Thursday, September 15, 2016

In the chair (1997)

The Greasy Pole column from the November 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Wonder Boy William Hague is determined to make some changes in the party into whose leadership he was suddenly catapulted after the events of 1 May. "The Conservative party that I lead", he wrote in the Sunday Times on 5 October, “will be broad where it was narrow, young where it was old. caring where it was arrogant". Well he would say that, wouldn’t he? After the drubbing they got at the polls the Tories can hardly pretend that all is well with them, that there is no need to change anything, that they need only wait a while and the voters will obediently go back to supporting the Party of Gentlemen, the Natural Party of Government or however else it is known.

In any case Hague’s zeal to reform the party is a back-handed way of blaming their defeat onto his predecessor who apparently allowed the Tories to get narrow, old and arrogant. There is a snag to those tactics however. Why did Hague keep his enthusiasm for changing the Conservative Party in check for so long? Why didn’t he go for modernising it before the election, when he was busily playing his part along with all the other leaders telling us what a wonderful party they were and how lucky we were to have the chance of returning them to power yet again? It is rather late now. after the votes have been counted, to tell us that "the electorate believed we were arrogant and out of touch . . we were divided among ourselves . . . they questioned motives and sometimes our competence”.

One of Hague’s first acts, in this great age of reform was to appoint a new chairman of the party. Now this is not a job which invariably brings success and widespread esteem in the party. In fact some of the people to have held it in recent times have been, by the cynical standards of politics, disastrous flops. There was Norman Tebbit, whose reputation as chief organiser at Tory Central Office was not exactly glowing and who spent much of his time in the job locked in dispute with his deputy. David Young. There was Selwyn Gummer, whose inadequacies were the subject of widespread complaint, including among the 1922 Committee. The Major era brought in Jeremy Hanley, who quickly became famous for his hilarious gaffes, like describing a huge punch-up among the audience at a boxing match as over-exuberance. Hanley was followed by Brian Mawhinney. who is a doctor although not one you would be comfortable to have operating on you. Mawhinney’s arrogance went with an overbearing, browbeating attitude to his staff and a monumental incompetence in dealing with—by which we mean explaining away—the many crises which afflicted the Major government. Of course when he did try to explain them away he did not help matters by smiling—if that was what it was—like a piranha who has not had a square meal for a while. Inextricably linked as he was to the Tory collapse in May. Mawhinney had to be prised away from the chairmanship. He is now Shadow Home Secretary—which has probably converted thousands of prisoners, prison governors and prison officers to ardent Labour voters. So who should replace him? Well Hague was intending to make his party younger, fresher, looking to a rosy future untainted by a wretched past. So he chose Cecil Parkinson.

"Cecil who?" may have been the reaction of many of the young people Hague is hoping to attract to the Tory party, when the news broke about the new chairman. Well this Cecil once seemed to be surging irresistibly towards the Tory leadership and to being Prime Minister. In his entire life Parkinson made not a single mistake, nor a mis-judgement, nor was he ever responsible for any mean or selfish or underhand behaviour. He was. simply, immaculate—or at least that is the impression he gives in his autobiography.

Even the town he grew up in— Carnforth in Lancashire—was "surrounded by beautiful countryside . . .  almost totally devoid of pretentiousness and jealousy".There is the small problem about the young Parkinson being an active member of the Labour Party League of Youth, an enthusiastic admirer of Stalinist Russia and, when he was doing his National Service, "virtually a pacifist”. But these are glossed over as surprising rather than damaging. In any case it turned out alright in the end because young Parkinson saw the error of his ways in time to shin up the greasy pole of Tory politics, almost to the very top.

His climb was, in fact, almost what is now called seamless. At school he excelled in his studies and as an athlete. He went to Cambridge, did well as an accountant and then in the take-over business. In 1970 he was elected to Parliament, where his rise was again predictably smooth. It became rather faster when Parkinson caught Thatcher’s attention, until in 1981 she appointed him (no nonsense about elections) party chairman with a place in the Cabinet. In the 1983 election, when the so-called Falklands factor was supposed to have won another spell of power for the Tories, Parkinson was at the height of his powers, with even better to come.

Except that he had had an affair with his secretary Sara Keays, who was pregnant by him and who was expecting him to do something about his stated intention to divorce his wife and marry her. It all came out, in the most damaging way for Parkinson, when he tried to backpedal on his promise and Keays made it obvious that she would not take this lying down. (The affair gave her an opportunity to see how ruthless the party she supported and wanted to represent in Parliament, operates when it sees its facade of genteel integrity under threat.) Parkinson’s response to this was to pass over some money and turn his back on the matter. Keays is now hedged about by restrictions Parkinson has put in place. For example, it is not possible legally to publish anything about the condition or welfare of her— and Parkinson’s—child. Which may serve Parkinson’s interests and those of his party but does not fit in with his image as the clean, caring and responsible exemplar of Tory morality. Hague’s appointment of a sleazy has-been as his party chairman says a lot about the Tories and about the other parties of capitalism and about the system itself.

Away from it all (1997)

The TV Review from the December 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

As the market economy has developed into the globalised and highly productive beast it now is, so the ostensibly "non-productive" industries have grown. Not just money-changing and paper-bashing but the service industries and leisure. Workers in advanced capitalist states like Britain are now more likely to be directly employed in banking than building and in movement of people than mining of commodities. Just as virtually every university in the land has developed a huge department concerned with Business Studies, Marketing and Accountancy, so now no forward-looking university is without its Leisure Management courses. In recognition of this phenomenon, the type of workers who are very often the product of the latter have been the focus of two recent series on BBC 1—Hotel and Holiday Reps.

These fly-on-the-wall documentaries appear to have been an undeniable success for the BBC. The first, set in Liverpool’s exclusive Adelphi Hotel, has proved hugely popular with viewers and the second series about the exploits of a group of holiday representatives abroad has not been far behind. Both series should be watched carefully by any workers seeking excitement and escape from the humdrum and ordinary in the shape of the capitalist "leisure provision” industry.

Anyone who has spent time at Liverpool’s Adelphi is more likely than not to remember it with a degree of affection. Typical of the big city hotels which grew up earlier this century, it has retained an air of grandeur long lost by most of its competitors. Now just slightly frayed at the edges it still carries the reputation of luxury craved by others. It was and remains an hotel of extravagance in a city populated by the downtrodden and wretched, an hotel where the massive and ornate chandeliers in the Tea Room stand in stark and utter contrast to the bare light bulbs and broken windows of some of Britain’s worst slum housing less than 100 yards away.

But the BBC series has not essentially been about the hotel at all—its structure, its nature or its services. It has been about the poor bastards who have to work there. The very first episode, about Grand National day earlier this year when the IRA disrupted the proceedings and thereby inundated the Adelphi with those looking for overnight accommodation, was as good an illustration as is needed of the plight of those who work for Britannia Hotels.

Get a move on
It was on this day that many of its staff worked an eighteen-hour shift—’’all hands to the deck". Customers were charged £100 for the privilege of sleeping on a mattress on the floor in one of the function rooms and the last few genuine hotel rooms to be sold went to the highest bidders for astronomical amounts. Britannia must have made thousands from that one night alone. And the staff’s reward for all this effort, for the hassle encountered from the inevitably disgruntled customers, and for the bullying and intimidation meted out by the management? A £5 bonus, minus tax.

In this way the “new" economy of "new" Britain under "new" Labour reasserts its belief in traditional values. Profits first—wage and salary slaves at the back of the queue and no shoving, thank you very much.

For the holiday reps, thousands of miles away from the supposedly genteel Adelphi, things were not much better. For them the intimidation and exploitation was less obvious but no less real for all that. Just like marketing and advertising firms, travel companies are past masters at disguising reality. To a large extent, that is what they are actually about and how they make their money. It is therefore imperative that their representatives are as anodyne, unemotional and robotically "pleasant” as possible. It is another growing industry where insincerity is raised up to the level of an art form and genuine humanity is discouraged and dispensed with. The company comes first at all times and in all situations, and that translates into profit.

Travel companies like a certain type of employee. They are female, in their early 20s, usually blonde, and must have the innate ability to hold an antiseptic smile at all moments. Any regression from these high standards and the girls are out. It also helps if they can memorise large tracts of meaningless text which they are required to regurgitate to tourists at "welcome” meetings several times a day. They do, of course, have the advantage of doing this in balmy Lanzarote rather than cold and windy Liverpool but in every other respect they are no better off. The lure of a glamorous life abroad is soon put into perspective by the regimentation of their daily existence and £100 per week wages.

In making such apparently cynical comments as these your reviewer has the privilege of first-hand knowledge of both Lanzarote reps and the Liverpool Adelphi staff, but more importantly than either of these, a socialist perspective. Many people watching these programmes on BBC 1 will not have any of these advantages but the testament to both series is that after watching them most are unlikely to think of the leisure industry in quite the same way as they did before. If nothing else, they will at least be better informed about the methodologies of the relatively small group of people who own the tourism industry and of the stultifying existence of many of the workers who make their profits for them. And an awakening of public knowledge about that is certainly no bad thing.
Dave Perrin

Letters to the Editors: Socialist theatre criticism (1997)

Letters to the Editors from the December 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Editors,

Michael Gill is too kind by half to David Hare's latest commodity, Amy's View (August Socialist Standard). Far from moving any audience to the contemplation of important question as he claims, this piece of West End sentimentality, like much or most of the commercial literature we are subjected to. is very careful to keep any real questions out of the way—to restrict the kind of questions that might be asked. The question Michael Gill finds so powerful— why does the current generation of pop culture producers go for so much violence—is nowhere exposed to anything like a candid answer—for example, that violence is eminently marketable and that commercial culture is driven by the market. The play nowhere suggest that the penchant for violence is anything but a puzzling personal oddity. Like all his kind, Hare wants to place social conflicts purely in the realm of personal relations or the conflict of personal types. This is bourgeois culture's prime strategy for keeping publication discussion within safe limits.

Michael Gill’s approach here seems to be to give a bit of summary of the story, then a little bit of evaluation, followed by some musing on the socialist ideas the work seems to bring to mind for him. What’s needed in the case of the Hare play is some attention to how the work defines the arena of discourse, what it is designed to imply about social reality. I am not calling for either propaganda art or propaganda criticism: but we need commentary, and art. that gets behind or beneath the evasive "fundamental" propositions of facile commercial art like Hare’s, criticism that can break open the misleading framework too often accepted by the bourgeois artist, and allow audiences to propose, or to witness, genuinely meaningful questions—and answers that are not misleading. Work like Ronald Berry's, or, better. Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy are [works] superior to and more honest than market items like Amy’s View. I am asserting that a work of art can lie by the intellectual framework it situates itself in, and I am claiming that the socialist critic's job should include at least a glance at the conception of reality any given work seems to posit, and by example, promote. The artist need not be bound by socialist ideals, but neither should he or she be allowed to get away with bamboozling audiences with shallow “moral" dilemmas that are not even dilemmas.
Tom Jackson, 
Merion Station, 

The end of the State

Dear Editors,

Thank you for your reply (Socialist Standard, September) to my letter about the SPGB’s 1984 Conference resolution on the abolition of the State.

Since writing it. I’ve come across the following passage from the Socialist Standard of October 1937: "The SPGB agrees with Marx and Engels that, ‘with the disappearance of classes, there also disappears the necessity of armed repression or state power’ (Letter to Von Patten, on April l883).The state will, therefore, in due course ‘wither away”.’

Also, the following paragraph appeared in a 1978 SPGB statement on violence: "In the period of changeover, control of the armed forces would be continued for as long as necessary, in the light of conditions then existing. It has never been the Party’s case that simultaneously with gaining control, the armed forces would at once be wholly dismantled. (In Engels’s words, ‘The State is not ‘abolished’. It dies out’)". These statements are at odds with your reply that the traditional socialist view is that "The state will not ‘gradually decline’ after socialism is established, but the end of the state and the beginning of socialism will be simultaneous".

David Rolfe, 
London SWI5

We don't disagree with either of the two statements you quote.

It is a pity, though, that you didn’t make it clear that the first was given to refute a claim that the SPGB held that "the political state" would continue to exist in socialism.

When classes disappear so also disappears the need for the state as a public power of coercion resting ultimately on the ability to use armed force to impose the will of those who control it. As we put it in our reply, “socialism will be a stateless society, which follows from the fact that the state is an instrument of class rule while socialism will be a classless society and so have no place for such an instrument".There is no place in socialism for a state even a declining one.

We never said that "simultaneously with gaining control, the armed forces would at once be wholly dismantled". That would be an imprudent move on the part of a socialist majority which had just won control of the state through democratic means. It might not be evident straightaway that some pro-capitalist recalcitrant minority or some isolated groups of individuals might not to decide to take up arms to resist the democratically-expressed will of the majority to convert the means of production into common ownership under democratic control.

Hopefully this won’t occur, but how can we possibly know at this stage? Only when it was clear that this danger didn’t exist (or had been dealt with) would it be safe for the socialist majority to completely dismantle the state machine. In any event, once socialism had been established (once the means of production had been brought into common ownership) then the state, or what was left of public repressive powers, would be immediately abolished. This is what we meant by saying that "the end of the state and the beginning of socialism are simultaneous"; on the establishment of socialism the state is immediately abolished and does not continue into socialism and then "gradually decline". In fact, it can be said that as long as the state exists then socialism has not yet been established.

It is true that we would not now be so inclined to use the words "wither away" which is one translation of what Engels wrote in German. This suggests some quasi-natural and not necessarily rapid process. It does lend itself to interpretation as meaning “gradual decline”. This was probably Engels's own view but it is a decline he envisaged as taking place in the period between the winning of political power by a socialist majority and the establishment of socialism and not in socialism after it had been established. Engels, just as much as us. repudiated the idea that the state should continue into socialism and only then decline.

Engels and Marx did envisage a more or less lengthy period of transition between capitalism and socialism.This was understandable in the 1870s when the means of production were much less developed than they are now. Our view is that the "period of changeover” between capitalism and socialism can now be very short. All that is required today to bring the means of production into common ownership under democratic control is, on the one hand, a declaration that all property titles over means of production (stocks and shares, etc) are no longer valid and will no longer be enforced by the state and, on the other, the implementation of the precise arrangements for them to be democratically controlled. Such arrangements will have been worked out before the actual winning of political power by a socialist majority and would be able to be put into practice fairly rapidly after it.

This is why we prefer to use. in connection with the end of the state and its repressive organs, terms such as "dismantle”, “abolish” or "dissolve" which suggest an active intervention rather than "wither away”, “die out" and "decline” which can suggest a passive, gradual process.

Letters to the Editors: Democracy or nationalism? (1997)

Letters to the Editors from the September 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Editors,

In the May Socialist Standard you recommend to Kurdish workers that they struggle for democratic and trade-union rights, and not for a Kurdish state. Isn’t the right to speak and be educated in your own language a democratic right? Indeed isn’t a sovereign national assembly a democratic right? If socialists don’t oppose national oppression. I’m afraid "any hypothetical Kurdish-speaking socialists" will remain just that— hypothetical.

You support struggles for democratic rights but oppose all wars. This seems inconsistent. Suppose the workers in the Kurdish area of Iraq organise mass demonstrations for trade-union and democratic rights. Iraqi troops come out of the local garrisons to suppress them. However, the workers seize some weapons and fight back. At this point the struggle becomes civil war. The Kurdish workers defeat the local garrisons. Baghdad sends in reinforcements. The workers resist, and their peasant relatives join in. At this point the civil war becomes a national war. The Kurds are winning. Alarmed by this. Russia supplies more arms to the Iraqi state. The USA sees its chance and offers arms to the Kurdish workers, for its own reasons of course. The Kurdish workers accept the arms and use them to defend themselves. The struggle now has elements of inter-imperialist rivalry. All along the Kurdish workers have stuck to their guns and fought only for democratic and trade-union rights.

At which point do they lose the Socialist Party’s support, and why?
Ken MacLeod,
South Queensferry,
West Lothian

1. There is only one thing wrong with your elaborate scenario. It is built on sand as we never said what you say we did. What we recommended to Kurdish workers is what we recommend to workers everywhere: that they should struggle for Socialism, adding that "socialists in countries where political democracy does not exist should campaign . . . independently for this as well as campaigning for socialism". So. it is not a question of Socialists supporting others campaigning for political democracy but of Socialists themselves campaigning for this on their own and in fact in opposition to other political groups. The basic reason for this opposition is that the other parties campaigning for political democracy will be supporting capitalism while Socialists want Socialism. If and to the extent that any workers’ movement for democracy in some country follows or allows itself to be dominated by such parties, that is the point at which we criticise it. Your scenario is based on assuming that it is just this that happens since what you describe sounds more like a nationalist movement for "a sovereign national assembly" than a workers' movement for political democracy as such.

2. Yes, you could say that being able to speak and be educated in your own language is a "democratic right". In any event. Socialists are fully in favour of this and it will be a feature of socialist society.

3. No. "a sovereign national assembly" is not a necessity to achieve language rights. There are plenty of examples of minority language speakers having full rights to speak and be educated in their language within the boundaries of larger, existing states. Welsh in Britain is a case in point. Only nationalists argue that what is needed is an independent state but their aim is to exploit language and other differences for their own political end of establishing a new state in which they hope to become the new ruling class. Workers have no interest in going down that road. It leads, as in your scenario, to workers killing each other in the name of “the nation" and “democracy”.

4. Socialists do oppose national oppression (discrimination against some group on the basis of the language they speak or whatever). Our argument is that the only way to end this for all groups is through the establishment of socialism because, as we put it in our declaration of principles "the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex".

5. Finally, Socialists from the part of the world we are talking about are not as hypothetical as you think. We know socialists from the area whose mother tongue is Kurdish, Turkish, Arabic, Iranian, Armenian, Azerbaijani and will be pleased to supply on request to you, or anyone else interested, Socialist literature in Turkish and Arabic. What is hypothetical for the moment is not the existence of such Socialists but the existence of socialist parties operating in the various states of the region.

Dear Editors,

It has been claimed in a publication Socialist Studies that your party is now anarcho-socialist in outlook. This claim is based, in part, on a resolution at a Socialist Party conference that "This conference affirms that Socialism will entail the immediate abolition and not the gradual decline of the state". The charge appears to have some substance. At least, it is difficult to reconcile the conference resolution with the reference in your Declaration of Principles regarding the taking over of the machinery of government, and its conversion from an instrument of oppression into an agent of emancipation. Immediate abolition of the state precludes its conversion to anything.
David Rolfe,
London SWI5

The resolution you mention, as its terms show, clearly intended to repudiate the view that the state (as the coercive machinery of government) would continue into socialism and then gradually decline. It reaffirmed the traditional Socialist view that socialism will be a stateless society, which follows from the fact that the state is an instrument of class rule while socialism will be a classless society and so have no place for such an instrument. The state will not "gradually decline” after socialism is established, but the end of the state and the beginning of socialism will be simultaneous.

The question of how socialism will come about is a different one and was not addressed by the resolution. As you correctly point out. the Socialist Party holds that the way to establish socialism is through political action, i.e. through a socialist-minded majority winning control of the state and using it to abolish capitalism "by the conversion into the common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people".

This done—and we don't envisage this taking very long, so that terms such as "transitional period" and "gradual decline" are quite out of place—the state is dismantled. Its coercive elements are simply disbanded. The useful administrative elements, such as those concerned with health, housing, transport, education, etc. are made more democratic and retained as part of the non-coercive administrative machinery of socialism.

Love Doesn't Conquer All (1997)

Theatre Review from the August 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Amy's View by David Hare

In the early 1980s David Hare wrote a play called A Map of the World. A bleak, realistic piece its centre was a United Nations conference on poverty, which was taking place in a sumptuous hotel in India. The poor were literally dying of starvation on the doorstep, whilst inside the great and the good discussed food shortages with full stomachs in five-star luxury.

Hare's plays are consistently located in the here and now. And whilst other playwrights might focus on particular, and perhaps trivial, matters. Hare is concerned with the broad sweep of ideas and behaviours which mark out life at the present time. His characters are both true to themselves and also revealing of the spirit of the times. They are unique individuals who nevertheless have a symbolic function. What they say and do, and how they think and feel, tell us something both about themselves and also about people generally. Perhaps more than any other contemporary playwright Hare's plays offer us a map of the world; or at least a map of the so-called developed world. Amy's View (National Theatre. Lyttleton) is no exception.

It is 1979 and Amy brings her new boyfriend. Dominic, to visit her mother. Esme, a well-known actress. Amy's view of the world is simple; "You have to love people.You just have to love them." But Amy singularly fails to persuade mother and boyfriend of the virtues of this imperative, with almost predictable consequences. Over the years mother and boyfriend find reasons to fight, especially about television, films and the theatre. Others become enmeshed in their squabbles: by 1997 mother has become a victim of "the market", and boyfriend/ partner a beneficiary.

Hare is too knowing and complex a dramatist for easy analysis. Amy's View may be said to be about a strong mother and a loving daughter, about growing old. about the uncertainties of life, and so on. and to an extent this is the case. But more than this it is about living in the 1980s and 90s, and being exposed to particular features of life in capitalist Great Britain. And it is clearly a paean to the theatre and an attack on the dumb, gratuitous violence which is such a feature of modern filmmaking. Dominic has become a success by making some Tarantino-like blockbuster, and this prompts Esme's final outburst:
"I did see the film. I’m appalled by the violence. I know it's important to people like you. All that shooting and bloodshed. But I don't understand it . . .  It isn't as life is. Perhaps I’m just getting old. I'm tired of it. Dominic. This need you all have to get out the guns. and bam! And wham! And 'kill the little fucker' and 'shoot off his stupid bloody head'. What is it? What is this need you have now? What happened? Are you just bored? Or is it that you don’t dare deal with real experience . . .  with the things that really go on in real life? . . .  Like grief . . .  and betrayal . . .  and . . . "
The question hangs in the air. Hare, like all good dramatists is leaving work for the audience to do. Is cinema unredeemably lost—the Hollywood dream factory incapable of anything other than alienating violence, absurd fantasy, and empty whimsy? And if so, why is this? Socialists would have tentative "answers" to such questions based on their analysis of the capitalism and the function of "cultural products" in a capitalist society.

And socialists would also have answers to the other question which Hare leaves hanging in the air. Why is Amy’s view apparently flawed? Why isn't love enough? Socialists would argue that loving actions need to be informed by knowledge and insight. Young adults becoming parents for the first time recognise very quickly that if they are to love their offspring they need to know what best to do to keep their child healthy and happy. Loving a baby carries with it implications about adults making knowing decisions about what is good for children: decisions which are based on knowledge of what babies need in order to develop. More generally, if we care about people and their well-being, we will do what we can to meet their needs. This means being familiar with what is in their interests: what economic and social conditions are likely best to ensure their development as healthy and happy human beings. One way we can care about other people is by trying to help them understand the world in which they live, and how we might collectively change it so that it provides a more caring environment for us all. And one merit of Amy's View is that it faces the audience with such questions. Another is that it does so in ways which are always involving and entertaining, and which take the audience and its capacity for thought and reflection seriously.

Note: Hare's earlier play Skylight, which I discussed in last May’s Socialist Standard, has returned to the Vaudeville Theatre in London. Here is something very special: a play which resonates in the memory. One critic called it "the play of the decade". It's a plausible description.
Michael Gill

Rise and Fall (1998)

From the January 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

Part 1 of this article can be read here.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does society. As every political trend or moral code becomes outdated and is abandoned, another fills its place. The recession was a turning point where many of society's preoccupations changed. In the second of a two-part article we examine what's new.

Sociologist Ulrich Beck asserts that we are faced with "manufactured uncertainty" because of the growth of human knowledge. In other words, the more we learn, the more uncertain we become of our achievements. In the past we could rely on social institutions to provide us with some certainty. As these institutions--organised religion, the welfare state, trade unionism, the left/right divide, state capitalism--become increasingly dated or discredited, humanity has had to find a new moral framework.

So much of what we took for granted is in decline, but we are not heading towards anarchy. General government expenditure as a percentage of GDP has continued to increase since the 1950s. (Social Trends, 1996.) The programme of privatisation means the state has been receding in its more direct economic involvement since the 1980s, but at the same time it is increasingly reaching into areas of our lives previously left alone.

Throughout this century the state has played a role in trying to impose a moral code for society to compensate for the decline in institutionalised religion., but while religion offers supernatural explanations involving unknown powers, state-led morality is weaker because it comes directly from those with similar failings to our own trying to work with a system which can't fulfil our needs. We don't need to cast our minds too far back to remember the hypocrisy of the Conservatives espousing "family values" amid continual sex scandals. A stronger example of the state attempting to impose moral authority is the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (1994), which tightened up existing legislation concerning large public gatherings, police powers and the rights of travellers and police powers. More recently we have been introduced to zero tolerance zones, jobseeker contracts, increasing numbers of CCTV cameras and the possibility of identity cards. Since the late 1980s, concentration on individual behaviour and identity has overshadowed many wider issues of government and society.

When Tony Blair said that drug abuse was as important in Britain now as poverty had been in the past he encapsulated the way of thinking which now predominates. Today's assumption is that society itself is uncontrollable, and poverty, homelessness, crime and pollution are permanent, so all we can do is tackle the effects of these problems rather than their causes. In the past, governments have tried to give the impression that they are approaching problems at their source, even though history has proved them impotent. The emphasis today is not on how the individual can affect society, but how society affects the individual.

Increases in disposable income and the expansion of the mass media have meant that individuality is now more likely to be expressed through lifestyle choices than in any wide-ranging ideas, whether trade unionism, Christianity or politics. Any desire for social change has to be expressed through a collective mechanism, otherwise it is ignored or unfocused.

As a result the individualism of the 1980s has turned into the powerlessness of the 1990s. The supposed hallmark of the "Caring Nineties", that greed is no longer good, is only a convenient moral by-product of the recession. When material wealth is viewed as a reward for effort, then the attitude that wealth is destructive is more likely to lead to increased deprivation than a society where wealth is organised equally. Socialism is about wanting access to more and better, not accepting less and worse. In the early years of this decade the justification for reducing consumption was the threat of environmental destruction. But this particular ideology was a victim of the austere social and economic conditions which had created it.

The overriding feeling that society cannot be changed fundamentally has led to a proliferation of single-issue political parties, including the anti-abortion Pro-Life Alliance, the Referendum Party and, most successfully, Martin "anti-sleaze" Bell. Previously, such groups would have tried to influence one or more of the main parties. Now their opinion seems to be that the political system is so worthless it is best used to advertise a moral standpoint. They may be exercising a democratic right to attract support, but they show a dangerous lack of interest in wider political theories, of whatever kind.

The main political parties are leading this trend of simplification. The establishment of a Cabinet Consultative Committee (with Liberal Democrat participation) reflects Tony Blair's desire to "usher in a new era of politics" in which the government co-operates with other parties which share its views. In theory, the dynamic of politics is in the competition between differing parties to attract support. In Labour's new era the movement appears to be towards making the government as dominant as possible in parliament, leaving less room for parties representing opposing views. The first subject this particular unelected committee will discuss is electoral reform.

The possibility of a Lib-Lab pact against the dwindling Conservatives is evidence of a centrist consensus in parliament, rather than a one-party state. No major party now offers a distinct vision of the future, but instead aims to do its best within unambitious limits. The election campaign was based around promoting the "best" people, rather than the "best" political ideology. Since then, we have seen a number of measures concentrating on the image and behaviour of politicians. The ministerial code of conduct published on 31 July highlighted the government's mistrust of its own members. And the day before, the Blairs rubbed shoulders with their most image-friendly supporters, including Noel Gallagher of Oasis, Wallace and Gromit's animator Nick Park and Angus Deayton of Have I Got News For You.

In a way, this reflects an honesty not seen before in mainstream politics. The grip of the economic system is too tight to allow politicians much leeway, and the increasingly widespread perception of parliament as an unworkable technical process is a realisation of this. It is impossible for them to reform the governmental system to work for the benefit of the majority, so they find themselves trying to reform its image.

All the institutions in decline are based on appreciation of some sort of collective activity, while those rising to prominence encourage individualism. Activities or social structures which involve widespread interaction are being perceived as irresponsible or a threat. The Internet is a rare example of something which is both isolating and interactive and, undoubtedly, it is an excellent tool for streamlining global communication, but it has quickly gained a reputation as being an outlet for pornography reserved for computer geeks. While any scientific advance is open to question there is now less optimism about technology compared to the 1950s or late 1970s, despite the advances being made. The scientific developments grabbing the most headlines are those often perceived as amoral or unethical, such as sheep cloning or fertility treatments.

Even as western society moves away from recession, we still live in pessimistic times. The pre-millennial mood is that we have come too far for our own good. We find safety in nostalgia and risks in anything new. The fantastic achievements humanity has made in the realms of communications technology, space exploration, medical science and even in drama, music and the visual arts aren't celebrated enough. Humanity's view of itself has been tainted by a harsh economic and political system unable to keep up with our potential.
Mike Foster

These Foolish Things . . . . (1997)

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

Capitalism divides
Social differences have grown in Israel over the last 20 years, but in few places are they as visible as at Mevasseret Zion. There are in fact two communities living on top of each other. One is the old village with attractive single-storey houses where the original Jewish immigrants live.The other is a new township of luxury red- roofed villas in which live some of the richest members of Israel’s political and business elite . . . Israel vies with Ireland as one of the most inegalitarian of developed countries. The boom of the 1990s largely benefited the richest 20 percent. In last year’s general election this badly damaged the Israeli Labour party in the poorer towns and cities and helped Benjamin Netanyahu become Prime Minister. (Independent on Sunday, 20 July.)

That’s all right, then
[Gordon] Roddick asked [John Bird] to start the Big Issue, providing the initial funding of half a million, despite a feasibility study predicting that the magazine wouldn’t work. The circulation has grown from 30,000 to more than a million readers. There is now a separate Scottish edition and 10,000 authorised vendors across the country . . .  John Bird has been awarded an MBE for his efforts and also been criticised for making a profit out of homelessness. The Big Issue, the argument goes, is a business. If the massive problem of the homeless was ever solved, there would be no need for the magazine. “Of course I make money from homelessness,’’ he admits. “I believe in enlightened self-interest. I have been good for the Big Issue and homeless people because I’m part of the crisis” (The Herald, 26 July.)

Priests have no rights under employment law because they serve God and have no employer on earth, three Court of Appeal judges ruled yesterday.They dismissed an appeal by an Anglican curate, the Rev Dr Alex Coker, against an Employment Appeal Tribunal ruling barring him from taking his case of unfair dismissal before an industrial tribunal . . . The Bishop of Southwark, the Right Rev Roy Williamson, said: “I am delighted but not surprised at the judgement, confirming what we had always understood the law to state—that a curate is not an employee.” (Guardian, 12 July.)

It’s not over
The story of the last 200 years has been one of a struggle between capital and labour. Capital won. It is gradually becoming the most powerful influence on our lives, above that of governments . . . Mr Blair is jogging steadily, another few miles each morning, towards a new political settlement in Britain. This will entrench capitalism, reduce welfare, balance the budget. (Financial Times, 26 July.)

He could be right
“Our survival is only a question of 25, 50 or perhaps 100 years,” the oceanographer [Jacques Cousteau] warns in The Man, the Octopus and the Orchid. “It is absurd and dangerous for those who live in prosperity to think that the world economy is a cycle and that its riches will circulate for ever. Unrenewable resources are being squandered. Waste is building up. Valuable goods are vanishing while rubbish thrives.” M Cousteau, who won multiple honours for his scientific films and books from governments around the globe, attacks politicians, scientists and world leaders with particular venom. “They pocket the cash without looking ahead, writing cheques our descendants will pay for in the centuries to come. With their pesticides and pollution, their toxic discharges and the certainty of mutual destruction . . . the scientific experts have hidden the harsh reality: They will decide whether we live or die.” (Times, 21 June.)

How Exploitation Works (1997)

From the December 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Fall and Rise (1997)

From the December 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

The state of the economy doesn’t only affect the financial aspects of our lines—it strongly influences the mood of society and its politics. As Britain moves away from recession, the social institutions of the past are crumbling. In the first of a two-part article we examine what’s fallen.

Even before the 1980s had ended, the attitudes associated with it were being vilified by the media, government and big business. We had entered the “Caring Nineties”. We became concerned for the environment again, companies outwardly switched their attention to “customer service", and the government supposedly led a crusade for "traditional" morality.

The recession marked a turning point in the parallel histories of the economy and the political climate. After 1945 most advanced nations were in a stage of economic growth as they recovered from the effects of the war. Initially. Britain was in a stronger position than many of its neighbours; in 1948 it accounted for 42 percent of all west European exports. An optimistic economy, together with the continuing wartime trend of centralised planning, led to a consensus between the major parties which supported similar strategies, such as nationalisation and the creation of the welfare state.

When the economic upswing burnt itself out in the early 1970s there was a divergence of opinion on the best way of coping with the inevitable recession— whether to follow a right (less state) or left (more state) direction. To a much lesser extent this repeated the mood of the late 1920s when the slump created extremes in leadership strategy. Arguably, the peak in Britain of the divergence was the election of the Thatcherite government in 1979. But by the early 1990s, individualism and the free market had been blamed for the deepening recession at the same time as state capitalism collapsed in eastern Europe.

More people began to realise neither system was in the best interests of the majority. Defensive measures, such as "back to basics" and publicity of environmental damage, were in vogue among those wielding political and economic power. In hindsight, these could be interpreted as reactions against the changes in society’s outlook. As we move towards the next century we find the emergence of a "centre-right” consensus in mainstream politics, feeding on widespread disenchantment with the institutions of society.

The most obvious institutions in decline are the welfare state and nationalised services. It is common knowledge that the economy can no longer afford to subsidise structures such as the NHS and public transport networks to previous levels. But an institution can be anything which provides a social or moral framework, utilising science, organised religion and political ideology. In the 1990s the ability of all these institutions to maintain stability among those they affect (or affected) is clearly weakening. The recession has played a crucial role in these changes; the uncertainty it created has even impacted on faith in religion and science. In opposite ways, both aim to organise the world into some sort of order. When the uncontrollable economic forces of society are at their cruellest humanity comes to doubt its ability to organise the world at large, as well as itself.

Most importantly, the changing nature of employment in this decade has changed our outlook considerably. Nowadays, few people expect a "job for life" and more come to accept harsh employment (and unemployment) contracts, part-time jobs and temporary work.

In the nineteenth century the amount of labour involved in manufacturing and construction was rising compared to that in agriculture. All our major political ideologies were formed in this time, and therefore focused on the politics of production. The economic laws of society have remained unchanged, but the emphasis at the end of the twentieth century is completely different. There has been a tremendous increase in labour expended in services and white-collar professions (tertiary industries), while employment in industry is in [serious] decline. In 1993 69.8 percent of the employed workforce in Britain were engaged in the tertiary sector. In the year 2000 this figure is expected to rise to 73.7 percent. These trends have been progressing for decades—manufacturing employment has fallen virtually every year since 1971. (Labour Market and Skill Trends, I994/95.)

These trends directly influence a country’s politics. The 1990s has seen the demise of the traditional left/right divide, predated by a sharp decline in trade unionism. In 1981 there were 414 unions, but by 1993 there were only 254. This drop is partly due to mergers, but their overall decline in power is shown by the falling number of working days lost to labour disputes: 280,000 in 1994—the lowest yearly total since records began in 1891. (Social Trends. 1996.)

The Thatcherite government certainly contributed to this decline, but the shifts away from relatively secure employment to "flexible" tertiary employment are uncontrollable, and therefore more profound in the long term. Trade unionism and labour disputes have traditionally been strongest in the production industries. In the tertiary sector the relationship between worker and capital is disguised and the interchangeable roles of customer and worker are exaggerated.The union of the 1990s is less likely to concentrate on dangerous issues like wages or working conditions and more likely to focus on individual harassment or unfair treatment allegations. Even when an old-style protest is large enough to be of wider interest it tends to be ignored. A good example is the striking Liverpool dockers, who have had to survive without assistance from the TUC, the TGWU, the media and, particularly, the Labour Party.

New Labour's move away from trade unionism and its associated baggage was more than a realisation of the only way they could get elected. It was a concession to the changes in Britain’s distribution of employment. As such, they are more advanced than the majority of leftist parties who act as if production industries are like coiled springs held down by the government.

Wide-ranging political theories, particularly those of the left, are unpopular these days. The 1980s is remembered as a time when right-wing money-grabbing was dominant over left-wing state planning and welfare. While the recession supposedly made economic individualism unfashionable, political individualism is all the rage in 1990s Britain.

A MORI poll quoted in the Independent on Sunday (13 April) revealed only one in three young people believed voting in the general election would make a difference to society. This can be interpreted as a lack of faith in democracy itself, parliamentary democracy, the main parties, or more likely, a combination of each. Losing faith in leaders is a progressive step as long as that faith is then channelled into something more constructive. Many of those who aren’t apathetic have turned to direct action campaigns which attempt to work outside any wide democratic framework. The attitudes behind direct action were summed up by celebrity eco-warrior Swampy who when basking in the publicity surrounding his tunnel network said “do you think our vote’s going to give us much of a voice as we’ve got at the moment?" (Big Issue, 21-27 April.)

Many would argue that their lack of faith in existing political and social structures is a stance against the corruption and snobbery within them. But rather than change the institutions, people have tended to reject change and have become apathetic or anarchic.The result is a society which encourages individualism far more than in the "Greedy Eighties". Does anyone still remember the “Caring Nineties”?
Mike Foster

Same the world over (1997)

From the December 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

According to Marx and Engels, in their Communist Manifesto, society was developing in such a way that various classes that had existed were losing their historical importance and were being gradually replaced by a polarised class society, where a minority class own the wealth of society and the majority class own nothing but their ability to work.

History has vindicated this analysis, although listening to the Danish news recently, one would never guess this is the case. The reporter said, straight-faced, that class division in Denmark isn’t all that big compared with England. Quite what he meant wasn’t made clear, especially in the light of a report in the financial markets’ newsletter Børsens Nyhedsbrev which published a list of the richest people in Denmark.

The richest man is Arnold Marsk McKinney Møller. His wealth, which has doubled in the space of two years, amounts to 46 billion kroner (£5 billion). Number two in the list is the Lego toy king Kjeld Kristiansen, who has a “paltry” 20 billion kroner. If you want to get into the top fifty you must have wealth amounting to 460 million kroner (£50 million).

In another paper, the scribe wrote that Møller’s wealth was created by generations of hard work. Needless to say the article completely neglected to say whose hard work it was. Just for the sake of comparison, a university student gets 5000kr (£554) in university grants and loans a month. Less inequality? Surely some mistake?

Water, water, everywhere
A Kurdish friend showed me an article from Jyllands Posten (17 May) which was about Turkey’s "Günayadogu Anadolu Projesci" (GAP).

It isn’t just oil that is causing tensions to build in the Middle East, water is as well. The Turkish government initiated its ambitious GAP plan in 1984: the construction of reservoirs and twenty-two dams at a cost of some 370 billion Danish kroner. The idea behind GAP is to provide hydroelectric power and create 1.8 million hectares of arable land.

The dams are to be situated in south-east Turkey on the rivers Euphrates and Tigris, which also happen to feed Syria and Iraq. The major dam built to date is the Ataturk dam on the Euphrates. This has stopped the natural flow of sediments, and has resulted in the impoverishment of Syrian farm land. The amount of rich mud that is deposited when the Euphrates floods isn’t the same as before, and the farmers have had to move. One can only guess at the ecological consequences of the damming.

The PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party, so-called) was a minor nuisance to the Turkish government before GAP became a reality, and (yes, you guessed it) Syria has been only too happy to supply the PKK with weapons. In fact the PKK leader has his address in Damascus. The Syrian rulers are quite clearly using the PKK as pawns in a cynical manner.

What will happen in the future? Turkey lost a big market in the shape of Iraq as a result of UN sanctions in the wake of the Gulf War; Turkey’s rate of inflation is 80 percent per annum; the PKK "war” is using millions; and Syria has put objections to the UN in the hope that the UN will step in and stop the construction. One thing is certain though: just like in 1991 —where the issue was oil, and you can’t even drink that—workers’ lives are being expended for their rulers’ interests.
Graham C. Taylor

More promises in Washington (1997)

From the December 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

With a million more members than the Nation of Islam and with an alleged turnout for their recent “Gap in the Wall” gathering of 800,000, twice the attendance of Louis Farrakhan’s “Million Man March”, many take the Promise Keepers, the US's newest religious sect seriously.

In many ways, the 4 October Promise Keepers' “Gap in the Wall" gathering in the Washington Mall had the hallmarks of Farrakhan's MMM two years previously. The MMM had been largely black and male; the PK gathering was predominantly white and male. The former asked those in attendance to atone for their sins—as did the latter—and both were addressed by speakers spouting religious platitudes.

As in 1995, with Farrakhan, the PK speakers found social problem after problem rooted in the way men relate to their families. Indeed, the initial inspiration behind the formation of the PK was leader Bill McCartney's belief that his unfatherly behaviour was the reason his daughter got pregnant on a one-night-stand.

Again, just as the Nation of Islam has its unelected dictatorship, so too with the PK. One Humanist writer has observed "it is important to note that . . .  there is no democracy in this organisation. A small group of self-elected men in the Vineyard churches control the entire effort, including its theology, finances and personnel" (John M. Swomley, Sep/Oct 1997 issue).

The comparison with Nation of Islam is more poignantly highlighted still when one realises that both groups are homophobic and vehement anti-abortionists, stressing what they see as the important role the family plays in social harmony. For the writer Jewel van der Merwe. there is a more sinister parallel:
". . .  the large mass rallies, the exaltation of emotion over reason, the lack of doctrinal integrity, the taking of oaths, the focus on fatherland and fatherhood, the ecumenical inclusion of aberrant esoteric doctrines, bears a disconcerting similarity to an era which gave rise to one of the most dreadful events in history" (Humanist, Sep/Oct).
The most visible of the above is the subordination of reason to emotion. Just as hundreds of thousands of black Americans were hoodwinked into accepting Farrakhan's logic that they alone were responsible for drug abuse, crime and poverty, so too the Promise Keepers accept arguments where blame for macro problems is delegated down to the individual. The truth that society's ills can more easily be located in a wider social and economic context is never imparted to those who perhaps feel the pangs of alienation most intensely and are more desperate for a quick-fix solution.

That movements such as the Nation of Islam and the PK are very much part of the alienation process is what Noam Chomsky refers to as “a reflection of depoliticisation”. He argues that faced with:
". . . an inability to participate in a meaningful fashion in the political arena . . .  people will find some way of identifying themselves with others, taking part in something. If they don’t have the option of participation in labour unions, political organisations that actually function, they'll find other ways. Religious fundamentalism is a classic example” (Keeping the Rabble in Line—Interviews with David Barsamian, 1994, p.263).
And the US certainly has more than its fair share of fundamentalists. Recent studies reveal the impact the new breed of bible-bashers have: 75 percent of Americans believe in religious miracles: 40 percent that the world was created 6,000 years ago: 30 percent that the future can be interpreted by biblical prophecies with only 9 percent adhering to Darwinian explanations of evolution (quoted in Barsamian).

This is a climate the US power elite is keen to foster. Just as Clinton announced in his 1993 State of the Nation speech that “we can’t renew our country unless . . .  we are willing to join churches”, we can find businessmen making hefty donations to the fundamentalists and politicians adopting policies they know will attract them.

Contemplating the problem, Chomsky agrees that:
". . .  its goal is to make people as stupid and ignorant as possible, and also as passive and obedient as possible, while at the same time making them feel they are somehow moving towards a higher form of participation . . .  It also serves the crucial role of displacing attention from actual power” (quoted in Barsamian).
Although the PK has no dues- paying membership, its hierarchy has drawn up a list of Seven Promises the faithful must keep, inclusive of “honoring Jesus Christ", the pursuit of "vital relationships with other men, understanding that [he] needs brothers to help him keep promises", and the practice of "spiritual, moral, ethical and sexual purity".

The movement places emphasis on men returning to and embracing the family unit, taking a material and spiritual lead in the family, encouraging other men to come forward to discuss and share their problems—to shoulder the blame for the social breakdown that results from their broken marriages. Their stand on abortion is likewise rooted in their identification of it with violent crime and the rising prison population, as their July 1997 Promise Keepers News observed:
" . . .  the legal undermining of the sanctity of life . . .  represents a rejection of America’s two-century old tenet that mankind is made in God's image and is a repudiation of morality as a factor in court decisions.”
Swomley, in the Humanist, believes "there has never been sanctity of life in the US—not for Native Americans, black slaves, sweatshop workers, child labourers, wartime conscripts, unwanted immigrants and various others”. He contests that “sanctity of life” is not even a "biblical principle", with the bible describing children being killed for the sins of their fathers, adults killed for numerous violations of religious law and God ordering the destruction of thousands.

“Sexual impurity”, "lust”, "pornography”, “filth on the Internet” and so on permeate much PK thinking, but never to the extent that the “abomination” of homosexuality does, even though this is a sin that "God can cure". Bill McCartney’s homophobia borders on the fanatical with statements such as ”a group of people who don’t reproduce . . .  want to be compared to people who do reproduce”.

But social problems are no more the result of one man’s desire for another, a father’s absence from the home or a woman’s right to control her own reproduction than Farrakhan’s view that they are a product of the black male population’s alleged lack of morals.

Social problems arise from the way in which the world is at present organised. It is a world where the maxim “can’t pay, can’t have" permeates all aspects of life, determining individual responses. At root we can’t make lasting and beneficial changes to human behaviour until we change the social and economic system we call capitalism. Until they realise this, the Promise Keepers will only ever be part of the problem, not a key to the solution.
John Bissett

Labour's Traumatic Victory (1997)

The Greasy Pole column from the December 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

The next time we have a general election, would the voters please make sure they do not give the winning party such an overwhelming majority. We ask this out of concern for the sad plight of so many Labour MPs who, now that the early euphoric days after their victory have subsided into history, are miserably finding that they are not, after all, engaged in a happy crusade to Tony Blair’s New Britain. In fact a deadly ailment has invaded the government benches, striking down its victims with symptoms of confusion, depression and doubt, when once they knew only joy and certainty. This new sickness is known as Landslide Syndrome and it is caused by the huge majority given to Tony Blair’s party on 1 May.

Some of those MPs could hardly believe they had won; others that they had won with such majorities. They looked set for a decade in power. Everything seemed on course for a joyous, uninterrupted journey into widespread prosperity. Then along came a clutch of occupational psychologists to warn that they were experiencing the first stage of a “mental health roller-coaster”; the others would be disbelief and confusion—before recovery (although how that will come about, when Blairs government provides persistent evidence of its panicky inability to control capitalism, is something of a mystery).

Scarce seats
But apart from that the very size of Labour’s parliamentary squad has caused some problems. On a mundane level there is the fact that it is difficult for all of them to find seats on a day when the House is full. And anyone who thinks this is too trivial to concern people like our dynamic, cerebral parliamentary leaders should observe how jealously Members like Dennis Skinner and Edward Heath guard their traditional seats. In any case not being able to find somewhere to sit can only emphasise that an MP is not very important; after all the famous and influential are never left to scramble for somewhere to park themselves. In case any of the seatless MPs have missed the point, they have had their superfluity made obvious to them by the Labour whips arranging for batches of them to spend time away from Westminster, among their constituents. Of course this treatment is particularly humiliating for any MP who considers their talent to be such as to demand immediate promotion; being encouraged to show off to a few morose and bewildered party members is not as satisfying as a place on the Front Bench.

Which brings us to another aspect of the Landslide Syndrome—the fact that with so many MPs and limited number of ministerial jobs a lot of ambitious, self-opinionated politicians have been disappointed. This is a serious business; there are many accounts of the anguish, the jealousy, the back-stabbing, the tears, which mark the days when a new prime minister is making up a government. Such misery is bad enough at any time. When the House is swarming with government MPs, which makes the competition that much fiercer it can become desperate enough to wipe out the memory that they campaigned for election allegedly to service the interests of the voters and not their own wretched ambition.

Friendly tycoons
How these cynical twisters keep their hopes alive is their own affair. What is apparent to those who observe their antics is that Labour’s majority allows the government to regard any rebels in the ranks as dispensable, which means that Blair and his jolly band can exert extra pressure to conform—which the ambitious are only too eager to accept. At a meeting of MPs soon after the election Blair dealt with some restiveness by curtly informing them that they were not there to tell the government what to do. One report stated that MPs with beards had been quietly advised that the voters would prefer someone who was clean shaven.

None of this seems to have put the loyalty—if that is the right word—of those MPs under strain. Day-by-day the evidence emerges that not only is New Labour openly, proudly even, committed to trying to run British capitalism but that it does so in a style indistinguishable in even the smallest degree from the Tories. People like Blair and Gordon Brown spend a lot of time reassuring business tycoons of many kinds that they have nothing to fear—and much to gain—from the Labour government. On their part, the business people are eager to reassure Labour of their support, with their public statements and their not-so-public donations. The arrogance and dishonesty which went into the government’s handling of the affair of Bernie Ecclestone and the tobacco ads on Formula One cars must have left the ministers of Major’s government breathless with admiration.

All of this has been served up to us on a bed of sophistry and euphemism.We hear, for example, about the government taking "hard choices”— which does not mean deciding whether to give back Ecclestone’s millions but which way of attacking workers’ living standards is likely to lose the least votes. We are told that, on our behalf, the government is prepared to “think the unthinkable”— which does not mean taking a look at the basis of capitalist society and why it inexorably operates to the damage of human beings but how to chip away at some of the more traditional working-class defences against the most appalling poverty.

This is pretty traditional stuff for the Labour Party—the policy followed by the governments of Attlee, Wilson, Callaghan. Except that they used other words, other false prescriptions. New Labour is not really new; it just has a different style of deception in its presentation. The very term Landslide Syndrome is part of this. It is an impressively medical phrase, which is always useful to disguise a reality—in this case the onset of cynicism and confusion as the MPs contemplate a barren, futile future.

Artificial scarcity (1998)

From the April 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard
Technological capacity to produce enough to satisfy everyone's needs already exists globally and has done so for many decades. Yet needs continue to remain unmet on a massive scale. Why? Quite simply because scarcity is a functional requirement of capitalism itself.
Production today is not primarily geared to satisfy human needs but "effective demand"--when "consumers" are able to buy goods at a price which will enable enterprises producing them to realise a profit. If what people can afford falls short of what they need, increasing output to satisfy the latter would cause prices to fall--to the detriment of profit. So the need for profit conflicts with the satisfaction of human needs.
Profit is not essentially a measure of technical efficiency. It is sometimes argued that the market's "hidden hand" guides enterprises towards the most efficient allocation of resources by bankrupting those failing to respond appropriately to its price signals. According to this argument, resources are inherently scarce and the market provides the best, if not the only, available mechanism for ensuring they are not wasted (which would aggravate scarcity). But the yardstick of "efficiency" used here is not something external to capitalism but intrinsic to it. An enterprise is judged to be "efficient" to the extent that it is profitable.
That means its revenue exceeds its cost. However, this can create the illusion that profits are made in the market--by raising prices to more than cover costs. But capitalists cannot just arbitrarily raise their prices--that could mean losing business to their competitors. In any case, one enterprise's price increase would constitute another's cost increase (insofar as enterprises supply each other with the inputs they require), with the resulting reciprocal losses and gains balancing each other in the long run.
In fact, profits are made in the sphere of production (but only "realised" in the market). The source of all wealth is human labour applied to natural resources. Those who apply their labour to create this wealth today (the workers) are employed to do so by the owners of the means of wealth production (the capitalists). The value of the wealth workers create necessarily exceeds the value of their working abilities for which they are paid a wage (or salary)--the difference between these two values being "surplus value", the source of the capitalists' profit.
So profit depends on restricting workers' consumption to what is needed to develop and maintain their working abilities at the level required. More than that only adds to the wages bill without producing a commensurate increase in productivity. But what is so vital about profit that makes this necessary? Not only does it afford capitalists a lavish lifestyle; more importantly, it is the source of their capital. The more capital they can accumulate out of the profits accruing to them the more effectively can they compete--by investing in more productive technologies to undercut their competitors--and thus claim a larger share of the market for themselves. If they did not do this then their competitors would, and could knock them out of business.
So economic competition between enterprises fuels the drive towards capital accumulation. This in turn necessitates profit maximisation which expresses itself as a continuous downward pressure on wages (reinforced by competition between workers on the labour market), insofar as these constitute costs which subtract from the capitalists' profit. This downward pressure on wages was once widely thought by Leftists to lead to a chronic and ever-deepening depression. According to this theory of "underconsumption", the development of the productive forces would result in increasing quantities of consumer goods swamping the market which workers would be unable to buy back, thus precipitating capitalism's collapse.
However, any decline in the workers' share of total wealth must represent an increase in the share appropriated by the capitalists and hence also their potential demand for consumer goods. It might be argued that rather than increase their consumption of consumer goods the capitalists could divert more of their wealth into investment instead, thereby enhancing the productive capacity of industry. But since such investment will only proceed when there is the expectation of profit this presupposes the existence of consumer markets capable of absorbing the potential increase in output.
Nevertheless, while growth in productive capacity and market demands tend to balance out in the long run their normal state is one of "disequilibrium". This generates a continuous process of mutual adjustment which takes the form of the capitalist "trade cycle". In the run-up to a boom enterprises expand their productive capacity to meet the surge in market demand. However, blind competition between them leads to overproduction in some sectors of the economy at first, resulting in falling prices and a squeeze on profits. Workers are then laid off in these sectors thereby reducing their demand for the goods provided by other sectors. A ripple effect is thus created which takes its toll on an expanding range of industries resulting in a generalised recession which only comes to an end when the conditions for profitable production are restored. As Marx put it: "the last cause of all real crises always remains the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses as compared to the tendency of capitalist production to develop the productive forces in such a way that only the absolute power of consumption of the entire society would be their limit" (Capital III, p.30).
Artificial needs
As well as desiring things we need, we are also encouraged to desire things that we do not need. Indeed, insofar as there is theoretically no limit to what we are capable of desiring this allows pro-capitalist economists to argue that scarcity is the "condition of the world". To question why we should desire such things over and above what we need is to encroach on territory that falls beyond the scope of traditional economics; it is thus deemed inadmissible from the blinkered perspective of the economists themselves.
Not that that prevents them from adopting the assumption that human beings are fundamentally driven by insatiable desires. In fact, the attempt to universalise that assumption by grounding it in the very nature of human beings was, as Marshall Sahlins argues in his Stone Age Economics, the ideological by-product of an emerging bourgeois society. Not coincidentally, it went hand-in-hand with the attempt to downgrade and dismiss earlier cultures as "primitive" and "backward" for not exhibiting the insatiable desires characteristic of bourgeois society itself. As Sahlins points out, the bourgeois axiom of scarce resources and unlimited wants can be neatly reversed in the case of our hunter-gatherer forbears for whom an excess of possessions was not merely disapproved of but viewed as a positive encumbrance to their nomadic way of life.
It was with the appearance of private property, particularly in its individualistic capitalist form, that the ideology of scarcity took root. In his perceptive book To Have or To Be, Erich Fromm notes that private property derives from the Latin word privare meaning "to deprive of" because "the person or persons who own it are its sole masters, with full powers to deprive others of its use or enjoyment". It is such deprivation that engenders the pathological desire to possess. For within this individualistic world-view it is through one's possessions that one attains the power and freedom to be oneself; one's sense of self-identity and self-worth--in short, one's social status--is tied up with, and expressed through, one's possessions. This is what Fromm means by a "having" mode of existence as opposed to a "being" mode.
Crudely speaking, this means that the better-off one is materially speaking the more status one accrues. However, since it is not the absolute amount of one's material possessions as such that determines one's position in this status hierarchy but rather what one has compared with what others have, it follows that economic inequality is a basic precondition for such a system of status differentiation to effectively operate. In this respect, capitalism not only provides the yardstick by which this concept of status is measured but also works to ensure an unequal distribution of wealth, enabling such a system to operate.
So it does not matter how modest one's real needs may be or how easily they may be met; capitalism's "consumer culture" leads one to want more than one may materially need since what the individual desires is to enhance his or her status within this culture of consumerism and this is dependent upon acquiring more than others have got. But since others desire the same thing, the economic inequality inherent in a system of competitive capitalism must inevitably generate a pervasive sense of relative deprivation.
What this amounts to is a kind of institutionalised envy. This is ironic inasmuch as socialists are often accused of being motivated by the "politics of envy". Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, such envy is merely the flip side of the same coin as greed. And it is the idea of greed which underwrites the myth of scarcity which, in turn, serves to justify the existence of a market which socialists oppose.
Socially useless production
Socially useless production constitutes a large and growing proportion of economic activity within capitalism and, as such, contributes significantly to the perpetuation of artificial scarcity--in this case from the standpoint of supply rather than demand.
Of course, capitalism does not and cannot distinguish between socially useful and socially useless production. The reason for this is that both are functionally necessary for the realisation of profit. So for anyone not looking beyond the parameters of capitalism such a distinction will remain obscured.
If socially useful production comprises any form of activity that goes to satisfy real human needs, socially useless production represents any activity that does not satisfy such needs. The needs that the latter satisfies are the system's needs. These include not only status needs but operational needs arising from how the system operates. There is a tendency for capitalism to develop towards ever-increasing complexity with the consequence that over time its operational needs tend to soak up ever-larger quantities of resources and human labour. This is exemplified by the growth of money-based activities to facilitate market transactions (from banking to retailing), reactive/remedial activities to cope with the social problems thrown up by capitalism (from social workers to trade unions) and coercive activities to protect or promote the interests of capital (from weapons research to security firms).
Estimates vary as the proportion of total labour and resources devoted to systemic needs but there can be little doubt that, particularly in the advanced capitalist economies, well over half the total labour force is involved in one or other form of socially useless production. This represents a massive waste of human effort and resources which, if redirected towards socially useful production, could effectively eliminate scarcity as far as the satisfaction of real needs is concerned. To eliminate scarcity, however, requires a fundamental switch from production for profit to production for use--from capitalism to socialism.
Robin Cox