Sunday, January 3, 2016

Breaking the ice (1989)

Editorial from the January 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

Looking back over 1988 and forward to the New Year, how are we to understand what has happened and what is in prospect for us over the next twelve months? We could do worse than to consider, for what it had to tell us about this society and what is possible for the human race, the matter of the three trapped whales. As they floundered miserably in the holes cut for them in the Arctic ice, the response to their plight was unintentionally instructive.

This was a story with what editors (or so we are told) like to call a human angle. There were the whales, one of them a baby, under sentence of death unless something could be done to cut a way for them out into the ocean. And the world rallied to their defence, while the international media headed out into the ice and each day pitifully frozen hacks sent their heart-wrenching stories of the heroic efforts to save these ugly creatures.

In all the excitement, the barriers of the Cold War melted a little more, with the Russians generously sending their ice-cutters to the rescue. When the whales were eventually free, leaving the baby dead behind them as they swam out into the ocean, the media did their best to see that there was hardly a dry eye across the surface of the earth.

This was, we were told, a co-operative blow struck in the cause of world conservation (never mind that in other parts of the world the rain forests continued to fall under the axe, the nuclear power plants still spewed out their deadly residues into the sea, rivers ran foul with pollution and masses of wild life perished under clouds of agricultural chemicals). When life is at stake, cost is of no account; the nastier things in life like nuclear weapons, poverty and starvation are really the tip of an iceberg which beneath the surface is not deadly and destructive but caring, benign and reassuring to the social mass.

Well, this sounded very nice except that saving two whales had very little effect on this thing called "conservation". It was little more than a publicity orgy. The hacks endured their terrible suffering because their reports helped to sell newspapers and capture viewers in competition with rivals. And selling is of prime concern to this society; indeed it is the motivation for production and distribution. The media give the same kind of attention when it is a case of some grisly crime; if someone had been murdered and raped out in the ice they would all have been there, clutching their microphones, pounding their typewriters, racing to get out the first paperback about it.

And how do we reconcile this sudden concern for life with other events which were happening at the same time? With the government's battle with the nurses over their pay. although they knew that they were fighting not just over wages but over the lives of the people in the nurses' care. There is no doubt — the medical profession have been saying so for some time — that people have died because there has not been enough money available for their treatment. How do we reconcile it with the reshuffling and re-naming of the benefits for unemployed workers, and for others in similar desperate need, with the effect of sinking them even lower into poverty and making their survival even more difficult?

What of the workers thrown out of their jobs because their employment was no longer profitable? In December, soon after the rescue of the whales, the decision was taken to close the shipyards in Sunderland. There had been attempts to find a buyer for the yards but these came to nothing because there was no prospect of profitable production and unless profit is made or promised there is no production. As a result 2000 workers and their families will subside deeper into the cold waters of severe deprivation. Meanwhile, in booming London a leading merchant bank — Morgan Grenfell — plans to close almost all its share dealing operations in the capital, which means giving the sack to 450 staff. The bank was not able to weather the storm of the falling Stock Market and during 1988 they lost over £20 million.

So what happens to that social virtue, that whale-saving concern, which we are told lurks beneath the surface, beneath the obvious cruelty and deprivation of capitalism? Why does it never come to the top, to break us free from problems like war, class conflict, poverty, accidents and diseases which need not happen? Capitalism's essential nature, as a system in which the means of life are monopolised by a minority, lies like a vast sheet of ice over all efforts, no matter how sincere or well-motivated, to organise our affairs in a caring, co-operative, humane way. The reality of this is so awful that it is assumed we need periodic distractions to divert our attention from it — like royal weddings and births, like the sexual eccentricities of the ruling class, like the emotional problems of media stars, like battling to save the lives of a couple of stranded whales.

If that incident proved anything it was that this social system is basically inadequate and can never improve on that. There is a way out which does need the world’s people to think and work together, to bring about a social change which will set them all free.

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