Thursday, August 2, 2018

Tolpuddle to Gdansk (1984)

From the August 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

It was one hundred and fifty years ago that six farm workers from Dorset were arrested and taken to Dorchester prison for the "crime" of swearing a secret oath of loyalty to the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. The state used an obscure Act of 1797 (outlawing the swearing of secret oaths within the armed forces) as a means to bully the Tolpuddle trade unionists. Speaking in his own defence at the Dorchester Assizes George Loveless, the most prominent of the six trade unionists, stated: “We were uniting together to preserve ourselves, our wives and our children from utter degradation and starvation". The judge, Baron Williams, acting as judges inevitably do on behalf of the class which grows rich on the degradation and starvation of the exploited, sentenced the men to be sent to a penal colony in Australia for a period of seven years. Baron Williams' explanation of his savage sentences was that:
  The object of all legal punishment is not altogether with a view to operating on the offenders themselves, it is also for the sake of offering an example and warning to others
In short, the object of the legal intimidation was to warn other workers to keep away from trade unions. The capitalists, who had ensured that unions were illegal prior to 1824, acted in response to the growth of the trade union movement in the 1830s — a growth which led to the formation of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union in 1834, with a membership of half a million workers. The persecution of the Tolpuddle martyrs was meant to nip the trade unions in the bud.

Unfortunately for the parasite class, the exploited were not willing to bow to state bullying. A massive open-air rally was organised in London (it took place in Copenhagen Fields, a few hundred yards away from where the Islington branch of the Socialist Party meets) and over 150,000 workers turned out to show the bosses that they supported their brothers from Tolpuddle. In 1819, at St. Peter’s Fields in Manchester, the bosses had used their militia to kill thirteen workers and injure many more when wage slaves had dared to assemble. But in 1834 the workers were able to show their strength and the bosses retreated: the Tolpuddle martyrs were given a free pardon and a passage back to Britain. Workers in 1984 owe them respect, for it was their courage and determination — and that of the thousands of workers who showed solidarity with them — which has enabled us to organise in our unions today.

Trade unions are necessary bodies for fighting the industrial battle against those who live by robbing us of the fruits of our labour. In general, unions can do much to defend and improve wages and working conditions. But socialists are far from uncritical of the unions. We observe the lunacy whereby unions pay for the upkeep of the Labour Party, which defends the very social system which necessitates exploitation. We observe the likes of DuffyChapple and Murray ignoring decisions made by union conferences and being rewarded for their efforts on behalf of the class enemy with the chance of a free ticket into the House of Lords. We observe the fact that workers at the Head Offices of ASTMS. NAI.GO and BIFU are currently involved in industrial action against the bureaucrats who employ them — that Clive Jenkins of ASTMS regularly crosses picket lines manned by his own employees. The trade union movement in Britain leaves much to be desired but, for all of its faults, it is there to be used by workers who want to minimise the extent of their exploitation.

It is a tragic irony that the so-called socialist countries, in which the Tolpuddle martyrs are well remembered, are today producing their own martyrs, who have dared to stand up to the lie that they are living in a classless, socialist society and demand the right to join a real trade union. Of course, workers in Poland are allowed to join a union but only one which is run by their state employers. The absurdity of such bogus unions will become clear if it is imagined that miners in the state-run coal industry were only allowed to join a union as long as it was controlled by the NCB.

In Poland — as in all of the so-called socialist countries — it is illegal to form trade unions which are not run by the employers. It was for that reason that Solidarity was formed in 1980. Because Poland is a capitalist society, divided between exploiters and exploited, the state responded to the action of their wage slaves in just the same way as the capitalists of Britain in 1834: they rounded up the union activists and locked them in prisons. Indeed, one hundred and fifty years after the men of Tolpuddle were attacked for their act of class solidarity, hundreds of Poles who refuse to let Solidarity die are incarcerated in the unceasing class war between wage labour and capital.

We do not hear a great deal about the Gdansk martyrs from some of those who are ready to glorify the memory of the Tolpuddle martyrs. The Communist Party of Great Britain, which is currently busy editing the Morning Star in the law courts, is quick to show solidarity with martyrs past, but conspicuously silent about martyrs present. Arthur Scargill. who is currently leading his union in its battle against their state employers, is of the view that for the Silesian miners to have an independent union against their state employers is an act of what he has called “sabotage”. Of course, Scargill and other assorted Stalinists are no less hypocritical than Thatcher and her fellow-liars who express pious concern about the right of workers in Poland to join a trade union while they force the workers at GCHO in Cheltenham to give up their union rights. Before twisters like Thatcher start making noises in defence of unions in Poland they ought to take a look at the "democracy" in Britain which allows the police to erect road-blocks along the motorways in order to prevent one group of workers expressing solidarity with another.

The police, who have been given the dirty work of defending the power of the capitalists of Britain against the indignation and frustration of those whom they exploit, would do well to think about the activities of their fellow workers in Poland:
   A Polish policeman received a standing ovation from the Solidarity Congress in Gdansk yesterday when he demanded its support for a trade union of police . . . Several policemen. including a police captain, have been dismissed for trying to organise such a union . . . “Are we not entitled to the same rights as other workers or are we only suited to dirty work?" he asked . . . Forty thousand policemen, including some in the security division, have applied to join, he claimed. (Guardian. 29 August 1981.)
According to a recent report of the International Labour Organisation, thousands of workers have been thrown out of their jobs for remaining in Solidarity and at least sixty have been killed since martial law was declared in December 1981

It is not only in the state-capitalist countries that the class war is producing martyrs. In South Africa the president of the biggest trade union was arrested and murdered by police last year. In numerous dictatorships — some backed by the American Empire, some by the Russian Empire and others by both or neither — it is dangerous to organise trade unions which have any power. Workers should remember that members of our class are being killed, beaten up, discriminated against and made insecure today and not just in the past.

In a world which now, more than ever, is a global village where modern technology has made it easy to unite, the means are at hand for workers of all lands to join our efforts into one movement. We must remember than an injury to one — whatever the nationality or the colour or the sex of the victim — is an injury to our class.

Unity to improve our condition of wage-slavery is not what workers in the late twentieth-century should be organising for. The treadmill of trade unionism as an end in itself can only ease the intensity of our exploitation; what is needed is a society where there is no exploitation of employee by employer because there are no classes. Socialism, which will be a society without classes, employment or state machinery, will mean the abolition of the wages system. In a society without wages people will give according to their abilities and take from the goods and services which are available according to their self-determined needs.

From Tolpuddle to Gdansk — from Kronstadt to Orgreave — from Peterloo to Soweto — the class struggle, which throw's up countless victims, has not gone away. It will not come to an end until the capitalists are defeated by the workers. That defeat will not require workers to use violence against the bosses — unless, of course, the capitalists have undemocratic ideas about making martyrs of themselves by defying the will of a conscious, socialist majority. But first we must build that majority, and it is for every worker to ask themselves the crucial question: am I to make use of the right to unite which the martyrs of Tolpuddle stood for — and millions of workers have yet to gain — or will I be a martyr to the system which robs workers of our dignity?
Steve Coleman

What future for the unions? (1985)

From the August 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

The unions, here and in many other countries, have had a hard time during the depression. They have suffered some spectacular defeats, for example, the American Flight Traffic Controllers and the British coal miners have seen some wages reduced, and have lost members.

In this country trade union membership, after reaching its highest-ever level of over thirteen million in 1979, had fallen to
11,338,000 in 1983 and is now probably under ten million. Typical of many unions, the General. Municipal and Boilermakers Union has dropped from a million to 750.000. Many unions have lost far more members than can be accounted for by unemployment. Members in work have dropped out of their unions because they think that organisation is useless, and that the unions are forever a spent force.

They are wrong on both counts. Drastic falls of membership have happened before and for the same reasons, but the unions have always recovered and will do so again. What is more, the unions have been very effective in their efforts to maintain wages under adverse conditions. In this respect, experience in the present depression is similar to that of the past. In the Great Depression of the last quarter of the nineteenth century membership of those unions that were affiliated to the TUC dropped from 1,192,000  in 1874 to 464.000 in 1881. but by 1890 it was up to 1,470,000.

In the depression between the wars total union membership fell from 8,337,000 in 1920 to 4,387,000 in 1933. but it then steadily increased and reached 8,714,000 in 1946.

In both periods some unions were heavily defeated in strikes, like the engineers in 1897 and the so-called general strike and the seven-month coal miners' strike in 1926. A brief summary of the Great Depression is given in the official Handbook on Industrial Relations, published in 1961 by the Ministry of Labour:
   A period of trade depression followed the year 1875 and lasted almost twenty years. During this period trade unionism lost some of its strength. Strikes were common and were almost invariably unsuccessful.
Much the same could have been said of trade union experience between the wars, but in both instances the picture of unrelieved failure is misleading. In both periods the level of prices (the cost of living) was falling. Between 1874 and 1895 prices fell by 30 per cent, such a fall being normal in depressions. Between the wars there was a fall of 40 per cent from 1920 to 1934, due partly to depression and partly to the government's policy of reversing inflation by reducing the amount of currency in circulation.

In face of the fall of the cost of living in both periods, the statement that "strikes were almost invariably unsuccessful" needs to be corrected. If, say, in 1875 or 1927, a union came out on strike for higher wages and got no increase at all the strike would have been recorded as having failed. But if the result was that the money wage remained at or near the original level the outcome would have been that real wages had increased. Cole and Postgate in The Common People (1956, p.444) said:
   With prices falling at such a rate, the employed workers had only to avoid wage-reductions in order to secure a steady improvement in their real standards of living. Actually between 1873 and 1896 . . . average money-wages over all trades rose a little — perhaps by 5 per cent. This meant, in view of the fall in retail prices, a rise in real wage-rates of 35 to 40 per cent.
During the Great Depression trade unionism spread to occupations hitherto neglected by the existing unions which were mainly of skilled workers. It was greatly encouraged by the successful strike of dockers in 1889. Among the new unions Cole and Postgate list gasworkers, land workers, lower grade railwaymen, and merchant seamen. It was at that time too, that trade unionism developed among post office workers in spite of the defeat of the postmen's strike in 1890.

The rise of average real wages in the Great Depression was repeated, though to a smaller extent, between the wars. In the early part, when prices were falling fast wages fell even more rapidly and real wages declined. But between 1929 and 1937, when prices continued to fall but more slowly, average real wages rose to a level 10 per cent above that of 1920.

The depression which began in 1979 has differed from the two earlier ones. Instead of the cost of living falling it has continued to rise because of the inflation policy of the government. The rise under the Thatcher government has been 70 per cent since 1979. Instead of having to maintain money wages against falling prices the unions since 1979 have had to struggle to increase money wages beyond the rise of prices, and have had some success. Official figures for the average weekly earnings of all workers show that, after some fall in 1979-1981, average real earnings after allowing for price rises have now risen to 10 per cent above the 1979 level.

To understand why this result has been achieved (and similar developments in the Great Depression and between the wars) it is enlightening to look back to what Karl Marx wrote in Wage-Labour and Capital in 1849:
   The more the division of labour and the employment of machinery extend, so much the more does competition increase among the labourers, and so much the more do their average wages dwindle.
Marx said the same in 1865 in Value, Price and Profit, with particular reference to the inevitability of wages falling in depressions.

He was writing at a time when unions were few, small and weak and it was true then that the unemployed competed for jobs by offering to work for lower wages. But as the unions grew in size and effectiveness they have, in greater or less degree, countered it. The members of a well organised union are able to offer resistance to wage reductions and their unemployed members do not offer to work for wages below the trade union rate. If Marx had lived until 1892 he would have appreciated the change of conditions brought about by the spread of trade unionism and would have agreed with the statement made in that year by Friedrich Engels about the "remarkable improvement" in the conditions of the workers in "the great trades unions".

But how effective can trade unions be? There is a belief among trade union enthusiasts that if all workers were in unions instead of less than half of them, all problems of wages, conditions of work, and unemployment could be solved. They are quite mistaken.

In addition to their own problem of recruiting members the unions are circumscribed by the powers of the government, by the economic laws of capitalism, and by the particular state of trade union law at any time.

Two centuries of trade union history show that the last of these three is the least important. Trade union law has been alternately relaxed and tightened up and the unions have survived all the changes. They were first formed when they were entirely illegal and throughout the nineteenth century trade union law was for the most part more restrictive than it is now under the Thatcher government. It was under these latest restrictions of the law that the coal miners' strike was defeated in 1984-5, but it was in a period of relaxed trade union law in 1926 that the so-called general strike and the seven-month miners' strike were similarly defeated, despite the fact that in 1926 coal was almost the only source of energy. It was after those strikes that the law was again tightened against the unions by the Trade Disputes and Trades Unions Act of 1927.

Irrespective of the particular state of trade union law, if a government, having effective control of the machinery of government, the police, and behind them the armed forces, is determined to defeat a strike no matter what the cost, it will defeat it.

It is interesting to note an aspect of the successful dockers' strike in 1889. The strike received wide-spread support from other unions and from the churches. And it was the Lord Mayor of London who presided over a committee which pressed the employers to give way. The organisers of the strike and of protest marches were in effect able to count on a tolerant attitude by the Metropolitan Police. Cole and Postgate, in The Common People (p. 429) had this comment:
   The companies for the first time became uneasy. They issued a furious attack on the police. They had been hoping for a struggle between the police and the strikers in which batons would break down the labourers' enthusiasm: and they were foolish enough to let their disappointment be seen.
Here was a strike which the government, for whatever reason, had decided not to crush.

Trade unions need to take into account the limits on their actions imposed by capitalism's dependence on profit and by its periodical depressions. Failure to do this often leads unions into embarking on long strikes which they cannot hope to win.

Unions can sometimes delay the introduction of labour-saving machinery which puts some of their members out of work, but in the long run they cannot prevent it. This is because employers who fail to adopt new machinery which reduces their costs of production lose their markets to competitors who do adopt it.

About the mass unemployment in depressions there is absolutely nothing that the unions (or the government) can do. The total number of jobs available to the workers and the total number of unemployed depend at any time on what quantity of the products of industry can be sold at a profit. This quantity increases in booms and falls in the periodic, inevitable depressions.
A
bout wages, well organised unions can do something but it is strictly limited by the profit factor. Marx was only pointing to the obvious when he said that wages can rise, but not, for any length of time, beyond the point at which the wage rise wipes out all profit.
When profits are falling the unions' efforts to raise wages therefore come up against increased resistance by the employers. Measured against the total of wages and salaries, company profits fell sharply in 1979-82 but have since then risen again equally sharply; which helps to explain why average real earnings have been rising again.

Total production, which fell at the beginning of the depression, has risen again to the level of 1979. There is no immediate prospect of trade union membership quickly recovering its losses. With increased output per worker, fewer workers are now needed for this output than were employed in 1979. It will require a further increase of production and sales before unemployment begins to fall. But already, though slowly, trade unionism is making headway in the newer industries — nuclear energy, electronics, and high technology -— and is attracting more of the non-manual, technical and managerial workers.

In due course the unions will increase their membership again and get back their lost confidence. This trend will continue until the next deep and prolonged depression, when the downward cycle will start all over again.

There is nothing the unions can do to escape this vicious circle until such time as the working class recognises the need to get rid of capitalism and establish socialism.
Edgar Hardcastle

Open heart surgery (1986)

Theatre Review from the August 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

What would it be like to be black, in the British army, accused of shooting your commanding officer while serving in Northern Ireland and left at the mercy of a sadistic bigot of a sergeant for a gaoler, an upper-class twit of a defence lawyer, and a guilt ridden psychiatrist, as you await the prospect of the court martial?

A new play by Les Smith — Some Kind of Hero — will tell you. This is not satire. I would not demean it by calling it that. No glib leftish parodies here or amusing latex puppets to render the subject matter palatable to a bourgeois audience. The play is witty and amusing yes. but not at the expense of an intimate, head-on treatment of the subject. It is open heart surgery on institutionalised racism and it had the audience on a scalpel edge. If you think theatre should be about more than just entertainment, this play is for you.
Harvey Harwood

Between the Lines: A Workers' Guide to the Soaps (1987)

The Between the Lines column from the August 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Workers' Guide to the Soaps
What political function do soap operas perform under capitalism? This might look like one of those pretentious academic questions which sociologists like to make meaningless noises about, but it is in fact a question worth asking. Millions of workers watch serialised dramas known as soap operas. (The term was coined in the USA where the soap companies used to sponsor TV serials.) The top two programmes in the British TV audience ratings — before news output or variety entertainment — are soap operas: EastEnders and Coronation Street. When a star in one of these dramas marries, falls ill, has a fight at a party or dies it is national news: remember the death of Pat Phoenix, who played Elsie Tanner in Coronation Street, which made front-page headlines in the national press last year?

The simplistic answer to the question posed is that TV controllers like to entertain viewers with fascinating drama and soaps do that. If we were living in a society where making people happy — satisfying their needs — was the criterion for production, then we might find such a reason for producing soap operas plausible. But we don't and it isn't. So. why do TV companies spend vast fortunes on producing soap operas? The first social function which they perform is to reinforce a picture of 'reality' — to show a designer-created world of social reality which viewers can use as a model for 'life as it is . . . and always will be'. Soaps reflect all of the capitalist myths about human nature (a negative and unchangeable condition, of course) and the apparently inevitable ways of the world, including possessive relationships. buying and selling, employment and the rest of the anachronisms of life under the profit system. Soaps show workers that they are not alone in the madhouse of capitalism — everyone is in it and in it is the place to be.

Secondly, soaps perform a moral role of telling workers what is right (according to the ethics of the owning class) and what is wrong. Characters on soaps are shown to lose out if they do wrong and to prosper even if not at once — as a reward for good behaviour. In recent times the crude attempts at moral propaganda made by the soap producers have become more transparent than ever.

Thirdly, soaps are about continuity: because they are on regularly they offer a rhythm — presented as a natural rhythm — to life. Bombs may be exploding in Ireland, kids starving to death in Mozambique and riots going on in Leeds, but at 7.30 every Monday and Wednesday normality is resumed because the familiar theme music to Coronation Street is on the air. It used to be said that civilisation would collapse if the ravens ever flew away from the Tower of London (a more foolish example of nationalistic rubbish it would be hard to think of), but the modern equivalent is that as long as the locals in Albert Square are in their places between 7.30 and 8pm on a Tuesday and Wednesday life as we know it is still intact.

These three functions which the soaps perform are of great political importance to the capitalist system, for remember, it is a system which is wholly dependent for its power upon the unconsciousness (politically) of the working-class majority who are the consumers/victims of the soaps. It used to be the Churches which performed the role of explaining reality to workers, of laying down the moral code, and of providing a continuity and regularity to the life of the system. Now that the Churches are emptier than ever the TV screen is the new medium for such indoctrination and the soaps are an important means of achieving propaganda success. It is not being claimed that soaps are a conspiracy to make workers accept capitalism. The way that capitalism conditions its victims is more complicated and subtle than that. Regardless of how consciously the soap opera producers intend to serve the system, that is the political function which they perform.

The most crass soap opera of them all — a programme which has almost carved a reputation out of being so bloody atrocious that it is compelling viewing — is Crossroads. The acting and scripts have been the subject of many a TV critic's merciless scorn, but the programme is not just dramatically awful: it is also a political drama. For example, it has for years conveyed the message that those who own wealth (in this case, the motel) do so as a result of hard work and, above all, superior intelligence. Conversely, the workers are all somewhat affable fools, lucky to be employed at all. My favourite character in Crossroads (a programme which, like everyone else who watches it regularly or occasionally, I deny having ever seen except by pure accident) is Benny, the mentally retarded skivvy who exists to be exploited by his bosses, patronised by his workmates and periodically ridiculed by the scriptwriters who evidently believe that being mentally subnormal is a terrifically funny condition and one well worthy of a few good laughs at the unfortunate Benny. In fact, Benny represents the ideal English wage slave: thick, compliant, loyal, uncomplaining and more willing to work than a horse on hormone injections. Benny is what they want us all to be. Don't laugh at him: you might just be laughing at your own reflection in the TV screen.

EastEnders is a truly hideous soap opera. Indeed, for my money it is the worst. As a result, I do my best never to miss it. Its heavy-handed moralising is sickening; its stereotyping is offensive; its romanticised picture of life in London's East End is a complete distortion (and worse still is its distortion of the East End's past); and its manipulation of viewers' emotions by means of cheap dramatic explosions is sinister. One of very many examples of what is foul about the programme is the recent story of Arthur Fowler, the unemployed and uninspired caricature of a prole. Arthur was caught stealing the Christmas Club  money, had a thoroughly unconvincing nervous breakdown in order to physically repent for his ultimate crime of taking money which was not his, went into a psychiatric hospital and came out an 'adjusted' man. Now Arthur — sorry, Arfur — takes every day as it comes, is genuinely thrilled when he is offered occasional casual work and realises how wrong he had been to transgress the law of property and how right the state had been to send him to prison for his sin. EastEnders is a programme about sin and repentance: most characters are usually in one or the other states. In times to come it will be seen for what it is: blatant, rotten propaganda of a pernicious form. Entertaining. yes: but then, so was witch-burning, I suppose.

Brookside is by far my favourite soap. You can see it on Mondays and Tuesdays (8pm, C4) or on Saturdays (5pm, C4). Like all soaps, you need to watch it for a few weeks before you will get into it, and my recommendation is that it is worth the time investment to do so because Brookside is probably the best TV drama available at the moment. It is clearly an anti-establishment soap and its depiction of life under capitalism is head and shoulders above the other soaps. But it too is a highly moralistic programme, setting out sometimes all too transparently to radicalise the viewer. Indeed, it is perhaps by watching TV manipulation being well executed in a programme like Brookside (where the temptation is to see the manipulation as an edifying process) that one can see much more clearly how the same techniques, but for different ends, are used in the other soaps.

Will there be soap operas in a socialist society? Who can tell? It is not for a small minority of socialists in 1987 to lay down a blueprint for how the socialist majority will decide to live. But the functions which soaps now perform will not be needed in a social system which has overcome the intense alienation of capitalism. Moralising drama will not be required in a society without leaders or led. The problems which occupy the minds of most of the characters in most of the soaps most of the time will simply not exist in a socialist society. That's my view anyway — and in the absence of letters from readers expressing your views mine is the only view you're going to get.
Steve Coleman

Your letters about TV programmes which you have liked or disliked and think worthy of comment from a political angle, or your comments on points made in Between the Lines should be sent to The Socialist Standard and will be considered for publication.


50 Years Ago: Churchill on atrocities (1988)

The 50 Years Ago column from the August 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

In an article in the Daily Telegraph (June 9th) Mr. Churchill shows what excellent service the anti-Nazism and anti-Fascism of the Labour and Communist parties in the country is rendering to British capitalism.

He says:
   In 1914 the well-to-do and so-called ruling classes were at first more convinced of the duty to fight than the wage-earning classes. It required the German atrocities in Belgium to rouse the whole people. Now it is somewhat different. The wage-earning classes are resolved not to submit to Nazism or Fascism, and there is more doubt and division in the other ranks of society. (Our italics.)
When Mr. Churchill says "The wage-earning classes are resolved not to submit to Nazism or Fascism," he expresses confidence that organised workers will follow the lead of Labour and Communist leaders. He is probably right.

But note the unconscious irony in the suggestion that, after twenty years of Labour Party pacifism and advocacy of disarmament, Labour leaders can be so relied upon to urge workers to fight that atrocity stories (real or manufactured) might be unnecessary.
[From the Socialist Standard, August 1938.]

Check out socialism (1988)

From the August 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

Friday night. The weekend starts here — at the local supermarket. The pay-packet collected earlier in the day — your ration of poverty — is already much thinner. You’ve paid the rent, paid the gas bill, paid the milkman. What have you got left? Enough to buy the necessities that enable you to go to work next week to earn enough to pay the rent . . . You say that your problem is that you're not paid enough. Paid weakly, weekly. Paid on Friday, spent on Monday. But the real problem is capitalism, not the amount in your wage-packet or on your salary cheque.

As a member of the majority propertyless class you are forced to sell the only asset you have, your labour-power, in order to live; its price will generally be the minimum necessary for you to maintain yourself in a productive condition and enable you to raise the next generation of workers.

Which brings us back to supermarkets. Food is big business. In Britain the market is worth thirty-two thousand million pounds a year, and over fifty per cent is controlled by the big five supermarkets: Sainsbury, Tesco. Dee, Argyll and Asda. Four members of the Sainsbury family appear in the top 200 UK millionaire shareholders. Sir Leslie Porter of Tesco can only manage to be seventy-first. Sympathy for such a poor member of the capitalist class should stir us all to rush to Tesco’s and buy loads of baked beans.

If you shop at Sainsbury’s, a weekly bill of fifty pounds over 384,615 years would be equivalent to the thousand million pound fortune that Sir John Sainsbury enjoys. You don't make that kind of bread by selling a few loaves and fishes — such wealth is no miracle but simply his share of the surplus value produced by us and expropriated by his class.

Waiting in the invariable queue at the checkout, I ponder how long it will be before my fellow shoppers realise what an insane society they are living in. A rational one would produce food solely to meet need, rather than for profit. Don't buy capitalism. Check out free access.
Dave Coggan

From May to August (1989)

Editorial from the August 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

Back in May the media hacks were full of the tenth anniversary of the Thatcher regime. She posed as an invincible goddess, intoxicated by her unstoppable power to dominate the profit system. Meanwhile the anti-socialist Labour Party drew up new plans to convince the voters that a Kinnock government would serve the parasites of the Stock Exchange with no less zeal than the Tories. Leftist ‘intellectuals” were bemoaning the death of the working class. The unions were being told by their mis-leaders that strikes were a thing of the past and workers had to face the New Realism—the old belief that wage slaves can achieve nothing more out of the system than to collaborate peacefully with their exploiters.

It was only three months ago, and capitalism was looking nice and cosy for the idlers at the top. The superpowers were agreeing to allow each other to cut their arms budgets, and the USA was busy selling bombs to China—which seemed to have become such a respectable corner of the capitalist world in the past ten years, as Mr Deng and the fake Communist dictators had made strenuous efforts to develop the Dictatorship of the Market.

As the capitalists prepared to luxuriate in a long, hot summer of endless order, along comes Comrade History and screws things up. History is like that. The capitalist system is bursting to the brim with its own contradictions, and no amount of wishful thinking by conservative dogmatists will stop them from exploding. So—just as the trailer for the horror film says—"Just when you thought it had gone away, here it comes again." The class struggle hotted up and a lot of complacent grins are being wiped off a lot of fat-cat faces.

Invincible Thatcher has proved not to be quite as invincible as she reckoned. Her economic policies are going wrong and now all of those workers who were seduced to join the "property-owning democracy" are weeping into their mortgage agreements as interest rates rise. The European capitalists regard Thatcher and her Little-Englander nationalism as an obsolete joke, and now open warfare has broken out in the Tory ranks. Edward Heath—who has nothing to lose by telling the truth about Thatcher's doctrinaire idiocy—started to expose the government's refusal to adapt to changes within the capitalist system, and after they were trounced in the European elections other Tory MPs and MEPs joined the attack. Tebbit blamed it all on the advertising company which dreamed up the crassly jingoistic, anti-European election campaign. Others are beginning to wonder whether Madame Invincible ought to be sent out to graze in the House of Lords, where it is perfectly acceptable to be out of tune with the times.

Then came the strikes. The unions, which the Tories imagined they had tamed—for beasts is what they perceive us as being—began to flex their muscles. The Tories thought that they had outlawed the flexing of muscles. They may wish to, but they have not and will not. The London Transport workers voted by seven to one in favour of a strike. The unelected Judges said that such a strike was illegal—but they could not stop the strike. The dockers voted to strike and, again, the Judges declared the majority vote illegal. The dockers came out. British Rail tried to take its workers to Court for wanting to go on strike, but even the phoney dispensers of Capitalist Justice could find no grounds for stopping the action. The BBC called the strikers, who abided by the majority of their union, “rebels". Then the BBC voted to strike. The workers in the Passport Office have come out and local government workers in NALGO have now joined the groundswell against the so-called new realism. All of this is costing the capitalists millions of pounds. And neither Thatcher nor her would-be muscle men can do a thing to stop us workers from defending ourselves against the profit system. As for the Labour Party, those pathetic imitation Tories are too afraid of losing their reputation with the Stock Exchange to dare to side with the strikers—after all, in their contemptible Policy Review they have promised to be just as ruthless at “taming the unions" as the Tories are. The Left, who imagined that a few years of Thatcher government had extinguished the class war, and that all that was left was to form an alliance with David Owen—Who?—have been shown up for the fools that they are. The beast will not be tamed, and it is encouraging to see that our class is not prepared to take everything that is thrown at us without putting up a fight, albeit only a defensive one.

Things are not looking good for the capitalists and their political agents. The Tories are divided and electorally on the decline. The Labour Party has reviewed itself out of all purpose: they might as well join the Tories. The old Liberals have committed suicide. The unions have shown that they are not dead. The workers of China have started to cause trouble for their bosses, and Gorbachev has problems which he cannot hope to solve with his own imperial subjects.

The abolition of the profit system, and the legalised robbery of the workers who produce all wealth, still stands on the agenda of history. The Socialist Party still stands for that and nothing less. And if one thing is for certain it is that history can change very fast in just a short time.

Letters: Technology to blame? (1990)

Letters to the Editors from the August 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

Technology to blame?

Dear Editors.

In his book advocating Green Party politics It Doesn't Have To Be Like This reviewed in last month's Socialist Standard David Icke writes:
   "It is technology that took people off the land into the mills and the mass production factories. It is technology that has ravaged the countryside by creating the new farming methods. Technology has dictated how people live, where they live, where they work, whether they work, what they produce, how they produce it. and almost everything we do and buy . . . We must tame this technological monster and not just sit there passively allowing it to control us” (p. 36).
Replace, in the above quotation, the word technology with capitalism and it begins to make some sense. No, the system is not shaped by the techniques of production, but by the relationships of production, by how society is organised to produce wealth. The society that used the scythe in the 19th century and the one that uses the combine harvester today only differ in the techniques, not in the relationships, of production. The existence of destructive technology is no more the cause of environmental destruction than the existence of the weapons of war is the cause of war.

The system is much more than “a form of economic thinking that sees the profit figure at the bottom of the balance sheet every year as the only measurement of success. Keeping the shareholders happy by increasing profits by the biggest margin possible is its only aim in life" (p. 15)— though that is certainly part of it.

"Keeping the shareholders happy" is not simply "a form of economic thinking", but an economic fact of life today: as legal owners of property, of the means of production in the form of capital, the shareholders are also the possessors of economic and social power—class power

It is of the utmost importance to the cause of saving our world that people are made aware of the issues facing them and of what they have to do: to wrest power from all those who own and control the industries responsible for all the devastation. This demands a political will and understanding that goes far beyond simply voting for a political party, however dedicated. Political power not supported by a majority determined that the means of production become common property would be impotent. If the means of wealth production were common property the impetus, the driving force, towards destroying the planet would have been destroyed.
Ian Jones
Wallington, 
Surrey


Why inflation?

Dear Editors.

In the article "Inflation: the Endless Farce" (April Socialist Standard) you seem to have moved away from previous suggestions that inflation is a deliberate revenue-raising exercise by those elements in the government who control the currency issue. You point out that "in the current year the £800 million from additional notes in circulation is less than one-half of one percent of government expenditure of £181,000 million". However, surely, there are very powerful political and economic reasons for governments (particularly those of the monetarist type) to reduce deficits or even (as I believe the Thatcher government is doing) to run a budget surplus? When this £800 million is viewed as a component of a budget deficit or surplus then it becomes a very significant figure indeed, particularly when the government is using this surplus to repay debt.

Another argument tending to support the idea that inflation is deliberate is that post-war governments have never accidentally under-issued currency thereby sparking across-the-board price falls.

Here in New Zealand the hard-line monetarist Labour government is boasting that its high interest policies are "squeezing inflation out of the system" and indeed price rises are increasing at a lower rate than in recent years (currently around 7 per cent). However would the Socialist Party not agree that a high interest regime merely tends to suppress demand and does not affect currency inflation in any way? I believe that when demand returns the inflation will quickly manifest itself as rapid price rises. As far as I can work out what "monetarism" really is all about, to put it fairly crudely, is the domination of financial capital (lenders) over industrial capital (borrowers).

In New Zealand the government delivers currency into the economy from the Reserve bank through the trading banks. In Britain I believe the job is done via the Bank of England through the joint-stock banks. Could you explain the mechanism of how this extra currency is pumped into the banking system?

Finally the question of the reason for inflation would seem to come down to the proposition that either the ignorance and confusion that pervades the economics profession goes all the way to the top or else there is a deliberate policy of high financial fraud which governments have carried out and consciously masked with lies and confusion.
Michael Lee
Waiheke Island, 
New Zealand

Reply:
Inflation cannot be described as "a deliberate revenue-raising exercise by those elements in the government who control the currency issue". In the first place it is inflation which sends prices up and therefore increases government expenditure. It can give little pleasure to the government, having through inflation increased its own expenditure by a large amount, to know that it will receive a small amount of additional revenue by printing the notes. Between 1987 and 1988 British government expenditure went up by £6,900 million because of inflation All it got back by printing more notes was £1.740 million. If they halted inflation they would not receive the £1,740 million but they would be saved having to spend the additional £6,900 million.

Budget surpluses and deficits have nothing to do with inflation, and reducing the national debt is not nowadays a serious issue in British politics. Under the previous Labour government the national debt was largely increased. Since 1979 the Tones have increased it by another £100,000 million. Two years ago the revenue was unexpectedly buoyant and the government decided to aim at a balanced budget and even some repayment of the National Debt. They have repaid some £15.000 million. but surpluses are now running down There is not the slightest chance that the government will repay the rest of the £100,000 million they have added to the debt.

The British Tory government, like the New Zealand Labour government, believes that high interest rates reduce demand and therefore limit price rises. In March 1984 the bank minimum lending rate was 8 percent Since then it has risen to the present 15 percent. So prices ought to have stopped rising. Actually they have gone up by 43 percent since March 1984 and are now rising faster than they were then. Since higher interest rates increase the income of the lenders by exactly the same amount as they reduce the spending power of borrowers, why should demand be affected?

There is no way in Britain that the currency could "accidentally" be under-issued because, since 1938. there has been no limit at all on the amount of notes and coin in circulation, either by law or by Treasury instruction. The Bank of England's declared policy is to issue currency “as required by its customers". Nominally Parliament has control because every two years a paper about currency is "laid before Parliament" but no action is ever taken to restrict the permitted amount and usually it is not even debated.

The way additional currency gets into circulation is Britain is described by Professor Parish:
  In some countries it [the government] might simply print more notes and use them to pay for its expenditure. Nowadays, in a country such as Great Britain, the government would borrow from the banks, printing more notes to enable the banks to maintain their cash reserves. (See Benham's Economics, p. 465).
The proceeds of the additional notes are of course credited to the government's account.
Editors