Sunday, September 11, 2016

Caught in the Act: Missing a stroke (1990)

The Caught in the Act column from the April 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

Missing a stroke
Forty years is a long time and anyone who hangs on in a job that long can expect to get a gold watch which they think is a reward but which is actually a stark reminder that in a commodity-producing society our lives are tyrannised by time, not least by the need to give our employers full value for our wages by never being late for work. A recent, rather different recruit to the ranks of the long-serving is Edward Heath, whose 40 years as an MP were celebrated, a touch ghoulishly. by a lunch at London's Savoy Hotel.

The 500-odd guests were presided over by Lord Home, whose brief and disastrous premiership more or less paved the way for someone with Heath's background to become Tory leader. But Home is not one to bear grudges; after all he is an aristocratic Scottish landowner who went to Eton and played cricket for Cambridge University. Perhaps because he had to claw his way up from his origins as the son of a humble shopkeeper in the tumbling Kentish seaside town of Broadstairs, Heath does bear grudges, which means that Margaret Thatcher's presence at his celebratory lunch could hardly have added to its warmth and gaiety.

Heath has never tried to hide his pique at Thatcher's victory over him in the Tory leadership election in 1975. From his regular seat in the Commons he glowers and simmers, a persistent critic of a government which in theory he should support. This causes much resentment among Tories who are more loyal— or more ambitious. Says Teddy Taylor, the MP for Southend who has upset quite a few people in his time, "he is just enjoying himself because the government is in trouble" Well Heath doesn't look as if he's enjoying himself; after all it must be pretty stressful for a politician to try to resurrect themselves in a form which history would hardly recognise. But yes. the Edward Heath of 1990 who mutters rebelliously about our poverty, the current economic crisis and Thatcher's head-on style of politics is the same man who was Prime Minister for over three years of muddle and conflict during the early 1970s.

Selsdon Man
In fact Heath was never really secure in the leadership for he was dogged by persistent doubts about whether he was sufficiently cunning to survive in the political jungle and to keep his party in the same state. His unexpected victory in the 1970 General Election meant that he was suddenly dominant in the Tory party—the more so because coming through all that internal enmity relieved him of the usual debts to supporters. Clearly, in his old age—he is 73—Heath has forgotten the policies he was pledged to when he came to power. The 1970 election had been preceded by the notorious mini-conference of Tory leaders at the Seldson Park Hotel, which marked the beginning of the end of 'liberal'' economics and the planning of an open assault on the trade unions' power. This was called the emergence of Selsdon Man. an atavistic being who would soon be swept into extinction by progressive votes. While the Labour Party chuckled Heath replaced "liberal" Edward Boyle as shadow Education Minister with Margaret Thatcher.

But the voters found Selsdon Man rather attractive and for a while after the Tory victory in 1970 he ruled with his theories about the market economy and worker/employer confrontation. It was the government's intention that there should be no more support for ailing industry; companies which were “lame ducks"—in other words, unprofitable—should not be kept going simply because they made something useful or because a locality depended on them for employment. They should be abandoned to die. The abolition of the Prices and Incomes Board set up by the Wilson government signalled that in future both sides in industrial disputes would be left to slug it out without any interference from the government (the Industrial Relations Act which became law in August 1970 did not count as government interference). The idea was that if the employers were thrown on to their own resources they would more keenly resist wage claims and this would eventually make British industry more efficient and competitive and profitable.

To some people this all sounded gloriously simple and intelligent—the kind of policy some Tories had been waiting for for a very long time. But as a rehearsal of Thatcherite politics it was a disaster, at times farcical. Heath's ambition to take on the unions foundered when the Industrial Relations Court did what Parliament had told them to do and imprisoned five dockers who refused to appear before them. Quite apart from the dock strike and other protests which this provoked, this was extremely embarrassing for the government who escaped from their predicament by discovering an obscure functionary called the Official Solicitor to challenge the court's decision. Having succeeded in this, an equally obscure person called a Tipstaff went along to Pentonville prison and knocked three times on the door—or whatever Tipstaffs do when they want a door to open to relieve a government of an embarrassing blunder—and got the dockers released. Whereupon the Industrial Relations Court subsided into death.

Even more farcical were the government's attempts at controlling the economy—at one time tightening the screw, at another time loosening it only to frantically tighten it again. A recession came rumbling in. unemployment rose towards the million mark and prices—which Heath had said could be reduced "at a stroke" continued to rise The panic at Westminster became obvious for all to see when the government performed its U-turn, implementing policies which it had so recently opposed on the argument that they were destructive of the economy of British capitalism. Huge sums of money were made available to industry in investment grants with two world- class lame ducks—Rolls Royce and Upper Clyde Shipbuilders—being especially grateful to be allowed to walk again. A statutory restriction on prices and incomes was introduced and a Price Commission and a Pay Board were set up to ensure the government intervention in pay negotiations which Heath had said had been so damaging.

Three Day Week
The curtain began to come down on this rollicking farce with the Yom Kippur War and the Arab oil states making hay while their skies were unclouded by competition from the North Sea, restricting production and hiking up the price of what exports they allowed. For British industry the crisis was aggravated by their deliberate policy of relying on oil rather than coal, which was always under threat from those nasty disruptive miners . . .  At the end of 1973 the government were in conflict with, apart from the miners, the electricity supply workers and the train drivers. Their response was the measure for which Heath will always be remembered: the Three Day Week and its restrictions on power consumption. As a way out, Heath chose to fight a General Election on the theme of Who Runs Britain—the Unions or the Elected Government? His defeat was by the narrowest of margins but. more importantly, his most cherished policies, through which he was to go down in history as the Saviour of the Nation, had been ignominiously abandoned.

No one can argue with Heath about the waste of the past ten years except that there is nothing better to say about his own time in power, which exposed his claim to be able, not only to control capitalism but to do it At A Stroke.

Poll Tax battles (1990)

Editorial from the April 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

As the time for the first payment of the Poll Tax in England and Wales approaches, the battle of words that has been going on for the last couple of years about the government's decision to impose this in place of the existing system of local rates is reaching a crescendo.

Though there are new features, this battle is a continuation of the century-long struggles by sections of the propertied class to pass the burden of rates and taxes on to some other sections. For instance, there was the campaign of the landowners to secure full or partial exemption from rates for agricultural land which went on throughout the 19th century. As local rates fell heavily on them they also pressed for some items of local expenditure to be transferred to central government. This is again being proposed today with one Tory MP for a rural constituency saying that the government could greatly reduce the amount of the Poll Tax and therefore its unpopularity by more such transfers (The Times, 17 January). Other group interests obtained reduced rates for industrial and transport companies and for offices and shops.

As the cost of central and local government has increased enormously (in relation to total production it is now more than five times what it was a hundred years ago) this struggle between sections of the propertied class has intensified. And, as the workers now have a clear majority of votes in local and parliamentary elections, so have the efforts to persuade them that their interests are involved in the question of rates and taxes.

We have always urged workers to resist such efforts. As we wrote in 1912: ‘‘Right through the history of taxation the spectacle has been seen of one section of the propertied class trying to shift the burden of taxation on to another section, and the question in many minds is . . . Can they shift it on to the working class?' We answer no! The working class does not own property. They exist alone by selling their energy (their power to labour) to the employing class the owners of the means of production" (Socialist Standard, March 1912).

The economist David Ricardo wrote in 1817 that “a tax on wages is wholly a tax on profits". Adam Smith had presented the argument earlier still, in his Wealth of Nations (1776). Smith showed that if, in given market conditions, an employer could only get the workers he needed by payment of £100 a week before a tax on wages was introduced, he would have to pay a wage sufficiently larger to leave £100 a week take-home pay after the tax was imposed.

The ability of workers to maintain or improve their standard of living does not depend on whether taxes or rates (or prices or interest rates, for that matter) are rising or falling. The standard of living of the working class depends on their ability to get employment, on the amount of their wages and salaries, and on the level of expenditures they have to meet.

Material improvements of the standard of living can be gained by effectively organised workers during periods when production, sales and profits are all rising, as has taken place in the last eight years where wages have steadily risen more than prices (this despite the continued protests of government ministers). When the next depression approaches and profits fall sharply, the resistance of employers to wage claims will strengthen and the recent rate of increase of wages will be halted.

Under the new system of local government finance introduced by the Tories to replace the rates nearly all individuals over 18 will have to pay a local poll tax at full or reduced rates, and business ratepayers will pay a standard business rate. How the working class will fare will depend as in the past on conditions in the labour market, and not on whether those opposed to the Poll Tax succeed in preventing it being implemented or in getting it repealed or replaced by some other local tax. What we said in 1912 is just as relevant today: ‘‘The working class, therefore, should not waste their time seeking lower rates and taxes. The question for them is How long shall the slavery and robbery of our class continue?"'

Sting in the Tail: Spare Parts For Sale (1990)

The Sting in the Tail column from the March 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

Spare Parts For Sale
Those who take the view that profit has nothing to do with health must have been startled by the reports of the General Medical Council hearing on the "kidneys-for-sale" allegations.

Four doctors were in the dock accused of serious professional misconduct. They were charged with buying kidneys from four Turkish donors for use in transplant operations.

The defence produced Geoffrey Alderman, Professor of Politics and Contemporary History at Holloway and Bedford College. University of London, who told the hearing: "I think it should be open to living donors to give or sell their kidneys."

The report in The Independent (18 January) stated:
  He claimed the decision to give a kidney would always be an altruistic one even if money was received. "No money could compensate for the loss of a kidney".
  Nor should arguments about exploiting the poor prevent the sale of kidneys, he said. "In a liberal democracy there are bound to be inequalities. This is the way of the world".
The professor's “liberal democracy" is of course really capitalism. Inside capitalism everything is for sale. We leave the reader to judge the "altruistic" nature of poverty-stricken desperate workers selling vital organs, and the "inequalities" that let people die because they are too poor to buy a life saving transplant.

As far as capitalism is concerned "this is the way of the world". As far as socialists are concerned it is time we got rid of the whole rotten system.

Caring Capitalism
From time to time we hear from the government that they care about the plight of the poor, the ill and the handicapped.

They point to such things as attendance allowance for those who look after terminally ill people.

A report in The Independent of 23 January 1990 illustrates what this "caring" amounts to in practice.
  But Community doctors at University College and Middlesex School of Medicine argue that many ill people die before their carers receive the allowance because of a six month qualifying period.
  Dr. Irene Higginson and colleagues discovered from records of nearly 500 cancer patients who were sufficiently disabled for their carers to be able to claim, that 92.8 per cent died within three months and 98.8 per cent within six.
Some "caring" - some system!

After Dinner Waffle
The Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd recently visited East Berlin. After a very good dinner he gave his host the East German Foreign Secretary the benefit of his views on free elections.

It was all very impressive stuff - dealing as it did with fair access to the media for all political parties. It must have been a very good dinner indeed for according to The Independent (23 January) he said:
  For in order to hold legitimate and successful free elections it Is not enough to assert a principle or even to fix a date. There have to be rules of fair and open administration of elections.
  There has to be equity in the opportunities open to the political parties. There has to be fair access to press, radio and television.
We applaud Mr. Hurd's sentiments, but we fear it was just another of those empty after dinner speeches much loved by politicians.

He surely doesn’t mean that in Britain at the next election the Socialist Party will have equity of access to the press, radio and TV.

This Gun for Hire
The fall of the dictatorships in Eastern Europe has not been greeted by universal joy. One group who are less than thrilled are the former spies and secret police who now face unemployment.

A number of Middle East regimes have started recruiting these security experts, thrown on the scrapheap by recent events. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria and Israel are now recruiting this pool of spooks, spies and thugs.

The Saudi intelligence chief, Turki Bin-Faisai is reported as having a 3 million dollar budget to start hiring secret agents, it says a lot for the "freedom and democracy" so beloved by the media, that every government in the world has a secret police.

Big Burger Business
27,000 people applied for a job in the latest McDonald's fast food restaurant according to Time magazine (February 5).

The American culinary empire - which some say has more to do with gastro-enteritis than gastronomy - already stretches from Seattle to Singapore. The newest offering, besides being the largest in the company's 11,300 chain, is also the first of 20 planned outlets in a $50 million deal that took 14 years of negotiation and which will see Big Mac boldly going where no burger has gone before.

Meanwhile, the lucky 605 youngsters chosen for exploitation at wages of S2.40 an hour are busy learning how to say "have a nice day" with the appropriate ingratiating smile. They can also look forward to dressing up in silly hats and scurrying around at top speed. After all, fast food demands staff who're fast on their feet.

That should be no problem for the new starts according to George Cohon, President of the Canadian subsidiary of McDonald's.
"These kids win a lot of medals in the Olympics," he says. "We can train them to work in McDonald's"
So where is this new 700 seat restaurant? It's in Pushkin Square, Moscow, just a few streets from the Kremlin.

Is there anyone out there who still thinks capitalism isn't a world wide system?

Only Human
If you ever watch "The Money Programme" or "Business Daily" on TV you will see some of society's great men being interviewed.

They are industrialists, bankers and financiers. How assured and articulate they are. and how they seem to have all the answers to every question. Here, surely, are brilliant men whom workers should admire and regard with awe.

But are they really so brilliant? Many of them who were lionised only yesterday don’t look so clever now. For example Ernest Saunders, ex-chairman of Guinness, is in disgrace and awaiting trial on serious charges. Then there's Alan Bond, the Aussie who could do no wrong but whose vast financial empire now lies in ruins. And what about all those so-shrewd bankers who threw away billions by lending to countries the rest of us wouldn't have trusted with a fiver?

Now we learn that Ferranti was taken for £215 million by a con-man who sold them a dodgy American company. What does this make Ferranti’s chairman and board?

So all of these men are clearly as fallible as anyone else and probably owe their exalted status to a combination of ability, luck, having the right connections and, in many cases, not having been caught yet.

Between the Lines: MURDOVISION (1990)

The Between the Lines column from the March 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

Would you pay Rupert Murdoch to let you watch his cheap, shoddy Sky TV network? Most TV viewers in Britain have answered very clearly. They have refused to buy satellite dishes and show little sign of being prepared to give their money to Murdoch so that they can watch bad game shows and old movies. One year after the launch of Sky TV the enterprise has been a failure, reaching far less than its original target audience. Murdoch appeared on The Media Show (C4. 8pm. 3 February) to defend his TV network He appeared to be a man who not only owned The Sun but also read it, and it is clear that if the control of culture is to be left to money-worshipping billionaires like him the future looks pretty bleak. As the Australian controller of Sky TV explained, when asked whether he thought that the channel was a threat to media quality, after working on satellite TV for a year now. I don't think I know the meaning of the term quality" Quite so.

Notes In The Margin 1980-1990 (BBC2. 8.20pm. 1 February) was presented by Rosalind Coward. Her look back to the Eighties surveyed the growth of public concern about the environment. As a feminist, whose writings have tended to expose the claims of those who suggest that Nature determines what is normal. Coward has good reason to be cautious in the face of some of the current greenish noises about the need for humans to live in harmony with nature. She is not opposed to the principle of ecological balance Far from it. she seems to agree with the view of the Socialist Party that humans will only have a future if they see themselves as part of the environment rather than as its destructive masters. 

Coward's concern is about those people who have suggested that there is some kind of Nature—normally depicted as a person (Mother Nature) and as female—which humans must obey and that failure to obey Mother Nature means that we shall be punished. Coward showed the example of the advocates of so-called alternative health therapy who tell people that illness is a result of failing to have the right mental attitude to Nature. Therefore, if you have cancer it is because you have had the wrong attitude to living; if you adopt the right lifestyle Nature will be kind to you. This sort of eco-fascism. which suggests that Mother Nature is some kind of tyrannical and punitive goddess who will hurt those who fail to fall in line with Her laws, is dangerous nonsense. Of course, it is a material fact that if you live in conflict with your environment you will harm it as well as yourself, but Rosalind Coward was quite right to point out that it is idealistic self-deception to imagine that illness and mortality are the products of bad thinking. Certain radical Greens adopt a rather smug attitude concerning proper lifestyles. They leave out of account the material pressures upon millions of workers which leave them no option to live healthily. They also fail to see that much of what they imagine to be "natural" is only the norm in a society which puts money before people Coward did a good job in warning us of the philosophical baggage carried by many well-meaning greenish folk

We pointed out last month how TV played a key role in spreading ideas during the recent workers' upsurge in Eastern Europe It is interesting to note, in support of this claim, that when Azeri workers tried something similar, one of the first actions the Russian army took was to disable the TV station in Baku to stop it playing the role it had in Eastern Europe The Azeris were motivated by politically unsound nationalist sentiments, but once workers have the right ideas in their heads it will be just as well for Rupert Murdoch and his gang to book themselves a room reservation on the next space shuttle.
Steve Coleman

Who are the dreamers? (1990)

From the March 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

The world is crying out for change. Routinely, millions of children die each year of starvation while billionaires spare themselves no indulgence. Meanwhile, ever new weapons of death are produced for our "security". Yet people say that we socialists are utopian because we hold to the view that a new society is the only lasting solution to the mess we're in. and that this must be achieved democratically. Yes", they say. "the world is heading for disaster, but it's better to try to make smaller changes than go all out for socialism and perhaps change nothing",

We are called Utopians because we dare to suggest that we could run our lives in a much more harmonious way, instead of succumbing to the prevailing view that things must carry on more or less as they are. At root, the critics see socialism as just an idea, perhaps even a nice idea, but one that is not likely to materialise. From their perspective we are mad even to sketch out what a better society could be like and should limit ourselves to short-term changes such as bringing down interest rates, or getting rid of a certain type of missile, which might improve things— somehow.

Utopians and Socialists
Part of the confusion about the meaning of the term utopia comes from its first use in Thomas More's book of the same name The word is a pun: eu in Ancient Greek meaning "good". (o)u meaning no", and topos meaning “place". This definition implies that a utopia is a good place that doesn't exist, much like the land described in the Big Rock Candy Mountains. Many books other than More's have outlined utopias, the most famous socialist utopia being News from Nowhere by William Morns where he painted a picture of a classless. stateless, moneyless society, something like the one the Socialist Party is talking about. Many political books have utopian elements, features that the writer sees as desirable in a good" society. Even a book of Mrs Thatcher s speeches might have utopian elements in it, for some people.

There has been a tradition in socialist writing dating back to Marx and Engels of avoiding going into too much detail about what socialism would be like (although there was a great deal of agreement about socialism meaning a moneyless classless society). When Marx and Engels labelled earlier socialists (like Saint-Simon and Robert Owen) utopian, they simply meant that their ideas were before their time. Earlier socialists wanted a world of abundance and co-operation before there was a sufficient level of political consciousness and technology to support such a society: so the more completely plans of a new society were worked out in detail, the more they drifted into fantasies with no basis in the real world. It wasn't that Marx and Engels thought that you should never talk about what socialism was, but rather that talking about it made no difference until the other requirements had been met.

The idea of socialism stopped being utopian (in the sense of an unrealisable dream) for Marx and Engels once capitalism had developed sufficiently to allow the working class to become politically organised, and when the level of industrial technology brought the potential to produce an abundance of goods to meet everyone's needs. It is more than a hundred years since Marx's death and the advanced level of technology that now exists is a very real basis for a truly free and co-operative society. There's certainly nothing unreal about suggesting that we could organise a better world now. The real dreamers are those who refuse to describe the sort of society that they're after but rather muddle along hoping that this or that reform will somehow make the profit system behave humanely—something it has never done so far.

The Real Dreamers
So who is being unrealistic? Some people on the "Left" won't even say what socialism is, because they think that any account of a future society is a waste of time and that we should concern ourselves with present-day struggles. But unless you do talk about where you're going, how will you know when you've arrived? Others even try to convince themselves that socialism already exists in Russia or could be brought about by a Labour government twiddling with capitalism for a few years.

Some of those who accept the aim of socialism still argue that we must go through a "transitional society" which will only later lead to socialism. These "transitional societies" always seem to bear some resemblance to post-1917 Russia and look nothing at all like a truly liberated world society. Even Trotsky (who never stood for the society that we're working for) recognised how the reality of such a supposed transition in Russia dragged the name of socialism through the mud and gave people a wholly false idea of what a socialist society would be like. Workers today still feel that if this is socialism, then you can stick it.

Even so. despite this vilification of the term socialism, more and more people today recognise that the present system of production for profit makes our lives needlessly stressful and is ruining the planet. Given all this, the real dreamers are those who refuse to outline a viable social framework in which the routine catastrophes of capitalism will stop recurring month after month, year after year. It's naive not to say exactly how a better society will differ from the present one. The real Utopians are the people who won't even talk about utopias.

A Very Different Alternative
Socialism has never been tried. This is why we have a clear answer to those who say. "look what socialism is like in Poland or China". We can counter the nonsense of Thatcher who sees socialism as "a life of debilitating dependence on the state". Every day socialists balk at the terms “state socialism", "market socialism", "socialist France", or even "National Socialism”. All these assume a political spectrum that stretches only from so-called free market societies on the right to state control of industry on the left. Our ideas have nothing to do with these variations on a grey theme.

We support a very different alternative. We do not say that socialism is a democratic. moneyless world society just because it sounds nice. Our ideas are part of a political tradition which views these social conditions as the only viable framework for stopping the inevitable consequences of continued production for profit. Socialism takes the skills developed under capitalism and puts them to truly co-operative use for the first time. Our outline of socialism is no more than a description of the social conditions in which human talents can truly blossom.

Unless you do have a clear idea of socialism then anyone can claim it, defame it and say it doesn't work. And unless we keep the idea of working directly for a worldwide co-operative community on the agenda people will always be sidetracked by each month's new worry—armaments, starvation, disease, urban decay, or pollution. All of these are tragic, but trying to tackle them separately is to fight an ever more difficult battle. These problems are all part and parcel of the sort of society in which we live.

Almost a hundred years ago William Morris saw the dangers of treating the problems of capitalism separately by reforms and insisted on the need to work for a socialist society and nothing else. He argued, with Belfort Bax in Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome, that "it is essential that the ideal of the new society should always be kept before the eyes of the working classes, lest the continuity of the demands of the people should be broken, or lest they should be misdirected".

Since this time much sincere political effort has indeed been misdirected in attempting to deal with social problems by reforms Meanwhile the real enemy still wreaks havoc; more than ever the inhuman forces of capitalism dominate the world, throwing up ever new problems each day.

The rules of the game need to be changed from producing what makes a profit to producing what we need. At the moment time and resources are wasted on advertising, marketing, the financial systems and weapons while millions die because they don't have a few coins to pay for the food to fill their stomachs. A competitive society clearly does not meet real needs: by describing how socialism would operate we simply point out how our potential could be realised if we used current know-how in a different way. None of this is utopian in the unrealistic dream sense of the word. "We have the technology", as they used to say on TV.