Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Local Dignitaries (1998)

A Short Story from the December 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

Many years ago when my daughter was young I was invited by her school, along with other parents, to attend an open evening. It was a small middle school in a tiny Norfolk market town and as we had lived in the area for only about six months I was looking forward to meeting the other parents as well as to soaking up some of the atmosphere of the place where my offspring spent every day of the week being trained to serve capitalism.

Readers who are parents will be familiar with school open evenings, events where we may scan exercise books for any signs of genius in our kids, examine pieces of artwork, and even hear about misdemeanours, lack of personal concentration, or accusations of "not trying". The impression I got that night was that my own little darling had her nose pretty much to the grindstone and would one day prove an excellent commodity in the job market. Much as I was concerned for her personal development I, nonetheless, knew that this is how it would be, how it is for us all, though the individual rewards we receive for it do vary.

After interviews with teachers I wandered off to see if I could get a cup of tea anywhere and make an unofficial exploration into areas of the school which were not, seemingly, open to parents. In a corridor I came upon a room filled with men and women, where a table was laid with biscuits, sandwiches, tea, coffee and wine. I was staring at the table when someone asked "Red or white?" and a glass of wine was shoved into my hand and I was told to help myself to food. Whilst sipping my wine I took a good look at the other people present. It struck me that they all looked incredibly smart, the men in suits, the women in dresses, one or two in evening dress, making me feel strangely out of place in my blue jeans and tee shirt. (I had been doing a spot of gardening only that afternoon and had not thought to change.) One or two curious glances were cast in my direction and an elderly man asked me who I was. When I told him he looked perplexed. "Heather who?" I shuffled off guiltily to seek out the peanuts.

The headmaster, Mr Wallace, appeared, his face wreathed in smiles as he greeted his guests. I reflected that on the couple of occasions I had met with him he hadn't smiled at me like that! He addressed a tall man as "Director" and shook his hand warmly—far too warmly I thought. A woman was wearing a good deal of hardware round her neck. Chains of office? A mayoress no less. It was at last beginning to dawn on me that I, a mere parent, was not meant to be a part of this little gathering. Not for the parents the effusive headmaster, the special room, the wine and the dainty sandwiches.

Suddenly Mr Wallace was by my side. "Ah. Rachel's mother, isn't it? How's it going?" he said with a sickly smile. Neither of us was comfortable with each other. I munched steadily on my peanuts while he told me that the room was reserved for "local dignitaries". There was something about the way he said it. Then he whizzed off to the other side of the room and was soon engaged in conversation with a man who wore a bow tie.

I took the hint. After two cucumber sandwiches and a second glass of wine I decided it was time I left. As I edged my way to the door, a hand on my arm detained me, though temporarily, "You must be Mrs Rogers," said a glamorously attired woman weighted own with jewellery. "No," I told her, "I'm only one of the parents", and quickly made my exit.

At this point in my story I may be expected to say that I hope the day will come when local dignitaries will no longer be separated off into special rooms away from the hoi polloi, but I would rather say that I hope the day will come when local dignitaries will no longer be. Period.
Heather Ball

Second Civil War (1969)

Book Review from the December 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

Post-Prison Writings and Speeches, by Eldridge Cleaver. (Cape 35s.)

There may be those who, since the appearance of Soul On Ice, have been eagerly awaiting the next blast on the trumpet from Eldridge Cleaver. There may. Well here it is, with an introduction in the customarily ecstatic terms by Robert Scheer.—a collection of essays, speeches, articles and an interview with Playboy magazine.

The long suppression of so large a minority as the American Negro just had to call for a terrible response, one day, and the philosophies of what is called Black Power are part of that response. In the Playboy interview Cleaver muses on a " . . . guerrilla resistance movement that will amount to a second Civil War . . ." and the book is crammed with violence, some of it defiant, some of it couched in fashionable four letter words.

Cleaver thinks that we are witnessing only the beginning of the big fight and that when the American government is finished with Vietnam it will apply itself to a war against the black people at home.

This simple, Goody-and-Baddy, concept is carried into his rages against the white politicians who want a policy of overkill in the fight against Black Power—the Reagans, the Daleys, the Alioitos. And Cleaver blasts also at those whose concern for the modern fortunes of American capitalism has led them to embrace Civil Rights—like poor old LBJ, who ended up usurping the battle cry We Shall Overcome. Cleaver thinks Johnson would never have said We Want Black Power, which shows how even a Black Panther does not plumb the depths of a politician's cynicism.

Cleaver does not display the more obvious symptoms of racism which are evident among some black nationalists but even so this is not a constructive, nor even an analytical, book. Raking among its rubble—the fury, the romantic poetry of Che Guevera, the threatening excerpt from Mao's little red book—it is possible to come up with some useful chunks.

There is, for example, a passage from a speech by Abraham Lincoln which highlights the racial bigotry of the man who is popularly supposed to have been the Negroes' great friend and which shows why Lincoln is such a hero to the Ku Klux Klan. And who can argue against this:
Compare the thieves in our prisons with the big-businessmen of this country, who are in control of a system that is depriving millions of people of a decent life. These people — the men who run the government and the corporations — are much more dangerous than the guy who walks into a store with a pistol and robs somebody of a few dollars.
But if course it is possible, and easier, and cheaper, to get all of this—and more—elsewhere.
Ivan


Obituary: Jack Moore (1993)

Obituary from the July 1993 issue of the Socialist Standard

We regret to announce the death of our comrade Jack Moore in Evenley, the Northamptonshire village where he moved after his retirement. Jack Moore joined the Socialist Party in 1941 after a brief period in the Labour Party. After the war he was an active member of the old Bloomsbury and Camden branch. An architect by training, he lectured for many years on architectural acoustics at the Regent Street Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster). He was a recognised expert in this field and from time to time contributed articles on noise and on housing, but also on economic questions, to the Socialist Standard. He also designed the front covers of a number of pamphlets the Party produced in the 50s, 60s and 70s. After he moved away from London he continued to contribute to Party activity by becoming the secretary of the committee dealing with postal applications to join our Central Branch, and many of those joining this branch in recent years will no doubt recall corresponding with him.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Will there be too many pensioners? (2004)

From the November 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last month the former head of the CBI, Adair Turner, presented his report to the government on future pension provision. It made for scary headlines. “Pension crisis looming for 12 million workers”, worried the Times (13 October).  “Harsh truth is that we must save more or risk retiring in penury,” and went on:
“The root of the problem is increasing life expectancy and lower birth rates. By 2050, the proportion of British people over the age of 65 will increase from 28 percent today to 48 percent. This will leave Britain with dwindling numbers of taxpayers to support a massive retired population.”
Is this true? Will society be unable to cater for future pensioners at the same standard of living as they have today? Is there going to be a sort of class war between the generations, between those at work and those who have retired over how the national income should be divided between wages and pensions?
    
The short answer is: No. These are scare stories put around by employers, who want to reduce the contributions they pay into company pension schemes and the taxes they pay for state pensions, and by insurance companies, who want to sell more private pensions.
    
They've got one thing right though: in any society those who don’t work have to be maintained out of what is produced by those who do work. Everybody would agree that this is fair enough as far as people over a certain age are concerned, as well as for younger people who for one reason or another are unable to work.
    
But, in present-day, capitalist society there is another group of people who don’t work, and have to be maintained by those who do, namely, those who live off what used to be called “unearned income”, income in the forms of rents, interest and dividends derived from property ownership. That in fact is a good starting definition of a member of the capitalist class: someone owning sufficient profit-yielding assets to be able to live without having to work.
   
The source of all such unearned income (and indeed of the fat cat incomes of top directors, which is only unearned income disguised as earned income) is what Marx called the surplus value produced by wage and salary workers over and above what they are paid, which generally speaking corresponds to what they need to keep themselves fit to work at their particular trade or profession. It is out of this unpaid labour that not only the idle rich but the whole non-productive superstructure of capitalist society (the armed forces, civil service, legal system, banks, insurance and other money-handling activities) has to be maintained. What allows capitalism to maintain an enormous – and still growing – non-productive sector is the high level of productivity in the productive sector, a productivity which increases slowly but steadily all the time, historically at a rate of one to two percent a year.
    
Pensioners too are maintained out of this surplus but pensions are not a transfer payment from workers to pensioners, as the scare stories suggest; they are not paid for by ‘workers paying taxes’ since the burden of taxes paid by workers is in the end passed on via labour market forces to employers. Pensions are a transfer payment from the profits of the capitalists, even if ultimately these profits come from what workers produce. So, even if the ‘over-burdened pension system’ was to be reduced, this would not benefit the working population since the capitalist class would not dream of passing this on as higher wages and salaries.

Growth of pension schemes
One of the non-productive activities that the capitalist State has to undertake is the maintenance of the poor, those members of the working class who are unable to work and therefore have no income from a wage or salary paid by an employer: the sick, the handicapped, the unemployed and of course the old. This used to be done under what was called, appropriately enough, the Poor Law, which required local parishes to maintain the poor from within their boundaries. The fate of poor old people was the workhouse.
    
The history of the “Poor Law” is the gradual nationalisation of the system, accompanied by changes of name such as social insurance, national insurance, social security, national assistance, income support, pension credits, and the substitution of money payments for so-called “indoor relief” in a workhouse. By the turn of the last century, the authorities began to discover that so-called “outdoor relief” – a monetary payment – was actually cheaper than “indoor relief” and in 1909 stingy old age pensions were introduced for some workers aged 70 and over. This was financed by contributions from employers and workers and from general taxation and was baptised “social insurance”. It is still the basis of the State Old Age or Retirement pension in Britain today.
    
The level of the basic State pension has always been fixed as below the official poverty line, with the result that an increasing proportion of pensioners are on means-tested benefits to bring them up to the poverty line. As these top-up “pension credits” are tied to average earnings, the number of pensioners on means-tested benefits is expected to go up year by year. Turner – and the so-called “pensions industry” – are against this scheme as it discourages people from buying private top-up pensions (what they mean by “saving”) since most of any such pensions are deducted from the State's means-tested benefit.
    
To start with and until 1948, the State scheme only applied to a section of the working class, essentially manual workers in private industry. A different situation had evolved for people working for national and local government – so-called “superannuation” schemes (superannuation is just another word for pension), under which in return for contributions related to their salary, workers received a pension also related to their salary. These schemes were not funded, i.e. the money from contributions did not go into a fund that was invested, but went directly towards paying existing pensioners, a system known as “pay-as-you-go”. The logic was that funding was unnecessary since it would always be possible to find the money to pay pensions as governments don’t go bankrupt.
    
Superannuation schemes were also introduced, for office and supervisory staff, in the private sector. Eventually, these all came to be funded, to separate the money for pensions from the firm’s capital and so stop it being raided if the firm ran into cash flow problems or went bankrupt (a protection which has exactly not proved 100 percent efficient in recent years.)
    
A funded scheme means that contributions from members and their employers are paid into a fund which is then invested in government bonds or in shares or in property, and pensioners are paid out of the interest and capital gains on these. In recent years, with the slump in stock market prices, there have been capital losses rather than capital gains and these schemes have run into financial difficulties. Employers have been using this as a reason for cutting benefits, at least for new entrants. Increasingly, these are being forced into schemes which offer smaller and less secure pensions that are no longer related to wages or salary but purely to the amount invested and to the vagaries of the stock market.
    
A third type of pension arrangement is an entirely personal one where the pension payable depends on the contributions (and the income from investing them) of  the individual person concerned. These are basically savings for retirement arrangements which also involve placing the money on the stock exchange and so have run into difficulties for the same reasons as funded pension schemes. They are the ones that are notoriously subject to so-called “mis-selling”.
    
Funded schemes are based on strict actuarial principles and have to be to remain financially viable in the sense of having enough money to be able to meet all their obligations to future as well as present pensioners. What actuaries do is to take statistics on life expectancy and a likely real interest rate over a long term to work out, given the pension benefits under the scheme, how much money needs to be paid into a pension fund to allow it to pay all the pension rights acquired at a particular time. Clearly, if people are living longer – as they are – that means pensions are going to be paid for longer, which means that the scheme is going to need more money to pay them. In actuarial terms, this means more money has to be paid into the scheme, i.e. contributions have to be increased.
    
In this sense, for funded schemes, the fact of people living longer does indeed mean that the pension contributions for working members have to increase. But actuaries have known for years about likely future population trends and pension schemes will have already taken this into account. What has caused the current financial problems for such schemes has been the unanticipated slump in stock exchange prices. This is mentioned by Turner but almost in passing, since he is all in favour of people’s pensions being dependent on the vagaries of the stock market.
    
One idea mooted by Turner to save money on pensions is for the normal pension age to be raised from 65 to 70. This of course would mean that pensions wouldn’t have to be paid for so long and, as the TUC has pointed out, no pension at all would have to be paid to those who die between 65 and 70, as one in five existing pensioners do (Times, 19 July).

The ghost of Malthus
But this problem only applies to invested, funded pension schemes and cannot be validly extended into a general social problem of “too many old people” or “people living too long” (even though it would be typical of capitalism to regard what is after all an improvement in the human condition as a problem). The fallacy is that the narrow financial criteria that apply to funded pension schemes don’t apply when it comes to considering the economy as a whole. Here the broad economic, rather than the narrow financial, position is what counts:
“Over the twentieth century the British population grew from about 36 million in 1900 to 56 million in 2000. People aged over 64 grew from about 1.8 million (five percent of the total population) to about 8.6 million (fifteen percent of the population). So the total number of mouths to feed and support rose by one-half, the proportion of elderly rose three times and the numbers of elderly rose nearly five fold. All these increases were dwarfed by the seven-fold rise in annual wealth production.”
And for the future:
“The long-term record of productivity growth alone undermines the claim of a demographic time bomb in the future. Even without any increase in the size of the active workforce, productivity growth at this long-run trend of about two percent a year means a near doubling of annual output over the next 40 years” (The Challenge of Longer Life: Economic burden or social opportunity?, Catalyst pamphlet, 2002, p. 28).
The “too many old people” doom merchants are making the same mistake as Malthus made two hundred years ago with his (completely wrong) predictions about “overpopulation”: they are ignoring that productivity also increases over time, so that whereas there are indeed proportionately less workers engaged in production they are able to produce proportionately more wealth. It is the increasing productivity that will go on between now and when existing workers retire that will mean that society, even capitalist society, will be able to support the expected increased proportion of retired people in the population. There is in principle no problem here.
    
So why the scare? Basically, because there’s a vested interest involved – the self-styled “pensions industry”. They want to reduce the State’s involvement in pension provision to paying a basic minimum pension so that they can themselves make money out of providing any pension over and above this. They’ve got their greedy eyes on the £57 billion a year “shortfall” mentioned by Turner and on the commissions they can make on this if the government forces both employers and employees to “save” this amount, or even a proportion of it, each year.
    
What in fact is ironic – or rather, it’s a bare-faced cheek – is that they are not an “industry”, i.e. not part of the productive sector, at all. They are part of the non-productive sector maintained, just as much as pensioners are, out of the surplus-value produced in the productive sector. Not one person working in insurance companies and other private companies engaged in pensions provision produces a single item of wealth. From an economic point of view they, too, are a burden on surplus value. But don’t expect any government report to point that out.
    
The real question facing workers is whether they should continue to support the whole non-productive superstructure of capitalist society when, if it were to go, along with capitalism itself, how we they going to survive in old age wouldn’t be a perpetual worry, since in socialism every member of society, including the old, would have free access, as a matter of right, to what they needed to live and enjoy life.
Adam Buick

Reforms, Revolution and the Left (2005)

From the February 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Most people can think of aspects of  capitalism that they'd like to change.Individual changes can theoretically be made, but does reformism work as an overall strategy for real change?

Socialists are revolutionaries: we believe that the establishment of a Socialist society will involve a fundamental change in the way people live, and will necessitate the capture of political power by the Socialist working class. As revolutionaries, we do not advocate reforms, that is, changes in the way capitalism runs, such as alterations to immigration policy or the health service or the tax system. Reforms, however ‘radical’, can never make capitalism run in the interests of the workers. Nor should supporting reforms be some kind of tactic pursued by Socialists to gain support from workers, for workers who joined a Socialist Party because they admired its reformist tactics would turn it into a reformist organisation pure and simple. Socialists must reject reformism as a distraction from the revolutionary goal.

The reform–revolution issue is a long-standing one that has occasioned much debate over the years. In 1890 William Morris wrote an essay ‘Where are we now?’, as he left the Socialist League and looked back over his time in that organisation and the Social Democratic Federation. He saw two ‘methods of impatience’, as he termed them. One was futile riot or revolt, which could be easily put down. The other was, to use the then-popular label, ‘palliation’, what we would now call reformism. Morris resolutely opposed both, since they would be carried out by people who did not know what Socialism was and so would not know what to do next, even if their efforts were successful on their own terms. Instead he advocated propagating Socialist ideas:
"Our business, I repeat, is the making of Socialists, i.e., convincing people that Socialism is good for them and is possible. When we have enough people of that way of thinking, they will find out what action is necessary for putting their principles in practice. Until we have that mass of opinion, action for a general change that will benefit the whole people is impossible."
Morris thus rejected the reformist ideas that permeated the SDF and prefigured the Socialist Party’s view on this issue.

Another important discussion took place a few years later in the German Social-Democratic Party (the SPD). Eduard Bernstein, who enjoyed the prestige of being Engels’ literary executor, argued that reforms were all that should be aspired to: ‘The final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing; the movement is everything’. This was partly because Bernstein considered that some of the unpredictability of production under capitalism could be mitigated by the provision of credit and the founding of employers’ organisations (cartels and trusts). He also envisaged reformist politics and trade unions as gradually eliminating capitalist exploitation and ushering in Socialism.

 Bernstein’s main critic at the time was Rosa Luxembourg, in two articles reprinted as the pamphlet Reform or Revolution. Damning his work as ‘opportunist’, she pointed out that trade unions could only," limit exploitation, not abolish it", and claimed that his views were tantamount to abandoning Socialism. Certainly we can agree that reforming capitalism will not turn it into Socialism. But even Luxembourg did not oppose reforms.
"Can the Social-Democracy be against reforms? Can we contrapose the social revolution, the transformation of the existing order, our final goal, to social reforms? Certainly not. The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers to the Social-Democracy the only means of engaging in the proletarian class war and working in the direction of the final goal — the conquest of political power and the suppression of wage labour. Between social reforms and revolution there exists for the Social-Democracy an indissoluble tie. The struggle for reforms is its means: the social revolution, its aim."
And she made no real attempt to relate reformist policies to the final goal, other than in statements such as: " as a result of its trade union and parliamentary struggles, the proletariat becomes convinced of the impossibility of accomplishing a fundamental social change through such activity and arrives at the understanding that the conquest of power is unavoidable. "

This, however, offers no reason why a revolutionary organisation should advocate reforms. And how has the reformist argument fared over the last hundred years? Have reformist movements and reforming governments made any contribution to Socialism? The answer to this question is a resounding No! Reformist governments, like all governments, do what they have to do: they administer capitalism in the interests of the ruling class, though they do make some effort to claim that their actions benefit the whole population. The Labour Party, for instance, has abandoned any pretensions about fundamentally changing society, and is now unashamedly the Tory Party Mark II.

Reformist movements try to get elected to government or attempt to influence the government of the day, all with the aim of carrying reforms into practice or of defending the status quo against some ‘anti-reform’. For the reformer’s work is never done under capitalism, which continually throws up new problems which need the reformer’s attention and constantly undermines any existing ‘gains’, however feeble. The list of potential reforms is as long as your arm; in the course of just one recent week in Manchester, there were meetings/campaigns dealing with ‘rights’ for homeworkers, the new Immigration and Asylum Act, the police ban on a picket outside Marks and Spencer, flood relief in Bangladesh, and the pollution caused by urban 4x4s. Which of these and many other worthy causes should the committed reformer give priority to?

The ‘Left’ may claim that it enjoys the best of both worlds, both supporting reforms and advocating revolution. But in fact its revolutionary posturing is just a matter of words, for its practical policies are purely reformist. Take the biggest Left organisation in Britain, the Socialist Workers Party, for instance. The 18 December issue of its weekly paper Socialist Worker carried an article on the pension myths being peddled by the government (for the Socialist take on this, see the November Socialist Standard). Here is part of the SWP’s ‘solution’ (from their website at http://www.socialistworker.co.uk):
"We don’t want the present miserly level of pensions and care, we want better.
So say we did want to increase the share of GDP spent on the old by 5 percent of GDP or more. This only means increasing the tax rate by 0.1 percent of GDP a year for 50 years, a tiny amount.
It might mean returning top tax rates to closer to the ones which Margaret Thatcher’s governments used for most of their time in office.
Or it might mean taxing private pensions of the rich, or returning corporation tax rates on big business to a decent level".
It is obvious that, in speaking of the rich and tax rates, the SWP envisage the continuation of capitalism, rather than its abolition. It might be argued that they are only trying to attract support on the basis of reformist policies but that they really aim at revolution. But firstly, it would be quite dishonest to do this, to get workers’ support on the basis of saying one thing while really wanting something quite different. Secondly, there is no reason why anyone who goes along with increasing corporation tax should, as a consequence of supporting this, somehow be won over to Socialism. And thirdly, the SWP are utterly silent about revolution and Socialism, suppressing all mention of ‘the suppression of wage labour’. Rosa Luxembourg, as we saw, viewed reforms as the means and revolution as the aim. Like the rest of the Left, the SWP have effectively embraced Bernstein’s view, abandoning revolution for reformist measures.

The Socialist response to all this is straightforward. If you want to get somewhere, aim for that destination directly, rather than going on detours and trusting that you will eventually, by however roundabout a route, arrive at where you want to be. There is, and can be, no reformist road to Socialism, nor can there be a mixture of reformist and revolutionary policies. The Socialist Party has just one aim, the establishment of Socialism.
Paul Bennett

Hype and Hypocrisy – the Magna Carta (2015)

From the June 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

The good burghers of the borough of Runnymede are getting excited, and Surrey county council is thrilled to bits, because on 15 June 2015 they will be celebrating the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta.  A committee and an advisory board has been set up.  Members of these bodies range from Trevor Philips, the chairman of the Equal Opportunity Commission, to Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. who, according to the website magnacarta800th.com, is a ‘Magna Carta private owner’.  Nearby Royal Holloway College is preparing quite an array of events, courses and a Smartphone app to mark the anniversary.

The strapline for the celebrations?  ‘Commemorating 800 years of democracy’.  Imagine, democracy for 800 years, encompassing the evisceration of John Ball after the Peasants’ Revolt in the second century of ‘democratic’ England, the shooting of leveller Robert Lockyer by Cromwell in 1649, and the hanging of 12 year-old Abraham Charlston for Luddite activity in 1812.  Democracy?

Clearly not democracy.  So what are Surrey Council, Runnymede Borough, Royal Holloway and any number of other organisations celebrating exactly?

King John, known as Lackland (king of England from 1199-1216) had had many disagreements with his richer subjects.  Things came to a head in London on Sunday, 17 May 1215 when, whilst many people were in church, the City gates were opened to the rebel landowners by sympathetic rich Londoners.  With the capital full of his opponents and too difficult to take by siege, the king had to negotiate.  For a few weeks, a peace was brokered between representatives of Lackland and the barons; a document was put together, agreed to, and given to the spigurnels (chancery clerks responsible for sealing documents) to do their work.  Copies of this document would have been distributed throughout the country, signifying this accord between the king and the barons.  Peace, then, had broken out.

A few weeks later the document was made ‘null, and void of all validity forever’ by the Pope, in response to a request from the King.  Nine barons and all the citizens of London were excommunicated.  The civil war was back on.  In response to resistance throughout the country, John’s soldiers destroyed villages, raped and thieved first in the North, and then down to East Anglia and across to Oxford.  But not long afterwards, the French prince Louis, having been invited to invade by the barons, entered London in June 1216.  Then on 18 October the King died from dysentery and within ten days his son Henry III was crowned.  The document was given a few tweaks and reissued in November as a peace offering by the new King, but with little immediate effect.

It was only after a few more battles in the following year, including those of Lincoln and Sandwich, that peace was agreed with the Treaty of Lambeth in September 1217, and the French prince left the country with a bribe of 10 thousand marks.

The document was issued for a third time, with further tweaks, and named ‘Magna Carta’ to distinguish it from another, smaller, issue, the Charter of the Forest.  This latter document took the bits in the previous document that pertained to the forests – that is, land set aside for royals to use for hunting.  It has been said that this document relates more to ordinary people than does the Magna Carta.  It is true that, amongst its demands that foresters mutilate their dogs’ paws so they can’t chase deer, there is a clause that bans the removal of limbs, or life, for stealing venison.  However, the document does not explicitly ban blinding, a punishment at that time.  The prescribed punishment in the Charter of the Forest was a fine as heavy as can be levied according to the thief’s means, and if it could not be paid then it’s a year and a day in prison followed, if the money was still not available, by being kicked out of the country (i.e., they must ‘abjure the realm’).

These documents were regularly reissued throughout the thirteenth century, generally when the king was in need of more revenue.  From starting its life as an attempt to negotiate a peace with a king, the Magna Carta seemed to turn into a way of generating taxes.

By the sixteenth century, with the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism, it is hardly surprising that a document that spoke of the rights of the (Catholic) church, and drawn up in a time in his reign when Lackland felt it expedient to submit to papal authority, would not be something to flash around.  Shakespeare’s King John, for instance, does not mention the Magna Carta.  When the Chief Justice, Edward Coke, suggested that the king was not above the law, James I had him dismissed, leaving him with free time to write The Institutes of the Lawes of England, which expressed his view that the Magna Carta was the basis of the common law.

In the seventeenth century, with the conflicts between parliament and king, it became fashionable, although not with the Lord Protector Cromwell, who is said to have referred to it as the ‘Magna Farta’.  Levellers such as John Lilburne and Thomas Overton saw it differently, Lilburne invoking it at his trials for treason against Cromwell, quoting Coke’s Institutes, and Overton quoting the charter in An Arrow Against All Tyrants.

The leveller William Walwyn, however, had a more astute understanding.  In A Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens he says: ‘Magna Carta itself being but a beggarly thing, containing many marks of intolerable bondage, and the laws that have been made since by parliaments have in very many particulars made our government much more oppressive and intolerable…’

Onwards into the 18th century, we see the United States considering it as a basis of their constitution and Bill of Rights.  The symbol of the state of Massachusetts is a man holding a copy of the Magna Carta.

So there we have it.  This is the focus of the celebration.  A document that lasted in law for a few weeks in a failed attempt to prevent handbags at dawn between a king and his rich subjects, which was then split into two documents over the course of the century, and reissued whenever a thirteenth century monarch wanted more money.  These bits of vellum have become a fetish that signifies democracy.

It offers protection under the law for free men.  By free men, of course, it doesn’t mean the likes of us (putting gender aside for the moment).  It means protection for the rich.

And it is argued that this is the first time a king has been held to account, and a limit set to his power.  Yet the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells of the power of the Witan – the councils of ‘wise’ men – in pre-Norman England, and their influence on the monarchs.

Meanwhile, back in Surrey…

In woodland, close to where the Magna Carta is purported to have been sealed, lies the Runnymede Eco-Village community.  It is on land occupied by the group Diggers 2012, land that has been vacant and otherwise unused since 2007 when Brunel University left the area, having sold it to a property developer, who soon afterwards was given planning permission.  For around three years these hippies have been building shelters, setting up solar electricity and growing vegetables.  Or, as the Daily Mail website puts it, ‘Dope-smoking anarchists sully site where King John sealed the Magna Carta with litter-strewn shanty town’ (odd that the Mail believes that the king sealed the Magna Carta with a litter-strewn shanty town and not some kind of wax on a stick).

The landowners are in the process of going to court to evict Diggers 2012.

And on 15 June there will be a celebration of democracy in Runnymede, in the presence of the Queen –  a non-elected hereditary head of state, it seems, is the perfect example of these ‘800 years of democracy’.  That and a thirteenth century document resulting from a hissy fit between royalty and rich men.

And perhaps freedom will be celebrated by the force of the law booting a few hippies off nearby land.

And two final commentaries written not so far apart:
‘...it is implied that here is a law which is above the King and which even he must not break. This reaffirmation of a supreme law and its expression in a general charter is the great work of Magna Carta; and this alone justifies the respect in which men have held it.’
Winston Churchill
‘… it's through that there Magna Charter,
As were made by the Barons of old,
That in England today we can do what we like,
So long as we do what we're told.’
(Marriott Edgar)
Vincent Jones

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Water Grab - the Theft and Waste of Water (2012)

From the December 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

The world has arrived at a critical stage in the way it uses its water. As water, a fundamental necessity of all life, is absolutely essential to the whole of humanity, who should be the primary stakeholders?

Water is fast becoming the focus of attention for social justice rights groups, environmentalists and diverse populations, both rural and urban who recognise the dire effects that increased privatisation, monopoly control, misappropriation and misuse, globalised corporate policies and government and international institutions' complicity and influence have all had on the ordinary citizen's access to it. We are at the stage where the misuse and overuse of water have resulted in severely falling water tables as a result of the over-pumping of aquifers and the negative results from big dams and river diversions are being realised. More water is being used every year than is being replenished.

In effect, water is being stolen from our descendants. According to the Global Footprint Network, capitalism currently uses the equivalent of 1.5 planet earths. Following on from this a recent report published in the journal, ‘Nature’ assessed capitalism's groundwater footprint. They estimate that the size of the global groundwater footprint, the area required to sustain groundwater use and groundwater-dependent ecosystem services, is about 3.5 times the actual area of aquifers currently tapped for water supplies (Link).

Land on all continents is becoming increasingly dependent on the unsustainable use of groundwater. Some of the biggest food producers, e. g. US, China and India, are the biggest culprits of over-pumping aquifers and there are others such as Saudi Arabia, which has severely depleted its own aquifers and is now buying up large areas of Ethiopia and elsewhere in order to grow food for itself.

'Land grab' is a term which has become familiar in recent years. 'Water grab' is a relatively new term. It refers to the different ways in which outside actors divert water from its traditional uses and users and appropriate it for their own benefit by a number of means. Use can be denied in many ways. The most obvious is to physically divert the water via pipes or canals, reducing or stopping the original flow. It may be privatised and monetised, cutting off those who can't pay. Sources may be overused by industrial development schemes causing contamination of local wells and water courses. Rivers, streams and lakes may be seriously contaminated by mining runoff or industrial and agricultural effluent affecting local and downstream populations. Huge quantities of water are locked up in the production of crops intended as food for humans, animal feed or, increasingly, biofuels. With the rapid increase of international investment in overseas lands for agricultural production for the export market has also come the realisation of just how much water is being denied to traditional local users and how much 'virtual' water is being diverted by moving it around the world locked up in crops and animals.

Water grab transfers the control of water from resident farmers, usually smallholders, and hands it to foreign companies. Local communities who have traditionally had unimpeded access to it for irrigation and general household needs along territory close to rivers and springs are disenfranchised. The deals done are generally leasehold for land use, whether for agriculture, mining, industry or pure investment, but land without water is worth little. Usually the deals which are struck take little or no consideration of those living on and working the land but are between governments (local or national) and foreign companies. The transfer of water control from both closely affected and downstream communities to the new user is often not specified in the land deals. However the amount of water required for irrigation is implicit in the crop type and the location, especially in rain-scarce areas.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean has reported that land acquisition (land grab) in Latin America and the Caribbean is in its infancy and only has examples in Argentina and Brazil. However, this has been challenged in the ‘Declaration of Buenos Aries’, signed in March this year at the third special Conference on Food Sovereignty, representing over 100 organisations from 20 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, which stated that ‘these conclusions result from using very limited criteria: the buying up of large extensions of land for the production of food, where at least one foreign government make up the actors or agents involved’ (Against the grain).  In effect, this means that the FAO does not consider it land grabbing when private investors are the parties involved. According to their report, land grabbing only results from sovereign (state) investment, which clearly reveals their stance as world capitalism's bodyguards to private takeovers anywhere in the world.

Following the publication of an article in the ‘Wall Street Journal’ in September by the FAO and the European Bank for Research and Development calling for governments and social organisations to 'embrace the private sector as the main engine for global food production,' a large group of these social movements, including La Via Campesina, Grain, Friends of the Earth International and a number of Latin American groups representing independent and non-commercial farmers, peasants and women, strongly countered the call. They issued a statement reiterating the evidence found in numerous international studies that those engaged in small farming feed the majority of the world's population (Link.) and that they feed them using far fewer fossil fuels for transport, production and fertilisers, with more economical use of water, and with a long-term view of care of the soil, the water and the environment in general. As a consequence, their contribution to global warming is negligible compared with that of large agribusiness; in fact, they often claim that they cool the earth.

Projects for which water is the primary requirement – dams and hydro-electric schemes – also seriously affect large numbers of resident populations and the wider environment. Mine Islar describes recent neoliberal reforms which have given the private sector the right to lease rivers for 49 years for electricity production thus: 'in some cases this particular privatisation in Turkey can be understood as an instance of 'water grabbing', where powerful actors gain control over use and increase their own benefits by diverting water and profit away from local communities living along these rivers' (Islar, M. 2012. Privatised hydropower development in Turkey: A case of water grabbing? www.water-alternatives.org). These schemes negatively affect local farming, community needs and the ecology of the area. All rivers in Turkey are now prey to this threat.

As for large dams, supposedly the solution to control and regulate the flow of water according to geographic and demographic requirements, these are now being seen as problems in themselves. As the climate becomes more extreme (a knock-on effect of global warming) on nearly every continent, 'large dams are at risk of becoming white elephants due to drought and weapons of mass destruction during extreme floods' (Lori Pottinger, Huffington Post, 21September).

It is being recognised that wastage by evaporation from big dams can be substantially more than from the rivers and, in the worst examples, accounts for up to half of the annual river flow – an incredibly extravagant waste of much needed water. A hydroelectric dam in the Amazon has been calculated to produce methane (from rotting vegetation in the flooded forest) with eight times the greenhouse effects of a coal-fired power station with a similar generating capacity. Reservoir gases in Ghana emit up to five times as much greenhouse gas as all the country's burning of fossil fuel. These examples reveal some of the vicious negative effects of big dams on the global water cycle, a serious consideration for the state of the planet. (These and many more examples from Fred Pearce's book When the Rivers Run Dry.)

One of the conclusions of a detailed study of almost 200 major international water-related projects over the past 20 years is, ‘This mismanagement of water and aquatic systems has “led to situations where both social and ecological systems are in jeopardy and have even collapsed”’ (http://tinyurl.com/8upcanp).

There is evidence a-plenty to reveal the true culprit – the engine of capitalism driving the all-important imperative for profit. However, it needn't be like this. Following the elimination of the possibility of manipulation by profit-seeking actors, water, as with all other resources, can be dealt with responsibly in the light of the links between science, technology and policymaking as forged by the democratic decisions in the best interest of the planet and its primary stakeholders, people.
Janet Surman

OUR MAY-DAY MEETINGS (1938)

From the June 1938 issue of the Socialist Standard

All our members who organised and took part in the meetings and sale of literature on May-Day in Hyde Park are to be congratulated upon their magnificent efforts.

The two propaganda meetings were well arranged for such an occasion. Two vans were so placed that, with large banners bearing the name of the Party, our presence in the Park could hardly go unnoticed by anybody. Comrades Rubin, Turner, Ambridge, Otto, Clifford, Cash, Kilner and Willmott addressed well-ordered and attentive audiences, each from a different angle, driving home the soundness of the Socialist Party position, with the result that nearly 1,400 copies of THE SOCIALIST STANDARD and a large number of pamphlets were sold.

Another gratifying thing was to see a number of "old faces," sympathisers of the Party, who expressed their delight as seeing the S.P.G.B. once more laying low the lie of our being nothing but "armchair philosophers." Bravo!

Considering that the sale of literature is prohibited inside the Park (a striking example of bourgeois democratic rule), the amount of literature sold during the march from the Embankment, and then outside the Park gates, was simply amazing. Altogether over 60 members of the Party put their "shoulders to the wheel" in this part of the day's work. Let us keep on keeping on.
Robert Reynolds

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Capitalism - Labouring In Vain (2003)

Book Review from the June 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard

Krisis: Contributions To The Critique Of Commodity Society. (Chronos Publications, B.M. Chronos, London. WC1N, 3XX). 2002. 31 pages. £1.50p.

This pamphlet is a collection of essays from the German-based Krisis group, which has been developing its own take on Marx's critique of capitalism since the mid-1980s. Articles in various languages can be found at: www.krisis.org and may be of great interest to readers of the Socialist Standard.

In the essay Realists And Fundamentalists, Robert Kurz reminds us that:
“In 1992, the US economist Gary S. Becker was awarded the Nobel Prize for the theorem that even outside of the market, all human behaviour is aligned with cost-benefit viewpoints and can be mathematically depicted, even love” (P.15).
How have we come to a point where such unscientific and deeply alienated nonsense is given “intellectual” house-room; and what does this tell us about contemporary society? The answer of the authors of this pamphlet is one we would agree with: that this form of society (namely capitalism) is now historically bankrupt. But it is not dead, and in its ongoing, profit-hungry intrusion into every facet of human activity and experience it is dissolving everything, including human relationships, into something it calls “the economy”.

The big problem facing humanity, according to the Krisis group, is that capitalist society has effectively reduced all human activity to the category of “labour”. Or at least all activity that is “marketable”: that can be exploited to yield surplus value. However, with the technological productive powers humanity has produced under capitalism, much of this “labour” (what you and I have to do to make ends meet) is becoming more and more redundant. This creates a crisis for humanity, but only for so long as we continue to live in a society in which access to the means of subsistence is dependent on the sale of our minds and bodies to an employer for a wage. In a society based on a “to each according to their needs” basis, however, this abundance of productive power would be a positive benefit, freeing up human time and creativity in a way which may seem hard for us to imagine in these dark days.

A problem with this pamphlet is its acceptance of the bourgeois/leftist definition of “socialism” as a failed system of state planning. That said, Kurz is on our wavelength when he writes that the only way to stop the 21st-century turning into a bloodbath for humanity is to “formulate socialism anew and no longer in a state-run economic form. Only in this way is it possible that history will open itself again” (P.19).

The other big problem is Krisis's seeming rejection of class struggle, and of the working class as the agent for achieving the new society. They seem to see the class struggle as part of a process which has helped fetishise “labour”, and thus purely as an aspect of capitalist development, rather than the process which will transcend capitalism. We simply cannot accept this. We have to ask who, if not the working class as a conscious movement, is in a position to achieve the abolition of capitalism? If not the class struggle (which we all experience as part of the realities of our lives in a class society), then what process or motive force in the contradictory, conflict-ridden world of capitalism holds the seeds of humanity's emancipation? The authors seem to take a super-pessimist view of the working class, and it is perhaps this that causes them to dismiss our class as a revolutionary agent as much as any actual theory. In this they very much reflect the “death of the working class” spirit of the ideological age.

The workers, they argue, are largely enthusiastic participants in capitalism's fetishisation of wage labour:
“. . . in the crises of labour society, ordinary people (i.e. the subjects formed by capitalism) turn out to be the main obstacle for the abolishment of the prevailing fetish system. They do not want to stop working … The Titanic must not sink; the passengers want the music to keep playing” (P.5).
Oh, really?! We may prefer selling the best part of our days in return for a more or less crappy wage rather than exist on a pittance and see our dependents go without, but this hardly adds up to positive enthusiasm for wage slavery. Utter loathing of the “labour society” is familiar to anyone who has held down a job for any length of time. Even in countries like the UK, which were among the first to be colonised by the capitalist system, the state still has to go to extraordinary lengths to indoctrinate and discipline us into even a superficial acceptance of the capitalist “facts of life”. Alongside Work, School and Prison are still the other two parts of the bosses' holy trinity and always will be, as long as capitalism continues. True, working class resistance in itself is not going to be enough to change the world, as long as we don't consciously work for the revolutionary end of capitalism itself. But the fact that the working class has not at this point in time organised itself for this revolutionary end is no reason to reject “ordinary” people out of hand.

Where we do agree entirely is with the conclusion the Krisis group reaches about the only real solution to the barbarism humanity faces:
“The inescapable historical task is the negation of the negative mode of social reproduction itself, i.e. the liberation of the production of wealth from the restrictions of the modern commodity-producing system” (From article “Marx 2000” on).”
Or: wealth must be produced and distributed to meet our human needs, rather than to perpetuate an outdated capitalist mode of production which now offers nothing but misery and fear to the vast majority.
BM

PARTY NOTES AND NEWS (1942)

From the April 1942 issue of the Socialist Standard

A report by the Propaganda Committee discloses the fact that 200 people attended the (small) Conway Hall on Sunday, February 22nd, to hear the debate between Com. Turner and Raj. Hansa on "Is Parliament the Way to Socialism?" We regret the inconvenience caused to the many persons who had to be turned away owing to a "packed house." Many friends and sympathisers have told us that the debate proved to be very instructive and stimulating, and this is borne out by the figures for the sales of literature, and the contribution to our funds resulting from this meeting. Just over £2 worth of pamphlets, etc., were sold, and the collection was nearly £4.

Addresses to other organisations have always been an important feature of the Party activity, and in this connection Com. F. W. Johnson has been appointed to put the case for Socialism to the Romford, Essex, branch of the Co-operative Party. In February, Com. Johnson addressed a meeting of the Chadwell Heath Co-op. Party, and the literature sales reveal that considerable interest was arouse in the Socialist Party's case. Negotiations are proceeding with a view to sending a speaker to address the Bristol branch of the Co-op Party.

Glasgow branch held another big meeting at the Central Halls, Glasgow, on Sunday evening, March 8th. Com. Higgins was the speaker, and reports indicate that the Branch's efforts to ensure a good attendance, literature sales, etc., were rewarded with success. Perhaps the high-light of Glasgow branch's activity during March was their annual dance, which took place at the New Astoria Ballroom, Sauchiehall Street, on March 12th. Over 750 friends and sympathisers enjoyed themselves at the dance.

Despite the very cold weather, the Sunday meetings in Hyde Park have been maintained, and have drawn remarkably large crowds. A number of midday meetings in the city had to be cancelled, but as weather conditions improve, more meetings will be held at Lincoln's Inn Fields and Tower Hill, etc.

Arrangements have been completed to hold a mass immediately after the Annual Conference in the Wigmore Hall. Members and sympathisers will have an opportunity of hearing two or three of the Party's speakers from the provinces as well as some of the familiar London speakers. The meeting commences at 6 p.m. on Sunday, April 5th.

The Annual Re-union and Dance, which is to be held this coming Easter Saturday evening at 7 p.m. at the Lysbeth Hall (Beta Cafe), 65, Oxford Street, promises to be a very happy affair, and we wake this opportunity of extending a cordial invitation to friends and sympathisers to join us in this event.
H. G. Holt

To The New Women Voters. (1929)

From the May 1929 issue of the Socialist Standard

All the newspapers are vying with each other in giving advice to the new women voters.

Each paper is gravely urging the newly-enfranchised to give their vote to the Party it happens to support. Judging by the Liberal, Labour and Tory Press the future prosperity and happiness of this generation and the next is to be settled finally at the forthcoming election.

We want to give some sound advice to the new women voters, and it is the same advice that we have given to all the workers, men and women alike.

We are not going to draw pretty posters of chubby babies, with touching headlines, or any other slushy, sentimental nonsense to tickle their fancy. We want to talk to women as responsible, intelligent people, with the ability to think and judge for themselves. Are you satisfied with conditions to-day? Can you read the newspapers without feeling keenly and bitterly the reports of continual hardships and sufferings endured by our class? Fellow feeling is strong in some of us, and when one reads of a thousand men fighting, yes, literally fighting, to get into a Town Hall where one hundred were to be chosen for a temporary job, and one thinks of nine hundred going wearily home to report no luck to their anxious families, then the chubby faced babies fade from the picture and stern realities take their place.

Think of all the suffering miners and their families without sufficient food or clothing, think of the broken-down aged men and women tramping from one workhouse to another; thrown out on the industrial scrap heap. Think of the one million maimed, many so hideous that they shock their own families, relics of the last war. Think also of those who, not actually wanting food, clothing and shelter, are starved in other ways, yet possessing talents they have no chance of using. Musicians, painters, artists and students of every conceivable subject, all held back by the lack of cash and opportunity to further their studies. Thousands die every year in the hospitals because the cures they need are too expensive. What about your own struggle to make ends meet?

Here now are stern realities, day to day happenings, and we ask you, what are you going to do about it? Not one of the Parties in Parliament can or will obtain the remedy for these ills. Why? Because the remedy lies in Socialism, and they are opposed to common ownership of the means and instruments for producing the necessities of life. Women have got to understand that political power must first be obtained by a Socialist working class, who then will reorganise society on Socialist principles. The workers will be in possession of the fields, factories and workshops, and production will be for use and not profit. Those fit will work, and working time will be adjusted to the needs of the population. All will be entitled to what they need, providing it can be produced, and at a glance one can see that the economic ills we are suffering from must of necessity disappear.

There is only one organisation in this country which is working for these ends, and that is the S.P.G.B. We do not say "vote for us and we will do it for you." We simply tell you, first understand Socialism and then send your representatives to Parliament to carry out your wishes. Knowing what you what, none could bamboozle you.

This is the advice we give to new women voters, and it is advice that we have given to the workers, both men and women consistently for twenty-five years.
May Otway

Irish Myths (1972)

Book Review from the January 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

Ireland Her Own, by T. A. Jackson, Lawrence and Wishart.

Those who believe in the myth that "the Irish people" for eight hundred years struggled for "national freedom" will find this book to their taste, but those who are looking for a more objective approach to Irish history will be disappointed.

T. A. Jackson, who wrote this book during the last world war (it was originally published in 1947) was a leading member of the British Communist Party but even Communists have been known to write better history books than this, jackson makes no attempt to relate in a convincing way the political history of Ireland with the changing interests of the various classes involved and at times his book degenerates into a mere chronicle of the Irish State's national heroes.

There are factual mistakes and omission. Today the word "Protestant: includes Presbyterians, Methodists and the like as well as the Church of Ireland. But when the Orange Order was set up in 1795 to defend the "Protestant Ascendancy" the word referred only to the then established Church of Ireland. "Dissenters" as the other non-Catholics were known did not join the Orange Order until well into the 19th century. To call it "the first Fascist body known in history" is quite meaningless.

In Irish nationalist mythology Cromwell and William of Orange figure as great imperialist villains. In fact both were compelled to conquer Ireland in order to prevent it being used as a base by those opposed to the parliamentary rule established by the English revolutions of 1649 and 1688. The Dissenters settled under Cromwell but not exclusively in parts of Ulster and remained until the middle of the 19th century the most radical section of the Irish population. They were in the forefront of Ireland's successful UDI of 1782 (which gave Ireland twenty years of Home Rule until the Act of Union of 1801) and supplied many of the leaders of the 1798 armed uprising. In fact the first two Irish Republican martyrs—Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmett—were descendants of Cromwellian settlers.

The great problem of Irish history is: Why did this once radical group come to abandon its support for an independent and democratic Ireland and go over to supporting Union with Britain and abuses of democracy? The Home Rule issue is obviously the key, yet Jackson says nothing whatsoever about Belfast's fierce opposition to Gladstone's 1886 Home Rule Bill out of which emerged the "Protestant" political consciousness (and another set of myths, including forgetting that in 1690 King Billy's victory in the Battle of the Boyne was celebrated in Rome by Pontifical High Mass and the singing of the Te Deum) which survives to this day.

Nor does Jackson say much about "Ulster custom", which gave the tenant a property in the improvements he made to the land and which did not apply in the rest of Ireland, as the important factor encouraging the growth of capitalism in the North and its stagnation in the South in the 19th century.

Another interesting quotation in Irish history—the extent to which the tradition of physical force in politics was linked to the country's relative economic backwardness—is of course not even raised.

Jackson, incidentally, and Con Lehane to whom he dedicated this book were both founder-members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain or what Desmond Greaves in an introduction calls "the Left" group which broke away from the London Social Democratic Federation in 1904". Not that we are proud of their subsequent political careers, Jackson as a hack Stalinist writer and Lehane as (in Greaves words) "a lieutenant of Connolly', but we are not prepared to let Greaves get away with suppressing this fact.
Adam Buick

Obituary: George Dolphy (1981)

Obituary from the February 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

We were shocked to learn of the sudden death from cancer of Comrade George Dolphy in Jamaica; a sad end to a socialist campaigner not yet 60 years old. George met the SPGB during his stay in Birmingham in the late 1950s, when he attended the local Branch, and he returned home to Jamaica a convinced socialist. He formed a small group and produced the country's first socialist journal, The Socialist Review. The following is an extract from the preamble in the first issue:
It is our job to bring the socialist message here and let people realise there is an alternative to the present social system. The only barrier to Socialism now is the lack of socialist knowledge among the working class. We have accepted the challenge of this barrier. 
After publishing ten issues, the group dispersed for various reasons and George, on his own, brought out the last few issues. In his own words: "I shan't let this thing die." His letters were always full of interesting socialist comment on the local scene, and he wrote at greater length for the Socialist Standard on a couple of occasions.

He suffered personally from the violence engendered by high unemployment and social instability in Jamaica and experienced robberies and severe disruption to his life. In spite of these difficulties he worked to spread socialist understanding to the end of his days. His death is a sad loss to the socialist movement and we must hope that at least some of the seed he sowed during the last 20 years will bear fruit. We have news of socialists in Trinidad and Martinique; we wish them success, following in the footsteps of George Dolphy.
G R Russell

POCKET AND PRINCIPLE (1922)

From the February 1922 issue of the Socialist Standard

"Beware of all other classes."—"No matter whom it shuts out, go through with, it—make them line up with the worker . . . or else shut the door on them" . . . "If a man is a member of the B.S.P., the S.P.G.B., the Herald League, the Salvation Army, the Anarchists, no matter what organisation or group, if his income is more than £5 weekly . . . he is not a member of your class." (E. T. Whitehead, the "Spur," June, 1920.)

Whitehead did not explain who were "all the other classes." He also did not attempt to support this weird idea of his by evidence, but palmed it off on poor old Marx. The sequel, however, is amusing.

Since those days Edgar appears to have prospered. He is now the employee of the Communist Party, that curious compound of the "B.S.P., the Herald League, the Salvation Army, " etc., etc. He has also passed the £5 line, which for him parts the sheep from the goats. "Change the manner of getting the living . . . from working to cadging . . . the ideas change at once." ("Spur," as above.)

Are Whitehead's words to be applied to himself, and is this the reason why our wartime pacifist is now a full-blooded Bolshevik?

The "Herald" completes the chapter. A New York report in the issue for 14th January, 1922, reads as follows:—

"Edgar T. Whitehead . . . . the representative of the Communist Party of Great Britain on the Workers' International Famine Relief Committee . . . . arrived as a first class passenger aboard the "Baltic." (Italics mine.)
R. Bird

Friday, June 26, 2015

Free is cheaper (1988)

Book Review from the December 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

Free Is Cheaper by Ken Smith (John Ball Press, £12.95)

Books which present a lively and contentious critique of capitalism and advocate socialism are unfortunately rare. But here is such a one — a book to learn from and be enthused by, a source of information and argument for all socialists.

Ken Smith usually refers to capitalism as the Market Economy. His book opens by putting the blame for economic and social malaise on the market system, which introduced scarcity and poverty in place of the plenty and comfort of previous social arrangements (a point we take up below). In Britain, he claims, so much effort is expended on buying, selling and policing that only one in ten of the working population is actually producing wealth. This is interesting in that it is a far lower figure than socialists commonly cite for the proportion of workers doing useful work, which is usually reckoned as around one half. I suspect that both figures are really the result of intelligent guesswork, though the important point is of course not at issue.

Most of the book is devoted to exposing the effects of the market economy on various "industries", from food to shelter and disease and crime. The author claims, for instance, that dental caries is an entirely artificial disease, caused by defective diets and unknown among "primitive" peoples. The absurd priorities engendered by the profit system are illustrated by the fact that more people work in house financing than in house building. While the numbers of homeless increases, the quality of new homes deteriorates, with obsolescence being built-in like the wardrobes. Clothes, too, are deliberately made shoddily so as to encourage increased purchasing and fashion-following. The money industry, which produces nothing of any use whatever, is one of the most profitable of all. All the chapters in this section are full of good material. 

The final part of the book proposes that all goods and services are provided free. It is pointed out that many are already provided free to those who want them - police and blood, for instance. People already do lots of things for each other, for friends and neighbours, without expecting any monetary reward, so nobody can argue that such a way of proceeding is impossible or against human nature. A system where people control their own lives is needed to replace the market economy. But people can only free themselves — they cannot be forced to co-operate voluntarily. The need to capture political power is stressed, but, although there are references to the world-wide nature of capitalism, there is no mention that socialism will also need to be a world society. Indeed, an unfortunate reference to "the return of the land of Britain to the people of Britain" suggests a rather insular outlook. But of course a nationally-based socialism is impossible. 

Mention was made earlier of the claim that in pre-capitalist systems, ordinary people were comfortably off and there was a potential for plenty. On this account, the development of capitalism was a gigantic historical "mistake" which impoverished people, rather than creating the possibility of abundance which socialism will finally realise. Some evidence is adduced in support of this view, but it really does seem terribly one-sided. For one thing, it ignores the non-material aspects, the ignorance and superstition of feudal times, which capitalism has fundamentally overturned. The cosy image of peasants contentedly tilling their own land has to be viewed against the backdrop of enormous disparities of wealth and power, the privileges enjoyed by the rulers of church and state. To the extent that feudal agriculture was able to support the population, this was largely due to the very low population density. It is hard to see merit in implied claims that socialism was possible on the basis of the pre-market situation. 

If one wants to make a case that capitalism has been less progressive and "beneficial" than often assured, the best perspective to adopt is to consider its global impact: 
"It is . . . by no means self-evident that there is more liberty, equality and fraternity in the world today than there was one thousand years ago. One might arguably suggest that the opposite is true. The overwhelming proportion of the world's work-forces, who live in rural zones or move between them and urban slums, are worse off than their ancestors five hundred years ago, They eat less well, and certainly have a less balanced diet . . . They unquestionably work harder — more hours per day, per year, per lifetime. And since they do this for less total reward, the rate of exploitation has escalated very sharply." (Immanuel Wallerstein: Historical Capitalism
But these criticisms are fairly minor, and do not detract from the book's worth. Despite the range of sources cited, it is not a dry-as-dust academic work, but a vigorous and always readable polemic. Let us hope it is read as widely as possible and so helps to increase the number of socialists. 
Paul Bennett

It's the Poor what gets the blame (1978)

From the July 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard

Art Buchwald writes a column in the New York Herald Tribune. In the International issue of 20/21 May, under the heading 'Poor image of the Poor', he took the view that the big political issue in the autumn elections will be what is happening to the "middle class" (his punctuation) in America. The standard cliche of the moment apparently is that the rich and the poor are getting everything and the middle class is being left out in the cold.

While possibly agreeing about the rich, he had doubts about the poor. As he did not want to wait until the candidates' mandatory walk through the ghetto the week before the election, he decided to carry out his own small investigation. He chose as his source an unemployed man, living in a slum and receiving food stamps to stop his family from starving. Asked by Buchwald whether he was aware of the hostility towards the poor, this man said:
"Well . . . the middle class are mad at us because they feel that their taxes are supporting the poor. They're not half as mad at the rich people because they all hope to be rich someday themselves and they dream of having everything the rich are entitled to. Now, despite the fact that they think we poor are having a ball, I haven't met one person from the middle class who wants to change places with me, though God knows I've made the offer a thousand times".
Buchwald and his interviewee show they understand some of the workings of capitalism. At one stage Buchwald says: "The 'middle class' never thinks it's supporting the rich". When he states that people get angry when they hear that the poor cheat government departments, he got the reply:
"Of course they do. But nobody gets uptight when doctors, military contractors and large corporations rip off the government. They figure that's part of the game".
To his last question about possible improvements to the image of the poor, Buchwald received an affirmative reply, ending with the words: "in spite of our numbers we've never gotten our story over to the people. The rich do that so much better".

To a socialist the column was encouraging and frustrating at the same time. Buchwald apparently recognises that there is no such thing as a 'middle class', yet speaks of the taxes they pay supporting both rich and poor. By this he shows his lack of understanding of how the capitalist system operates. Workers are paid sufficient to maintain their living standards and educate their children to take over similar jobs when they grow up. The effect of taxes and rates on workers' take-home pay is taken into account in the course of wage negotiations. Workers keep the rich in luxury not by taxes they pay, but by the profit the capitalist obtains from employing them. This is the basis on which capitalism works. It is known as Surplus Value.
Eva Goodman 

Abolition of the Wages System, Cuban Style (1968)

From the December 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard

During the Summer of 1967 Fidel Castro announced that a communist community was being set up by several thousand members of the Union of Revolutionary Communist Youth on the Island of Pines (now renamed the Island of Youth).
Here (said Castro) we propose not only to revolutionise nature but to revolutionise man, to revolutionise society, it being given that the objective conditions exist on the island for making this possible, for it is a very sparsely populated region, a region that is to be fully technically developed, a region where the most enthusiastic of our youth are now gathering to work and build. We will attempt to transform this region into a social experimental centre where we must try to work out, as far as possible and with the vanguard of our people, the problems which are involved in creating a communist society.
Since then thousands more young people have settled in the area, committing themselves to stay for at least three years, although the authorities hope that most will remain permanently. Forty thousand of them are labouring to build from scratch a thriving agricultural-cum-industrial economy. Prefabricated buildings are being thrown up, hydro-electric complexes constructed and the extensive marshlands reclaimed. 

For the individual, most basic requirements are supplied free—accommodation, food, cigarettes and so on—but low wages are still being paid. They range from 80-130 pesos, which is a good deal less than the salaries earned by workers on the Cuban mainland. According to a recent visitor to the Island these wages are needed by the islanders to support parents and relatives left behind and also for holidays when they return to the money-conscious Cuban mainland.

What are we to make of this "social experimental centre"? The most that can be said for it is that, like the kibbutzim and other utopian settlements, it does demonstrate that people can live on a cooperative basis. But the Island of Pines must be seen within the context of the overall state capitalist economy. The enthusiasm and sacrifice of thousands of young people is merely being used by the ruling class in Cuba to develop the economy of a backward area. The wealth which the islanders are creating does not belong to the Cuban "people" but is appropriated by the state, which in turn is in the hands of a class of party bosses and bureaucrats.

No doubt in the process many of the young people involved will become disillusioned and drift away thinking that they have witnessed the failure of socialism, when all they will have experienced is the "communism" of the barracks.
John Crump