Friday, April 28, 2017

Tactical Voting (1983)

Editorial from the May 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

Anyone who remembers the days of “consensus” politics, when Butskellism was rife in this country (which means when the Conservative and Labour parties made no secret of the fact that they were in basic agreement over the running of British capitalism) will be familiar with the slippery image of the floating voter. All manner of electoral bait was cast on the muddied waters to entice the floating voters into the net, as they moved shoal-like between the bed-rock support for the two big parties. Many dirty tricks disfigured the great angling contest between Labour and Tory, for the floater was in many cases considered to be crucial to the outcome of an election.

But all that was in the days of Macmillan, Gaitskell, Butler and the like; interest in the floating voter has declined and attention is given instead to the tactical voter, who is now said to be the deciding factor. There are contrasts between the two types. The floating voter could be an apathetic creature, liable to stay in its shell if the bait was not enticing enough to get it out to the polling station, while the tactical voter is essentially someone who votes. When the floating voter did vote, whether under inducement or threat, in the end it was for the party of its choice; the whole point about tactical voting is that it is for the party you don't really support.

In the famous Bermondsey by-election, for example. Labour supporters who were persuaded that Peter Tatchell stood little chance of winning might have voted for the SDP/Liberal Alliance candidate as the one most likely to keep the Tories out. This tactical vote would have been cast, even if the voter had been aware that the Alliance is a bunch of unprincipled opportunists.

Tactical voters try to be on the winning side, which means that they will be affected by preconceptions about the result. Electoral forecasts, then, are important; if Tatchell had looked likely to win in Bermondsey he should have attracted tactical votes rather than, as was the case, repulsed them. In that event many supporters of the Alliance, although they regarded Tatchell as a dangerous revolutionary (which he isn't) and the Labour Party as discredited and impotent (which it is) should have voted for him. In the past this process was known as a bandwagon which, as it gathers speed, picks up more and more people eager to be taken for a ride.

Although it seems to have been only recently discovered, tactical voting has been practised for a long time. Ever since the twenties the Labour and Conservative parties have argued that, as the Liberals could not hope to win an election, to vote for them was a waste; for tactical reasons. Liberals should vote Labour or Tory, even if they were opposed to those parties. This is not an argument about principle but about a squalid expediency. As the Liberals once suffered through the use of the tactical vote, it might be expected that they would be still opposed to its use now and would still be protesting that people should vote in accordance with their ideas; but now that they think the tactical vote is favouring them, the Liberals have no difficulty in accepting it.

Of course this is causing the Labour and Conservative parties a great deal of anguish and they are turning their ire on to the opinion polls on the assumption that, by forecasting the winner, they help to attract the tactical vote to that party and so to energise its bandwagon. A bruised Labour Party asserted that this happened in Bermondsey and one Labour MP — the ridiculous Doug Hoyle — wants to ban the polls from operating during the crucial period of an election. Hoyle sits on a thin majority having won a by-election almost as disastrous for his party as Bermondsey so it is natural that he should be anxious to find a picturesque excuse for Labour’s failures, to add to those which litter their history. A pollsters' conspiracy may now take its place alongside the bankers’ ramp, the economic blizzard and the winter of discontent.

Hoyle’s spluttering symbolised how seriously these matters are taken by the big parties whose business is to amass enough voters, whether sinking or floating, tactical or suicidal, to get them into power. None of them need be concerned about what the votes are based on — about what informs the voter who can be persuaded, during the brief couple of weeks of an election, to switch their support from one candidate to another. It is clear that no part in this is played by elements of political maturity or class consciousness or an awareness of the power of the vote to transform society.

Those votes are determined by inconsistency and opportunism and an ability to ignore the historical fact that it is useless to change from one of the capitalist parties to another. Workers in Britain have been swinging from Labour to Tory and back again since the twenties without producing any effect for the better; to add the SDP to the game will make no difference to its futility. All these parties represent the interests of the minority who own the means of life and they have no plans or intentions — or any conception — other than to run the social system in which that minority dominate through their ownership. They stand for the society which produces war, nuclear weapons, famine, poverty and disease alongside class privilege. They all stand for the decadence of capitalism and it matters not one whit if the vote swings from one to the other of them. The real issue is to get rid of capitalism.

This cannot be brought about through the crazy oscillations of the floating voter nor by the expedient manoeuvres of the tactical vote. It needs a stable political awareness that capitalism cannot be reformed out of its nature. A voter who has that knowledge does not drift or wriggle; they cannot be tempted to vote for any of the capitalist parties under the delusion that this is a useful thing to do because it keeps one of the others out or lets another in.

In contrast to the floaters and the tacticians there is the socialist, whose vote cannot be bought or manipulated or netted. Socialists vote on their knowledge, which means they use their vote to the limits of its awesome power to establish the society of freedom.

"The Prisoner" (Plaza) (1955)

Film Review from the June 1955 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Prisoner is based on Bridget Boland’s play of the same name which had a short run in London a few months ago. The play, which was one of the very few worthwhile serious plays shown in London in the past year or so, had two of the main characters in common with the film—Alec Guinness as the Cardinal and Wilfred Lawson as the warder. The interrogator, the other principal character, is played in the film by Jack Hawkins.

It is a story of a Cardinal in an iron curtain country who has fallen foul of the regime by his outspokenness. The authorities, however, are unable to merely arrest and liquidate him owing to his fame and popularity, and it is therefore necessary for them to extort from the prisoner a confession of crimes sufficient to discredit him and to ensure his fall from public favour. In the words of the interrogator: “You are a public monument and that monument must be—defaced.”

The story, then, deals with the efforts of the interrogator to discover the chink in the Cardinal’s armour that will enable him to break down his resistance and eventually bring about his public recantation and “confession.” The interrogation takes months and although the prisoner is subjected to no actual physical torture, his spirit is broken by solitary confinement, the complete absence of sunlight and other well-thought-out “psychological” methods of torture. Inevitably roe chink in the armour is discovered and exploited and the State triumphs, although the interrogator discovers in the process that he himself is not free from pity, and is bringing about his own destruction as much as the prisoner's. The interrogator's method of breaking the prisoners’ will (or “curing him” as the interrogator puts it) and the Cardinal’s struggles to thwart him make a fascinating, although horrifying, study.

Any other conclusion to the story would have been dishonest for, in fact, in the so-called “Communist peoples' democracies” the State has always triumphed.

Bridget Boland has also written the script for die film and, unfortunately, has been prevailed upon to embellish the severity of the play with some romantic interest and some other tiresome, Hollywoodesque, film conventions, presumably at the instance of the box-office experts. The action of the play took place completely in the interrogation room and in the prisoner's cell, but there are a number of outside episodes added to the film that are both distracting and pointless. For instance, there is the disjointed love story of one of the police-warders; then a young boy is shot by the police while chalking “ Freedom” signs on a wall; a gun-battle breaks out between troops and an armed man in a house; a subversive journalist is arrested in a cafe; and so on. The addition of these episodes ruins the original unity of the play, and makes the film crudely anti-Communist, sprawling and inconsequential. Less reprehensible, perhaps, is the addition of the Cardinal's arrest in the cathedral and the trial. Both are quite effective but again, add little to the unity and point of the original.

The political trials that have taken place in Russia and the other so-called “Communist” countries generally follow a consistent pattern. At the trial the accused generally gives an abject “confession”; admits to all his crimes; extolls the virtues of the leaders of the party; admits the complete wrongness of his thought and sometimes even demands that the maximum penalty be exacted for the benefit of the people he is confessing that he has betrayed! A few extracts from the accounts of some of these trials should be sufficient to demonstrate this.

Vishinsky: How is one to judge the articles and declarations which you wrote in 1933 and in which you expressed devotion to the Party? As deceit?
Kamenev: No, worse than deceit.
Vishinsky: Breach of faith?
Kamenev: Worse.
Vishinsky: Worse than deceit, worse than breach of faith. Do you find this word? Is it treachery?
Kamenev: You have said it.
Vishinsky: Zinoviev, do you confirm this?
Zinoviev: Yes.”
Trial of Traicho Kostov and others. (Bulgaria, 1949):— 
Kostov: “So I repeat, I plead guilty of nationalist deviation in relation to the Soviet Union, which deserves a most severe punishment”—and—“I must confess that my readiness to put myself at the disposal of the British Intelligence Service was due partly to my left-sectarian, Trotskyist convictions of the past as well as to my capitulation before the police in 1942 . . . "
Nikola Nachev at the same trial:—
“Citizen Judges, having fully realised my criminal and hostile activities, carried on by me against my Fatherland and the Bulgarian people, I have described these activities in my written depositions before the People’s Militia. I will now tell you about what I did and what I know, so that the criminal conspiracy in which I also participated may be revealed. . . .”
One could go on quoting indefinitely this kind of thing. No one in their right mind could accept these confessions as being genuine and it is impossible not to feel uneasy when thinking of the methods which must be resorted to in order to obtain them. George Orwell in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” has, perhaps, described these methods in their ultimate form. For example, when O'Brien is explaining to Winston Smith the methods and ideals of the party he says, “Shall I tell you why we have brought you here? To cure you! To make you sane! Will you understand, Winston, that no one whom we bring to this place ever leaves our hands uncured? We are not interested in those stupid crimes that you have committed. The Party is not interested in the overt act; the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them."

It is ironical to think that after thousands of years of human progress, a large part of the world's population exists without even those elementary freedoms that the workers in this country possess, but this in itself does not justify despair, for though tragic failures, the Berlin riots and the Vorkuta rising are two signs that the “Communist” dictatorships do show cracks.

However, to return to the film. It merits a visit in spite of its faults, not only because of the superb acting performances of the three principals, but also because it throws some light on one of the most remarkable social phenomena of our time:—the political trial.
Albert Ivimey



Back in the USSR (2003)

Book Review from the June 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard

Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the USSR. By Stephen A Resnick and Richard D. Wolff. Routledge, 2002

"The exploitation of workers”, the authors contend, “prevailed across the entire history of the USSR. When one kind of exploitative class structure was overthrown, another soon took its place . . . The 1917 revolution displaced private capitalism in industry but established an enduring state capitalism there instead”.

This is the sort of thing we say but, as the authors point out, how you regard(ed) the former USSR depends on your definition of class and exploitation. According to them, those in the Marxist tradition have used two different criteria for defining class: one based on property (legal ownership) and one based on power (actual control). The first view (embraced by the official ideologists of the former regime and the Trotskyists and by many in the old Labour Party) is that capitalist class society is abolished when legal private property rights over means of production vested in individuals are abolished and replaced by state ownership.

Although a classless society will have to involve the ending of such legal private property rights, it is clear, if only from the experience of Russia, that this is not enough. Nor is it really a Marxian approach since it emphasies what the law (formal property relations) says rather than looking at what the underlying productive relations actually were. Hence the alternative definition: that class is defined in relation to who actually controls access to and the use of means of production. On this, arguably more Marxian approach, where there is state ownership the question arises of who controls the state; those who do would, in practice if not in law, be the owners of the means of production.

This second is the approach we came to adopt, arguing that Russia was not, and never at any time since 1917 had been, a classless society but a class society in which the workers were exploited by an exclusive group that controlled the state. In fact, it is the approach adopted by nearly all those who argue that Russia was, or became, state capitalist.

But, as Resnick and Wolff point out, it still leaves open the question of what a classless, socialist (or communist, the same thing) society might be. Some who use this argument say that Russia would have been socialist (or become socialist) if only the state had been democratically controlled by the population or if only industries had been controlled and managed by those working in them. We don't take this view because, for us, common ownership of the means of production implies the disappearance of production for sale and with it of markets, prices, wages and money itself. If Russia had retained these but become democratic it would still have been capitalist, even though a democratic state capitalism or a worker-managed capitalism would be an unrealistic utopia.

Resnick and Wolff use this ambiguity to criticise not just the “property” theory (the Trotskyist nonsense about Russia having been a “degenerate workers' state” is an easy target) but also the “power” theory and to advance their own “surplus” theory of class: that class structure is determined by who appropriates and distributes the surplus produced at enterprise level. If it's not the direct producers then there's exploitation of them by another class; if it is the direct producers then that's communism. That right from 1917-18 the surpluses of enterprises were appropriated by state officials is the reason they give for saying that Russia always was state capitalist. (We say it was because commodity production, the wages system and money never disappeared.)

This theory raises a number of difficulties, the first being the definition of communism. Because Resnick and Wolff concentrate on what happens at enterprise level their argument leads to the conclusion that communism can exist at enterprise level. This is, in fact, their argument; which makes producer co-operatives the typical communist organisation. Insofar as communism is equated with any kind of “common ownership” then such co-operatives could be called “communist” since the co-operative's assets and products are commonly owned by its members. In fact, in their detailed economic history of the USSR between 1917 and 1990 that takes up most of the book, the only example of “communism” they identify in Russia are the collective farms set up in the 1930s, on the ground that, legally, the surplus they realised was not directly appropriated by state officials but belonged to the farmers as a collective group.

Traditionally, however, “communism” has meant a communist society, i.e., a whole social system based on the common ownership of the means of living and their democratic control by all the people (when we ourselves talk of “common ownership” this is to be taken as shorthand for common ownership of all the means of production by society).

Resnick and Wolff are prepared to consider “communism” existing above enterprise level, by for instance whole industries being commonly owned by those working in them and even (as a theoretical limiting case) of all industry being commonly owned by all productive workers. So that, for them, a fully communist society would be one in which all enterprises and all industries would be owned by those working in them, so that it would be the producers who would not only produce the surplus but also appropriate it (i.e., it would belong to them as soon as it was produced) and, even if through delegation either to professional managers or to state officials, decide its distribution.

Such a society would have more in common with what the co-operative movement and syndicalists used to envisage than with what we understand by socialism or communism, especially as Resnick and Wolff envisage buying and selling relationships existing between the various commonly-owned enterprises and industries. Thus they talk about “communist” markets and even “communist” value, surplus value, price and profit—enough to make our hair stand on end and conclude that they are not talking about communism or socialism in the original sense of a society in which all the means of production and distribution are commonly owned and democratically controlled by all the people. Since in such a society what was produced would also be commonly owned by everybody (or by nobody, the same thing from another angle), the question that would arise would not be how and where to sell it but how to distribute it through non-market mechanisms. Value, prices, profits, wages, money, etc are capitalist economic categories that won't exist in socialism.

That Resnick and Wolff are thinking in terms of an economic system based on capitalist economic categories is also evident from their treatment of productive labour, which is behind their workerist position that the surplus(-value) produced in an enterprise should belong only to that enterprise's “productive” workers to the exclusion of its “non-productive” workers such as its purchasing, sales, cleaning and guarding staff.

Here again, they are employing a concept that is relevant only to capitalism. Under capitalism a “productive” worker is a worker who produces surplus value. This is because the aim of capitalism is to maximise the amount of surplus value produced. Thus, for it, only workers whose labour is exchanged against capital (as opposed to being paid out of income) are productive. This does not mean that other workers, paid out of someone's income, are not productive in the broader (and more normal) sense of productive of use-values. A tailor employed by a landowner or a capitalist to make him a suit still produces a suit even if they don't produce surplus value. Similarly, a civil servant by his or her work still provides a service (even if in many cases one that is only useful under capitalism). Anyone who works, whether for an employer, on their own account or as a volunteer, is productive insofar as they produce something, whether an object or a service, that is in some way useful to somebody. All such workers are productive of use-values.

Since socialism (communism) will be a society that will produce wealth solely in the form of use-values then everybody who produces any use-value will be productive, and there will be no sense in trying to distinguish those who, if society were still capitalist, would have been regarded as producers of surplus value. And even less sense in placing such producers in a privileged position with regard to other producers by allowing them the first say in how products should be distributed. That wouldn't be democratic and it's not socialist either. Socialism, we insist, is the common ownership of the means for producing and distributing wealth (i.e., use-values) by and in the interest of the whole community (including non-producers such as the sick and the old).
Adam Buick

Don't Be Evil (2017)

The Pathfinders Column from the April 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
Google have been in trouble again lately, this time for 'allowing'  ads by governments and major companies to appear next to extremist and hate videos on YouTube, making it look as if the videos are being sponsored by the likes of HMG, M&S, the Guardian and others.
The problem, as Google readily admit, is that they don't know how to prevent this happening. So-called smart filtering software does exist, but it's unrealistic to expect it always to tell the difference between appropriate and inappropriate content, given that human opinions are often divided on the subject. Current estimates vary, but in 2014 YouTube stated that 300 hours of new material were being uploaded every minute to their site, so policing that volume of content is next to impossible. Nevertheless critics are wont to demand the moon on a stick and attack Google for not doing enough to keep their house in order.
At the same time, Google has also been criticised for censorship, usually when their automated efforts to police content go wrong. An Egyptian blogger's videos of vote-rigging and police brutality were removed in 2007. A video criticising sharia law in Britain and backed by the National Secular Society was taken down in 2008. There are hundreds of other complaints about Google being either dictatorial or drippily laissez-faire, depending on the individual point of view. And YouTube was  itself blocked in Pakistan for carrying videos criticising Islam, in Turkey for videos insulting national founder Kemal Atatürk, in Thailand for unflattering remarks against the royals, in the UK and Germany for music copyright infringement, in China, Iran and Turkmenistan in virtual perpetuity, and so on.
It's not just the videos that YouTube has been castigated for. Its policy of allowing comments has repeatedly been under fire for unleashing a barrage of inane bigotry. Time Magazine complained in 2006: "Some of the comments on YouTube make you weep for the future of humanity just for the spelling alone, never mind the obscenity and the naked hatred", and the Guardian in 2015 called it "a hotbed of infantile debate and unashamed ignorance" (Wikipedia). Google in 2013 decided to force viewers to create a Google+ account before they could post comments on videos, but this in turn attracted a storm of protest, even from one of YouTube's own co-founders.
This is all quite apart from controversies about aggressive tax avoidance, supposed manipulation over search results, source-code secrecy, abuse or appropriation of intellectual property, invasion of privacy and monopolistic practices. Having failed to live up to its founding motto 'Don't Be Evil' (what corporation wouldn't fail, though?), Google adopted a new motto in 2015: 'Do the right thing'. What this means is anybody's guess, but it's likely that Google won't live up to this motto either.
Google is valued at $133bn and its parent company Alphabet is listed by Forbes as the 27th largest company in the world, above IBM, General Motors, Gazprom, Intel, Boeing, Disney and Coca-Cola. Just as Uber, wriggling and writhing through its current worker-exploitation controversies by insisting it is a technology 'platform' not a taxi company, so Google aims to avoid government regulation by maintaining that it is a technology platform and not a media company (Google's crisis of confidence, BBC Online, 20 March). Whether it's allowed to get away with this in the future remains to be seen.
There is a degree of 'shoot the messenger' involved in all this. The internet has opened a hitherto unsuspected Pandora's Box of horrors including trolling, fraud, cyberbullying, revenge porn and general 'net rage' which reveals the crawling underbelly of capitalism in its harshest light. Young people, caught up in this ferocious storm of cruelty, have been driven to suicide. Pious pundits may wonder where all this rage and cruelty comes from, but socialists are not under any illusions. Happy people are not cruel. Anger runs through capitalism like 'Brighton' runs through a stick of rock. What people are angry about is the conditions they live under in capitalism, and the oppressive power relations that grind them down. Of course it's in the nature of power relations that you can't take your oppressor out into the street and punch his face in. So people vent their anonymous spite on each other instead, and then everybody blames Google for 'allowing' it all to happen. Maybe when they said 'Don't be evil' they didn't mean themselves.
What would Google and YouTube look like in socialism? Not that different, in some ways. But passwords and paywalls would be obsolete, to general relief, as would pop-up ads, banners and flashes, not to mention adware and spyware and porn links. Search results would tend to reflect genuinely popular sites, as they mostly now do, but without web developers having a money incentive to 'game' the rankings systems to promote bogus sites. But perhaps the most noticeable difference would be the disappearance of the obsessive cult of online secrecy, including the 'dark web', and the consequent freedom presently enjoyed by some in capitalism - the freedom to abuse, bully, libel, humiliate and torture someone, sometimes to death, while cosily wrapped in layers of anonymity, safe from discovery. That's not a freedom anyone will want in socialism.
Wiki Games
How accurate is Wikipedia? A recent study of Wikipedia produced a very interesting result. It turned out that Wikipedia's own army of 'bots' - autonomous editing and web maintenance programs - have been engaged in a relentless war with each other for at least a decade, changing and rechanging each other's edits, backwards and forwards, without let or quarter (Link.). As a study author put it, 'humans would have given up by now, but bots just go on forever'. Oddly, there is no entry in Wikipedia itself about its own bot wars, which might be an oversight or else a craven example of truth being the first casualty of war. At any rate, nobody's quite sure how this happened, or what to do about it. Says one researcher: "It is crucial to understand what could affect bot-bot interactions in order to design cooperative bots that can manage disagreement, avoid unproductive conflict, and fulfill their tasks in ways that are socially and ethically acceptable."
Quite so, and perhaps when they've managed that, they can start explaining it to humans.
PJS