequences increasingly disturbs the apathetic calm. Understandably, the reactions provoked stems sometimes from frustration and despair but it would be foolish to dismiss them as merely negative since often they provide a necessary stimulus for fundamental reappraisal.

The dubious and unprovable proposition that most human beings are "natural" followers and that leaders are, therefore, essential is a claim serving only the convenience of those who wish to lead. Indeed, such evidence that does exist would surely elicit the conclusion that the absence of leaders, far from creating chaos is a prerequisite to end it.

The Socialist Party has no leaders and argues that the only possible basis for a truly democratic society in which things are produced for need rather than profit, is the voluntary cooperation of free and independent individuals. Whether or not leadership is the oldest profession it is assuredly the lowest and in a Socialist society nobody would be required to do such filthy work.
Richard Headicar