Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Education for living? (1985)

From the September 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

"What's this got to do with engineering?" Instead of waiting for an answer, he is staring sullenly out of the window near the back of the classroom. It would be possible to ignore it and carry on with the talk on The Cause of Two World Wars, which you have just started. Not all of them are paying attention yet; but even among those who are, some are smirking at the question. You are conscious of the fact that the employers of this eighteen-year-old apprentice would be pleased to hear him talking like this. They release him for one day a week to attend school; and they begrudge any time which is not spent in learning his trade.

Some of those who are smirking are dressed in leather jackets and bright blue jeans. They couldn't care less whether they are wasting their time or not. At least, school is a skive from work. But his question threatens to side-track the subject of the lesson: and that appeals to them. This youngster, Wilkins, on the other hand, has a conventional haircut and wears sports jacket and flannels. He is bright too, so that any attempt you might make to explain the relevance of the subject, or the importance of their Liberal Studies period in general, will be seized upon and turned into an argument. On balance, you decide that it would be better to keep him silent, and hope that the subject will engage his interest eventually.

While you have been weighing up the pros and cons, there has been a pause of almost five seconds, so that even the youth in the far corner who has been reading the Daily Mirror more or less covertly is now listening for your answer.

"Nothing at all", you say, with a smile that signifies total confidence in what you are doing,

Wilkins snorts contemptuously out at the view.

"If you look at these maps, you can see that Germany did not even become a nation until the end of the last century, whereas Britain and France . . . "

"I mean—what do we want to know about History for?"

"Yeah! That's in the past."

Even a quiet fat lad at the front is muttering something similar, so that you can sense that it is going to be a waste of time while they are in this mood. They are not usually as bad as this. Perhaps it would be better if you let them get it out of their systems. "All right. Let's put the lesson on one side for a minute. You think you should come here just to learn engineering and nothing else, Wilkins, is that it?"

"Well, that's what we're going to be, isn't it?"

"Yeah! What good's this stuff to us? Last week it was art, or something. And we heard all about the stars, and biology and that. How's all that gonna help us to get a good job?"

It would be taking an unfair advantage to press this small, pimply-faced boy to explain what he imagined as a good job. The youth in the corner has gone back to his newspaper; but you can afford to ignore that too for the moment. "I'm well aware that you are going to spend the best part of your lives working—whether you want to or not. But is that all life is—eat, work and sleep? By the time you are forty, and you've got whatever job you're going to get—what then? You've got to have some other interests." There is a dirty laugh from the middle of the room; it is taken up with gusto by the rest. You smile faintly, waiting for them to subside, and then say, "Yes—but even that wears a bit thin over the next twenty years, you know. If you've got no interest in the world around you, no knowledge of what's going on, life's a pretty dreary business. Look at Robinson", you say with mock enthusiasm, pointing to the youth with the newspaper. "He's keeping up with world affairs, you see—reading his newspaper."

Robinson goes red, folds up the paper and says, "I was reading the cartoons", anxious to disclaim any suggestion that he was doing anything intellectual.

"We don't want none of the egg-head stuff. It's a load o' junk", says pimple-face.

"How do you know?"

"I don't wanna know", he says, getting angry. "If that lot at the top go for it, then it's crap as far as I'm concerned."

"What are you trying to make us all", Wilkins sneers, "—good citizens?"

If you weren't a socialist, this one would be a gift. You could talk with all the reformer's enthusiasm about better opportunities for everybody, steady social improvement, increased and enriched leisure for all, and the responsibility of every citizen in forming this brave new world just round the corner.

As it is, you know what Wilkins only feels in his bones, that life in this system of society never works like that, because capitalism needs more restrictions and more repression and more waste the more surely freedom and abundance become possibilities. This is the root cause of Wilkins' sceptical and truculent attitude. He can't see why, but already, at eighteen, he has sensed that there is no way out. Some of the others despise it all, and try to live for kicks, as far as apprentices' wages will let them. He has tried to use his intelligence by putting his faith in the only positive value he can see—work.

"I'm not trying to make you anything, Wilkins. I'm not even trying to make you into an engineer instead of a human being, which is what you seem set on becoming. If you want to be nothing else but an appendage to a machine, that's up to you; but don't try to kid me that it's a full life."

Wilkins is silenced; and the others partly take their cue from him. Instead of attacking now, they ask questions and listen to the answers. But as you go on, showing them bit by bit that the realms of the arts and sciences and world affairs are not simply for the capitalist class (without naming it), a sense of uneasiness grows in inverse proportion to your success. You know that, to them, you represent Authority, one of Them, and that the more reasonable you are, the more they like you and take your judgements on trust, the more you are reconciling them to authority, to the status quo, to the idea that a decent life is possible inside capitalism. What can you do to open up their minds to the influence of knowledge and ideas, without dissipating the sceptical and critical attitude which is their only safeguard against the prevailing climate of hypocrisy and deceit?

"What you say doesn't add up, though, does it?" Wilkins says, putting both hands flat on his desk. "Why do they keep getting steamed up about 'We must export more' and 'We must protect British interests abroad' if that's what caused the last two wars, in the end. If they know that, why do they keep on with it?"

"All right—why do they? It's a good question."
S Stafford
Reprinted from the Socialist Standard
September 1965

The Virtues of Reflection (2000)

Theatre Review from the February 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Candide. National Theatre.

One of the characteristics of turn-of-the-millennium capitalism is that people rarely reflect about life. True a lot of people will wonder about how they are going to survive in the next few weeks and months, whilst most of the rest of us will worry about coping with the stresses and strains of everyday life. But such actions are a million miles away from what I have in mind. I'm thinking about standing back from the ordinary and the commonplace, and trying to look at the world, and the lives that people live, in a larger, more objective way.

I had occasion to think about such matters at the end of Candide, the wonderful musical—music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics Richard Wilbur, book adapted from Voltaire's famous novel, by John Wheeler, in a new version by John Caird—which has been marvellously revived by the National Theatre. As I wandered out of the Olivier Theatre after a second visit, I couldn't but become aware of the favourable audience comment. "That was marvellous," said someone. "Wasn't that wonderful?" said someone else, rhetorically, and when I joined the queue for a drink just about everyone seemed to be saying much the same thing. But no-one was prepared to offer anything more substantial. No-one sought to justify why it had been wonderful or marvellous, or whatever, and when I joined my three companions to drink our cups of tea, the conversation quickly moved to other matters.

Voltaire, were he to be about to witness such things, would probably have been amused, but saddened, by the audience's reaction. By inclination an amateur philosopher, he cast a sardonic eye on the musings of the world's supposed best thinkers. And he would have been no doubt registered, with deep irony, that although by the end of the 20th century the human race had unlocked many of the secrets of Nature, and deployed the resultant knowledge in ways that would barely have been conceivable when he was alive, most people seemed still locked in an almost prehistoric mindset.

Voltaire published Candide in 1759, and like all works of literature it can only properly be understood in the context of ideas of its time. Voltaire was a sceptical, Enlightenment figure, and Candide examines two ideas which were prevalent at the time. One was Optimism, a crude extrapolation based on Leibniz's "Principles of Sufficient Reason". The other the idea of Rousseau that in the state of Nature people are naturally good: a notion which seems to suggest a genetic predisposition to goodness, rather than goodness being learnt.

Leibniz held that since god could have created any kind of universe, the fact that he chose the universe we now inhabit can only mean that since god is good this must be the best possible universe. It follows that, "All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds", a uniquely optimistic point of view which is elaborated by Dr Pangloss in Candide.

Not that Voltaire was an Optimist. Indeed the terrible earthquake in Lisbon in 1755 which had killed tens of thousands of people, many of them whilst sheltering in the cathedral, had persuaded him that not only was Leibniz's theory incorrect, but that such events challenged belief in the existence of god and any necessary coincidence between god the creator and god the source of goodness. And if "All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds", the consequences of all human actions is already determined, and with it the possibility of morality based on choice.

The wild, helter-skelter adventures of Candide, a student of Dr Pangloss, are at the heart of Voltaire's novel. And by the end Candide has learnt that neither goodness nor malevolence are natural or predetermined. At the end Candide migrates to a hospitable location which he describes significantly as "Like Eldorado but without the gold". Voltaire, the humanist, lays before us a tale characterised by war, pillage, arbitrary cruelty, rape, starvation and deprivation. The corrosive impact of religious certainty tied to metaphysical justifications in a class-riven society are examined, and rejected. Rather Voltaire suggests that we attend to the facts of the case, in a spirit of co-operative endeavour, and seek to the best we can for all humanity.

Yet on the evidence of my two visits, contemporary audiences have been so successfully taught by the ideological apparatus of society as not to wonder about the lessons of Voltaire's tale for themselves. Could they, too, be the unwitting victims of thousands of present-day Dr Panglosses? Have they so lost the capacity to reflect that whilst recognising the absurdities of the 18th century beliefs which Voltaire parodied, they might also unwittingly believe that "All's for the best in the best of all possible worlds"? What irony that we can even pose the question.
Michael Gill

Educating the workers? (1999)

From the July 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

As this journal has always pointed out, world summits and conferences are as notorious for the verbal rubbish arising from them as they are for highlighting the inadequacies of capitalist society and all attempts to reform it.

Remember, if you will, the Food Summit in the 1970s, at which Henry Kissinger announced to the world that global hunger would be eradicated within 10 years! Today the number of humans starving around the world is double the 400 million figure that enraged those delegates of 25 years ago.

Almost 10 years ago, there was another great meeting of the well-intentioned. This one was in Thailand and organised by the World Bank and various UN agencies, and called to debate the issue of education. To cut a long story short, the delegates of the 150 countries represented at this gathering were so appalled at the state of global education that they signed up to a plan to establish universal primary education by the year 2000. A good idea, you may think, but with months to go before that deadline, the world still has 125 million children out of school, 150 million who will drop out of school unable to read and write, with these figures being set against a world adult illiteracy rate of 20 percent, or 875 million adults.

The recent Oxfam report Education now: break the cycle of poverty, which hits at the shortcomings of the latter makes interesting reading, particularly for critics of New Labour, fond of juxtaposing Blair's education policies with children saving Walker's crisp packet tokens to exchange for school books.

The report reveals that there will be no real commitment to universal primary education until the year 2015, and even then there will still be 75 million children out of school with the proportion in sub-Saharan Africa actually higher than now, and that the cost of educating every child now out of school is $8 billion—which is about 4 days' global military spending, or Europe's pet food bill for 4 months.

While OECD countries spend an average of $4,636 per year on each child's education in the developing world the figure is $165. And while Britain, whose annual education bill is some $3,553 per child, is far below the OECD average, it is still 130 times more than is spent on a child in Zambia.

Oxfam is keen to point to the benefits of universal primary education, stating that it not only improves life, but that it increases democracy and enhances a country's growth. They have observed that every year spent in school decreases the risk of child death by 8 percent and that in sub-Saharan Africa the completion of primary education increases a farmer's output by 8 percent.

The report insists that human capital is vital for growth and for integrating the developing world's imported technology where there is little relevant infrastructure. It further points the finger of blame at organisations such as the IMF and World Bank, whose structural adjustment programmes often mean a country has to cut back on education spending as prerequisite to the securing of a loan, and that the concurrent debt burden means a lesser chance of spending on education.

There is a blatant cycle of disadvantage woven into the poverty-education equation, a kind of Catch-22. Poverty means less education which results in further poverty and accompanying poorer education. Oxfam's solution, involving total reform of the Heavily Debted Poorer Countries Initiative through the implementation of a "human development window" that would offer the incentive of debt-relief to governments prepared to invest four-fifths of savings in poverty-reducing initiatives. Oxfam suggest the debt burden could be shored up with more carefully thought out aid programmes. At present only 2 percent of the aid programme provided by the West is put into education. If this figure was raised to 8 percent, then $4 billion could be invested in education, or so the projection runs—incidentally this is also Europe's annual ice cream bill.

Moreover, Oxfam would like to see reform of IMF and World Bank programmes, with the ring-fencing of education funds. The former would be most opposed to Oxfam's suggestions, not least because of its commitment to structural adjustment programmes and because of its reluctance to aid that might be diverted away from school books and into military projects.

There is a lot the average socialist could argue in favour of improved education standards throughout the world, taking on board much of what Oxfam argues. Even less-liberal economists cite rates of return on investment as a chief incentive. But is a more highly educated global working class really in the interests of capitalism, as already suggested? Only if those workers' newly-acquired skills are going to be exploited for profit. The capitalist class won't want to educate workers more than they have to, if this means eating into their profits. It's a fair bet the education issue in the years ahead is as welcome in the US, for instance, as the idea to set up an International Criminal Court, or to vote in favour of access to food being a basic human right at the UN.

This is not simply socialist cynicism taken to the extreme. Capitalism is a filthy and rotten and decrepit social and economic system, whose apologists will stoop to any level to ensure their profits are never threatened. If this means starting a war, destroying crops from above with poison sprays, overthrowing a democratically-elected government, then so be it—there is no shortage of evidence to support this. Likewise with global education. The real winners in the long run from education can only be the working class.
John Bissett

The other Adam Smith (2005)

The Cooking the Books Column from the April 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Gordon Brown grew up in the Scottish seaside town of Kirkcaldy where his father was a minister in one of the local kirks. Adam Smith was born there in 1723, though his father was a customs official. In February, at Brown’s invitation, Alan Greenspan, chairman of the US Federal Reserve Board, visited Kirkcaldy to deliver a lecture on Adam Smith.

Smith’s Wealth of Nations was, said Greenspan, “one of the great achievements in human intellectual history”. Smith’s view that capitalists should be allowed by governments to pursue profits unhindered since, “led by an invisible hand”, this resulted in the “public good” being promoted had, he argued, became “the sole remaining effective paradigm for economic organisation” (Times, 7 February).

That’s the side of Smith that is promoted by free-marketeers such as the Adam Smith Institute. But that’s only one side of his theories. Do the free-marketeers – does Greenspan – know that the Wealth of Nations opens with a declaration that useful things are produced by labour: “The annual labour of every nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessaries and conveniences of life which it annually consumes”? Or that Smith went on to expound a labour theory of value: “Labour is the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities” (Book I, chapter V)?

Smith even went so far as to identify profits as deriving from the value added by workers in the process of production:
“As soon as stock has accumulated in the hands of particular persons, some of them will naturally employ it in setting to work industrious people, whom they will supply with materials and subsistence, in order to make a profit by the sale of their work, or by what their labour adds to the value of the materials . . . The value which the workmen add to the materials . . . resolves itself . . . into two parts, of which one pays their wages, the other the profits of their employer upon the whole stock of materials and wages which he advanced” (Book I, chapter VI).
Smith’s labour theory of value was refined by David Ricardo and used by early critics of capitalism to argue that the capitalists were exploiters who robbed the workers of a part of the product of their labour. Marx took over and further developed this labour theory of value as the basis for his analysis of capitalism which saw the capitalists’ pursuit of profit as seeking to extract a maximum of unpaid labour from the working class.

The “public good” which Smith argued was promoted by letting capitalists pursue profits was an increase in the total amount of wealth in existence. Marx didn’t deny this, but argued that under capitalism this increase was inevitably unevenly divided: more went to capitalists as accumulated capital than to the actual wealth-producers as increased wages (if that). What Smith’s “invisible hand” did, if you like, was to build-up in this way the material basis for a socialist society of common ownership and democratic control. Which is the “sole effective paradigm” for ensuring that the productive forces built up under capitalism can be used for the benefit of all.

Acting Dreddfully (1995)

Film Review from the September 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

Judge Dredd (15)

In the America of the twenty-second century most of the land has been laid to waste by radioactivity and the population is caged up in huge Mega-cities. The market economy is decomposing under the impetus of social disintegration and lawlessness, and Mega-city One, along America's eastern seaboard, is in a state of near chaos. Keeping a semblance of control are the Judges who patrol the streets—police, judges and executioners rolled into one. Most feared among these is Judge Dredd. "I am the law" is one of Dredd's phrases, and few of the assorted punks and criminals roaming the streets would argue.

The character of Dredd, along with much of the plot and the scenario of Mega-city One, has been adapted for this Hollywood blockbuster from the comic strip of the same name in 2000AD, probably Britain's most successful sci-fi comic. But it does not transfer to the big screen as well as it might. The influence of Hollywood is stamped all over it, sometimes for good but mostly for bad. The special effects are tremendous, but if you're looking for a credible plot or some of the futuristic social commentary for which 2000AD has been famous, look elsewhere. Violence, mayhem and glorification of the assembled Hollywood "stars" present is what this film is really about, sadly like so many others these days. Sure, 2000AD has always been a violent comic, but there was a bit more to it than just that, and Dredd's strip was no exception.

Unfortunately, little is shown of the social background to Dredd's capers—so vital to the original comic strip. The graffiti wars, the banning of stimulants like sugar and chocolate, the mass unemployment, the shoddy consumerism and meaningless of life don't get a look in. Perhaps they're a bit too near the bone for the folks back in the US to stomach. Instead we are with Sylvester Stallone parading around as a super-hero once more. But even this is rendered laughable by his obvious inability (once again) to speak his lines properly. At some points his facial contortions are such when he is barking out orders as to suggest he is about to break wind in spectacular fashion. But, of course, we know that super-heroes don't do that, do they?

Armistice reflections (1927)

From the December 1927 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is Armistice night. I have just come home through London along with a portion of the joyful crowds who are going to celebrate. But what are they celebrating? It cannot be the end of wars since expenditure on armaments still grows, and the "East" and the "West" harries the imaginations of diplomats. Is it a victory they would celebrate? But here a million unemployed, and the miners are marching on London to remind legislators that hunger is abroad in the coalfields.

As I travelled on 'bus and tube my mind wandered over the events of the war and since. The petty squabbles of war "leaders," military, naval, and political, who each tried to keep a grip on the shoddy coat of glory; the nobleness of purpose with which each saddled the other with incapacity. I tried to think of a leader who possessed the military virtues we were taught to revere when we were children—and I failed to think of one. Even the modesty of Lawrence is lost in a crowd of full-dress photographs taken in the waste places of Arabia. A few short years have stripped the idols, one by one, of the gilding a venal Press and a hypocritical platform painted on with such a lavish hand.

The enemies of wartime have again become the joint partners in the plunder of peacetime. German, Austrian, Italian, French, American and English shareholders are indiscriminately mixed in the giant companies and trusts that take from the workman of different lands all that he produces above the pittance that pretends to keep him.

While the crowds passed before the Cenotaph to-day those who had grown wealthier out of war and peace swept in their luxurious cars to the palaces built out of the blood and toil of slaves. Behind all the mockery and cynicism lie the devastated homes, the cheerless hearths, of millions of the poor. The hollow shams at the top and the bitter misery at the bottom; the trickery and the illusions; the romance and the reality.

The tragedies of the war existed not only in the deaths, the mutilations, and the sorrows of the bereaved, but also in what lay behind much of it. Imagine the feelings of those forced, by fear of a white feather or by conscription, who went to battle without enthusiasm but with much dread. They had to endure the manifold hardships without the inner fire of a cause worth while to sustain them. Of such were many who are buried in nameless graves.

Most of us, particularly the more imaginative, when not drunk with enthusiasm or liquor, suffer the nameless dread of mutilations or death. Thousands, nay millions, went through this agony during those terrible years. Of the young and the old of many countries eight and a half millions were killed , twenty-one million wounded. This country alone had a million dead to mourn for and two millions wounded.

But what are the celebrations for? What have the millions died for? Why do many an old couple sit by the fire dreaming sadly of what might have been? Oh, sordid reality! Oh, cold, comfortless truth! Because one group of money bugs wanted more profit than another! For this the flower of youth was trampled and destroyed by the iron heel of war. And even now, while the horror and dread of those days still stirs restlessly in the mind, like the remnants of the spell of a nightmare, the nations of the earth are still hotly pursuing each other in a headlong race to more terrible wars still, though the wiser ones foresee that the end is not worth the price, in wealth and prestige, that will have to be paid.

And those who so easily sent our loved ones to their graves are niggardly in payment to the mutilated and the dependants. They groan of the height of the taxes, and tell fairy tales of the wealth of the pensioners. They would have us believe, as they orate at their many-coursed dinners, that they are really too poor to stand the strain. When unemployment was widespread before the war it was said that the country was too poor to maintain the human scrap heap of industry. Yet, on the war alone, this country was able to throw away wealth to the amount of over six thousand million pounds in four years! And this while millions of the population were entirely withdrawn from productive work.

And to-day those who might ponder over these things and be dangerous to the powers that prey have their emotions diverted into safe channels. They are given a few cenotaphs, a few processions, a turgid mass of hypocritical sentiments. They mourn by cold monuments and return to work sad, but satisfied.

What a civilisation! What a tragedy!