Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Suffer little children (1984)

From the December 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

Children, some as young as nine years old, clothed in war suits with distinctive red arm bands and brandishing plastic keys are a familiar sight in many Iranian cities. The red arm bands signify a willingness to die a martyr's death. The plastic key is to open the gates of paradise. Attracted from the more poverty stricken areas of Iran, these children are indoctrinated to a high pitch of religious madness, given a few weeks' military training and then moved up to the front line. Once they are in the thick of it, the children are used in suicide attacks, sent blindly and unarmed into the minefields to act as human mine-flails. They are sent on mindless mass attacks towards the Iraqi defence, to draw fire sp that the regular Iranian soldiers can pinpoint Iraqi firing positions. It has been estimated that well over 50,000 Iranian children have been slaughtered in this war since this war began. At a United Nations meeting an Iranian statement in their defence seemed based on the fact that the children are "volunteers" and that the Iranian leadership could not and would not deny children the right to be martyrs.

Child labour is supposed to have gone out with the last century. The sad reality is that the labour of millions of children throughout the world is still abused. This is the modern world of nine-year-old coal miners and eight-year-old prostitutes, of little girls who work twelve-hour shifts in factories and of small children abandoned to live by their wits on city streets. Employers all over the world see children as a source of cheap, obedient and profitable labour power.

Over 40,000 children under five die each day of hunger and disease. UNICEF estimate that between fifteen and seventeen million children under five die every year. This is before war, drought and other factors have taken their toll. In South Africa 90 per cent of people in the rural areas of Ciskei get their water from open sources shared with livestock. In one village in the Venda Bantustan, ten out of thirty babies born died because of contaminated water and 62 per cent of schoolchildren from the Ciskei Bantustan do not meet the World Health Organisation's nutritional standards, although "the money required to provide adequate food, water, health and housing for everyone in the world has been estimated at $17 billion a year . . . . About as much as the world spends on arms every two weeks" (Campaign Against the Arms Trade).

The future of children all over the world depends on us, the entire working class. Either they continue to suffer or we take steps to ensure a safer and more humane way of life for all of us.
J. Trainer

Sideline cynic (1983)

Book Review from the December 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

Go Fourth and Multiply — The British Left in 1983 (Dialogue of the Deaf, 60p).

This thirty-page pamphlet is a review of the various factions of the Left. In its descriptions of the pretensions and self-delusions of the would-be vanguards the pamphlet is historically accurate and frequently witty. Indeed, as a piece of light reading it is to be recommended, especially to sneering, politically inactive, non-aligned radicals who think they are cynics because they rejected the fallacies in their 'A' level sociology syllabus. Anyone who likes the "humour" of Private Eye will wet themselves reading this.

The section on the Socialist Party of Great Britain is to be found on pages 21-2. The first sentence gives a clue to the accuracy of the piece: "The SPGB, in some ways the most extreme of all left organisations, is the exclusive brethren of the labour movement". What is this supposed to mean? Within what spectrum are we extreme; what is a "left organisation"; in what sense are we exclusive? The fact is that the Socialist Party is neither "extreme" nor "moderate" (according to the third paragraph, "the SPGB can be seen as moderate") because we present a case which is opposed totally to capitalism and committed unequivocally to socialism. We are not part of the Left, which is merely a statist tendency within capitalism; we are not "exclusive" because we make clear that until the overwhelming majority of workers are included in the socialist movement there can be no revolution. How can the only party standing for democracy be called exclusive?

The superficial references to our history are reasonably accurate and the summary of the Socialist Party's political position is as good as one could expect from a writer who has clearly received her ideas as part of a journalistic exercise rather than as a serious political inquiry. As a result, she stresses points about the Party which can be picked up from anecdotes and omits those which need to be emphasised in order to distinguish the Socialist Party from the Leftist factions described on the other pages.

The political pundit or opinionated scribe on the sidelines is always a distasteful character in politics. It is very easy to giggle at those motivated to try to change society; do nothing and you will never be criticised.
Steve Coleman 

Who are "we"? (2002)

From the March 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

Somebody once remarked that the most important word in the political vocabulary is “we”. It was a shrewd observation, since to get someone to use “we” in relation to some group of people is to get them to identify their interest as the interest of that group.

In the battle for “we”, socialists are trying to get all those excluded from ownership and control of means of production to recognise the fact of their common interest as one class within capitalist society, to regard themselves as “we” and to use “our” and “us” only in relation to that class and its interests.

Those who control one or other of the two hundred or so armed states into which the world is divided have to try to prevent this practice emerging, and deliberately seek to undermine it, in the interest of the other main class in capitalist society – those who do own and control means of production and who derive a privileged income from this. They seek to convince the people they rule over that the “we” they should identify with is “the nation” as the nation part of what they call the “nation-state” they rule.

It is in this light that should be seen David Blunkett's White Paper last month on immigration and nationality, which proposes that people seeking British nationality should be required not just to have a knowledge of “the British way of life” but also to publicly swear allegiance to the queen. It is part of the ideological battle waged by the British ruling class to appropriate the word “we”.

Immigration causes a problem for them since immigrants, having been brought up under some other state, have not gone through the same process of brainwashing and conditioning as have the “native” population. Those born and brought up in Britain have been taught, through what's been drummed into them in school and through what they continuously read in the papers or hear on the radio or television, to regard themselves as British. In school they are taught the history of the kings and queens of England, and of the wars in which the British ruling class has been involved in over the centuries, and of the evolution of the British state. The media reinforce this by reporting news from an almost exclusively British angle and encourage identification with “the nation” via identification with “our” sports teams and performers.

It therefore comes almost as a reflex action for people born and brought up in Britain to use “we” in relation to the British state and to regard themselves as part of a British “nation”. So people spontaneously say such things as “we beat the French at Waterloo” or “we won the second world war” or “we got five gold medals at the olympics”. Even opponents of particular policies pursued by the British state, yesterday as well as today, fall into the same trap and say such things as “we should never have conquered India” or “we shouldn't join the euro”.

Such usage is music to the ears of the ruling class as they know it means they are on top in the battle for “we”. They have succeeded in getting their subjects to identify with them and their interests. Wage and salary workers, instead of seeing “we” as their class, have come to see it as “the nation”.

It wasn't always so easy. Historians such as Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm have demonstrated that a nation is not a natural community that existed before the state, but that it's the other way round: the state existed first and then proceeded to impose on those it ruled over the idea that they formed a “nation”. The longest-standing states of Western Europe – England, France and Spain – emerged at the end of the feudal era and then had to create a national feeling amongst the population living within their frontiers. These frontiers were accidental and had been determined by a number of key battles amongst dynastic rulers in feudal times. Had the outcome of these battles been different, then southern Britain might have been part of the same state as northern France, while northern Britain might have been part of a state with Scandinavia and southern France part of a state with Catalonia and northern Italy. That's not how things turned out, but the point is that they could have done. States pre-existed and in a very real sense created nations. Nations are groups of people ruled by a state or a would-be state.

States that have been formed more recently – and most of the world's states today were only formed in the last 80 or so years, i. e., have only been going for two or three generations – have had, and some still have, a serious problem in convincing all those they rule over that they form part of a single nation with a common interest. It is why their nationalism tends to be more shrill and authoritarian. It has to be, to overcome the tendency of some of their subjects, especially those speaking a minority language within their state, to identify themselves with some other nationalism particularly that of a neighbouring state.

Even a long-established state such as Britain has not solved this problem entirely, as witness Northern Ireland where a considerable proportion of the population use “we” not in relation to Britain but in relation to the Irish State and the “nation” it fosters. On the mainland the British state's problem in this respect has been amongst the immigrants from its former Empire, many of whom, notoriously to Norman Tebbitt's annoyance, refuse to support the English cricket team and continue to support that of their country of origin or that of their parents. More seriously, the ruling class were shocked by the number of immigrants from Pakistan and their descendants who supported the Taliban in the most recent Afghan War.

Until recently the dominant opinion amongst those in charge of the British state about how to deal with this was to make a virtue of necessity and pursue a policy of “multiculturalism”. It didn't work. In fact, it has encouraged division, by getting people to identify with their “culture” rather than with the British “nation”. (Socialists, too, see “multiculturalism” as divisive but for the different reason that it gets workers to identify with some other group over and above their class.) Now a change of policy is under way, as announced in Blunkett's White Paper, a swing to “assimilationism”.

Queen Capital
The first to experience this change of policy are to be applicants for British nationality. Blunkett wants them to be able to show some knowledge of the British state, its institutions and the history of its rulers, before being accepted into the British “nation”. The expectation is that they will say “we beat the French at Waterloo” and “we should/should not join the euro” as readily as any true-born Briton. Perhaps too they will support England in test matches.

There are also to be required to publicly pledge allegiance to the queen in ceremonies akin to the patriotic flag-worshipping that applicants for US citizenship have to go through. Such a ceremony would be a farcical revival of feudal times, but it brings out the importance of the royal family to the British ruling class. The royal family's role is to act as a focus for loyalty to the British state. The 19th Tory Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, is credited with first having thought this up. The royal family may be a relic from feudalism but it is easier to get people to identify with it than with some abstraction like the constitution. Nor is any superannuated politician dubbed “the president” ever going to be able to act as such a focus.

It is also less hypocritical, because members of the British “nation” are called what they really are –”subjects”, people subjected to the rule of a ruling class. Tony Benn, old-fashioned radical liberal still fighting 19th century battles against Disraeli that he is, finds this abhorrent. He wants us to be called “citizens” not “subjects”, as people are in France. But the people of France are no less subjects of the French ruling class and its state for being called citizens. Let a spade continue to be called a spade. What we should object to is not to being called subjects, but to being subjects.

Benn is a dissident member of the ruling class who hasn't understood their interests properly (though republicanism and “citizenship” could become a useful alternative way of ensuring loyalty to the British capitalist state if ever the royal family becomes too unpopular). But even though royalty is much less popular than it was even 25 years ago, as the media is noting as the queen's golden jubilee celebrations falter, it is still an asset that the British ruling class want to hold on to and use to the full. It serves to get wage and salary workers to be loyal to the British state and to use “we” in relation to the interests of its ruling class. A revealing demonstration of its effectiveness in duping workers can be seen elsewhere in this issue, in the Fifty Years Ago column, where we recall that the print workers – not the printing firm – refused to typeset an article in our March 1952 issue on the death of King George VI which pointed this out.

Perhaps we should have gone to a firm of printers that only employed immigrant workers who had not yet been broken in to considering themselves loyal subjects of the crowned head of the British capitalist state.
Adam Buick

A weak brew (1982)

From the December 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Beveridge Report, Social Insurance and Allied Services, was published in December 1942; 70,000 copies were sold within hours and in a short time there were few adults who did not know of, and generally approve, its main recommendations. Produced in the depths of wartime, the Report promised to abolish want by solving the peacetime problems of poverty and unemployment, a prospect that was to inspire workers to improve their contribution to the war effort.

Sir William Beveridge was Chairman of an Interdepartmental Committee set up in June 1941 by Arthur Greenwood, a Labour Party Minister in the coalition government, to undertake a survey of "the existing national schemes of social insurance and allied services, including workmen's compensation, and to make recommendations". State run insurance schemes for the elderly and unemployed were not new: pensions for some old people were first paid in 1909 and were non-contributory until their scope was extended in 1925. A National Insurance Act in 1911 had introduced (for workers below a certain income) a restricted system of insurance for sickness and unemployment, with employees, employers and the state all contributing. There were also voluntary associations and schemes run by individual employers.

Most of the Beveridge Report was concerned with the reorganisation of social insurance into a more economic and comprehensive national scheme. Its specific proposals covered every aspect of life but did not include the practical details of how a comprehensive health service should be organised. 

Beveridge considered that practically all the acute poverty in Britain had two causes — the "interruption or loss of earning power and failure to relate family income to family needs". It was considered that, because so many wage earners were "far above want", poverty could be abolished by "a redistribution of income within the working classes at all". His solution was a "double redistribution of income" through social insurance and children's allowance.

The enthusiastic reception given to his Plan was, according to Beveridge (The Times, 9 November 1953) due to "the subsistence principle, the guaranteeing to every citizen, in virtue of contributions and irrespective of need or means, of an income in unemployment, sickness, accidental injury, old age, or other vicissitudes, sufficient without further resources, to provide for his basic needs and those of his dependants". (Quoted by J. C. Kincaid, Poverty and Equality in Britain.) This central idea, the subsistence principle, was what had made his Report more than just a rationalisation of existing services. Flat-rate benefits were to be linked to flat-rate contributions; the obligation to contribute would be the same for everyone regardless of income and adequate financial support, at a minimum subsistence level, obtained as of right and without the hated means test.

Beveridge was obliged by the Treasury Chiefs to give figures for subsistence incomes. His estimate of the minimum necessary for families to live on was based on calculations made by Seebohm Rowntree, for his research into poverty in York in 1936. Using contemporary knowledge of dietary requirements Rowntree had worked out a minimum budget for a family of 5 — the equivalent of £2.90 at 1938 prices. He was concerned to show that families on a lower income, no matter how efficiently it was managed or how restrained their behaviour, were unable to provide for their barest physiological needs. Seven per cent of working class families in York were suffering "primary poverty" — dreadful deprivation for which the sternest moralists could not say they were to blame. "Secondary" poverty included families whose income was so little above Rowntree's poverty line that "inefficient" budgeting put them in the same condition as those in primary poverty.

The benefit rates recommended by Beveridge ) for a family of five — £2.65 at 1938 prices) were at a lower level than Rowntree's "human needs" minimum budget, mainly because he did not allow for personal sundries like a newspaper, haircuts or birthday presents. He did allow a tiny margin (of one sixth) for "inefficiency in purchasing, and also for the certainty that people in receipt of the minimum income required for subsistence will in fact spend some of it on things not absolutely necessary". The rate for old people was even lower than for working adults. Beveridge thought if "dangerous to be in any way lavish to old age" until adequate provision had been made for the health of the young. The proportion of old people in the population was increasing and the aim should be to discourage retirement and the claiming of pension. The benefit paid widows and blind persons should be limited by the assumption that they could find work.

The low level of benefits was claimed as a merit of the scheme since it would not interfere with the freedom and responsibility of individuals to make their own provision above that level; it would not discourage "thrift". If the scheme were financed by contributions it would be convenient to administrate and the Social Insurance Fund could be self contained. People preferred to pay and, mindful of their moral welfare, citizens should realise that benefits linked to contributions provided a motive for supporting measures for prudent administration. They "should not be taught to regard the State as the dispenser of gifts for which no one needs to pay". However if employees had security and were properly maintained during inevitable intervals of unemployment or sickness, this would help to make them efficient producers.

The acceptance of the Report, by capitalists and politicians, as a basis for post-war planning was influenced by the belief that healthy, contented workers would make a more efficient labour force, and by the fear that without social reform there might be social disorder. It was widely thought that there would be unemployment in the post-war period — Beveridge assumed up to 1,500, 000 — and those fighting and working to win the war needed to know that "their" country would have something better to offer in the future than the pre-war means-tested poverty. Another merit from the capitalist point of view was that the proposals were "moderate enough to disarm any charge of indulgence" (The Times, 2 December 1942), though some criticism was still made on that ground.

The National Health and National Insurance Acts passed by the post-war Labour Government were along the lines recommended in the Beveridge Report. The scope of schemes already in existence was enlarged and extended, and made national in operation. The Bill for the one new measure, allowances for children, was presented in Parliament during the closing weeks of the coalition government and became law during the short Conservative Ministry of May-July 1945. Family allowances were paid at a lower rate that Beveridge had wanted but the school meals and milk service were counted as payment in kind.

Before the Report was published negotiations took place between Beveridge and Treasury Chiefs, including Keynes, who agreed to a scheme which limited the Treasury contribution to £100 million a year or 20 per cent  of the total costs of benefits paid out. In the interests of "financial soundness" the needs of poor people were to be measured according to an amount of money fixed by prior agreement. To satisfy Keynes' condition for support, and because he worked on insurance principles, Beveridge had planned for pensions to be paid at the full rate only after the scheme had been in operation for twenty years. (Those already near pensionable age could be covered by assistance pensions subject to a means test.) The Labour government decided to pay the full amount when the national insurance scheme began to operate in 1948, and also reduced the qualifying time to ten years. (Years of contributions made to earlier schemes were counted.) This intention had also been outlined in the 1944 White Paper.

When the National Insurance Act was passed in 1946 the figures for benefit rates and allowances were based on 1938 minimum needs with some allowance for the increase in prices between 1938 and 1946. James Griffiths, Minister of National Insurance, justified the rates as being "broadly in relation to the cost of living". The "subsistence" basis, so important to Beveridge, became a broad subsistence basis. By 1948 prices had risen still further and the actual purchasing power of insurance benefits paid to adults was 25 per cent lower than even the Beveridge minimum. The cost of living continued to rise and with only a small increase in National Insurance benefits the gap widened, so that means-tested national assistance benefits were actually higher than social insurance benefits. In 1953 Beveridge was calling on the Conservative government to raise the benefit rates to adequacy for subsistence, or to say "that they have formally abandoned security against want without a means test, and declare that they drop the Beveridge Report and the policy of 1946." (J. C. Kincaid.)

An important difference between the recommendations in the report and the policy accepted by both the Coalition and Attlee governments concerned unemployment. Benefit was made payable for only 30 weeks, with the possibility of a further limited period based on an exemplary employment record. Beveridge had wanted those out of work to receive benefit for the full term of their unemployment. After a certain period they might be obliged to attend a training centre, nor should those in receipt of unemployment benefit be allowed to hold out indefinitely "for work of the type to which they are used or in their present places of residence, or if there is work which they could do available at the standard rate for that work".

Compiled by a supporter of free enterprise capitalism, the Beveridge Plan for ending poverty by social insurance was a moralistic scheme whereby workers whose employment was interrupted or ended would be given support by the state at a minimum subsistence level, and as cheaply as possible. Cheese-paring social reform was used in the post-war years in support of argument for wage restraint. It is difficult to reconcile the extravagant claims made about the Welfare State with either the aims of Beveridge or the legislation passed in the years since the war. Poverty today is not the result of a decline in once effective services, the social security system never having been intended to give more than the minimum of support to members of the working class not provided for by employment. Trying to get means-tested benefits adds to the problems of the poor; but even if insurance benefits had been increased to take recipients above some poverty line, it would have made little difference.

Forty years after Beveridge high unemployment, not to mention the plight of single parents, means so many people needing supplementary benefit that in some areas queues form outside DHSS offices before they open and the staff are unable to cope with the pressure of work. Many thousands of families live in deep poverty despite the father being in full time work, and are entitled to Family Income Supplement and other benefits. According to EEC official statistics 6.3 per cent of British households live below the poverty line, when poverty is defined as living on less than half the average income in this country (Guardian, 12 October 1982). Some conditions may be better now than forty years ago, but this can be of little comfort to the mother who in 1982 has to decide whether to get shoes for her child with the money from supplementary benefit meant for her own food. The patience—if that is the word—of reformers is such that an increase in child benefit is being out forward as the way to end family poverty.

Poverty is a working class problem. The vast majority, the working class, who do all of the work of society do not own the means of production. Working class lives are restricted by this fact even without the additional burdens borne in times of unemployment, old age and sickness.
Pat Deutz