Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Let's Protest! (1967)

From the April 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard

Capitalism creates many problems and subjects the working class to all kinds of pressures. What is somewhat puzzling about the whole painful business is that, despite so much experience in protesting and all the accompanying disillusionment, people still persist in trying to deal with individual issues in isolation and make little if any attempt to relate either one problem to another, or to relate all the problems to a common cause. It seems that for every outrage committed by capitalism, and for every inhumanity and frustrated need, there is a group of people ready to mushroom into an organisation and start protesting.

Socialists are not opposed to the idea of protesting as such. What concerns us is to get it into its social perspective so as to achieve a more fruitful form of expression. The fact that the horrors of capitalism do produce some response in terms of protest demonstrations etc., is more hopeful than an attitude of indifference.

But, unless workers learn from previous fruitless experiences to avoid going over the same ground again, nothing is gained.

Take, for example, the biggest mass protest movement to spring up since the war, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. CND spread rapidly and enlisted the enthusiastic support of tens of thousands of young people. It received wide publicity through all the modern media for mass propaganda and to many people its success seemed assured. Instead, CND reached a peak and declined. Almost all the energy and enthusiasm are lost and the vacuum filled with despair. The situation existing at the end is as bad, or worse, than when it started. Nor is this the whole story, because CND and similar bodies are prone to internal strife, as the factions of which they are made up fight among themselves.

In such organisations, emotional appeals take the place of a clear understanding of the social system within which they work. Personalities and leaders are indispensible to these groups.

The basic weakness of protest movements is that when they come to realise that their aims demand political expression, they are forced to take their place alongside the existing reformists in the general clamour to mitigate some particular evil within the framework of capitalism. Thus they inevitably get involved in helping to perpetuate the very conditions which give rise to the evils against which they protest.

Furthermore, they all share one common illusion — that capitalism can be made to work in such a way that its worst effects can be avoided. It is quite wrong to assume that politicians can at will adopt policies which would remove the problems endangered by capitalism. In this country, the Labour Party is the classic example.

Starting out back in 1906 with high-sounding phrases like “the greatest good for the greatest number”, Labour saw themselves as a workers’ party. The plight of the working class was clear enough to see. They suffered from unemployment, poverty, slums and wars. Their wages were always insufficient, their conditions miserable and insecure.

The trade unions struggling on the industrial field felt they needed a political party of labour so that their voice could be heard in Parliament. Then, with trade-unionists representing the workers on the floor of the House of Commons, wages and conditions would be defended. The Tories and Liberals were parties of the boss and of landlordism, but — “once we get a workers government in” — things will change.

There was certainly plenty to protest about — there always is, and the Labour Party embodied the hopes and dreams of a generation. Under its large umbrella, where there was just about room for anyone, there were many protest groups rolled into one. So long as you felt indignant about some damn thing you were all right. Never mind if you understood nothing of the workings of capitalism, and the more vague you were about Socialism, the better.

The emotional attitude of hating the Tories and blaming it all on them, was enough to satisfy the ambitions of those at the head of this blind unwieldy mass. Well, if ever the chickens came home to roost, in this case it was with a vengeance.

It is a pitiful spectacle, to see the Trotskyists and the so-called Communist Party still urging workers to vote Labour in spite of all that has happened, only to find themselves protesting against the policies of the very people they have helped to elect. Of course, the reason Trotskyists and Communists can see no further than the Labour Party is because they are reformists themselves and if they got into power, nothing fundamental would be changed.

This fact is demonstrated by Russia, China and the Eastern European countries, where all the basics of capitalism exist, but unfortunately they don’t know how to interpret the evidence.

Events have turned full cycle. We now have in power the former champions of protest — the political voice of trade unionism. Their commitment to capitalism is total. Their vicious attacks on trade unions which do not fall in line with their ruthless legislation is equalled only by their cynical attitude to workers on strike.

They are at the helm now, running capitalism. Mr. Wilson has made it clear; ‘‘We intend to govern”. This means looking after the interests of the British capitalist class at home and abroad. It means engaging in the international struggle for markets and natural resources. It means building armaments and, if the rat race threatens vested interests, sending workers to war.

It inevitably means clashing with the workers — trying to get them to work harder for less. This is the only way to “govern” in a society divided into classes. This is the only possible end for any group of protesters who stop short of seeking to remove capitalism.

Socialism demands that a conscious majority of workers shall organise to get it. The Socialist Party of Gt. Britain and its Companion Parties are the beginning of that organisation. If we lack the glamour of the bigger parties, we also lack their disillusionment.
Harry Baldwin

These Foolish Things . . . (1997)

The Scavenger column from the July 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

American bad dream

In 1994 every US resident between 18 and 65—that is 150 million people— received at least 17 offers of credit cards  . . .  A survey by the Federal Reserve, America’s central bank, reveals that over the past three years the number of families running up credit card debts on annual incomes of less than $10,000 (£6,250) has more than doubled from 11 percent to 24 percent. And the number of personal bankruptcies has reached a record 1.1 million. The average bankrupt is aged 30 to 40 with an annual income of $25,000 to $35,000 and up to $40,000 in credit card debt. Typically, this person will have between 10 and 12 cards with a credit limit per card of $3,900. (Financial Mail on Sunday, 23 March.)

Out of sight . . .

Government scientists have decided against further research in to a cluster of leukaemia cases around one of Britain’s most powerful FM radio transmitters. The decision comes five years after the Guardian first revealed an unusual number of cases near the BBC’s TV and radio transmitter at Sutton Coldfield north of Birmingham. The existence of the cluster was confirmed by a subsequent government funded study published, after a long delay, in a US journal this year . . .  the effect was to ensure that the UK press did not cover the story of the Sutton Coldfield cluster. (Guardian, 29 May.)

Wage slavery

About 200,000 employees in the West Midlands—12 percent of the region's working population—receive no paid holiday . . .  One in five get only 15 days annual holiday entitlement and 25 percent work more than 48 hours a week. (Evening Mail, 28 February.)

A class act

Lloyd’s insurance market is bracing itself for the biggest wave of City job losses since Big Bang in 1986. More than 200,000 workers face the sack as some of the worlds largest insurance brokers merge with former rivals. The massive cost-cutting drive has been triggered by the Aon corporation, a US insurance broking group already embarking on extensive takeovers in London and the US in a bid to become the world number one. (Financial Mail on Sunday, 6 April.)


Elderly people in state-funded care homes are left with barely a third of what they need to pay for personal needs such as clothes and toiletries . . .  The personal expenses allowance of £14.10 a week compares with £38.78 needed to meet the ‘‘modest but adequate” outgoings of someone living in a residential home, according to the research for the charity Age Concern. (Guardian, 24 April.)

As we say . . .

Differences between the three main parties are wafer-thin—a matter of nuance rather than fundamental approach. That may be because we really have little choice about where we go from here. Politicians are merely trying to fool us when they claim they can change our lives for the better at little cost, fearful that if they tell the truth we shall turn against them. (Financial Mail on Sunday, 27 April.)
                                                                                                                         The Scavenger

But Who Owns the Machines? (2016)

The Cooking the Books Column from the February 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘Stephen Hawking Says We Should Really Be Scared of Capitalism, Not Robots’ wrote Alexander C Kaufman, the Business Editor of the Huffington Post, last 8 October. Hawking didn’t actually use the word capitalism but he might as well have done:
‘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.’
In one sense we are already in this position of being able to produce ‘everything we need’. Not that machines operated by robots could now produce this on their own, but  in the sense that machines operated by human labour could. But the outcome will depend on who owns the machines.
Hawking is envisaging what might happen, with ever-increasing mechanisation, in a society where the income of those who don’t own machines derives from working for those who do. One scenario is that, as production becomes more  mechanised, fewer workers will need to be employed and so more and more people will have to depend on miserable state hand-outs to survive instead of on not so miserable wages.
He also offers an alternative scenario where the machine-owners are obliged to share their income, presumably though taxation, to provide an income and services for a growing number of non-employed. There are already groups advocating this but it is not going to happen because it goes against the economic logic of the system where production is geared to  making profits with a view to accumulation as more capital rather than to satisfying people’s needs.
How likely anyway is the first scenario of growing mass unemployment? This has been predicted many times but has never actually come about. Production and employment have continued to expand over time, even if in fits and starts. The growth in productivity resulting from mechanisation is not as fast as is often thought, only of the order of 1 to 2 percent a year; which is slow enough to allow the labour displaced to be reabsorbed in other activities (including machine building).
Also, if increasing mechanisation were to lead to steadily growing unemployment this would have the effect of slowing down the introduction of machines. The mass unemployment would exert a strong downward pressure on wages and make it profitable for the machine-owners to employ workers rather than machines.
A minor example was reported in the Times (14 December):
‘Garage owners said that the number of car-washing machines has more than halved in the past 15 years because they are struggling to compete with migrants doing the job by hand…. [T]he number of automated “rollover” car washes in Britain has more than halved, from about 9,000 to less than 4,200 in 2015. It is estimated that the number of dedicated handwashing sites has ballooned from 4,000 to at least 20,000 over the same 15-year period.’
So, while the effect of mechanisation under capitalism might not be as bad as some predict, the full benefits of it will not be able to be enjoyed until the machines are owned in common by society as a whole. Then, and only, then will they be able to be used to turn out plenty for all, to be distributed in accordance with the principle of ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs’. This will never happen under capitalism, however much people lobby for (or against) it.

Obituary: Jack McDonald, 1889-1968

Obituary from Western Socialist #4, 1968

The socialist movement, small in numbers as it is, has within its ranks a fair representation of so-called civilized man. The majority are not noticeably vocal, nor do they have the ability to express themselves in writing. Another section, albeit possessing certain talents for communicating ideas, are unfortunately constrained to keep their propaganda activities at a minimum, even in some cases to the extent of secrecy. Finally, there are those, all too few, among us who have the knack for imparting knowledge and who have neither the compulsion nor the desire to keep their mouths buttoned. Such was Jack McDonald, without doubt one of the very finest teachers and propagandists in the history of the World Socialist Movement.

A column in the "San Francisco Chronicle" dated July 6, 1968, informs us that: "Bookseller McDonald Dies at 79," as the result of being struck by an automobile near his home in Oakland, California on July 1, 1968. The column deals briefly with his colorful life and states that he was always proud of his one-time membership in the "International (sic) Workers of the World" and that he was a "life-long radical and supporter of Marxian socialism."

We do not know who authored the column but it was obviously one who was ill-informed. At the time of his death Jack McDonald was a member of the National Administrative Committee of the World Socialist Party (U.S.), was proud of his membership for many years in the organization, and was a steady contributor of articles and financial support to "The Western Socialist." Although Mac had many close friends among Wobblies and other radicals he was, himself, not a "radical" but a scientific socialist. A perusal of his articles through some 35 years of "The Western Socialist" will show that he knew the difference and explained the difference.

As one who knew McDonald personally—although as far back as 1937 and 1938—and who maintained a steady contact with him via mail in connection with his manuscripts to "The Western Socialist" the news of his sudden death came as a tremendous shock. It seems to me that anyone around today who knew Mac—even if only through his writings—did not think of him as old, or aging. He seemed a living example of eternal youth. It will be difficult, indeed to replace him as a consistent writer of readable and informative articles. He had the ability to break down a variety of important subjects into terms that won the interest of the average reader of "The Western Socialist". The scope of his subjects was so vast, in fact, that to read all he has written is almost to acquire the basics of a liberal education. And advancing age did not seem to slow his output. Certainly he has been a source of inspiration to other writers in our movement and I, for one, am only too happy to acknowledge my personal debt to him.

Over the years prior to his retirement from active duties at the store, McDonald’s Bookstore was a sort of permanent meeting place—a rendezvous for socialists and for various types of radicals who knew him or knew of him. They came from near and far. And McDonald was never one to permit the cash nexus to interfere with this fact of life in San Francisco. He had time for his customers and his comrades. He was widely known, himself, as a socialist; had spoken for many years at both indoor and outdoor (soap-box) meetings; and had conducted the Jack London Labor College. Despite his socialist activities he was widely respected and liked, by non-socialists and foes of socialism as well as by comrades.

Jack McDonald was noted, among other things, for a fine sense of humor and for the knack of converting a funeral oration over a departed comrade or friend into a cheerful—rather than a gloomy—chore. Not having been privileged to attend his cremation I would like to end this obituary with an anecdote which Jack personally related to me in 1937 of how he had become acquainted with socialism.

As a young man in Western Canada Mac had been a Sunday School teacher. It came to pass, that a socialist Member of Parliament from Alberta, one Charles O’Brien—referred to by McDonald’s pastor as an "emissary of the Devil"—was scheduled to address an audience on the evils of capitalism. McDonald, curious to see and hear an emissary of the Devil, attended. Whether or not O’Brien looked like the Devil he apparently possessed a Devilish gift of persuasiveness. At any rate he converted McDonald from Christianity and if O’Brien never accomplished anything else of consequence in his own career he should be remembered by us for that one feat. The socialist movement has been richer because of it.

As of 1968, we are still a distance from our goal—as far as outward appearances are concerned. But, as did Jack McDonald, we are going to go on punching. Our sympathies go to his family.