Friday, March 28, 2014

"All This Hard Graft No Longer Makes Sense" (1999)

From the March 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Marx referred to early society as "primitive communism" because throughout the Stone Age our ancestors co-operated to provide for their needs. With this in mind the socialist revolution can be seen as a long cycle of change from co-operation at a primitive level to co-operation in a more conscious, technically advanced society.

Anyone who visits the sites of upper Palaeolithic cultures in the Dordogne, France, can see in the museum at Les Eyzies the flint tools and the conditions in which they were used by the Magdalenian people about 20,000 years ago. It appears that life during this time was not necessarily "nasty, brutish and short". They developed art amidst abundant game, fish, wild vegetables, fruits, nuts and berries. All these things were there for the taking, it was natural wealth which did not have to be produced. Time had no economic value. There was no wage working, profits, bosses or economic crises. The whole community had free access to what was available and if one could avoid toothache, the living could well have been pleasant.

But sometime before 8,000BC conditions developed in which farming began and with it began the treadmill of hard work. For cereals this required ground preparation, sowing, watering, weeding, harvesting, threshing, storage and grinding. Also there were animals to tend. This was surely the beginning of the long working day. But farming brought more than hard work. With the emergence of dominant classes it brought exploitation of slaves who have done all the hard work ever since.

In his short book, Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers: How Agriculture Really Began, Colin Tudge suggests that the development of farming took much longer than has been commonly supposed and was preceded by along period of "proto-farming". Writing recently in the Independent under the heading "All this hard graft no longer makes sense", he suggests that the once necessary long working day is outdated. He says, "We should see our industriousness not as an inveterate, "objective" good but as an adaptation geared to different times, and one that no longer makes sense; a mental vestige; virtually a psycho-pathology. We and the world would be much pleasanter and safer if we did."

But our situation is much worse than this. Most hard work has little connection with real human needs and a lot of it is actually lethal. The modern age has seen enormous gains in productivity of labour but where are the benefits for the working population? Do factory workers or farm workers or those in building and construction work less hours after having provided for the needs of the community? Of course they don't. Despite the much predicted society of leisure workers still work long hours and productivity means they are exploited more intensely.

There are thousands of people in supermarkets working long, poorly paid mind-blowingly boring hours operating the tills. They hold you up when all you want to do is leave the store after collecting what you want. They are there to make you pay so their bosses can get their profits. They are there to serve the profit system and their work has nothing to do with needs.

A great deal of hard work is done by the vast numbers of workers in the world's armament industries. The countless millions killed or wounded in the wars of this century were the casualties of every kind of weapon from bayonets, bullets and bombs to high-tech ballistic missiles and all these required long hours to produce. So when we ask whether we need to do all this hard work, the answer must be that it is not just unnecessary, much of it brings about great misery and suffering. So we can certainly do without it.

We can estimate that at least half of all the workers running the capitalist system would be redundant in a sane society where work would be organised economically solely for the needs of the community. This means that, including the present millions who are unemployed, socialism would more than double the numbers of people available to do useful work. Also, these vastly increased numbers would be free to use and further develop the most advanced techniques of production. All this would add up to a huge increase in our powers of production.

At first, to solve problems, production in socialism would have to be expanded. The priority would be to ensure that every person is comfortably housed and supplied with good quality food of their choice. The construction of a safe world energy system would be another urgent project. The present great differences in the world distribution of machinery, plant and up-to-date production methods would need to be evened out. But with an adequate structure of production in place we can anticipate that in socialism, we would soon be in a position to relax in the necessary work of providing for needs.

The idea of producing enough for the community and then relaxing to enjoy many other kinds of activity which may interest people is impossible under a capitalist system. Capitalist production is not primarily about supplying needs it is about making profit and accumulating capital. It can only work with a constant market pressure to renew its capacity for sales. Under capitalism a surplus of commodities, in excess of market capacity means they cannot be sold for a profit. This can bring about recession, workers thrown out of jobs, governments having to pay out more in doles when strapped for cash trying to finance a reasonable health service, it means companies going bankrupt. It means the whole mad market system being thrown into yet another crisis simply because the goods cannot be sold. These are some of the destructive features of a money-driven economy which is long past its sell-by date.

In socialism, with the abolition of the market, and acting with voluntary co-operation, people will produce goods and distribute them to stores without any of the barriers of buying and selling. The cash tills will disappear, shoppers won't be held up and the operators won't have to do their boring, meaningless jobs.

Enough for Needs
What it also means is that for the production of component parts of machinery or household goods, etc, intense production runs using automated systems could supply not just sufficient components for immediate use but also stocks for anticipated future demand. These could be distributed as and when required and this would be an economical use of production facilities which could then be either shut down until when required again or with different tooling used for other production runs. The important point being that in socialism this could happen without any of the problems and chaos that an oversupply of commodities for the market causes under capitalism.

The idea of having enough for needs and then relaxing to enjoy it is perhaps an echo of the best times had by hunters and gatherers. But this way of life was never viable for larger populations who are compelled to produce what they consume. To begin with, during the advent of farming this inevitably required a lot of hard graft, but with the enormous increase in the powers of labour since then, this is no longer necessary. We can learn other lessons from hunter/gatherers. Until recently the aborigines of Australia held the land in common and co-operated to sustain a way of life that was in balance with their environment and had lasted for at least 40,000 years. The modern world has an urgent need to imitate that example.

To re-establish common ownership and co-operation would in fact revert to relationships which were normal for humanity for the very long period of pre-history. Now, of course, we would enjoy these relationships with all the advantages of modern technology and know-how. But, by being aware of history and the great mistakes of the past we would also be aware of the need to use these powers wisely.
Pieter Lawrence

The Battle of the Somme

From the August 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

The recent 90th anniversary of the human tragedy of the Somme saw the politicians, the churches and the organisations charged with remembrance giving history a makeover.

The Allied warlords planned a massive assault set for mid-summer 1916. The offensive was to be carried through by the combined Allied armies and was intended to break through the German lines on the Western, Eastern and Italian fronts imposing a defeat of such magnitude on Germany as to bring a speedy end to the First World War.

 Doubtless it all worked out well for the generals and marshals as they threw clay representatives of thousands of human beings into homicidal battle against one another on the sands table. But battles are not won on sands tables and in the early spring of 1916 the Germans spoiled the plot by opening up a massive assault against the French city of Verdun which absorbed French divisions planned into the attack on the Western Front at the Somme.

 In the week before the 1st of July Allied artillery carried out a ceaseless bombardment of German positions on a five mile stretch of the front. In all they fired 1.6 million shells but many of the British shells failed to explode and the German fortifications not only proved largely resistant to the shelling but also provided subterranean tunnelling where soldiers could take refuge from the bombardment.

 Such was the confidence of the British Command that an enervated German line would crumble before the ferocity of a massed attack that they ordered their 11 divisions to walk steadily across No-Man's- Land towards the German fortifications. At 7.30 hours on July 1st the men arose out of their entrenchments in response to the blowing of whistles and proceeded to walk towards their objectives.

 Immediately they were confronted with a deadly fusillade from German machine-guns. Like lemmings they offered their bodies like blades of grass before a scythe; wave after wave of them, the cared prodigy of wives and mothers learning the falsehood of patriotism or paying the price for volunteering away from poverty or the dull, hum-drum meanness of wage slavery. 60,000 of them fell that day, 20,000 dead, the rest flawed statistics.

 The chaplains were busy intoning their prayers to a remorseless god and the generals, too, were brutal and remorseless for it didn't stop; it continued the next day and for four more months. In October the torrential rains came changing the blood-soaked ground into a quagmire where putrefying human flesh mingled with the mud and obstructed men as they were striven to further slaughter. When this single phase of the hellish conflict was exhausted in mid- November those designated as 'British' were 420,000 fewer while the French lost 195,00 men and the Germans over 600,000. There were no generals killed or wounded and the Allied forces had advanced 5 miles over wasted, barren land.

 The Somme, Passendale, Salonika, Suvla Bay, names of strange places that became prominent in the lexicon of war and its brutalities. 'Lions led by donkeys' was the popular alibi for the monstrous slaughter and the ineptitude of warlords like the British Somme commander, Earl Haig becamethe focus of bitter criticism and sick jokes.

 There was no poetry now in the killing; the avalanche of stereotyped telegrams expressing official regret at the death of a husband or son began to speak louder than the xenophobic vapourings of politicians and the media and officialdom may well have been haunted by the thought that workers turned soldiers might catch on to the duality of their exploitation and the brutally obvious fact that a social system that required periodic bloodletting was fatally flawed.

 Time has accounted for those who survived the battle; those who ploughed through the detritus of decaying human flesh and wept for dead comrades. If you were a tourist from Mars attending the Somme commemoration the vital question you might want to ask is why were millions of men, men of no property and no financial interests, men who had never met those they were now told were their enemies and with whom they did not share a language that would allow them to curse at one another, why were they killing? Why were they dying?

 The answer is that they were fighting over markets and the political and economic appurtenances of trade; that war was, and is, simply a logical extension of a brutally competitive system of social organisation predicted on profit and ongoing expansion; a system that dominated their lives, took away their human dignity and reduced them to the status of wage slaves and cannon fodder.

So the question must be avoided at all costs; capitalism's obsequious apologists, its politicians, its beholden clergy and media hacks will change the script: Tell the fools how brave they were and how proud they should be; that'll keep them happy to the next time. "Give a benediction, bless them with a prayer, And tell them how the son of God was longing to be there!" In the circumstances of the conflict bravery is a empty virtue; an abuse of language that must surely add insult to injury.
Richard Montague