Wednesday, February 4, 2015

How Not To Do It (1969)

Book Review from the February 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

Coup d'État: A Practical Handbook by Edward Luttwak. (Allen Lane, 35s.)

Edward Luttwak is deliberately deadpan about this book. His aim, he says, is to produce something along the same lines as a cookery book which will enable "any layman equipped with enthusiasm—and the right ingredients—to carry out his own coup . . . if, as a result of this book, a greater number of people learn how to carry them out this is merely a step towards democratization of the coup—a fact that all persons of liberal sentiments should applaud."

In fact, the work is a good deal better than his introduction suggests. Although the second half is largely given to a study of the actual mechanics of the coup and the military strategy needed to make it a success, the earlier sections are an absorbing study of the factors which make a coup d'état possible. Much of this is of indirect interest to socialists.

Fortunately, Luttwak does not ruin his analysis by confusing the coup with social revolution. He goes out of his way to stress that the coup is "a seizure of power within the present system". He also recognises that the essential pre-condition for the coup d'état is economic backwardness and the mass political indifference which results from it. Thus, while the December coup in Brazil succeeded because of the lack of political involvement of the mass of peasants and workers, in an advanced industrial country such a seizure of power could only be permanent if it were accepted by the working class. To illustrate this, Luttwak refers to the Gaullist coup of May 1958 in France, which was successful for this reason, and to the parallel attempt by Generals Challe, Salan and others in April 1961. The latter was aborted by the massive resistance of the workers in France.

In the world today every country is to a greater or lesser extent capitalist, having to trim its economy to the world markets—but only in the advanced areas is this achieved thanks to the working class. In the bulk of what is called the "third world" capitalist economies are being developed without any involvement by the mass of the people; except, of course, as beasts of burden—as producers of surplus product. Luttwak has noticed one symptom of this—the fact that, since almost any form of political awareness is confined to a small fraction of the population, the coup d'état comes into its own. On the other hand, in industrialised areas capitalism is maintained precisely because the working class accepts it as the only possible way of running society and uses its votes to express this conviction.

The implication of this for working class intent on capturing political power go deeper than merely exposing the irrelevance of the coup d'état as a strategy for socialists. It means that before socialism can be established the majority of workers must be committed to setting up a new form of society and must have a clear idea of what this involves.
John Crump

What is Capitalism Like?

The Cooking the Books column from the February 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

Whatever people think of Russell Brand – and you either like him or you loathe him – he has at least put apologists for capitalism on the defensive. One of these is the owner of a medium-sized business called Ian Baxter who wrote an open letter to Brand in the Times (8 December) under the headline ‘Capitalism is to prosperity what breathing is to life’.

Introducing himself,  he said he was a capitalist: ‘I  invest capital in my business expecting a return. The bigger the better.’ Yes, that is what capitalism is about – investing capital with a view to profit. And a capitalist is someone who lives off profits.

According to Baxter, ‘capitalism is a force for good’. It puts money into the bank accounts of employees. ‘It puts the food on our tables.’  It ‘enabled the world to meet the millennium development goal of halving global poverty by 2015 five years early.’

Capitalist firms do put money into their employees’ bank accounts. But this is not charity. It is payment for something the employees have sold them, namely, their mental and physical energies, their labour-power. It’s not philanthropy either. As Baxter said, firms invest capital ‘expecting a return’. Without the work of employees there would be no returns. In fact, since the only way wealth can be produced is by humans applying their mental and physical energies to materials that originally came from nature, workers create the whole of a firm’s added value, including the return on capital. Their work is the source of profit and that’s why they are employed.

So, you could say that capitalism is to exploitation what breathing is to life.

Capitalism ‘puts the food on our tables’. Presumably he means that, in pursuit of profit, capitalist firms arrange for food to be grown, transported, stored, and sold to us. This is indeed how capitalism works. Food is produced for sale with a view to profit but only to that extent. Capitalism will only put food on your table to the extent that you can pay for it. The more you can afford to pay the more and better the food you will get, and vice versa, the less income you have the less and poorer quality food you will get. And if you’ve no money at all, tough luck. Capitalism will not put any food on your table and you’ll have to starve or rely on charity.

Which brings us to global poverty. We all know that millions of people in the world are starving. After all, we saw all the appeals over Christmas. Less well known is that the world already now produces enough food, if distributed differently, to end starvation, and that the capacity exists to produce much more so that starvation could be ended without needing to take from some to give to others. So, why, if capitalism is so good, are there millions of people who are starving?

The millennium goal of halving world poverty may have been met but if capitalism did this, why did it stop half-way and not end global poverty entirely? We already know the answer:  it is not profitable to grow food, build houses, provide health care or clean water for people who cannot pay for them.

Baxter can’t have it both ways, attributing to capitalism all the good (or non-bad) things that happen under it while ignoring the bad things. In the 20th century capitalism caused two world wars in which millions died, not to mention the lesser wars and slumps.  So, why not ‘capitalism is to war what breathing is to life’? Why not ‘capitalism is to economic crises what breathing is to life’? Why not indeed.

Confessions of a Dorking housewife (1985)

From the October 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

I was born and brought up in the South of England, in an area where the wealth and privilege of the minority of people are fairly easy to see. Like the majority in the area, however, my background was working-class. Unusually, my father was an avid Labour Party supporter and, as a child, I heard many of the arguments against the capitalist system. I was led to believe that the only answer to the basic injuries of capitalism lay in the hands of a Labour government.

In the years of the Wilson governments in the 1960s it became clear to me that Labour was basically no different from the Conservatives, but I had no idea where to find a real alternative to obviously bankrupt ideas. Then I went to Tower Hill one weekday lunchtime in 1967 to listen to the speakers. There, beside Lord Soper and at a greater distance from a man who swallowed fire and swung a long cain around his head at great speed, stood a speaker from the SPGB. It could hardly be called the still small voice as he was highly voluble, attacking fiercely the hecklers who shouted at him.

I found his arguments cogent and the party case was, in my view, based on sound commonsense. His words were particularly interesting to someone who had been waiting in vain for the Labour Party to tackle the multifarious problems thrown up by capitalist society: poverty, war, racism, famine, industrial relations, unemployment, drug-taking, disease — the list is endless. It is a widely held view that young people are often "left wing" but as they grow older (and by implication, more sensible) they move inevitably towards the "centre" then often on to the "right wing" of the political spectrum. However, if you understand the arguments of the SPGB you are unlikely to move anywhere else.

My experience of work and motherhood has taught me more about a woman's place in capitalism and its intrinsic conflicts and difficulties. So as my life goes on I want to work just as urgently for a socialist world where we can all share the better life. Why don't you join the struggle with us?
Juliet Jeffreys