Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Exhibition Review: Port Sunlight (2018)

Based on ‘The New Frock’ by William Powell Frith
Exhibition Review from the October 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is a truism to say that art and commerce are closely related: under capitalism, artists have to earn enough to live, commercial galleries have to survive, and other galleries often need to attract sponsorship from companies. Rarely, though, is the relationship quite as close as that involving William Lever (1851–1925).

Lever was the son of a wholesale grocer, and he expanded the family business by having soap manufactured in pre-wrapped bars. Then he set up the firm of Lever Brothers, which made the soap itself, initially in Warrington but then at a larger purpose-built factory on the Wirral. He used the brand name Sunlight, and the area where the factory was situated was termed Port Sunlight. As his company expanded, both in Britain and overseas, employing 85,000 workers at its height, he became immensely rich.

His initial interest in art was to buy paintings that could be copied and have the word ‘Sunlight’ and an advertising slogan added, so that they could be used as posters. One of the best-known was based on the painting ‘The New Frock’ by William Powell Frith (who objected to the use of his art for commercial purposes). Later Lever acquired a taste for collecting, and built up a substantial collection of paintings, sculptures, furniture, textiles and porcelain. Much of this can be seen at the Lady Lever Art Gallery, which opened in 1922. There are many portraits, such as one of Emma Hamilton as a Bacchante, and a number of works by Pre-Raphaelites such as Rossetti and Burne-Jones (both associates of William Morris).

Many of Lever’s workers were housed in the specially-built Port Sunlight village. A few minutes’ walk from the art gallery are the Port Sunlight Museum and a worker’s cottage. It is often described as ‘an original garden village’, but it was run in a very authoritarian way: for instance, all the houses had gardens but tenants were not allowed to keep chickens in them, and there were strict rules on taking in lodgers. Houses were rented from Lever Brothers, and losing your job meant losing your home. The ideas behind the village were not just philanthropic, as Lever believed that children who lived in a slum would grow up to be ‘a danger and terror to the State’.

Lever Brothers became part of the giant Unilever company in 1930, and from 1979 houses in Port Sunlight were sold when they became vacant, as Lever’s paternalistic approach to housing his employees had long been unfashionable. The village now looks like a rather anachronistic settlement, though both art gallery and museum are well worth visiting.
Paul Bennett

50 Years Ago: Kennedy to run U.S. capitalism (2010)

The 50 Years Ago column from the December 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Mr. Kennedy’s victory at the American polls came as the culmination of years of patient ambition and at the end of a campaign of open cynicism, such as we have come expect from capitalist political parties.

When he started his attempt to win the Democratic nomination, Mr. Kennedy had several question marks against him. The principal of these was whether he could unite the trade unions, the industrial cities and the backward Southerners into supporting him. We now know how skilfully he did this, by the careful choice of his Vice-Presidential candidate and by the promises and opinions which he uttered. Such was the success of these tactics that, long before election day, many on-the-spot correspondents were prophesying that Kennedy’s campaign would be irresistible.

Mr. Nixon showed a similar determination to win the presidency. Here is a man with an established reputation for single-minded ambition which has led him into some unsavoury actions. Many people will remember Mr. Nixon introducing his pet dog into a television programme in which he was offering evidence of his integrity as a servant of the American public.

Mr. Kennedy based some of his case upon an appeal to the patriotism of American workers, alleging that United States’ influence abroad has steeply declined during the Eisenhower presidency. Nixon’s reply—similarly an appeal to patriotism—was that it was insulting even to suggest that U.S.A. is a second-rate power.

This, then, was an election campaign of by no means an unusual kind, in which members of the working class were asked to vote on issues of personality, nationalism and capitalist power politics, none of which has the slightest effects upon their basic interest (. . . )

It is depressing that American workers should be impressed by—indeed be part of—slick, high pressure salesmanship and cynical drives for power. For after the shouting and the ballyhoo have died, capitalism, in America and the rest of the world, remains unscathed.
[From editorial, Socialist Standard, December 1960]

Horse Voices (2011)

Insert picture of horse here.
The Action Replay column from the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

All is not well in the Sport of Kings. The owners and trainers want more money for 2011–12 from the bookmakers, via the levy or tax on their profits, but the bookies are unwilling to pay up. Consequently the government will have to make a decision, in the person of Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport.

Of course there is a lot more to this than just a squabble about how much is paid over. Attendance at race meetings is more or less holding up, but otherwise racing is feeling the force of the recession. Trainers are going out of business regularly, and one prediction is that barely a quarter of the 85 who currently train at Newmarket will survive. The owners are in most cases wealthy individuals who see racing as a hobby that can sometimes make money but is mainly indulged in for fun. This hasn’t stopped them threatening to strike in order to get their way in this squabble, though. 

Then there are the bookies, who maintain that horse racing is becoming less and less important as a source of income for them, with it now contributing less than one quarter of the money they get from punters. Moreover, racing paraphernalia take up a lot of space in betting shops, and TV coverage has increased in price. But in particular it’s on-line betting that has caused the problems. If people can bet on roulette, bingo and football over the Internet (including while a football match is being played), there is less left over for the gee-gees. The traditional bookmakers have in some cases moved their operations offshore to avoid paying the levy.

One bookie said, in a nice phrase, that the top owners and trainers, were ‘shooting themselves in both fetlocks’. But really it’s a typical row between groups of rich individuals that will see many workers in the racing industry suffer as the powers-that-be argue among themselves and the whole industry struggles to cope with economic and technological changes.
Paul Bennett

Cue for a Change (2011)

Sexing up snooker.
The Action Replay column from the February 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

It’s not uncommon for sports to change their rules in order to become more popular with the public, or at least with broadcasters and advertisers. Cricket is the most obvious example, with various limited-over versions and now Twenty20, with its limited duration, having become very well attended.

The latest sport to see a change in format is snooker, with the Power Snooker concept. There are fewer red balls and some innovations to scoring but, more importantly, there is a set time span of thirty minutes per match. This is intended to avoid some of the supposed problems with traditional snooker, where some frames take a lot longer than others and some are just unexciting (however skilful) with lots of safety play. A more or less standard length for matches is of course much more attractive for television.

Moreover, spectators are encouraged to interact with players, rather than just sit in respectful silence, and the players can wear a live microphone if they wish. And, to cater for the laddish element among spectators, both referees are women. Each has her own website (something not thought to be common among football referees, for instance).

The staid world of ‘ordinary’ snooker is fighting back, with a one-frame knockout tournament (maximum ten minutes per frame) in Blackpool at the end of January. ‘Blackpool Beauties’ will walk victorious players out of the arena, while ‘two bouncers with character’ will ‘escort players through the “walk of shame” as they exit’ (www.worldsnooker.com).

All this appears to have little if anything to do with sporting prowess and everything to do with getting the punters in, and especially the sponsors and the TV companies. Hence the glitz and glamour and the time limits. And it’s hardly surprising to learn that the rich guys behind Power Snooker have worked previously in the entertainment industry rather than sport.
Paul Bennett

Supplying the Grid (2011)

Clint Dempsey and some bloke in a helmet.
The Action Replay column from the March 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

You might think that Premiership football manager is the shortest-lived career in sport. But being an American (gridiron) football player probably holds the title, for on average a player will manage less than four seasons before injuries take their toll. Notwithstanding this, the employers want to increase the number of competitive games played per season, from 16 to 18, with likely consequences for players’ well-being. The owners also want to cut wages and bring existing contracts to an end, two years earlier than is laid down.

As a result, the players threatened a strike, with the next season, due to start in September, under threat. The top players may be millionaires, but there plenty of other players who are far less well-off and who need the free post-career healthcare that is provided after three years of playing. And the team owners are mostly billionaires, with franchises that have grown massively in value over the last decade. Moreover, they have apparently got television contracts that guarantee payment to them even if no games take place.

The climax of the American football season is the Super Bowl, held this year in Texas at the start of February. Advertising slots during TV coverage came in at three million dollars for a half-minute commercial, and plenty of companies have been prepared to pay this, far more than last year. This has been seen by many as a signal that the US economy is recovering from the recession. If next year’s Super Bowl is cancelled, then there will not just be a lot of disappointed sports fans, but disappointed TV executives too.

The players’ and owners’ representatives have now resumed negotiations, but it is still not clear if there is a real chance of a settlement. Even celebrity workers sometimes have to be prepared to withdraw their labour power in order to defend their working conditions.
Paul Bennett

Chips With Everything (2011)

Peter Swan (Sheffield Wednesday)
The Action Replay column from the April 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Where there is gambling, there is likely to be corruption or cheating, and where there is sport there is likely to be gambling. From betting on prize fights and horse-racing sweepstakes to football pools and the current enormous betting industry, sport and gambling have always been closely allied. But recent complaints and sporting scandals surrounding corruption allegedly caused by gambling have moved to a new level.

Over the decades there have been a number of celebrated betting scandals. In 1919, players in the Chicago White Sox team threw the baseball World Series, so some gamblers could make a fortune betting on their opponents; as a result, eight players were banned for life. In a scandal in the Football League in 1962, three players were imprisoned and banned after betting on their team to lose a match; as one of them, Peter Swan, said, ‘Where there’s money there will always be a fiddle.’ In each case the players benefitted relatively little but paid a big price.

More recently, three Pakistan cricketers have been banned for fixing a Test match against England. They did not conspire to lose but, it’s alleged, to do things such as bowl no-balls at particular points, since that’s the kind of specific event that you can now bet on. They are facing criminal charges too.

The International Olympic Committee is setting up a taskforce to combat not just match-fixing but also illegal betting, an industry worth several hundred billion pounds. Jacques Rogge, IOC President, has said that ‘illegal betting…threatens the credibility of sport’. But the credibility and reputation of professional sport are already undermined, from horse doping to fixed boxing matches to dubious games of snooker or cricket. Swan, it seems, had it half-right: the profit motive leads to fiddles and cheating, where the swindled punters or the corrupted athletes are the real losers.
Paul Bennett

Circuit Training (2011)

A fascinating 'sport'.
The Action Replay column from the May 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Ah for the old days of motor racing, the days of Stirling Moss and co, when the driver’s skill was what really counted and overtaking was central. Drivers still need to be skilled and fit and have quick reactions, but their central role is sidelined in favour of large organisation and behind-the-scenes work. As overtaking has become harder and technology has taken over, spectator interest has declined. At the Barcelona track, the last ten grand prix winners have started in pole position on the grid and stayed there, so it’s become particularly boring.

With Formula One races becoming essentially processions, some weird ideas to retain public interest have emerged, such as random watering of the track to make things more exciting. Tyres are being developed that will degrade more quickly, thus potentially leading to more unpredictable racing and an increase in the number of pit stops. This season the cars have a movable flap in their rear wing, which the driver can use in specific circumstances, again to give more opportunity for overtaking (but there are worries that it may make overtaking too easy and so undervalued).

From the late 1990s, private teams such as Ligier and Jordan ceased to operate in F1 as the emphasis switched to the big car manufacturers such as Ferrari and Renault. The telecom capitalist, Carlos Slim (the world’s richest man, according to some) is now backing one of the newer drivers. This is appropriate since, of course, it’s money that guides the F1 world.  Melbourne has lost £147m over fourteen years of staging the Australian Grand Prix, but the track in Shanghai was built at a cost of £280m, in the hope of attracting big crowds and TV money. And for some, F1 really is a cash cow: Bernie Ecclestone, the boss of the whole business, is the twenty-fourth richest person in the UK, with a tidy bank balance of nearly £1.5billion.
Paul Bennett

Short Changed (2011)

The Action Replay column from the June 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

The laws of football don’t say much about what players can or must wear. Shirt and shorts, no jewellery (on safety grounds), no undershirts that contain advertising (though of course in the professional game the shirts themselves have the sponsor’s name or logo prominently displayed). But in some sports the players’ clothing is a controversial issue – the clothing of women players, we mean.

It was recently decreed that women in badminton tournaments above a certain level must wear skirts, supposedly ‘to ensure attractive presentation of badminton’, which presumably involves making the players look more comely and so enticing more spectators and TV coverage. The ruling means skirts as opposed to shorts, though in fact the new regulations do allow skirts over shorts or tracksuit bottoms, so it’s not clear how effective they will really be.

A picture of a female badminton player which is not from 2011.

Naturally there have been objections, some on religious grounds. Others are not against shorts, just against making them compulsory. It’s probably no great surprise to learn that the whole idea came from a sports marketing firm.

The sport with the most controversial clothing regulations has to be beach volleyball. In 1999 it was decided that both men and women had to wear swimsuits, with women players usually wearing skimpy bikinis. In Olympic events women’s bikini briefs have a maximum side width of 7 centimetres and must be ‘a close fit’. What next? That the players have to be blonde with a bust over a certain size?

In cricket, the Indian Premier League has been featuring cheerleaders in short skirts and with provocative routines. One team recently tried to replace these with traditional dancers wearing saris, but many supporters thought the sari was ‘not sexy enough’.

Sadly the sexism of those who run these sports is often reflected in the attitudes of the paying public.
Paul Bennett

Ring-Fenced (2011)

The Action Replay column from the July 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

No doubt we shall be returning to the Olympics in this column before the whole jamboree kicks off next July. For now we can just comment on a couple of aspects of the build-up.

Back in March there was an undignified spat between the British Olympic Association (BOA) and the London Olympic Organising Committee (LOCOG). BOA gets 20 percent of the profit from the Games, and argued that this should be calculated on the basis of the Olympics only, and so exclude any losses from staging the Paralympics. But the International Olympic Committee ruled against this idea, thus reducing the cut received by the BOA and increasing the amount kept by LOCOG.

And LOCOG and others won’t be making money just from this decision. For next door to the tube and train stations at Stratford is Westfield Stratford City, a huge shopping mall, in fact the largest urban shopping centre in Europe, due to open this September. The expectation (or hope) is that 70 percent of Olympic visitors will arrive at Stratford station, where they will walk to the Olympic park via Westfield. This will mean hundreds of thousands of visitors (and potential shoppers) each day the Olympics run.

After the Olympics, this mega-mall will still offer 300 shops, 50 food outlets, three hotels, a multi-screen cinema and a casino. It will also contain a ‘24-hour lifestyle street’, whatever that is. If all goes well for the company that owns it, it will become one of the country’s top ten shopping destinations. So there will be gold in them there tills, not just at medal ceremonies.
Paul Bennett

Nice Little Earners (2011)

Ryan Giggs in happier times.
The Action Replay column from the August 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Being a successful athlete can make you rich, very rich. Footballers, for instance, may get contracts involving staggering sums of money, often with bonuses for winning trophies. In many cases the actual sporting income is only a small part: tennis-player Maria Sharapova ‘earns’ around £15m a year, but well under a million of this is from prize money. The rest comes from advertising and endorsements, everything from rackets to handbags and cars. She is supposedly the third-richest athlete in the world.

Lewis Hamilton’s racing driver outfit is covered with the names of companies he endorses: banks, mobile phones, whisky. Of course the sports stars need to have positive associations such as success, glamour and honesty. Advertisers will swiftly drop anyone who compromises these supposed standards, as shown by the consequences of the extra-marital escapades of golfer Tiger Woods.

The most recent example is Ryan Giggs, the role model footballer who committed the sin of having an affair and getting  found out. Simon Barnes (writing in the Times, 27 May, in the wake of the Giggs revelations) castigated the humbug of the whole ‘good guy’ brand, where the appearance of virtue matters far more than the reality. But advertising, after all, is about stretching the truth, and is an industry built around humbug, so it’s a bit much to complain about the sporting link specifically.

We must leave the last word to the American baseball pitcher, Dizzy Dean: “Sure I eat what I advertise. Sure I eat Wheaties for breakfast. A good bowl of Wheaties with bourbon can’t be beat.”
Paul Bennett

World of Sport (2011)

The Action Replay column from the September 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

It takes a Professor of Leisure Studies to write an atlas of sport. Alan Tomlinson’s World Atlas of Sport was published recently by Myriad Editions and New Internationalist. It contains sections on specific sports, on individual countries and, of course, on sports politics and economics.

One point that emerges is the way that globalisation has affected sport just as it has permeated many other aspects of life. This is not just a matter of the global dominance of football but of the undermining of more local sports, though of course many of these survive, such as p├ętanque in France and Gaelic football on Ireland. In other cases, changes can only be welcomed: pato in Argentina is no longer played using a live duck rather than a ball.

As European nations extended their power to new parts of the planet, they introduced their own sports. Polo is very popular in Argentina, while cricket is primarily played in Britain and former British colonies: it has been described as an Indian game accidentally discovered in England.

Some sports can be played by almost anyone with a minimum level of fitness, while others require a  lot more investment in financial terms. Skiing was once the preserve of the idle rich, though cheap travel and carefully-prepared snow areas have now widened its appeal to some extent. But polo remains the  sport of an elite, often an aristocratic one, while horse racing, as far as the owners are concerned, is still the sport of kings, capitalists and sheiks.

Not to mention those who flaunt their wealth in sailing – the have-yachts. In his introduction, Tomlinson remarks that sports matter because they express the hopes of billions. But, as he says in his section on merchandising, ‘Sports sell’. Even for a humble kickaround in your local park with jumpers for goalposts what are the odds that players will be wearing logo-covered gear?
Paul Bennett

Keepie Uppie (2011)

Celtic winning the European Cup in 1967.
The Action Replay column from the October 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

To the one who has, as the man said, more will be given. Nowhere in sport is this so clearly seen as in the upper echelons of European club football, where the UEFA Champions League has been arranged so that the most successful and wealthy clubs are all but guaranteed a sizeable income from the competition.

As the European Cup, this was originally structured as a knock-out tournament for the teams that had won the league competition in each country. Before money called the tune in national leagues, this opened the way for teams such as Nottingham Forest to win the final. But the bigger clubs disliked often being shunted into less prestigious Europe-wide competitions and the chance of being knocked out after just two games.

The ‘solution’ was to introduce the Champions League, with more clubs from the biggest countries, a league format which ensured a minimum of six matches and a seeding system that was intended to keep the top clubs apart till the later stages. Massive sponsorship from the likes of MasterCard and Ford, combined with television rights (and global audiences of over 100 million for the final) mean a club can make up to £20m or more from a successful campaign.

One (possibly intended) result of this, combined with the generally increasing power of wealthy clubs and countries, has been to drastically reduce the pool of likely winners. Barcelona has won three times since 2006, and over that period only teams from England, Germany, Italy and Spain have appeared in the final. It’s scarcely conceivable that teams like Ajax or Porto (winners in 1995 and 2004, respectively) could win nowadays. Whatever else may be said, football at such rarefied heights is certainly not on a level playing field.
Paul Bennett

Grounds for Appeal (2011)

John Terry being John Terry.
The Action Replay column from the December 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

A football stadium used to be a place where, apart from watching the match, you bought a meat pie and a plastic cup of lukewarm tea. But now stadiums are like shopping malls, intended to get the captives (sorry, spectators) spending as much as possible and so make lots of money for the owners.

Recently the super-rich owner of Chelsea Football Club tried and failed to buy the land occupied by the club’s Stamford Bridge ground. This was so he could sell the stadium and move to a larger one on a different site. Ironically, the freehold of the land was owned by supporters who bought £100 shares back in 1993, in a move designed to protect the ground from being snapped up by developers.

Stadiums and their grandstands are often quite out of place among terraced houses and corner shops. But rarely is the contrast quite so stark as at the new motor racing circuit for the Indian Grand Prix, which took place for the first time at the end of October. The circuit cost £130 million to build, amid wasteland and poverty-stricken villages. The workers who built it were not even paid the pittance they were promised and were forced to live in makeshift tents with no sanitation.

Among those who came to watch the grand prix were some of India’s growing capitalist class. As one local hotelier noted, ‘there are lots of billionaires, not just millionaires’. So there were plenty of people able to pay the inflated prices, even while those who did the work were barely able to eat. And that’s just an extreme form of capitalism, not something totally alien to it.
Paul Bennett

Flat Out (2011)

The Action Replay column from the November 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Back in July we commented on the build-up to next year’s London Olympics, in particular the new giant shopping mall that lies between Stratford station and the Olympic Park.

But that’s not the only way in which capitalist companies hope to make a profit from the Games. For instance, spectators will only be allowed to take in with them drinks in small containers, as a way of encouraging them to buy refreshments inside the venues – at inflated prices, no doubt.

Property developers, too, have seen a chance to make a killing in what has always been one of the poorest areas of London. New blocks of flats are being built in anticipation of an ‘Olympic legacy’ that will attract young professionals who can afford prices such as £350,000 for a two-bedroom flat. Not many of those who live in the area at the moment will be buying at prices like these, even as their local shops and houses are demolished or converted.

While the Games are on there will be an enormous demand for accommodation, especially in the surrounding area. So, many homeowners are planning to move out for a month or so and rent their homes to others for the duration at several thousand pounds a week. And “an increasing number of landlords are asking for clauses to be written into their rental contracts allowing them to kick out their tenants for a convenient ‘holiday let’ during the Games” (Guardian 8 October). Who said the housing industry existed to meet human need?
Paul Bennett

Letter: Banking demystified (2011)

Letter to the Editors from the December 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Editors

Governments no longer control their own economies, and neither can they act together to control the world economy. Whatever happens is now decided by global brokers and traders, who engineer situations where they can make money no matter which way the markets move, and that is all they are interested in. Their fiscal power now overwhelms any action that a government might take.

The private banking system also creates our money supply from thin air, by means of fractional reserve lending, so that all our money is created as interest bearing debt. Repaying that debt merely shrinks our money supply, and makes a recession worse.

Every year, private banks earn about £70 billion in interest from their lending of magic money. The National Debt is merely a name for the magic money they have lent to the government.

Another £75 billion of quantitative easing now goes to the banks, in the vain hope that it will pass into the economy, but the banks will simply use it to patch up their balance sheets, and square away their lost bets or adverse market positions. It will probably pay for some bonuses as well.

But the one thing that £75 billion of digital thin air money will surely do is fire up inflation, just as the previous £200 billion did, so that money already in circulation will buy less.

In the world of commodities, a similar position prevails. The price of everyday foodstuffs is dictated by the global speculations of commodity traders, who have also arranged to make money in the rising or falling of markets whose movements they control by the sheer size of their trades. Other essentials, such as oil and raw materials, suffer a similar fate.

In reality, the assets of the world have become no more than gambling chips in a casino, and the price of everything is set by those who play in the casino. If their bets are lost, the Bank of England just prints some money to pay those losses.

For the Bank of England or any other Central Bank, to think that they can affect the economy with their quantitative easing or interest rates is therefore just plain ridiculous, and shows a total ignorance of what is actually going on.

Malcolm Parkin, 
Kinross

Reply:
You are right. Neither governments nor central banks can control the way the (capitalist) economy works. But not for the reason you give. It’s not because this control is exercised by “global brokers and traders”, but because the capitalist economy is uncontrollable and governed by economic laws that impose themselves on governments and all economic decision-makers (including bankers) as if they were laws of nature.

You are wrong when you claim that “the private banking system also creates our money supply from thin air.” If money is defined as including bank loans then, of course by definition, banks “create money” and in the form of “interest-bearing debt” but they wouldn’t be doing so from thin air. The money they lend comes from what has been deposited with them or from what they themselves have borrowed, i.e. already exists and is just being recycled by the banking system. When a loan is repaid, money is not cancelled but becomes available for lending again. The interest paid on it comes in the end from what has been produced in the meantime in the real economy.

Nor is there anything mysterious or suspicious about “fractional reserve lending”. All lending institutions, not just banks but building societies, credit unions and savings clubs too, practise it, by keeping a “fraction” only of their money as a cash “reserve” against withdrawals. If a bank didn’t do this it wouldn’t be a bank but a safe deposit.

But if banks don’t create money who does? In the past, before the present era of managed currencies, money took the form of some commodity having its own value as a product of labour (gold and silver) which was made into coins by governments (which also issued metallic and paper tokens for it). Under this gold standard the amount of money in circulation was more or less self-adjusting in accordance with the requirements of the economy for payments.

This system was suspended during the First World War and finally ended with the Second. This meant that from then on governments have had to decide how much money the economy requires. Not an easy task. Issuing more than would have been required under the gold standard has become the norm, resulting in continuous inflation, so much so that people expect prices to rise from year to year.

This government-created, “fiat” money is issued by state-controlled central banks and could be described as being created, if you want to use the term, “from thin air” by them, in effect by governments. In most countries it is introduced into the economy by the central bank buying government bonds from commercial banks of which “quantitative easing” is one form.

Money dominates our lives and as banks deal in it they appear to have more power than they actually have. But banks are only one part of the capitalist system and not the most important part either. They are secondary to the real economy where wealth is produced in the form of goods and services to be sold for profit.

This is why getting at the banks, by reforming and regulating them, won’t solve the problems the profit system causes for most people. Only the common ownership and democratic control of productive resources can provide the framework for this as it will allow production solely and directly for use instead of for profit. This will make money and banks redundant – Editors

Film Review: Walmart – The High Cost of Low Price (2011)

Film Review from the December 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Walmart – The High Cost of Low Price (Tartan DVD. A Robert Greenwald Film)

Almost everyone has heard of Walmart (Asda in the UK) but many are unaware of the effects of its practices on populations around the world. Owned by the Walton family, who collectively are worth around $100 billion, Walmart has the world’s largest work force of any private employer. This makes this in-depth scrutiny of the impact of globalisation for profit highly pertinent.

Impoverishment, destruction of communities and non-unionised and illegal work practices figure strongly as do the sometimes clear, sometimes opaque links to government policy-making in the USA.  Walmart moves into town promising employment, builds a megastore structure and hires staff, displays every commodity that can already be found in town (and more), undercuts local prices and very soon oversees the closure of long-established, formerly successful small family businesses – causing unemployment, ghost towns and impoverishment of communities. If a community is strong enough to fight and either prevent the actual build or force closure then Walmart simply ups sticks and moves a few miles outside the town or county border and the end results for the community are the same.

There is a strong anti-union imperative within the company and such a climate of fear of punishment among employees that it was very difficult to find current workers in the US ready to speak out on record. Ex-employees, however, were less reluctant. National employment laws are different around the world.  One example of workers defying the Walmart no union rule was in Quebec, Canada, where they were successful in forming a union (according to local law) with the result that Walmart won anyway – they just closed down.

How is it that Walmart can give such cheap prices and offer two for the price of one? Benevolence from a caring, hugely profitable megabusiness? No, they simply pass the cost on to the farmers or other suppliers. He who pays the piper…  The film doesn’t stop at covering the retail side of the business; also there are interviews and filmed information from China, Bangladesh, Honduras and Saipan (US territory) to reveal the impact of the Walmart style of sweatshop labour and conditions around the world.

This film could be an excellent stimulus when viewed together by a group prepared to discuss and further understand the ways in which capitalism systematically works against workers, against regulations, against communities and for the ongoing accumulation of the few.
Janet Surman

What is Socialism? (2011)

From the October 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Socialism is a model of organisation of society as a whole, incorporating the entire world without borders, the like of which has never before been experienced. Although maybe seemingly a utopian idea to be scoffed at by some, if we are of the opinion that capitalism has proved to be a harmful and divisive system for the vast majority of world population and that numerous signs are pointing to its ever accelerating accumulation at the expense of the world’s working class then we must offer an alternative reality in clear and unambiguous terms. This is an attempt to clarify some of the questions thrown up in discussion as to the form and aspirations of such a model, a broad canvas with space for individuals to insert their own ideas and interpretations.

First and foremost socialist society is based upon the common ownership of all of the means of living by all of the world’s people. For it to work, those people need to make it work, by cooperating together to produce the myriad goods required by individuals and society as a whole, to produce our food and to provide all the various services that constitute a comfortable satisfying life. They need to supply, equip, manufacture, mine, furnish, grow, teach, create, administer, distribute, service, facilitate. Whether manual or cerebral, ground-breaking or routine, all production is the result of physical work and/or mental effort plus the time taken to achieve the desired ends.

At present all that work is undertaken by workers mostly for the benefit of the rich. Capitalism has demonstrated over the years that the working class is merely a tool to be used in the interests of capital. Governments have demonstrated that they are the enforcers of capitalism’s rules not the facilitators of policies which are directed at putting the interests of people first. Socialism on the other hand constitutes a society of self-liberated former wage slaves firmly in control of their own lives in the here and now and into the future. Here we have the producers who collectively possess all that is produced and whose democratic control determines what is produced, when, where and how it is produced and also organises when, where and how it is distributed. This is a system built on transparent, open debate aiming to be totally inclusive and working for the best interests of the vast majority of world population.

Socialist society embraces the maxim ‘from each according to ability to each according to need’ and recognises all the different capabilities and contributions of each member of our human society. Those who, for whatever reason, (eg sickness, physical or mental disability or incapacity) are incapable of contributing still qualify to satisfy their self-declared needs as full members of this society. This is a society of cooperation and empathy based on social capital and tangible benefits for all, one which supersedes the former outdated system which functions on the overriding principle of pursuing and satisfying the profit motive for the benefit of the few.

As socialist consciousness develops, enabling the working class to free itself of all former constraints and restrictions to bring about the emancipation of the whole of humankind, society evolves to be inclusive of all without distinction of race, gender, intelligence or cultural norms. This emancipation is solely the task of the working class itself and is reliant on the great majority understanding and accepting the case that capitalism has never been and can never be organised to work in their own interest. As a consequence they have chosen to struggle together to get rid of the capitalist system which favours the few, the capitalists, and replace it with socialism, a cooperative system in which all can play a positive, active role without the negatives of competition.

Being inclusive and cooperative a socialist system has no use for legal structures relating to or enforcing oppressive social relations. Most of what is crime today is likely to become extinct since the main motivation for these crimes, property, the profit motive and money, will have been removed. You can’t have the crime of bank robbery if banks don’t exist, nor fraud, embezzlement or forgery when there’s no money. Common ownership means that stores, restaurants, amenities, supplies and services are freely available to all without differential entitlement, so ‘robbing’ a store of goods that are free anyway would make no sense.

A world without borders brings freedom of movement to a world society. With no rich elites fighting each other over land or resources, the armed workers of the world who presently kill each other in the interests of the rich will also happily find themselves unemployed and able to follow some other more constructive and less dangerous occupation.

Fears over housing, food, health and education – fears which affect a large majority of the world’s people – will be relegated to the past. Socialist society’s top priorities will be the provision for all of accommodation, services, access to food, unconditional lifelong health care and education for life. No one need go hungry in order to stay warm; no one need die of the cold; no family or single person need sleep on the street or in unsuitable, insanitary conditions; no child need die before their fifth birthday for want of nutritious food, clean water or preventive medicine; no one need suffer from waiting in a tiered health system or because they cannot pay; no one need go without the education they wish to have. This is the meaning of free access for all, but it will take collective work to make it so.

And who does this work? Whoever can. Think of socialism as a global voluntary sector. ‘Work’ is not dictated to the volunteer but decided by the volunteer: it is a vocational occupation, fulfilling both a sense of responsibility to one’s community ‘according to one’s ability’ and a desire for a meaningful activity which fulfils personal aspirations. Whatever the chosen work, conditions are determined democratically by those who are involved in that work. Health and safety are prime considerations as is, wherever possible, a pleasant work environment. Some may choose a single occupation because it satisfies a personal need or because the time investment in training is heavy, eg clinical surgery. Others might involve themselves in a variety throughout their lives or even throughout each month, week or day. Travel for some is the motivation to apply their skills in different locations whilst others are content to remain in one place.

The planet’s physical condition is also extremely important to a socialist society. Whatever our collective resource requirements, whatever manufacturing facilities are required, in every area care for the ongoing health and sustainability of our environment is always a prime consideration. Best practice can be applied in all areas because there are no demands to cut corners for profit. Of equal importance is our human physical and mental welfare and with the removal of former negative constraints from daily life humankind moves on to a level of awareness and self-confidence resulting in an unprecedented level of inclusion and involvement in social affairs.

The culmination of the struggle results in the awakening of billions, people from all corners of the globe recognising their similarities and celebrating their differences, realising their long-suppressed potential, their goal of living in harmony and cooperation, of doing no harm, living in a stateless, classless world with no leaders and no followers, organising their own communities and participating fully in policy and decision-making.    

You can call it what you like, but we call it socialism.
Janet Surman