Sunday, December 30, 2018

Divide and Rule (2018)

Book Review from the October 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Divide: a Brief Guide to Global Inequality and Its Solutions’. By Jason Hickel, (Windmill. £9.99)

This is not a brief guide, but it is a very useful and informative one (though it would have been even more so with an index). Hickel’s account deals with the extent and origins of inequality between rich and poor countries, how it is maintained and how it might be removed.

This divide has not always existed, as around 1500 there were no big differences in living standards between Europe and the rest of the world. But European exploration and colonisation led to massive transfer of wealth as well as large-scale deaths, with around 95 percent of the population of what became ‘Latin’ America killed between 1492 and 1650. A hundred million kilograms of silver was transferred from the Americas to Europe, mostly by means of ‘coercive extraction’. Slavery also involved a vast accumulation of wealth in Europe, and thus boosted industrialisation: ‘The emergence of capitalism required violence and mass impoverishment, both at home and abroad’.

In 1820 the income gap between the richest and poorest countries was 3 to 1; around 1850 it was 35 to 1. Furthermore, there was massive inequality within the richest countries: in 1910, the richest one percent in Europe owned 65 percent of the wealth. Many former colonies became nominally independent, but they were still subject to much interference (to put it mildly) from the most powerful countries, from the 1953 coup in Iran to the mass killings in Indonesia in 1965, the coup in Ghana in 1966, the removal of Allende in Chile in 1973 and many more, all of which resulted in authoritarian governments friendly to Western interests.

Inequality in the West increased from the 1980s, and things came to a head in global terms with the Third World Debt Crisis of 1982, following which countries such as Mexico were forced to repay their loans and euphemistically-termed Structural Adjustment Programmes were introduced, which meant countries had to prioritise debt repayments and open their economies to international competition. The World Trade Organisation is one of several bodies that in effect tell poorer countries how to run their economies. These countries receive much in ‘aid’ from the wealthier ones, but these payments are dwarfed by the transfer of wealth in the other direction, via debt repayments, profit repatriation, capital flight, etc. The result of all this is a world where 4.3 billion people live in dreadful poverty, and the eight richest people have as much wealth as the poorest half of the global population combined.

The account summarised above is an excellent overview of the history of global inequality, but Hickel’s proposed solutions do not really address the causes. He advocates abolishing the debt burden of developing countries, democratising institutions such as the World Bank, making the international trade system fairer, introducing a global minimum wage and having a universal basic income. All this fits in with his odd and unsupported statement that the problem is not so much capitalism as a particular kind of capitalism (presumably its neoliberal version).

More interesting is his final chapter, which tackles environmental issues and the question of whether everyone in the world can live at the standard of the average person in the richest countries. One aim should be to achieve zero carbon emissions by the middle of this century, another to reduce total production and consumption, which can be done and still increase happiness and health. A Genuine Progress Indicator could replace GDP as a measure of wellbeing, though he sees all this as happening within capitalism. We cannot take a stand now on how such considerations would fare in socialism, but Hickel certainly provides here some ideas to think about.
Paul Bennett

Ignominious end (2018)

Book Review from the October 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘The James Connolly Reader’. Edited by Shaun Harkin. (Haymarket Books. 2018. 460 pages)

James Connolly is of interest not just because he is an Irish Nation(alist) Hero who claimed to be a socialist but also because he took part in the ‘impossibilist revolt’ in the Social Democratic Federation. This involved SDF members, mainly in Scotland and London, who were opposed to the autocratic control of the organisation by a clique around its leader, H. M. Hyndman, and to its opportunist policies. It led to a breakaway, in 1903, by those in Scotland to form the Socialist Labour Party of Great Britain and, in 1904, of those in London to form the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Connolly, who was born in Scotland but was then living in Dublin, was associated with the first group and chaired its inaugural meeting. When later in 1903 he emigrated to America he joined the SLP of America.

By this time the SLP’s leading figure, Daniel De Leon, had developed the theory of ‘socialist industrial unionism’ according to which, to achieve socialism, the working class had to organise both politically and industrially, but with organisation into industrial unions to take over the means of production being the more important. This was the original position of the IWW when it was founded in 1905, and for which Connolly was an organiser for a while.

During his period in America Connolly held this position, even after leaving the SLP.  It led him away from his earlier position that the socialist political party should be a strictly socialist one towards saying that it only needed to be a party committed to furthering the interests of the working class. Following this up, he joined the Socialist Party of America. His views in this period can be found in his 1909 pamphlet Socialism Made Easy (reproduced here). Also included in this collection, brought out to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth, is his 1910 classic Labour in Irish History.

He returned to Ireland in 1910 and was one of those behind the formation of the Irish Labour Party in 1912, intended to be the equivalent in the coming Home Rule Parliament in Dublin of the Labour Party at Westminster, i.e., a trade union pressure group. Connolly was now an organiser for the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and most of his work from then on was trade union activity, in Belfast as well as Dublin, including during the notorious Dublin Lock-Out of 1913.

In his 80-page introduction Harkin, an SWPer, says that Connolly developed a pioneering view on ‘the relationship between national liberation and socialism’ with his argument that, since in Ireland the propertied classes were too dependent on British imperialism to successfully lead the struggle for Irish independence, this task fell to the Irish working class. He may well have argued this, but he didn’t practise it.  He ended up a ‘Martyr for Old Ireland’ in 1916 in a futile insurrection led, not by the working class, but by non-socialist pure-and-simple Irish Republicans and backed by Imperial Germany. In his written ‘Last Statement’ to his daughter before he was executed by a British Army firing squad he made no mention of socialism, only of Irish freedom and ‘national rights’.

He died not for socialism but for capitalist Irish Republicanism. His sad descent towards this ignominious end can be traced in last hundred pages of Harkin’s selection.
Adam Buick

Devastation in Kerala (2018)

From the October 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

Politics
A month or so on from the horrific floods and consequent devastation in the state of Kerala, south western India, it is interesting to look back at the commentary being put out by Indian writers at the time. There is blaming and shaming of different varieties, of different parties, with different emphasis depending on the main points raised by each individual commentator. This particular incident though, however serious and shocking, cannot be isolated from the many other such weather catastrophes occurring globally with greater frequency. One has to wonder just how seriously unaffected individuals view such disasters and how long the incidents remain in their minds. Are such disasters even perceived as something that any individual can do anything to change? Political commentary in one country relating to events in that country can have only limited effects. When talking of climate catastrophe the political discourse must be global. The necessary action must be global. All events need to be seen, not separately, but as parts of the whole.

Differences in emphasis between the government of the State of India supporters, (the nationalist BJP,) and those of Kerala State government supporters, (so-called Communist ie allegedly ‘Marxist’) was, as to be expected, widely different and the blame game could be clearly seen as political. For instance the local state government called very early on to the central government for assistance with troops, equipment, vehicles, helicopters, etc., but were dismissed for ten days before the floods were recognised nationally as ‘a severe calamity’, at which time limited help was given, gaining praise from BJP supporters and derision from local government backers. Central government also refused offers of assistance and donations from outside the country whilst within Kerala State itself local organisations quickly rallied thousands of volunteers from among their ranks of students, youth, trade unions, etc., both members and supporters, with volunteers in control rooms at fourteen district administration headquarters, while 12 thousands of fishermen with more than 600 boats evacuated the bulk of those rescued. It should be noted that the BJP has scant political representation in the whole of south India, so stands on the sidelines in Kerala.

South India has approximately 20 percent of India’s population and contributes about 30 percent of total taxes. Its share in total GDP is 25 percent but receives only 18 percent in return. Kerala State, a part of S India, is recognised by international organisations as having the best human development indicators in India.

Monsoon, Water, Statistics
In recent years the monsoon season has become more and more unpredictable resulting in years of drought and crop failure followed by sudden inundation causing loss of top soil and consequent problems. This most recent flood happened during the expected monsoon season but was much greater than the previous ‘biggie’ a century earlier. Hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated safely from below many of the dams in the few days before the flood happened.

According to the publication Nature, ‘there has been a 3-fold increase in widespread extreme rain events over central India during 1950-2015, increasing the events of flooding which is linked to rapid surface warming on the northern Arabian Sea which borders Pakistan and NW India.’ The former advisor and founder of the Climate Change Research International says that expected increases in extreme weather events due to climate change reveal India to be more vulnerable (than many other countries) because of its wide geographical and demographic variations.

Expert after expert confirms on a regular basis that what is happening globally, that is increasing extreme weather events, is not a surprise but just what was expected and warned about.

In 2016 Kerala suffered its worst drought in 115 years requiring severe water rationing. This was soon followed in 2017 by 440 wild fires that destroyed 2,100 hectares of forest. Then came the 2018 flooding when 80 dams in the state had to be opened (of which 42 are major dams) causing 44 rivers to overflow. Kerala’s annual average rainfall, the highest among all ‘big’ Indian states, is close to 3,000mm  – more than double that of the UK, and most of it will fall during the three months of the monsoon season. This year, from June 1 to August 21, 41 percent more than normal rain fell, and in the latter 19 days, 164 percent more than normal, causing massive flooding and landslips affecting all districts of the state. Including the huge numbers of evacuees, current figures state that some 5.4 million people have been directly affected.

India’s population is 15 percent of the global total with just 4 percent of global water resources.

65 percent of farm land depends entirely on rain. A comparison is revealing:
  • There are 4,525 dams, large and small.
  • Per capita water storage: 213 cubic metres.
  • Per capita water storage Russia: 6,103 cubic metres.
  • Australia: 4,733 cubic metres.
  • US: 1,964 cubic metres.
  • China: 1,111 cubic metres.

Regarding the water table, information taken from a European Commission report reveals that currently there are more than 20 million boreholes, up from tens of thousands in the 1960s. The water table is falling on average by 0.3m – 4m annually meaning that wells dug in the ’60s to a depth of 15m are now having to go to a depth of 91m to find water. In some areas wells at depths of 500m have gone dry.

It’s All About Politics
To return to the political agenda, and being aware of the dire water situation, currently the national government is now encouraging the growing of sugar cane, rice and other ‘water heavy’ crops in areas of traditionally low rainfall, dancing to the tune of multinational corporations eager to gain access to more farmland. In 40 years Kerala has lost nearly half its natural forest, some to monocrops and some as urban areas continue to expand. Both of these factors cause problems for sudden flows of water, less being absorbed naturally and thus causing rivers to overflow. ‘How quickly rivers change and how quickly we respond with urban drainage and flood mitigation measures will play a significant role in our evolving flood risk. Further to this will be how rapidly societies and their governments begin to adopt more resilient ways of living with water.’ (LINK).

The biggest handicap to implementing any of the above measures is the current global political system’s lack of interest.

Take for instance the current tense situation between the neighbouring states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The struggle is between dam safety (Kerala) and water availability (Tamil Nadu). This one particular dam and all its catchment area is in Kerala but operated by Tamil Nadu through a very interesting colonial history. The dam, 123 years old, diverts some of the water east into Tamil Nadu’s Vaigai river – dating from an 1886 agreement between the British Madras Presidency and the Kingdom of Travancore. Why is this relevant now? Because the case had to be referred to the Supreme Court for judgement to have the level reduced 3 feet against Tamil Nadu’s wishes.

As of 2 September 483 deaths have been recorded as a result of this latest flooding in Kerala; more than 1.5 million people are in relief camps; thousands of homes have been either inundated or swept away and roads and a major airport have been seriously damaged. According to ecologist Dr S. Faizi:
  ‘This was a man-made calamity predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007.’ The calamity was fewer rainy days but a greater volume of precipitation. The IPCC prediction was that 100-year flood cycles will change to 4-5 year cycles – and soon. The victims of this particular climate catastrophe are amongst the smallest emitters of greenhouse gases globally.
According to a 2013 World Bank Study: US per capita emissions: 16.4 metric tonnes. India per capita emissions: 1.6 metric tonnes.

Kerala in context: just one small snapshot from a huge collection of global disaster scenarios caused by a world political system forging ahead to achieve its main objective – profit – whatever the consequences.
Janet Surman

The Reformism of the Hard Left (2018)

From the October 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

The social revolution to replace minority class monopoly over the means of production by common ownership finds a formidable barrier in the guise of reformism to which the Hard Left, every bit as much as any mainstream capitalist political party, is fundamentally wedded. It is important to precisely define what we mean by this term. It is very easy to conflate reformism with other forms of activity, notably trade unionism, on the grounds that both seem to have in common the aim of improving the welfare and wellbeing of workers.

However, it would be a gross error to see trade unionism as a type of reformism. In the Introduction to her pamphlet Reform or Revolution (1900) Rosa Luxemburg, for one, seemed to commit this very error:
 ‘Can the Social-Democracy be against reforms? Can we contrapose the social revolution, the transformation of the existing order, our final goal, to social reforms? Certainly not. The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers to the Social-Democracy an indissoluble tie. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim’.
What underlies this thinking is the understandable fear that the revolutionary goal might seem somehow divorced from the ‘daily struggles of workers’ if it did not appear to endorse the latter. But this fear is misplaced for reasons that have already been touched upon

Reformism is distinguishable from trade unionism by virtue of the fact that it is essentially political in nature. That is to say, its field of operation – like revolution itself – is political whereas the field of trade union struggle is bargaining with employers.

Reformism entails the state enacting various legislative measures that are ostensibly designed to ameliorate certain socio-economic problems arising from the capitalist basis of contemporary society – without, of course, posing any kind of existential threat to the continuance of capitalism itself. In other words, reformism seeks to mend capitalism. As such it runs completely counter to the socialist goal of ending capitalism.

The futility of reformism was no better summed up than by the revolutionary socialist, William Morris, more than a century ago in How We Live and How We Might Live (1887):
 ‘The palliatives over which many worthy people are busying themselves now are useless because they are but unorganised partial revolts against a vast, wide-spreading, grasping organisation which will, with the unconscious instinct of a plant, meet every attempt at bettering the conditions of the people with an attack on a fresh side’.
Capitalism by its very nature has to operate in the interests of capital, which interests are fundamentally opposed to those of workers. The accumulation of capital, whether in the hands of private corporations or the state, expresses itself in the remorseless drive to maximise the amount of surplus value – ‘profit’ – extracted out of the labour of working people and is, thus, firmly predicated on the exploitation of the latter. This is not a matter of choice but of economic necessity. It is the very condition of commercial survival – not to mention, expansion – in a world of ruthless economic competition. Quite simply, any business that did not make a profit out of its workforce would soon go out of business.

Were the Hard Left ever to secure political power it would soon enough find itself politically imprisoned within the constraints imposed by the non-socialist outlook of the majority and thus forced to continue with the administration of capitalism in some form. This follows logically from the very premise of its own vanguardist theory of revolution. Vanguardism is defined as the capture of political power by a small minority ostensibly acting on behalf of the working class majority in advance of the latter having become socialists. Since socialism cannot come about without the latter becoming socialists this means that, for the time being, a Hard Left government would have no option but to continue by default with the administration of capitalism.

The Hard Left may protest that this is to overlook the whole point of a socialist minority capturing power before a majority had become socialist – namely, to be in a position to be able then to counter the enormous weight of capitalist propaganda in order to infuse workers with a socialist consciousness. How can you do that without this minority first capturing the state?

Actually, this is yet another example of the Hard Left shooting itself in the foot. While it is all too ready to scornfully characterise the so-called ‘abstract propagandism’ of the Socialist Party as ‘idealist’, arguing that ‘practical experience’ is the way we become socialists rather than through the dissemination of socialist ideas – as if these two things can ever really be separated – it conspicuously chooses not to apply this very same argument to itself and in its own theory of vanguardism.

What, for instance, does it imagine would be the result of the ‘practical experience’ of a Hard Left government having to administer capitalism? Since capitalism can only really be administered in the interests of capital, and not wage labour, such a government, like any other capitalist government, would be compelled to come out and oppose the interests of the very workers it claimed to represent. In other words it would be compelled to abandon any thought of inculcating socialist consciousness into workers since to do that would defeat or, at least, seriously impede, the very purpose to which it had resigned itself – namely, the effective administration of capitalism. You can’t effectively administer capitalism with millions of people beginning to question, and oppose, the very basis of capitalist society – class ownership of the means of wealth production.

The Hard Left, while fond of rebuking others for their philosophical ‘idealism’ shows its own attachment to ‘idealism’, in its utterly lame attempts to explain away the all too obvious shortcomings of the so called “proletarian states” to which it has historically pledged allegiance – from the establishment of the Soviet Union onwards. Even today Leftist supporters of such transparently obnoxious anti-working class regimes as Maduro’s Venezuela or Kim Yong Un’s quasi-monarchical North Korea will perform political gymnastics to justify this craven, not to say cringing, support. Their gullibility seems to know no bounds.

For the regimes in question a few petty, token pro-worker reforms or the ritual bombastic denunciation of that ogre of ‘American imperialism’ (as if imperialism is limited to just the US and its European allies) will suffice to have the Hard Left meekly eating out of their hands and sycophantically trying to rationalise every twist and turn of policy designed to tighten the screws on the workers in these countries.

When evidence of the anti-working class nature of these regimes becomes too overwhelming to ignore, the excuses offered will be couched in terms that do not – and dare not – question the basic tenets of vanguardism itself. The failure of the ‘proletarian state’ to make good its promises to the workers will be attributed to the various character flaws and the betrayal of the Leadership in its ‘drift to the Right’. If only Trotsky had got into power and not Stalin, exclaims our fervent Trotskyist, then things would have been so different and so much better. The irony of rebuking socialists for being ‘idealists’ while endorsing this idealist ‘Great Man’ theory of history could hardly be richer.

Reforms and Reformism
Part of the reason why the Socialist Party comes in for so much criticism for its opposition to reformism is that it seems to suggest an attitude of callous indifference to the plight of fellow workers. Is it not clearly the case that certain reforms can be beneficial to the working class or at any rate, certain groups of workers?

Well, yes, of course some reforms can be of some benefit to workers. This is not denied. Socialists are not opposed to particular reforms as such but, rather, to reformism – that is, to the practice of advocating or campaigning for reforms. Once you go down that road there is technically no limit to the number of reforms you might then want to push for. Sooner or later in your bid to push for reforms, the revolutionary objective of fundamentally changing society will be overwhelmed, side-lined and eventually forgotten altogether. The entire history of the Second International, and of the Social Democratic and Labour parties of which it was composed, unequivocally shows this to be the case.

Not only that, any benefits that particular reforms might provide are likely to be transient and provisional and dependent on the current state of the market itself which is always subject to fluctuation. Reforms that can be given with one hand can also in effect be taken away with other – that is, withdrawn in the interests of ‘belt tightening’ or simply honoured in the breach, particularly in the context of economic recession

Furthermore, insofar as some reforms provide some benefit to some workers they can sometimes be at the expense of other workers. Also, it is not only some workers that might benefit but some, if not all, capitalists too. It is, after all, mainly through the taxes paid by the latter to the state that reforms are financed. Increased taxation can undermine the competitiveness of the businesses concerned unless the advantages accruing to them from the resultant increase in state spending outweigh the costs. This places a structural limit on what reformism can hope to achieve. Tax the capitalists too heavily and you kill the goose that lays the golden eggs that provides the state with its revenue.

In short, then, opposition to reforms as reforms is not at all the position of the Socialist Party though, surprisingly enough, such opposition is something that has, in the past, attracted support in certain quarters. In his book, Socialism (1970), Michael Harrington cited the curious case, in the late 19th century/early 20th century, of the American Federation of Labour, at that time led by the colourful figure of Samuel Gompers.

Gompers espoused a ‘voluntarist’ philosophy and ‘was hostile to all social legislation on the part of the government’. This stemmed from a quasi-Marxian conviction that the state inevitably governed in the interests of the ruling capitalist class and, consequently, any legislation emanating from it was bound to have the interests of that class in mind and thus be injurious to the interests of workers concerned. For that reason the AFL went out of its way to campaign against health and unemployment insurance, old age pensions and even helped to defeat referenda in favour of the eight-hour day.

Now this was obviously a ludicrous position to take but it also provides a salutatory warning of the dangers of blurring the distinction between economic and political struggles. As far as political struggle is concerned, the position of the Socialist Party is quite simply that it opposes reformism, not reforms, on the grounds that this is incompatible with the goal of achieving a socialist revolution.

Transitional demands
While the Hard Left goes through the motions of paying lip service to that revolutionary goal it is, nevertheless, fully committed to the struggle to reform capitalism. One of the ways in which it strives to rationalise this basically incoherent strategy in doctrinal terms, and thereby appear to give some credence to its revolutionary pretensions is by advancing the Trotskyist concept of ‘transitional demands’.

By this is meant a set of reforms that are supposed to differ in kind from the sort of reforms that, for instance typified, the so called ‘minimum programme’ espoused by the Second International. They are deliberately advocated by the Hard Left, on top of the minimum programme, in the full knowledge that they are unrealisable within capitalism. So, for instance, instead of pushing for a minimum wage of ten dollars an hour, you double, treble or even quadruple that figure. Yet even though such demands are unrealisable (since their implementation would spell commercial bankruptcy for the businesses involved which would, in turn, rebound against the workers employed in these businesses), they are still advocated. Why?

According to this crackpot theory what these so called transitional demands are supposed to do is to whet the appetite of workers for more ambitious change and so ultimately pave the way for the socialist transformation of society itself. In other words, they are supposed to bridge the gap between reform and revolution. Strangely enough, campaigning for the socialist transformation of society is considered ‘utopian’ by these theorists yet campaigning for a hopelessly unrealistic and unrealisable reform is not.

What this illustrates is the fundamentally manipulative and elitist outlook of the Hard Left. You cannot cynically engineer a socialist transformation of society behind the backs of the workers themselves. Apart from anything else that will more than likely backfire against you.

Workers are a lot savvier about the workings of capitalism than the Leninist vanguard seems to give credit. They are quite capable of sniffing out an opportunist politician offering pie in the sky when they meet one and the Hard Left, seemingly, will not be outdone in the size of the pie they offer.
Robin Cox

Taboos and Criminality (2018)

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

Recently I was very surprised to discover that someone I knew and liked had, at one time, been convicted of sexual offences against under-aged females. He had been imprisoned for several years and was now hounded out of his job by an internet campaign. Many questions arise from this unfortunate situation including: (a) Can some crimes never be forgiven? (b) Does a completed prison sentence represent a relevant payment to the community? (c) Does the community (primarily parents) have the right to know of the presence of a convicted sex offender in their midst? (d) What is the relationship between social taboos and criminality?

Upon reflection I could find no examples of a universal cultural taboo. Murder, cannibalism, incest, paedophilia, abortion and prostitution have all existed (and if not sanctioned by authorities at least tolerated by them) in many cultures throughout history. The fact that these activities are taboos within certain cultures at certain times indicates an expression of identity (religious or humanist) that has been derived originally from a perceived communal necessity. For instance the Jewish prohibition against eating pork may originate in the unsuitability of the pig to thrive in an arid climate without access to vast uneconomical  amounts of water or that the prohibition against incest has its origin in the need for human groups to forge alliances with others to improve their own survival.

A culture can identify itself as progressive through both criminalising taboos (the abuse of women and children etc.) and decriminalising them (homosexuality etc.).  One of the elements nearly always present seems to be that of social power relationships. The client has financial power over the prostitute, the murderer has power (usually through the use of a weapon) over the murdered, the rapist has physical superiority over his victim and the child abuser has both physical and psychological power over his or her victim. We know that many child abusers were themselves abused as children and so this form of abuse becomes a vicious circle within succeeding generations. In an authoritarian culture like capitalism power relationships are normalised and the family unit often represents a microcosm of this and is where the child first learns of such behaviour. Although the power of parents over their children (derived from either kinship or feelings of ownership) usually keeps them from harm it can also facilitate abuse (dysfunction) and the subsequent fear and resentment within the child can inhibit healthy emotional and social development.

Any contemporary analysis of the origins of the abuse of power in any of its incarnations can only be understood by reference to the authoritarian capitalist context. It would be irrational to single out sick individuals as the cause when the murder of children during war is normalised. Surely the ultimate form of child abuse is to kill them and that would make the likes of George Bush and Tony Blair among the ultimate perpetrators of such a crime.

Socialists despair at the hypocrisy of those who defend war whilst simultaneously exhibiting moral outrage at individual acts of child abuse. There are even some who defend the use of violence (smacking) in their relationship with children. Someone once told me that it was only the fear of his father’s violence that made him aware of the difference between right and wrong; the irony was that he himself was feared because of his own subsequent violent behaviour (perhaps as a result of the familial normalisation of violence). The normalisation of some forms of the abuse of power and the criminalisation of other forms seems completely arbitrary until it’s realised that it is not the specifics of the taboo that matter but only that they exist as a way to enforce conformity and identity within an hierarchical social structure.

There exists, of course, a counter current to the use of taboos for control and that is exemplified in the struggle for personal and therefore sexual liberation. The politicisation of sexuality (spearheaded by feminism) can be understood as the reflection or antithesis of the sexualisation of politics (implicit within authoritarianism in terms of dominant and submissive psychology). Socialists have always supported the liberation from any kind of political and/or personal oppression. Our belief in the potential of our species to create a better world implies both a political and moral historical progression. Unfortunately this demand for liberation is at the moment mainly articulated in terms of individual, gender or racial identities rather than that of class and thus of humanity itself. In some ways this sort of ‘identity politics’ is a kind of consumerism with the perceived right to ownership of the self at its heart – rather than a recognition that the ultimate liberation of the self depends on the liberation of all.

With the confident expectation that a socialist society will immensely minimise (if not completely eradicate) the incidence of abuse, primarily because of the absence of hierarchical institutions, how are socialists to respond to the questions that began this article in the here and now?  The forgiveness of some crimes by the victims and by the community would seem to benefit everyone concerned and is certainly preferable to internet ‘witch hunts’. But of all crimes the abuse of the weak by the strong, whether they are children, the elderly or the mentally and physically handicapped, is particularly hard to forgive and certainly should never be forgotten or hidden. The creation of a human community where such behaviour is inconceivable is one of the goals of socialism. Some may think this to be no more than a utopian dream but even as an aspiration it is surely infinitely preferable to pinning medals on pilots who have been responsible for the mangling and killing of children – or the state sanctioned murder of anyone else for that matter.
Wez

Conspiracy-theory vs. Socialist Logic (2018)

From the October 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

Conspiracy-theory, or conspiracism, has it that much of the world today is to be understood in terms of ‘conspiracy’ be it by scientists, extra-terrestrials, masons, or whoever.

Currently gaining credence among many is the idea that all accepted science is a conspiracy, for relativity theory and quantum physics are specialised subjects. Einstein is difficult to understand and the majority of us are not astrophysicists, or other types of scientist, but that is no reason to dismiss these theories.

Many in society seek solace in pseudoscience, and therefore in conspiracism, whereby they can feel in control over what they cannot understand. Conspiracism absolves you from having to undertake painstaking research where you are not willing to trust those who actually have expertise in a difficult subject. Conspiracism attracts people from an entire spectrum, eager to feel that they belong to something: right or left in their leanings, dependent on what they were before becoming conspiracist. The phenomenon appears to attract ‘truthers’ – those who know the ‘truth’ despite the facts. Some are avowedly Christian, others not. Some dally with other rehashed mythologies, interpreted to fit in with their modern conspiracism. Many are, in fact, as members of the working class, confused and vulnerable, and want to feel significant; which they feel modern scientific thinking cannot help them with.

It is tempting to draw some similarity in all of this to the declining years of the Roman Empire, so brilliantly shown in the film Agora, about the last days of the great Library of Alexandria. Science and learning were then the property of a privileged few, and this is largely how they are seen today by many attracted to conspiracism and ‘truthism’. Today we are bombarded, flooded, with ideas and theories via the internet, whilst actual reading has declined.  Some conspiracy theorists tend to deride books which contradict them, dismissing them as the propaganda of those ‘in on’ the ‘great conspiracy.’ Book-learning becomes associated with closeted academia and so is deemed irrelevant. So refutation of a conspiracist’s ideology from facts outlined in books is futile.

With many people feeling disenfranchised from intellectual life, as they are in fact disenfranchised economically (being born in the wage-slave class), old and new-style forms of fanaticism win converts. Conspiracism is an obstacle to socialist awareness. Vital to the spread of socialist awareness is the materialist conception of history and recognition of human scientific progress.

Marx knew this when he wrote welcoming and applauding the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, recognising science as the necessary ally of socialism. Above all, the scientific study of history is vital and paramount, as history is an evolutionary process.

Capitalism is not a conspiracy. It is a system that evolved through social and economic processes, just as socialism will have done. Capitalism, and class societies as a whole, do by definition encourage ‘conspiratorial’ behaviour, but they are historically, not ‘conspiratorially’, produced.
Everything grows from an antecedent and does not appear out of the blue.

Conspiracy theory backs up the bourgeois myth of an evil human nature (‘Original Sin’ rehashed for the modern age). To paraphrase Karl Marx, the morality of a given age is the morality of its ruling class. The cut-throat values of the capitalist class have us believing in a human cut-throat nature in which everyone is a potential conspirator, a potential thief, a potential brigand. Thus an ideology of brigandage, sustained by the viciously competitive nature of capitalism, leads people to see their fellow beings as either real or potential brigands.

Conspiracism reduces everything to a school playground view wherein everything is viewed as the machinations of some cartoon-like gang independent of history. Those who attempt to spread conspiracy theory do a disservice to the cause of achieving a better world, by further confusing already confused workers and by giving ammunition to those who label socialists as cranks and claim capitalism to be the end of history.

We urge our fellow workers to face reality, embrace knowledge, and recognise for what it is the ridiculous zealotry known as conspiracy theory. Emancipation from the system of wage-slavery, poverty, prices and profits requires a grasp of social history and of social and natural realities.
A. W.

Rear View: Socialism and nothing but (2018)

The Rear View Column from the September 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

Socialism and nothing but
Attempts to reform capitalism have a very long history, as long as capitalism itself. The original Communist Manifesto of 1848 listed some progressive reforms, but ceased advocating them by 1872. William Morris gave a lecture in 1884 where he stated: ‘the palliatives over which many worthy people are busying themselves now are useless because they are but unorganized partial revolts against a vast, wide-spreading, grasping organization which will, with the unconscious instinct of a plant, meet every attempt at bettering the conditions of the people with an attack on a fresh side.’ It would be incorrect, however, to deny that certain reforms won by the our class have helped to improve general living and working conditions.

There are examples of this in the fields as education, housing, child employment, work conditions and social security. However, such ‘successes’ have in reality done little more than to keep workers and their families functioning and, while it has taken the edge off the problem, it has rarely managed to remove it completely, as the profusion of charities – nearly 170,000 listed at www.gov.uk – attests.


Mote in our eyes
The whole point, missed by charities like Child Poverty Action, is that the privations afflict the working class – the top 1 percent have no such worries because they do not depend on working for their living. Mervyn Pike in 1966 as the then Conservative Shadow Minister of Social Security stated ‘we all recognise that all large families, except those who are very rich, have greater difficulties than smaller families.’  Poverty persists worldwide. ‘The little girl hated going to the bathroom at school. The pit toilets were so dark, dirty and crumbling. Many children were so afraid of them that they simply relieved themselves in the schoolyard to avoid the ordeal. But as she played with her best friend during recess, the girl, Ziyanda Nkosi, a 6-year-old first grader, really had to go. She stepped warily inside the closet-like latrine. Even with the gentle pressure of her tiny frame, the floor caved in. Ziyanda flailed wildly, clinging to the edges of the hole, frantically trying to keep herself from falling in and drowning in the fetid pool below. “Mommy! Mommy!” she screamed, managing to hold on long enough for an older boy to run in and save her. Hundreds of parents . . . demanded justice from the provincial government led by David Mabuza, a former math teacher who had become one of the most powerful figures in the African National Congress and was positioning himself to become South Africa’s deputy president’ (‘South Africa Vows to End Corruption. Are Its New Leaders Part of the Problem?’, nytimes.com, 4 August).


The revolutionary alternative
History shows that organisations which claim to want socialism, and which also promote reforms, ignore socialism and spend their time working for reforms. The Social Democratic Federation had its first meeting in June 1881, yet by December 1884 some 200 members including William Morris resigned saying they had not joined a socialist organisation to advocate reforms. Today, every major party in Europe, the US and elsewhere, whether originally socialist – even the Humpty Dumpty variety – or not, seeks the opportunity to govern capitalism by offering various reforms. They repeatedly fail dismally as far as our class is concerned. If you are convinced, however, that groups or parties promising reforms deserve your support consider:
  1. The campaign, whether directed at right-wing or left-wing governments, will often only succeed if it can be reconciled with the profit-making needs of the system, i.e., the reform will often be turned to the benefit of the capitalist class at the expense of any working class gain.
  2. Any reform can be reversed and eroded later if a government finds it necessary.
  3. Reforms rarely, if ever, actually solve the problem they were intended to solve.

In other words, although individual reforms may be worthy of support, the political strategy of reformism – promising to win reforms on the behalf of others is a misery-go-round. The profit motive of capitalism is a major cause of the problems we face in today’s society – ever increasing inequality, poverty, alienation, crime, homelessness, environmental degradation, the list could go on and on. There are countless ways in which the working class (even members of the capitalist class) suffer as a result of the profit system. Unless we organise and choose the revolutionary road, the profit system will continue on its blind, unswerving path.


Anti-imperialist rhetoric (2018)

Book Review from the September 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

Indefensible. Democracy, Counter-Revolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism. By Rohini Hensman. Haymarket Books. 2018.  380 pages.

This book sets out to expose the hypocrisy of those the author calls ‘pseudo-anti-imperialists’.  She criticises them for their opposition to Western imperialism only and for supporting all sorts of oppressive regimes on the grounds that they are opposed to the West. When the West is involved in military action, these ‘anti-imperialists’ support the opposing side whatever the nature of their regime. She instances and goes into detail about Serbia, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Argentina, Libya and North Korea could be added.

What is odd is that, although Russia doesn’t claim to be socialist any more, some continue to exclude it from anti-imperialist criticism, as she documents in detail over Ukraine and Syria. She has no illusions about the former USSR. It was, she says, state capitalism, making the additional point that a socialist revolution was not possible there in 1917. Not that knowing that Russia was state capitalist necessarily rules out pseudo-anti-imperialism. The Stop the War Coalition is supported by people who know this, yet while it loudly criticises bombing in Syria by the West, Turkey and Israel it is not very vocal about bombing there by Russia and the Syrian government. She mentions Corbyn as being in this tradition.

This is a fair criticism, and one we have long made ourselves.

Anti-imperialism is a slippery concept because its meaning depends on how you define imperialism. This ought to mean the policy of acquiring an empire, which European states joined by the USA and Japan increasingly pursued in the latter part of the 19th century. This was a development that needed analysing. Those in the Marxist tradition tended to give an economic explanation (acquiring a protected market, need to export capital). Lenin elevated imperialism to ‘the highest stage of capitalism’ and that’s when the rot set in.

It wasn’t that his analysis of the First World War as a war between imperialist powers for the re-division of the world was wrong, but the political implications he drew from this once he himself was in control of the Russian state. First, he developed into a full-blown theory his idea that the parties of the Second International had supported their governments in the war because the section of the working class they represented benefitted from imperialism in terms of higher wages and social reforms. Then, the revolution in Europe having failed to materialise (it was never on the cards anyway), he saw in the rising of ‘the peoples of the East’ against imperialism a way to relieve pressure on the Bolshevik regime in Russia.

Hence ‘anti-imperialism’ became the policy of the Russian state and its supporters abroad. Under Stalin after the Second World War, it became opposition to the West, the US-led bloc that was its rival. It was hypocritical because by then Russia too was manifestly an imperialist power, having acquired the Baltic states and parts of Poland under the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact and, after the Second World War, Eastern Europe, apart from the empire in Central Asia it had inherited from Tsarism. Hensman aptly writes of ‘the Russian State Capitalist Empire.’

Her starting point is that, as Rosa Luxemburg put it out in a passage she quotes:
  ‘Democracy is indispensable to the working class because only through the exercise of its democratic rights, in the struggle for democracy, can the proletariat become aware of its class interests and its historic task.’
From which she concludes that it is in the interest of workers in countries which do not have political democracy to obtain it, whether or not the government there is ‘anti-imperialist.’ True, but the way to do this is not to support one capitalist group against another either in politics and certainly not in war, nor by the various changes to the UN she naively suggests in the final chapter.
Adam Buick

Franchise Centenary: A Very Limited Democracy (2018)

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836 – 1917)
From the September 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

Centenary of Votes for All Men and Some Women
The demonstrations in June to mark the centenary of the coming into force of the Representation of the People Act 1918 (which was obviously a good thing) didn’t tell the whole picture. It is quite well-established now that the Suffragists (constitutionalists) and the Suffragettes (direct actionists) were both campaigning not for votes for all women, but only for votes for women on the same terms as men, votes for ‘middle class property-owning women’ (see: LINK).

As about a third of men didn’t have the vote before 1918, this would have left an even higher proportion of women without the vote. Hence the criticism of both the Suffragists and Suffragettes for standing for ‘Votes for Ladies’ and ‘Votes for Rich Women’.

Actually, already before 1918, Ladies had the vote, but only for local elections. Bebel describes the position in the 1910 edition of his Women and Socialism:
    ‘In regard to municipal administration, woman suffrage in Great Britain is constantly expanding. In the parish councils tax-paying women have a voice and vote as well as men. Since 1899, women in England have the right to vote for town, district and county councils. In the rural districts all proprietors and lodgers – including the female ones – who reside in the parish or district are entitled to vote. All inhabitants who are of age may be elected to the above-named bodies, regardless of sex. Women vote for members of school boards, and, since 1870, are eligible to stand on the same terms as men. But in 1903 the reactionary English school law deprived women of the right of being elected to the school board in the county of London. Since 1869 independent and unmarried women have the right to vote for the privy councils.
   Two laws enacted in 1907 made unmarried women in England and Scotland eligible to district and county councils. But a woman who may be elected as chairman of such a council, shall thereby not hold the office of justice of peace that is connected with it. Women are also eligible to parish councils and as overseers of the poor. The first woman mayor was elected in Aldeburgh on November 9, 1908. In 1908 there were 1162 women on English boards of charity and 615 women on school boards. In Ireland, tax-paying women have had municipal suffrage since 1887, and since 1896 they may vote for members of boards of charity and be elected to same.’
The Mayor of Aldeburgh, a town on the Suffolk coast, was Elizabeth Garret Anderson, the first woman doctor and sister of Millicent Fawcett, the Leader of the Suffragist National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, whose statue outside Parliament was unveiled in April.

Tristram Hunt in his (hostile) biography of Engels notes that in the 1876 elections to the London School Board Engels gave all his 7 votes to the woman candidate. This was Alice Westlake in the Marylebone ward, who topped the poll.

She was a Suffragist who was later a member of the central committee of the NUWSS. And like Fawcett a Liberal.

What, it might be asked, was Engels doing voting for a Liberal? Presumably he wanted to make the point that socialists stand for woman’s political and social equality. In which case, he was wrong for the right reason. Socialists do stand, and have always stood for women’s equality.

How to Destroy Capitalism: Blueprint for Revolution (2018)

From the September 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

 In 2016 the pressure group Corporate Watch published a book Capitalism, What it is and How Can We Destroy it? Written by a dyed-in-the-wool anarchist, it didn’t provide a satisfactory answer to the second question, just that if enough individuals did their anarchist thing that would do it. Nor is it a question of simply destroying capitalism but of replacing it with a society that does serve human needs and interests. Still, how to get rid of capitalism is a good question. But, first, what is capitalism?

Economic process
From a purely economic point of view, capitalism is a process of ‘expanding value’, as the first translators of Marx’s Capital rendered the German word he had used (modern translations translate the same word as ‘valorisation’ but that doesn’t capture Marx’s meaning so immediately).

For Marx, capital was not simply items of wealth used to produce more wealth, but a sum of values used to create more value. This is why he logically began Capital by defining what he meant by ‘value’. Basically, value was the form an item of wealth assumed when it was produced for sale and which governed the proportions in which it exchanged with other items of wealth produced for sale. For Marx, its size reflected the amount of labour needed on average to produce it from start to finish.

Capital, then, is the value of a combination of items of wealth – buildings, machines, raw materials, intermediate products, energy, etc – plus the value equivalent of the labour-power needed to use them to produce other items of wealth. In money terms, capital is a sum of money used to produce a greater sum of money. The aim of capitalist production is to end up with more money (more value) than before. Hence capital is ‘expanding value’. For Marx, the source of the new value was the extra value added by those who did the actual producing over and above what they were paid as wages (the value of their labour–power).

Legal entities
Actually, of course, capitalism is not just an economic process; it is one embedded in social institutions and can only take place through them as the action of particular people who Marx described as ‘functionaries of capital’. These are those who own the factories, machines, etc that make up the means of production.

Originally, when capitalist production started, means of production were the property of (units of capital were embodied in) individuals or a small group of partners. But, as capitalism developed, the amount of money required (the value of the means of production) grew too large for an individual or partners to mobilise. At that point, reached by the middle of the 19th century, the law had to be changed to permit capital to be embodied in a ‘company’ (Britain) or ‘corporation’ (US). This is a legal form in which means of production are collectively owned by shareholders whose liability to pay for any debts if things go wrong is limited to the amount of their shareholding. Today, most capital in terms of value is embodied in this type of legal entity.

In the limited liability company the state has created a legal entity to embody capital that has a fictitious personality in that it can act as if it were a person, by entering into contracts with real persons and with other companies as legal persons. Joel Bakan in his 2004 documentary and book The Corporation takes up this fiction and shows that, if a company really were a person, that person would be diagnosed as a psychopath. This, in view of their relentless pursuit of a single aim – that of making as much profit as possible – to which everything else is subordinated and regardless of the effect on others.

This is a valid point but it is not the legal form of a corporation that imposes this behaviour on its directors even though it lays this down as their legal duty. The legal form reflects the underlying economic process of any capital’s need to expand its value. It is economic reality that determined the law, not the law that has determined economic reality. This is why no change in company law can change the way in which the capitalist economic system works.

In fact, the other legal forms that have been legislated for to embody capital – nationalised industries, mutuals, cooperatives – are under the same pressure to seek to maximise profit as a condition for surviving as an economic institution embodying capital. It is just that in their case the trustees – the functionaries of capital – are different: government appointees, even worker-elected boards. As are the rules for distributing profits that are not re-invested (not added to the original value): they cannot be distributed as dividends (though they can be, and are, as bloated salaries).

Uncreating corporations
That the main form in which most capital is embodied today is a state-created legal entity provides a clue as to one step in replacing capitalism – winning control of the state so as to be in a position to ‘uncreate’ these legal entities. This done, the means of production cease to be private property and become nobody’s property; which is the same as saying they become everybody’s common property.

This new reality too has to be embodied in social institutions. Political action to abolish corporations presupposes that there is a majority in favour of this but also that this majority is organised on the ground ready to take over control of the now commonly-owned means of production and operate them.

It is not as if capitalist shareholders own the means of production vested in these legal entities in the same way as they personally possess personal items such as clothes, houses, or cars that can be physically taken from them. This is not what needs to be done in the case of the factories and machines owned by corporations as the capitalists who own them don’t do so by virtue of physically possessing them but by virtue of holding pieces of paper saying that they are shareholders in a legal entity with a fictitious personality. The obvious way to end their ownership is to render these pieces of paper worthless by dissolving the artificial entity.

Workers in a factory could take it over but that wouldn’t result in common ownership by society as a whole. At most it would result in worker ownership. To achieve society-wide common ownership requires society-wide action. The easiest way to do this is by political and workplace organisation, political to end the legal status of corporations and workplace to continue to operate the means of production.

The alternative, that used to be more widely proposed and still is by those who haven’t thought the matter through, would be for some society-wide economic organisation to proceed to take over the means of production in a general workplace occupation while ignoring the state. This would be stupid when there’s an easier way. If a majority favour taking over the means of production, that majority would also be able to take control of political power through the ballot box. On the other hand, if they won’t vote for it they are not likely to take the bolder step of actually doing it. It is true that, given a majority in favour of making the means of production commonly owned by society, ignoring or trying to by-pass the state might succeed in the end but at the price of unnecessary chaos and violence. Why break into a house when you can get the keys to the front door?

When the means of production cease to be owned by legal entities and become common property, at the same time they also cease to be capital in that they can now be used to produce directly and solely to meet people’s needs. The economic process – the economic imperative – to ‘expand value’ would no longer impose itself. Capitalism will have been abolished.
Adam Buick

When did capitalism start? (2018)

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

 In an interview in In These Times (10 May) about his latest book Bullshit Jobs, celebrity anarchist David Graeber raised an interesting point. After digressing to say that he was currently working with people campaigning for a basic income and wondering whether asking the state to pay people money was compatible with anarchism, he suggested that we might be living in a long period when capitalism was transforming into some other form of society (but ‘which might be just as bad’); but how would we know? He went on:
  ‘I remember having this argument with conventional Marxists about the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Okay, say that capitalism started around 1500. And the Marxists insist that capitalism is organized around wage labor. But wage labor was marginal until the industrial revolution, around 1750. How can you say that wage labor is central to capitalism if, for 250 years, it was a tiny element?’ (Link. ).
He said he got the reply:
  ‘Well, you’re not thinking dialectically. From 1500 to 1750, people were in a process that was going to lead to wage labor, they just didn’t realize yet.’
 We were one of the ‘conventional Marxists’ he discussed this with, in the October 2012 Socialist Standard. But this can’t have been us, as our reply was that capitalism is a market society in which all the elements of production, including human labour power, are bought and sold, but that this would not complete until the actual producers had been separated from the means of production, whether land or tools; which was a gradual process.

 On the question of whether the elites in control of political power up to 1750 understood where society was going, we replied that a section of them were indeed consciously seeking to spread market relations and the concept of the individual free to enter market relations with other individuals; which did include the right to sell their ability to work.

 Another reply (again, not ours), would be that of Immanuel Wallerstein and the world-system theorists that the essence of capitalism was not wage-labour but production for sale on the world market with a view to profit, whether carried out by serfs (as in Eastern Europe) or chattel slaves (as in the Americas) and not just by wage-workers. However, while capital investment in production of cash crops by serfs or slaves was viable, this was not the case for manufactured products; here wage-labour was more efficient from a capitalist point of view (which of course is why the slave trade and then slavery were abolished in favour of wage-slavery).

 Capitalism is a system where money-capital is invested in production for sale with a view to a monetary profit. ‘Merchant capitalism’, which in previous discussions Graeber said some Marxists had suggested was what existed from 1500 to 1750, was where merchants invested money-capital with a view to profit, not in production, but in buying (or looting) products from one part of the world and selling them in another part at a higher price. It might have been a transition to capitalist production but it wasn’t what Marx meant by ‘the capitalist mode of production’. 

 In any event, to say that capitalist production first appeared in the 16th century is not the same as saying that capitalism as a socio-economic system started then. The capitalist ‘mode of production’ gradually spread, with the aid of the state, until it became the dominant one. That would be the point at which it could be said that capitalism as a society had come into being. 1750 seems about right for this. Adam Smith, writing in 1776, was already using a three-class model, even for agricultural production, of landowners, tenant farmers and wage-workers.

Memories of the Future (2018)

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

Humankind has always had a fascination for both its past and its future. Although the events that make up history are unchangeable their interpretation is always evolving and dependent, to a large extent, on the political and cultural context of the historian.

The same is true of speculations and prophesies for the future. When I was a kid in the 1960s the optimism for the future was ubiquitous and unbounded. The dominant form of political speculation for the future today is dystopian. The reasons for this are many: the failures of leftist politics to produce the promised social justice together with the perceived betrayal of technology to enable a better life for the majority are two of the more obvious. As socialism invests heavily in an analysis of the past, present and future what does it make of this dystopian vision so beloved by writers, movie makers and political prophets of the early twenty-first century within western culture?

Two of my memorable examples of ’60s optimism were a couple of TV shows: Tomorrow’s World and the US sci-fi drama Star Trek. The former programme was an optimistic compilation of technical innovations that promised both greater productive efficiency and thus more quality leisure time. Watching it today it seems hopelessly na├»ve and, more often than not, completely wrong about the social implications of specific technological inventions. Star Trek remains, through various TV and movie spinoffs, one of the few optimistic visions of human future. Ironically the American cast represented a future with no gods, countries or money! It was the child of the optimism of ’60s liberal America and the ‘baby boomer’ generation of post Second World War youth culture. The aliens in that show represented the dark side of US culture: Borg/Fascism, Farengi/Capitalism, Klingon/Gung Ho Militarism, etc. Many of the storylines circulated around the concept of the ‘Prime Directive’ which prohibited the human crew from interfering with the technological evolution of less developed alien cultures (a response, perhaps, to the genocide of the indigenous American population of the previous century). For socialists this represents an optimistic and, to the surprise of many, a realistic vision of the future. Let’s look at the dystopian narrative and define why socialists find many of them unrealistic.

There are several kinds of dystopian narratives including the post-apocalyptic which may be a result of a pandemic or natural disaster but what really interests and frustrates socialists is the technological and political dystopia. The idea that technology can and does have unintended social consequences is taken to an extreme in such films as Terminator, The Matrix and more recently Anon where any political responsibility for the imagined futuristic cultural context is completely absent. We have become the puppets of our own products in these films and although some recognition of the secrecy of business or state is present the blame for the plight of the characters is firmly with technology itself. Blaming humanity’s technological progress rather than its political institutions is the ultimate Luddite excuse for political cynicism and underlines the limited economic and historical understanding of those who create these stories. In the future such films will be seen to represent the tropes associated with the despair of neo-liberalism and the failure of the left just as the science fiction films of the 1950s are now seen primarily as a response to the ‘cold war’ politics of the time.

Political dystopias such as Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984 and Rand’s Anthem are critiques of the attempt to create utopias and the associated ideas of rebellion and revolution. Whether they are right-wing or left-wing dream societies the implication is that any attempt to improve society is doomed to create something infinitely worse than that which it seeks to replace. Again a basic political analysis is absent because these are merely different types of capitalism which is always at the heart of actual and fictional political failure. We are dissuaded from the political struggle for a better future by these narratives and as such they represent a reactionary defense of the status quo. As critiques of the politics of left and right they are informative, if rather repetitive, but they do not and cannot represent a valid critique of socialism. These stories feed the political cynicism which has been created by the failure of leftwing and, to a lesser degree, rightwing political regimes and represents one of socialism’s greatest enemies.

If humankind’s future is indeed to be in space then economic activity will have to be liberated from the fetters of capitalism and its production for the profit of the few. Only when the economic security of the majority is secured can such an undertaking be morally and economically justified – and only socialism can provide this. This is why we find high tech dystopias so unrealistic; if we survive as a species to a point where space travel is ubiquitous it can surely only be post socialist revolution. Our limited forays into the firmament have mainly been motivated by military/economic considerations or as a new playground for the mega-rich with pure scientific curiosity being an afterthought. This may also be a reason why extraterrestrials have not contacted us; they have respected the ‘prime directive’ in terms of our very limited political development and impatiently await the time when the answer to their test demand ‘take me to your leader’ will be answered with: ‘we’re sorry but we have no leader’.
Wez

Plastic not so fantastic (2018)

The Pathfinders Column from the September 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

On 10 July 1940 war-time Britain saw the launch of the Great Aluminium Scare and a Beaverbrook campaign to ‘turn your pots and pans into Spitfires and Hurricanes, Blenheims and Wellingtons’. Patriotic citizens responded by sacrificing useful metal kitchenware and bathroom fittings which created mountains all over the country. Scrap metal mania even extended to tearing up the railings round municipal parks, though cast iron scrap had little practical value. Indeed most of these scrap mountains went into landfill or post-war scrap metal shops since, as RAF Museum curator Rob Skitmore pointed out in 2005, ‘in fact we had lots of aluminium, what we needed more of were pilots’ (see Link).

The point of course was to give the population something practical to do so they could feel like part of the war effort. In short, a propaganda exercise. After all Lord Beaverbrook, aside from being Churchill’s minister of aircraft production, was also owner of the Daily Express, the world’s largest circulation newspaper at that time.

Is something similar happening today with the Great Plastic Scare? It seems to have started with the BBC Blue Planet II documentary earlier this year, which highlighted the problem of plastic ocean waste and resurrected 2016 World Economic Forum predictions that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. Now the rush is on to ditch the use of plastic cups, cotton buds, plastic straws, wet wipes, plastic bags, plastic food wrappings, in short, plastic anything. The UK government is now compiling a list of plastic items to ban and a plastic tax is being considered by the Treasury (‘Public ‘back’ taxes to tackle single-use plastic waste’, BBC, 18 August). Practically overnight, plastic has become the new demon.

The problem is, things are always more complicated than news headlines make them out to be. While there’s no doubt that global capitalism is using the planet like a giant dustbin, the solutions aren’t always so obvious. Whatever you do is going to have an environmental impact. If you swap single-use plastic bags for a cotton tote bag, you’ll have to use it 131 times before reaching impact parity, because of the high environmental cost of cotton production (New Scientist, 13 June). If you avoid food containing palm oil but drive with the latest ‘green’ biofuels, you’ll be burning palm oil instead of eating it and thus still contributing to the devastation of Madagascar. In theory one could use different vegetable oils in fuel, but they would require massively more land than oil palms need. If you decide to avoid fossil gas central heating in favour of a trendy and ‘clean’ wood burning stove, you’ll be treating your neighbours to the equivalent of eight trucks parked in the street with their engines on all night (New Scientist, 2 June).

People during the war probably didn’t need or want to know that they were making pointless sacrifices. What they craved was the feelgood factor. So today people don’t perhaps want to know that most of the contents of their recycle bins is likely to end up incinerated or in landfill, or sent abroad. According to the National Audit Office, the government doesn’t have any idea whether or what percentage of ‘recyclables’ is being recycled, has ‘turned a blind eye’ to known problems in the waste stream, has only carried out 40 percent of the recycling checks it was supposed to, and has been exporting over 50 percent of the waste it claims as ‘recycled’ (‘Recycled packaging ‘may end up in landfill’, warns watchdog’, BBC, 23 July).

You’d be excused for thinking that the whole recycling programme is a bit of a con. Most of the plastic we rinse and put in recycle bins is not actually recyclable, largely because manufacturers use cheap, low-grade and non-biodegradable industrial polymers. Well of course they do, but other reasons are more trivial. Fresh food containers are very often carbon black because food products apparently look good on black, but recycling machines can’t detect black (‘Plastic food pots and trays are often unrecyclable, say councils’, BBC, 4 August). Plastic cups don’t get recycled, not because they couldn’t be, but because there is no regional collection infrastructure for them. And if there was, would the road haulage fleet required then cancel out the carbon benefits of the recycling?

It’s not that we shouldn’t bother making any individual efforts. Of course we should, and many of us do, because a future socialist society wouldn’t last five minutes without a strong and abiding sense of personal responsibility. But too much focus on little things like cotton buds and wet wipes – which apparently cause giant ‘fatbergs’ in London’s sewage system – can become a seductive invitation to forget the big picture, to kid yourself you’re doing something when you’re really not.

Some young activists, too young even to vote, are making bold attempts to take their governments, or international corporations to court over climate change (New Scientist, 18 August). How much success these ‘climate kids’ are going to have suing capitalist institutions inside capitalist courts is something socialists can hazard a cynical guess at. But at least they’re trying to raise the climate stakes to match the rising temperature.

What really needs putting in the dock of course is capitalism itself, and the total control and squandering of Earth’s resources by less than 1 percent of its population. If the public scare about plastic is viewed as an indicator of a growing sense of communal outrage on behalf of the planet, we might be encouraged, but only if this outrage starts to take an explicit and political form. If however people are happy to settle for tokenistic efforts for the sake of a quiet life, the class war will continue indefinitely, and socialists will have to battle on alone.

Genoa Bridge Collapse
As we go to press the cause of this collapse is not yet known, but metal corrosion in the steel cables reinforcing the concrete structure is suspected. Acoustic sensors are a new technology which can ‘hear’ internal corrosion, and recently resulted in London’s Hammersmith Flyover being urgently refurbished, but most bridges don’t have them, as the cost would be huge. Globally bridges are often in a poor state. 7 percent of French bridges are at risk of collapse, 12 percent of Germany’s are in bad condition, and 54,000 US bridges are ‘structurally deficient’ (New Scientist, 17 August). No doubt a 10-year recession and government cutbacks in every country have done nothing to improve matters. Whatever the state of road bridges in socialism might be, at least we can say that saving money wouldn’t be a factor.
Paddy Shannon