Thursday, January 14, 2016

More of the same (1997)

Editorial from the May 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Among the empty slogans bandied about during the election campaign there was little of real interest to the discerning voter and even less by way of any firm commitments from the major parties. As was only right and proper, few of the parties’ promises were believed or actively supported. The majority were so tentative that it was an embarrassment to put them under the gaze of public scrutiny. To this extent, the campaign illustrated what has become apparent for some time—we now have "reformist” politics without the reforms.

Gone are the days of grand social schemes to eradicate the evils of modern capitalism. The evils, of course, are still there it is just that the traditional remedies for them haven't worked and there seems little point in carrying on the charade. Nothing illustrates this better than the problem of unemployment.

All the major parties declared themselves in favour of full employment and yet none of them have a programme which they think will achieve this aim. The best they can do is "make steps towards” getting people back into employment, but nothing very specific.

The only pledge—for what it's worth—made on this front was made by the Labour Party. Labour would, they claimed, put 250,000 young people back into work in a programme funded by the “windfall tax" on the privatised utilities.

This was a sop—admittedly a small one—to the idea that it is possible to increase taxation on the owning class to provide for public works programmes. Exactly, in fact, what the new Labour government did after 1974 in an attempt to reduce unemployment. The only problem was that it didn't work. Unemployment doubled from about 800,000 to nearly 1,700,000 and Labour was eventually forced to reverse its programme and go cap-in-hand to the IMF.

New Labour—being the great “pragmatists” of capitalist politics that they are—must know full well that such a course of action simply doesn't work, frightening capital investment in an entirely counter-productive way. So, with unemployment considerably higher and more entrenched then in the 70s. they offer not a grand scheme but the flimsiest reform still capable of attracting publicity.

But if it is possible to tax profits to provide steady employment (direct or indirect) why only 250,000 jobs to be "created? Why not create full employment?

Is it simply that the Labour Party’ care for the capitalists more then the unemployed? Or because they know full well that it is an unworkable policy that will not have the overall effect on unemployment that they claim? Perhaps, shrewdly, they have decided to keep their most obvious failures small ones, and their real economic impotence under wraps as best they can.

Is Laughter All You Need? (1997)

TV Review from the June 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Political coverage since the polls closed on 1 May has been considerably more entertaining than it was in the period immediately before, though given the tedium of the election campaign this is actually no great achievement. For starters, election night itself was certainly more interesting than usual. The fact that the working class had once again chosen to put their class enemies in charge of the machinery of government and the armed forces was tempered to an extent by the sight of some of the most loathsome specimens that have been doing the bidding for the capitalist class recently being unceremoniously shunted out of office. No socialist is going to weep any tears for the likes of Michael Portillo, David Evans, Michael Forsyth or David Shaw, all enemies of the working class to their very core. But unlike the Trots and reformers we couldn't and shan't raise a cheer for the new Labour team cither. We are fully aware that in five or ten years' time the ashen face of Portillo on BBC's election night coverage is likely to be replaced by that of an equally implacable opponent of the workers—Jack Straw, perhaps, or Peter Mandelson. And though we might raise a brief midnight cheer at the time for that too, it will be in the full knowledge that getting rid of one set of masters simply to replace them with another lot is the way to frustration not emancipation.

It was pretty obvious long before election night itself that Labour was going to win fairly convincingly, having been backed by influential sections of the capitalist class—and most significantly of all—the majority of the media. It will be truly fascinating to see how the media reacts to New Labour in office when the honeymoon period dies down, but so far old habits die hard. Kicking the Tory Party while it is lying prostrate on the floor with blood gushing from its head is the name of the game and bashing right-wing head-bangers the current trend set by programmes like Have I Got News For You, Rory Bremner and A Week In Politics.

Lady Hamilton and friend
Having stated this, the 10 May edition of Have I Got News For You was more akin to a ritualistic public hanging. For those who didn't see it, it featured smarmy Neil Hamilton and his barmy wife as two of the panellists. You can probably guess the rest. What on earth possessed the two of them to appear on this programme is a topic worthy of an Arthur C. Clarke investigation. The pittance they would have received by way of an appearance fee could have in no way compensated for the humiliation they received at the hands of Ian Hislop. editor of Private Eye, which along [with] the Guardian had led the campaign against “cash for questions".That the Hamiltons are clearly buffoons of the highest order only served to make Hislop's task easier and more enjoyable.

However, there are worrying aspects to this entire business with the Hamiltons. The electors of Tatton, in the main, thought Hamilton's actions in the last Parliament reprehensible, and this is not surprising. But the vast majority didn't seem overly perturbed by Hamilton's links with the far right, his support for the Monday Club and his long-standing and inflammatory views on immigration. Neither, for that matter, did most of the press which ended up hounding him—indeed, why should they when so many of them hold similar views to him? The idea that taking freebies or bribes as an MP is disgraceful conduct whereas stirring up racial hatred is entirely permissible illuminates the hypocrisy of the press as much as it does of Hamilton himself. It was a great pity this wasn't brought out by Have I Got News For You, a significant fact bypassed in the headlong Gadarene rush to damn a helpless victim.

Still, while Hislop and co's antics were hilarious and election night entertaining enough in itself, the lesson is that the bigger picture should not be lost amid a welter of emotionalism and point-scoring. It does the working class no harm in itself to rejoice at the misfortunes of our enemies, although it is always important to remember that while these people are enemies they do not in themselves constitute the enemy. There are issues at stake here that are bigger than Hamilton's clowning or Portillo's pomposity. And in order to tackle them we will have to engage our brains and thereby advance beyond a situation where we are simply helpless with laughter. Unless we do that the joke will be on us in election after election.
Dave Perrin

The B team takes over (1997)

From the July 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

France’s conservative president, Chirac, called early elections in May and June in the hope of winning five more years in office for his supporters. The voters, however, refused to oblige and elected instead a left-wing government. Chirac remains president but has to cohabit with a government under a “Socialist" Prime Minister and with "Communist” and Green Party ministers.

Needless to say, the new Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, is no more a socialist than Mitterand was. His misnamed "Parti Socialiste” stands for a reformed capitalism not a society of common ownership and production for use not profit. Like the Labour Party in Britain, it is the B team to take over governing capitalism in France when the conservatives are tired or discredited.

Even so, the French PS fought the election on a programme that would have made Gordon Brown’s hair stand on end: increasing the minimum wage, reducing the existing 39-hour week to 35 hours with no loss of pay, 700.000 new jobs in the state and semi-state sector. In other words, unlike New Labour, which has got the message that such a reformist policy won’t work, the PS still believes—at least for vote-catching purposes—that a government can reduce unemployment by spending its way out of a slump.

A disturbing feature of the election was the vote for Le Pen’s Front National. It got 3.8 million votes, or 15 percent of those who voted, its highest ever score in a general election, even though—thanks to France’s two-round election system designed to ensure that MPs are representative of a majority of voters—it only got one seat. Since 38 million people aged 18 or over are eligible to vote in France, this means that one out of every ten French citizens voted for a party led by a fascist and open anti-semite.

As fascism is a reaction to the failure of democratic reformism to make capitalism work in the interests of the majority, where alienated workers mistakenly blame parliamentary democracy or some minority group instead of capitalism for their problems, this is a warning of the further dangers that could like ahead if workers continue to put their hopes in democratic reform of capitalism rather than socialism.

Some commentators have seen the election of the Jospin government as making a single European currency less likely. This is based on the assumption that the new government will honour its election promises and try to spend its way out of the crisis. This would indeed undermine the value of the franc and inaugurate a period of European monetary instability which would make the introduction of a single currency impossible.

The last time a French government tried to spend its way out of a slump was after Mitterand’s election as president in 1981. As we Socialists predicted, it was an utter failure because the capitalist economy is driven by profits, and the prospect of making them, not by government spending, which in the end is a charge on profits.

What happened was that the extra government spending was financed largely by inflating the currency. This undermined the competitiveness of French capitalist industry and led to three devaluations of the franc in an 18-month period. In the end, the austerity policy of the previous government was re-imposed, and tightened. It was one of the most spectacular failures of reformism in recent years.

If the Jospin government does adopt the same policy as in 1981 the commentators will be right. A more likely scenario, however, is the new government explaining that its election promises were only long-term goals, to be achieved within the framework of a united Europe, etc., etc., and carrying on with more or less the same economic policy as the previous government, as Blair and Brown are doing in Britain
Adam Buick

Losing the jewel (1997)

From the August 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Fifty years ago this month Britain relinquished control over the Indian subcontinent. It was the start of a thirty-year period in which European imperial powers progressively withdrew from direct rule of their overseas possessions.

It had been accepted as far back as 1833 that India would at some stage advance to self-government. The British practice of granting former colonies self-rule and Dominion status encouraged Indian nationalists to believe that India would follow. In the meantime various measures of "Indianisation" such as the Indian Councils Act of 1861 gave the elite some say in the running of Indian affairs.

The Indian National Congress (subsequently abbreviated to Congress), founded in 1885 by an anglicised elite, at first campaigned for examinations for entry into the Indian Civil Service to be held in the sub-continent as well as in Britain.They also pressed to have more elected members on the legislative councils of the central and provincial governments in India. Unrest arose among those who studied but failed to gain the positions to which they aspired in government administration. But it was not until 1906 that Congress started to demand self-rule for India as a means of obtaining more control over Indian affairs, and to gain access to government employment. In common with other independence movements organised resistance to foreign domination in India originated not with the peasant masses (although they were subsequently mobilised to that end) but from classes educated in Western ways.

Westernised elite
British occupation of India, while destroying some native industry, had stimulated the rise of a new class of native industrial and commercial capitalists. The development of communications gave easier access to markets and encouraged the commercial development of cotton, jute and other non-edible cash crops produced for sale. Indians also entered professions such as the law as a means of social advancement. These groups formed the backbone of the nationalist movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. They advocated self-rule for India as a means of progressing their economic class interests. Unable to meet free-trade competition, Indian industrialists sought protection to exploit home market potential behind tariff barriers against British trade. This policy split them away from the landed aristocracy who had allied themselves with British rule in part as a protection against rural unrest and uprisings.

The first world war brought with it far-reaching economic and social change as the European colonial powers utilised their possessions for the raw materials and manpower necessary to wage war. India provided one-and-a-half million troops to defend the interests of British capitalists and their experiences inevitably coloured their outlook. The war had an impact on the price of goods and foodstuffs which rose faster than incomes. Further hardship resulted from the increase of taxation on the peasantry.

At the end of the war the westernised elites began demanding rewards for the sacrifices made. A number of reforms were enacted which provided for direct elections to the legislatures. However the property and education qualifications restricted the electorate to some seven million voters only. i.e. three percent of the population. More importantly Britain retained absolute control over key areas such as finance and the police. This was clearly seen by the Indian nationalists as a sop by the British who hoped to buy off their more radical demands. When it came to the push the British showed how far they were prepared to go if necessary to defend their interests in India. On 13 April 1919 a meeting of protest at British occupation was fired on by British troops. The firing continued for ten minutes and only ceased when the ammunition ran out. The Amritsar massacre left 400 dead and 1.200 injured.

Richer peasants
During the 1920s the nature and composition of Congress changed. It became a mass party with a largely rural base. Membership fees were deliberately kept low to encourage recruitment which proved very successful. One police official reported that the old Congress intelligentsia had been "swamped in a mass of semi-educated persons". In this period Congress policies proved attractive to the richer peasants. These were people who owned ten or more acres of land, and who grew cash crops and employed landless peasants as wage labour. Their interests lay in proposed measures of land reform intended to break up and redistribute the larger land holdings of the aristocracy. It was the alliance of the industrialists and this potential class of agricultural capitalists that made Congress the important force it was. Gandhi's economic ideas did not threaten their interests. His espousal of swadeshi— the use of things from one’s "own" country with neighbours supplying economic wants—emphasised local production. It was a "buy Indian" policy in which foreign goods were boycotted. Imports of British cotton fell by more than half while Indian production and sales were unaffected. He aimed at a revival of the traditional Indian village community—a return to an idealised pre-capitalist past which proved attractive in a society experiencing the disruptive extension of the cash economy and the contraction of previously communally owned land.

Between 1921 and 1941 grain production per head fell by more than a quarter. At the outbreak of the second world war the majority of Indians had less to eat than their forebears. An analysis which blamed British rule, rather than the economic organisation of society, for the poverty and suffering the vast majority experienced won mass support and a willingness to make sacrifices for their beliefs. Under the influence of Mohandas K. Gandhi the new-style Congress put into effect a number of campaigns of non-co-operation with the British authorities. Demonstrations, rioting and the burning of symbols of oppression such as police stations took place. The deaths that occurred during this period of unrest caused Gandhi to call off the campaign. Congress renewed its campaign of civil disobedience in March 1930 when Gandhi deliberately invited arrest by publicly breaking the government monopoly of the production of salt. Many Congress members followed his example and in the 1930s 130,000 had served terms of imprisonment. In January 1932 the British government outlawed Congress and imprisoned its leaders following the breakdown of talks. Realising that civil disobedience was merely an annoyance to the British, and that political power could be won through the ballot box, Congress returned to contesting elections.This led to an increase in membership which rose to 4.5 million in 1939, the majority coming from the ranks of rich peasants and small and middle landlords.

Congress split over support for Britain on the outbreak of war in 1939, the supporters of Gandhi instigating a "Quit India" campaign which radicalised the independence movement and led to another banning and jailing of 60,000 members. The subsequent revolt in the countryside took 80 battalions of British troops to put down and involved beatings, torture, burning of property and collective fines.

Muslim businessmen
As a divisive measure the British had in 1905 encouraged the formation of the Muslim League made up of aspiring Muslim businessmen fearful that the majority Hindu population might swamp them and their interests. The League now offered support and co-operation to the British, as a means of advancing their interests, and furthering their particularist demands. It became clear that the main question was how to grant independence without dividing the country along religious lines. It was a question that failed to be resolved. Negotiations became deadlocked and both Hindu and Muslim factions used the hiatus in proceedings to whip up the fear and hatred which had for years simmered beneath the surface of Indian life.

Coming to power in 1945 the British Labour Party had no policy worked out regarding the Empire, a subject which had not been mentioned in their election manifesto. Indeed at their 1943 Annual Conference a resolution had been passed which declared that colonial peoples were not ready for self-government. As a result they acted pragmatically in response to circumstances. In India Wavell. the Viceroy, commented on the psychological effects of revolts in French Indo-China (Vietnam) and in Indonesia which had produced a situation "more dangerous than at any time in the past ninety years". Influential public opinion in Britain was also changing and according to the Times (18 September 1945) "the entire practice of the rule of one race by another" was now "discredited".

By 1945 British economic interests in India were considerably less than they had been. In 1900 British goods represented 69 percent of Indian imports but in 1945 the figure was less than 20 percent. In 1870 India had sent 53 percent of its exports to Britain while in 1945 only 28 percent of its exports were. Although still of some importance to the British economy India did not play as important role as, for example, Malaya which was a dollar-earner useful in the support of sterling. During the inter-war depression the value of exports to India had fallen by half, foreign penetration and import substitution contributing to the decline. On balance it was no longer worth the cost of attempting to further delay the granting of independence—better to pull out as gracefully as possible and try and maintain links with a new leadership which still had some sympathy and respect for things British.

Change of exploiters
Independence solved none of the problems resulting from exploitation. Indian governments were wedded to the same set of priorities and subject to the same constraints as any other capitalist government. Poverty in the midst of a potential for plenty remains a running sore, exploitation and massive disparities of wealth continue to exist, war with Pakistan claimed the lives of those with no class interest in the outcome, environmental degradation continues virtually unabated.

Improvements in agriculture (mainly due to the "Green Revolution” which benefited the richer farmers who could finance the necessary inputs) means that India is “self-sufficient" in food production. It also means that India has suffered the "problem" of plenty since independence. In 1968 for example there was a massive pile up of wheat in Punjab and Haryana provinces where 200,000 tonnes of wheat worth Rs 180m lay rotting in the open for lack of adequate storage facilities (Far Eastern Economic Review, 27 June 1968.) In 1974 the province of West Bengal suffered the worst famine since 1943—this time the cause was "not outright lack of food, but that the poor have no money to buy it” (Observer 13 October 1974). The larger farmers, hoping to profit by high prices, refused to pay landless labourers in kind. It was said that the cash wages paid to some 20 million "are so low that they cannot afford to buy rice at current prices" (Times, 18 October 1974).

Great Britain's period of rule in India can be seen as a period of arrested economic development, but the subsequent period of "Five Year Plans" for economic self-sufficiency have only been partially successful. Projected growth rates failed to materialise. Business and industry now account for one-third of national income compared to 5 percent in 1947. Of the 70 percent still engaged in agriculture, half suffer from poverty and malnutrition and many have been subjected to harassment and evictions to make way for commercial agriculture. The number of landless labourers increased from 17 percent in 1961 to 26 percent of the population (37 percent of the rural labour force) in 1971 when Mrs Gandhi was campaigning on the slogan "get rid of poverty". Reforms intended to put a ceiling on the size of land-holdings have been subject to legal challenge and evasion by subterfuge and have proved ineffective.

It can be seen in retrospect that independence for the vast majority of the people of India has simply meant the exchange of one set of exploiters for another. As we pointed out in this journal and elsewhere in the years prior to 1947, independence would solve no peasant or working-class problems, only the establishment of Socialism could do that. In 1935 we wrote "Now is the time for those in India who really desire Socialism to strike a blow for it by preparing the way for the genuine Socialist Party of India, which has yet to be formed" (Socialist Standard, February 1935). Such a party now exists, and we welcome our comrades in India and join with them in the work that needs to be done before the system that exploits us all can be brought to an end.
Gwynn Thomas

Why no cinema? (1997)

Theatre Review from the September 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

A friend asked me recently if I ever went to the cinema. And she went on to suggest that although it was interesting to read about plays—especially plays that seem to have some significance to socialists—the fact remained that many more people go to the cinema than the theatre and that, in consequence, many more readers of the Socialist Standard would be interested in reading about films than are currently interested in reading about plays.

My friend might be right. Readers of the Socialist Standard may attend the cinema more frequently than the theatre, if only because there are many more opportunities to see films than plays. But I have a difficulty. Whilst I may have more chance of seeing a film rather than a play, most of the films available seem not worth seeing.

As a young man I was an early member of the National Film Theatre. I remember visits to the old cinema, under Waterloo Bridge, watching films by Eisenstein (including Battleship Potemkin), Marcel Carne (such as Le Jour Se Leve) and D.W. Griffith (Intolerance and Birth of a Nation), etc. And in all the major cities there were specialist cinemas where you could see non-English-speaking films: films by Vittorio de Sica (like the unforgettable Bicycle Thieves), Luis Bunuel (the savage, surrealist The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), and the early films by members of the French "new-wave” (including Jean-Luc Godard). There were even impressive and enlightening British and American films, like Carol Reed's Odd Man Out, Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives and, a particular favourite of mine, Marty.

I’ve spent many happy and enlightening hours in the cinema. Last year, just for the hell of it, I took an Open University course on “Cinema and Society. Britain in the 1950s and 1960s", which allowed me to re-visit many of those wonderful films of, particularly the early 1960s. Films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, A Kind of Loving and A Taste of Honey, films that were light years away from the previous anaethetised products of the British Film industry, to say nothing of the Hollywood dream factory.

But the changes that had occurred in the late 1950s and early 1960s, in part stimulated by the spectacular events that had already taken place in the theatre, soon went into reverse, and by the mid-1970s the British film industry was largely a production base for American-financed films. It is instructive to ask the questions "What happened to the British cinema industry in the late 1960s and early 1970s?“ and "Why, at least at the extreme, has the theatre not capitulated to the same kind of pressures?” in what must be, necessarily, a simple analysis, there are perhaps two major reasons.

First, other than in the West End of London, theatres are to a considerable extent run by organisation which operate not unlike charities. Many are supported by public donation and public subsidy, and because of this their programmes can, in part, be determined by reference to artistic merit, public relevance and the like. In contrast cinemas are exposed to the pressures of the market. What matters is "bums on seats", not the merit of the films being shown. And marketing devices and the deliberate “dumbing-down" of popular taste, used so successfully in selling tabloid newspapers, can be employed to persuade audiences to make regular visits to the cinema.

Second, whereas each production of a play is an unique event, so that playgoers can spend many happy hours discussing the relative merits of particular productions of Hamlet, The Death of a Salesman, etc., films are available in multiple copies.This means that the same product can be made available at a variety of selling points (cinemas), which the possibility of realising greater profit margins by increasing the number of retail outlets (cinemas). The film industry is therefore more amenable to the application of capitalist modes of production than is the production of plays. It is thus not a coincidence that those who distribute and show films—usually the same commercial organisations—can determine the kind of product (the films) that are made. In this there is an obvious similarity between the management of, say, the distributive food industry and the management of the British film industry. The behaviour of Sainsbury and Tesco is paralleled by that of the Odeon and ABC cinema chains. Supermarkets and cinema chains act as corporate monopolies and as such they reduce choice. And just as independent grocers and "corner shops" are disappearing, so too are local specialist cinema houses. As a recent (7 August) correspondent to the Guardian complained: "In recent years, at least three popular and conveniently located independents have closed, the Parkway and Plaza in Camden and the Lumiere in the West End."

So it is perhaps not surprising that whilst I rarely visit the cinema—because what is shown is for the most part an insulting irrelevance, a cultural diet which seeks to imprison and brainwash—I think it is still possible to find theatre which stimulates and enlightens.
Michael Gill

Lights Out, Action… (2016)

The Pathfinders Column from the January 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
As UK readers will recall, people in the north-west of England had an interesting time of it just before Christmas courtesy of Storm Desmond. It was quite something to see the local town centre under water, and those not actually flooded out of their houses still had the unique experience of spending two or three winter nights without heating or power. With nothing but a candle for company when it gets dark at 4pm you quickly realise just how interminably long a December night lasts. There'll be a regional baby boom next September, in all probability.
One might have thought that heating and lights would be uppermost in people's minds, and certainly it wasn't fun for those all-electric households which had only bread and cold water for dinner. But one can manage on the whole fairly well without basic amenities, so long as it's not permanent. What one can't manage without – and this is not obvious until you experience it – is information.
People were in the dark in more ways than one. No power meant no TV, no radio, no internet, and no mobile phones. It's hard to overstate, in our hyper-connected world, just how disorienting this is. It was as if a black shell of silence had descended on the area, shutting out all noise from outside. Hungry for news, or perhaps rediscovering the importance of human contact, people left their houses and poured into the city centre to find out whatever there was to find out. Every food shop was closed, and anywhere you might conceivably purchase a candle, but Claire's Accessories was incongruously open for business and so was Ann Summers. The town authorities seemed not to have quite grasped what was going on, and it did not occur to anyone to set up a central news point. On being asked for information, the duty officer in the well-lit counter booth at the central police station smiled innocently and said 'What about?'
An early rumour was that the nuclear power station had gone down. In an information vacuum every Chinese whisper is amplified to a shout of alarm. There was a rumour (rich irony) that the water was to be cut off. The bridges were closed (why?) and many roads out of town (why?). Continuing her whimsical attempt to be helpful the station duty officer enquired 'Did you want to go somewhere?'
Police officers on the street, drafted in from other counties, seemed uniformly uninformed. One directed people to walk miles to an out-of-town supermarket which was closed. Asked if he would use his radio to check what food services might be functioning, another officer simply laughed. Police radios are only for important things, apparently.
Showing more presence of mind than the constabulary, staff from the local flooded Sainsbury's began doling out free bread and a queue formed across the large car park, redolent of Soviet Russia. Similar queues grew around the few functioning public telephone boxes, anachronistic installations nobody had even noticed the day before. 
It wasn't the end of the world, and people knew it, because M&S still had its Christmas lights on. There was good humour and bonhomie, and a complete lack of the sort of panic which those in charge like to pretend populations are prone to. There were jokes too. These were terrorist floods, people said. Isis have been stuffing toilet rolls into the storm drains to block them up. It's a conspiracy by the carpet firms. It's a Tory plan to turn the North-West into a London reservoir ready for the next summer drought.
But it was sobering, all the same, to realise how fragile modern society is and how we can be so easily disconnected from it, and how upon disconnection that same social reality so quickly comes to look like the dreamed 'reality' in the film The Matrix. A few nights of blacked out streets, where even the street and traffic lights don't work, is not enough time for social order to disintegrate (though there was a spike in burglaries), but it is enough time to reflect on the blinding meaninglessness of reality TV, X Factor shows, Facebook and a million other things we think are real and important and interesting.
It wasn't the end of the world, but one couldn't escape a feeling that the end of the world, if it ever came, would look something like this. People would pour out of their dark, cold houses, their phones dead and useless, suffering an almost existential crisis of ignorance, while authority figures stood around vaguely, pretending to be in charge but not much the wiser. The end of the world would not be caused by a mere power cut. But it would certainly start with one.
The acid test of a society is how it copes when things go wrong. Socialists are not inclined to be melodramatic, but we do think about the big questions, like what kind of social structures humans would need to survive into the far future. We're certainly not alone in the conviction that capitalism is spectacularly not equipped to ensure that.
It's not just the chaotic casino economics. A key problem with property-owning societies is that they form rigid vertical hierarchies whose only purpose is to preserve the status quo, and this is an intrinsic weakness because it makes those societies non-adaptive. The people trapped in them are also non-adaptive. They are not encouraged to cope in adversity, they're encouraged to be weak, to be clueless and defenceless and over-specialised, because this is what protects the hierarchy. They are trained from infant school to rely on authority, to do all that is ordered and nothing that is prohibited. All the glare and dazzle of the information society, with its 24/7 news channels and its movies and its myth-making, obscures the essential fact that the majority of people are perpetually in the dark, out in the cold and disconnected from power. For capitalism to be perpetually strong, we must be perpetually weak. This is all good for capitalism but it is a survival flaw for humans. A flaw like this killed the dinosaurs. A meteorite caused havoc and shut out the sun, but what really killed them was their inability to adapt.
This is what the authoritarian Leninist Left doesn't understand, any better than the proto-fascist right-wing. That's why socialists talk about the future society as a 'horizontal hierarchy', an organisational structure which allows a maximum diversity of skills without the coercive weight of vertical stratification. It's not just a lofty obsession with egalitarianism. Such a society, unrestricted by the steel bonds of social rank and position, would be mobile and adaptive, able to respond to changing circumstances, able to survive long term, and probably a damn sight better organised when the lights go out.
Paddy Shannon




China in world capitalism (1986)

From the December 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

It will take more than a few racist remarks by the Duke of Edinburgh to put a damper on the Queen's visit to China. A spokesman for the Chinese ruling class tactfully claimed to know nothing of the Duke's clanger, signal ling that the real purpose of the visit was not a journalists' jamboree but talks about sales and business. British trade with China shows a sizeable surplus in Britain's favour, but is still only a small proportion of China's trade with the United States or West Germany. Just as the British capitalist class see a potentially massive market in a billion Chinese consumers. so their Chinese counterparts rely on exports to finance their high-technology imports. As the Chinese economy becomes more industrialised, so it becomes more integrated into, and dependent on, the world capitalist economy.

It is generally known that there are many "joint ventures" in China, jointly owned by overseas companies and the Chinese government. With its low rents, cheap labour power and lack of independent trade unions, China is an attractive manufacturing base for multi-national companies. Chinese-owned industry is pretty competitive in its own right in some areas and is winning ship building orders against tight competition, for instance. Already Chinese electronic goods are undercutting other low-cost producers; as was noted in the financial pages of the Guardian (16 October 1986):
Go into a Tottenham Court Road computer dealer and ask for the cheapest cassette loader. Chances are it will be made not in Taiwan or Hong Kong, but in China.
Recent regulations have given joint ventures more autonomy and freedom to hire and fire workers, though they have not gone as far as many of the bosses of the companies wanted.

What is not so well-known is that China has set up over a hundred ventures of its own in other countries. For instance, there are joint fishing companies in Senegal and Sierra Leone. One Chinese corporation has purchased an area of woodland in the United States, the timber from which is exported to China. A joint venture to mine iron ore in Australia is under discussion.

China never has been fully isolated from world capitalism, and certainly is not nowadays. Any "bamboo curtain" which insulated China from the outside world has long since rotted away. So when China massively increases its exports of cotton (as has happened over the last year), the result is that the world market price for cotton falls by fifty percent - disrupting small third-world economies which rely on cotton exports. When China plans a new nuclear power station at Daya Bay, it inevitably affects the inhabitants of Hong Kong, who live a mere thirty miles away. When the world price of oil drops and Western oil companies find that the wells they drill in the South China Sea are dry, they begin to turn their attention to other potential oilfields and China has to hold its oil exports steady rather than increase them. When China s fourth largest export earner (behind textiles, oil and clothing) is armaments. ordinary people elsewhere in the world are butchered by them.

The Chinese rulers depend on overseas equipment and expertise to modernise their own industry and agriculture. The Daya Bay nuclear plant is being built by a French company. and its “conventional" section by GEC. Pilkington's are helping to set up a new glass factory in Shanghai, while even a duck farm in Guangzhou Province (producing over a million ducks a year) was established and stocked by a company from Lincolnshire. The export drive is intended to pay for all this. Hong Kong is a convenient captive market for exports, especially of food, hence the Chinese government's treaty with Britain over the future of Hong Kong, designed to ensure that it remains stable and able to continue importing from China.

As a major competitor on the international trading scene, China has applied to join the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade This may involve having to reduce some of its more severe import restrictions but will give it a voice in the inner councils of the body that attempts to regulate world trade. Already China has objected to a proposed textile protocol which is seen as too constraining and likely to limit China's flax exports. At the same time, the Chinese government is discussing with the Chicago Board of Trade the possibility of participating in the futures market (that is. speculating on the future prices of grain, textiles and so on in order to make money).

Capitalism, with its imperative demand for profits, causes those who own the world to search ceaselessly for the cheapest and most reliable sources of raw materials and labour power and for the largest and most profitable markets. Divided into economic units called sometimes companies and sometimes countries, the owning class compete against each other for the right to exploit the working class. Decisions as to where to locate a particular factory or where to buy a particular material are made from the view point of economic gain, just as are decisions to close factories or to wage wars. As the Chinese rulers flex their muscles and play an ever more active role in this power game, the global nature of capitalism becomes ever clearer and so does the need for the global solution of socialism.
Paul Bennett