Saturday, November 10, 2018

Capital Expenditure (2018)

Book Review from the November 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

Big Capital: Who Is London For?’ by Anna Minton (Penguin, £8.99)

Though written before Grenfell, this is a devastating analysis of the housing situation in London, with implications for other places too. Housing, Minton says, is a safety deposit box and a cash cow, with the rate of return on land and property far exceeding economic growth, let alone rises in wages.

At one end of the market are the super-luxury flats owned by Russian billionaires and Chinese investors, the transnational elites who are described as Ultra High Net Worth Individuals. At the other end are the ‘beds in sheds’, unauthorised dwellings in back gardens, and rented bed spaces, where someone may sleep in a bunk, with four people sharing the front room of a terraced house. There are also the ‘hidden homeless’, some of whom actually sleep on buses.

Most people, of course, are in between these extremes, either renting or owning and often suffering from the inflated cost of housing. One example given is of a woman who earns nearly £40,000 a year; her partner also works full-time and they have two children, a boy and a girl, but live in a two-bedroom flat. It is better than their previous place because the heating works. She describes her life as ‘middle class poverty’. Many people could afford a mortgage but, because of the high level of rents, cannot save enough for a deposit to buy their own place.

The pressure on housing in London means that many homeless families are rehoused outside the capital. One recent report (Observer 2 September) noted that people who buy houses in Bath to avoid the costs of London are pushing up rents and house prices for locals. Thus developments in London have impacts on other towns and cities too. Forcing those on lower wages into the outer areas of London may give rise to something along the lines of the banlieues in Paris.

Minton traces various reasons behind this appalling situation. The virtual abandonment of new-build council or social housing means a drastic reduction in the availability of lower-priced homes, while the ‘affordable housing’ required in new developments is in reality affordable for very few. Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ policy increased the number of homeowners, but in fact they were leaseholders rather than freeholders and so vulnerable to compulsory purchase schemes. People bought out in this way are rarely given the real market value of their home and so have to move further out, away from friends and family.

There are many other factors involved, including the system of housing benefit, but the basic cause is that under capitalism housing is part of the market system and exists to provide profits for the few rather than decent homes for the many. What may help to bring the whole edifice to an end is the fact that companies are becoming increasingly worried that most of their workers will simply not be able to afford to live in London, and the Fifty Thousand Homes campaign is designed to address this. When business groups state that ‘The pricing out of young talent and the London workers who keep our city moving hurts all levels of society, and threatens London’s status as a beacon for creativity and enterprise’ (, it is clear that the housing problem affects capitalists as well as workers, though in different ways.
Paul Bennett

Invisible Elephants (2018)

The Woods for the Trees Column from the November 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

Whilst debating the reasons for the existence of homeless people in one of England’s most prosperous cities I was berated for bringing ‘capitalism’ into every conversation. I was told that if I was to go to the local shelter for the homeless they would inform me of reasons for their plight that had no connection with some political abstraction named capitalism. This is symptomatic of one of the dominant ideology’s greatest magic tricks; making capitalism invisible. Even those most affected by the malevolence of the system are usually quite unaware of its existence; to them their plight is just part of what it is to be ‘down on your luck’ or the result of ‘an addiction to alcohol’ etc. This form of political ignorance is very convenient for those who defend ‘the market system’ or ‘representative democracy’ – the term capitalism is rarely used by those who defend it because to do so would allow the possibility of an alternative. Because capitalism is everywhere it is nowhere. How has the system pulled off this startling illusion?

There are degrees of propaganda; from downright lies to nuances of emphasis. The invisibility of capitalism goes far beyond this realm of conscious manipulation of data and its interpretation – it has become ‘ideological’. In the Marxist sense this is a political concept that has been transformed into a collection of values and behaviours that appear almost ‘instinctive’. To question the existence of money, the nation-state, profit or wage slavery is to invite ridicule from those who have been conditioned by bourgeois ideology. This ubiquity of perspective has been achieved through a form of historical osmosis; the debates that raged during the transition to capitalism are hardly remembered, and if they are it is considered only to be of esoteric historical interest.

Capitalism arose simultaneously with the rise of science as the dominant description of the world. Among many of the ways of thinking that were adopted by the rising capitalist class were those that we might call ‘pseudo-scientific’. It became de rigueur in any analysis to deconstruct a given phenomenon into its smallest constituent parts. The world was seen as being built up from the small to the large. Economics, for instance, could best be understood in terms of small family or community economic activity which could be then extrapolated into a national or even global economic theory. Even today you still hear economists refer to ‘good housekeeping’ as being the paradigm of a successful economy. In contrast to this socialists have always based their understanding on seeing within the small a reflection of the large. The imposed economic realities on the ‘household’ – wage slavery, consumerism, saving up to give their children a future, paying rent or a mortgage etc. would seem absurd and counter-intuitive without some understanding of the global market system and its laws of exploitation and exchange. The so-called ‘Robinson Crusoe’ explanation of basic human economic activity is nonsense because of the absence of the basic reality of capitalism which is social production and trade.

Seeing homelessness as somehow the fault of the homeless is like blaming you and the purchase of your garden chair for causing global deforestation. One may be a contributing factor within the other but without an understanding of the global system of production for profit (capitalism) it is impossible to see why consumerism necessitates the destruction of the environment. It’s the same with homelessness – sleeping in the doorways of empty buildings is symptomatic of the market system. It may be true that nobody has a ‘right’ to be housed but it is surely equally true that nobody has a ‘right’ to deny housing to those who desperately need it.

Capitalism destroys human rational and moral agency in the guise of a reality that is purely an ideological illusion; or to put it another way, private property exists to restrict the producers from access to their own products. On countless building sites across the country we see the working class creating estates for wages that will hardly enable them to retain their own homes which were in turn built by them. A ‘mortgage’ chains them into this never-ending cycle of alienated labour and is one of the reasons for the demise of so-called social housing building provision. The threat of eviction and homelessness is that much more vivid for those with mortgages, in contrast to social housing rents, because it is much more difficult to access housing benefit. For the capitalists this is a win-win situation because mortgages are usually considerably higher than council rents with the added bonus that the tenants are more fearful of eviction and so that much more compliant for higher exploitation at work – many of them creating homes for the same financial motives and so perpetuating the nightmare. The whole corrupt, insane system exists because it is a ‘cash-cow’ for the rich and for no other reason.

The next time you see someone step over the body of another who is ‘sleeping rough’, as if the recumbent body was merely another item of street furniture, put aside all of your economic text books which tell you why capitalism is so wonderful and see that casual callous action as a consequence of an ideological ignorance manufactured for you, alongside your iPhone and stylish footwear, by capitalism.

"Peace In Our Time." (1921)

Editorial from the December 1921 issue of the Socialist Standard

Several years ago a Conference was called together in Holland to consider the important question of Peace. Representatives of the ruling class in various nations (the territory-stealing, maiming and murdering sections of society) gravely discussed the best means of abolishing war, or, with sardonic humour, how to make it more humane. Sonorous sounding resolutions were put forward but—not passed. Each representative declared that his nation was simply bursting to abolish war, and if only the other nations would at once disarm—to show their good faith—his nation would at once follow suit—or—er—nearly so.

For by some curious freak of Fate each nation had had some particular cause for retaining one or other items in their armaments which, for practical reasons, they could not give up.

The net result was that after passing a few minor and ineffective resolutions, the Conference dissolved. And the cause of their failure was simple. Despite the old adage about “Honour among thieves," this particular Conference of cut-throats found it was impossible for them to trust each other, and so the efforts to reach an agreement upon the reduction of their general costs of throat-cutting ended without result.

1914-18 gave a lurid example of their brotherly love. It also showed how utterly ludicrous were the prophecies made by the various experts, French, English, and German, as to the length of time to which a vast war could be continued, and the absurd under-estimate of the quantities of munitions required to carry on such a war. The staggering loss of life and enormous destruction of wealth has shaken, to some extent, the complacency of the master class. The gigantic amounts the various sections of this class owe to each other—on paper, threatens arithmetical indigestion in their ledgers. So they are looking for a way out of their difficulties. A bright idea strikes one of these sections. “Let us call a Conference.” Carried away by the startling originality of this suggestion, the others agree, and date and place of meeting are decided.

For this resurrected farce a new stage is found, and Washington displaces The Hague. One or two new turns are introduced and a fresh song is sung by a chief comedian, but otherwise the farce remains, in all essentials, as originally produced.

For several years a fierce debate has been waging among naval experts on the relative value of the big gunboat usually known as the “Dreadnought.” Far from settling this problem, the naval activities of the war only intensified it. But while the “big” boat and “little” boat men are wrangling over their respective pet theories science has carried the question of armaments into new channels. The enormous development of the aeroplane and airship, along with the sudden introduction of poison gas, has given an almost entirely new aspect to the problems of war. The smartest agents of the master-class recognise this, and so the new comedian is ordered to appear and sing his latest song, entitled “ Let us scrap our Dreadnoughts ere they grow to old. ”

America, practically self-sufficing and protected by great sea spaces, starts the song. England and Japan, to whom naval activity is still of large importance, join somewhat stutteringly in the chorus. Then while the audience rises and cheers in a frenzy of enthusiasm, the actors retire behind the curtain to discuss the serious business of the day—how to carry out their burglary of China and the rest of Asia without strangling each other in the division of the “swag.”

Only a sunny optimist would imagine that burglary is going to be abolished by burglars.

Honesty may be the best policy, but they have found the second best very profitable up to the present. Modern wars are the results of the conflict of economic interests between various sections of the capitalist class. As these sections diminish in numbers, they increase in power, with the result that when conflicts do arise they are on a scale undreamt of before and with a slaughter roll staggering to contemplate.

Is there a solution?

Yes! But it will not be found at The Hague or Washington. It depends upon the understanding of the working class. When this class sees clearly that in peace or war they are but slaves to the master class, that this slavery is due to the masters' control of political power, and that this power is placed in the masters’ hands by the workers, the end of Capitalism is at hand.

By organising to take control of this power the workers will be able to establish the social ownership of the means of life, and so abolish the division of economic interests that results in war, misery, and increasing insecurity of life.

Then a real Peace Conference will have been called.

The Communist Party: Communists in a Hurry (1921)

From the December 1921 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the Communist, September 10th, 1921, F. Willis remarks on the passing of propaganda pamphlets like "Socialism and Bimetallism" and "Socialism and Old Age Pensions" ; relics of a bygone age. Our present-day Communists need "sterner stuff"; they want something quickly. One wonders why those professing to be Socialists ever came to propagate solutions for the domestic difficulties which beset the Capitalists, such as those mentioned above; but "J. B., " in the same issue of the Communist, evidently doesn't agree with Willis that the day for such things is no more. He has rediscovered an old friend, although it is dressed in a new garb, with Communist trimmings. 

Discussing the problem of unemployment, he points out that while food and clothing are abundant the unemployed are starving and freezing, and, not unnaturally, the sufferers demand sustenance.
  "The unemployed have a right to share in these; they have, a right which the capitalist has not." . . . "The righteous demand for relief must be fully met. That, is the first, and most urgent reply of the Communist to the evasion of the Capitalist . . . All possible pressure must be brought to bear on Boards of Guardians and the Government to meet the demand."
Unfortunately, the Capitalist class have an irritating habit of' ignoring demands, even "righteous" ones, demand the Communists ever so urgently.

The reply will be that foreign trade, on which as a nation we depend for food, in return requires low wages to permit low prices. "J. B." says this is a fallacy, but goes on to say "nevertheless, it is a business proposition that what we do produce should be produced as economically as possible, and to do that we must remove capitalism."

To remove capitalism would mean, one might suppose, to remove the need for competitive commerce; but evidently the goal to which the Communist Party hastens is not our goal at all, for this is what follows : "But we must still face the fact that, that advantage would not be permanent, as other countries are bound to follow in the same path. " If that means anything it means that "J. B. " envisages the possibility of the seizure of power here by an intelligent minority, before similar seizure in the rest of the world and the continuance of production for the world market in order to get food, until other countries see our superiority and do likewise.

That other capitalists would allow such even if it were likely to happen, is incredible, and "J. B. " sees this, for he gives his remedy. "We are thrown back, then, to the need for developing agriculture, . . . and here is the central problem which emerges from the unemployment crisis. Food production must be organised to produce, not profits, but food. " What land is cultivated "is treated merely as a tool to make landlords and farmers rich. . . . The financial interest of the farmer must go. " Here incidentally arises a pretty little problem. Suppose farmers join the Communist Party to gain "relief from the unendurable burden of landlordism, " as they are invited to do (see Agrarian Thesis—Introduction), then to the extent that the Communist Party is successful they will have become richer than before, only to have their riches taken away; a mean kind of trick, to say the least of it. However, who would refrain from admiring such masters of tactics as the intellectual giants who conceived this?
  "Communists then, while devoting every possible effort to compelling immediate and adequate maintenance for the unemployed, as a right and not charity, declare that the only way to end the menace of unemployment is the reorganisation of industry, removing private ownership, arid working with the knowledge that the branch of industry which primarily needs developing and organising is agriculture. "
"J. B.'s" argument is that because the first and most urgent need of the: unemployed is for food, that the reorganisation of food production is the solution of their problem. That agriculture has been backward under Capitalism no one would deny, but that backwardness can be and is rapidly being overcome by the Capitalists whose concern it is. The workers are poor because they are robbed, not because their employers in agriculture or elsewhere mismanage production. Under Socialism food would be produced where it could most economically be produced.

It is only the military necessities of capitalist states which induces them to become as nearly as possible self-supporting, and it is because capitalism has broken down national barriers and has made production social and world-wide that the workers' movement is international. The idea that each nation must aim at being self-supporting is in reactionary in the extreme, for it encourages the false notion that the workers have an interest in promoting the national welfare.

Agriculture does not present a problem different in kind from the general social problem; it is merely a branch of industry and will be included in the transfer as a whole to common ownership. Those questions of technique and organisation with which the present owners are unable or unwilling to deal, cannot usefully be grappled with by the workers until after the revolution.

Some Communists are in a hurry—backwards. Back to the Land.
Edgar Hardcastle