The Running Commentary Column from the March 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard
Concentration camp art
Culture lovers and those looking for sound investments from which to pay the next gas bill will have found the Art Sales columns of the Daily Telegraph of 6 February interesting reading. Their correspondent was reporting the forthcoming sale at auction of a collection of concentration camp money, including notes issued at Dachau, Auschwitz, Buchenwald and the “show camp” Theresienstadt. Believed to be the best of its kind, with 1944 Auschwitz creations expected to fetch a top price of £875 each, the collection included an exquisite example of the yellow cloth "Jud” badge which Jews were forced to wear. Noticeably absent were the unique specimens of lampshade design of the period, although this does not appear to have deterred potential buyers. The lot was purchased by the auctioneers, Stanley Gibbons, at the knock-down price of £20,000.
What could more accurately reflect the spirit and values of contemporary capitalism than this? Who said that art (whatever that is) is dead?
One of the prime beneficiaries of the recent rise in gold prices has been the Soviet Union. Not only is the Russian ruling class moving in militarily on a grand scale, but they are also engaging in some pretty big extracting. Their gold mine at Muruntau in the south west is now the biggest in the world and despite their halving in volume, sales of gold to the West totalled 2,500 million dollars last year. The rise in price means that less Russian gold is required to pay for much needed technology and grain, and it increases their ability to intervene in the world market to the detriment of, in particular, American currency. The Americans fear that the Russians, now the second biggest source of physical gold in the west, will become increasingly capable of using their gold in a play against the dollar. Perhaps Chinese “communist” gold production, presently third in the world league, will expand to support the “imperialist” dollar.
The same cannot be said of Russian sugar beet production, which suffered a severe setback last year. The harvest dropped from 93 million to 76 million tonnes, compelling them to make substantial purchases from the west. This shortfall is one of the underlying factors in the continuing strength of the commodity on the world market, which in turn may be one reason the world’s most famous soft drink will never be quite the same again. Coca-Cola of America recently announced its decision to cut its sugar consumption by 50% by using corn syrup.
Could all this be part of a vast conspiracy by the American Government and Coca-Cola to prevent the dollar further depreciating in value? One theory bandied about in leftist circles is that the Americans are attempting to keep the dollar price from falling by reducing the corrosive content of Coca- Cola, which will in turn lessen the need for gold fillings in teeth. This will have the effect of maintaining the value of gold and propping up the dollar. Well, not really. Speculation in gold is not a result of conspiracy, but flows directly from the inherently anarchical nature of capitalist production. Governments have no control over the workings of the economic system and can only respond to trends as they become apparent. Karl Marx explained the present panic buying of gold more than 100 years ago in Capital (Vol. Ill, p. 673): “As soon as credit is shaken and this always appears of necessity in the cycles of modern industry-all the real wealth is to be actually and suddenly transformed into money; into gold and silver, a crazy demand which, however, necessarily grows out of the system itself.
While by far the best defence against nuclear missiles is not to be there when they go off, this happy situation is not always possible to guarantee. It will come as no surprise, then, to learn that the British government, in the face of increasing international tension, has laid elaborate plans for your survival should a holocaust turn up. The only qualification is membership of the Civil Service hierarchy or of the Royal Family (on either side). Your chances outside these ranks are roughly the same as those of escaping unhurt after being struck by lightning—unless you can get to Switzerland quick.
Swiss Civil Defence is not of the impromptu sandbag variety. As one of their protection Service officials reassuringly put it (Daily Telegraph, 6 February): “We cannot afford to be as slipshod about survival as you are in Britain”. (Well, thank goodness we can afford to be; I was worried for a minute.) The Swiss ruling class, hardly naive when it comes to investment, has contributed three-quarters of the cost of the provision of underground fallout shelters for the entire population. Not only are these now compulsory they have 4½ million of them, all air conditioned—but the first of a planned 22 underground emergency hospitals capable of treating 450 victims was recently opened in Geneva. Close behind the Swiss come the Russians, whose every day-time industrial shift has a vast underground bunker within a few feet. In Britain the government contributes nothing to the cost of fallout shelters (in line with the philosophy that we must “stand on our own two feet”), and even charges VAT on the handful constructed for those rich enough to afford them.
Those of us who have, up to now, been “slipshod about survival” appear to have limited choice: either join the Swiss capitalist class (difficult): marry Prince Charles (more difficult still): or join the daunting struggle for a society in which the causes of war—nuclear and conventional—will have ceased to exist. Those who dismiss as utopian the socialist solution to capitalism’s greatest horror story should reflect upon the history of failure to curb capitalist armaments production. It is not socialists who are remote from reality but those who seek to eliminate the worst effects of the capitalist system while continuing to support it. We will not argue for more shelters, but for an end to the obscenity of capitalism itself. This can only be achieved by workers realising their class position and uniting to end their exploitation. Let Lord Denning try ruling against that.