Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Monkey Dramas (2018)

Hamadryas Baboons on Monkey Hill.
The Pathfinders Column from the November 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

People sometimes ask ‘who will do the dirty work in socialism?’, but socialism is not likely to have any work that’s as dirty as some of the jobs people currently do in capitalism. War is an obvious example. One dirty job is a very recent phenomenon and it does involve going down drains into filth, but in a strictly virtual sense. Facebook employs around 7,500 content moderators who are charged with the task of reviewing uploaded content which has been flagged as ‘unsuitable’ either by the automated software itself or by human users. This content includes images and footage so unpleasant that moderators are screened for ‘resilience’ and offered free in-work psychology counselling, though in the earlier days of MySpace the counselling was limited to trainers advising ‘It’s ok to walk out, it’s ok to cry. Just don’t throw up on my floor’. What impression such work must give of the human race hardly requires much imagination: ‘I didn’t shake anyone’s hand for three years. I’d seen what people do and how disgusting they are. I didn’t want to touch anyone. I was disgusted by humanity’ (‘An online decency moderator’s advice: Blur your eyes’, BBC News, 14 October).

Perhaps inevitably, social media companies have come in for criticism for not doing enough for their moderators’ mental health, and one former employee is suing Facebook after developing post-traumatic stress disorder due to exposure to a constant stream of imagery involving ‘child sexual abuse, torture, bestiality and beheadings’ (‘Facebook moderator sues over ‘beheading stress’, BBC News, 25 September).

Socialists are opposed to censorship, however there aren’t many of us who would be willing to put ourselves or our kids through what these moderators have had to see. While we argue that there is no such thing as an ‘evil human nature’, we can’t pretend like blind Pollyannas that humans are paragons of adorable fluffiness. Human history says otherwise, again and again. Some humans are just vile, and no special pleading can mitigate that vileness.

For some, the events of the Second World War and the Holocaust are enough to make them give up on the idea of socialism. Not many people, apart from some literalist Christians, still believe in original sin, but there is a common suspicion that in most cases it wouldn’t take much to turn the mildest-mannered bank clerk into a serial killer. Perhaps we’re all potentially monsters, held in check only by the coercive power of the state and the (in the UK anyway) relative unavailability of automatic weapons.

Believers in this secular form of original sin are wont to cite two famous psychology experiments which seem to show scientifically that anyone can be turned into a monster with alarming ease – the 1960s Milgram ‘torture’ experiment and the 1971 Stanford prison experiment.

But as has been noted previously in this column (October 2014), these two experiments were anything but rigorous and scientific, and the headline conclusions which made them famous were not supported by the actual test results. In the Milgram experiment, where subjects were told to electrocute a ‘victim’ whenever they got a question wrong, up to 50 percent refused to comply. Of those who did comply, some wept openly as they pressed the button to deliver the shock. Subsequent interviews revealed that these subjects were badgered by the experimenter who told them that science and the good of humanity depended on their compliance. Rather than being vindictive monsters, the subjects were cowed by the authority of the experimenter and Yale University’s credentials, and by the well-attested human inclination to conform to perceived norms. Others said they were convinced the Yale experiment was a fake to begin with, on the plausible grounds that an Ivy League university was not going to squander its reputation by torturing people.

Gina Perry, the researcher who exposed this appalling pseudo-scientific stunt back in 2012, has followed up with a study of the Zimbardo prison experiment, pointing out that not only did two thirds of the ‘guards’ refuse to torture the ‘prisoners’ as requested (!), but that those who obeyed the instruction felt obliged to do so because they were being paid and told how to behave. Many of the ‘guards’ subsequently said they felt angry that they had been duped and manipulated (New Scientist, 13 October).

The enduring fame of these two dodgy experiments undoubtedly owes everything to the fact that people love hearing about how bad humans are, and this is a crucial part of the ideology of the rich who rule over us. Without rulers to dispense justice and punishment, we are reliably assured through every medium from the Daily Mail to murder dramas, we will certainly descend to barbarism and then extinction.

At one time this notion of ‘scientific’ original sin extended to primates too. London Zoo in 1932 witnessed a phenomenon which became known as The Massacre at Monkey Hill and caused global headlines. A new open-air baboon enclosure was the scene of an astonishing seven-year bloodbath and started a trend in anthropology based on the notion of the ‘killer ape’. In fact the Monkey Hill debacle was due to human ignorance. Staff packed 94 harem-loving male baboons into a space which, in the wild, would have accommodated only one, and then accidentally included six females. The violence that ensued was so bad that staff could not enter the enclosure to remove the bodies. So infatuated did lab researchers and wider society become with this violent ‘killer ape’ stereotype that it was decades before pioneering young field researchers like Jane Goodall were able to overturn it with the simple observation that primates including baboons do not behave this way in the wild. As a recent 2016 article puts it, ‘trying to generalise about primate behaviour based on Monkey Hill would be like trying to learn about human nature by watching a prison riot’ (LINK).

The ‘human nature’ argument is one of the most enduring pieces of propaganda ever levelled at socialists, and it remains popular because in some masochistic way people want to believe the worst of themselves. But it plays directly into the hands of our self-appointed and self-serving rulers. In reality there is nothing in human nature that predisposes us to violence, or against socialism, and the vast majority of workers are nothing like the anti-human caricature that the capitalist media promotes through its shlock-horror reporting and its endless obsession with those TV murder dramas.
Paddy Shannon

The Law won (2018)

Pamphlet Review from the June 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘Rent Strike. St Pancras 1960’. By Dave Burn. (Past Tense. £3)

In 1959 the newly-elected Tory Council in St Pancras in central London – the voters had just kicked out the previous Labour one – introduced, in accordance with the 1957 Rent Act, a new rent scheme for council tenants which meant huge rent increases for most of them. The tenants organised to resist, calling first for a refusal to pay the increase and then, when the Council refused to negotiate, a complete rent boycott. Two of the tenants’ leaders were chosen to be test cases with the other tenants organising to try to prevent their eviction. They failed as a massive police presence enabled the bailiffs to enforce the law. The evictions were followed by what was described as the worst riot in Britain since the 1930s as hundreds of tenants protested outside the Town Hall but were beaten back by the police.

The Labour Party regained control of the council at the 1962 elections with a promise to reverse the Tory rent scheme. They found that this was legally impossible and that if they had tried they would have been personally ‘surcharged’ for the loss of revenue; all they could, and did, do was to rehouse the two evicted tenants’ leaders.

This pamphlet, originally published in 1972 and now for some reason republished, admits that the tenants’ campaign was a failure but attributes this to relying on electoral action, implying that had they resorted to ‘direct action’ they could have won. This is open to serious doubt as the tenants were up against not only the law but the force of the state machine. The sad fact is that all they could have hoped for was some modification of the scheme to remove the worst anomalies.

‘Direct action’ – reformism by blows – is not able to be any more effective than reformism by voting for a reform-promising political party. It can’t make the state go away.
Adam Buick

50 Years Ago: What! No money! (2018)

The 50 Years Ago column from the September 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

Millions of viewers of the BBC programme last June on the students will have heard Tariq Ali declare “we believe in the abolition of money”. Someone pointed out that “the others looked very doubtful”.

As well they might. Even Cohn-Bendit has only called for equal wages, presumably to be paid in money.

Tariq Ali himself probably did not understand the implications of what he said. But he did break a left-wing taboo. Normally they don’t like to fly so much in the face of popular prejudice and risk being called “Utopians”.

No, normally they like to be seen as r-r-revolutionaries boldly declaring they believe in violence!

Whatever the reason for his lapse Tariq Ali did at least provoke some discussion in the papers as to whether or not it was practical to do away with money. Most people ridiculed the idea but one Guardian letter-writer pointed out that the absurdity of capitalism should be obvious every time you get on a bus and have “to exchange metal discs for a ritual rectangle of paper which an intelligent man was paid to punch”.

Of course to abolish money without making any other changes would be foolish. Capitalism produces wealth for sale on a market with a view to profit and where there is an exchange economy money is very useful. The only alternative is barter which would be cumbersome and lead to a drastic drop in trade and production.

But this is not what Socialists want. We have always stood for a change in society which would make money redundant. Once the means of wealth production are the common property of the whole community they can be used to turn out wealth directly to meet human needs. When this has been done then everybody could have free access to it and take what they felt they needed. And why not, when the resources of the world can provide plenty for all? It is not those who want to abolish money who are absurd but those who want to keep it.
[Socialist Standard, September 1968]

Obituary: Dorothy Morriss (2018)

Obituary from the September 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

The family have informed us that Dorothy Morriss died peacefully on 5 August in Poole hospital, aged 90.

She was born Naomi Dorothy Thomas on St. Helena, the island in the middle of the Atlantic, and lived in Australia and New Zealand before finally settling in Britain, in Bournemouth, in the 1970s. She and her husband, Harry, who had joined the Party in 1945 before emigrating, were members of the SPNZ and transferred to the party here. She was an active member of the one-time Bournemouth Group and, with other local members, helped stake out the pitch and run the Party stall at the annual Tolpuddle Martyrs Rally every July.

In a tribute, the family, to whom we extend our condolences, write: ‘A party stalwart, Dorothy was simply a marvelous lady. Believing deeply in the ethos of equity and the power of community, Dorothy consistently championed the unconventional and always the underdog. With a network of close friends spanning both tropics, Dorothy’s warm, wonderful nature was remarked upon everywhere. She raised a wonderful family and is survived by her daughter Ann and her two grandsons, Chris and James, who looked up to her benevolent spirit ever so fondly. To a life well lived, all our love, your family.’

Africa—A Field For Investment (1952)

From the December 1952 issue of the Socialist Standard

Africa is a vast continent, with a population of 200 million where 700 different languages are spoken. It is coming more and more into the news, for it offers enormous opportunities for the investment of capital.

The Daily Mail had two articles (4 and 5 Sept) on the proposal to form a Central African Federation, to include Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, and which will be discussed at Westminster shortly.

And The Daly Telegraph (10-9-52) reports:
   “A Sahara expedition which will study methods of halting the desert’s advance. Mr. Baker and his three companions will spend a week in Paris meeting French Sahara experts at the Ministry of War and elsewhere. They will visit the plantations in Algeria, and will go to Tunisia, through Laghouat, In Salah 700 miles south of Algiers, and cross the desert through Zinder to Nigeria. They will then drive to Uganda and Kenya."
The Daily Telegraph (6-9-52) reports a “decision to build a £70 million oil refinery on the Kenya mainland opposite Mombasa Island. The Government will freeze 2,000 acres in the interests of the security and well-being of Kenya. Work is expected to be provided for hundreds of Europeans and thousands of Africans. It is widely thought that Mombasa will become an important naval base."

There are all kinds of plans for developing Africa. Experts have been investigating dam sites on the River Zambesi, to harness the power of the Victoria Falls; the Zambesi, one of Africa's greatest rivers, forms the northern border of Southern Rhodesia, and it is believed that, some 200 miles north-east of the Falls, between the high banks of the Kariba Gorge, a dam site would create an inland sea as big as the three largest American dams put together. Cheap electric power could be generated at low cost

Another large plan is the Sabi Lundi development scheme, which has large possibilities for industry, for there are coal and phosphate deposits here.

All these plans need capital.
   “The President of the World Bank, disclosed that the bank has lent £500 million to 27 countries in the last five years. It is helping to finance a £100 million four year plan by Southern Rhodesia " (Daily Graphic 6-9-52).
A booklet has been prepared by the Public Relations Dept, of Southern Rhodesia, and is called “Southern Rhodesia, A field for investment." We are told that, "Southern Rhodesia is admirably placed to be the manufacturer in chief to many millions of Africans inside and beyond its borders. Apart from its own people, Southern Rhodesia can therefore look northwards and eastwards to Northern Rhodesia, Nyasaland, the Eastern Congo and Portuguese East Africa, to a population of not less than 12 to 15,000,000 Africans, for potential markets for her growing industries."

We thus can see that economic development is going on.

What will be the result of all this development on the native Africans? "The five million whites in Africa fear that they will be swamped and overpowered by the Africans, whose standard of civilisation is incomparably lower than theirs. The Europeans there seek to avert this real danger by retaining all forms of political power in their own hands for as long as possible " (page 42 “Attitude to Africa," by W. A. Lewis, Michael Scott, M. Wight and C. Legum).

The Africans are thus being drawn into the vortex of our present capitalist economy.
I. Flower.