Saturday, June 4, 2016

Capitalism—The Sick Society (1959)

From the June 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Social Basis of Mental Ill-Health 

"I want to be left alone; I want to dream my dreams, to believe as I once believed, that life is good and beautiful and that men can live with one another in peace and plenty. No son of a bitch on earth can tell me that to make life better you have to first kill a million or ten million men in cold blood." The cry from the heart of millions of ordinary people today; people whose only wish is to live happy, full, life free from hardship, fear and anxiety.

This cri de coeur comes from a “fictitious” American, a soldier disabled in World War I, “The alcoholic veteran with the washboard cranium.” His creator—Henry Miller, whose savage, bitter attacks on Capitalist society are brilliantly embodied in his story of the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company from The Tropic of Capricorn.

The greatest tragedy of Capitalism is the suffering of its living victims. The dead are dead and can feel nothing, but the living must endure the frustrations, the fears, the uncertainties, the insecurity, which are inextricably bound to mid-twentieth-century Capitalism. Nearly half the hospital beds in the United Kingdom are reserved for patients with mental illness; in the United States it is as common for people to have their own “head shrinker” (psychiatrist) as it is for them to have their own butcher or beautician. Here is a tape-recording of a private talk between an American T.V. producer (Dan Enright) and a professional “quiz contestant” (Herbert Stempel), reported in Time magazine of 15th September, 1958:
Enright: I want to get a psychiatrist for you.
Stempel: I already have one.
Enright: No, sir. I want you to go to a psychiatrist five days a week, not twice, Herb, to expedite yourself . . .  We will foot the cost . . .
Stempel: Well, my doctor seems to feel that my problem isn’t serious enough for five days a week.
Age of the Phoney

A society must be grievously sick when so many of its members have to undergo mental treatment. Psychiatry is a peculiar product of modern Capitalist society. Mental conflicts (including the “neuroses,” which account for so much mental illness nowadays) are largely the result of peoples’ inability to come to terms with their environment, and psychiatry is an attempt to resolve these conflicts; but they are inevitable under Capitalism, where society is divided by warring groups and classes.

Capitalism has created a world of potential plenty, but millions of its workers either live in poverty or else they live in a state of apprehension lest some “crisis” (an oft recurring feature of Capitalism) throw them into poverty. Capitalism is world-wide, but lethally armed nations make a mockery of cooperation with the shrill cries of their gutter-patriotic leaders and their insatiable demands for markets, trade routes, and for their Cypruses, their Formosas, their Algerias. Capitalism, especially the mid-twentieth-century brand, will go down in human history as the great age of the phoney. Honesty and integrity are subjects for derision; the present-day gods are the gimmick, the ballyhoo, and the slick-tongued salesman, all wallowing in a bog of false social values.

The U.S.A.

No country in this Capitalist world is more socially sick than the United States of America. The United States is a fantastic amalgum: it possesses the source of scientific knowledge and industrial techniques challenged only by Soviet Russia, and yet, according to Paul Blanshard in his book The Right to Read (The Beacon Press, Boston, 1955), there are roughly 8,000,000 “functional illiterates” in the U.S.A. That is, there are 8,000,000 adults who have not got the reading knowledge that a child should acquire in the first four years at school. And according to Louis R. Wilson’s study The Geography of Reading (quoted in the above book), only about one-half of the adult population of the United States in 1938 had sufficient reading skill to understand the ordinary books published for adults. And yet these “functional illiterates” are subjected to the same strains and stresses of Capitalism as their more “enlightened” fellows: is it any wonder, then, that many are intellectually and emotionally incapable of coming to grips with a bitterly competitive and hostile environment—modern capitalist society?

When faced with a problem, some people fight it, some run away from it, and some remain undecided, a battleground of conflicting emotions which tend to destroy the peace of mind and cause mental illness. When faced with the problems of Capitalism, therefore, some people fight them (Socialists are in this category), some run away (Capitalism must answer for many suicides), and others become mentally ill: they either fill the mental hospitals, appear in police courts, or, more tragic still, they may live for years with terrible mental conflicts which blight their own and their families lives.

But suddenly these pent-up frustrations, conflicts, and inward suffering may erupt with dreadful results: people “flip their lids” as Americans so graphically describe the onset of acute mental illness, and the outward peace of the humdrum “respectable” home is shattered brutally and irrevocably. Consider the case of 16-year-old Diana Daye Humphries, who ambushed and shot to death her 14-year-old brother in their home in Houston, Texas.

According to an Associated Press despatch dated 24th September, 1958, Diana was an honour student at High School, where her teachers and schoolmates described her as a “brilliant student and well-liked girl, not the type to do a thing like this.” But she did do it, and her reasons for doing it are a terrible indictment of the existence she and her family (along with millions like them) endure under modern Capitalism. Diana (who had also planned to kill her father, her mother and herself) told the police:
“I did it because everything was so routine. My mother goes to work every day and comes home tired. So does my father, and he is sick with ulcers. Everyone was always tired. Robert was tired of school. It seemed we were always getting up, going to work or school, coming home, cooking meals, eating, washing dishes, going to bed and getting up again. I couldn’t stand it! I wanted to kill everyone so we wouldn’t have to suffer any more.”
This penetrating picture of working-class life by a teenage girl makes a macabre mockery of all the sickening eulogies of Capitalist society with which Capitalists and their politicians and spokesmen incessantly bombard our senses. What dark powers Capitalism must have to turn a “brilliant student and well-liked girl” of such tender years into a pessimistic, disillusioned killer.

Another Associated Press Report dated 24th September, 1958, this time from Sparta, Michigan, tells of the tragedy of an unemployed man who killed four of his five children with a shot-gun; his fifth child and estranged wife escaped with minor injuries. The father told the police: “I can only take so much. I got shot up in the war and my nerves act up.” By no means the least horrifying aspect of this tragedy was the hard-boiled, matter-of-fact, attitude of the eight-year-old surviving child, who is reported to have been found sitting on a blood-spattered bed saying: “Hey, cops! Daddy did this. I played dead. He thought he killed me, too.”

These two cases represent the small number of human tragedies in which the stresses and strains of life under Capitalism cause violent reactions, and hence get into newspapers. They are the one-tenth of the iceberg visible above the surface of the water: the extent of submerged human misery can only be inferred from the great increase in recent years of mental illness, suicides, divorces, alcoholism (especially in young people), the so-called “psychosomatic” illnesses, such as duodenal ulceration, and the colossal trade in “tranquillisers ” and sedatives.

The follies, miseries, frustrations, and personal tragedies of modern Capitalist society have been, and are being, forcefully recorded by a growing number of novelists, mostly American. Henry Miller’s savage polemics in The Tropic of Capricorn are not generally available, but there are many other works freely obtainable from public libraries or as cheap “paper backs."


Orwell’s prophecy of the control of man’s thoughts under the Capitalist corporate state a few decades hence is a phantasy (which may perhaps become partly true) featuring violence to mind and body and sophisticated torture. But Merle Miller (The Sure Thing) and David Karp (Leave Me Alone) suggest that “thought police” work, albeit “unofficial” is present today: these authors' subject is the intolerance, persecution; and in some cases social ruin, of people with ideas (real and imagined) slightly out of line with the “hundred-per-cent. All-American” outlook of conformist, unquestioning, suburban communities. These last two books are, in a way. more horrifying than 1984. both because they describe what might actually be happening today, and also because the persecution and intolerance are not exercised by “ thought police,” but by groups of ordinary, well-meaning, law-abiding, citizens only too well indoctrinated with the ideas of intense nationalism, racial prejudices, and selfishness engendered by the Capitalist society in which they live.

The problems of Capitalist Society have been described by socialists, novelists, historians, sociologists, and even by professional politicians. But only Socialists recognise that most of these problems cannot be solved until Capitalism is replaced by a social system in which people throughout the world will work harmoniously together to produce and distribute wealth to satisfy society’s needs. In this system of society. Socialism, there will be no terrible forces causing daughters and fathers to kill members of their families, there will be no need for armies of psychiatrists and overpopulated mental hospitals, no need for the senseless slaughter and maiming of men. women and children in war, and there will be no need for people to fear for their safety and security because of what they think.

To work for the abolition of Capitalism and the establishment of Socialism is the life-work of the Socialist. What better work could there be?
Michael La Touche

The EU and the Price of Food (2016)

The Cooking the Books column from the June 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
In the argument over whether to Leave or Remain in the EU is in the better overall interest of British capitalism, which the media and politicians are urging us to get embroiled in, the Remain side would arguably seem to have the stronger case – from a capitalist point of view that is, of course.
British capitalism benefits from unrestricted access to the single European market and also from having a say in drawing up its rules and regulations. It also benefits from being part of a large trading bloc in negotiations with other states and blocs, on the same principle behind trade unionism that ‘unity is strength’: you can get a better deal when negotiating as a group rather than individually.
But these are not the only arguments that the Remain camp are using. In April the Treasury published a study on what things would be like in 2030 if British capitalism leaves. Apparently, we’ll all be £4300 a year worse off. This is mere fantasy economics, as the Leave camp were quick to point out, including ex-Cabinet minister, Ian Duncan-Smith, who said that governments can’t predict what’s going to happen even a year ahead, citing Chancellor Osborne’s revision in March of the growth predictions in his previous year’s budget. We have always made the same point but can’t recall any politician making it when in government.
Then there is the claim in one of the ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ leaflets that British capitalism being in the EU is ‘great for families with lower prices in our shops thanks to free trade.’ This is not true as there is ‘free trade’ only within the EU. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, the EU is a customs union which imposes tariffs on goods from outside it, in particular agricultural products. This means higher food prices; which was one reason why some were opposed to British capitalism joining in the first place in 1973.
This is still the case, as Gerard Lyons, of Economists for Brexit, pointed out:
‘There is a tariff wall around the EU that protects agriculture, largely for the benefit of France, and parts of manufacturing, because of Germany. In these protected areas, people pay higher prices than in world markets’ (Times, 6 May).
So, if British capitalism left (and if it is decided not to protect UK farmers – a big If) there would be lower food prices. But this would not benefit workers. We’ve been here before, in the 1840s when there was a campaign to repeal the Corn Laws which imposed tariffs on the import of corn which benefited landowners who creamed off as higher rents the increase in the price of what their farmer tenants sold.
The capitalist opponents of the Corn Laws sought working class support by saying it would bring lower food prices, but, as the more astute trade unionists of the time realised, this would not benefit workers since, by lowering the cost of living, it would lead to lower wages, leaving workers no better off.
Engels, who used to hobnob with Manchester capitalists in the 1840s, wrote in 1881 that ‘there was no secret made, in those times, of what was aimed at by the repeal of the Corn Laws. To reduce the price of bread, and thereby the monetary rate of wages’, so as to increase the competitiveness of British capitalism on world markets or, as Engels said the British manufacturers put it, to enable them ‘to defy all and every competition with which wicked or ignorant foreigners threatened them’ (Labour Standard, 18 June). Which is how the Leave camp is still putting it today.

Tories back to nature (1982)

From the November 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

Devotees of political stereotypes will be comforted that the Conservative Party seems to be back to its old self again, after all those years when it clumsily posed as the working class's friend, as the party which cares, as the party of freedom and prosperity. All that is over now; one Tory at this year's conference symbolised it when he asked about one of the wetter junior ministers: “What’s a man who rides bicycles, drinks beer and sends his children to comprehensive school doing in the Conservative Party?

During the years between the wars (the two World Wars that is; for our present purposes we are ignoring the others which have cost so much in suffering and destruction) Stanley Baldwin, although he did not ride a bike, managed to deceive a lot of people that there was something called the National Interest, in which everyone's fortunes were involved and which they should trust him to protect. Baldwin was a rich man whose money came from the family ironworks. He spent some of it on a comfortable home in the lush acres of Worcestershire where he acted the part of the country squire, caring for his pigs in whom he perhaps recognised the same characteristics of productive docility as were displayed by his employees.

Baldwin's was an astute ideological base from which to attack the workers. The calm — sometimes indolence — of his exterior concealed a steely resolve which was pitted against the working class in their resistance to the lowering of their wages during the slump. Baldwin has an assured place in the history of class conflict through his handling of the General Strike, when he contemptuously outgeneralled the TUC and then sat back to contemplate the miners being starved into submission. There was cruel suffering for those people, for their children, their families and for the communities where they lived. Baldwin was unmoved; in his ideal scheme of social things there was a place for the workers — but they should know this and keep to it.

A more compassionate — if at times equally indolent — public face was worn by one of Baldwin’s successors, Harold Macmillan, who seemed to regard strikes as a personal affront to his ideal of a united, co-operative, unruffled country in which profits for the ruling class came out in a constant, tranquil flow. Macmillan was always ready to speak on the theme of there being One Nation, which was only to be expected because he owned rather more of the Nation than any of the people he was recommending it to. Now in his declining years, the ex-Prime minister occasionally grumbles that the policies of this government are another affront to his ideal, that they do nothing to promote the prime deceit of One Nation. His words should carry some weight, especially with Tories sitting on a slim majority, for Macmillan knew a thing or two about persuading the working class to vote his way.

If Macmillan were placed in parliament now he might well be among the wets, who are usually pleased to be known as Tories. There is a special irony in this because the Labour Party once used the word Tory as a term of abuse which implied a hard-faced Dickensian indifference to the plight of the poor. The Wets have reacted to this by trying to give the word a more charitable meaning. In the debate last July on the government's refusal to restore the 5 per cent cut in unemployment pay which they imposed in 1980 one outraged Wet, Richard Needham, said "... it is the basis of Tory philosophy that we help those who cannot help themselves" and he was supported by another Wet. Patrick Cormack: "... restore some traditional Toryism to the lobbies, and ensure that those people least able to look after themselves are looked after by us".

A Tory cast in just that mould is Ian Gilmour, who has carried his opposition to the Thatcher government to the extent of speaking at a Child Poverty Action Group fringe meeting at this year's conference. Now this was very bold of Gilmour, since those few Conservatives who have heard of the CPAG probably regard it as highly seditious in its work of highlighting the more extreme poverty among the working class. Well fed pigs are much more attractive and reassuring to look at than half starved children. Gilmour did not attend the meeting to congratulate or to defend the government; he demanded the restoration of the cut in unemployment benefit and larger payments for the unemployed. He is, of course, another very rich Tory — like the man with the bike and the beer he went to Eton - so it was strangely generous of him to worry about the unemployed being deprived of a pittance more each week. It is even more generous of the workers, whether they are unemployed or in an active exploitative state, to take such nonsense seriously.

In any case this government, as they never tire of telling us, are made of sterner stuff. They are unlikely to restore that cut; their resistance to wage claims will probably stay as firm as ever; their resolve to ease the path of British capitalism by forcing down workers’ living standards will not easily waver. And if the election results are any guide there is small prospect of the workers reacting against this. The same patience and optimism which was so effectively exploited by politicians like Baldwin and Macmillan — as well as by Labour leaders — is still there, still pulling in the votes, still keeping capitalism in being.

If the promises of those political leaders had any worth, we would now be living in secure prosperity; the problems which are so troublous now would simply not exist. Workers would be able to vote for parties who had fulfilled their pledges to organise capitalism into a benign, abundant society. But what has actually happened? In March the numbers of people living on Supplementary Benefit rose for the first time above 4 million. Supplementary Benefit was originally designed as a final safety net which would cradle those few people whose usual circumstances had pushed them through the other provisions of the Welfare State. It is now the everyday income which millions of desperate workers rely on to survive.

In April the Department of Health and Social Security (who are supposed to stop it happening) found that over 2 million people are living below the "poverty line" — below the level of existence on Supplementary Benefit which is itself barely enough to live on. That same month the Low Pay Unit and the Civil and Public Services Association reported that the outpacing of wages by price rises was hitting the lower paid particularly hard — that the poorer were getting poorer. There is little hope from the government that this will change. In August, Chancellor of the Exchequer Geoffrey Howe was warning that it will "take a long time” for unemployment to start to fall. There will be no less pressure on those workers who are in employment: in July the President of the Confederation of British Industry described as “bonkers” the idea that wage claims should attempt to compensate for price rises, so that “. . . we should get a bit more each year”.

As those with memories stretching beyond last week will recall, that was exactly the attitude of the last Labour government, who tried to get the workers to accept rises below the rate at which prices were going up. Now it is the policy carried out — or perhaps taken over would be a better term — by a Conservative government. In their efforts to protect the interests of the ruling class, every government is compelled to dispute with the workers over wages. From their point of view, the big problem of the post-war years was the high demand for labour power, which undermined every pay restraint policy, whatever name it went under. This situation was rapidly changing under the Callaghan government and as Labour went out of office unemployment had risen, and was still rising, and seemed likely to continue to do so. Coincident with the election of the Thatcher government the slump deepened and as unemployment has risen still further so the attack on workers' livelihoods has become particularly savage. At the Tory conference, it was the hard-liners, the people who openly express the intention of forcing the workers to suffer most acutely in this crisis, who got the standing ovations: the others won only a ripple of applause scattered among a stony, disapproving silence.

The political danger in this is that the workers are encouraged to blame the Conservatives — or perhaps the Dry Conservatives — for these problems and so to assume that a different party, or a different section of the Conservative Party, would be able to run things differently. Anger and despair at unemployment and extremes of poverty will become focused on the public figures of politicians like Thatcher and Tebbit who, although they do little enough to soften their Gradgrind image, are not responsible for the basic nature of capitalist society. A desire for revenge at the ballot box will obscure the memory that the problems existed under a Labour government and that all parties show themselves equally helpless in face of capitalism's waywardness and anarchy.