Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Good capitalism, bad capitalism? (2011)

The Cooking the Books Column from the July 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

“There is good and bad capitalism,” wrote Will Hutton in a recent article for the left-of-centre think-tank, the Policy Network

He argued that
“The left has to understand what capitalism properly managed can deliver: and then to demonstrate that the paradox is that only the left can provide the political tension that biases capitalism towards the good. While the right is the indiscriminate friend of all capitalism, the left’s mission is to hold capitalism’s feet to the Enlightenment fire – and thus make it work best to meet the ambitions and needs of ordinary people.”
This – apart from the philosophical stuff about the Enlightenment (the 18th century intellectual ferment that provided the theory for the American and French bourgeois revolutions) – is what the reformists of the old Labour Party always stood for in practice, despite their talk of socialism (in most cases, actually state capitalism). They believed that it was possible, through legislation and government intervention, to humanise capitalism, to smooth off its rough edges. Only that was not how they (or those of them interested in more than just getting into office and taking on the day-to-day running of capitalism) expressed it. They talked in terms of these measures being stepping stones to something beyond capitalism rather than creating a “good capitalism”.

What Hutton is doing is bringing the theory into line with the practice. As far as Ed Miliband is concerned, he’s preaching to the converted as the Labour leader is already on record as saying he wants “a capitalism that works for people and not the other way around” (Observer, 29 August).

“Bad capitalism”, according to Hutton, is “a universe of bloated incumbents, politically fixed markets, productive entrepreneurs forced to the sidelines and too little public investment. It cares little for the condition and risks of the people.” And good capitalism? It, says Hutton, has
“two key properties – a system of business ownership in which the returns to owners and managers is proportional to the risk being undertaken rather than winners taking all, along with politically and socially constructed institutions that help mitigate risk, thus allowing more to be taken.”
This is how capitalism according to its theorists is ideally supposed to function. But even if it did function in this way, there would still be minority class ownership, production for profit, and the division of society into rich and poor. In fact, for Hutton, there are also good capitalists and bad capitalists:

“Social democrats should properly distinguish between the deserving and undeserving rich.”

He then added, curiously:
“They should also be prepared to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving worker – and the deserving and undeserving poor. Marx made this point to the French socialists in his critique of the ‘Gotha Programme’.”
Hutton may know about the Enlightenment but he clearly doesn’t know about Marx. The fact that Gotha is in Germany should have been a hint that Marx was addressing German rather than French socialists. And there’s nothing in what Marx wrote there about deserving and undeserving workers. Hutton has presumably misinterpreted the labour-time voucher scheme Marx mentioned.

What Hutton fails to understand is that capitalism is based on the exploitation of wage-labour for surplus value and is governed by the imperative drive to accumulate more and more capital out of this. Which is why it can never be made to work “to meet the ambitions and needs of ordinary people” and why it can only work as a profit-making system in the interests of those who live off profits.

There is no such thing as a good capitalism.

Anthropology and politics (1999)

From the March 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the late 1920s and the 1930s a series of books by the American anthropologist Margaret Mead created a tremendous following among the general public. Coming of Age in Samoa, Growing up in New Guinea, and other blue Penguins still to be found on second-hand bookstalls thrilled generations of readers who wondered, after reading the accounts of free love among the people of the Pacific islands, whether they were getting their share. Then came spoilsports to interrupt the dream of what was reported to go on under the swaying palms and around the sleepy lagoons of Polynesia.

The whole thing was a hoax, these academics argued. Margaret Mead spent very little time in the Trobriand Islands, didn't bother to acquire the language, only learned what she wanted to learn, and her interpreters obliged by making it up.

There is a long tradition of hoaxes and forgeries in the human sciences. The fossil of Piltdown Man provided British archaeologists with something home-grown to offer against the French and Spanish with their sumptuous finds of Cro-Magnon people, their art and artefacts at Lascaux and Altmaira. By the time the Piltdown fossils had been identified as the skull of an ape mixed together with the skeleton of a not very prehistoric man the perpetrators were long dead.

The psychologist Sir Cyril Burt was discovered after his death to have produced some very original home-made statistics in his anxiety to prove that people are differently equipped with intelligence. He was one of a long line. A recent book The Bell Curve by another psychologist named Murray and an economist, continued this sterling work among social Darwinists to prove that the poor are poor because they are stupid. A sceptic might argue that if Natural Selection was a reliable hypothesis, then the most intelligent and robust should be sought among those who were products of the most testing circumstances—the historically poor.

These distortions mattered less in the nineteenth century before psychology was invented and anthropological research was carried on by chair-bound scholars like Sir James Frazer in his Golden Bough, which was a hotchpotch of classical mythology, and stories brought back from the Empire by missionaries like Dr Livingstone and army officers like General Pitt-Rivers. This cosy world was burst open by a new breed who took research out into the field. The Pole Bronislav Malinowski went to the Trobriand Islands and brought back to the newly-founded London School of Economics his findings published as Argonauts of the Western Pacific. This was a materialist account of the daily lives of the people. He supplied the sex himself by getting his leg over the nubile Margaret Mead.

American anthropology of this time was dominated by the German scholar Franz Boas, much of whose work had been concerned with the American Indians. The Frenchman Marcel Mauss had also written about the native Americans of the north Pacific coast in his classic essay The Gift, but like the amazingly prescient, and home-grown Lewis Henry Morgan with his Ancient Society of a century earlier, he had come up with conclusions of primitive communism which were clearly unacceptable and mostly ignored in the US. An added disability for Morgan was his being taken up by Engels in Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. It was not until the women's movement in the 1960s that either could be mentioned in academic circles.

Boas was much more interested in a cultural approach and pressed his student Miss Mead for details of the sex lives of her subjects. Her publisher was also pressing for juicy details which would guarantee big sales. The result was a succession of best-sellers which guaranteed her a mass following. Margaret Mead became a living embodiment of the Statue of Liberty. Enter the villains, in particular the Australian Derek Freeman, to the hisses of American academics.

The Australians are frequently anti-American, we are warned; although Margaret Mead "did provide misleading embellishments" to her accounts of native life, they did not materially affect their accuracy. Freeman, for his part charges her with being anti-evolutionary and stuck in a rut of cultural determinism. He pleads for an interactionist view of things. Her defenders counter that he is viewing 1920s' anthropology through the glasses of the 1980s with the benefit of hindsight.

If Americans are charged with reductionism, with ignoring the interaction between factors, then it would not be the first time that they laid themselves open. More recently than Margaret Mead, the biologist Garrett Hardin argued in The Tragedy of the Commons that medieval common land was destroyed by overgrazing until private property arrived to save it. But Hardin's unregulated free-grazing was as false an assumption as Mead's Polynesian lovelies being available to all-comers. There were rules, as wiser American counsels urged, also Karl Heinrich Marx:
"Men make their own history, but not just as they please. They do not choose the circumstances for themselves, but have to work upon circumstances as they find them, have to fashion the material handed down by the past."
Ken Smith 

Party Activities (1930)

From the February 1930 issue of the Socialist Standard

Head Office
The Sunday evening lectures that were commenced at Head Office in the autumn have continued through the winter with considerable success. These lectures are given mainly by members who are developing as speakers, and this offers a splendid opportunity for beginners. The questions and discussion that follow have been usually on a high level and cannot fail to provide valuable information to those present.

We would like to see more members in attendance.

WEST HAM. Meeting at Stratford.
In spite of very bad weather there was an interested audience of 250 at Stratford Town Hall on Sunday 12th, when our speaker dealt with the subject, "How to Get Socialism." Questions and opposition centred chiefly round the problem of doing something in order to check the worst effects of Capitalism. It was interesting to notice that even those who spoke in defence of the Labour Party policy were not prepared to speak enthusiastically about the Labour Government's actions. Instead of the usual Communist telling is that the workers must use armed force, the one Communist opponent who intervened did so in order to deny that the Communists hold any such view. Fortunately the speaker had available the report of the last Communist Congress where that policy was reiterated.

The members of the West Ham Branch who organised the meeting had used it as an opportunity of making the party more widely known. Some 3,000 handbills were given away and 1,000 specimen copies of the SOCIALIST STANDARD were distributed prior to the meeting.

There was a collection of £2 6s. 9d., and literature was sold to the value of 9s. 4d.

The East London Branch have been very active during the winter and are making good progress. Open-air propaganda in Victoria Park has been maintained and indoor public meetings have been held each month. In addition, the branch is conducting lectures in the branch room at 141, Bow Road, on alternate Fridays in the month.

Potential speakers have been discovered among new members, and are being given opportunities for training. Sales of literature are good.

The monthly meetings run by Battersea branch in their branch room at Latchmere Road Baths have been a great success. Attendance has been good and considerable interest taken in the party point of view. Open-air propaganda has been maintained on Clapham Common, except in very bad weather conditions.

Efforts to form a branch in Sheffield have met with success, and we are looking forward to early signs of propaganda activity in that neighbourhood. Those wishing to get in touch should communicate with E. Boden, 44, Edgedale Road, Millhouses, Sheffield.

Edinburgh members are trying, in spite of difficulties, to make the party known and get a branch going. Not the least of the difficulties is the bad weather, which frequently prevents open-air meetings. When the weather improves their efforts are likely to meet with success. Those wishing to lend a hand should communicate with D. Lamond, at 15, Barclay Place.

Regular open-air propaganda stations are being well maintained. Glasgow especially has been showing good results.

As so much depends on the SOCIALIST STANDARD to link up the party with friends and sympathisers, and to keep our position before the public, members are urged to make special efforts to increase sales. One way of doing this, we would suggest, is to get subscribers for a period of one year (the cost is only 2s. 6d. per annum, post paid). If each member of the party made it his or her job to get only one or two subscribers annually, our sales would increase by leaps and bounds.

All shoulders to the wheel to forward the good work.

Cars and Socialism (2013)

The Material World Column from the March 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last month’s Material World examined the terrible price that society pays for the motor car – in pollution and disease, ugliness and noise, social atomisation, injury and death. Does it follow that a socialist community is likely to decide to stop producing cars? How compatible would such a decision be with the idea of socialism as a world of material abundance and free access?

First point. Socialism will make a lot of car travel unnecessary. This applies especially to commuting. Many jobs to which people now commute will disappear with the abolition of money. Over time geographical patterns of habitation and production can be changed to enable most people to live close enough to their work not to need a car to get there.

We can expect new forms of public transport and the restoration of environment-friendly old forms such as trams and perhaps even canal barges (for non-perishable supplies). Sizeable urban areas can be made safe as pedestrian precincts. Some towns in Germany are already car-free and accessible only by rail.

Second point. Replacing petrol-guzzling motor cars by electric cars should reduce pollution from cars and their contribution to global heating, provided that the electricity comes from low-carbon sources (not from coal, as it often does at present).

Sharing systems
Third point. Free access to car transport as a service can be achieved without permanently assigning a car to each family or individual. In social terms, the current arrangement, with most cars sitting unused most of the time, is extremely wasteful. The total number of cars required can be minimised by relying on a pool of cars available through a network of depots.

When people want to go on a trip that cannot conveniently be made by public transport, they will borrow a car from the nearest depot. When they no longer need the car, they will return it to the network (not necessarily to the same depot). The depot staff will recharge, repair and maintain the vehicles and monitor their use.

Such arrangements already exist, though not for cars. The public lending library provides free access to books and cassettes. A free-access sharing system for bicycles was pioneered in Amsterdam by the Provos in the 1960s and now exists in Paris, Hangzhou and many other cities. In socialism sharing systems will expand to cover specialised tools and other things that people need to use occasionally.

In a free-access society people will develop a different psychology. They will view the goods being held for their use in public stores and depots as already belonging to them. As they will have free access to those things whenever needed, they will feel no urge to transfer stuff to their homes in order to make it “theirs”. Such pointless behaviour will appear pathological. People will feel a need for exclusive and permanent possession only of those things which have a special personal meaning for them.

Electric cars still a problem?
So it may be possible to provide free access to electric cars at a social cost lower than that now paid for motor cars. Much lower, perhaps, but still considerable. Switching to electric cars would not prevent road accidents. Electric cars also pose environmental problems of their own.

There are two types of electric car: one runs on a battery, the other is powered by a stack of hydrogen fuel cells. However, the manufacture of both devices depends on the availability of rare earth metals (REMs). These substances occur in very low-concentration ores from which they have to be separated out by means of acid baths and other processes, generating vast quantities of highly toxic waste.

The REM smelting plants in Inner Mongolia dump the waste into a large pool. From there the ‘radioactive sludge’ seeps into the soil and groundwater, destroying local agriculture and the health of local residents. A socialist society could not tolerate such poisoning of the environment, even in a single locality. No local community would voluntarily sacrifice itself to provide the world with certain raw materials. And the world administration would lack the coercive power to sacrifice a local community against its will.

So the waste would have to be reprocessed, stored in sealed vessels and buried in stable geological structures deep underground. This is not done under capitalism because it would cost too much. But even in socialism it will surely be impracticable to store more than a certain quantity of waste in this way, especially as it will be in addition to hundreds of thousands of tons of accumulated nuclear waste in urgent need of similar treatment.

That constraint will limit the amount of REMs extracted. And as REMs will be needed for many other uses (including energy-efficient fluorescent lamps and magnets for wind turbines) it will be necessary to set priorities for their allocation.

Free access to everything?
Thus, we cannot be sure whether socialist society will be able or willing to provide free access to car transport. The social cost associated with maintaining an adequate pool of electric cars may still be judged unacceptably high.

It’s doubtful that there could ever be free access to everything – to space travel, for instance. The world socialist community will have to decide, through its democratic institutions and procedures, what free access will and will not cover, and how to distribute things to which free access cannot be provided.