Thursday, February 28, 2019

Rear View: A frightful hobgoblin is stalking US colleges and universities (2016)

The Rear View Column from the March 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

A frightful hobgoblin is stalking US colleges and universities
‘The Communist Manifesto is ranked among the top three most popular assigned readings in American college and university classes, according to the Open Syllabus Project (OSP). Karl Marx himself is the most assigned economist in higher education courses … One of the reasons Marx and Engels’s pamphlet may be so popular nearly 170 years after its publication is that it can be used to study a wide variety of subjects, including history, economics, social theory, and politics. It is also arguably the most influential work of the twentieth century, inspiring several uprisings, a number of communist revolutions, and the formation of both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China among other governments’ (inquistr.com, 1 February). Supporters of the status quo can relax: the spectre haunting colleges is not that of communism but, at worst, social democracy, as espoused by Bernie Sanders. Marx and Engels, by contrast, wanted something rather different: ‘in place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’ (Communist Manifesto, 1848). Nothing like this exists, or has existed. The old lie about Russia being socialist or communist (Marx and Engels used the terms interchangeably) – and later, China, Cuba, Venezuela, etc – was identified remarkably early: in the August 1918 edition of this very journal.


Workers of the word wake up!
1865: ‘Instead of the conservative motto, A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work, we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, Abolition of the wage system’ (Marx, Value, Price, and Profit).

1928: ‘Earning a wage is a prison occupation’ (Wages, DH Lawrence).

1965: Workers still ‘don’t realise that they can abolish the wages system’ (Socialist Standard).

2016: ‘Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to gradually increase the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour is supported by two-thirds of New Yorkers, according to a new Siena College poll’ (syracuse.com, 1 February).


Vice-president Marx?
‘Some Americans seem to be disconnected with historical reality, as a number of Hillary Clinton supporters signed a mock petition to approve 19th century socialist philosopher Karl Marx as her choice for vice-president if she’s elected president’ (rt.com, 2 February). Socialists do not agree with everything Marx said, even less actions carried out in his name or that of socialism/communism by groups or states –which would have him repeating in his grave the declaration ‘one thing’s for sure – I’m not a Marxist! – but starting with a clean slate, without misconceptions, can be viewed in a positive light. Emancipation à la Marx is ‘the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority in the interest of the immense majority’, without leaders, presidents –vice or otherwise.


Danger! Capitalism at work
Residents of Flint, a city in the US state of Michigan, have suffered greatly of late: cost-cutting has resulted in drinking water containing toxic levels of lead whilst clean water goes to Nestle. Legionnaires’ Disease is on the rise as is poverty. Flint also has a per capita violent crime rate seven times higher than the national average. Investigations are underway, but some members of our class, in a refreshing display of unity and concern, have already taken action: ‘more than 300 union plumbers from all over Michigan flooded Flint to install free filters for residents … Local plumbers with United Association Local 370 in Flint have been going door-to-door making sure that faucets are filter-ready since October … And last weekend, they got a boost from hundreds of union volunteers’ (huffingtonpost.com, 2 February). Sadly, local action is not enough as across America 535,000 children ages 1 through 5 suffer lead poisoning, by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates, and, of course, this ‘problem’ exists worldwide.


Cultural poison
Lead poisoning such as that of water in Flint or from paint and petrol is an old ‘problem’ of modern capitalism which will end along with many others when a worldwide majority of us act to bring about socialism. The end of pre-history will also see the yoke of many barbaric cultural practices lifted, such as that of female genital mutilation which, according to a new study, ‘at least 200 million people in 30 countries have experienced ‘ (time.com, 5 February). This particular tradition of long dead generations is a nightmare for its living victims. Other poisonous cultural relics include forced marriage, child brides, non-evidence based medicine, cock and dog fighting.

Dublin, Easter 1916: What We Said At The Time (2016)

From the March 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
A grave armed revolt in Dublin against English rule is raging at the time of writing. It is a revolt doomed from the outset, both because of the futility of its narrow nationalist aims, and the utter hopelessness of such a revolt against the mighty organised force of the political State. It is, apart from the fact that Socialism alone is worth fighting for, yet another illustration (if such were needed) that the organised Socialist conquest of the political power of the State is the only way, and that mere mob violence plays into the hands of the oppressor and strengthens the gyves that fetter us. Such a revolt, however, is the natural result of centuries of alien oppression, which has forced the ideas of Irishmen into nationalist channels and blinded them to its futility. And it is at the same time a fitting commentary on the pervid declarations of the British champions of “honour” and “righteousness” that “they” are fighting, above all, for the “rights of small nationalities”. (Editorial, May 1916)
The capitalist class – national and international – being in possession of the wealth stolen from the workers, compete with each other for the control of the world’s markets. This capitalist class, split into warring factions, are continually embroiled in trouble over the disposal of the wealth on the markets, but they present a solid front to the workers whenever the latter get out of hand in the endeavour to better their conditions of life. We have just witnessed in Ireland an example, where, as a result of an incorrect conception of their position in society, thousands of working men and women flocked into the Sinn Fein movement, only to be butchered by their oppressors in control of the armed forces of the State.
It is true that the Irish workers have a fearful struggle to live, like the rest of their class the world over. But an anti-social movement like theirs, with “Ireland for Irishmen” for its slogan, was doomed to failure from the start. We, the working men and women who form the Socialist Party of Great Britain, sympathise with our fellow workers in Ireland in their struggle against the hideously squalid conditions that prevail among them, but must record our hostility to any movement that is not based upon the class struggle. (The Prize-Fighter’s Evidence, July 1916)
We have heard much in times past on the subject of German atrocities, but the revelations vouchsafed to us in connection with the Dublin revolution leaves the question, a very debatable one as to whether the ruling class here are any better than elsewhere. The shooting of Sheehy Skeffington and two other journalists affords an illustration of the point. The details are rather significant, particularly the second shooting of Skeffington, when it is borne in mind that the officer who gave the order is declared insane. The reports of the court-martial to be found in the columns of the “Daily Chronicle” for June 7th and 8th are highly interesting. (By the Way, July 1916)
The latest blunder of the Irish working class is in the support given to the Sinn Fein movement, which seeks to establish a republic, with the examples of France and the United States before them proving conclusively the futility of such an experiment to abate their ever-growing poverty. The form of government makes no difference to the workers. Government implies subjects and under the capitalist system of society the actual government machinery, Parliament, councils and judiciary, etc., are representative of the capitalist class – the necessary machinery for ruling a subject class composed of wage-slaves. (….)
It is a false notion of the Sinn Feiners and Nationalists that the Irish workers must struggle for national independence before they can tackle the problem of poverty. But the working class everywhere is under one capitalist government or another. To split territories, set up new governments, or to re-establish old ones will not help them nor even simplify the problem. Their only hope lies in the speedy establishment of Socialism. They must join hands with the workers of the world, and make common cause against the ruling class. They must make ready use of the last war – the war of the classes, in which classes will be abolished and a real equality established on the basis of “common ownership and democratic control of all the means of life.” (The Irish Question in History, August 1916.)
The difficulties already existing in Ireland, coupled with the feelings engendered by the ruthless use of the military both during and since the futile “rebellion” would seem to make the game [of imposing conscription on Ireland] scarcely worth the candle (…)
Not until the working class in Ireland clearly grip the essential fact that they are slaves to the master class no matter what nationality these latter may be; fully realise that such slavery is confined within no national boundary but is world wide; throw off the mental shackles of either “nationalism” or “religion,” and join hands with their fellow workers the world over to abolish capitalism –the cause of modern wars –not until then will they be free from oppression and tyranny and be able to enjoy the results of their efforts applied to Nature’s resources. (Conscription Continued, November 1916)

50 Years Ago: The Election – What is at Stake? (2016)

The 50 Years Ago column from the March 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

On March 31st the electorate will once again go to the polls and perform the act which Socialists consider is of crucial importance to the way in which society is organised ― they will vote. Like other elections in the past, this one will generate its own groundless optimism. Once again, the illusion will be fostered that here is a fresh opportunity at last to solve the problems which have been a burden for so long. In spite of the enduring failure of all varieties of political parties to overcome such problems as war, poverty and the general chaos that is a constant feature of Capitalism, the Labour and Tory parties will go blandly into this election as if the experiences of the past had never occurred.

Once again, there will be the cheap traffic in promises. Once again, there will be the contrived differences between parties who are united in their defence of Capitalism. Once again, there will be the complete failure to face up to the realities of life in 1966. Once again, the politics of personalities, gimmickry and opportunism will take precedence over a serious understanding of the difficulties besetting society.

The records of both the Labour and Tory parties make a mockery of their claim to be the instruments of social improvement. The past policies of both these parties are an indictment which no amount of hollow phrase-mongering can overcome. For all their talk of progress and modernisation, their ideas and actions are imprisoned by the limitations of the status quo ― that is ― Capitalist society.

What is at stake in this election? What is it that the electorate by voting Labour, Tory or Liberal will endorse?

Whatever spurious disagreements will engage the Heaths and the Wilsons during this election, in fact they have a great deal in common. Socialists talk about the means of production and by this we mean all the instruments and technical know-how that man has developed for the purpose of producing wealth, from hand tools to nuclear power stations. All reformist politicians agree that these means of production should continue to be monopolised by a small privileged section of the population.
(From Socialist Standard, March 1966)

Rear View: Peaceful New Year? (2019)

The Rear View Column from the February 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

Peaceful New Year?
2019 got off to an unexpectedly candid start with US Strategic Command – ‘Peace is our Profession’! – tweeting ‘#TimesSquare tradition rings in the #NewYear by dropping the big ball . . . if ever needed, we are #ready to drop something much, much bigger’. The nuclear-armed Command later recanted: ‘Our previous NYE tweet was in poor taste & does not reflect our values. We apologize. We are dedicated to the security of America & allies’ (@US_Stratcom, 1 January). The video clip accompanying the original tweet prompted Caitlin Johnstone to comment: ‘The only way you could possibly encapsulate the US military’s values . . . more perfectly than cramming it full of footage of $2,000,000,000 warplanes cruising around dropping $3,500,000 GBU-57 bombs would be to also show the human bodies they land on being ripped to pieces. Inflicting death and destruction using unfathomably expensive machinery is the US military’s whole job. Of course, it reflects their values’ (ahtribne.com, 2 January).


Class war
‘In the first three days of 2019 top bosses will have earned more than the typical worker will earn all year, according to a report. The average pay of a FTSE 100 chief executive is £1,020 an hour, research from the High Pay Centre and HR industry body the CIPD has found. By “Fat Cat Friday” bosses will have earned more than the typical annual UK salary of £29,574, the report said’ (bbc.com, 4 January). Kautsky saw such capitalists as anachronistic by the late nineteenth century: ‘But however necessary were the capitalist system and the conditions which produced it, they are no longer so. The functions of the capitalist class devolve ever more upon paid employees. The large majority of the capitalists have now nothing to do but consume what others produce. The capitalist today is as superfluous a human being as the feudal lord had become a hundred years ago’ (The Class Struggle, 1888).


‘There never was a good war or a bad peace’
Writing a century earlier Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers who paved the way for American capitalism, wrote: ‘What vast additions to the conveniences and comforts of living might mankind have acquired, if the money spent in wars had been employed in works of public utility. What an extension of agriculture even to the tops of our mountains; what rivers rendered navigable, or joined by canals; what bridges, aqueducts, new roads and other public works, edifices and improvements, rendering England a complete paradise, might not have been obtained by spending those millions in doing good which in the last war have been spent in doing mischief! In bringing misery into thousands of families, and destroying the lives of so many thousands of working people who might have performed the useful labor’ (Letter to Josiah Quincy, 11 September 1783). Indeed.


Piecemeal
Worldstatesmen.org lists 40 major wars since 1700, including WWI, the war to end all wars. Just five years after that mass murder ended, War Resisters League was founded by Jessie Wallace Hughan with a focus on ending armed conflict. ‘Today’s WRL is zeroing in on underlying causes of military tension—including economic inequality, unequal access to resources, imperialism, and racism’ (popularesistance.org, 25 October). How many such groups have come and gone? Innumerable peace treaties, pious resolutions, prayers, demonstrations have been written, passed, uttered, forgotten and staged since the dawn of capitalism. Nuclear weapons remain and cluster bombs are making a comeback. In addition to weapons of mass destruction, capitalism produces poverty, insecurity, disease, and all the vicious things that stem from those, and it gives rise to the wars for which governments are constantly preparing.


World without war
‘The increasing intensity of competition for economic markets must lead to armed conflict unless an economic settlement is found. This, however, is hardly to be hoped for. Talk about peace in a world armed to the teeth is utterly futile’ (W. M. Hughes, Prime Minister of Australia during WWI, News Chronicle, 25 July 1936). Time and time again the socialist has demonstrated that war stems from capitalist struggles for markets, trade routes, sources of raw materials, and places of strategic importance. The 99 percent based in the UK and US face the same problems as members of our class existing elsewhere. Workers have no country. If anybody can really delude themselves into believing piecemeal measures will bring everlasting peace worldwide, their gullibility can know no bounds. We have a job to do, in this century, the establishment of socialism, and while workers are pursuing reform rather than revolution, they are falling down on their historically appointed task.




The Far Side (2019)

The Pathfinders Column from the February 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last month saw a lot of coverage of China’s ‘far-side’ moon landing, which in a technical first gave us close-up views of what’s possibly the most boring landscape in the solar system. While various scientific objectives were advanced by pundits to justify this extravagant operation, some of them even possibly valid, nobody was in any doubt about the real reason. The Chinese state did it just to show off. It would of course be churlish to suggest they could have spent the money on something more useful, such as helping the estimated 30 million Chinese living below the poverty line. Shame though that they didn’t plant their probe in the Sea of Tranquillity right next to the Apollo 11 lander, just to prove the Americans really went there in 1969, which might finally shut up the Moon Hoax conspiracy nuts. Indeed that’s exactly what the head of Russia’s space agency proposed to do recently ‘to verify whether they’ve been there or not’ (Independent, 24 November). Not that this really would shut up the conspiracy bores anyway. They would just claim that the Russians had faked their trip too.

There is in the contemplation of certain technological feats a strange sense of detachment from Earthly realities. Instead of ‘how?’ you find yourself asking ‘why?’ Take the annual CES technology show recently displaying the latest in allegedly must-have gadgets in Las Vegas. Who for instance is ever likely to need an indestructible notepad that works underwater, a digital plank of wood, a robot pet or one that draws doodles on your walls, a skin printer that covers up facial lines, an automated laundry folder the size of a wardrobe, an advent calendar that defeats ‘smell fatigue’, a walking car, or a light sabre you can really hit people with? It all makes bendy phones and wall-size TVs seem positively conservative. No wonder one visitor expressed his feelings thus: ‘I feel my sanity draining away’ (BBC Online, 11 January). In a socialist society that’s solved the most pressing social issues already, such as hunger and homelessness, you might certainly argue that there’s a place for weird and wacky inventions. Nobody wants to be a killjoy, after all. But there are certainly bigger priorities right now. Instead of inventing things that people don’t need, didn’t ask for and mostly can’t afford anyway, why don’t the tech boffins think about what people really do need?

Well the short answer is that invention in capitalism isn’t driven by necessity so much as buying power. The nerds are trying to produce things that people who already have too much stuff and money will be willing to spend that money on. So the rich are targeted with ever more techno-tat while the poor remain ignored. As for the long answer, well technology won’t give us what we need anyway, because what we really need is a change in society and the abolition of class inequality, and you can’t knock that up in a laboratory or a garden shed.

One controversy at CES was the banning of an award-winning innovation, which was a women’s robotic sex toy. Quite why this was banned was unclear. The organisers claimed it was ‘inappropriate’ although they didn’t see anything inappropriate about the Virtual Reality Porn room next door to the expo, which saw over a thousand visitors on the very first day. Many of the visitors described the experience as ‘awesome’, or words to that effect, and appeared to appreciate it far more than the debut appearance of the creepy AI sex robot that swivels its head, blinks its eyes and talks as if it has had its jaw wired. While the CES organisers contend with an ongoing image of male bias and prejudice, the idea of virtual reality porn suggests a further inspiring notion: virtual reality socialism. Maybe in the absence of a real global revolution for common ownership we could invite people to put on a VR headset and ‘see’ socialism in action. A friend’s comment in response to this idea was ‘You mean you’d put on the headset and all the beggars and rough sleepers would disappear off the streets?’ Er, yeah, we guess so, among other things, although in that case you’d better watch where you put your feet.

Nature 3/10 Must Try Harder
Contrary to what creationists seem to think, if evolution was really driven by a conscious designer, that designer would get the sack for negligence and incompetence. No engineer – much less an omnipotent being – would design the mammalian eye with blind spots, or send the giraffe’s laryngeal nerve on a long and pointless route from the brain all the way down its neck and around the heart before looping back up to the larynx. Similarly, why design plant photosynthesis to be only 2 or 3 percent energy efficient, when we can already do better than that with today’s photovoltaic cells? Well now a team has figured out how to tweak plant chemistry to increase its energy conversion rate, and first results have shown a 40 percent increase in crop biomass (New Scientist, 12 January). Now that’s what we call useful technology, although there is bound to be a backlash from anti-GM protestors who will insist that what is ‘natural’ is good and what is artificial is therefore bad. The fears of such protestors have not been borne out by experience over the decades GM has been used in America, China and South-East Asia. The world has not after all been overrun by invincible killer GM weeds or new killer pests. If socialism were established tomorrow and food production needed to be ramped up quickly, GM technology continues to look like a good bet.
Paddy Shannon

Scam Exposed (2019)

Book Review from the February 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Sarawak Report: the Inside Story of the 1MDB Exposé’, by Clare Rewcastle Brown (Lost World. £14.99)

In May last year there was a general election in Malaysia in which the Prime Minister, Najib Razak, was voted out of office. This was the culmination of events dating back to 2009 and involving a massive scam in which billions of dollars were allegedly siphoned from the country’s finances into shell companies and the pockets of Najib himself and others. How all this was exposed is chronicled in considerable detail here by Rewcastle Brown, an investigative journalist whose blog Sarawak Report played a major role in bringing things out into the open.

The book and the exposé can be quite hard to follow for those not familiar with Malaysian politics; a glossary would have been very helpful in keeping track of the individuals and institutions involved. So we will focus on some of the more general issues which emerge.

One is the rarefied lives lived by a tiny number of elite people. Najib – who was also the Malaysian finance minister – used some of his wealth to buy votes in elections, while his wife had a liking for jewellery and expensive handbags. The ‘businessman’ Jho Low owned a mega-yacht and enjoyed throwing fabulously expensive parties. The Saudi royal family were involved too, and a company called PetroSaudi was used as a front for 1MDB (1 Malaysia Development Berhad, which is the equivalent of ‘plc’).

Stealing vast sums of money is all very well, but the funds need to be transferred into the global economy in order to be used. Ways of doing this include use of private banks, shell companies and tax havens, but also buying works of art (such as a Picasso painting for $179m). Large auction houses, Rewcastle Brown argues, need reform just as much as dodgy banks do.

There is also the issue of the ways in which the ultra-rich defend themselves. Lawyers write letters to those investigating their clients, demanding apologies or threatening to sue. PR firms are paid to produce vitriolic personal attacks on bloggers and journalists and, in this case, run a website Sarawak Reports (with the extra ‘s’). Fake accounts are set up on social media, and Facebook and Twitter are useless in combating what the author calls ‘a professional defamation industry’.

Sarawak is a state of Malaysia on the island of Borneo. Rewcastle Brown was born there, and she tells the story here of how many indigenous people have suffered under the corruption and profiteering of Malaysia’s elites: ‘Tribes that had survived for centuries by their own skills, living in the jungle off abundant fish, vegetation and meat, were now stranded and starving in the face of “progress”.’ The whole book shows how a few people can attempt to fix things in their own interests, even if in this case they were in the end not successful.
Paul Bennett

Making A Drama Out Of A Crisis (2019)

The Proper Gander TV column from the February 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

The great big mess Parliament’s made of leaving the EU wasn’t what the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign told us it would be like. If you believed the slogan on the side of that bus, it would be as simple as transferring the £350 million apparently sent to the EU each week into the NHS’s needy coffers. That particular stunt was one among many examples of how the campaign strategists tried to shape opinion in the run-up to June 2016’s referendum. The manoeuvrings of the Vote Leave campaign team were recently dramatised in Channel 4’s revealing one-off Brexit: The Uncivil War.

Vote Leave’s chief strategist, and the drama’s central character, is Dominic Cummings. His CV includes running projects to stop Britain adopting the Euro and ratifying the EU’s constitution, and being Michael Gove’s main adviser during his unpopular stint as Tory Secretary of State for Education. Despite having a key role in shaping the Leave campaign, Cummings hasn’t been widely heard of, or attracted the attention of many journalists or commentators until now. Instead, the faces of the Leave campaign have been those of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, who are hardly glowing examples of humanity. In the drama, Cummings is portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays him as the usual Cumberbatch brooding maverick-type with an annoying amount of self confidence. He stands on tables, he cycles on the pavement, and he talks in blunt, opinionated aphorisms.

His manner makes him disliked among the ranks of white-haired, old-fashioned Leave-supporting MPs, not least for his boasts about wanting the campaign to look like ‘an insurgence against the establishment’. They needn’t worry about him doing anything to really challenge the status quo, but they should have realised he’s much savvier than them about how political campaigns are run in the 21st century. So, his approach utilises the latest social media tools, with its messages carefully honed from research and data.

Cummings wants his campaign to focus on ‘cost and control’. He’s reluctant to bring immigration too much into the pitch, saying there’s no need to target people who are against immigration as they’re already likely to back leaving the EU. He also thinks that Farage’s influence will lose them support, but sidekick Matthew Elliott suggests that Farage and his ilk can do the ‘heavy lifting’ on bringing xenophobia into the debate so ‘Vote Leave’ can keep their hands clean on the issue. The drama makes much of the lightbulb moment when Cummings thinks up the slogan ‘Take Back Control’, saying it appeals to the desire to regain what’s supposedly been lost. He wants leaving the EU to be a seen as proudly returning to the correct order, rather than bumbling into the unknown, as it’s turned out to be.

Also featured in the drama is Craig Oliver (David Cameron’s Communications Director), the Remain campaign’s main strategist. He’s depicted in a more reasonable, positive way than Cummings, albeit exasperated by his own campaign’s uphill struggle. Chatting with Cummings down the pub, Oliver says his campaign has had to counter a ‘slow drip drip drip of fear and hate’ he attributes to immigration. He tells Cummings that the Leave campaign ‘feeds a toxic culture’ of mistrust, while Cummings tells Oliver that his type has dominated politics for decades, and ‘change is exciting’. In an earlier scene, Cummings had recognised that (capitalist) referenda reduce complicated issues to crude binaries and sharp divisions in opinions. He doesn’t seem to realise, though, that his approach to the campaign exacerbated this.

Both sides of the campaign are shown to have a patronising, estranged attitude towards the general public. To them, each person is just a potential vote, there to be moulded into believing enough to cast it. The campaign teams ‘segment and target’ groups of people, such as ‘Ardent Internationalists’: degree-educated, gay marriage-supporting Remainers, and ‘EU Hostiles’ who are 98 percent white and retired, each comprising 11 percent of voters. Dividing up people into groups goes much deeper and more detailed than this, though. Our online activities leave behind a wealth of information about us, and algorithms are the mysterious driving force behind how this data gets processed, correlating who we are with what we prefer. Specialist software gathers information on websites visited, or tweets retweeted, or Facebook groups joined, cross-references it with each other and builds up a vast database of who is interested in what. Millions of Facebook users had their data surreptitiously mined by the disgraced consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica, and sold on to Vote Leave. This information was then used by the campaign to target particular adverts to particular groups of people. So, anyone who clicked on a specially-designed Facebook post about Turkey, for example, would be sent the version of a Vote Leave advert which they will be most receptive to. The idea is that you’ll convince someone of something easier if you exploit its connections with something they already agree with. Barack Obama’s presidential election campaign led the way with this strategy, apparently.

Reducing people’s preferences to data is a simplistic way of relating to others, and when used to shape opinion, is manipulative and demeaning. The campaign teams are more comfortable treating the electorate as statistics than dealing with them as real people. As Brexit: The Uncivil War shows, modern political campaigning is about using the latest technology in an insidious, cynical way and glossing over complex issues. Why risk trying to change opinion through balanced, reasoned debate when you have tools like targeted adverts and a big red bus plastered with an extravagant claim?
Mike Foster

The Dark Side of Agri-Capitalism (2019)

From the February 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard


Part Two: Environmental Impacts

While Almeria has an annual rainfall of just over 200 mm, greenhouse production requires something equivalent to 800-1,000 mm of water. The shortfall in water supply has traditionally been overcome by sinking wells and tapping the water trapped in the local aquifer. Hundreds have been sunk – many illegally – causing the water table to drop. Not only has this adversely impacted on the wider region but ‘aquifer drawdown’ also tends to create a vacuum underground which is then filled by another water source nearby – the Mediterranean.

Sea water is, of course, saline (and the level of salinity in the Mediterranean itself is comparatively high) so the ingress of seawater underground, and then into the irrigation system itself, results in salinisation and, hence, the destruction of crops. This has led to some greenhouses falling into disuse with new ones being erected elsewhere, along with the sinking of new wells, to get round this problem, thus increasing the area under plastic in a way that mimics the pathology of a spreading cancer.

Technical fixes have been advanced to tackle this problem, including the establishment of several water de-salinisation plants but the water provided is 1.5–4 times more costly in energy terms than pumped water. Relying on the Mediterranean is just exchanging one finite resource for another (Melissa Cate Christ, The Scapegoat Journal, 2013).

Other technical fixes include water re-use (though this is not very suitable for young plants) and the development of soilless or hydroponic systems of growing crops, using a substrate like perlite, and computerised drip technology which also delivers chemical fertilisers to the plants. ‘Fertigation’, however, presents a problem with what to do with all the vegetable waste – over 700,000 tonnes per year (ibid) – much of which is just dumped, rather than recycled or composted, contributing to contamination of the environment. While such technologies have certainly improved the efficiency of water usage they have not really overcome the growing problem of falling water tables or, indeed, the leaching of chemicals into the environment.

Moreover, the close proximity of thousands of greenhouses creates ideal conditions for the spread of pests and diseases. The traditional response has been to blitz crops with chemical pesticides – although, interestingly, Almeria itself has become a world leader in Integrated Pest Management (IPM) involving more environmentally-friendly methods of pest control. This came about as a result of a 2006 Greenpeace report revealing high levels of pesticide residues in produce from the region. The bad publicity caused a drastic drop in sales and the chemical in question was blacklisted. Nevertheless, pesticides continue to be used with adverse health consequences for those working within the relatively closed environment of the greenhouses.

Another environmental problem is the industry’s ubiquitous use of plastic itself. Not only does the manufacture of plastic sheeting add to the industry’s environmental footprint in terms of the consumption of fossil fuels this requires (the same would be true of the high transportation costs of shifting agricultural products by truck to Northern Europe); there is also the problem of how to dispose of all that plastic once it has been used.

Plastic tarps have a relatively short lifespan under the blazing sun of Southern Spain. Though in recent years the authorities have set up collection points for used plastic, a lot of it – not just tarps but containers of all sorts – ends up being dumped along roadsides or in gullies or even burnt – presumably because it is more convenient or less costly than transporting it to the collection points where it has to be sorted. In 2018, the group, Ecologistas en Accion, released dramatic video footage of a local river, normally a dry barranco, absolutely choked with plastic detritus after a storm. Such rubbish makes its way to the sea where it can harm or kill marine life, including even sperm whales, or else breaks down over time into micro-plastic particles that enter the food chain.

Migrant Labour
The so-called ‘economic miracle’ that is Almeria’s greenhouses would not be possible but for the harsh exploitation of cheap labour. This is yet another externality, along with the environmental costs of production that tends to be left off the capitalist equation: the social costs of production. For Marx, these things were vitally interconnected:
 ‘All progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility’ (Capital, Vol 1).
When Almeria’s greenhouse sector began to develop back in the 1960s it relied mostly on family labour supplemented by locally-based seasonal labour. In the 1970s immigrant workers, chiefly from Morocco, began to arrive. Entire families would come to do the harvesting and then return to Morocco. Being paid less than the local workforce they soon replaced the latter as a source of seasonal labour.

In the 1980s, Moroccan labour was supplemented by workers from Sub-Saharan Africa which also signalled a shift from the organised annual too-ing and fro-ing between countries that had characterised the earlier migrations. Increasingly migrants tended to remain in the area, post-harvest, because of the greater logistical problems of migration in their case. Still later, from the 1990s onwards, this pool of migrant labour was joined by others – from Latin America and Eastern Europe (following the enlargement of the EU). Some of this labour, as in the case of Eastern Europe, was officially recruited in the country of origin but increasing use was made of illegal undocumented migrant labour, particularly from Africa. Recent developments in that continent (and elsewhere) have ensured a steady growth in this supply.

While Europe’s so-called refugee crises, peaking in 2015, initially focussed on refugees from the Middle East and their impact on point-of-entry countries like Italy and Greece, more recently attention has shifted to Spain which, according to a Reuters report, is emerging as a ‘new weak link’ in Fortress Europe’s efforts to stem the inflow of migrants (July 7, 2018). The numbers of asylum applicants arriving in Spain is currently rising sharply. This graphically illustrates how interconnected the world has become and subject to the dynamics of global capitalism. The economic forces that precipitate civil wars over mineral wealth in some distant African state are the self-same forces that condemn those who flee to a miserable existence in Almeria’s plastic hell.

Many of these are undocumented illegals; their very illegal status enabling employers to depress their wages to a bare minimum. Even those with legal contracts are little better off. Ironically, the ability of employers to hire large numbers of illegal workers, often with the collusion of the authorities, means that workers applying for a legal contract, supposedly granting them certain basic rights, have to pay a steep price for it. According to one source this can amount to several thousand euros (Network for the Promotion of Sustainable Consumption in European regions). Even then, there are ways and means for employers to get round legal requirements – for instance, registering workers for social insurance – simply by hiring them for less than the statutory minimum of 180 days per year. All the odds are stacked in favour of the employers and against the workers.

The wages these workers receive fall significantly below even the legal minimum. The norm is between 33 and 36 euros per day, though there have been cases reported of daily earnings falling well below even this derisory level – of 20 euros per day according to one report in the Guardian (7 February, 2011).

There are an estimated 100,000 migrants working and living in the greenhouses. Work conditions are atrocious. Temperatures in the greenhouses can rise to above 45 degrees Celsius, the toil is back-breaking and Health and Safety standards are poor. There is little protection against the chemicals the workers come into contact with or breathe in.

Given their abysmally low income, they cannot afford even a minimally acceptable level of accommodation. Some live in barrack-like squalor in semi-derelict cortijos with hazardous electrical connections and poor sanitary facilities for what is often, under the circumstances, an extortionate rent; others create constructions for themselves called chabolas made out of old pallets, plastic and cardboard erected amongst the greenhouses themselves. There tends to be a rigid segregation between migrants and locals (who live in agro-towns completely surrounded by the greenhouses) which creates a breeding ground for racism. Simmering tensions have in the past broken out into race riots as happened in the town of El Ejido in 2000.

Contradictions of greenhouse production
Ironically, those who harbour such racist sentiments are sometimes the very people who have prospered on the backs of the migrants. The direct employers, as stated, are largely small-scale family-based operators — an estimated 13,500 of them – who, over the course of several decades, have come to forge close dependent ties with an array of large-scale intermediaries such as banks, agribusinesses (providing seeds, irrigation technology, plastic sheeting etc.) and the supermarket chains. All of these want their slice of the pie and all have an interest in enlarging the size of that pie.

The result is that there is strong pressure on farmers to embrace technological innovations that enhance productivity. Output per hectare has indeed risen but at the cost of rising indebtedness to the banks to finance this technology. And therein lies the rub. For while innovation enables the operator to increase output it also leads to falling prices through increased productivity which then undermines the ability of these small operators to pay off their loans.

According to the aforementioned NPSCER report, operating costs can be between 30 and 40k euros per hectare, leaving many struggling to break even in stark contrast to the big supermarkets that bulk buy their produce. Such is the contradictory nature of the system we live under that plenty should come to be considered an economic curse.

The squeeze on profit margins, exacerbated by the small-scale nature of the greenhouse operators themselves has a further consequence – namely, that is likely to increase pressure on them to seek ways to reduce or externalise their costs of production. Certainly, as far as labour costs are concerned, the growing oversupply in relation to demand fuelled by the migrant crisis and augmented by the haemorrhage of jobs in construction following the 2008 property market crash, means the prospects of any real improvement in the circumstances of the greenhouse workers themselves seem bleak.

The same might be said of the environmental costs of greenhouse production. Despite efforts by the industry to clean up its act, notably with the adoption of IPM technology, to an extent this is just another example of ‘greenwashing’ to allay the concerns of increasingly health conscious customers in Northern Europe. It distracts from the more fundamental issues affecting the region – above all, that of falling water tables and future water supplies in the context of global climate change. Rainfall in the region has decreased by 18 percent since the 1960s and water shortages are projected to grow.

A final irony is that the very success that the Almeria greenhouse complex had achieved as an exemplar of high-tech commercialised agriculture has encouraged others to copy it. Though its energy costs are markedly less than in Northern Europe where greenhouses have to be heated, this advantage falls away in other parts of the Mediterranean basin such as Turkey or Morocco. Here the same model of greenhouse production is being aggressively pushed and labour costs are, if anything, even lower. With international competition heating up, this will likely add to the already relentless pressure to reduce or further externalise costs.

In so many ways, this little corner of the world represents a microcosm of global capitalism, a mirror on the environmentally and socially destructive forces the system unleashes in its pursuit of profit at any price.

(concluded)
Robin Cox

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Constructing Division (2019)

The Woods for the Trees Column from the February 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

Donald Trump and his supporters probably think of themselves as political innovators finding solutions to capitalism’s intractable problems with ‘Trump’s Wall’ being an example of dealing with the perceived Gordian Knot of ‘border security’. Part of the populist mandate is to respond to capitalism’s periodic crises by blaming foreigners for economic hardships. For this reason immigration is a convenient scapegoat and sometimes promises made during elections have to be seen as being acted upon once power is achieved; not that the more astute members of the political establishment believe necessarily in the effectiveness of any of their manifesto policies but not to implement at least some of them would injure the public image so carefully created by their PR department. Donald’s affection for his wall seems to be an example of this – together with the tax cuts for the super-rich this is another populist policy that his ego demands must be seen to be implemented. That it represents any kind of political innovation is found to be, as with most reactionary answers to practical political questions, historically without foundation.

One of the earliest examples of such a political edifice is, of course, known as ‘The Great Wall of China’. Started in 220 BC during the reign of the first emperor of China this famous structure was rebuilt time and again until 1644 AD. At its apogee the 20 ft. high wall stretched for an amazing 5,500 miles. Built as a defence against the marauding steppe tribes it also served as a border control that regulated taxation from those who traded on both sides of the wall. As such it represented a statement of power for the empire combined with a flourishing source of income for the emperor. The same was true, on a much more modest scale, of the wall attributed to the Roman Emperor Hadrian in England. Begun in 122 AD its walls were clad in a white plaster that made it prominent for miles and it too represented both a statement of power combined with the facility of border taxation. Not conceived of as primarily an absolute defence against any concerted invasion (whose army could have, presumably, used boats to circumvent it) it did at least end the casual raids of plunder by the Pictish tribes. It also represented the ‘limits’ of the Roman Empire in the northwest together with the Black Sea in the east, the river Danube in the north and the Sahara in the south. Although the preceding examples are located in what is called ‘the ancient world’ the implication to some minds that the world has always been divided by borders must be corrected by historical perspective; our species has existed for some 250,000 years and the construction of defensive barriers is only found, at first in cities, in very restricted parts of the world some 10,000 years ago. The ‘Neolithic revolution’ enabled an agricultural surplus to be created which in turn needed to be protected from raiding nomads by the new ruling classes who owned it – hence fortification.

What do the walls of the modern era represent? The two most depressing examples were the Berlin Wall and the present wall in Gaza. After the Second World War Germany was divided by the victorious allies into two zones of east and west. The Russians took the eastern sector but agreed to western access to the capital of Berlin. This proved to be a centre for those wishing to escape to the west and in response Stalin built a fortified border that included the infamous wall in Berlin. When the Russian empire fell the destruction of the wall became a symbol of ‘freedom’ for those oppressed by the one-party state of East Germany. Completed in 1996 the wall that separates the Palestinian Gaza Strip from Israel is also an echo of the Second World War and what happened to the Jews. After that war a militant group of Zionists agitated and fought for a Jewish state to be set up in what they claimed as their ancient biblical homeland. Not surprisingly those Palestinians who had been there for hundreds of years objected to the confiscation of their homes and have fought a guerrilla war with the Israelis ever since. The wall represents this unresolved conflict and for some Israelis is an uncomfortable reminder of their predecessors’ own incarceration behind a wall in the Warsaw ghetto built by the Nazis in the 1940s. Our last example of a political wall is much less notorious on the world stage but was a contemporary of the Warsaw wall and was to be found in a small town called Cutteslowe in Oxfordshire, England. Nine feet tall and topped with spikes two walls were built to separate a private housing estate from the nearby council dwellings. An embarrassment to a country supposedly fighting for freedom and justice one of them was ‘accidentally’ demolished by a tank during war exercises – it was rebuilt only to be brought down, this time officially, in 1959.

Walls and the borders they guard are only made possible by the illusion of a divided world. Some of them pretend to be mere extensions of the natural barriers that have given rise to the multiplicity of human cultures; this is one of the great lies of nationalism which masks the real economic motives of ruling classes and the political ignorance of those who actually construct them. The great paradox is that we live in an integrated world economy which makes the nation state an anachronism that is only sustained by the propaganda of those who need the excuse of the ‘foreign’ threat when capitalism experiences one of its inevitable economic cataclysms. That elements within ruling classes are also trapped in their own nationalistic ideology is very evident in the Brexit fiasco. The unintended threat that leaving the EU poses to one of England’s last colonies (Northern Ireland) in terms of its border with the rest of the island is yet another example of how little some of the propagandists of the ruling class understand the political reality of the twenty-first century. As fast as capitalism is integrating the world economically it is tearing it apart politically – a contradiction that can only be resolved by global socialism.
Wez.


Which Way for the PD? (1969)

From the April 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

After the police brutality in Derry on the night of October 5, a group of Belfast university students met and set up a militant civil rights body, the People's Democracy. In the recent election PD put up eleven candidates and did surprisingly well, nearly winning a seat from the Nationalists. As a new movement, without any clear aims or theory, PD is wide open to two dangers: evolution into a reform party or take-over by those who would put the clock back by leading them into the dead-end of Republicanism.

No-one, least of of all socialists, can object to PD’s professed aim of a genuine democracy in which all the people would have a free and equal say in the conduct of political, economic, and social affairs. That, more or less, is our aim too. But we say it can be achieved only on the basis of the common ownership of the means of life. For as long as the means by which society must live belong to a class there will be the exploitation, oppression, and social inequality that frustrate democratic control today.

The class ownership of the means of production and their use to make profits is the basis of modern, capitalist society. It means there are two opposed classes: those who own and those who because they don't own must work for those who do. Mere democratic reform that leaves untouched this class basis of society is not nearly enough.

We are not really surprised that many who want a new and better society should tend to steer clear of the word ‘socialism’. We ourselves are only too painfully aware of what it means to many people—the oppressive regimes of East Europe, the discredited Labour parties, the swindle of nationalisation. The World Socialist Party has always tried to keep alive the real meaning of Socialism as a democratic world community based on the common ownership of the means of life where the one aim of production will be to satisfy human needs. With the end of class ownership everybody will be socially equal and free to take part in the running of social affairs. The oppressive government machine, which is needed only to maintain ‘law and order' in class society, will be dismantled and replaced by the democratic administration of industry. With common ownership and production for use, the barriers to abundance will have been removed so that society can rapidly go over to “from each his best, to each his need”. People will work as best they are able and then take from the common store whatever they need. This is Socialism.

Dangerous course
Because full democracy can be achieved only through Socialism it is futile to separate the pursuit of the one from the pursuit of the other. To fight for democracy alone, as PD does, could mean the achievement of neither Socialism nor democracy. Efforts should be concentrated on the struggle for Socialism.

Of course ‘one man, one vote’ is a desirable, though, minor, democratic reform (since it already applies in Stormont and Westminster elections and even without it workers still make up the vast majority of the electors). Of course socialists are against the Special Powers Act—we have ourselves been victims of police intimidation. But in adding social reforms— an emergency housing drive, rural co-operatives, direct state investment, non-sectarian comprehensive education — to its programme PD has embarked on an even more dangerous course than struggling for democracy alone. It has taken the first step towards becoming just another reform party. A new, non-sectarian radical party is indeed what some civil rights leaders, and even some Unionists, would like to see emerge out of the current agitation. But many in PD arc anxious to avoid this.

They argue that the way to do this is to build up their movement as a militant opposition outside parliament and imply that it is contesting elections and getting into parliament that leads to reformism. This is why PD was so apologetic about contesting the recent elections. This was, they said, only a tactic to keep civil rights in the public eye; PD had no wish to win any seats (they nearly failed in that aim!). But there was no need to apologise. It is not from contesting elections, but from advocating reforms, that the danger comes.

Power of the vote
People who have been beaten and bullied by the police should have a good idea of the nature of the state machine as a coercive instrument for maintaining ‘order’. At present, its main job is to keep the private property basis of modern society though the RUC is also used by the Unionists to crush any threat to their link with Britain. The state, for whatever purpose it is used, is nothing but an organisation of armed men. In Northern Ireland, as in Britain and Eire, it is controlled by a cabinet responsible to an elected parliament. The RUC takes its orders from the Home Affairs Minister. The Special Powers Act is on the statute book only because at one time a majority of MPs voted for it and it will be repealed only when the MPs vote against it. Again, the Public Order Act will be strengthened only if the newly-elected MPs vote for the proposed amendments. Parliament, which makes the laws the police enforce, is a body those who want to reform capitalism, let alone replace it by Socialism, must capture. A socialist majority outside parliament, using their votes to elect a socialist majority inside parliament, could use political power to institute the common ownership of the means of production. That in fact is WSP policy and we have ourselves had candidates in the past.

So, it’s not elections in themselves that are dangerous. Far from it. It is vitally important that those who want to change society should take part in elections. The danger comes from fighting for reforms of capitalism, outside as well as inside parliament.

Socialism, as a democratic community based on the voluntary co-operation of its members, can be set up and run only by people who are fully aware of its implications. It can be set up only when a majority understand and want it. Support built up for reforms cannot be turned into support for Socialism, for most of those who want the reforms will have illusions about what present-day society can offer. They will assume that all that is needed is the will to do something—end the housing scandal, stop unemployment — and that implementing this is just a simple administrative matter. Capitalism, however, is not a rationally-organised community, but a class society subject to its own economic laws. Because it is based on the profit motive and on the exclusion of the workers from ownership it cannot be made to serve human needs and can never solve the housing or health or education or employment problems of the workers. Capitalism is a class system that can work only one way: as a profit-making system in the interest of the class that lives off profits.

PD is in error in campaigning for democracy apart from Socialism but is even more in error in campaigning for reforms as well.

We would, however, commend PD for declaring that they “regard the border as irrelevant”. Since, up to now, the Border has been the great dividing issue in Northern Ireland politics this is a great advance. The Border was put up in 1921 as a tariff barrier between the British market, to which the big industrialists of the North wanted free access, and the Irish Home market, which the small businessmen of the South wanted to protect from British competition. Stripped of all emotion a tariff barrier, whose removal would make no difference to the workers’ problems, is all the Border has ever been. The WSP pioneered this view declaring in our 1949 Manifesto of the Socialist Party of Ireland:
  The removal of 'the Border’ will not remove one social evil from which the working class suffer; and so, it is obviously not a problem which concerns the working class.
Unfortunately, the two rival sections of the Irish owning class, whose vital interests were at stake, were able to rally behind them the workers whose interests were not affected at all. In order to prevent their incorporation behind the tariff barriers of a Home Rule Ireland the industrialists of the North deliberately stirred up religious animosity between Protestants and Catholics. Now, especially since the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Area Agreement of 1966, the split has to a certain extent been healed and the Northern industrialists (and titled landowners!) are embarrassed by the Protestant extremism which not so long age they did so much to encourage.

The legacy of the split between the two sections of the Irish owning class has been the Nationalist/Unionist split among the workers of Northern Ireland, a split which does not and never did have any meaning from their point of view. Unionism was the ideology of the Northern industrialists and Nationalism (and Republicanism) the ideology if the up-and-coming Southern businessmen. It is high time both were discarded by the working class and replaced by unity for Socialism.
Adam Buick


The Great Non-Event (1969)

From the April 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

Now the tumult and the shouting, real and phoney, has died; the news-hounds have gone to re-live the scene elsewhere; the successful candidates breathe affably from the upholstery of the Members’ Lounge; the tickman regains a place of prominence in the workers’ troubles . . . it’s all over! Tragically, most of those who played parts, especially the voters who gave point to the exercise, knew precious little of what it was all about.

Captain O’Neill and his supporters perhaps come nearest to an appreciation of the situation. They have inherited a state and a party which emerged from the power struggles of Irish capitalism in the 20s fully clothed in the trappings of bigotry and intolerance. The material conditions of capitalism which then needed that bigotry and intolerance have changed, and continue to change rapidly as capitalism in Eire acquires a political maturity in keeping with its rapid post-war economic development.

The situation does not only allow for, but in fact demands, a de-escalation of all the old fictions if the new circumstances are to yield their obvious economic advantages in cross-border trade and the like. The Stormont parliament, with its parish-pump status, need not be an impediment. Indeed, all the leading political spokesmen in the South agree that a future ’united Ireland’ will allow Stormont the retention of its present powers.

This is the main factor that has determined the O’Neill Wing of Unionism on a more moderate course just as, ironically, it has caused a complete political about face among leading Northern Irish Nationalists — who are today as vociferous in their demands for “British standards for Northern Ireland” as they were yesterday in wanting to break the British connection! These people, ably abetted by the Labour Party and the large ’non-political' but pro-O’Neill group of businessmen who make up the New Ulster Movement (formed to support O’Neill candidates in the recent elections) represent ’responsible’—in the capitalist sense—political opinion.

But yesterday’s slogans and red herrings still have many thousands of active supporters, mainly (tragically) among the most impoverished sections of the working class. These are the people whom successive generations of ’responsible’ Unionist politicians brought up on the slogans “Home Rule is Rome Rule” and “Catholics are Disloyal”. In the fierce pace of change they have been slow to adjust and are easy prey to the ignorant slobberings of the firebrand Paisley. Their movement, insofar as it accepts the present social order, is capitalist, but it serves no need of capitalism today and can continue for only a time on the bitter slogans of yesterday. Assuredly, as opportunities for hooliganism and violence get less, it will atrophy and pass into history.

This leaves the various movements for civil rights that rapidly appeared and coalesced into an effective political weapon within the last two years. These groups were forged largely by the younger workers in the schools and university, in the factories and on the dole. More intelligent in ambition and political direction than previous movements born locally from frustration, political humbug, and fear, they were nevertheless hamstrung from the outset by their failure to get beneath the surface of the political events and institutions against which they militated and to appreciate that their real enemy was not Unionism or Nationalism, sectarianism or discrimination, but the system of class ownership that brings these things into being throughout the whole world of capitalism.

If we allowed a degree of comparison we should say that undoubtedly the Peoples Democracy movement, emanating largely from Belfast’s Queen’s University, came nearer to an appreciation of the situation than did the Civil Rights Association or the Derry Citizens’ Action Committee, and it is, incidentally, worthy of note that while some of the better known civil rights leaders obviously used their position to get into parliament, the PD contested, with distinction and courage, eleven constituencies without regard for the religion and politics traditionally popular in such constituencies, and with a policy that surrendered nothing to traditional conservatism.
Richard Montague

The Other Militants (1969)

From the April 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

Car stickers are one of capitalism’s latest growth industries. No protest campaign, whether it is against the Concorde, or road tax, or the breathalyser, is complete without them. This method of obstructing the rear view of a driver includes one which urges us to “Save the Argylls”. These stickers are not, of course, a charity appeal for the famous Argyll family who, since they are among the great landowners of Scotland, can survive without any declarations of loyalty from grubby little Anglias and Minis.

The Argylls in question are the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a regiment in the British army which, unless present policy is reversed, will be disbanded early next year. The end of the Argylls will not mean the frustration of anyone who wants to join the military defence of British capitalism; there will still be an army. The protests arise because the Argylls, for reasons we shall shortly discuss, have a place in many working-class hearts.

The regiment originated in 1794, which was some time after Pitt the Elder had made his boast about turning the Highlands into a reservoir of blood to serve the British crown in every part of the world. The Argylls have lived up to that; apart from the two world wars they have done their bit for the British ruling class in the Peninsular Wars, in South Africa, the Indian Mutiny, and the Crimea. At the battle of Balaclava they alone among the British infantry stood up to the attacks of the Russian cavalry, which reckless act earned them the famous name of the Thin Red Line. Since 1945 they have fought in Palestine, Korea, Cyprus, Borneo, and South Arabia. Now, as the tentacles of British capitalism have withdrawn from these places, the Argylls are taking their reputation off to another area of sensitive dispute—Berlin.

Just the boys
Perhaps the climax of the regiment’s recent activities came just before the British withdrawal from Aden. The Argylls re-entered the Crater district in a lightning operation which, it was leaked, was not approved by the policy-makers. The man in command of the Argylls—Colin Mitchell—resigned from the army soon after the incident and so from Mad Mitch became deified into Mitch the Martyr. The latest news of him is that he will be on the platform at Duncan Sandys’s May Day meeting in Trafalgar Square.

The petition to save the Argylls attracted a million signatures and many of them were undoubtedly inspired by indignation at the fate of Mitchell. Another factor was admiration for the Argylls as a tough lot, united by bonds of manliness and militancy. Just the boys, in other words, to send in against a lot of jabbering foreigners who have the temerity to say that they would rather live without the presence of the Argylls or of any other British occupation force.

Probably none of those workers who thought the best method of dealing with independence movements in the colonies was to send in the Argylls to crush them stopped to think that there are other units who would do an equally efficient job. The NKVD, for one, should have some highly trained detachments just suited for it. And there must be plenty of ex-SS men who would welcome the chance to renew old comradeships and re-apply their racism.

Mess of delusion
Is this taking it too far? Mitchell thought that when the troops left Aden it was taken over by a bunch of “third-rate, fly-blown chaps”. The television film about the Argylls included statements like: “It is a pity that guts to use a bayonet are not enough; you must have someone else’s guts to stick a bayonet in”. The simple fact is that the Argylls have won theif reputation by their ruthless defence of the interests of British capitalism, wherever and whenever it has needed them. The campaign to save them is based upon respect for that.

This brings us to the matter of militancy — using the word in the strict sense of a readiness to engage in warfare. Militancy is part of the mess of delusion and prejudice which keeps the capitalist system in being. The discipline, uniformity, and harshness which are an essential part of the military machine are widely admired; few workers really question the usefulness of teaching men to kill each other and to look unfeelingly upon lifeless and mutilated bodies. A few years ago Joseph Heller attacked this attitude in his novel Catch 22, which exposed the absurdities — and the deadly purpose — of military discipline. A lot of people laughed at Heller's satire but behind the laughs is this reality:
  “In the last twelve months, thank goodness, we have lost the best of recruiting sergeants because in the last twelve months for the first time this century no British soldier, sailor, or airman has been killed or wounded in action anywhere in the world."
  Whether one liked it or not, he was afraid that a nice little war going on somewhere was good for recruiting.
(Daily Telegraph, March 6, 1969, reporting Gerry Reynolds, Minister of Defence Administration, in the House of Commons debate on defence.)
This is the kind of statement calculated to make any reasonable person doubt either his own sanity or that of the rest of the people. If anyone is foolish enough to join the armed forces the obvious time to do it is when the chances of getting killed or wounded are at their lowest. The fact that the opposite is true only reflects the popular opinion in favour of military organisation.

In other words, the working class accept the need for a vast, socially organised killing machine. They mix this up with the usual bigotries of patriotism — that in wartime their side are always the goodies, that their occupation forces are in another country to bring all the benefits of civilisation and to stop the inhabitants tearing each other to pieces.

The futility of this has been exposed again and again. It was exposed when the British ruling class stubbornly hung on to India, ignoring the fact that in the end they would have to leave. It was the same in many other colonies—Borneo, Cyprus (which one Tory Colonial Secretary said would "never" be independent )and Aden, where the much-admired Argylls rattled their sabres. This policy has not been followed by only the British ruling class. The French followed it in Indo-China and Algeria; the Russians in Hungary and Czechoslovakia; the Americans are following it now in Vietnam.

Each of these military efforts has been supported by the working class in the country concerned thinking that militancy is a virtue. This same attitude has excused all the excesses of war — the destruction of Dresden and Hiroshima, the wholesale slaughter in Vietnam and Biafra. It also justified the genocide of the concentration camps. The Nazis knew how to appeal to the militant pretensions of a frustrated and confused working class and constantly diverted attention from the real issues in pre-war Germany with their massed, raucous, uniformed ranks marching, shouting, drumming, and saluting in one discipline. Under the influence of this hysteria, only the soft-headed ones were worried about what was going on in the chambers and ovens and laboratories behind the barbed wire. Just like fat, asthmatic, unattractive Piggy in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, worrying about keeping the fire going and behaving like human beings while the other boys were intoxicated with the lust of hunting.

If this is what militancy has helped to bring in the past, the next important question is what lies in the future. What, excesses and bestialities will be justified on both sides, if the revolt of the Negroes gathers strength? What will not be possible if the great powers seriously commence the job of trying to eliminate each other?

The world is in desperate peril and what is needed now is not an uncritical acceptance of the qualities which capitalism needs and honours but a penetrating questioning of the social system and its morality. That Guardsman stamping outside Buckingham Palace, for example. Is he an admirable example of disciplined, hardened manhood or just another sadly misled member of the working class? Is he glamorous or ludicrous? What does he represent, in terms of how capitalist society conducts itself?

It will not take many questions to lead us to the conclusion that capitalism glorifies violence and that it could hardly exist without consistent support for blind discipline and militancy. The sad fact is that it is the workers who suffer under capitalism, who so ardently stand up for the system. They it is who thrill to the marching soldiers, who respect manliness and violence, who respond to wars as to a recruiting sergeant. From all this follows their respect for military tradition and for the brutal nonsense that goes with it.

So let the petitioners not despair. If they don't save the Argylls capitalism will organise its workers into other regiments.
Ivan

Lionel Selwyn (1969)

Party News from the April 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

For the last ten years, the vital backroom work of design and layout of the Socialist Standard has been done by one man —Lionel Selwyn.

Domestic commitments have now compelled Comrade Selwyn to give up this work, although his talents and knowledge will still be available to us and he will always be ready with advice whenever we need it.

The Editorial Committee would like to pay tribute to Comrade Selwyn for the consistent and capable way he has done his work over the years. His passionate involvement gave us many memorable designs and front covers; indeed, he positively transformed the appearance of the Socialist Standard.

Comrade Selwyn can look back with pride on the contribution he made to our journal. Socialists everywhere are in his debt.
Editorial Committee

Economics Against Apartheid (1969)

From the April 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

"Port Scarcity: 'white' jobs for Africans,” reported the Durban Daily News on February 11.

A Natal University report on Durban harbour revealed that because of a shortage of suitable 'white’ labour about 300 Africans ,were doing semi-skilled jobs officially reserved for 'whites’. Some of the Africans live in compounds owned by Durban Corporation and, says the report, “it is unlikely that these labourers will be compelled in pursuance of government policy (of separate development) to live in the African townships”’

This is but another example of the way capitalism is undermining apartheid. Apartheid is against the interests of the South African capitalist class which wants to be free to exploit all workers as it pleases while the economics, of capitalism bring together what apartheid tries to separate.

Letter: Why Oppose Both Major Parties? (1969)

Letter to the Editors from the April 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Sir.

Thank you for the reply to my letter as printed in the December edition of Socialist Standard. Regretfully, however, it does little to convince me that the policies adopted by the Socialist Party of Great Britain are truly the right ones, at least insofar as your attitude to reformism and the Labour Party are concerned. It seems to me quite impractical to be equally opposed to both Tory and anti-Tory parties even if the latter are pro-capitalism. It is on the basis of this ‘equal’ opposition that you point out that I gave no reason for supposing the growth of the Socialist Party would be at the expense of the Labour Party; the reason being the political temperament of the bulk of individuals supporting Labour as against the Conservative Party.

The attitude which you demonstrate, one of ideological intransigence, scarcely does you credit because it is difficult to see how you can gain from it apart from musing on its nobility. In practical terms to lump differing enemies together is stupid, and it explains how you can later say that as the socialist movement grows so the power of the capitalists is weakened. For my part I cannot see how their power is in any way lessened except in a theoretical way, i.e. the percentage of socialists is higher.

Except in a very minor way as far as action is concerned the SPGB seems to wash its hands altogether of capitalism, even as though it existed outside it. You even state that as the socialist movement grows the “balance of class power shifts in favour of the workers”. This again is surely poetic nonsense. The balance of class power could never shift in favour of the workers until capitalism is abolished, that is. unless you accept that anti-capitalist reformist actions grow equally with the socialist movement. If 45 per cent of Britain supported the Socialist Party and there were no Socialist Party MPs then the Right Wing would have a fine old time. If 45 per cent of Britain supported the Socialist Party and there were an appropriate percentage of Socialist Party MPs then if they sat back in disgust and went to sleep we would have the same position. They would have to adopt a very similar position as the Labour Party when in opposition. that is trying to counteract the downward forces of capitalism within capitalism.

It seems more than obvious to me that whether you like it or not the Socialist Party of Great Britain is merely one of a group of Leftist societies. Its loquacious attacks on capitalism no doubt inspire those within the Labour and Communist Parties and it is doubtful whether except for so aiding reformists it will achieve anything.
R. E. Shimmin 
(Port St. Mary Isle of Man)


Reply:
How does the “political temperament” of Labour Party supporters differ from that of the Tories? Many of them, as we have recently seen, are racists; they are patriotic; they are prepared to support their party although it breaks one promise after another and openly declares its intention of restricting the unions and cutting working class living standards.

Any differences between the Labour and Conservative parties are superficial and, as Edward Heath has recently become aware, are growing ever more difficult to perceive. On fundamentals they are anything but enemies; what differences they have are so slight as to be not worth bothering about.

It would be pleasant to be able to wash our hands of capitalism but we cannot do this—we cannot live outside the system. The reason for this is that at present the capitalist class hold their power by the support of the workers. As this support lessens, as the socialist movement grows, the power of the capitalists diminishes. Their promises, their threats, their sops, which are so readily accepted by workers now, will lose their effect

As the number of socialists grows the class struggle will take on a different appearance. Socialist trade unionists, for example, would never fall for threats and promises from a Labour government and agree to reduce their living standards, as some unionists are doing now. And of course as this situation develops the ruling class would be eager to try to divert the movement with ever more generous reforms.

A minority of socialist MPs would certainly support genuine reforms in working class standards and conditions but they would not be allowed to make the mistake of becoming reformist — of offering reforms as a political programme and an alternative to Socialism.

There is no evidence that the Labour Party tried to ‘counteract the downward forces of capitalism within capitalism” when they were in opposition. Whenever the interests of British capitalism required it they supported the Tory government— as they did in two world wars, for example—although naturally they went through the usual meaningless farce of ‘opposition’. If it had been their intention to “counteract the downward forces of capitalism” when they were in opposition, why did they act as they did when they took power? Why did they start the British H-Bomb? Go into the Korean war? Introduce the wage freeze? Prosecute strikers? Build the Polaris submarines? Support the Americans in Vietnam? Reduce school milk? The list of their actions in intensifying the downward pressures of capitalism is almost endless.

It is true that at present few people are inclined to grasp socialist knowledge. Some of the blame for this rests on organisations like the Labour Party, which have spread confusion among the working class and have dragged the name of Socialism through the mud. Perhaps our attacks on capitalism inspire Labourites and ‘Communists’. What effect, then, do our attacks on those parties, as pro-capitalist, have on those people? We hope to make them think about society, and about what to do with the power in their hands. This is the positive side of socialist propaganda—every attack we make upon capitalism has two edges and the other is the conclusion, that Socialism alone can end the problems of the modern world.
Editorial Committee

50 Years Ago: What We Want (1969)

The 50 Years Ago column from the April 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

A lot of make-believe capitalist sympathy has been slobbered over the working class recently as the result of the revelations of some of the horrors of working class existence in the mining districts and in the East End of London. That the capitalists may make a genuine effort to improve these conditions is quite possible. The war has shown them that they have a C3 nation of workers, and the latest births and deaths returns have revealed to them the unpleasant prospect that unless they bestir themselves they will soon have no nation of workers at all on which to found the military and commercial supremacy of their Empire. But even if they do improve the workers’ conditions; if they stable them in palaces and harness them in “Workmen’s Charters"; if Lord Leverem finds that he can exhaust his men in six hours and does it, and Mr. Ford discovers anew that high wages, as the Dutch says of paint, cost nothing —what then?

Such things, realised far beyond the realms of possibility, would leave us unmoved. We are out for LIFE for the workers. The world is beautiful. Life is glorious. Even work is joy if a man may, as Morris said, “rejoice in the work of his hand.” Evolution has given us the possibility of producing by work, as distinct from toil, wealth in such abundance that the amenities of civilisation shall be the portion of all, without stint.
(From an unsigned editorial in the Socialist Standard, April 1919).