Sunday, December 22, 2013

Doing the Hokey Cokey (2013)

The Greasy Pole column from the December 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

If that's what you want there is some Good News: in spite of his past, Nick Clegg now thinks that '...politics is not perfect'. But then the Bad News is he also thinks '...if you want to improve something, get stuck in and get your hands dirty'. These comments were a response to Jeremy Paxman when he recently hinted at some sympathy with Russell Brand over his disillusionment with politics and his refusal to join in what he sees as '...a political hokey cokey where every four years we get to choose what colour tie the liar who leads us wears'.

Whether Clegg can properly claim that during his time as Deputy Prime Minister he has actually 'improved' anything – other than perhaps the colour of his tie – is very much in dispute. Whether he himself is confident on the matter may be judged by the recent appointment, as his Director of Communications, of Emma Gilpin-Jacobs. Anyone responding 'Emma Gilpin-Who?' should be aware that during some twenty years she has acquired what one observer noted as a 'stellar' reputation in the rituals which lurk behind such arcana as 'Brand Communications', 'Corporate Reputations', 'Public Profiling...' If these activities caused her to get her hands dirty it will have been through working to reconcile those who are obsessively known as 'ordinary people' to their position on the scale of social poverty. Now she is committed to cleansing the blemished reputation of the LibDem Party– which will test the reward, after her spell as Global Communications Director at the Financial Times, of a place among the ranks of the Power Mums.

Another woman in Russell Brand's hokey cokey, of a similar age to Gilpin-Jacobs but with a record in a different sector of the 'communications' business is Esther McVey, Conservative MP for Wirral West. She made her name as a producer/presenter for Children's TV and programmes such as Nothing But The Truth, The Heaven And Earth Show. At another level there was also an appearance at the Liverpool Empire Theatre in The Vagina Monologues. And during 1999 a flood of publicity photographs – the work of an anonymous cameraman who remembered her as 'charm personified' – drawing attention to parts of her anatomy which are not usually considered essential for exposure on TV. A career change seemed to be advisable and in the 2005 election McVey, now robed more suitably for a constituency such as West Wirral, was narrowly beaten by Labour's Stephen Hesford but she did better in 2010, winning by 2436 votes. From the beginning she was, apart from those other matters, a subject of controversy; she had to pay Hesford£6500 in damages and costs after her team had copied a blog about him going on a 'junket' test match tour in Australia and New Zealand. After a couple of early scrabbles up the Greasy Pole she got lucky in one of Cameron's re-shuffles, finding herself as Minister for Welfare at the Department of Work and Pensions under Iain Duncan Smith (IDS).

This was an intriguing combination. A long-standing rumour has it that in 2002, when he was in opposition, IDS was reduced to tears by what he saw of the ghastly decay in the Easterhouse estate in Glasgow. So much so that he accepted an invitation to address Labour's 2005 conference and told the delegates that their treatment for poverty was inadequate because 'everyone should have enough money to live properly in their community' (he did not discuss how this applied to the Cameron family in their 'community' at Chipping Norton). But since then IDS has had to undergo a change of heart, as an important minister in a government devoted to imposing cuts which ensure that thousands of families have barely 'enough' of that money to get by.

One of the government's measures is the 'bedroom tax', so called because it is imposed on those living in social housing which has more rooms than they strictly need. This has led to many people having problems paying their rent; in a recent debate on the issue Labour MP Steve Pound told of his brother who is threatened with eviction because he has a 'spare' room which is used to accommodate his dialysis equipment. In October McVey was unwise enough to propose that the homes in question should be modified to reduce the number of rooms – a 'solution' which was greeted with a mixture of bewilderment and scorn.

Presumably because she is a practised TV operator, McVey was put up to defend the plans for Universal Credit, which IDS introduced to the 2010 Tory conference as a 'vital reform' which would simplify the benefits system and reduce its cost by merging six of the available benefits. The situation at present is that the measure is a hugely expensive chaos showing little prospect of changing anything let alone making it cheaper. The Commons Public Accounts Committee has said that much of the £425 million spent so far may have to be written off. McVey's 'defence' was little more than empty assurances that all was well with the scheme, which was working within the time scale as planned. It was not a convincing performance among the 'considerable challenges' facing the scheme – not to mention for those whose everyday life is so crucially dependent on those 'benefits' and how they are allowed to 'claim' them.

Jacobs and McVey each had a long and detailed training in their chosen sphere, followed by years of experience, which provided them with an opportunity to show how effective it had all been. In the event they have qualified for nothing more noteworthy than a place in that hokey-cokey where at the closing of a ballroom dance revellers are too far gone to continue with the rituals of waltz, quickstep...But as applied by Russell Brand the words could have some relevance for voters hesitating at the door of the polling booth. Which is not to argue that anyone with such insight should refuse to vote. To express our anger and contempt for those liars on that same ballot paper can be the start of something big.

Primitive Communism reassessed (1969)

From World Socialism'69

Most workers are anti-socialist. They react with distrust or disbelief to the idea of a world community where the means of production will be democratically controlled because they are socially owned. So, in order to break the paralysing grip which capitalism has on working-class consciousness, socialists must be able to demonstrate that Socialism is both an efficient and highly practicable alternative to the capitalist method of organising society. We must be able to offer convincing proof from capitalism itself and also from previous social orders that it is quite within man's powers to run a system based on voluntary work and the free distribution of whatever people need and want.

In order to do this the world socialist parties have traditionally leaned heavily on the concept of 'primitive communism' as it was expounded in Engels's The Origin of The Family, Private Property and the State and Morgan's Ancient Society. But if their proposals are to be taken seriously by informed workers, socialists must continually be assimilating the new information which science throws up—even if this entails overhauling comfortable and familiar arguments. Socialists cannot afford not to be constantly re-examining their arguments and sharpening their ideas. Hence this reappraisal of 'primitive communism'.

In The Origin of the Family Engels outlined a primitive society ("the lower stage of barbarism") where individual ownership was confined to personal items such as tools and weapons.
“Each owned the tools he or she made and used: the men, the weapons and the hunting and fishing tackle, the women, the household goods and utensils. The household was communistic, comprising several, and often many families. Whatever was produced and used in common was common property: the house, the garden, the long boat.“(1)
The evolution of this universal tribal communism towards systems based on private property was linked with the gradual refinement of primitive economies based on hunting and food gathering into agricultural and pastoral societies which permitted greater wealth accumulation. Parallel to this development went another, suggested Engels: the "world-historic defeat of the female sex"(2). In the earliest societies there had been a state of 'promiscuous intercourse'—"so that every woman belonged equally to every man and, similarly, every man to every woman"(3). The pairing family was only reached via a number of intermediary stages (the 'consanguine family' and 'punaluan family') and subsequently itself evolved from a matrilineal institution into a patrilineal one.
“Thus, as wealth increased, it, on the one hand, gave the man a more important status in the family than the woman, and, on the other hand, created a stimulus to utilise this strengthened position in order to overthrow the traditional order of inheritance in favour of his children.
The reckoning of descent through the female line and the right of inheritance through the mother were hereby overthrown and male lineage and right of inheritance from the father instituted.”(4)
As early as the 1890s some scientific workers cast doubts on a number of these hypotheses(5) but the deficiencies in Morgan's theories only really started to be exposed some time later. Field-workers like Malinowski living among primitive peoples such as the Trobriand Islanders unearthed a great mass of detailed information which could not be fitted into the evolutionary patterns suggested by Morgan and Engels.

In particular it was shown that many primitive societies diverged considerably from the property norms to which they were supposed to conform. Even among the North American Indians whom Morgan had studied closely this was the case, although it varied a great deal from tribe to tribe. For example, although the Shoshones owned the land and its resources communally, this principle did not extend to eagles' nests which were owned by individuals (6) On the other hand, among tribes like the Algonquins and others on the East Coast there were individual and family holdings of tracts of hunting and fishing land. (7) The Vedda of Ceylon were another primitive hunting people who held their hunting territory family by family. As Lowie has put it: "A man would not hunt even on his brother's land without permission ; and if game ran into an alien region the owner of the soil was entitled to a portion of its flesh." (8) Among certain tribes it was even possible to combine attitudes of individual and common ownership towards the same objects. Thus among Arctic peoples, such as the Chuchki, if a whale drifted ashore the meat was shared out among the whole tribe, but the whalebone belonged exclusively to whoever made the first sighting. (9)

Pastoral societies
Even more significant than these random examples was the fact that common ownership of the land was not restricted merely to those hunting tribes who were the most primitive, with individual ownership appearing among peoples at a higher economic level. For although the Plains Indians, the Californian Maidu, and the Thompson River Indians were all hunters and all held the land on a tribal basis, pastoral societies such as those of the Masai, Toda, and Hottentot did exactly the same. Other hunting tribes such as the Algonquins and Vedda whom we have already referred to, as well as the Kariera of Australia and various Queensland groups, were certainly more backward than the Masai and Hottentot—and yet broke up the tribal territory into holdings owned exclusively by individuals or small units (10). Basing themselves on evidence such as this, then, most 20th-century anthropologists have written off "such fantastic evolutionary schemes as those of Morgan, Bachofen, or Engels . . .", (11) even though they go too far in rejecting the whole concept of social evolution.

But, if the blanket concept of 'primitive communism' existing always and everywhere at sufficiently low cultural levels has been severely weakened, this is nothing compared to the battering which Engels's theories on the family have taken. It is true that most relatively advanced peoples —such as the classical Romans and Chinese, and the pastoral tribes of eastern and southern Africa—live in patrilinear societies, while many more backward peoples (e.g. the Malayan and Indonesian aborigines, and certain American and Australian tribes) are matrilinear (12). But as soon as we start to look any closer than this, the evolutionary theory falls apart. In Australia, for example, there is no evidence at all that matrilineal peoples like the Dieri have a less highly developed culture than the patrilineal tribes such as the Arunta. On the contrary, in North America the tribes with mother sibs have been found to be at a generally higher level than those showing father sibs (13). A typical case are the Navajo of northern Arizona. When sheep were introduced into the southwest of the United States in the 17th century the Navajo became a relatively prosperous pastoral people. Yet "in spite of their thriving flocks, tended by the men, they have remained obstinately matrilineal"(14). So, if we are to be scientific, we must generally accept the verdict of researchers such as Claude Levi-Strauss:
“The facts support no reconstruction tending, for example, to assert the historical priority of matrilineal over patrilineal institutions. All that can be said is that fragments of earlier historical stages are bound to exist and are found. While it is possible and even likely that the instability inherent in matrilineal institutions often leads to their transformation into patrilineal or bilateral institutions, it can by no means be concluded that, always and everywhere, matrilineal descent represents the primitive form.” (15)
None of this should suggest, however, that the work of Morgan on this subject is completely without value today. In fact, what needs to be stressed is that it is those parts of his theories which are most peripheral to the socialist case which have been disproved. The rock bottom of his and Engels's arguments—that for thousands of years over vast areas large groups of men did live communally on a basis of voluntary work and free distribution—has been repeatedly confirmed by subsequent research. In fact, much of the data produced by modern anthropology reinforces this conclusion even more effectively than was possible in the 19th century. Thus Martin Fried has shown that leadership is superfluous with the sort of democratic organisation found in many primitive societies:
“There are many societies in which leadership, the organised application of power to concrete situations, is so diffuse as to approach non-existence. The Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert exemplify this. Even hunting parties, the most crucial form of organisation among the Kung, frequently lack formal leadership. As Lorna Marshall says, ‘Often an informal leadership develops out of skill and judgment and the men fall in with the plans and suggestions of the best hunter or reach agreement among themselves somehow.’ In such a situation the forceful compulsion implicit in power is lacking; in its stead is consensus based on authority in the sense of favourable reputation.” (16)
and Solomon Asch has indicated the extent to which social solidarity can assert itself in a society without class conflicts :
“[Among the Hopi Indians] all individuals must be treated alike; no one must be superior and no one must be inferior. The person who is praised or who praises himself is automatically subject to resentment and to criticism. . . . Most Hopi men refuse to be foremen. . . . The play behaviour of children is equally instructive in this respect. From the same source I learned that the children, young and old, are never interested in keeping score during a game. They will play basket-ball by the hour without knowing who is winning or losing. They continue simply because they delight in the game itself. . . ." (17)
Socialists, then, have no need to cling to chapter and verse of The Origin of the Family or to attempt to defend its schematism. In no way do we weaken our arguments by jettisoning theories concerned with the priority of mother-right and so on. Rather, we can afford to be confident —since capitalism is digging the ground from under its feet when it is forced to sponsor scientific research into fields such as anthropology. The mountain of evidence is growing daily that it is the capitalist system itself (and nothing in 'human nature') which prevents men from living as brothers. Thanks to capitalism, socialists have all the ammunition they need!
(Socialist Party of Great Britain).

(1) The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Moscow, n.d. p. 261. 
(2) Ibid. p. 92.
(3) Ibid. p. 48. The evidence now points to such a state being only a myth. 
(4) Ibid. pp. 90, 91.
(5) Structural Anthropology. Claude Levi-Strauss. London, 1968. pp. 32, 51. 
(6) Man in the Primitive World. Hoebel.1958. p. 435. 
(7) Ibid. pp. 436-7. 
(8) Primitive Society. Lowie. London, 1960. p. 204. 
(9) Ibid. p. 200. 
(10) Human Society. Kingsley Davis. New York, 1967. p. 458.
(11) A Scientific Theory of Culture and Other Essays. Malinowski. 1944. p. 176.
(12) An Introduction to Social Anthropology. Mair. London, 1968. p. 65.
(13) Primitive Society, p. 171. 
(14) Ibid. p. 159.
(15) Structural Athropology. p. 7. 
(16) Anthropology and the Study of Politics by Martin H. Fried in Horizons of Anthropology. Tax. 1965. p. 182. 
(17) Marxist Economic Theory. Mandel. London, 1968. pp. 31-32.