Monday, March 12, 2018

50 Years Ago: The Growing Unemployment (1972)

The 50 Years Ago column from the February 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

The present and future outlook of the working class is extremely gloomy—as gloomy as the murky London fog outside the writer’s window this Sunday afternoon. Prices are still in cloudland, whilst wages are falling rapidly. Unemployment engulfs a vast mass of the working class, whilst the movement for increased production (which in effect means both a lowering of wages and a lowering in the number of wage receivers) promises to further increase the workless army.

Looking at the matter casually, today it would appear that the main objective of the capitalist is increased production. A closer examination of the matter will easily dispose of this false idea.

What are the elements required to produce wealth today? Raw materials, machinery and labour-power of various degrees of skill. Is there any shortage of raw material? The earth is teeming with raw material, and the untapped resources are as relatively unlimited as the development of human ingenuity. Is there a shortage of machinery? There are numerous first-class manufactures of all classes of machinery working short-time for want of orders to execute. Is there a shortage of labour-power? The hundreds of thousands of unemployed of all degrees of skill searching anxiously, and so often, unavailingly for work can provide a complete answer to this question. Finally, the slowing down of production owing to overstocked markets is the overwhelming contradiction to the claims of the increased productionists.

The mere increase of production is not the objective of the capitalist; his main objective is the lowering of the cost of production.

The capitalist in competing for markets endeavours to undersell competitors by reducing the labour-time spent upon articles to a minimum (reducing the value of an article) and at the same time to obtain the maximum of surplus value by increasing the difference between what the worker receives and what he produces—increasing the amount of wealth a worker can produce and reducing the amount he receives, in other words, increasing the exploitation of the worker.

(From an unsigned article, “Hope Springs Infernal in the Workers Breast,” in the Socialist Standard February 1922.)

Joseph Chamberlain on the Functions of the Capitalist State. (1924)

From the April 1924 issue of the Socialist Standard
   “From the moment that we accepted and entered upon the duties of office our most important duty, our most absorbing care, has-been not the party legislation, which occupies probably the largest part of our public discussion, but the development and the maintenance of that vast agriculture, manufacture, and commercial enterprise upon which the welfare and even the existence of our great population depends. .  .  .  .  All the great offices of state are occupied with commercial affairs. The Foreign Office and the Colonial Office are chiefly engaged in finding new markets and —in defending old ones. The War Office and the Admiralty are mostly occupied in preparations for the defence of those markets and for the protection of our commerce. The Boards of Agriculture and of Trade are entirely concerned with those two great branches of industry. Even the Education Department bases its claim to the public money upon the necessity of keeping our people well to the front in the commercial competition which they have to sustain; and the Home Office finds the largest scope for its activity in the protection of life and health and in the promotion of the comfort, of the vast army of manual labourers who are engaged in those industries. Therefore it is not too much to say that commerce is the greatest of all political interests and that that Government deserves most the popular approval which does most to increase our trade and to settle it on a firm foundation.”
(From a speech to the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, 1896. Quoted by L. S. Woolf in Empire and Commerce in Africa, p. 7.)

Why Capitalism is Decadent (1997)

From the February 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard
Socialists refuse to be taken in by the assertions that capitalism is not only the most viable economic system possible but that it also represents continuous progress. After all, the evidence to the contrary is everywhere — inner-city nightmarish conditions, beggars in the streets, homelessness, increasing violence and drug abuse. . . .  and, of course, to deal with this 'progress', more police officers!
For most of the politicians, economists and historians this century, “the future” has been equated with progress. Even those who have never expressed a belief in the miraculous have invariably claimed that there has never been any reason to think that the future will bring anything other than development and advancement in the overall condition of the human species. While many have recognised that capitalism is not perfect, and have thus spent time trying to perfect it, they have never seriously countenanced an alternative to it because none seemed necessary or relevant. So long as capitalism is defended and emerges victorious, they have argued, humankind will prosper; thus to defend capitalism is to support progress. One historian—Francis Fukuyama—was so confident of the invincibility of capitalism as a progressive social system that a few years ago he pronounced that history had ended with the triumph of the world market and the rise of bourgeois liberal democracy, claiming that minor difficulties notwithstanding, human progress was assured.

While such an attitude has been the prevailing establishment view it has not always been held quite so enthusiastically by the rest of the population. It is, after all, the working class majority in society who have most direct contact with—and experience of—the system's inadequacies, being a subject class with little or no economic power. Today, the ruling class view of progress has less resonance among the working class the world over than perhaps ever before. Recent opinion polls in ‘advanced’ states like Britain have suggested that 60 per cent and more of the population now believe that the kind of world today’s children will inherit will be worse than their own generation inherited, apparently the highest number to take this view since records began. It is a view replicated in a great many industrialised countries let alone in the less developed ones and in the ‘Third World', where meaningful progress for the majority has long been a sick joke indeed.

Is progress still possible?
For our part as we watch the twentieth century draw to a close, socialists do not argue that progress is assured or that, contrariwise, we are all doomed. Socialists contend that lasting progress is possible for humankind—but only under certain conditions. These conditions do not appertain at the moment and most people are right to recognise this and right to question the traditional ruling class viewpoint they have been fed. They are right because we are no longer living in a society that is progressive in any real sense, but one that is reactionary or decadent.

In using the term ‘decadent' to describe modern society some explanation is necessary. Standard dictionary references to this term elicit the following definitions: “a state of decay”, “lacking in physical and moral vigour”, and “decline—especially in sexual morality”. To those most familiar with the word it probably conjures up visions of a society resembling something out of the Borgias or the hit musical set in 1920's Weimar Germany, Cabaret. In popular usage decadence, sexual licentiousness and moral decline are synonymous. For our purposes the wider definition of decadence being taken to refer to something in a state of decay, and existing without vigour, is the most useful.

For instance, over many decades—in fact about 100 years—socialists have argued that the type of society we live in today is decadent. Indeed, it is because we think that capitalism is decadent that we are politically organised to help bring about its overthrow. But that does not necessarily mean we contend that capitalism is drowning in an ocean of sexual immorality. Instead, we say capitalism is decadent because as a way of organising human affairs it is now outdated or obsolete.

To understand this it is necessary to briefly examine the socialist view of historical development, derived in the main from the pioneering work of the early socialists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. For without an understanding of the socialist view of social change it is impossible to fully comprehend why we say that capitalism is a decadent social system.

The key to history
During the last century Marx and Engels developed what is usually termed their Materialist Conception of History, an analytical tool which has since been used by socialists to explain historical events and social changes. 'The basis of Marx and Engels’ contention—derived from an investigation of past social changes and the forces that motivated them—was that society is not basically a static entity, changing only superficially, but is periodically subject to dynamic change and development. These changes are characterised chiefly by alterations in the way in which humans organise themselves to get what they need to live—food, clothing, housing, entertainment and so on.

The chattel slave society of Ancient Rome and the feudal society of the Middle Ages were organised on a very different basis to modern capitalist society, for example. Whereas once the dominant form of social organisation was for slaves to be physically owned and compelled to work for the benefit of their masters—often in appalling conditions—the inefficiency of this arrangement led at a later stage in human history to the development of feudalism, where feudal serfs worked part of the week for their own upkeep and livelihood and the rest for the feudal lord. Today we have capitalist society where there is still a class division between two main classes, the difference being that now the majority subject class ‘freely' sells its ability to work on a market in return for wages and salaries in order to live. Like in the other private property systems of Ancient society or feudalism, this subject class is still exploited by a dominant and unproductive class—in this case, the capitalists. However, the nature of social organisation has clearly changed.

Utilising Marx’s analysis, socialists contend that the motive force for such changes in society are the material forces of production. These chiefly consist of the instruments of production themselves (tools, machines, etc.) and the productive skills and knowledge at society’s disposal. In the last analysis, it is technological change which periodically revolutionises the productive skills and tools of society as humankind attempts to increase its power over production. But it is important to stress that this theory is not mere technological determinism—while technological change does tend to ultimately lead to major social change, it does not do so automatically, since humans make history. Any wider social change made necessary by technological development will only come about when struggled for by a group of humans—usually a new social class with a unique relationship to the means of living. Indeed, it is precisely the social grouping which comes to play the key organising role for the new productive methods as these methods are transformed by technological development, that will tend to emerge as the new dominant class in society. This grouping will not achieve dominance automatically and will have to struggle for this position by becoming conscious of its own interests and by then capturing political power from the old dominant class.

We argue that it is this scenario which broadly explains historical change through various social epochs. It explains, for instance, the demise of feudalism and the rise of the capitalist class and capitalist relations of production, and similarly it can be used to chart the decline of capitalism and the rise of the forces in society that have a class interest in its abolition and in the establishment of socialism.

Inventing history
The conditions which gave rise from the seventeenth century or so onwards to the capitalist mode of production—based on wage labour, market exchange and capital accumulation—have now clearly changed in an important way. This is because the role of the dominant class in society—the capitalists—has significantly altered. When the capitalist class emerged as the ruling class in society it was because they originally played a key technical role in the rise of the market economy as it superseded feudalism. Most people arc taught at school the stories of inventors and entrepreneurs such as Arkwright, Watt and others who played such a notable part in the development of the Industrial Revolution. In fact the view of the capitalist class as being the key innovators and inventors in society still persists to a degree, and was used by Margaret Thatcher among others as a form of modern-day justification for the free market It is, however, a view which is no longer to any significant extent supported by reality. Today, very few indeed of the richest men and women in the world have invented or introduced anything to hasten productive development. For every capitalist like Bill Gates of Microsoft there are many times more like the Duke of Westminster, George Soros or the Sultan of Brunei, who only work—if at all—at overseeing their finances.

This was a phenomenon noted in a work which was in many ways a fine application of the Materialist Conception of History, where Friedrich Engels argued in his Socialism: Utopian and Scientific that the transformation of industry and the means of distribution into large joint-stock companies, trusts and state property demonstrated the increasing irrelevance of the capitalist class regarding the management and development of society’s productive forces. He argued from the perspective of the late nineteenth century that as capitalism takes hold:
   "All the social functions of the capitalist are now performed by salaried employees. The capitalist has no further social function than that of pocketing dividends, tearing off coupons, and gambling on the stock exchange, where the different capitalists despoil one another of their capital. ”
In other words, as capitalism takes root, the more isolated and independent nature of human activity in feudalism is replaced by a huge network of socially interconnected production, initially spurred on by a class of entrepreneurs, but then sustained by the mass of the population who come to operate capitalist society from top to bottom, even performing the tasks that the capitalists once did themselves. The capitalist class achieve an economically privileged position in society, and do not have to work or directly involve themselves in the productive process any longer. Hence the key organisational role in society clearly passes from the class of capitalists to the wage and salary earning working class who create all the wealth, including the large part of it appropriated by the capitalists for their own purposes.

As capitalism develops in this way its fundamental contradiction becomes ever more apparent—a socially operated and highly interconnected means of living based on the collective effort of the majority on the one hand, private ownership of this means of living by a tiny parasitic minority on the other. Socialists argue that this fundamental contradiction of capitalism, from which much else follows, can only be solved by the replacement of the capitalist class’s private monopoly of the means of production and distribution by collective ownership by society as a whole—socialism.
(To be continued)
Dave Perrin

Exhibition Review: Robots (2018)

Exhibition Review from the March 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

Some of the earliest objects that could be considered as robots were constructed by the catholic church from around 1500. They were clockwork machines that, for instance, showed Jesus on the cross shedding drops of wooden blood. Most people had no idea how they worked and regarded them as being based on magic. Thus the machines demonstrated the power and authority of the church.

So begins an exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, on until the middle of April, which covers robots from the early days to the present and even the future. In medieval times anatomists described the human body as a complex machine, while clockwork models were used to show the movements of heavenly bodies. Later, automatons were built that performed actions such as dancing, and these enjoyed a golden age in the eighteenth century.

But it was in the last century that robots began to come into their own, with electric batteries used rather than clockwork. There is a section on cinematic representation of robots, including a replica of Maria from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, which is described as ‘the first blockbuster robot’. Industrial robots began to be used in factories from the 1960s, to carry out specific repetitive tasks, and for safety reasons they could not work with people.

There has been much technical progress in recent years, some of it exemplified in the displays. For instance, one company makes 3D-printed bionic hands that can be used not just by robots but also by people with amputations. Kaspar (developed at the University of Hertfordshire) can help children on the autism spectrum, for instance to read facial expressions and to feel less intimidated. Other examples included in the display are Baxter and YuMi, both of which can work alongside people. All this raises the problem of robots displacing human workers: a recent report (Guardian, 29 January) argues that up to a quarter of jobs in the northern UK could be replaced by robots by 2030, with Mansfield being the worst hit.

A question posed at the end of the exhibition we can lead to the reader to ponder: should robots be gender-neutral? 
Paul Bennett

Obituary: Bill Williams (1997)

Obituary from the February 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Bill joined the old Palmers Green branch in 1953, having moved to London from north Wales. From an early age he had been interested in science and technology, building his own reflecting telescope and even importing magazines on rocket technology from the USA during the Second World War!

He had been plagued by ill-health for most of his life, due to TB and aggravated by smoking, starting the habit years before it had been universally recognised as potentially dangerous. Although this limited his physical activity, as a car-owner he was able to act as "wheels" for branch members to carry out activities in the 50s and 60s.

His main profession was as a draughtsman in the Civil Service and he was active as a member in their union, DATA. It was at this time that, because of his gaunt appearance, he was known as "The Thin Man".

He was keenly interested in the UFO phenomenon and related subjects, but managed to keep his feet firmly on the ground as far as his materialist understanding of the world was concerned. During the 50s and 60s he took an active part in the theoretical investigation of crisis theory in political economy and in studying the emergence of civilisations in the ancient Near East. As far as he was able Bill was an active member of the branch, and his knowledge of scientific and technological developments was of much value in branch discussions and meetings.

When eventually his health prevented him from working, he was able to escape from wage slavery, in so far as not being beholden to an employer. This situation left him with a modest income. Even by the limitations imposed by capitalism Bill could not have been said to have lived his life to the full, choosing an abstemious existence rather than living for the day. He lived the last 20 years of his life with only one lung and had to be extremely careful about not infecting his remaining one. He was, however, able to attend the branch up to a few weeks before his death.
Julian Vein

Letters: Many tragic aspects of SLP history (1997)

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

Many tragic aspects of SLP history

Dear Editors,

In reviewing the TV series 1914-18, DAP asserts that the Socialist Labour Party "wavered before coming out against the conflict” (Socialist Standard, December). I presume by Socialist Labour Party DAP means those in the SDF who broke away in 1903 in opposition to Hyndman’s reformism, chauvinism and authoritarianism rather than the American organisation headed by DeLeon. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I can find no evidence to support DAP's allegation. Indeed, the SLP's paper The Socialist for September 1914 stated that the SLP was neither pro-British nor pro-German and that its enemy was the capitalists. As the slaughter progressed, a number of SLPers found themselves behind bars for opposing the war, while the police destroyed the SLP's printing press.

There were many tragic aspects to the SLP's history but its position on WWI was not one of them. What was tragic in my view was the failure of those who broke away from the SDF in 1903 to unite with those who broke away in 1904 for much the same reasons. True enough there were differences—the SLP emphasised the industrial struggle while the SPGB emphasised the political. But there were a host of similarities— opposition to reformism, the need for a democratic organisation, making and educating Socialists.

Tragic too was the hypnotic effect of Bolshevism on many SLPers which resulted in their joining the Communist Party where they quickly came under the iron rule of those who slavishly implemented the line laid down by Moscow. However, SLPers did make some important contributions to Marxist theory in particular the work of William Paul and Len Cotton on the state.

The Socialist Party is right to criticise any other organisation calling itself Socialist but if it does so on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations it risks falling into the trap of using the type of methods its opponents, particularly Leninists, use against it.
Terry Liddle 
London SE9

Reply:
The review did not make "unsubstantiated allegations" about the SLP. It stated that the SLP "wavered" before fully coming out against the war, which meant that the only political organisation to "unequivocally" oppose the war was the Socialist Party. This is not a loose or unsubstantiated allegation—it is a matter of historical record, noted with dismay by us at the time and chronicled by historians since.

The Socialist in the early months of the war contained a number of contradictory statements which reflected the different political positions held by members of the SLP, both pro- and anti-war. One section of the SLP membership looked favourably on the idea of a war of “national defence" against German militarism. This was the view expressed both by leading SLPer Arthur MacManus and by the then editor of The Socialist, Johnny Muir. The resultant doubts about the SLP's exact position on the war were expressed by Muir himself in the December 1914 issue of the paper where he wrote about the two factions in his party:
   "I have not been able to find out what support each side has, and consequently I cannot say definitely what the official attitude of the Party is."
We may add that both before the conflict and during it the SLP worked with pro-capitalist organisations for temporary purposes e g. in anti-militarism campaigns. Eventually the SLP allied itself with elements in the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and British Socialist Party (BSP) who opposed the war but nevertheless supported state-run capitalism.

This was a disastrous policy which played no small part in encouraging the "hypnotic" politics of Bolshevism Terry Liddle refers to. The other factor in this was the leadership-orientated, anti-democratic nature of the SLP, a characteristic of course shared by the SLP’s American partner body of the same name as well as by the Russian Bolsheviks themselves. Indeed, the very idea that the SLP—like the SPGB—recognised "the need for democratic organisation" is at variance with any serious knowledge of that organisation. The SLP was a highly authoritarian body like its US counterpart and Terry Liddle would do well to read the rule books of either if he doubts this. Because of factors like these it was no surprise to us that the SLP was split asunder in 1920 when a large portion of its membership left to found the Communist Party of Great Britain along with members of organisations like the ILP, BSP and others that the SLP had been courting for years.
Editors.


What about the electorate?

Dear Editors,

While in agreement with R. Montague's article in the November issue of the Socialist Standard in which he criticises the role of the media in contemporary society, he fails to mention the recipient of media propaganda, i.e., the electorate. and the influence which it in turn has upon society.

Take, for example, the current demise of socialism within the Labour Party. Some people would argue that it is all the fault of the leadership; but the Labour Party can only be the kind of party that public opinion will allow it to be; and public opinion is, for the most part, determined by the media. The Labour Party knows full that if it started to espouse socialism between now and the next election. it would have no chance of being elected, because the media has succeeded in turning socialism into a dirty word and/ or an anachronism.

Furthermore, there seems to be a lack of awareness amongst the electorate that when they watch television news what they are in fact watching is not merely news but propaganda, propaganda being the discriminating use of information, which is then presented in such a way as to make it seem acceptable or unacceptable. depending upon the mode of presentation. Propaganda is, of course, something that is not confined merely to communist or Islamic countries, but is universal, and is most prevalent among those societies which have the largest number of television channels, radio stations and newspapers (the bourgeoisie has a total monopoly of the broadcasting media, the most powerful of the media institutions, and a virtual monopoly of the press).

I would suggest that the Socialist Standard continues to spend more time attacking the power of the media (as does R. Montague’s article) and less time in criticising politicians in general. since there is little doubt that those famous faces we see on our television screens at news-time, plus of course all those faceless backroom people. those television producers. editors and directors who prepare news programmes, have far more influence on the minds of the electorate than do their elected representatives in Parliament.
E. Shepherd
Manchester

Mass debating with barmy Bernie (1997)

The TV Review column from the February 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Usually there is much competition for the dubious privilege of which programme has plumbed the lowest depths of inanity and humbug in the period before this column goes to press. Last month there was no contest. Not even Richard and Judy or Ricki Lake came close to matching the televisual disgrace which masqueraded as informed debate under the title of The Monarchy: The Nation Decides (ITV, 7 January).

Billed as the biggest exercise in democracy ever seen on British television, this programme told us all we need to know about the nature of democracy that exists in capitalist society. Virtually every aspect of it, from the so-called "debate” format, to the paucity of the views expressed by the invited panellists through to the uncontrolled (and allegedly rigged) telephone poll, went to demonstrate that democracy in capitalism is largely sham democracy.

Nothing more than a soundbite was allowed, most of the debate was taken up with whether the Royal family are "value for money" (whatever that means) and as Roy Greenslade explained in the following day's Guardian, the audience of 3,000 had been whipped up into a near hysterical frenzy before the show so that by when the 'debate' actually started it resembled little more than a bear garden.

Large sections of the audience, invited from several cities around Britain, simply shouted, heckled and cat-called on a mass basis for the entire duration of the programme. This meant that the little debate that would have been possible was rendered useless—and clearly by the design of Carlton TV who commissioned and ran the whole thing.

In a sense it was understandable that the audience—or a least a sizeable enough part of it—should have behaved in such a way. It was probably the best chance they had of stemming the tide of verbal diarrhoea emanating from the panellists. Nonetheless, some seeped through and the stench was truly repellent

Particularly odious, as a representative of the monarchists, was author Frederick Forsyth. Though coherent in an entirely tangential manner, Forsyth’s bad-tempered performance was sufficient to bring a whole host of rather unkind epithets to even the most considerate reviewer’s mind—like 'arrogant', ‘bumptious’ and ’surly’, these being the least descriptive but at the same time those least likely to result in a libel action. Forsyth’s main defence of the royals was that they are an economic bonus for Britain. To echo this point, he shouted at his hecklers “Your jobs are at stake!," claiming that any expenditure on the Royal Family is easily outweighed (he even had some figures) by the tourist revenue they create every year. It was possible to imagine the millions of rich tea-towel makers and commemorative mug engravers across the length and breadth of the country nodding sagely in approval. The suggestion that the multinationals and big-time capitalists were the real beneficiaries of all this (if there are any at all) was not considered. The programme producers had neither the time nor inclination to let anyone string more than two sentences together and a coherent reply to this nonsense, if any had been forthcoming, would have been near impossible.

Arise, Sir Bernie
One panellist smartly retorted that Forsyth would be better off sticking to writing Fiction, something he evidently knows a bit about, but what poor old Bernie Grant is good for is anybody's guess. A knighthood perhaps, or an early peerage. Never a stranger to controversy, one might have anticipated that Grant’s presence on the panel was guaranteed to set the cat amongst the pigeons. But, no. Bernie knows which side his bread is buttered on and launched into a sycophantic eulogy of the Queen that would have put Dame Vera Lynn to shame. Elizabeth was a marvellous head of the Commonwealth, he claimed, and did an awful lot to help all the poor black people in Africa.

It was obviously beyond Bernie’s comprehension that the Queen and her like, and the system they uphold, is the reason for their poverty and misery in the first place. But never mind, she's so gracious and has such a lovely warm smile as she walks among the malnourished. Well, she can continue to smile very big smiles indeed with suckers like Bernie Grant to do her bidding for her.

Most of those who plucked up the courage to oppose the monarchy, including those who rang in, did so with the proviso that they wanted a nice, respectable Head of State—a leader to look up to. Bizarrely enough, Princess Anne was the most popular choice followed by monied clown and failed balloonist Richard Branson. As such, the legions of republicans proved themselves little better than the raving monarchists. But then again, why should we expect them to be any different? These are, after all, people who vote for the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats or the Greens and are therefore fully tuned in to what can be expected in an inherently hierarchical, class-ridden and exploitative system like capitalism.

Even if Carlton had provided for a proper debate format, it would have been to no great effect. For does anyone still expect serious arguments for social equality from such people and their elected representatives? Frankly, it is no more likely to come from them than it is from the Duke of Edinburgh. and if this dreadful programme had even one little thing to commend it, it must have been the obviousness of that. 
Dave Perrin

Sophisticated critical perspectives (1997)

Theatre Review from the February 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Art by Yasmina Reza (Wyndham's Theatre)

Art is an odd play. Some critics see it as a populist attack on modern art; others believe it to be about friendship. It runs for barely 90 minutes and it is packing them in—queues every night for returned tickets. When I called for tickets the clerk at the booking office told me—with a mixture of pride and of resignation born of hard work—”It's the hottest ticket in town."

The plot is simply stated. Serge buys an abstract painting for about £20,000. His friend, Marc, is uncomprehending. To Marc the canvas is but a white rectangle—although he does admit that he can see some whitish diagonals and some pinkish dots. But what can Serge see in it? Marc is baffled. He thought he knew Serge, and now this. He feels undermined—betrayed perhaps. In the event pushed by Serge into saying that he likes it. he explodes and calls it “shit". Yvan. a mutual friend, accommodating by nature, is brought in to mediate. But far from successfully resolving the conflict, he is unwillingly drawn into the drama. Three friends soon become three men at odds with one another.

At the end the audience was agog. I've rarely heard so much animated conversation at the end of a play; so many different opinions wafting on the air. Retiring for a pizza we talked for longer than the play had run. What did it all mean? All four of us had seen it differently, and had different points of view. As we chatted I found it easy to understand why the critics and the audience had been so divided. What had been presented was capable of many interpretations, so that the opinions of individual members of the audience probably revealed more about them and their particular knowledge and prejudices than about what they had seen and heard.

I was reminded of similar discussions about politics. Talk to folk about politics and most people will retain some variant of the conventional opinions offered in the Sun, Mail or Telegraph. etc. Only a few people, and conspicuously members of the Socialist Party, are able to see beyond the obvious to deeper levels of reality. Thus socialists see politics in terms of historical materialism and class conflict based on ownership of the means of production and exchange. And here, in reacting to what they had seen on stage, people were bringing a similar range of insights to bear; ranging from the kind of crude populist antagonism found in the popular press to sophisticated critical perspectives and insights.

I guess there must have been a lot of quasi-Sun readers in the audience. The biggest cheer of the evening greeted Yvan’s admission that, yes, he too thought the picture was “shit". But Yvan was clearly lying. His was a response born out of pain and a desire to hurt Serge. Not that many in the audience seemed to care, even if they understood. They laughed uproariously at Serge's plight. I confess to feeling very uncomfortable when people sitting close to me find the pain of characters on stage a matter for amusement. We smile smugly at the thought that it was our primitive ancestors who cheered at public executions, but you don't have to sit long in theatres and cinemas to realise how much capitalism has brutalised people's sensitivities. On such occasions I am reminded of Orwell’s description of the progress (sic) of capitalism: "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.’’

Early in the play Serge observes to Marc “You have to understand the rules (of modern art) before you can make an informed comment." Socialists know this to be "true" of the world of economics and politics. You have to go beyond the immediate, the self-evident, if you are going to get any kind of purchase on how society works. What people need if they are to understand their everyday lives is a set of analytical tools— based on historical materialism, the labour theory of value, and the class struggle. A similar set of tools seems necessary if we are to understand art. The ideological apparatus of capitalism—including the so-called education system, newspapers, public service (ho, ho) broadcasting, and the other media—is intent on not providing such explanatory frameworks. The reaction of many in the audience to Art is one measure of its success.
Michael Gill

50 Years Ago: Labour Government, Strikes and Arbitration (1997)

The 50 Years Ago column from the February 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

The road haulage strike, which lasted for some ten days in the early part of January, brought out clearly the false position of the Labour Government and the impracticability of its policy.

Having undertaken the running of the capitalist system, the Labour Government is finding that it has got to do it in the only way it can be done. Capitalism will only work if the Capitalists can see the prospect of making a profit, so, in disregard of years of vaguely anti-capitalist propaganda, the Labour Government has had to come out in support of the "profit motive". Having claimed it would raise wages, it urges the unions not to make wage claims, lest profits should all be swallowed up. It declared for shorter hours, but now says the time is inopportune. It condemned the use of troops in strikes, and has twice used them since it came to power. It declared that under Labour Government strikes were unnecessary because “impartial arbitration" would give all the worker wanted, but has repeatedly seen the workers defying unsatisfactory arbitration awards.
(From editorial. Socialist Standard, February 1947)

What the Poor Law Pays (2018)

The Cooking the Books column from the March 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard
We know what determines the level of income of those in employment – it’s the cost of recreating their working skills in conjunction with the class struggle and the play of supply and demand – but what about those not in work? What determines the income they get as a handout from the state?
Some light on this was shed by some top secret documents found at the end of January in a filing cabinet in a junk shop in Australia. One of the files concerned the work of a cabinet sub-committee, known as the ‘razor gang’ (down under they call a spade a spade), whose remit was to slash payments to the unemployed as a way of relieving the burden of taxation on profits which had fallen in the slump that followed the financial crash of 2008.
Normally such documents only become available after 30 or so years, but the files related to a much more recent period:
‘One file revealed that Tony Abbott, the former prime minister, considered banning anyone under 30 from accessing income support in a radical proposal before the 2014 budget. Some of his ministers, it said, wanted to ban what the documents termed “job snobs” from receiving unemployment benefits.’
However, the then prime minister didn’t get his way:
‘The proposal was crushed by dissenters in his cabinet who feared that, if implemented, it might force jobless young people into homelessness, crime and other anti-social behaviour.’(Times, 1 February).
There you have it: what governments dole out to the those not in employment for one reason or another – ‘benefits’ doesn’t seem the right word – is the minimum they think they can get away with without provoking too much ‘anti-social behaviour’, in particular crime, which would cost them money to deal with.
Dealing with the unemployed and the unemployable has been a problem for capitalism right from its beginnings, premised as it is on the existence of a class without access to means to themselves produce what they need. In the first instance this involved driving people off the land, which began in England in the 16th century.
The first attempt to deal with this were the Poor Laws, which made providing for those unable to acquire any money to live the responsibility of the parish where they were born. Those who ventured away from their parish were denounced as ‘sturdy beggars’ – and whipped and branded, as Marx describes in chapter 28 of Volume I of Capital on the ‘Bloody Legislation against the Expropriated since the End of the Fifteenth Century’. Right up until the middle of the last century this remained administered locally by Poor Law ‘guardians’.
In 1948 the post-war Labour government made it a national responsibility, run by a board doling out ‘national assistance’. Over time the name changed, first to ‘social security’ (a nice Orwellian touch) and then to its present ‘income support’. But it’s still basically the ‘poor law’ with the government assuming the role of Dickens’s Poor Law Guardians, paying out as little as they can so as to minimise the burden on the capitalist class of maintaining those not in employment.
Basically, then, the answer to what determines the level of income of those not in employment is what the government thinks it can get away with without provoking riots or encouraging those affected to turn to crime.  It doesn't always work as the spontaneous riots of 2011 showed.

The Profit System and the Alternative (1997)

From the February 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

The social system we live under is capitalism, the profit system. It is a world-wide system. It exists in China and Cuba, just as it exists in Britain and the USA. Under capitalism, the means and instruments for production and distribution (land, factories, mines, railways, shipping, etc.) are owned and controlled by a minority— the capitalist class (5 percent of the population). All wealth, however, from a pin to an oilrig, is produced by us, the majority—the working class. In return for a wage or salary we sell our physical and mental energies to the capitalist class.

Production under capitalism is primarily undertaken with a view to making profit for the capitalist class, which means that items are produced and goods provided only when someone decides more money can be clawed back than was originally invested. The capitalist class, though, do not keep all of the profits they make. Much is reinvested in order that more profits can accumulate.

More often than not, too much is produced. When this happens the profits of the capitalist class are threatened. The result is that millions of tons of food are destroyed every year on purpose, to keep prices high in the shops. In addition, when no profits are to be made, workers are sacked or made redundant.

Meanwhile, millions die of starvation. Elsewhere, people sleep rough on the streets while millions of houses stand vacant and millions are unemployed while factories and machinery stand idle.

Occasionally, the interests of the capitalist class of one country come into conflict with the capitalist class of another. When this happens wars sometimes break out and workers are packed off to fight the workers from another country. They are told they are fighting for freedom and democracy, when in reality they are fighting over trade routes, foreign markets and mineral resources (all sources of profit for the capitalist class).

The mainstream parties will tell you that all this is inevitable (we agree that is—under capitalism) but that, if we are only patient, the system can be reformed. This is untrue. The capitalist system cannot be reformed in our interests because tho profit motive always has to come before social needs. Don't get us wrong, some reforms are beneficial, but none can abolish that basic contradiction between profit and need. The only way the capitalist system can be run is as it is run now. This is why the Socialist Party does not advocate reform, which is another way of saying patching up capitalism. We seek an end to the entire world-wide capitalist social system. In its place we wish to see established a world-wide socialist system.

Socialism does not exist and has never existed. It can not be established in a single country but only on a world-wide basis. In socialism, the earth’s resources, along with the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth, will be commonly owned and democratically controlled by the world’s peoples. There will be no minority √©lite and no owners because society will be classless.

With the disappearance of money and the wages system, society's productive potential will be released from the artificial constraints of profit. Goods and services will be provided because society needs them, not because they generate profit. With the barriers of the money system removed, the only questions needed to be asked is what is required and where—questions that will be answered according to the availability of resources.

Technology and communications will be freed from the constraints of profit and used to their utmost to serve the world’s peoples. Again, alternative sources of fuel and energy will be sought, both to best serve humans and show the environment the respect it deserves.

People will give according to their ability and take from the stockpile of communal wealth according to their own self-defined needs, with work being based on voluntary co-operation.

For the first time ever, people will have control over their own lives, with all monetary worries and fears of crime and war ended. For the first time ever, the people of planet Earth will have an equal share in planet Earth.
John Bissett

Beggars are not choosers (1997)

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

Let us not be too hard on David Maclean, the Home Office minister who seems to be haunted by beggars demanding money in Scottish accents. Maclean never gives money but he does give them a piece of his mind—which is supposed to be worth having because he has a reputation as one of the brighter young Tory MPs. Speaking out is what he is used to; some time ago he had to be restrained from advocating that "vermin" be driven from the streets and praising the vigilantes—whose activities are, after all, outside the law. But Maclean is obviously under emotional stress as he is among an endangered species—Tory MPs who could be wiped out at the general election. So perhaps he can be excused for his attempt, albeit clumsy, to clamber aboard a bandwagon which is being propelled by the big political parties as what they hope will be a vote winner among those people who find beggars frightening or distasteful whatever accent they speak in.

Lower standards
It is not so long ago that we were subjected to an implicit instruction that homeless people and beggars might have been expected in Britain in an earlier, less enlightened age but are now confined to countries with lower standards of humanity and tolerance. Of course there were a few in places like the West End (Tory MP Sir George Young describes them as people you stepped over as you left the Opera) but these were eccentric, incorrigible. It is different now. All over the centre of cities such as London people sleep in shop doorways or under cardboard boxes and begging has spread out into suburban shopping centres.

The anger of people like Maclean is aroused because the beggars are an embarrassment. How much of an embarrassment can be gauged by the reaction of another Tory MP, Terry Dicks who came up to what are now the expectations of him by describing beggars as "scum" who should be “hosed out" of the doorways where they shelter. The embarrassment springs from the fact that the beggars are a massive, unavoidable, distressing testimony to the failure of Tory government. There was no hint, in their election campaign in 1979, that after almost 20 years of the Conservatives being in power, vagrancy would be the kind of problem to raise the ire of their MPs. But of course they can’t admit that it is evidence of their failure. So it has to be explained away as the result of personal shortcomings of the people concerned.

Maclean does not go as far as to call the beggars "scum"but he does say they are on the streets ". . .  out of choice because they find it more pleasant". This is the standard response to any group of people—the unemployed, single mothers—who have the greater difficulty in surviving under capitalism in the 1990s. These people, we are told, actually prefer to scrape by on Income Support in a sky-high tower block or living rough in the city. There is no explanation as to why so many people suddenly suffer this same kind of personality problem all at the same time and just when an economic recession is in progress, only to recover somewhat when the recession recedes to give way to a boom. It is easier—and. the politicians hope, more fertile for votes—to lambaste the beggars and call for a policy of "zero tolerance".

Blair
There was a time when the Labour Party might have been expected to respond to "zero tolerance" with some deceptive clap-trap about civil liberties and human concerns, leaving some voters under the delusion that things would be different under a Labour government. They should know better now, as Tony Blair leads the way in denouncing the beggars with heartrending stories about what he sees at Kings Cross where he drops his children in the morning, on his way to a hard day’s planning of how he will run the social system which is responsible for such ugliness and for the human wreckage which gravitates to it. No doubt Blair is concerned for his children; he is also not unaware that policies like “zero tolerance” may have a vote-winning potential.

None of this is reassuring to people who assumed society had moved on from the days when rogues, vagabonds, sturdy beggars and vagrants could be whipped in every county they passed through or when someone could be imprisoned for inducing people to give them money by displaying wounds or deformities. If Blair and Tories like Maclean have got it right, it is no longer politically inadvisable to advocate punishing people for what capitalism does to them. A safer policy now, for the vote-hungry politician, is "zero tolerance".

A recent survey by Centrepoint, which offers shelter to homeless people, gave some idea of what their clients are like—and it does not fit in with the version offered by Blair and Dicks. Almost a third were aged between 16 and 17; a third had no income; almost a half had a GCE.CSE or GCSE; almost a third had slept rough; a quarter had been in local authority care. It says a great deal about capitalism and its political parties that the response to the "embarrassment" such people provoke in tourists, tradespeople and politicians on their way out of the Opera is to repress and damage them more than they have already experienced.

Zero Tolerance
Aggressive and persistent demands for money are not monopolised by street beggars. A developing trend—probably a response to the decline in employment in the recession—is the business of young people going door-to-door in the evenings offering low quality cleaning material for sale. Another is the expansion of telephone canvassing—people who are employed to work their way through the telephone directory asking if you want to borrow money or have new windows fitted or whatever. These activities can be as intrusive as any beggar—while any profits which result from them will go to the employer.

So far no political leader has said that "zero tolerance" should extend to those kinds of activities. Nor have they suggested that it should be applied to the social system which saw profits to be made from the misery of a place like Kings Cross and which now wants it cleared up to accommodate a smarter, more profitable tourist centre. But zero tolerance is what we should have of capitalism—of its poverty, its famine, its diseases, of the misery and death it deals out to millions of people all the time. And zero tolerance of the politicians who deceive with their false remedies which either fail or even leave the system worse then before.
Ivan