Monday, December 2, 2013

The opportunist tendency (1988)

Film Review from the March 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

Hundreds of women experience sexual harassment at work. Many do little or nothing about it since the harasser is frequently their boss - to complain could lead to dismissal. And, until recently, many trade unions have failed to take the issue seriously.

Business as Usual is based on the true story of one woman worker who did complain about the harassment by their boss of a fellow worker and got sacked as a result. The film focuses on her struggle to get her job back. The woman at the centre of the story, played convincingly by Glenda Jackson, is inexperienced in industrial disputes and is only too happy for her campaign to be taken over by the unemployed section of the TGWU in which her son and his girlfriend—members of the Militant Tendency—are heavily involved, especially in view of the half-hearted support given by the union's full-time officials. As well as coping with this struggle, she is also trying to deal with the domestic consequences of her husband's (himself a former trade union official) redundancy and his affair with an oh-so-sincere television reporter.

Ultimately, the film as a whole, despite what is basically a good story, fails to convince because it tries to do too much. It takes on not only sexual harassment but also racism, police brutality, unemployment, sex-role reversal and trade union conservatism. Furthermore the "baddies" in the film—the harasser and the owner of the company—are unconvincing caricatures. I'm sure there are people who are that slimy but it would have been far better if they were less like the twentieth century equivalent of the cartoon capitalist in top hat of the nineteenth century.

The most true-to-life part of the film—apart from the sexual harassment—was the depiction of Militant Tendency activists taking over the fight for Babs' reinstatement. The film was much too generous to them, however, failing to show the true extent of their political opportunism. However that willingness to clamber aboard any bandwagon they can for their own ends was demonstrated admirably by the twenty or so Tendency members who waited outside the cinema to greet the crowd as they emerged with copies of Militant for sale. An example of life imitating art, perhaps?
Janie Percy-Smith



Winter wonderland (2013)

The Action Replay column from the December 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

You would probably expect the Winter Olympics, involving skiing, bobsleigh and so on, to be held somewhere quite chilly. But the Games next February will be in Sochi, a Russian city on the Black Sea, where the average temperature that month is about the same as in Manchester.

Climate is not the only controversial point about the choice of venue. Another relates to the notorious Russian law that prohibits ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’ among minors, which has been used to stop people speaking in defence of gay rights or holding gay pride events. The International Olympic Committee has apparently been assured that the law will not affect participants or spectators at the Games, but not everyone is convinced by this, and no Pride House dedicated to gay athletes will be permitted.

Environmental problems are prominent too. There have been claims that the building of massive new transport infrastructure was done without proper study of the local geology, and in 2010 a storm washed away a cargo port that was in the process of being built.

And the cost is enormous, at $50bn as much as five times the original budget. The workers who do the actual construction are treated appallingly: ‘Low-skilled migrants get $500 a month, working 12-hour shifts with no contracts, safety training or insurance… Some employers withhold workers’ passports, so they cannot leave the site. Last year at least 25 people died in accidents and many more were injured’ (Economist, 13 July).

Moreover, this being Putin’s Russia, there are plenty of question marks surrounding the award of construction contracts, many of which have gone to companies owned by the president’s mates. A company owned by one Arkady Rotenberg, often described as an old friend and former judo partner of Putin, has won contracts worth over $7bn. Rotenberg’s wealth is $3.3bn, according to Forbes, and he is the 30th richest person in Russia.

Lastly, there are reports that the Russian security service will be monitoring all communications during the Games. This goes well beyond the Prism system used by the National Security Agency in the US, and could be used against anyone discussing political views, including gay rights, or business details.

According to the Olympic Charter, ‘The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.’ 
Paul Bennett

The Strike (1996)

A Short Story from the February 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

It was Thursday morning and once again Class Two was waiting outside the Domestic Science Centre for Miss Dougal to open the door. Everybody in our class dreaded Thursday mornings. To say that Miss Dougal had "an uncertain temper" would be to put it very mildly indeed. She raged and fumed, waved her arms about, banging saucepans down loudly on well-scrubbed tables, chucking terms of abuse at Class Two, making us responsible (or so it appeared) for every single thing that had ever gone wrong in her life.

We kids were always confused and confounded by Miss Dougal's behaviour. Some of the ire she so bitterly and scornfully directed at us was lost on our innocent hearts, but we knew . . . we KNEW by her fury that she hated us even if we didn't know why. Once she was almost nice to me when I took in my father's christening cup to clean the silver. She closely inspected the name on it and smiled "Shian Menzies Tweedie. How wonderful!" I was bewildered by this, because she told Margaret Rogers (who always had a runny nose and chilblains) that she came from the slums, when we all knew that Margaret lived in a neat little Council house in Rushgreen Avenue and that her Dad was a bus inspector, whereas my Dad, with such a lovely name, was a roadsweeper and had once been a dustman. So with Miss Dougal nothing ever really added up. She didn't make sense.

Daphne Small remarked to me that the old cow was late opening the door today and someone suggested she'd got run over on the way to school. This encouraged others to come up with some very good ideas as to why Miss Dougal was late. She'd broken her leg, she couldn't find her knickers, she'd died of pneumonia in the night. It all got very noisy, bawdy, as we doubled over with mirth, knocking into each other, full of good humour so united were we against Miss Dougal. The door opened.

I suppose normally we would have formed a nice, orderly little queue, but the situation had got rather out of hand, We had been enjoying ourselves and it was impossible to change so quickly. Daphne Small was still trying to think up reasons for Miss Dougal's tardiness and was just telling me "I KNOW, she got struck by lightning" when the domestic science teacher appeared in her white overall, tiny wisps of grey hair escaping from her white cooks hat. She stood arms akimbo, eyes piercing. Wait for it, I thought.

The storm soon came. We were all, or so she would have it, a bunch of kids from the slums. Not one of us had any breeding. Actually not one of us knew what she meant by "breeding" (Daphne whispered to me that she probably meant that we couldn't have babies). Our parents, she told us, were of the worst kind, living in slum houses, unable to speak decent English. Absolutely, ABSOLUTELY without breeding. And yet we mocked her, HER with her refinement and upbringing. How dare we?

We didn't dare any longer. We filed in, took our gingham aprons out of our schoolbags and put them on. All the joy had gone out of our day. We sat down at our tables with our arms folded, subdued beyond what was natural.

It was a miserable morning. Poor old Margaret Rogers burnt her pastry and Miss Dougal emptied it into the wastebin roundly abusing Margaret all the while as well as attacking her family background.

It was during playtime that I suggested we went out on strike. "We just won't turn up for Domestic Science on Thursday," I said. "She's out of order talking to us like that. We'll tell the headmaster."

The next Thursday morning about ten of us went to our own classroom instead of attending the Cookery Class. Our class teacher was worried and perplexed. She told us we couldn't just not go to our cookery lesson because we didn't like the teacher. She pointed out to us that our time at school was a preparation for Life, that we would one day find Life even harder than Miss Dougal's cookery class. She said that we were after all British and should always show true grit and courage. In any case we were hardly old enough to question adults who, it seemed, were much, much wiser than us.

This little lecture worked for everyone but me and the others were dispensed to Miss Dougal's Centre for Mental Torture. I was sent to the headmaster.

Mr Brown was a gentle man (an ex-naval commander who sang Eternal Father Strong to Save in ringing tones during Assembly). I had always thought of him as having "insight" so was surprised when he used the same arguments as our class teacher. True British grit, preparation for Life, must not question adults, etc, etc. I was disappointed. Finally he said "Now come, Heather, you're a sensible girl, go back to Miss Dougal's class and not another word will be said on the subject." I said no and I meant no and so Mr Brown then said it would be his duty to write to my father.

A letter to my Dad from the headmaster of my school held no fears for me. Unlike Lizzie Chandler who lived next door to us and had got a good hiding from her Dad for being a "scab" and going back to Miss Dougall's class. It seemed there was no justice anywhere for children. My Dad went to see the headmaster who sent him to see Miss Dougal. He asked her "What are we going to do about about all this, Miss Dougal?" and she'd responded "Well, Mr Tweedie, that all depends on Heather." That was enough for my Dad. "In that case," he said, "my daughter will never come back to your class again."

But of course the school was forced to find a solution to what had happened. Eventually I was put into another Domestic Science class with another Domestic Science teacher called Miss Oldham, the only real snag being that the other pupils were only nine-year-olds. To a thirteen-year-old with boobs and a slightly more sophisticated outlook on life this was torture.

I hadn't won anything. I wept bitterly, while my Dad assured me that my suffering was nothing compared with that of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. But this was no consolation. But then perhaps true British grit and courage were going to come in handy after all.

Miss Oldham's class was on Tuesday mornings. I got into the queue outside the classroom door, a tall girl, standing with kids that came up to my shoulder. When they giggled I didn't, but I was a novelty and they were prepared to love me for some reason that I have never understood and I was very popular. I was also popular with Miss Oldham (once again for reasons that I didn't understand then but have come to understand since; she didn't like Miss Dougal either).

I remained in Miss Oldham's class until I was nearly sixteen and due to say goodbye to school forever. Miss Oldham made a little speech saying how sorry they would all be to see me go, what an asset I had been to her class and so on. She then added that her class didn't have enough saucepans to go round that morning. Would I pop upstairs to Miss Dougal's and ask if we could borrow a couple?

So I climbed the stairs to Miss Dougal's class, my heart beating painfully. When I knocked on the door and then entered the room, there she stood, hands on hips, eyes blazing, shouting the odds as always, whilst the kids sat stunned into silence. A kind of hush filled the room as I walked in, cutting Miss Dougal off in mid-sentence. "What do YOU want?" she bellowed. "Some saucepans," I said with dignity.

These saucepans were like trophies! I took them back to Miss Oldham's class and she looked at me with a twinkle. "Well done, Heather," she said, "I hope you said a final goodbye to Miss Dougal."
Heather Ball

Co-operatives Can’t Escape Capitalism (2013)

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

Those critics of capitalism who argue that the way-out is for workers to form co-operatives would have been shocked by the headline in the (London) Times (23 October) ‘Stricken Co-op Bank falls into hands of American investors.’

Most people will associate co-operatives with the retail shops that compete against the supermarkets. Co-operatives have in fact a long association with attempts by workers to improve their lot under capitalism. The original co-operatives were set up to try to stop workers being ripped off by local shopkeepers. The Co-operative Bank was established in 1872 as a bank for these stores and later for trade unions and the Labour Party and their branches. There is even a Co-operative Party registered with the Electoral Commission but it is indistinguishable from the Labour Party.

Co-operatives were popular with radical workers in Marx’s day. Some (such as Proudhon and the anarchists) saw them as a way of eventually out-competing and replacing private capitalist enterprises. Others (such as Lassalle and the German Social Democrats) wanted them to be financed by loans from the state.

Marx was expressing some sympathy for the viewpoint of the German Social Democrats when he wrote in Volume III of Capital:
‘The credit system is not only the principal basis for the gradual transformation of capitalist private enterprises into capitalist stock companies, but equally offers the means for the gradual extension of co-operative enterprises on a more or less national scale. The capitalist stock companies, as much as the co-operative factories, should be considered as transitional forms from the capitalist mode of production to the associated one, with the only distinction that the antagonism is resolved negatively in the one and positively in the other’ (chapter 27).
He would presumably have envisaged this ‘gradual extension of co-operative enterprises’ taking place after the capture of political power by the working class at a time when socialism was not yet immediately possible, as earlier he had pointed to their limitations under capitalism:
‘The co-operative factories of the labourers themselves represent within the old form the first sprouts of the new, although they naturally reproduce, and must reproduce, everywhere in their actual organisation all the shortcomings of the prevailing system.’
The Co-operative Bank promoted itself as different from other banks by being ‘ethical.’ But, in seeking to expand its business, it took over a building society which had indulged in sub-prime mortgages and the like. This proved its undoing as it had to go to the stock market to raise more capital to cover the losses and got eaten alive by the vulture capitalists there.

The fate of the Co-operative Bank shows that cooperatives operate within the context of the capitalist economy and that if they are to survive they have to play by its rules, in particular to make a profit. And, again in response to market forces, most of this profit has to be reinvested in cost-saving machinery and methods of production. In other words, they cannot be used to improve the wages of those working for them or to benefit their customers by reducing prices. That would be the road to ruin.

Workers in cooperatives have in effect to organise their own exploitation for profit to be accumulated as more capital. They are not the way-out. As Marx pointed out, co-operatives ‘must reproduce everywhere in their actual organisation all the shortcomings of the prevailing system.’ And they do.