Monday, October 29, 2018

50 Years Ago: State Insurance (1961)

The 50 Years Ago column from the July 1961 issue of the Socialist Standard

Just as with Labour Exchanges and Old Age Pensions, so with the latest dodge, State Insurance, it is a soporific. All along the line of Liberal legislation an examination shows that the benefit go to the employing class, not to the employed. 

*

Lloyd George, at Birmingham, exposed the mockery of the claim that those measures are being introduced to benefit the working class. He said:
   "Take a brewer’s horse How well he is looked after—well fed, cared for and doctored. If he does not feel up to the mark he has got a guardian there specially looking after him. He says there is something the matter with his horse today. He is kept there, is doctored, until he is right. That is not merely humanity, it is good business.”
* 

Just so. To keep the worker in a fit condition ensures a greater output, and the increased efficiency resulting from such condition will enable the employer to wring more profit out of his victim, for, while the labour-power may cost a little more, the return is certain to be greater.

*

A paper issued by the Government contains still more significant statements from German employers who have experienced the working of similar insurance schemes. . , .

From the "Chemical Industry" comes the statement that:
  "From the standpoint of the employers these laws are remunerative to the extent that the efficiency of the worker is increased, and without the insurance laws correspondingly higher wages would have to be paid."
* 

Just as Germany a few years ago recognised that in order to obtain the markets of the world they must have efficient labourers, so today, the British capitalists, ever behind, realise that to combat Germany they most economise, they must obtain a better quality of labour-power — if possible — without increasing its cost. Hence there is a welling-up of the milk of human kindness in the capitalist breast, and we get State Insurance and the like.
[From the
 Socialist Standard, July. 1911.]


Forward to Socialism (1961)

From the July 1961 issue of the Socialist Standard

First, let us have some facts about the position of the workers in this country today. So much political capital has been made out of the workers alleged “prosperity"  that if we merely succeed in getting the facts and establishing the truth, we shall have done something really worthwhile.

A few facts, then, about the distribution and ownership of wealth. One of the most recent assessments is Professor Morgans book The Structure of Property Ownership in Britain. Professor Morgan estimates that the total nominal wealth of this country today is £40,355 millions. Of this, 5 per cent or 1 in every 20 own a total of £30,000 million. That means that the remaining 95 per cent own a balance of £11,000 millions. In other words, 1/20 of the population owns 3/4 of the nation’s wealth. The remaining 19/20 own about a quarter between them, but of this 95 per cent over a half own nothing.

In I960 10 million people paid Income Tax on £10/20 a week; nearly 6 million paid on £3 to £10 weekly; while only 16,000 paid tax on over £10,000 a year income. That means that less than one in a thousand gets £200 a week. The number of millionaires in Great Britain increased from 37 in 1956 to 67 in 1961. An increase of 30 in live years. Some, such as Mr. Clore, Mr. Hugh Fraser and Mr. Cotton, are multi-millionaires. of the order of 15 to 20 million or more. As might be expected, many increased their wealth by vast "take over" deals.

In the lint quarter of 1960, there were mergers to the tune of £200 million. The first quarter of 1961 more than doubled this figure with £427 millions, which included the largest bid of all time—£130 million for Ford's Motor Works, besides £39 million for Odhams Press. Six per cent more retail trade passed into the hands of the great multiple combines in 1950/60.

How have the wage earners fared? From 1938 to 1960 real wages (i.e. what wages will actually buy) have increased by 22 per cent.  [London and Cambridge Economic Service] This is based on the Ministry of Labour's Price Index, which always starts an argument. What must be remembered is that this is for manual workers only (whose wages were low to start with in 1938). Were the clerical workers, local Government lower grade Civil Servants and teachers included there would hardly be any increase. Behind the purely nominal increases, real wages have remained practically stationary.

On the other hand, the workers staged 800 more strikes in 1960 than in 1959 with 200,000 more workers involved, showing that they are not as docile as their employers would like. Assessment of the situation in 1961 would be incomplete without some reference to Automation.

In practice, this means that more processes are controlled by pre-set electronic and other devices. The worker has less choice than ever in the character and quality of his product, and so is more completely than ever the appendage of a machine. It ensures that workers work regularly at a faster pace, and is a fruitful source of more surplus value and higher profits. The large amount of overtime worked, and long hours spent in travelling to and fro, do not improve matters. Working hours remained around the 46/47 hour mark. Where decreases ate obtained they barely compensate for Automation. In fact, 1960 might be summed up by saying that it gave the very best that workers can expect under Capitalism—plenty of work.

Unfortunately workers cannot get straight improvements under capitalism —they all have strings. Wages may improve, but with a big demand for labour, up go rents and the price of food and necessaries. So that, overall, it might be said that in spite of the fantastic technical developments of the last decade—the fundamental position of the worker (with his television set) remains the same. With the Frenchman he can say “The move it changes, the more it remains the same." And this, after hundreds of Reforms, scores of leaders, the finest Health Service, the best Insurance Scheme and the most democratic rights in the world.

Perhaps I ought to say a word about atomic power, space-flight, the penetration of the mantle of the inner earth etc. Apparently some people think that all this supersedes or invalidates Socialism. So far from refuting the analysis of Capitalism as a passing stage in social development which prepares the ground for Socialist society, they confirm it.

Marx can well stand on his own feet, needing no prop from anyone. All who take the trouble to read what he wrote, will find the definition of Capitalism as the explosive destroyer of the Old World. It is unmistakable. Does the following sound out-of-date? Is it old- fashioned? Victorian? 19th Century?
  The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarous nations, into civilisation. The cheap prices of all commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese Walls. It compels all nations to adopt Capitalist production. . . .
   It has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. . . .  It keeps on doing away with the scattered state of the population centralised means of production and concentrates property in a few hands. Independent provinces become one Nation, one Government, one law with one frontier and Customs barrier.
  . . .  The capitalists have created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.
 Subjection of Nature's forces to Man, machinery, application of chemistry to Industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole countries for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground—what earlier century had ever a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?
Now a word about the political scene. Conservatives still command a majority. For years now the Labour Party has been losing ground. So much so, that the Liberals have actually staged a revival.

Surely this is the tragedy of our generation! That the Party which claimed that it had successfully "united" all the motley crowd of which it was formed, should today be torn into contending factions is no fluke, but the inevitable result of its original blunders in [1906]. But that bewildered workers should turn back to Liberalism in their despair is tragic

The Labour Party was born out of the idea of working class political action. Many of its prominent figureheads claimed to be Socialists. Even more than this, they claimed to be "practical" Socialists who knew the way to get Socialism without explaining it to the workers. To quote from the Party's Foundation Manifesto:
  This political party of the workers can only be a Socialist Party because Socialism alone is based on the facts of working class existence. Socialism alone can free the workers from the necessity of selling himself for the profit of a master. Socialism alone will strip him of his merchandise character, and allow him to become a full social being.
This has never been understood by Labour, I.L.P., Communist and other Parties. It is for this reason that the Resolution which created the Labour Party stated that the new Party “would cooperate with any other group in support of any measure in the interests of Labour, in the House.” Capitalist Parties cannot work in the interests of the working class.

Why, the Labour leaders actually started activities with pacts with Liberals against Tories, they advocated, like Mr. Harry Judd of the S.D.F. at Northampton in 1900 “Unity to defeat the Tories" just as the Communist Party does now with the Labourites. This was the start of a 57-year record of job-hunting and place seeking, culminating in the Labour Government, in which the Labour leaders systematically opposed the very reform measures they had themselves used, to clamber into positions of power.

War, Conscription in peace-time, Strike-breaking by Troops, Wage Freeze, Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs, they have supported all these and actually implemented most of them. Their Nationalisation schemes, with their disastrous failure to understand that Society (meaning today, the workers) or the “Community" cannot “control" industry without owning (that means taking them out of capitalist hands) through political power first, are bogged down and discredited. Their housing projects, as soon as they became landlords, bring them both opposition and hatred.

The myth of the working class marching steadily forward to Socialism by increasing Labour majorities is well and truly finished.
Horatio.

Coventry Re-Blitzed (1961)

Party News from the July 1961 issue of the Socialist Standard

We arrived in Coventry at about 11.30 a.m. and by noon we had our platform up and our literature displayed on our stand. The speaker opened the meeting and comrades moved to the various points, some selling “Standards” and pamphlets and others distributing “Introductory” leaflets with the address of the Coventry group stamped on them. Soon we had a sizeable audience and the questions came fast and furious.

In the afternoon an individual in the audience, using some youthful arrivals from the local beer shop, attempted to create some trouble. This eventually caused a rumpus and Party members were obliged to rally to the aid of the platform.

Soon after we had reopened the meeting, the local police arrived on the scene. They insisted that we close the meeting, but not before our speaker had put the issue to the audience and secured a majority vote of hands for us to carry on. Nevertheless, we were obliged to give way to the forces of the State, and dismantled our platform to cries of "Shame” from the audience — directed at the police.

During our 'break' we were approached by the police inspectors to whom we gave the necessary details of the Party, and this provided amusing incidents, such as our inability to furnish details of our "leaders”. Just think of it; 57 years organised and no leaders to show for it! What did emerge during the course of the discussion was the fact that the police had been sent for by the local stores; British Home Stores flanked us on one side and Marks and Spencers on the other Marks and Spencers certainly didn’t want Mars and Engels! The Precinct in Coventry is the city's open, ultra modern, traffic-free shopping centre, and our meeting had attracted so many people that it was impossible to get into or out of the stores on either side. The Superintendent of the police later remarked that, whoever we were, we certainly hit Coventry with a bang, and apparently this was loud enough to stop the “commercial symphony” being played on the cash register bells!

However, we finally fixed things so that we could open again, and this we did at 4.30 p.m.. though in a different spot. We shouldn’t have been speaking at the first one in any case. We carried on for about half-an-hour and then had to vacate the speaking place in favour of some hot-gospellers (this description provided by the police), who had apparently booked it. So back we went to the scene of our former triumph, and here we carried on a successful meeting with no interruptions until 7 p.m.

We distributed 400 "Introductory" leaflets, sold literature to the value of £2 9s. 3d., made numerous contacts for the Coventry Group, and rolled back to London, highly pleased with our day's work and determined to return to Coventry in the near future.

Since the above report was written we have heard of two further propaganda ventures in Coventry. On June 10th and 17th London members joined with our Coventry comrades in running very successful outdoor meetings.

Branch News (1961)

Party News from the July 1961 issue of the Socialist Standard

Ealing
The branch is carrying on with its programme of fortnightly discussions during the summer months, alternatively with the usual business meetings. Comrade Jack Law gave a very interesting lecture on the Jehovah's Witnesses last month and will be giving another on the “Opening up of the American West” on July 7th. Members are asked to make this meeting as successful as the last. The weekly outdoor propaganda meetings have started at Earls Court and all members are asked to make a special effort to support them. They are held every Thursday, at. 8 p.m. A group of members went down to Southsea for an outdoor meeting on Sunday, June 25th. It is hoped to give a report on this next month.


Glasgow (Kelvingrove)
During May the branch held six meetings. Literature sales were SS. £1 9s. 0d., Pamphlets £1 0s. 8d., Collections £2 15s. 10d. Average audience 32. Members and a sympathiser attended four CND Rallies and sold £1 3s. 0d. S.S. and 13s. 10d. pamphlets. They had discussions with CND members and found some “ very sympathetic to our case,” who had “ met Party members in London.”


Nottingham
Comrade Powe gave a lecture to Leicester Secular Society on “Religion, Secularism, Socialism.” Fifty people were present and 8s. literature was sold. One open-air meeting was held in Leicester and two were held in Nottingham. It is hoped to follow up the Leicester meetings later. Literature sold 18s. Audiences at meetings: 40-50, 30-70, and 100 respectively. This is really good news as the Party has held meetings in Leicester in the past and it is most gratifying that we are renewing our contacts there.


London
A reminder of the meeting being held at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, on Wednesday , July 19th, at 7.30 p.m. Comrades will recall the very successful meeting held at St. Pancras Town Hall in April. This was well organised and most stimulating for all who participated. Lessons were learned from this meeting and as a result the Conway Hall meeting should be exceptionally well supported and organised. Members and sympathisers—rally to the meeting and keep up the good work.
Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London.July 19th, 7.30 PM
Please note your diaries and bring as many friends along as possible. There is a good gallery and plenty of standing room, in addition to the spacious hall on the ground floor.


Bristol
Durdham Downs is the regular outdoor meeting place for the Bristol Group members who have been holding meetings this season. During the month of May four meetings were held, audience averaging 50 and literature sales 9s. 6d. The comrades are hoping that with constant support they will be able to continue throughout the summer with increasing interest from the workers of Bristol.


Canada
The candidate of the Socialist Party of Canada polled 149 votes in the British Columbia election. This result is surprisingly good in view of the fact that the Branch of the Party was only formed there comparatively recently and the constituency is mainly agricultural. Their candidate had two half-hours on T.V. and a brief appearance after the vote was counted. He also had twenty minutes on the local radio, and four days before the election another ten minutes, which was re-broadcast the same day. He also had a brief recording on the Canadian Broadcasting system, as well as two or three long-distance calls from prominent writers. each of which occupied about ten minutes, enquiring about the Object and Principles of the Party. One thing the Victorian members are sure of is that thousands of people have heard their message for the first time, and a lot of confusion about the relation of Socialism to Soviet Communism was cleared up. We congratulate our overseas comrades on the effort they have put in and the results they have obtained.


Ireland
We learn from the W.S.P. of Ireland that owing to the death of a recently elected candidate in one of the wards, they are again entering the election contest. They tell us that, in their opinion, the greatest single factor in obtaining their surprisingly high vote was because they emphasised the international nature of their message, and the fact that they are part of a greater movement. They also make this further statement :
  We are inclined to accept the view that the terrible apathy existing here, as elsewhere. is not as unhealthy as it would appear. The workers may not yet have awakened to the need for Socialism, but they are beginning to demonstrate that they at least realise that so far whatever party they have voted for no change ensues for them—hence the abstentionists are the real majority—they continue to accept capitalism, but they are not voting for it. We believe that, especially among such people, real effort on our part can carry the day and convince them that there is something worth voting for. The fact that we are small numerically does not mean that the influence of our propaganda is not being felt; many people are quite prepared to vote and think with us to the exclusion of all others, even if they are not prepared at this stage to join us. In this we see much hope.
Phyllis Howard

What was fascism? (1999)

Book Review from the September 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Fascism: Theory and Practice By Dave Renton. Pluto Press.

Fascism was basically an extreme form that nationalism took in Italy and Germany, for reasons specific to the particular history of these capitalist states, in the period between the 20th century’s two world wars.

Fascism originated in Italy in 1919 in Italy when Mussolini set up the fascisti di combattimento, so called after units of the Roman army. Later the word was used in relation to a similar extreme nationalist movement in Germany even though this described itself as “national-socialist” (Nazi) rather than fascist. Both these movements won control of political power more or less constitutionally, in Italy in 1922 and in Germany in 1933, and proceeded to establish a one-party dictatorship with mass organisations to embrigade the population and preaching that all members of the “nation” had a common interest. Fascism/Nazism was implacably opposed to Marxism for its internationalism and its advocacy of the class struggle within nations.

Analysing this new phenomenon, which represented political regression compared with how Marx and Marxists until the first world war had seen things developing (political democracy, then socialism), was a challenge to those who called themselves Marxists. It is how they met this challenge that Renton’s book describes. Well-written and easy-to-read it suffers from the defect that its author is an SWP member who sees Trotsky as a brilliant political thinker. But Trotsky was disqualified from usefully contributing to the debate since, although he wasn’t a racist, he too favoured a one-party dictatorship.

The SWP makes campaigning against the fascist grouplets that exist today one of its top priorities but since fascism is only an extreme development of nationalism they ought also to campaign against nationalism. Only they don’t; they support the so-called “right of nations to self-determination”, a doctrine which accepts the myth that “nations”—and so “aliens”—exist and so provides ideological ammunition to justify “ethnic cleansing” of members of other “nations” living on a “nation’s” territory.
Adam Buick

Headlines (1999)

Editorial from the September 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

  • GOVERNMENT ADMITS NEW CABINETS WILL MEET IN SECRET (Camden New Journal, 11 April)
  • BLAIR ATTACKS “SNOBS” WHO DERIDE WEALTH (Times, 7 July)
  • SCHOOL TEST MANIA “KILLING CREATIVITY” (Independent, 15 July)

These recent headlines neatly sum up the activity of the Labour government in three particular areas—constitutional reform, enterprise culture and education.

Labour’s constitutional reforms are only a red herring, to allow it to pose as a reforming party even though it is unable and unwilling to deliver any social reforms (and in fact is continuing to whittle them away, as the disabled, single mothers and the unemployed can testify). But their constitutional changes are not even democratic. Instead of the pure and simple abolition of the House of Lords they are planning to turn it from a mixture of hereditary and appointed Lords into a House of Appointees only. The headline above refers to one of their proposals that will make local government less democratic: the replacing of the present system of committees meeting in public by an elected Mayor presiding over a cabinet that meets in secret.

Addressing a meeting of the British Venture Capital Association in July, Blair sounded exactly like Thatcher when he denounced most people’s disdain for so-called self-made businessmen and women as “unhealthy”. Instead of looking down on them he said, “we need society as a whole to applaud you”, and he pledged himself to instil such a healthy attitude to these cockroach capitalists even in schools. There can be no doubt about it. Thatcher’s programme of encouraging “enterprise culture” to pollute every aspect of life is in safe hands under Blair.

On education, the Labour government has made things worse for school students and teachers: testing, competition and tables of winners and losers have been extended even further than under the Tories. The headline here introduced a report of a speech by the author of children’s books David Almond who summed up Labour’s education policies as:
  Get kids into school fast! Get them assessed while they are in nappies! Get them going into literacy clubs, numeracy clubs, lunchtime learning clubs, holiday learning clubs! Holidays? Let’s cut them. School day? Let’s lengthen it. Homework? One hour? No, let’s make it two, eh! Let’s see them, children and teachers, work, work, work.
Inevitably, this has led to a fourth headline: “Exams criticised as ‘child abuse’. Children driven to suicide, reports Mark Henderson” (Times, 28 July).

Labour once used to be a reformist party which claimed to be able to impose socialist values—democracy, equality, co-operation not competition—on capitalist society. It was an impossible project of course which was bound to fail because capitalism can only work as capitalism. Now Labour is an openly capitalist party trying to impose capitalist values on those who haven’t absorbed them.

How right Socialists were to have had nothing to do with the Labour Party from the start.

50 Years Ago: The Devaluation of the Labour Party (1999)

The 50 Years Ago column from the November 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

The devaluation of the pound after repeated denials by Cripps that it would be devalued, is a symptom of the mental bankruptcy of the Labour Party. Gone is the easy optimism of 1945, when they were confident they could control and plan the capitalist system. Now all can see that capitalist forces are in control, driving them from one panicky expedient to another, all of the methods resorted to by Liberal and Tory Governments in past crises. (. . . ) “Fact”, the Labour Party Bulletin, for August, 1949, was even more unlucky. It came out against devaluation only a few weeks before Cripps introduced it. This is what it said:- “Thus if devaluation succeeded in closing the gap (which is doubtful) it would do so by lowering our standard of living. The pound would buy less in Tooting and Bradford, as well as in New York and Winnipeg. Devaluation is therefore an alternative to wage-slashing as a device for cutting our prices at the expense of the mass of the people” This was a boomerang indeed. Capitalism offers to those who administer it just such choices of evils as the one mentioned. Having to choose between devaluation (with higher prices and frozen wages) and wage-slashing, the Labour Government chose devaluation in order to avoid a headlong clash with the workers. The clash is not avoided, only deferred. 
[From Socialist Standard, November 1949]

It’s bitter out (1999)

John Major with Edwina Currie.
TV Review from the November 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Old politicians never die, they’ve just been off for a bit writing their memoirs. So it has been with John Major, whose book BBC1 has been kindly promoting in its three-part series The Major Years.

Looking back on Major’s premiership, it’s amazing how such an apparently grey and placid man could have been at the centre of such sustained political turbulence. In many ways it was surprising that he became Prime Minister at all—he certainly didn’t fit the mode of the typical Tory politician. Humble beginnings, a Brixton childhood, state education with three ‘O’ levels, and a father who spent most of his time as an odd-jobbing circus performer do not exactly point the way towards a future Tory premier.

Indeed, one of the most fascinating and noticeable features of the series is what it left out—which is why, in the first place, Major became a Tory at all. Why is it that that he was attracted towards a political party based on an unabashed defence of privilege and Establishment interests?

Other aspects of Major’s life were revealed superbly, like so many layers taken off an onion. And yes, Major revealed some tears too, for the way people sneered at his upbringing when he knew that his parents were decent people with far more guts and application than the chinless wonders in the Tory Party who looked down on them.

The political parties people choose to join can be highly revealing, the more so when there are no easily identifiable social or class explanations on hand to explain their choice. It is then that a deeper, more psychological approach is needed, and this is clearly the case with Major. Just what on earth drives any teenager with Major’s social and class background to get up on a soapbox every weekend in Brixton to defend the Tory Party?

Greasers
Clearly, Major thought that joining the Young Conservatives would give him some social and career advantages, and he was not alone in that. But as was revealed in this series, there was more to it than this. It was as if he wished to prove himself amongst those who looked down on him most and treated him like a spec of dust. A more natural inclination might be to fight this sneering attitude and the people responsible for it from without, such as in the Labour Party or the political left. Major chose to fight it from within and then triumph among his natural enemies.

What was unfortunate for both his peace of mind and his political career was that despite rising to the very top of the Conservative tree, Major was never actually able to defeat the snobs and sneerers in his own Party. Socially brittle, he never truly felt accepted and was their prisoner whatever he did and wherever he went. Indeed, as Premier he saw them everywhere, trying to belittle him and bring him down, both in Parliament and in the Tory press.

John Major as PM was distinctive for two things which were in themselves intimately related—his working class origins and the thinness of his political skin. In terms of his background, Major probably fits closer to an academic sociologist’s definition of “the working class” than any other British Prime Minister. And, not without coincidence, he was the most politically sensitive and fragile PM in modern history, with only Harold Wilson having run him close.

In striving to understand Major it is not necessary to suggest that we should feel sorry for him. Major was a man who did an immense amount of damage to the working class, both in Britain and of course abroad, including in countries like Iraq. And in a Party full of greasers and back-stabbers, John Major could more than hold his own. He was not, as his political aide Judith Chaplin revealed, an entirely pleasant man.

What is most illustrative of all about him though—and this series brought it out as well as could be expected—are the inherent dangers involved in clambering up the greasy pole of capitalism. In this sense Major is not unique as there are tens of thousands of John Majors throughout Britain in almost every walk of life—fundamentally decent people with “something to prove” and who set out to prove it by squirming their way to the top, whether it be in politics, industry, finance or education. That process involves them taking up actions, adopting prejudices and engaging in relationships with people which are fundamentally unhealthy and based on nothing more than power, preferment and the settling of scores. As John Major proved, that is rarely if ever a route to sustained happiness and a fulfilled life. It is virtually guaranteed, instead, to lead to a whole lifetime of spite, resentments and bitterness. And if Major himself needs further proof of that he should take an even longer, harder look than he already has done at his immediate predecessor, with whom he has far more in common than he has ever realised.
Dave Perrin

“Everybody did what they could” (1999)

From the November 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard
On Tuesday October 5th, at 8.11am, a Great Western express and Thames Trains commuter service smashed head on at a combined speed of 120mph just outside Paddington station. 31 people were killed.
Preliminary reports after the Ladbroke Grove train crash suggest that the Thames Trains driver passed a signal at danger, resulting in both trains being on the same track. The relevant signal—number 109—is the same one thought to have been involved in a near-miss incident in February 1998 when another Great Western express managed to brake in time to avoid a stationary London-bound Heathrow Express train. Rail sources have also reportedly acknowledged that “seven trains run by Thames Trains have, over the last 12 months, passed through signal 109 while on red” (Guardian, October 6). Such overshoots, known as SPADs (signals passed at danger) rose from 593 in 1997 to 643 in 1998. This does not automatically mean it is drivers at fault. Drivers have made a series of complaints about signal 109, pointing out it is badly situated and obscured by overhead cables and a pylon. Furthermore, train drivers are under pressure not to be late, to avoid their firms being fined by the train companies franchise director. And drivers work long hours while having to carry out repetitive button-pressing hundreds of times a day, and are therefore more prone to dangerous tiredness and boredom.

On the very same stretch of line two years ago, the Southall crash killed seven after a Great Western express jumped a red light and smashed into a goods train crossing its path. The firm was fined £1.5 million for breaking safety regulations after a court was told that one of the train’s key safety devices, the Advance Warning System which should have sounded a Klaxon before reaching each danger signal, was not working. In the court case, the judge remarked “There appears to be a conflict between profit and safety”.

Cost-per-file calculations
In 1989, the year after the Clapham crash in which 35 people died, its inquiry chairman Anthony Hidden recommended a failsafe system called Automatic Train Protection (ATP). It regulates train speeds, ruling out red signal overruns. However, capitalist “cost per life” calculations came up with a figure of £14 million to prevent each future death with ATP, and a total expenditure of around £1 billion to fit it throughout the network. Both the previous and present governments saw this cost as prohibitive, and in August this year, John Prescott opted for a much cheaper (£150 million) Train Protection and Warning System (TPWS), which gave a more “acceptable” £2.5 million cost-per-life calculation.

Immediately after the Ladbroke Grove crash, John Prescott said that his decision to implement TPWS had “nothing to do with cost”. And speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on October 7, when asked who would pay for installing the far better system (which the deputy PM had suddenly become very keen on), Prescott simply replied “finance isn’t a problem”. Pressed a second time, he said “It could be industry. I don’t think it necessarily has to be a charge on government . . . It is not a problem”. This is not so. If the 25 train operating companies are made to pay around £2 billion at today’s prices for ATP (or any other more advanced system), this charge would have to be passed on passengers through raised prices. Additionally, huge state subsidies (£1.8 billion in 1997-98) paid to the train operating companies are due to be reduced to £0.9 billion by 2002-03. The combined extra financial burden could make rail transport far less competitive in comparison with private cars, coach and bus journeys, and deter many from using trains. That loss of competitiveness would mean a significant loss of profits, and since profits are capitalism’s priority, the fact is ensuring maximum safety on the railways would turn into a commercial disaster.

What capitalist solution to over-expensive or under-safe rail travel can we expect now the old British Rail network has been broken into 100 component parts by privatisation in the dog days of John Major’s government? Car drivers having to pay yet higher prices for petrol and diesel to force them to use trains? There has to be a limit to what millions of motoring will tolerate before voting against those imposing the charges. Asking Gordon Brown to pay up? Surely not after all Blair’s meritocratic free-market praise and rejection of “old” Labour. Raised wages and salaries to cover more costly fares? Most unwelcome for firms in an increasingly competitive global market. Could William Hague offer us a way out? Hardly. His willingness to take unemployment benefits away from anyone refusing to accept a lousy job shows considerable admiration for market forces. Liberal Democrats? Just another bunch of lookalike politicians. So what’s the answer? Let us take another look at what happened in the Ladbroke Grove crash, for not only was this a result of capitalism’s profits-before-people unavoidability, but a far better diametrically opposite way of living and working was suddenly revealed amidst the chaos.

Unforced co-operation
At Ladbroke Grove, socialists saw for a brief period capitalism’s habitual grip on people’s lives shaken off by a shared disaster, and humankind’s suppressed helpful co-operative nature suddenly came to the fore. Despite jagged mangled wreckage, fire and fumes that survivors had to escape from immediately after the impact, commuters who had been reticent strangers just moments earlier, disjointed by a competitive and individualistic marketplace, unselfishly acted to save and assist others. From getting ready to hurry off the express train and compete in a rush for the tube, taxis and buses to reach places of employment, instead, authoritative suits were removed to helpfully beat out burning clothing of others. Working women wearing heels teetered back and forth to support those more seriously hurt. Residents living nearby rushed over with ladders to reach down to the track to provide assistance. Workers at a Sainsbury’s store commandeered first aid supplies for lacerations, and bags of frozen food for burns. Staff at a school helped emergency services turn their premises into a makeshift field hospital. As one person said, “everybody did what they could”. Such abundant unforced co-operation for the benefit of all in need is how it should be; how it would be, but how it won’t be while profit-takers, their politicians, money mechanism, bureaucrats, rules and law enforcers act together to maintain capitalism’s divisive and exploitative system.

It is somewhat encouraging that every time a horrific rail, ship or air crash occurs, many people will now complain angrily to radio programmes and the press, that profit has yet again been put before people. This will almost always be true, but regrettably, come election time, this awareness and sanity about the danger of living in a profit-driven economy has usually been driven from voters minds by endless media coverage of wholly irrelevant policies on income tax, unemployment, minimum wage rates etc. And off a majority will go to mark their crosses beside some candidate who wants to govern capitalism. Such voting then guarantees yet another five years of business profit-making and cost savings having pre-eminence, thereby keeping going the conditions that will give rise to further money-related disasters.

However, with so many people now aware how much harm and misery profits can cause, the socialist alternative of the safest possible travel systems with no financial restraints whatsoever, and no over-worked stressed-out workers, appears more clearly as the way out. If people come to see that profits themselves only exist because a minority have unjust possession of what the majority need, and this dominant class exploit both with damaging anti-social consequences, then all that unfocused anger would linger, politicians’ gibberish and worthless promises would be ignored, and there would be ever-increasing support for common ownership of vital industries and other productive assets, along with politician-free democratic control over how these are used. This is genuine socialism. It has never existed anywhere. It would make restrictive and dangerous money completely obsolete. Take a little time to find out more about this people-first system before your next trip to the polling stations (or some other serious trip).
Max Hess

The great GM food scare (1999)

From the November 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard
Popular opinion is running high against food from genetically engineered plants, but is the enemy really GM science and technology or capitalism which misuses it in the service of profit?
Only a fruitarian or a nutarian can logically object to the genetic modification of plants as such. This is because humans have been genetically modifying crops ever since we took up agriculture in place of hunting and gathering. Agriculture when it started involved planting wild crops instead of simply gathering them. Over thousands of years, by selecting for planting the following year the seeds of the plants that had exhibited more of the desired characteristics, humans have considerably modified the genetic make-up of virtually all the cereals, vegetables and fruits that we eat. Until the end of the last century—when the gene was discovered—humans did not know exactly what it was they were doing when they improved plants for human consumption through such "artificial selection". But what they were doing was favouring certain genes at the expense of others and so in effect "genetically modifying" the plants in question.

Since the advent of scientific genetics in the last part of the 19th century plant breeders have known what they were trying to do—to change a plant's genotype—but were still largely restricted to the traditional techniques of artificial selection and cross-breeding. It was not until further advances in scientific understanding of genetics in the 50s and 60s allowed specific genes governing specific features to be identified that the prospect of a new technique for genetic modification was opened up: inserting a particular gene directly into a plant's DNA.

This technique which has come to be known as "transgenetics" or "GM technology" is in this sense an alternative to traditional plant breeding techniques, a short-cut to the same end of modifying the genetic make-up of the plants, fruits and vegetables we eat. GM technology was first applied experimentally to plants in the 80s and commercially only in the past decade. Today it is estimated that already perhaps 50 percent of all plantings in the US are of transgenetic seeds, though this is not yet allowed in Europe. At the moment transgenetic procedures in agriculture have been used mainly to make crops resistant to weed-killers and insects, but in the future it should be possible to directly modify plants' DNA so that they can grow in colder or warmer or wetter or drier or salty or less salty conditions; which would allow food production to be increased.

However, we are living in a capitalist world and it is in such a world that these techniques are being developed and applied, a world where the priority both of seed producers and farmers is profit. This has meant that GM techniques have not necessarily been used in the way they would have been in a socialist world where the priority would be satisfying people's needs not profits.

To blame the use to which these techniques have been put under capitalism on the techniques themselves rather than on capitalism is a mistake; a mistake, it has to be said, that is frequently made by many Greens and environmentalists and which leads to the more extreme of them adopting anti-technology and anti-science views.

Capitalist context
Various objections have been made to GM technology and crops. On examination most turn out to be objections to the use to which GM technology is currently being put or to the context—capitalism—in which it is being applied.

In May a Working Party set up by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics reported on Genetically Modified Crops: the Ethical and Social Issues. They examined both sides of the argument, summarising the case put by those against GM crops as follows:
  . . . that GM food technology is a threat to human health and/or the environment and that its introduction will raise the profits of private suppliers whilst at the same time depriving poor producers of primary commodities access to markets and to the new varieties of seed (1.3).
Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether or not GM food is a threat to human health or the environment, it is clear that the third objection is not to the technique itself but to the possible effects of its application within the present economic system of production for sale on a market with a view to profit.

This is made even more explicit when the Report sets out in detail this part of the case against GM crops:
  The question of whether we should be concerned about the distribution of the potential benefits of genetically modified (GM) crops arises on two counts. The first count is that commercial considerations will lead agrochemical and seed businesses to concentrate research and development (R&D) predominantly on markets in developed rather than developing countries. This is unlikely to encourage the prospect of using genetic modification for a significant improvement in food security for the world's poor . . . The second count is the fear that the commercial exploitation of GM crop R&D will only promote the profitability of a small group of large companies rather than the wider public interests of consumers, farmers and researchers (3.1).
  The limitation of access to materials and processes by restriction of licensing is a major concern for organisations outside the main group of agrichemical multinational companies. We have already noted that most of the basic technologies of genetic modification are patented and that these patents are owned by the larger companies . . . (3.46).
  Another concern is whether GM crops would radically change land-use patterns. If the modification of a crop were to make it much more profitable than many other crops, farmers might switch to it on a large scale (6.33).
All these things are indeed likely to happen within the context of capitalism. Existing GM crops have been developed and patented by multinational corporations such as Monsanto in order to increase their profits; the main market for present GM seeds will be large-scale agribusiness and it is on this market that Monsanto and the others will concentrate; if farmers can make more profits by growing GM crops they will do so and land use will change accordingly with any effects this might have on the previously existing ecological balance; peasants and small-scale farmers in the rest of the world will continue to be outcompeted and left to rot.

But this is not the fault of GM technology itself but of the type of agriculture that has developed under capitalism. Existing types of GM crops have been developed as a response to the ever-present pressures under capitalism on firms, including agribusinesses, to reduce their costs of production so as to be able to outcompete rivals in the race for profits. If GM crops were not cheaper to grow they would not have been marketed or planted commercially.

However, even if GM crops were banned (which won't happen—sooner or later Europe will be forced by competitive pressures to follow North America's example as the only way of avoiding being outsold on home and world markets) these pressures would still operate but would then have to operate—as they have done up to now—through the development of cheaper ways of growing non-GM crops that would still be to the detriment of "poor producers of primary commodities".

One of the objections to GM technology is to the "terminator" gene which at present has only been only been patented but which is a gene that would render sterile the seed of a crop modified by inserting it, thereby forcing farmers to buy seeds for the next season from the multinational agrochemical corporations instead of saving some of the season's crop as "seed corn" as they have done for generations. It is only under capitalism, where the aim is not to improve human welfare but to make a profit for capitalist investors, that such a mad idea could have been thought up. This is such a blatant misuse of GM technology that there is no use labouring the point that it is capitalism not the technology that is to be blamed.

A threat to health and the environment? 
What about the other claims against GM foods? Do they harm the environment? Are they dangerous for humans?

Socialists can't claim any specialist scientific experience on these questions, only what the interested person can learn by studying the scientific literature. On this basis, while—after what happened over BSE—people are understandably sceptical about assurances of government officials or scientists employed by profit-seeking companies, it nevertheless seems to be the case that GM food need be no more dangerous to eat than non-GM food. Which is not to say that eating either is risk-free. Some current GM food may well contain antibiotic and chemical residues but then so does much non-GM food and this is no more an inherent feature of GM food than it is of non-GM food.

As to the effect on the environment, here again a confusion is often made between GM techniques and the context in which they are applied:
  Critics argue that the development of GM crops is perpetuating chemical use, when the goal should be to move away from it (6.23).
This is indeed a likely effect of most of the GM crops commercialised up till now, but chemical use cannot be blamed on GM technology. Chemical agriculture is encouraged and perpetuated by the fact that being cheaper, in the relatively short-term perspective that capitalism is only capable of taking, it enables those who practise it to outcompete in terms of price and sales those who practise other forms of agriculture. Here again, the banning of GM crops would make no difference. Chemical use would continue.

Organically-produced food is undoubtedly better but it has to recognised that these days most organic farmers are in it for profit (having switched from non-organic farming to try to make more profits by catering to a specialist niche market) and that some of them oppose GM technology because they feel it would give their non-organic rivals a competitive edge. However, GM technology could allow the development of plant varieties suitable to organic farming and there is no reason why GM crops too couldn't be grown organically. The opposition organic/non-organic does not have to be the same as the opposition GM/non-GM.

Throw out the bathwater 
People are right to be concerned about the food capitalism serves up to us but to blame GM technology for the effects of its application within the context of capitalism is to throw out the baby with the bathwater. As an extension of the genetic modification of crops that humans have been practising for thousands of years there can be no objection in principle to GM technology. Properly applied to enhance human welfare, as for instance by developing varieties of crops that grow better in conditions that are currently unfavourable, it is a baby that has a future in a socialist world free of profits, patents and markets. But by all means let us throw out the dirty bathwater that is capitalism. The sooner the better.
Adam Buick

Brexit, the Nation-state and the Workers (2016)

From the October 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

Over two months has now passed since the British people cast their vote on the UK’s  membership of the European Union. While the mass-participatory process of the referendum and aspects of the arguments used by either side were of some interest to socialists (rising above the norm of what now passes for politics), in the main the whole affair and its outcome were disappointing for us.

A question that was framed as having supreme importance (‘a once in a generation chance to set the future course of the country’) was yet again a debate about which particular version or configuration of capitalism should be selected. In this case, the specific question of whether a trans-national system of capitalism or a more traditional national organisation of capitalism, should be chosen.

Given that the vast majority of the electorate are members of the working class, that the turnout was relatively high and the vote was close to 50/50, it broadly means just under half the workers of Britain wanted to retain the current system while the other part wanted to return to the society that they either remembered or imagined existed before 1973. Socialists have no fundamental interest on adjudicating on this question. Nonetheless, Brexit will undoubtedly remain the dominant issue of British politics for years to come and it does shed some light on the current nature of the interaction between the state, the workers and the capitalists.

Split in the capitalist class
Although the referendum itself and the debate in the run-up to it were undoubtedly exercises in popular democracy, it wasn’t the authentic democracy that we espouse. The real struggle and motivation for the referendum was a conflict between two sections of the British capitalist class. It is true that many people attended public meetings, participated in radio phone-ins, went along to TV debates and engaged in on-line discussion forums. Most people genuinely believed in the views they shared with friends or colleagues.

However these ideas and arguments that they deployed were reflective of a wider climate that had been developing over the previous few decades. An underlying controversy has been growing in British capitalism at least since the late 1980s about the merits of Britain’s membership of the EU. Initially the manifestation of this was limited to the formation of small pressure groups associated with the Conservative Party and the occasional critical column in the right-wing press but Euro-scepticism soon spread into wider society. The very large capitalist companies have always supported the concept of the European Union. These multinationals can invest tens of billions of euros and accept regulations in return for a secure investment climate. They are not really concerned whether right-of-centre or left-of-centre governments are in power in any individual country across the many nations of Europe; all that counts is that there is a broadly similar, pro-business climate in these countries. The EU as the organisational framework in which this macro-policy is implemented is attractive to them.

However, some capitalists in Britain do not subscribe to this arrangement. These include small businesses mainly producing goods or supplying services for the local home market. They are concerned with day-to-day struggles to make and keep profits and for whom the regulations from Brussels are burdensome. Also there are large capitalist enterprises whose dominant trade in goods or services are to destinations outside the EU. It’s worth noting that the significant financial supporters of the Leave side came from these sectors of the economy (finance, retail, catering, publishing) where any benefits of EU membership are marginal.

Mendacity and exaggeration
Such a split in the capitalist class complicates the task of government. In most cases there is a consensual view amongst the capitalist class about the major economic questions of the day and the government (whatever its nominal persuasion) implements policies in line with this view with the justification to the public that it is necessary to promote and ensure prosperity. When a section of the capitalist class comes to a view that is divergent from more mainstream elements of the class (such as in this case the need to leave the EU) an alternative approach to directly liaising with government must be employed. Then enough voters (the vast majority being workers) must be encouraged to believe that the proposed policy needs to be implemented and they must be used to place pressure  on the government. In that sense the power that the universal franchise gives to workers is exploited. Given that the Leave side of capitalism were victorious, this leads to an analysis of the arguments that they deployed in the debate and why they ultimately proved successful.

First of all it has to be said that the Leave campaign told some whopping lies to get their vote out. The Remain side weren’t far behind in their overblown doom-laden predictions of economic catastrophe that would befall Britain after exit. Of course mendacity and exaggeration are part and parcel of political campaigns under capitalism and in fact one of the means by which workers are continually inveigled into supporting the continuation of the capitalist system election after election. The two main planks of the Leave campaign were the loss of democracy in being part of the EU and the inability to control levels of immigration from European countries into the UK (although the large EU membership fee was also a complaint). These two issues were summed up by their effective slogan of urging people to ‘take back control’.

The Leave side were appealing to two disparate target audiences with this message – firstly, patriotic and traditionalist people (more likely Tory voters) who never accepted the (slight) diminution of national sovereignty that was a requirement of EU membership. As socialists we say the argument about a lack of democracy is fallacious. Even in the context of political structures within capitalist states, the UK is one of the few democracies with both an unelected head of state and unelected second chamber. It has a vote counting system (first past the post) that typically creates huge discrepancies between votes received by any particular party and the number of MPs elected. In any case, real power within capitalism does not entirely lie with elected MPs. And of course the bureaucrats in Brussels, administering Euro-wide capitalism have no more or less a mandate than the bureaucrats in Whitehall handling exclusively British capitalism.

The second audience could be described as being more Labour-oriented in inclination. For example, the media reported disquiet in this constituency (‘working class communities’ as they were referred to) arising from globalisation and a feeling of being ‘left behind’. Capitalism has internationalised itself, which was always inevitable, but many workers are used to capitalism organised around the nation-state. Up to 2016, Britain may well have had the fastest growing economy in Europe, creating more jobs than the rest of EU but many of these came with low pay and zero hour contracts. One salient feature of this ‘new economy’ is that many workers (and not just those at the bottom of the income scale) have no prospect of being able to buy such a basic item of human need as a house. The Leave side cannily exploited this dissatisfaction by giving the impression that in the UK there were only a certain number of houses that could be built, a certain number of school places available, a certain number of appointments at GP surgeries and that every extra foreigner reduced the availability of these to the home citizen. The Leave campaign unscrupulously played on this sense of insecurity and anger to appeal to national instincts among workers. In that sense, many workers voted on national rather than class lines (as indeed they unfortunately do in most elections in most countries).

Right-wing populism
While many of the small left-wing groups encouraged a Leave vote (whereas socialists want an end to all versions of capitalism whether nationally based or globally organised), the main thrust of the Leave side had all the time-honoured hallmarks of right wing populism. This was most clearly manifested by the political party UKIP being the main grass-roots organisation of the Brexiteers, led by Nigel Farage. Farage is a former Tory and in his espousal of anti-immigrant solutions to the problems of modern society, especially during insecure times, has had many predecessors in European history. Currently Donald Trump is ploughing a similar furrow in the United States trying to exploit the disenchantment of a subset of American workers (white, blue collar) with the failures of capitalism to provide them with a decent life. In normal conditions, the Labour Party might have successfully countered the atavistic appeal of UKIP but one important side-effect of the campaign (that has become a front page story in its aftermath) concerns the travails of the Labour Party.

For a hundred years it has declared itself the voice of unionised workers and their families, initially seeking to transform the capitalist system, then settling for attempting to ameliorate the worst excesses of capitalism before finally under the Blair/Brown leadership being a straightforward manager of the system virtually indistinguishable from the rival Tory party. This complete capitulation to capitalism and abandonment of even the rhetoric of change has produced a wide swathe of disillusioned former Labour voters, many of whom were enticed into switching to UKIP. It is true that Jeremy Corbyn, as the current leader, has injected some excitement into progressive politics. However his election last year in some ways only emphasises the erratic and rudderless state of the Labour Party; going from Blair, arguably its most right-wing leader in history now to its most left-wing leader, and within a relatively short time frame.

Ultimately the outcome of the vote was surprising and generally unwanted by the leaders of global capitalism. Since the end of the Second World War, the trend has been towards a globalised organisation of capitalism driven by the major international companies (the top tier of capitalism). Of course as with all socio-economic patterns, this trend does not proceed smoothly but occurs in fits and starts though the underlying pattern is clearly evident.

Will Brexit be looked back on as a one-off oddity peculiar to Britain or as a harbinger of things to come, marking a departure from this particular trend of globalisation? In any case over the years, capitalism has proved itself an adaptable system and ultimately will have no serious problem accommodating Britain outside the EU.

It can be difficult to extract good news for socialists when commenting on the current affairs of capitalism. From a socialist perspective, we deplore the fact that the Leave campaign deliberately tapped into chauvinistic feelings in workers to obtain their desired outcome. Conversely what was encouraging was that many workers ignored the dire warnings of the usual paid lobbyists of capitalism (the Bank of England, the OECD, the CBI, etc.) in arriving at their decision. It shows that workers are not always the political sheep that some political strategists assume. Finally, though, it’s only when workers across the world discard all notions that countries and national identities are a central part of the political landscape that real changes can be made to all our lives.
Kevin Cronin