Thursday, November 22, 2018

Same the Whole World Over (2018)

From the April 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

I just have to share this.  I’m sure the situation is the same in every country suffering under capitalism.

I am a pensioner and, because I had a major back injury some years ago, I am eligible for a few extra dollars on top of my pension as a disability allowance.  This, of course, is means tested.  I have to supply the government with receipts for gardening, electricity bills, doctor’s bills, prescription receipts, etc.  The extra few dollars they throw my way enables me to pay someone to mow my lawn.  Okay, that sounds fair enough.  This hasn’t been updated for several years so I was not surprised when the Department of Work and Income wrote to me asking me to supply receipts for my expenses over the past year.  What did surprise me was that there were no contact details on their letter, other than an 0800 number.  There was no physical address, no P.O. Box number, no telephone number. 

I have had past experience of using an 0800 number for this Government Department and I don’t ever want to do so again.  What happens is, you end up holding on to the telephone for up to an hour listening to pre-recorded music (their choice of which is rank!) and when the call is eventually answered I found myself talking to some clown in a call centre in a different city, 300 kilometers away, who was unable to help with my enquiry.

Okay, so I photocopied all my receipts for them and then got on the Internet to try to find out where to post them.  The letter they sent me had been posted in a small town in the South Island, but no address was given.  I live in the capital city.  Don’t they have an office in the capital city?  Right, well, the Internet provided me with a post box number for their office in the small country town in the south island, so I posted the receipts there.

Having done that I thought the next step would be to write a letter to the cabinet minister and complain about the lack of contact details on their letterhead.  The Department of Work and Income is a Government Department, so you would expect that there should be a Minister of Work and Income, right?  Wrong!  She hides under the title of Minister for Social Development!  Okay, so the Internet should provide me with the name of the Minister for Social Development, right?  Wrong!  The name they provide is that of the previous Minister who lost her job 5 months previously when the government changed from National to Labour in the last elections.  It seems that it takes them an awfully long time to update their website!  (They have updated it now!)  Okay, sit tight and wait for a reply.  Ha-bloody-ha!

Eventually I got another letter from Work & Income, but from a different writer than on the previous correspondence.  I was expecting to hear that my disability allowance would be increased by a few dollars since my expenses had increased considerably.  But, No!  The letter informed me that my allowance would stay the same and that if I wished to question this I should contact the writer at the address given on the back of the letter.  I turned the letter over and it was completely blank!  Surprise, surprise!  They must have written it in invisible ink!

My next step was to make an appointment to see my MP.  Well, not exactly the man himself as he is a busy man, but his secretary who runs his office in town.  Hooray, at last, a helpful human being.  I went along to see her taking all the correspondence with me.  I asked whether my MP could do something about making Work and Income more accessible to the public.  After all, being a Labour MP, he should now have a bit more clout than he did with the previous government.  She explained that there was little he could do and went on to say that the reason we have so many beggars on the streets now is because the government is trying to make it impossible for people to apply for any kind of benefit.  Most people get sick and tired of trying to get government assistance that they just give up trying.

I asked her where the Wellington branch of Work and Income is now situated because it had moved from the building it was in a few years ago.  She said that they still have a branch in the city, and actually told me what street it was on, but advised me not to go there because they have two security guards on the door and no one can get in unless they have an appointment. Of course, it is impossible to get an appointment because they don’t advertise their phone number.  Of course, all the money they save from not paying benefits is spent on employing more paper-shufflers and security guards.

Isn’t Capitalism wonderful!
Moggie Grayson 
(World Socialist Party, NZ)

Fareless Transport (2018)

The Cooking the Books column from the April 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

Under the headline ‘German cities to trial free public transport to cut pollution,’ the Guardian (14 February) reported on a letter from German ministers to the EU Environment Commissioner. Their idea was to encourage people to use public transport rather than carbon-burning individual cars (and avoid Germany being fined for not meeting EU antipollution targets).

Free transport will be a feature of socialist society as part of general production to directly meet people’s needs. So, there would not just be free transport, but also free health care, education, communications, restaurants and laundries. There would be no charge to enter museums, parks, libraries, theatres and other places of entertainment and recreation. Houses and flats would be rent-free, with heating, lighting, water, telephone and broadband supplied free of charge.

Free public transport on its own within capitalism is a different matter as under capitalism everything has to be paid for. As the system’s defenders put it, there is no such thing as a free lunch. In the case of public transport, the body operating it has to spend money to provide the service, on buying and maintaining the buses, trams or trains, on maintaining the tracks, on fuel and electricity and general running costs, as well as on the wages and salaries of its employees. If there is no money coming in from fares, somebody has to provide the money to pay for all this. The transport authority has to be subsidised, from central or local government which will have raised the money from taxes and borrowing.

One capitalist justification for such a subsidy is that it would save money that would otherwise have to be spent on something else. The Guardian mentions that, according to the EU, ‘life-threatening pollution’ affects 130 cities in Europe ‘costing €20bn euros (US$24.7bn) in health spending per year in the bloc.’ Another reason might be to avoid employers in city centres having to pay higher wages because of the high cost of workers getting to work; in effect, a subsidy to these employers.

Free transport has in fact been introduced in some cities, and has worked to refute the silly objection that opponents of socialism have predicted will happen when anything is made freely available.

When in 1970 the GLC was considering whether or not to introduce free transport in London one Conservative councillor predicted that everybody would rush to take free rides and a contributor to the Local Government Chronicle (15 August) opined: ‘individual charges are a form of “rationing by the purse”, but they are rationing. If there were no individual payments and thus no rationing, buses and trains and so on would surely get even more overcrowded than they are today; powerful and unscrupulous would-be passengers would get places in the vehicles, but what about old people, children, and the disabled? They need transport most of all, but they would be likely sufferers in a free-for-all.’

This has not happened in the places where free transport has been introduced. In a follow-up article on the German proposal, the news website, the Huffington Post (22 February) reported on two cities which already have unlimited public transport free at the point of access. In Tubingen, in Germany, where residents pay a tax of €15 (about £13) a month towards the cost. In Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, there is also fareless public transport. In neither case has free transport led to a free-for-all as the physically strong push aside pensioners to grab a seat, nor to people ‘joy riding’ or ‘free loading’ just because it’s free. People only use the free transport to get from A to B when they need to for one reason or another. As they can be expected to do in socialism too,

Breaking the mould (1981)

Editorial from the November 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

Much has been heard, from the Liberals and the Social Democrats in recent months, about the need to destroy the “old mould” in British political affairs. Implicit in this is the argument that for too long we have been governed successively by parties representing policies which have repeatedly failed; we must move on now to a new style of politics. Oswald Mosley used to say much the same thing and although it would be wrong to align the Liberals and the SDP with him, Mosley did play on that same despair and disillusionment which afflicts voters when they face the repeated failures of “conventional” parties to tame the crises of capitalism.

The SDP was born on a wave of such despair and its alliance with the Liberals promises to make “new mould” politics one of its main appeals for support. This could be an important issue for some time. So how valid are the claims of the SDP/Liberal Alliance to stand for something new?

One thing, at any rate, which has not changed is the open contempt which capitalist politicians show for the working class. It is impertinent that the likes of Jenkins, Williams and Owen should represent themselves as “new style” leaders. All of them played their full part in the disastrous Labour governments of the 60s and 70s, which relentlessly attacked the working class and which always did as British capitalism demanded. As personalities the Gang of Four are outworn and discredited; neither is there anything new in the squalid battle they are at present engaged in over the leadership of the SDP.

But personalities are of small significance; the working class must be concerned with policies and in this field the SDP/Liberals make no better showing. Their policies are concerned with British capitalism staying in the EEC, having its own nuclear arsenal (although on this there is already much confusion), making British industry more competitive and more profitable — which means more exploitative of its workers. What this amounts to is that the SDP/Liberals, like the Labour and Conservative parties, have a policy for running British capitalism. If they get into power (and how traditionally excited the Liberals were, at their recent conference, when their leader Steel assured them that power is at last in their grasp!) the social system we live under, which represses and degrades us, will remain untouched.

This social system is chaotic and inefficient; it cannot answer to the needs of its people. It condemns tens of millions of human beings every year to a distressing, agonising death through starvation—while tens of millions of productive workers are unemployed and while food is destroyed. It inexorably produces war, and increasingly fearsome weapons, while almost everyone wants peace and disarmament. It deprives the vast majority of people of the results of their labour. As one government after another fails to have any effect on these problems, disillusionment with established political parties grows. The demand for “new mould” politics is, then, understandable—perhaps healthy and progressive.

Radical social change is needed. But this does not mean reshuffling the existing pack of policies and leaders. It means a challenge to the basis of society, instructed by an awareness of the need to get at the root of our problems. It means thinking in terms of fundamental change—of revolution. For the problems of capitalism cannot be separated from their origin—the private property basis of society. They cannot be solved — in fact typically they cannot even be alleviated without reference to that basis.

The conclusion we come to, then, is that the only worthwhile — the only radical — social change is the abolition of capitalism and its replacement by a social system based on common ownership of the means of production and distribution. That society is known as socialism. It will bring a world free of inequality, of poverty, war, hunger, exploitation. It will liberate people to co-operate in the work of society and to take from the common pool of wealth as they need.

Socialism will be set up when the majority of the working class, world wide, have the knowledge which will enable them to make the conscious decision to opt for the new society. With that knowledge they will have no use for leaders; the movement for socialism is one of democracy, of conscious and informed participation.

These are truly the politics of a new mould. Not new in the sense of being young; the ideas of socialism have existed a lot longer than most of the parties of capitalism. They are new in the sense that they are unique, radical — but untried. And how long they remain like that is a matter for the working class, who have no need to endure for a day longer the preposterous deceits of capitalism. The workers must choose; they have nothing to lose but their slavery and a world to win.

Running Commentary: Honest John (1981)

The Running Commentary Column from the November 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

Honest John
The Sunday Express is one of those newspapers which is deeply proud of the organisation of mass murder by the British government between 1939 and 1945 to “keep the fascist huns from the door”. So it is rather curious to find the following rather “illiberal” sentiments in the edition of that newspaper for 27 September, in John Junor’s “Current Events” column:
  They are part of the same band of fist-clenching comrades who are active in every riot, every demonstration, every picket line. They are the rats attacking our society from within. And in the end they will destroy us if we do not destroy them. The IRA-loving, poof-loving Marxist leader of the GLC Mr Ken Livingstone was prophesying the other day that the time was coming when a right-wing government would send militants to the gas chamber. I wouldn't go as far as that. But might we not all be a lot safer if at least half of them were in clink?
Junor is right that there is a fierce struggle going on which will lead to the end of what he calls “our” society, that is “their” society of capital and profit. But the real challenge to him and his anti-social prejudices does not come from Ken Livingstone, Tony Benn or any of the parties of the left. The threat to the misery and insecurity of the present social order lies in the working class developing the idea of dispossessing the parasitic minority we work for.

War for what?
The conventional explanation of the causes of the Second World War was further discredited by the recent publication of Auschwitz and the Allies, by Martin Gilbert (Michael Joseph, £12.00). It explains how Churchill's plan to bomb the railway lines to the German death camps was frustrated by the Foreign Office and the RAF. A. R. Dew, a senior official of the Foreign Office, noted at the time: “A disproportionate amount of the time of the Office is wasted on dealing with these wailing Jews.” J.S. Bennett, the senior civil servant for Jewish immigration at the Colonial Office, read eye-witness reports from concentration camps and remarked: “Familiar stuff. The Jews have spoilt their case by laying it on too thick for years past.” Britain declared war on Germany for principally economic reasons: Hitler’s policy of German expansion and imperialism directly threatened the previous European power structure and the trade interests of the British and French capitalists. In the final analysis, it was to defend propertied interests, and not democracy, that the Second World War was fought.

It’s their country
Patriotism is not natural. You may have been born in Britain but it is unlikely that you, or anyone else, came crying into the world with an innate, instinctual admiration for the Pennines, Prince Philip, fish and chips or the English language. However, if by the time you are adult the schools, churches and mass media have done a good job, you will have been persuaded to show great loyalty to “your” country, sometimes to the point of dying for it.

Perhaps it can be said that if a child is weaned on a particular style of food, acquires a single language and grows up in a particular national environment with particular customs, it would be natural to expect it to wish to continue living in that culture. Obviously in a democracy people would be able to opt for this sort of a life; the point is that now most people have this lifestyle—cramped with poverty foisted upon them.

What do they mean when they say we should have a loyalty to our country in preference to others? Workers have no country; we own none of Britain. We have nothing here worth fighting for. The only significant division between people does not relate to where they are born but to whether they are part of the small minority who together own and control almost all of the wealth of society, or whether they are part of the vast majority who produce and service all social wealth but own and control next to nothing of it.

Patriotism is inculcated into members of the wealth producing class to create an illusion that all inhabitants of a certain, arbitrarily delineated area of the earth, owners and non-owners alike, have a common “national” interest. This way, whenever the owners based in one country wish to have their economic interests protected against the expansion of their rivals, or perhaps when they want some enforced expansion themselves, the majority class (whose lot, apart from running society from top to bottom, includes the dirty work of war) will be prepared to fight “for the national interest”.

According to a Defence White Paper recently released by the Japanese government, “the Japanese people should cultivate a greater patriotic awareness and willingness to support the armed forces”. It says that it should be the duty of the government to instil in the Japanese a sense of patriotism which is defined as “a willingness to cooperate in defending the country in a national emergency”. That is, to butcher other workers if there is to be a show down between Japanese industrialists and their foreign rivals. While the Defence Ministry is repeating these exhortations the government is revising the school textbooks so that they contain greater emphasis on patriotism.

Shopping with Woolies
Woolworths is normally thought of as the leading supplier of cheap, shoddy goods to those who produce all the wealth of society, and therefore, according to capitalist logic, must remain relatively poor. But the pennies in the cash registers soon add up, and when Woolworths goes shopping, it doesn't do it on the cheap. They have just spent £20 million buying the Dodge City chain of DIY stores. Of this, £17 million will go into the pocket of Richard Northcott. In 1974, Northcott inherited a chain of wallpaper and paint shops from his father. A few years later, by employing wage- and salary- earners who gave more than they got (like all workers do), he doubled his money and is now a multi-millionaire. We have just one complaint: the whole world is run expressly for the benefit of a minority. If something is not profitable to them (such as feeding hungry people who have no money to pay) then it will not take place; if something is profitable (such as pollution, thalidomide, neutron bombs and wage cuts) then such things will be produced. That is our only complaint.
Clifford Slapper

Fables — some true (1981)

A Short Story from the November 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

Once upon a time, in Africa, there lived a feeble old man. Old and feeble though he was, he had many fine cattle and young wives to tend them. One day a white man came to his village and started to tell the people that polygamy was against the laws of someone called God. After a while the witch doctor, for that was what the old man was, noticed young men hanging about near his compound. He threatened them, and they ran away. One or two did not run very far, so he pointed the bones at one of them. Within a month the young man died.

The old man realised that this was not the answer. The missionary had to die. So he waylaid him and pointed the bones. Months passed and the missionary was still hale and hearty. The witch doctor was the laughing stock of the village and the missionary boasted that he was protected by the Lord of Hosts. Now the witchdoctor let it be known that certain people would have the bones pointed in their direction if the missionary did not die. Soon after this the missionary was found clubbed to death, which goes to show that magic works.

In North America, in the 18th century, a man was in the forest picking berries. He was approached by a white man, who asked to buy the forest as far as the great river. “This paleface is mad" thought the man, but he took the gifts offered and made a magic mark upon his skin, which was covered with other magic marks. A few weeks later the Indian was setting a snare, when he again saw the white man. who ordered him to get off his land. The Indian laughed. Next day the white man turned up at the Indian’s lodge, together with others carrying muskets. They burned the lodge to the ground and threw the Indian into the river. Which goes to show that magic works.

Back in Africa, a man was approached by a trader and told that, if he handed over his corn, he would be given paper in the modern way. On the paper were the magic marks of the Chief Cashier. The trader put the corn into barns. Next year the crops failed. The farmer went to the trader with the same pieces of paper with the magic marks. The trader said “Sorry, there has been a coup d'etat, your bits of paper are worthless; the magician who signed them has lost his magic power.” “But”, said the farmer, “the corn is still in the barns.” “Yes”, agreed the trader, “but you are not getting any.” Which goes to show that magic does not always work.

In Africa again. The government was clearing the forest. They said to the pygmy people “help us to clear the forest and we will pay you.” The pygmies said “What will we do with this pay?” The government said “you will be able to buy food and clothing, and for two weeks of the year you will have a holiday.” “But”, replied the pygmies “We can collect all the food we need in a couple of hours; we don’t need clothes and we spend most of our time playing games.” Which goes to show that not everyone believes in magic. Unfortunately the government (the name for a group of magicians who talk all the time and make things happen by magic words) caused the forest to be cleared, and the pygmies died of heat stroke. Which goes to show that magicians don't like what comes naturally.

Take one, on the face of it, unremarkable young man, add one young woman, throw in an Archbishop or two plus a clutch of dotty television types, arrange a sunny day, and you can bring a ray of sunshine into a billion hearts. Take a normal, unaggressive young man, dress him up in funny clothes, shout at him a bit, get him to perform some strange ballet steps on a concrete square, put a rifle in his hand, and he will kill anything he is told to. Tell practically anyone to do something for “their country” and they will. Which goes to show that magic is powerful stuff.

Socialism is a society without illusion, without magic, without belief in money, ownership or magicians. Like the men who killed the missionary, most people believe that power lies in the hands of the magicians. The cry of the masses is “Oh mighty ones, we acknowledge your magic power over us. We will run society for your benefit if you will shoulder the dreadful burden of responsibility for the consequences of our mindless labour.” To which the magicians reply “We are the mighty ones, we never err, put your trust in us and you will never have to think for yourselves or take responsibility for your lives.” Whereupon the masses sing a verse of God Save The Queen and give rousing hosannas for capitalism.
Arthur Spender