Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Great - Are They Any Good? (2004)

The Greasy Pole Column from the April 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard
Interposing themselves among the various layers of hierarchy and the ravages of capitalist society there is a peculiar human stratum which goes under the name of the Great and the Good. Their function is largely self-defined; in their own estimation they serve, they instruct, they resolve. Many - but not all- of them were fashioned in expensive schools, followed by years of devoted study in prestigious universities, to prepare them for membership of exclusive clubs and intimidating professional societies. Every so often they descend to our level to tell us what we are doing wrong and urge us to trust them to put it right. They assume that their very eminence will persuade us to heed their advice.
The boundaries of the Great and the Good are murky, difficult to set. It is probably easier to say who is not one of them than who is. They are unlikely to be found battling their way to work in a bus queue or a sardine tin tube train. Typically, among their ranks are newspaper editors, expired politicians, media personalities, university big-wigs, ex-civil service mandarins and lawyers, especially those who have graduated onto the Bench. They are often on call to newspapers or TV programmes to cobble together some empty pontificating on a current event. Their names are among the first to be thought of when it is necessary to populate some quango or official enquiry charged with blanketting some nasty reality relating to property society. So they infest organisations like the Parole Board, the Press Complaints Council, hospital boards of management. Some of them might find themselves sitting as a governor of the BBC. (When the chairmanship at the BBC fell vacant after the precipitous departure of Gavin Davies an ambitious queue of the Great and the Good formed, hopeful for the job, which yields a pay off of £81,320 a year for a four-day week).
Ryder and Radley
At this point we introduce Lord Ryder of Wensum, who is plainly among the Great and the Good because he is a governor of the BBC and  its vice-chairman, acting chairman until Davies’ successor is appointed. The Wensum bit of Ryder’s name is a river which provided a natural defence to the unwalled side of the city of Norwich. When Ryder was raised to the peerage he took the title of Wensum because he comes from that part of the country; it is where his family reaped the kind of profits to send him to a public school to begin the education necessary for someone destined to be among the Great and the Good. In fact he went to one of the more modern, less prestigious, public schools - Radley, which was established as recently as 1847 and which may have tried to assuage the shame of not being on the same level as Eton or Harrow by imposing a notably abrasive regime on its unfortunate scholars. One who went there described at as an “arriviste” school where “+I was regularly withdrawn from everyday life for months on end, as if abducted by aliens, and brought here instead. At the time, I blamed the parents”. After participating in Radley’s compulsory Rugby football, its cold baths and punishing long runs in the early morning darkness, Ryder must have found relief in one of the more famous of Cambridge colleges where he could unspectacularly graduate in history.
After that there was an appropriately seamless progress into journalism (at the Daily Telegraph of course) and life as a farmer. But it seemed the urge to give all this up in order to serve the rest of us unfortunates was strong enough to persuade Ryder to opt for a career in Tory politics. Like any new seeker after the higher reaches of the greasy pole, he had to prove his motivation by trying his luck at some hopeless seat. He took two batterings at the impregnable Labour stronghold of Gateshead East in the general elections of 1974, until in 1983 he was ushered into the comfort of Mid Norfolk - which was not only solidly Tory but his home area as well. This agreeable ending was made even happier when, soon after arriving at Westminster, Ryder was singled out for promotion - well, his wife was private secretary to Margaret Thatcher, who was at their wedding - holding some minor jobs before moving to Economic Secretary to the Treasury in 1989. In 1990 he disappointed Thatcher, who had done so much for his career, by adroitly switching sides in the Tory leadership struggle to support John Major, who in his turn rewarded him with the job of Chief Whip.
Bastards and Sleaze
But Ryder’s luck was out for that was not the best time to be a Tory Whip, what with John Major’s  battle with the Euro-sceptic “bastards”, including the unlamented Iain Duncan Smith. (Another of the rebels, Teresa Gorman, complained in her book Bastards about how ruthless the Tory Whips were with them). And that was not the end of the discipline problems, as the party’s MPs seemed to be queuing up to discredit Major’s unwise call to get Back to Basics with a succession of exotic embroilments and underhand deals which have collectively gone down in history as Tory Sleaze. Nothing he had endured at Radley had prepared Ryder for this and in 1997 he decided that enough was enough. He left active politics, became a director of Ipswich Town Football Club (which proved that the Great and the Good did not lose the common touch) and founded and became chairman of two local private radio stations. As he did this he may have congratulated himself on his timing for in the 1997 election his 1983 majority of 15,515 shrivelled to just 1336. In a traditional show of gratitude for Ryder’s devoted labours in lubricating the process of capitalism’s deceptions Major elevated him into a Life Peer, with an appropriate gong - the OBE - to go with it. >From here it was a short, predictable step for him to become a governor of the BBC and, in January 2002, the Corporation’s vice chairman.
It was from that vantage point that Ryder made his grovelling apology to the government over the Andrew Gilligan affair. “On behalf of the BBC,” he snivelled, he had “No hesitation in apologising unreservedly for our errors”. Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell - who have yet to apologise for their “errors” over the 45 minutes Weapons of Mass Destruction distortion - were delighted at Ryder’s fulsome toadying. They overlooked the fact that Ryder was not speaking “on behalf of” the workers at the BBC, who staged an immediate mass protest, nor for the thousands who were outraged by the government’s cynicism and Hutton’s readiness to brush it all aside.    
Weirdo and Watches
So what kind of politician, journalist, farmer, Life Peer, BBC governor, is the Great and Good Lord Ryder of Wensum? A fellow Tory MP - not one, it must be said, famous for being discreetly considerate - described him as weird, quiet and secretive, wearing his watch upside down because the time of day was not a matter for public disclosure (whatever that means). Edwina Currie, perhaps making comparison to John Major, thought him “skinny and youthful-looking+hiding behind owlish glasses, drinking Diet Coke+” He did have one fervent admirer though, at least for a while, in the odious, fascistic Alan Clark, who said he was “+such fun. So intelligent, and has the right views on practically every topic” (although Clark did not make it clear whether these “topics” included Nazi Germany). But as Clark became increasingly bitter about being out of Parliament (ignoring the fact that it was by his own decision to stand down) Ryder ceased to be a subject for his admiration. “I am ‘put out’ by my friends ignoring me,” whined the tediously egocentric diarist of Saltwood Castle; “Especially wounded by Richard. I did think that he was a friend, and I a confidant of his”. Clark’s final opinion, contemptuously approving his wife’s waspish appraisal, was that Ryder was “+just a little accountant+on the way out he scuttled away through a side door”.
But if Ryder was an accountant he was clearly one who could do his sums, as he proved in 1990 when he calculatedly deserted Margaret Thatcher in the hope that he would be better off supporting Major. Thatcher wailed at his treachery:
    It was a personal, as well as a political blow to learn that
    Richard, who had come with me to No. 10 all those years ago
    as my political secretary and whom I had moved up the ladder
    as quickly as I decently could, was deserting at the first whiff
    of grapeshot.

With his kind of credentials, Ryder fits comfortably in the ranks of the Great and the Good. His grovelling apology about “errors” at the BBC and everything about his amputated career in politics implied that the fault lies with the rest of us, for our scepticism when we are confronted with the likes of him and their pathetic defence of capitalism. We might ask, what gives him the right to behave in that way? What gave Thatcher and Major the right to foster him in what they hoped would be his faultless journey up the greasy pole? Such “rights” spring from the basic class structure of capitalism with its minority privileges and will endure with the system. Lord Ryder of Wensum is living witness to the cruel cynicism inherent in that system as well as the confusion among those who speak loudest in its defence.  
Ivan

The global profit system (2011)

From the June 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
Do you know the only thing that gives me pleasure? It's to see my dividends coming in.” So said John D Rockefeller founder of Standard Oil. 
Rockefeller's wealth was gained through the exploitation of worker labour power to turn a free resource, oil, into a commodity for sale on the market. That in a nutshell is how he kept those dividend payments rolling in. What applied then just as surely applies now.

Standard Oil’s rapacious business methods laid the foundations for today’s oil conglomerates. Throughout its existence Standard Oil was the target of disgruntled politicians and newspapers. Rockefeller’s PR people and lawyers were as busy then as their modern day counterparts. In 1880 the New York World wrote that it was “the most cruel, impudent, pitiless, and grasping monopoly that ever fastened upon a country” (John D. Rockefeller: Anointed With Oil, p.60). A decade later Rockefeller controlled 88 percent of the United States’ refined oil. In 1911 the Supreme Court found Standard Oil in breach of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Its trading practices were ruled illegal and it was ordered to be broken up into 34 new companies. Rockefeller still held a 25 percent stake in Standard Oil. This was transferred proportionately into shares in the new companies. Although Rockefeller’s direct control of the oil market was somewhat diminished, his personal fortune in 1920, which was estimated at $900,000,000, translated into plenty of influence. And a great deal of personal pleasure.

Another capitalist who was to derive plenty of pleasure from oil was William Knox Darcy. He was the son of an English solicitor who emigrated to Australia where he began to speculate in land. He became a partner in a syndicate in 1883 that uncovered a large deposit of gold at Mt Morgan. Darcy returned to England with a considerable fortune in his knapsack. His thirst for pleasure still unquenched he cast his eye east to Iran.

In 1901 Darcy negotiated a contract that gave him the rights to drill for mineral resources over a significantly large area of Iran. The contract was signed by the landowner, the Shahanshah, king of kings. Darcy handed over £20,000 cash. The rest of the deal involved £20,000 in stock and a 16 percent share in the net profits if any transpired. In 1908 oil on a significant scale was discovered. Darcy never once set foot on the Iranian soil that would give him and a small elite considerable pleasure in the years to come. Out of this deal the Anglo-Persian Oil Company was formed. In 1935 its name was changed to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC); its new owner was the British government.

At the core of all conflict under capitalism are markets and profits. Iranian instability haunted the owners of AIOC. That paltry 16 percent share stuck in the throats of Iranians. As was AIOC’s refusal to allow the Iranian government to check their books to see if that legendary British fair play was being practised. In 1951 the pro-AIOC Prime minister was overthrown. The Iranian parliament nationalised the oil fields. AIOC was ousted from Iran and it squealed its way through boycotts and high courts. In 1953 operation Ajax was initiated. The CIA and British government conspired with the King of Kings and the Iranian military to effect a coup. However AIOC had to forego its earlier monopoly and make do with only a 40 percent share of the spoils. American oil companies received 40 percent and the French 20 percent. The fountain of pleasure was re-activated.

In 1954 AIOC changed its name to the British Petroleum Company. Expansion from their base in the Middle East to Alaska followed in 1959. Adding substantially to the profits and the dividend cheques was their oil strike in the North Sea in 1965. Thatcher sold off the British government’s holding in BP, but not their interest in its fervent pursuit of profit. When the Kuwait Investment Authority, essentially the Kuwait government, saw an opportunity to gain control of BP through market manoeuvres, the Thatcher government didn’t hesitate to block their attempts; despite the free market rhetoric of its members.        

BP continued to grow through the capital generated from its exploitation of natural resources excavated by human labour power. Along the way those profits allowed BP to swallow up several of the offspring of Standard Oil. ExxonMobil and Chevron snapped up the rest of its most profitable siblings, and the trio came to form the backbone of the ‘Seven Sisters’ who in 1973 controlled 85 percent of the world's oil reserves.                    

BP nowadays ranks as the fourth largest company in the world measured by its 2009 revenues of $239 billion. It has acquired 22,400 service stations worldwide, and pumps 3.8 million gallons of oil in to the market place every day. Its profits, and thus its power, are culled from throughout the world. A source of pleasure for a few, but one of deep discontent to many.

The costs of doing business can often seem strange to the uninitiated. The Guardian (12 April 1976) reported that BP handed over £500,000 to a “slush fund which dispensed money to the ruling Italian political parties in return for favours over oil taxes and prices”. BP’s own documents showed that this type of payment was “calculated as a percentage of the money the company could expect to make as a result of favourable legislation”. Profits are all about maths. Is doing a thing one way more profitable than doing it another? That is the logic of capitalism, and consequently the logic of what follows.

In September 1999 a subsidiary of BP in Alaska paid a fine of $22 million for the illegal dumping of hazardous wastes from 1993-1995 on the Alaska North Slope. In August 2006 BP were forced to shut down their operations as over one million litres of oil had been spilt over the North Slope. The Guardian (1 July 2007) reported that “a US congressional committee has uncovered evidence of ‘draconian’ cost cuts at BP”, and demanded documents “suggesting that managers considered turning off the flow of anti-corrosion chemicals to save money”.

Maintenance and safety cuts were also linked to an explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery resulting in 15 deaths and injuries to 180 people. Refineries based in Texas City and Toledo U.S accounted for 97 percent of all flagrant safety violations (829 of 851). The Centre for Public Integrity reported on 16 May last year that “most of BP’s citations were classified as ‘egregious and wilful’ by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and reflect alleged violations of a rule designed to prevent catastrophic events at refineries”.

In April 2010 the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico killing 11 people and creating an oil slick that covered at least 2,500 square miles. BP, Halliburton and Transocean, the three companies that expected to carve up the profits have ended up blaming each other for the disaster. This is a common occurrence when thieves fall out. BP’s chief executive at the time has since left the company pocketing a £2 million severance deal, £100,000 a year as a payoff from a Russian joint venture with TNK-BP and a £600,000 per year pension. But the news isn’t all good though, along with Lord Browne of Madingley he’s been cited in a multi-million dollar lawsuit linked to the bribery of government officials in Kazakhstan.

The Guardian (2 February) reported that BP is under investigation in the US over its “alleged manipulation of the gas market”, and “in a separate case in 2006, BP paid $300m to settle charges that it had manipulated the propane market in the US”. Another report in the same issue that would have made Rockefeller proud of one of his heirs is that “the administrator of BP's $20bn (£12.3bn) Gulf spill compensation fund was accused last night by Mississippi's attorney general, Jim Hood, of sweeping deficiencies and violations of law”.

In South America BP has been equally busy pursuing dividend payments. They stood accused in the European Parliament in October 1996 of colluding with the Columbian army in gross human rights violations and of wilful destruction of the environment. Evidence supplied by a report commissioned by Colombia's President Samper’s human rights adviser alleged that “ BP passed photographs and videos of local protesters to the army, which human rights groups say led to killings, disappearances, torture and beatings” (corporatewatch.org). Likewise, a group of Colombian farmers won a multimillion pound settlement from BP after they were “ accused of benefiting from a regime of terror carried out by Colombian government paramilitaries to protect a 450-mile pipeline” (Independent, 22 July 2006).

Africa hasn’t escaped BP’s grasp either. In Southern Sudan BP have been linked to a civil war that it’s alleged has the central goal of depopulating the oil regions and the protection of pipelines. The people of the Niger Delta have been suffering from the oil cartel’s calculated exploitation of the land for the past 40 years. Its 606 oilfields supply 40 percent of all the crude that the US imports. Pollution from oil spills is endemic and dwarfs every other such disaster. As the Guardian reports “more oil is spilled from the Delta's network of terminals, pipes, pumping stations and oil platforms every year than has been lost in the Gulf of Mexico”.

Nnimo Bassey, Nigerian head of Friends of the Earth International said “There is an overwhelming sense that the big oil companies act as if they are beyond the law… It is clear that BP has been blocking progressive legislation, both in the US and here. In Nigeria, they have been living above the law. They are now clearly a danger to the planet. The dangers of this happening again and again are high. They must be taken to the international court of justice” (30 May 2010).

Many people believe that companies like BP are the problem. Well-meaning people like Bassey see court rulings, legislation and even the break-up of companies as a solution. So did well-meaning people during the reign of Standard Oil. Nothing changed then except some names. The problem is the global profit system. The, dog-eat-dog, unquenchable compulsion to acquire earnings and dividends. Pollution, corruption and death are the symptoms of a disease. The disease is capitalism. Only major surgery can cure the disease.

When will the naive finally realise that the problems faced by people and the environment cannot somehow, magically, be solved by methods that have failed abysmally for decades? How long do we, the overwhelming majority, sit on our hands while a tiny minority derive their pleasure at our expense?
Andy Matthews

Voice From the Back: Time on their hands (2015)

The Voice From The Back Column from the November 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
Time on their hands
'Have Half a Million Dollars? Here’s a Massive Roger Dubuis Pocket Watch. Roger Dubuis is a brand that's never shy. If you're a fan, you probably use adjectives like bold and pioneering to describe the ornately skeletonised watches that come from the Geneva-based manufacturer. If you're not a fan, florid might seem a less generous description. Whatever your taste though, there's no denying that the new Excalibur Spider Pocket Time Instrument is flat-out insane' (bloomberg.com, 5 October). There are billions of reasons why this is mad. Here are just 600 million of them, the number, in India alone, of people who defecate in the open. Workers of the world wake up. Pull the chain on this system of obscene wealth and abject poverty.
Hajj Hell
Estimates vary as to how many paid the ultimate price and lost their lives in the rush to submit. The feudalistic theocracy of Saudi Arabia said 769 died in the crush, the Associated Press counted at least 1,453 and Iran over 4,700. Whatever the exact number, the history of the hajj, past, present and future, is tragic. Who is to blame? Mohammed? No, even though, unlike Jesus, there is convincing evidence he lived, we cannot really blame a man long dead. The moronic mullahs who failed to give advance warning of the impending deaths? No, because they cannot see the future any more than eBible Fellowship leader Chris McCann who stated the world would pass away on 7 October. But, according to one report, a class element is involved: the two waves of pilgrims converged on a narrow road 'which had been partly closed to allow a VIP Saudi prince to jump the cue [sic] causing people to suffocate or be trampled to death' (dissidentvoice.org, 7 October).
Stephen Hawking boldly goes....socialist?
'If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality' (huffingtonpost.com, 10 October). Socialists, preferring the first option, are not ashamed to appropriate Healey’s First Law of Holes to remind fellow members of the working class to stop digging. A world of free access and production for use not profit is ours for the taking. Make it so!
Moore nonsense
Meaningful change cannot come about through leaders, chasing reforms or minority action. Michael Moore disagrees: ’it doesn't take a lot; just a few people have got to do something, not a lot of people. No change has ever occurred with the masses doing it. Fewer than 25 percent supported the American Revolution in the Colonies, right? Jesus has 12 guys that fished! ' (cbsnews.com, 2 October). But only the masses can do it! Meanwhile, in the words of William Morris, ‘our business... 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 into practice. Until we have that mass of opinion, action for a general change that will benefit the whole people is impossible.'
$mith & We$$on
Moore is in favour of more gun controls. The manufactures are too, as such talk improves sales. 'Renewed calls for tougher gun control laws sent gun stocks surging on Monday as investors expected an increase in gun sales. The value of Smith & Wesson’s shares went up by 7.29% and Sturm, Ruger & Co increased by 2.75%. It was another good day for gun stock investors. Overall this year, the value of Smith & Wesson’s shares has increased by more than 80% and that of Sturm, Ruger increased by more than 60% – making them some of the best-performing stocks of 2015' (Guardian, 5 October).
Clueless capitalist
'Lord Sugar says today's poor have never had it so good, with mobile phones, computers and televisions making a mockery of claims of deprivation' (Daily Telegraph, 4 October). Just 85 capitalists have accumulated as much wealth between them as half the world's total population combined. Yet the 99 percent suffer poverty because they, unlike the capitalists, do not have direct access to the means of production and distribution.