Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Why I Joined the Socialist Party of Canada (1965)

From the 1965 - Number 2 issue of The Western Socialist

While walking that damp and dreary spring evening I came to a shop which, in my mind, sold odd things. At first I was interested in the things I could see in the window, then I looked beyond. After the fancy of what I saw beyond was gone did I suddenly realize there were people in the shop and I wondered what were they doing there.

The next thing I knew a young man came to the door and said, "We are having a socialist meeting. Come in, for you are welcome."

"Good," I said, "for I am also a socialist."

I sat down and (listened to a general discussion that was going on. Finally, the meeting was called to order, and the Chairman said, "This meeting is on behalf of the Socialist Party of Canada." I wondered to myself, "I have never heard of the Socialist Party of Canada."

I listened to what was said and agreed with much of it, but when he said, "Under socialism you do not need money," I thought he was mad.

At long last, he was finished. He said, "We will now have a question and discussion period, as this is part of the Socialist Party of Canada policy."

Asked I, "Mr. Speaker, what will people do without money. What incentive will they have to work?"

He replied, "Today, goods are produced for the profit motive, not for use. They have a use value, but the motivation is profit and not use. Under socialism, goods will be produced for the first time in history for the use and comfort of all mankind." I agreed and could see part of what he said, but as far as I was concerned you still must have money as an incentive. So, anyway, I bought a Western Socialist.

After reading it all, but only understanding a part of what I read, I came to the conclusion they were fairly sound. I had given up on politics as I had been to all types of political meetings and was just fed up with what I heard. My exact promise to myself was: "I am finished with politics forever."

I went back to that shop with the curious things in it and talked about the things I had read in the Western Socialist. We agreed and disagreed. The only conclusion we reached was that we agreed to disagree.

So back I went to my newly purchased reading matter. I found the more I read the more I understood. Finally, I realized they were, oh, so right, in all they wrote and said. I got mad and tore up the literature because it is hard to know the truth. Yes, facing up to reality in life as it really is is a very hard thing to do. Well, after much discussion, reading, thinking and so on. I realized the facts and the facts are these.

Socialist philosophy is not the idea of any one or more people. It has arisen from the problems which confront mankind today and are happening every day, such as poverty in the midst of plenty. Example, paying the farmers not to produce; annihilation of the human race and, whether or not people accept it, we are wage-slaves. The only means we have to live is to sell our mental and physical labour power.

Socialism offers the solution to these problems. But this is still not the reason why I joined the Socialist Party of Canada. Here is the reason.

People, today, judge a man by his wealth and it matters not how he got it, as long as he has it. Now before people can have an understanding of a person for what he is and not what he has, they must have socialism.

Today, the working class are so wrapped up in their own little world, struggling to eke out an existence, they have no time to really think about much else in life, struggling to buy a car, trying to save a little money to have a small amount of what they believe to be security... There is no security under capitalism. There never has been nor will be, but under socialism, where each will give according to his ability and take according to his need, all the goods society can produce will be available for the benefit of man, his comfort and pleasure. He will then have free access to all his material needs and will then have time to look for human relationship fulfilment, a world where men and women alike can be honest, sincere and be what they are, not like today where they are subjected to the will of the people who own the means of production and wealth.

I quote from one of long ago. His name is William Shakespeare. "He who owns the means by which I live owns my very life."

Join with us for freedom — for socialism.

RONALD YURKOSKI, Toronto

Education serving capitalism (2000)

From the April 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard
At every level of formal learning we are taught to conform—without mass indoctrination the profit system could not exist.
Tony Blair knows the value of education—it was the only word he used when listing his three priorities for running the profit system. Education is an integral part of any social system. In one that is dominated by commodity relationships and values, education both reflects and contributes to those relationships and values. Those who wish and work to replace capitalism with socialism need first to understand how education sustains the one and how it can help to bring about the other.
There is a conventional mythology surrounding the noble ideals of education. Schools are said to be places where young minds are nurtured, where boys and girls are prepared to become responsible citizens. Sir Sydney Caine writes that universities at their best are "the 'soul' of the country and when they have been independent of government and inspired by some vital and independent philosophy." The reality is, of course, much different. Schools, colleges and universities are not independent of society—they are an essential feature of it.
Feudal society required little of the peasants by way of education. The Industrial Revolution demanded more—workers who could make, tend and repair machines, and some who could keep records and books. The schools taught the virtue of attendance, the children were to know their place and sit still in it—a suitable preparation for working life in the factory or office. In the 20th century the process was continued—mass education was fashioned into an increasingly refined training and selection mechanism for the labour force.
For the employer class the education of workers is a cost that must be borne as economically as possible. In a book called The Education Dilemma, edited by a member of the World Bank, we are treated to the following remarkably frank admission (boast?):
"It is true that schools have 'inputs' and 'outputs' and that one of their nominal purposes is to take human 'raw material' (i.e. children) and convert it into something more valuable (i.e. employable adults)."
The cost of education is a particular problem for governments of Third World countries, most of whom are saddled with huge debt repayments to international banks and with the costs of choosing to put domestic guns before butter. One answer they have come up with is to use what is called non-formal basic education as an inexpensive alternative to universal primary education. This is a rural-based, vocationally oriented form of education relying heavily on instructional technology (useful if you can't afford to pay teachers). One contributor to The Education Dilemma offers the advice that, since television seems to work no better than radio and is much more expensive, it should almost never be used for instruction in low income countries.
This leads us to the question of whether the increasing use of more costly forms of instructional technology in the economically advanced countries is a good thing or not. From the point of view of school and university administrators and the governments and corporations who are their paymasters, instructional technology is a good investment. The recent worldwide growth in distance education is an example. Apparently, national and multinational corporations like distance education because it can link employees via electronic means for training, and they can save on the costs of transporting employees across the country.
The rhetoric about the university is that it is a community of scholars. While some of the medieval universities were no doubt founded on this ideal, today the label "academic capitalism" seems more apposite. Academic capitalism denotes market behaviour on the part of universities and faculties. There has been a shift from state block grants to grants and contracts targeted on commercially useable results. Centres within universities that form government-industry-university partnerships are encouraged. Faculties are obliged to look for commercial research funding—projects that are applied rather than basic, that are tied to the needs of national or multinational corporations.
A few years ago George Ritzer wrote a thought-provoking book on The McDonaldization of Society. The basic principles of the ubiquitous McDonald chain of fast-food restaurants are efficiency, quantified and calculated product, predictability, and the substitution (as far as possible) of non-human for human technology. Ritzer shows how these principles are exemplified in education. Schools and universities are required to be cost-effective; league tables give evidence of which institutions get the best exam results. Exams themselves are increasingly boiled down to multiple-choice questions, the answers to which are machine graded. The best-selling textbooks are "customised" and contain easily-digested McNuggets of information.
The subjects taught are prone to the same commercial pressures. Economics—aptly named the dismal science—focuses its theories, concepts and examples on the world of buying, selling and exchanging property, including intellectual property. If alternatives to the status quo are considered (which they rarely are) they equate socialism with nationalisation and communism with state capitalism. In a University of the Third Age economics group the speaker expounded on multinational corporations: their names, the industries and countries involved, the technologies they used, and so on. In view of their failure to meet basic human needs, I raised the question of whether they should be replaced by a system of common ownership and free access. My question was ruled out of order.
Other subjects are also heavily influenced by monetary calculation and property relationships. The comparatively new field of conflict resolution is monopolised by texts and teaching on "deterrence" to war, leadership policies, business strategies—not a word on the conflict between capitalism and what could be its practical alternative if enough people were given the opportunity to know and understand it. Leisure studies gives undue weight to the provision of leisure by commercial companies and government bodies—the idea that we can make our own leisure, individually or collectively, is largely discounted.
The inherent inequality between teacher and pupil has led some critics of capitalism—and indeed some socialists—to question the value of "schooling". In New from Nowhere William Morris expresses his objection to the way children are taught in capitalism by predicting that in socialism there will be no schools offering "a niggardly dole of not very accurate information; something to be swallowed by the beginner in the art of living whether he liked it or not, and was hungry for it or not". No blanket rejection of education was implied, but the critique of authoritarian schooling as simply preparation for employment led to a movement for "deschooling". The concern has been that hierarchical and autocratic teacher-pupil relationships concentrate power in the hands of teachers and lead children to acquire attitudes of docility and submission to authority.
What can we say about education in socialist society? It is easier to foresee what will no longer take place than what will positively develop. With no employment, schooling will lose its function as preparation for employment. No more McDonaldisation of education, no more economics (though economy history, as part of history, may well survive). The knowledge and skills needed to run a society which inherits the best from the past and rejects the worst will be circulated and developed among adults, and the ability to think creatively and critically transmitted from generation to generation. There will surely be different approaches to—even controversies about—what task.
Stan Parker

The blank ballot (2015)

Book Review from the November 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

'How Voters Feel', by Stephen Coleman. Cambridge University Press. Paperback at £18.99

Like every other social process within the current alienated form of society, voting has become thoroughly fetishised into a hollow shell, compared to its potential. By examining the subjective feelings around voting Stephen Coleman opens up the question of how valuable that process could once again become, were it to be returned from its current status of begrudged duty into the realm of exciting, engaging action.

How Voters Feel does not seek to address the question of economic democracy or the unbridled power of transnational corporations, though Coleman does make in passing the point that:
‘Having no votes in the election of officials running the International Monetary Fund or World Bank, let alone private transnational corporations that are increasingly allowed free reign, voters understandably feel estranged from many of the most important sources of power over their lives.’
Nor does it set out to posit what function ‘representative democracy’ may or may not have in undoing the effective economic dictatorship over resources and power which currently excludes the majority of the population from any real control, and therefore engenders our demoralisation. Clearly, the parties which currently stand before the bulk of the electorate every few years are resoundingly united in seeking to manage that same economic dictatorship, as a cardinal matter of policy.

The book’s aim is to explore the experience of voting and to consider how it might be resuscitated as a potential force for change, through the cultivation of a more democratic sensibility. Such a project is especially timely given the continuing disaffection during recent years, particularly of younger people, from the parliamentary system and voting in elections (other than those in the field of entertainment, with telephone voting buoyant and enthusiastic, despite being charged for, in television shows such as The X Factor or Celebrity Big Brother).

Modern capitalism has long loved to sing of its own democratic credentials as supposedly evidenced by that magical moment of secrecy inside a wooden booth once every few years. Important as the idea of voting remains to any idea of democracy, it is nevertheless instructive to recognise how feeble a claim that is. True social democracy would take much more account of far more views, ideas, inputs and wishes than this tokenistic selection of one or other management team a couple of times per decade.

The early chapters of Coleman’s book recount the history of modern representative democracy in Britain, the USA and elsewhere, from the viewpoint of the gradually enfranchised electorate. He explains, fascinatingly, how universal suffrage was initially perceived on all sides as a possible or even likely harbinger of major social change, and specifically of state intervention to try to ameliorate conditions for the impoverished majority. The century-long journey from aspiration to grim resignation on the part of the newly enfranchised majority, from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century, is excellently set out here.

The middle chapters (4-7) present a wealth of empirical evidence from original research consisting of sixty interviews with both voters and non-voters. A number of themes emerge from this. Voting has, in the modern period, become a private, secret and almost intimate activity, in contrast to the more public processes of previous periods. It is no coincidence that the cover of the book shows a photograph of American voters in Idaho, with their backs to us, in a neat row of cubicles looking amusingly as if they are engaging in that other universal yet ‘private’ activity of using a urinal or, in the case of the women, entering a toilet cubicle.

Amongst those interviewed, Coleman identifies the ‘dutiful voters’ who feel obliged to cast votes without any genuine expectations of a positive outcome, and the ‘committed abstainers’ who decline to vote and yet say they would resist bitterly any move to deprive them of their right to vote. He describes both of these groups as having given up on cultivating a vibrant relationship with their representatives. By his then also adding the observation how important it is for representatives to embody the feelings of those they represent, we seem to be invited to ponder how best to bolster and repair this system of specifically representative democracy.

Might it be even more useful to interpret these failings as signifying the need to reappraise that concept of democracy? Both the ‘dutiful voters’ and the ‘committed abstainers’ have indeed a somewhat dysfunctional relationship with representative democracy, in that the former place excessive weight on that relationship, despite its failure, whilst the latter are incontrovertibly suspicious of the representational process, whilst holding out for its ideal. However, one might equally interpret this, especially in the latter case, as a healthy disregard for the idea of representation itself as compared with the hope of  voting becoming less vicarious and part of something more participative, such as delegation and the idea of voting for ideas, or at least for delegates as cyphers for specific policies or actions.

There were also some respondents who on principle would go to vote but then either ‘spoil’ their ballot paper or leave it blank. This is in fact a long, noble and meaningful practice by those who simply wish to reject ‘what’s on offer’ whilst registering the importance on principle of the vote itself, and in that regard this practice makes perfect sense. It is an option which was written about in the national press at the time of the 2015 general election in Britain, and may well be increasing. It is somewhat frustrating therefore that this practice is not given more attention in  these pages than just one paragraph, which comments wryly that ‘To speak of casting a blank ballot paper as a ‘useful’ act is intriguing. It signifies absence by presence; that the voter counts and yet cannot be counted ...’

Perhaps the most fascinating – and significant – section of the book is in chapter 8 which deals, amongst other areas, with the ways in which working-class children are socially conditioned into humility, and sets the challenge of how this might be reversed, to recreate a democratic sensibility comprising confidence both in self and in the prospect of change. Coleman explores many of the complex mechanisms through which ‘children internalise the range of possibilities open to them in life.’ There is, however, more inspection of the ‘how’ than the ‘why’ of this socialisation for subservience, and as a result the proscriptive parts of the chapter may be seen as somewhat optimistic:
‘If schools are to perform a useful role in preparing young people to play their part in democracy, this must entail conferring resources of hope upon those who have been routinely and systematically persuaded to think of themselves as naturally or inevitably lacking voice or efficacy.’
Having worked in many schools and been made painfully aware of their specific raison d’être, I am less than sanguine about their potential role in spearheading this necessary surge in democratic sensibility. On the other hand, the enormity of the task of overcoming vast socially and psychologically conditioned subservience is even less plausibly seen as depending on the efforts of activism at the fringes of the current systems of universal education.

In all this as in so much else, it is the class division of present-day society which most strikingly both explains why meaningful and confident civic engagement by the economically weak majority is not encouraged by the education system, and offers a practical motivational form through which this might start to be redressed.

Does the book succeed at what it sets out to do? Absolutely. It is a challenging and at times specialised and complex, yet rewarding read. There are some key questions which it would have been clearly outside the remit of this book to probe. For example, from the point of view of those working to encourage speedy social revolution, is it desirable or an impedance to work to encourage engagement with the specifically parliamentarian and representative model of democracy?
Clifford Slapper