Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Anti-capitalist, pro-what? (2002)

Editorial from the June 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

Calling yourself “anti-capitalist” is a bit like proclaiming yourself to be “anti-cancer”. We would all like to see an end to cancer, but the only way to bring that about is to understand how cancer works. In the long run, there isn't any point in just trying to treat the symptoms of the disease. Unless you cure the disease itself, the symptoms will keep on coming back.

The same logic applies to capitalism. People have been trying to reform capitalism for as long as it has existed. What have they achieved? A polluted planet, scarred by war and hunger, which is owned and controlled by the McMicrosoft Corporation. Why have things turned out this way? To understand this it is necessary to understand what capitalism is.

Under capitalism, the raw materials and tools which society needs in order to produce things are owned by a tiny minority. The actual work of producing things, however, is done by the vast majority - all those of us who have no choice but to work for our upkeep (hence the term working class). The owning class gets its profits by, very simply, paying the producers less than the value of the things they produce.

Once this basic fact is understood, it becomes quite easy to see why capitalism fails. It is based on profit - no wonder human needs never come first. Feeding the world, for example, wouldn't make a profit, so it doesn't happen. Such things are not accidental shortcomings of capitalism - they are an inevitable part of a social system based on profit for the few, rather than the needs of the many.

All the useful work of society is done by “ordinary” people who have to work for a living - the working class. Not only do we produce goods and services, we also carry out all the work of organisation and administration that capitalism requires. We run society from top to bottom, but we do not run it in our own interests. Instead, we run it in the interests of profit and of the tiny minority of owners who live off our labour. And we will have no alternative but to carry on doing so as long as the resources of society are owned and controlled not by us, but by the tiny few.

The alternative to this is a society in which the tools and materials of production, what we call the “means of production”, are owned by everyone in society. This does not mean state ownership, since that is merely another type of private ownership in which one group controls access to the means of production. In a system of common ownership everyone would have access to the means of production, and no one would be able to deny access to any other group or individual.

Production in such a society would be carried out voluntarily, in order to meet the needs of individuals and society as a whole, and would be the realisation of Marx's phrase “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”. This is what we mean by socialism.

In such a society, co-operation would be the only sensible way to proceed. Under capitalism, we are all obliged to pit ourselves against each other in a fierce competition for jobs, security and material possessions. This competition will be unnecessary in a world of free access, where everybody will benefit from everybody else's contribution towards society.

A society such as the one we advocate, based on co-operation and democracy, can only come about when the majority of people in society want it. It cannot be brought about by a conspiracy of intellectuals and imposed from above against the wishes of the majority. The idea that socialism could be brought about in this way - vanguardism - is not only nonsense in theory, it has also failed in practice, in Russia, China, Cuba and elsewhere. All that it has ever achieved is to transform one type of private ownership to another, giving state capitalism rather than ordinary capitalism. There is no half-way house between private ownership and common ownership and we in no way support schemes of nationalisation or state control of industry.

So, we do not agree with Leninists and trotskyites who base their theories on the claim that ordinary people cannot understand the arguments for socialism, and who want to manipulate the working class for their own ends. A vital aspect of the fight for socialism is arguing the case for socialism. We must do this whenever and wherever possible. We must counter the lies and distortions of the capitalist-run media, and expose the shortcomings of reformist and vanguardist organisations.

We say, fight the system root and branch. It's class against class. Understand the fact that capitalism can never work in the interests of the majority, and that socialism is the only system that can. Leave behind pleading for reforms and fight for revolution. Give up trying to mend the system and get rid of it.

The Troubled-Teens Business (2012)

The Material World column from the January 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

On the internet I keep running across the same image - the scowling face of a teenage boy - accompanied by the words: Fix Defiant ODD Children. It is an ad for a “Total Transformation Program” that will “empower” you to “stop defiance, backtalk and lying” and “regain control of your child, your family and your life”.

ODD, in case you’re wondering, is the “diagnosis” that psychiatrists now pin on disobedient youngsters: Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Until recently no one had ever heard of it.

Numerous programs to “fix” disobedient kids are on offer to American parents. Many are residential programs run by private entrepreneurs in “boot camps” and other locked facilities located both inside the US and outside (in Mexico, Jamaica, Costa Rica, etc.). Or you can send your child off on a gruelling “wilderness expedition” in the harsh desert landscape of the Southwest.

Force and deception are routinely used to trap children in these programs, which usually entail physical and/or emotional cruelty inflicted in the name of “tough love”.

Abuse and deprivation sometimes result in death – in particular, when complaints of pain and exhaustion are not believed. (See, for instance, nospank.net/boot.htm: Torturing Teens for Fun and Profit.) In many places, victims are made to attack and humiliate one another and extract “confessions” (often fabricated) in spectacles reminiscent of “struggle meetings” in Maoist China.

Maia Szalavitz, author of Help At Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead Books, 2006), estimates that 10-20,000 teens are held in several hundred abusive programs at any one time. The programs are very lucrative business ventures, as fees are high while costs are kept low. Total profits are thought to be well over a billion dollars a year.

Why so desperate?
What makes people so desperate that they will abandon their own children to the “tough love” of strangers – and pay through the nose for the privilege? Parents are, of course, alarmed at the perils their children face – perils that even if exaggerated by sensationalist media reports are real enough. They worry especially that their children will start using street drugs. Many feel unable to cope with such problems and easily fall prey to any huckster who claims to have a solution. The decline in the economic position of working people over the last few decades has made it even harder for them to cope. Compensating for falling real wage rates by working longer hours or even  taking two jobs, parents are left with little time or energy to devote to bringing up their children.

Another factor is the strength of religious fundamentalism in large areas of the US. The “tough love” approach (which also includes corporal punishment, for example) is especially prevalent among fundamentalists. Many abusive programs call themselves Christian. Authoritarian relations within the family are an important part of the  fundamentalist creed. Preachers tell parents not to feel obliged to tolerate or respond to “backtalk” – in other words, to listen to and reason with their children.

Targeted by advertisers
But are children inherently more difficult to bring up nowadays? Doesn’t every generation imagine that their children are especially hard to understand and deal with? Be that as it may, there are good reasons for thinking that the task facing parents has become even more daunting. One significant change concerns advertising. In the past, except for items like sweets and chocolates, advertisers aimed only at adults. Now, as Juliet B. Schor describes in her book, Born to Buy (Scribner, 2004), children are a primary target of advertising and marketing campaigns. Exposure to these campaigns makes children anxious and obsessed with status. To acquire and maintain status they must nag their hard-pressed parents to buy them lots of expensive junk. Otherwise their peers will look down on them. Even apart from the anti-adult messages conveyed by some ads, this puts children and parents on a direct collision course. When some relatives of mine refused to buy something demanded by their son, he lay down on the floor of the store and screamed until they gave in – just to escape the embarrassing situation.

Attention deficit disorders
Then we should bear in mind the harm done to children’s mental capacities by long periods in front of a television. Research shows that the more hours of TV watched per day the more likely a child is to suffer from an attention deficit disorder. Video games have a similar destructive effect. How can a parent reason with a child who is unable to pay sustained attention?

This does not mean that TV and video games are solely responsible for attention deficit disorders. There is evidence that toxins in the environment such as organophosphates contribute to these disorders by disrupting thyroid hormones (Philip and Alice Shabecoff, Poisoned for Profit: How Toxins Are Making Our Children Chronically Ill, Chelsea Green Publishing 2010, pp. 92—95).

Profit at both ends
Many of the underlying causes of the difficulty of bringing up today’s youngsters – from the excessively long hours worked by their parents to TV advertising and environmental toxins – stem directly from the profit drive of capitalist business.

The same relentless and remorseless drive for profits underlies the fraudulent promises to “fix” ODD and other supposed mental disorders by means of dangerous drugs or abusive programs.

So, capitalists make huge profits at both ends, both in causing and in pretending to solve the problem. It is all good business for them.

And it all counts as “economic activity” for inclusion in the GDP statistics that prove how prosperous, productive and highly developed the country is.

Film Review: Lincoln (2013)

Film Review from the March 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner is based on Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns, and has another acting tour de force by Academy Award winner Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th US president. Kushner's political thriller, set in the White House and Congress in Washington DC in January 1865, tells of Lincoln's struggle to have the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery) to the US constitution passed in Congress before the defeat of the Confederate slave states in the Civil War. Its back room deals, politics and legalities are reminiscent of Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing.

Lincoln was a moderate, pragmatic abolitionist, he had written to Horace Greeley in 1862 of ‘my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free,’ and he is generally featured as the stern bearded president portrayed on the five-dollar bill and the imposing Lincoln Memorial. Day-Lewis gives Lincoln a soft-spoken, conversational tone and portrays him as a flesh and blood president who is politically cunning, charming, a loving husband and devoted father, an intellectual but also the folksy ‘prairie lawyer’ from Illinois. Marx believed Lincoln represented the idea that ‘ordinary people of good will can accomplish feats which only heroes could accomplish in the old world.’ Sally Field is outstanding as Mary Todd Lincoln especially in a heart bursting scene with Day-Lewis about the bereavement for their dead son.

Tommy Lee Jones gives a scene-stealing performance as Republican Party radical congressman Thaddeus Stevens who could be the ‘hero’ of the film. This contrasts with how he was portrayed in DW Griffith's 1915 paean to the Ku Klux Klan, The Birth of a Nation, where Stevens is denounced as a 'race traitor.' The American Civil War which left 800,000 dead was about slavery and Marx identified this in 1861 when he wrote ‘the South already declared that the continuance of slavery was no longer compatible with the continuance of the Union.’ Lincoln needed the help of radicals like Stevens to pass the 13th Amendment . This would ‘legalise’ and expand the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 which was dependent on Union military victory, and had stated ‘that all persons held as slaves’ within the Confederate States ‘are, and henceforward shall be free.’

Lincoln is probably Spielberg's best film, lacking his usual sentimentality and is the third of his films looking at the African-American experience, the others being the 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker's The Color Purple, and the 1997 story of the slave ship revolt Amistad. Lincoln directed by Spike Lee would be interesting. Lincoln as a period film is comparable to the 1993 The Age of Innocence by Martin Scorsese which portrayed the 'haute bourgeoisie' of 1870's New York City.

Lincoln played by Day-Lewis portrays ‘the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world’ which is how the International Working Men's Association (drafted by Marx) wrote to Lincoln in 1865.
Steve Clayton

Unfair shares (2011)

Book Review from the August 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Deadly Waters: Inside the Hidden World of Somalia’s Pirates.  By Jay Bahadur. (Profile £12.99.)

Somalia is often referred to as a ‘failed state’, one with no effective central authority. Instead there are a number of autonomous enclaves, owing little if any allegiance to the official capital, Mogadishu. One of these is Puntland in the north-east, which, with a long coastline on the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, has become a centre for piracy (over forty hijackings in 2008,  for instance, with ships, crew and cargo held for ransom of several million US dollars). 

Fishing (especially for lobsters) used to be one of the main occupations in Puntland, but from the 1990s fishing fleets from other countries (mainly China, Taiwan, South Korea) began using dragnets and so destroyed much of the marine life, leaving locals with no reliable source of income. The effect of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami aggravated the situation. Many Puntlanders retaliated by capturing the fishing vessels and keeping their catches, but then graduated to full-scale piracy.

Some pirates benefit far more financially than others. The ‘holders’, who guard the crew once a ship has been captured, earn about US$10 an hour, while those who carry out the attack get a fair bit more (but have a much greater chance of being killed or arrested). The controller of a pirate gang might receive a million dollars per hijacking, so they are in effect rather like capitalist bosses. 

And indeed the pirate industry has a number of similarities to other capitalist enterprises. There are investors who expect a return, both single investors and those who operate on a private equity model. As Bahadur says, “Piracy is not so much organized crime as it is a business, characterized by extremely efficient capital flows, low start-up costs, and few entry barriers.”

The Puntland pirates benefit from the area being not quite ungoverned but not completely stable either. There is no out-and-out civil war, unlike other parts of Somalia, but neither is there an effective coastguard operation. The Puntland government officially has a clampdown on piracy, but cannot afford to implement this properly. Instead, private security companies place staff on some ships, and international navy patrols are another deterrent. But there is an awful lot of ocean to cover, and a comprehensive naval force would cost far more than is paid out in ransoms.

Bahadur bases a lot of his discussion on interviews with pirates and members of Puntland’s government. His suggested solutions (such as enlarging the local prisons and stopping illegal fishing) can hardly be taken seriously, though. And it is, to say the least, unfortunate that he refers to Said Barre, who ruled Somalia in the 1970s and 80s, as a “Marxist dictator”. 
Paul Bennett