Saturday, November 30, 2019

Observations: Oily Shore (1982)

The Observations Column from the October 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

Oily Shore
Peter Shore does not usually have the effect of confusing and splitting his opponents. A more familiar experience for him is to unite them in a common contempt and irritation at his transparently ambitious suggestions for the more efficient exploitative operation of British capitalism.

So perhaps Labour's Shadow Chancellor was surprised at the effect of his recent talks with the big brass of the employers’ organisation, the Confederation of British Industry. Many Tories were angered at what they saw as the CBI consorting with the enemy. Taylor Woodrow, the building firm which is a hefty contributor to Tory funds, resigned from the CBI in protest.

In fact Shore’s talks were all very proper and necessary. If there is ever another Labour government. Shore will hold a very high post in it; indeed, as a likely future Labour leader he may even become Prime Minister. The Labour Party will presumably eventually lose patience with Foot’s unerring instinct for losing votes and look around for a leader with a slicker, craftier approach.

It has always been a preoccupation of Labour governments to promote the greater profitability of British industry and commerce, and this has fashioned their policies of contesting with the workers over wages and conditions of work. They have also gone to great lengths, in both words and deeds, to reassure the British capitalist class that there is absolutely nothing for them to worry about in the event of a Labour government in this country. And in power they have been as good as their word. Under Labour the rich have got richer and the poor have got poorer.

As the employers’ trade union the CBI is naturally interested in such policies. That is why they are concerned to discuss and negotiate with Shore, perhaps to make promises and pacts for the more intense exploitation of the British working class if Labour gets back to power. It might all have saved the need for those embarrassing speeches, aimed at giving comfort to the City of London, soon after a clutch of Labour ministers have gone to kiss the queen’s hand or whatever they do before they get down to the business of making her even more secure in her class dominance.

And while the Tories and the CBI members were protesting, what of the Labour Party? What outrage seethed in their ranks at this blatant example of fraternising with what is supposed to be their bitterest class enemy? It was all silence. Are the Labour Party so paralysed at the prospect of losing yet more votes? Or are they so keen to have Oily Shore as their leader?


Loose Nott
There was no perceptible dejection in the ’bus queues, supermarkets and factories when the news came out that will soon give up being Defence (sic) Minister and go back to being a busi(sic)man.

Neither was there any apparent gratitude for Nott, who in 1966 generously left the lush pastures of merchant banking to toil in the bleak fields of trying to run the Armed Forces, order new weapons, send workers out to fight in the Falklands and so on.

Merchant banks are strange, if often wildly prosperous, organisations. Strange because they are prone to criticism from public supporters of capitalism on the unlikely grounds of their excessive appetite for profits. Names like Lonrho (the cheekbones in Ted Heath’s '‘unacceptable face of capitalism”) or London and Counties sit uneasily on the City of London's memory.

Prosperous because they are often adept at taking advantage of the complex financial machinery which capitalism has made essential as one of the shackles on human progress and security. Taking this advantage can involve unpopular operations like asset-stripping, which usually stripped a lot of workers of their livelihood. But the merchant banks are devotees of their own sales talk. They regard their role — really as one of the band of robbers who share in the proceeds of working class exploitation — as vital, for which all workers should be grateful.

Nott is a lean man with a citric face and a smile like a Falklands winter. His public devotion to the exploitative, repressive disciplines of capitalism’s class relationships is as rigorous and relentless as a Dickensian schoolmaster. In his very person he demonstrates the connection between “business” and “politics”, that it is natural for someone who has made a lot of money from realising some of the results of surplus value to want to have a say in how the robbery is organised and legalised.

He will not be missed, and whoever his successor may be will not be welcomed, by anyone who is concerned to end the exploitation and cynicism of this miserable society.


Observations: Scroungers (1982)

The Observations Column from the October 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

Scroungers?

In early September you may have seen the headlines: “POLICE SPRING TRAP ON SOCIAL SCROUNGERS”. “Scroungers”? you may have pondered; “Ah yes, those people who consume wealth which they have played no part in helping to produce. Those anti-social elements who live on the backs of the rest of us. Recent examples of that sort of social parasite of whom you have read flash through your mind, mind.

There is the lady from central London, Betty Windsor, whose state benefits cheques for 1981 totalled £3,260,000 while other notorious spongers from the same family were on a similar dodge. Anny Philips applied to the Ministry of Agriculture for a 22½  per cent grant to improve the water supply at Gatcombe Park — the 1,200-acre estate bought for her by Betty for £750,000. The amount involved worked out to a cash payment of about £1.500 and the application was made weeks after Anny got a £19.600 pay rise in her own capacity as a sponger on the Social Security Civil List.

Then there is Mike Pearson, whose scrounged unearned income was sufficient to allow him to vacate his £2,000,000 home in South Kensington to become a tax exile in Ibiza where he will spend half the year, with the other half in Monte Carlo. Pearson inherited £7,000,000 on his 21st birthday and his personal wealth is now estimated at £20,000,000.

Scroungers, Ah yes, the top 2 percent of the population who own over 64.4 per cent of all the land in Britain and 70.5 per cent of all company shares (Inland Revenue Statistics 1980). So the police are springing traps on these sort of people are they? A row of lavish houses went on sale for £650,000 each in Knightsbridge after eleven of them had been sold. The agent said in an interview: “Everyone has paid cash for these properties . . . they don't need to bother with mortgages”. Perhaps it was reported to the police that these conspicuously rich people were never known to work and that they must therefore have been getting money by scrounging.

Then you stop wondering about who the scroungers are and pick up the newspaper. The trap, which was set up by police and supplementary benefit officers in Oxford, was part of a government crackdown on social security fraud; 286 people were arrested in swoop arrest tactics and each was questioned on suspicion of obtaining payments of £67 a week by giving false bed and breakfast addresses.

Wealth is created by labour. But those who own the most wealth do not contribute any useful labour to society. When we are not permitted to work for them in a recession and if we are accepting their paltry doles, they call us scroungers. Parasites of the non-human variety have got no worries about the willingness of their hosts to provide them with a living because non-human organisms cannot make choices about whether or not to accept the parasites. Members of the ruling class have got more to be worried about because the working class can make such a choice.
Gary Jay


Friday, November 29, 2019

Reformism Failed (2011)

Book Review from the November 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Speak for Britain! A New History of the Labour Party. By Martin Pugh (Vintage) £9.99.

It’s not often that an entry in a book’s index gives rise to a chuckle, but that’s the case here. Under ‘Thatcher, Margaret’, the index lists a few page references and then states, ‘see also Blair, Tony’.

In fact Pugh clearly has it in for Blair, regarding him as an essentially Conservative figure. ‘When he announced his intention of becoming an MP friends laughed and asked: “Really, which party?”’. He was easily impressed by strong personalities, not just Thatcher but also George W Bush and Rupert Murdoch. Blair was also keen to ingratiate himself with others, and in 1982 he wrote to the then Labour leader, Michael Foot, saying, ‘I came to Socialism through Marxism’ (not that he has a clue about either).

Pugh has a point when he says that it is not really so odd for Labour to have been led by a Conservative, for ex-Tories had previously played a prominent role in the Party (such as Clement Attlee and Stafford Cripps). Tories and Labour agreed originally on issues such as protectionism, empire and alcohol, where Liberals took a different view. An internal Labour report of 1955 accepted ‘the absence of clearly defined differences between the parties’.

Unfortunately, Pugh gives too much emphasis to questions of leadership, claiming that the Labour Party has tended to choose the wrong leaders and then retain them for far too long. He uses the word ‘socialism’ a lot but never defines it, though he is no doubt correct in saying that Clause IV of the Labour constitution, with its commitment to nationalisation, was of largely symbolic value. Even Harold Wilson opposed its removal when Hugh Gaitskell tried to do away with it in 1959, though of course Blair achieved this in 1995.

Overall, Pugh gives a good factual picture of the Labour Party’s history, including its backing for wars and the British Empire, and its preparedness to undermine strikes. It  is odd, however, that he says virtually nothing about the actual formation of the Labour Party out of the Labour Representation Committee in 1906.
Paul Bennett

Stripped Blair (2011)

The Proper Gander column from the November 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the dark corridors beneath the Chilcot theatre, Gordon Brown has finally caught up with Tony Blair. He raises his gun and Blair tries to talk his way out of a tight situation one last time: “I think you’ll make a great Prime Minister. You’ll love it. The girls. The parties. Power’s a great aphrodisiac.” Brown doesn’t listen and, trembling, he pulls the trigger.

And so marks the end of Blair’s escape from those who turned on him, as imagined in The Comic Strip Presents: The Hunt For Tony Blair. This enjoyable one-off reunited the team who have been making short comedy films since Channel Four’s launch in 1982. Previously, their output has included both the miners’ strike and Ken Livingstone’s takeover of the Greater London Council filmed in the style of Hollywood blockbusters. The Hunt For Tony Blair developed this approach by presenting Blair’s downfall as a 1950s film noir.

On the run for murder, he finds himself abandoned by his previous allies, including a sinister, camp Peter Mandelson who changes sides to help Blair’s pursuer, Inspector Hutton. He’s even rejected by George W. Bush, here depicted (probably for the first time) as a mafia godfather out to “fuck Iraq”. But the most memorable performance is from Jennifer Saunders, playing Margaret Thatcher as a faded movie star. Lying on a chaise longue, she reminisces over old footage of the Falklands War before seducing Blair in her four-poster bed.

Keeping the satire this loose allows the Comic Strip team to get away with scenes like Blair pushing Robin Cook from a mountain during “a friendly walk in the Highlands”. But elsewhere, the film skirts closer to reality, especially in Stephen Mangan’s spot-on portrayal of Tony Blair as someone too self-satisfied to accept his guilt as a murderer.
Mike Foster

50 Years Ago: Labour Conference (2011)

The 50 Years Ago column from the November 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

What was the theme of this year’s Labour Party Conference?

Revolution? Radicalism? Reform, even?

Well, no—respectability.

Many responsible newspapers have been worried for a long time at Labour’s inability to dent the Tories’ confidence. None of them want to see the British capitalist class having to rely upon only one party to form their governments for them.

So they were full of concern that Labour should have a dignified conference. They all hoped for the sort of inoffensive, meaningless resolutions which would make the Labour Party appear as a party which any man of good will could vote for.

This is what is needed to make Mr. Gaitskell anything like a reasonable bet for Prime Minister.

The platform at Brighton played exactly as the press had advised and, except for one or two resolutions, the conference as a whole also fell into line.

This is the logical end to the Labour Party road of power conscious, capitalist reform policies. It is the end which Socialists foretold over fifty years ago, when the Labour Party were busily dubbing us Impossibilists.

Perhaps some of the Labour pioneers never thought it would come to this.

Blackpool, 1961, has done its share to show how wrong they were.

(from ‘The News in Review’, Socialist Standard, November 1961)

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Voice From the Back: Another Business Opportunity (2011)

The Voice From the Back Column from the December 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Another Business Opportunity
A new invasion force is already plotting its own landing on the shores of Tripoli. “Western security, construction and infrastructure companies that see profit-making opportunities receding in Iraq and Afghanistan have turned their sights on Libya …. Entrepreneurs are abuzz about the business potential of a country with huge needs and the oil to pay for them… A week before Colonel Qaddafi’s death on October 20, a delegation from 80 French companies arrived in Tripoli to meet officials of the Transitional National Council, the interim government. Last week, the new British defence minister, Philip Hammond, urged British companies to ‘pack their suitcases’ and head to Tripoli” (New York Times, 28 October). It is always good to see the fall of a dictator, but obviously the capitalist class are more interested in profit than democracy.


A Tale Of Two Cities
The economic downturn has not affected everyone quite as harshly. “An Egyptian billionaire has splashed out £37 million on a London flat as the overseas goldrush for metropolitan property continues. … Many foreign buyers have focused on flats at One Hyde Park, where prices of more than £7,500 per sq ft have been reached. More than £1.4 billion of flats have been sold at the estate since it opened last year” (Times, 29 October). So while you can be stopped in the streets of London by some poor desperate, homeless person asking “any change?” somewhere not far away some billionaire is luxuriating in a splendid flat. Londoners live in two cities.


A Tale Of Two Nations
The USA is the most developed capitalist nation in the world and it has some of the richest people in the world. It also has some people desperately poor. “Nearly 15% of the US population relied on food stamps in August, as the number of recipients hit 45.8 million. Food stamp rolls have risen 8.1% in the past year, the Department of Agriculture reported, though the pace of growth has slowed from the depths of the recession. … Mississippi reported the largest share of its population relying on food stamps, more than 21%. One in five residents in New Mexico, Tennessee, Oregon and Louisiana also were food stamp recipients (Wall Street Journal, 1 November). This gap between rich and poor is not unique to the USA. It is a worldwide feature of capitalism.


Forgotten Heroes
On 11th November every year all over Britain they commemorate the millions killed in war. Veterans parade in city squares, military bands play rousing music, reverend gentlemen mouth platitudes, and of course politicians make promises. “David Cameron said ministers would “strain every sinew” to do more for service personnel and their families. The Remembrance weekend initiative aims to end the scandal of veterans being left too poor to buy a home and unable to get on a social housing list” (Daily Mail, 12 November). In 1918 politicians told us it was a war to end all wars. It turned out to be an empty piece of rhetoric – just like Cameron’s latest piece of political bombast.


Military Reality
The Hollywood stereotype of war veterans returning to a hero’s welcome from their home town population amidst cheering crowds and flag-waving adulation is just that – a Hollywood invention. “One US veteran of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan attempts suicide every 80 minutes, according to new study. In a staggering indictment on the lack of mental health programmes in the U.S. military, the report reveals 1,868 veterans made suicide attempts in 2009 alone. Many veterans face dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, high unemployment and a loss of military camaraderie after returning from tours” (Daily Mail, 3 November). We can’t expect Hollywood to reflect this grim reality – it’s not good box office material.


Labour Exposed
The Socialist Party has always maintained that the Labour Party’s support for capitalism gave the lie to their claim that they were a party of the working class. Labour supporters have always denied this but now one of their numbers has shown who they really support. “Ken MacIntosh, the MSP for Eastwood, who yesterday launched his campaign for the leadership, said that he wanted to be the ‘business candidate’, appealing to corporate Scotland for support” (Times, 29 October).


What Next? (2011)

Editorial from the December 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last month we asked, just as it was getting off the ground, where would the Occupy Movement end. Would it fizzle out? Would it go lamely reformist? Would it perhaps achieve some worthwhile reform? Would it even trigger a genuine anti-capitalist movement?

It didn’t fizzle out and it didn’t achieve any reform. But it did do two things. First, it raised consciousness that capitalism does not benefit “the 99 percent”. And, second, it provided public places where political debate about this and other issues could take place – and did. Both worthwhile. There were two other pluses. It was a world-wide movement that understood that any solution had to be global. And it tried to organise itself democratically and without leaders.

All right, there wasn’t always clarity as to what exactly was the capitalism they said they were “anti”. Some saw the occupations as a protest against “corporate greed” as if the behaviour of those in charge of capitalist corporations is a personal fault or choice rather than something imposed on them by the nature of capitalism as a system of production for sale with a view to profit. Others blamed “the bankers” and all sorts of funny money theories flourished. But that was what the spaces for debate they had provided were all about. They need to continue.

In the end the police moved in to clear the occupations (though the one in London has been given a stay of execution till after Christmas). Now that the inevitable has happened the Occupy Movement will have to consider its next move. Clearly, the high-profile tactic of occupying public parks and town squares has only a limited shelf-life, since the authorities can always cite concerns over health and sanitation.

The question now is whether activists will go home satisfied that they’ve made their point, in effect consigning the issues once again to oblivion, or work out new ways to press home their anti-capitalist message. In particular they will need to find ways to counter the predictable establishment criticisms that they are nothing but a diversion from attempts by practical politicians to find solutions to the global economic crisis and that they have no viable alternative economic system to propose.  

Well, of course, the ruling class would say that, wouldn’t they?  Their opinions aren’t going to change. The criticisms Occupy have to worry about are those coming from the ninety-nine percent, who don’t at present believe that capitalism can be abolished or that any alternative would be viable.

So it’s a question of getting the message out there, and getting it right. We are doing our bit.

The Next War? (2011)

From the December 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
  Capitalism’s war drums are never silent. They are always pulsating in the background. At certain times they become more strident—now is one of those times.
Only the incurably naive believe that capitalism is possible without war. Warfare is as intrinsic to capitalism as are its prices, wages and profits. The subtext of Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor’s, warning about the collapse of the Euro that: “Nobody should believe that another half century of peace in Europe is a given — it’s not,” (Daily Telegraph 9 November) reveals that material factors such as access to markets and resources, and the protection of trade and trade routes, rather than ideological reasons are the root causes of war.

The prospect of conflict with Iran frequently makes the news. Apparently, like Iraq, they’re busy developing nuclear weapons. But Iran is also situated in a strategically important area to Western powers. On 3 November the drumming increased when the Guardian warned it had learned that: “planners expect any campaign to be predominantly waged from the air, with some naval involvement, using missiles such as the Tomahawks. . . There are no plans for a ground invasion, but “a small number of special forces” may be needed on the ground, too”. The BBC reported six days later that Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov has warned that: “Military action against Iran would be a ‘very serious mistake fraught with unpredictable consequences’ . . . His comments come after Israeli President Shimon Peres said an attack on Iran was becoming more likely”. Just to underline how volatile and dangerous capitalism is, one day later, as the BBC also reported, Leon Panetta, the US Defence Secretary, commenting on a strike against Iran, also warned that it could have “unintended consequences”.

Securing energy supplies is a basic condition for the continued existence of every nation state. The media delights in reporting the discovery of new oil fields and estimating the find in billions of barrels of oil. To put these finds in context; a billion barrels of oil will last the world at current rates of consumption—just 12 days (oilprice.com 9 November). Most studies show that existing supplies will not meet capitalism’s future needs. Thus struggles for access and control of them are inevitable.

Consequently, the drums are echoing around the Arctic region as it looks set to become the next battleground in the scramble for profits. Global warming is rapidly melting the icecaps making shipping routes more accessible and the prospect of exploration virtually certain. Time for agreements between the competing NATO members, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Greenland, the US; and Russia is diminishing. Accordingly Timeworld could report on President Putin’s speech to his political party that: “Russia intends without a doubt to expand its presence in the Arctic. We are open to dialogue with our foreign partners … but naturally, the defence of our geopolitical interests will be hard and consistent.” The next day Putin’s defence minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, announced that: “two army brigades, or up to 10,000 troops, would be deployed to defend Russia’s claims to the Arctic” (8 July).

The industrious US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta had earlier located more potential problems for capitalism. This time with another major competitor—China. The New York Times could report that: “earlier this month, Mr. Panetta was blunt about his worries. “We’re concerned about China,” he told American service members in Naples, Italy. “The most important thing we can do is to project our force into the Pacific — to have our carriers there, to have our fleet there, to be able to make very clear to China that we are going to protect international rights to be able to move across the oceans freely” (23 October).

Robert D. Kaplan’s October 2011 Foreign Policy article ‘The South China Sea is the future of conflict’ reveals why US interest in the Western Pacific and the South China Sea is so important to Washington. “More than half the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through these waters and a third of all maritime traffic. . . Roughly two-thirds of South Korea’s energy supplies, nearly 60 percent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy supplies, and about 80 percent of China’s crude-oil imports come through the South China Sea. What’s more, the South China Sea has proven oil reserves of seven billion barrels and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas”. Nine states whose land-mass borders the South China Sea are laying claim to all, or some of it. All nine are dependent on Washington for diplomatic and military support.

The war drums were at their most raucous when The Global Times, published under the authority of the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party, printed the headline “The time to use force has arrived in the South China Sea; Let’s wage wars on the Philippines and Vietnam to prevent more wars.” It went on to stress that: “The South China Sea is the best place for China to wage wars. Of the more than 1,000 oil rigs there, none belongs to China; of the four airfields in the Spratly Islands, none belongs to China; once a war is declared, the South China Sea will be a sea of fire” (UPI, 3 October).

Noam Chomsky has drawn attention to the construction of a US military base on Jeju Island, 50 miles southeast of South Korea’s mainland which will “host up to 20 American and South Korean warships, including submarines, aircraft carriers and destroyers, several of which would be fitted with the Aegis ballistic-missile defence system”. He goes on to add that: “Not surprisingly, China sees the base as a threat to its national security. At the very least, the base is likely to trigger confrontation and an arms race between South Korea and China, with the US almost inevitably involved” (Truthout 7 October).

China, over the last decade, has been making major inroads into East Africa. And it isn’t just the prospect of cheap, unorganised labour that attracted them. UPI reported on 10 March last year that: “East Africa is emerging as the next oil boom following a big strike in Uganda’s Lake Albert Basin. Other oil and natural gas reserves have been found in Tanzania and Mozambique and exploration is under way in Ethiopia and even war-torn Somalia”. It is: “the last real high-potential area in the world that hasn’t been fully explored”.     However, the Economist could warn just 21 days later that: “several jealous Western governments and companies want to stall China’s advance into the Congo basin, with its vast reserves of minerals and timber”.

John Pilger writing in the New Statesman about President Obama’s “humanitarian mission” to go to the aid of the Ugandan government in its battle to defeat the “fewer than 400 fighters” of the Lord’s resistance Army (LRA) by sending in 100 US combat troops argued that: “WikiLeaks cables and the US National Strategy for Counter-terrorism show, American plans for Africa are part of a global design in which 60,000 special forces, including death squads, operate in 75 countries. As the then defence secretary Dick Cheney pointed out in the 1990s, America simply wants to rule the world” (20 October). Perhaps Pilger could have added—through the control of its natural resources.

Many writers have seen China as the emergent heir to America’s crown. The BBC reported that the building of “aircraft carriers, high-speed trains, anti-satellite systems and so on is not just for any intrinsic value they possess, but because the Communist Party leadership see them as symbols that distinguish great powers from their competitors” and that the manned space programme “and its successors are for China, symbolic proof that China is emerging as a 21st Century superpower” (29 September).

In 1957 the Chinese Communist Party Secretary General, Deng Xiaoping, described the initial steps to becoming a superpower. “The Soviet Union has the atom bomb. Where does the significance lie? It lies in the fact that the imperialists are afraid of it. Are the imperialists afraid of us? I think not . . . The United States stations its troops on Taiwan because we have no atom bombs or guided missiles” (Nuclear Weapons Databook, p. 327). Once acquired what do you do with them? A Financial Times (14 July, 2005) report gives you an idea of what the military mind thinks: “Major General Zhu Chenghu, Commandant and Professor at the College of Defence Studies at China’s National Defence University, points out that the US has designated nuclear targets east of Xian. In the event of a war breaking out between China and the US over Taiwan, he has told foreign visitors on two occasions in 2005 that: ‘We will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all the cities East of Xian.’ He also reminded his audience of China’s nuclear targeting capacity on US cities.”

Ask most people about the prospect of nuclear war and they would dismiss the idea. Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have barely touched most western people. War has become remote done by others that are feted and paraded as heroes by the media. As Malcolm X once said: “If you’re not careful the newspapers will have you hating the oppressed and loving the people doing the oppressing.” Libya was sold to people as a “humanitarian mission”. Aristotle’s: “We make war that we may live in peace“, written 2300 years ago, still comes in handy today. Perhaps the words of someone who has experienced war is the most relevant end to an article about war.

On 11 November Ross Caputi, a Marine Corps veteran of the second siege of Fallujah related his “Thoughts on the role of veterans in the Occupy movement” through the Information Clearing House:
 “I did not serve my country in Iraq; I served the 1%. It was on their behalf that I helped lay siege to Fallujah, helped kill thousands of civilians, helped displace hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and helped destroy an entire city. My ‘service’ served Exxon-Mobil, Halliburton, KBR, Blackwater, and other multinational corporations in Iraq”.
Ross Caputi is actively engaged in seeking an end to war. Are you?
Andy Matthews

Pathfinders: Parasites Lost (2011)

The Pathfinders Column from the December 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

A curious fact unloved by politicians eager to stoke public paranoia is that serious crime rates have been falling for decades, both in America, Europe and the UK, which despite being Europe’s ‘crime hotspot’ nevertheless is enjoying its lowest murder rate for 12 years.  Murder rates are a particularly good indicator of trends, because they are nearly always reported, and because they are universally counted in the same way (ie by victim rather than by case). Rates for Europe are around 2 murders per hundred thousand of the population, while there are murder sprees in some South American and Caribbean countries.  The rate in Honduras for 2010 was 78 (50 in 2000), El Salvador was 66 (60) and Jamaica 52 (34) (Wikipedia). The higher the rate the more volatile the change seems to be. In general though, in all countries across the world with low murder averages the trend is either stable or declining.

Steven Pinker, the Harvard evolutionary psychologist, is currently doing the rounds with his new book The Better Angels of our Nature which argues that murder rates have been falling in all modern societies since the Middle Ages. The question exercising everyone, assuming that the evidence is correct, is why.

An obvious fact about global social development is a general improvement in material well-being, albeit at vastly different rates, the poorest tending to benefit least. This might perhaps suggest a simple inverse ratio between material security and murder rates, the one going up as the other goes down. Murder rates globally do show that some of the most violent countries are also poor, however a closer look shows that there is no reliable correlation. For example Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world (4th in the table cited below) yet has a murder rate of 6.9, roughly similar to Moldova (position 80) and Estonia (position 102).  The three murder-prone countries cited above (Honduras, El Salvador and Jamaica) are in positions 14, 64 and 122 respectively. (LINK). Meanwhile the USA, the richest country in the world, has a higher murder rate than Romania, Turkey, Yemen, Albania, Cuba, Belarus and many others.

A new suggestion comes from Randy Thornhill, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico (New Scientist, 12 November). Dubbed the ‘parasite stress’ model, his idea treats all diseases as parasites on human society, and argues that diseases tend to fragment societies into defensive, family-based micro-units in which xenophobic and autocratic conservative values are the norm.  Thornhill’s study shows a link between high disease rates and high murder rates across different US states even after taking into account local levels of economic inequality.  A separate study shows a link between high murder rates and ‘conservative’ style cultures.  No study has yet combined all three factors . The devil is in the causality though. Do people commit murder because there is a lot of disease about, or are they both functions of something else? If one takes infectious disease as a general indicator, most African countries are at very high risk, whereas their positions in the murder rate tables vary considerably, some being close to the European average.

There is more to be done with this notion of the ‘parasite model’ from a socialist point of view.  In a sense all living organisms are parasitical on something. In nature this parasitism is often driven into competition by population or resource ‘stress’, and can express itself either destructively, neutrally or beneficially to the ‘other party’. Most obviously, the predator can simply wipe out the prey, as Ebola does, or as early humans probably did with extinct large fauna such as woolly mammoth, horses and giant bison.  Often a neutral balance is achieved. In a closed eco-system, the predator and the prey achieve a population equilibrium known as homeostasis. If predators become too numerous, prey will be depleted, which will in turn drag predator numbers back down. A similar corrective pressure exists for prey increases.  The third manifestation of parasitism is symbiosis, where two species ‘learn’ to live off each other in a mutually beneficial arrangement.

All these forms of parasitism exist at every biological level, including bacterial, viral and genetic. At the level of microbiology it is easy to see that ‘killer diseases’ are in fact biologically self-defeating organisms, since they too easily destroy the vehicle for their own reproduction, while the most successful parasites are those which have ‘learned’ not to be deleterious to their hosts, and are in fact beneficial to them. This is the ‘good bacteria’ we hear about in yoghurt adverts, for example.

What holds for microbiology also holds for macrobiology. Socialists often describe capitalists as parasites, because it is literally true. It therefore makes sense to view this relationship in terms of a medical condition. Once they came under competitive population and resource stress, human social organisms, however egalitarian they may have started out, collapsed into hierarchical and parasitical structures.  They became ‘diseased’.

We can show that this ‘disease state’ is actually a disease and not a neutral or beneficial adaptive behaviour pattern. While rabbits and antelope don’t have the mental faculties to get depressed about their status in the scheme of things, there is evidence to show that primates do. Stress produces the hormone cortisol, which furs up the arteries leading to heart disease, while also lowering the immune system. In studies of zoo-kept monkeys, the individuals suffering highest levels of stress and heart disease, with lowest immune systems and serotonin levels, were those at the bottom of the hierarchy.  In a study of 17,000 Whitehall civil servants, low job status was a more reliable indicator of heart disease than obesity, smoking or high blood pressure. A 1960s study of a million workers at Bell Laboratories in the USA found the same thing (Matt Ridley, Genome, Fourth Estate, 1999, p154). Since hierarchies are pyramidal structures with the vast majority at the bottom, we can say that hierarchies per se are generally bad for human health. From this perspective, current human behaviour including murder is better understood as part of a disease pathology.

What do we gain by medicalising society in this way? Much is made of capitalism’s ‘natural’ place in human behaviour, as if that makes it desirable, beneficial and unavoidable – a ‘good thing’. Its defenders forget that disease is natural too. If we incorporate class society into an overall ‘parasite stress’ model of diseases, it is intuitively easier to apprehend capitalism as a natural killer disease like cancer, blind, destructive and out of control, a parasitism gone wrong. We can also begin to liberate ourselves from deterministic ‘human nature’ arguments that try to normalise abnormal behaviour. Most importantly, we can work on a cure, because unlike monkeys and microbes, we have the ingenuity to help ourselves. Scarce resources may have caused the original problem but now technology can solve it. The voracious runaway parasitism of capitalism is not inevitable and can be supplanted by a beneficial symbiosis within and beyond human society.  We can become the planet’s ‘good bacteria’, once we have correctly diagnosed the problem.
Paddy Shannon

Rouble-makers - Part 1 (2011)

From the December 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
  The court case pitting two Russian oligarchs against each other throws some light on how some capitalists originally accumulated their capital
In any private-property society, there is always a boundary (which can be, and often is, changed from time to time) between those parts of the means of production (factories, farms, mines, transport) owned by individual members of the upper class, and those parts owned by the state itself – which is, of course, the executive committee of the upper class. From time to time, and for varying reasons, the state authorities may decide to unload part of the state’s holdings of these valuable assets. For example, in England in the 1530s, King Henry VIII took advantage of the jealous greed of the English upper class as they looked at the vast properties of the Catholic Church – perhaps amounting to a third of the land of England – and (since he was annoyed with the Pope for refusing to let him get rid of his Queen and marry a much younger woman who he hoped would give him a male heir) he declared himself to be the head of the English Church, and therefore owner of all the Church’s property. Being continually short of funds, he then sold or even gave away the church lands to favourites. So, anyone who had wormed himself into a position at court and could please the king through services more or less disreputable could get nice big estates very cheap or even free. Anyone who laughed the longest when the king made a joke or thought up the most obsequious flattery or was unscrupulous enough to do the king’s dirty work for him was in line for a big chunk of the former church lands. The reason so many of England’s old aristocratic families live in houses called something Abbey or something Priory is that they have estates which were pinched from the Church by Henry VIII and then handed on to some devious ancestor.

What happened then has happened again much more recently – different country, different century, but basically the same process at work. For England in the 1530s read Russia in the 1990s. The old state capitalist system, established by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution, was breaking up. Those in power in the Russian Empire, the old U.S.S.R., were more and more coming to the conclusion that the modern world demanded less economic power in the hands of the state, and more economic power in the hands of individuals. Under Gorbachev, who was the top man from 1985 to 1991, permission was given for small businesses to start up outside state control. Under Boris Yeltsin, who was in power from 1991 to 1999, this trickle became a flood. It was help-yourself time. Anyone in the small circle of Yeltsin’s advisers and friends – or anyone who could chum up with anyone in that small circle – could get his hands on enormously valuable slabs of state property at knock-down prices. In 1990, Russia’s industries belonged to the state. By 2000, only a decade later, Russia’s industries belonged to a small group of men, who became known as the “oligarchs”.

This process was not risk-free, of course. To amass a multi-million pound fortune, and then to build it into a multi-billion pound bank balance, and to stop others grabbing your share, strong-arm methods were necessary. Gangsterism was rife. Rivals would be found dead and the police could never work out who had done the deed, particularly after they got their pay-off. Each oligarch, or would-be oligarch, had a squad of bodyguards, both to “deal with” (so to speak) anyone who stood in his way and to make sure rivals did not “deal with” him. These strong-arm men were, quite rightly, feared. One oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, ran a television company in Moscow; the man in charge of security at the television station was Andrei Lugovoy. He was a former KGB officer who worked for Berezovsky for nearly ten years. Then he apparently moved on to work for Mr Putin. Another former KGB officer, Alexander Litvinenko, alleged there was widespread corruption in the Russian government, and had to flee to Britain in 2000; there, he continued to attack Putin. On 1 November, 2006, Lugovoy came to see him; the same day he fell ill, suffering from poisoning by the radioactive substance, polonium-210. Traces of this material were found everywhere Lugovoy had stayed while visiting London – three hotels, a restaurant, two aircraft. Litvinenko wasted away, and died three weeks later; Russia refused to extradite Lugovoy, and soon after he was triumphantly elected to the Duma, Russia’s parliament. However rich you were, you wouldn’t want to annoy the employers of men like Lugovoy.

It was also essential to work out which way to jump when power changed hands at the top. Some people who were well in with Yeltsin were caught on the hop when Yeltsin finally retired to spend more time with his vodka, and Putin succeeded him. If you transferred your allegiance too soon, you would get nothing more from Yeltsin; if too late, you wouldn’t get anything from Putin. Boris Berezovsky’s television company dared to criticize Putin over the Kursk submarine tragedy. (In August 2000 the Kursk sank with the loss of all the crew, 118 men; 24 hours later Putin was filmed enjoying a barbecue at his holiday villa on the Black Sea.) Putin froze all Berezovsky’s Russian bank accounts, and Berezovsky fled to Western Europe – the poor man claimed he was down to his last million dollars (Times, 5 November). Now he dare not go back to Russia. (Even so, he is reportedly worth five hundred million pounds, no doubt the value of properties he was able to squirrel away abroad while he was still a big cheese in Russia.)

Table of journalist deaths under Presidents Yeltsin, Putin and Medvedev




Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, thought he was powerful enough to start arguing with Putin, and bankrolling opposition groups; he now languishes in a jail near the Chinese border “for tax offences”, and the chances are that is where he will stay for the foreseeable future. The same happened to another oligarch, Platon Lebedev, who is also now in one of Putin’s jails. So, certainly, skill of a kind was needed, not only to seize your share of the goodies, but also to keep it.

Putin, of course, poses before the world as a true democrat. In fact, he is more or less a dictator, just like his predecessors who ran Bolshevik Russia. It is significant that Putin keeps in his office a statuette of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka, the Russian security police, forerunner of the KGB. Like all the figures that run Russia today, Putin (who made a name for himself as a KGB spy in East Germany) began, and continued, and reached high office, as a loyal member of what was called the “Communist” Party of the Soviet Union – the party which claimed that Russia was “communist” and “democratic”. Since Russia abandoned state capitalism, there must have been a million newspaper articles, television programmes, and radio broadcasts, celebrating the downfall of “communism”; to our knowledge there has not been a single article, programme or broadcast, celebrating the downfall of “democracy”. In other words, the opinion-formers round the world unanimously believe that when the rulers of the former USSR claimed to be “democratic”, they were the world’s biggest liars: but when the very same people claimed to be “communist”, they were completely truthful, and could be trusted to the hilt.

Not surprisingly, with billions of pounds at stake, disagreements often broke out among the oligarchs. Several court cases among Russian oligarchs are now, or soon will be, before British judges. Any court case in Russia would be decided quickly enough, of course: the litigant most favoured by Putin would win. But like all very rich men, the Russian oligarchs never bothered much with national boundaries – which are there mainly to keep the lower class in order (by reminding them which state they belong to, and are expected to fight for when business disagreements become open warfare). The oligarchs soon owned much property in many other countries, for example, in Britain. “In 2006, a fifth of all houses in the UK that sold for more than £8 million went to Russians” (Mail online). Unexplained fatalities are also exported. In 2004, a British lawyer, Stephen Curtis, had become very rich representing Russian oligarchs. He had a very good memory and could remember a lot of detail without having to commit too much to paper, which was an ideal way of doing business for many oligarchs. Curtis had a £4 million penthouse in London as well as a castle in Dorset and once spent £20,000 on a night out at Stringfellows. He had contacted the National Crime Intelligence Service with an offer to pass on information about his clients. Then he began to get threatening messages on his mobile phone from people with Russian accents. In March 2004 he told a friend, “if anything happens to me in the next few weeks, it won’t be an accident”. A week later he travelled down to Dorset in a brand new helicopter, with a very experienced pilot, and in reasonable weather conditions. People on the ground heard a bang, the helicopter crashed, and Curtis and the pilot were dead. There was not too much investigation of this surprising occurrence, and it was accepted as an unfortunate accident.

One case arising out of disagreements among the oligarchs is now being heard in London – Boris Berezovsky versus Roman Abramovich. The accounts in the press of the evidence in the case are fascinating. The British courts, naturally, are happy to hear disputes between such fantastically rich people as the Russian magnates – lawyers obtain fat fees acting for tycoons. Jonathan Sumption, QC, was announced last May as a coming judge of the Supreme Court – the old Law Lords – with the pleasant addition of a life peerage: when, that is, he chooses to take his promotion. He has postponed it for the time being in order to assist the interests of justice by representing Abramovich in the current case. In a letter to the Guardian in 2001, Sumption bemoaned being able to earn only a “puny 1.6 million a year”, but his probable fees in the Berezovsky case have been estimated at between three and ten million, so he will find it well worth while delaying his accession to the Supreme Court.
Alwyn Edgar

(Conclusion next month)

2011 – A Year of Change (2011)

From the December 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
As another year in the capitalist madhouse comes to a close it’s time to review the maladies, and some of the medicine its inmates have had to stomach
January marked the beginning of the end for a trio of North African leaders in what has been dubbed the “Arab Spring”. Just a few months earlier these men where embraced and cosseted by Western leaders and their docile media. Transformation can happen quickly inside the madhouse. Our erstwhile friends and allies once considered sane have now been diagnosed as mad dogs, tyrannical torturers, and despotic murderers.

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia was the first on his toes. Once a beloved partner of the EU, now just another fallen idol. The aftermath of the fall of Ben Ali culminated in the Islamist Ennahda party winning 41.47 per cent of votes. Rioting followed in Sidi Bouzid, the site of the uprising that deposed Ben Ali. The Daily Mail (24 October) reported the insights of ‘Belhussein al-Maliki, 27, who said that he’d fought in the January uprising. “We are jobless, we have nothing and we won’t vote.  Everything is the same, the world is the way it is, and the world will stay the way it is.”  

Next it was Egypt’s turn. Egyptians in their tens of thousands took to the streets, perhaps, encouraged by the speed and unambiguous exit of Ben Ali.  What is certain is that they’d had enough of Mubarak and his “Clan”. Like leaders before him Mubarak turned Egypt into his own personal thiefdom.  And it wasn’t just those on the streets that resented this. Obama and his cronies, who dispensed the aid that Mubarak pilfered, dithered, waiting to see which way the wind was blowing. But the hurricane from the street proved too powerful and Mubarak fled to his villa in Sharm el-Sheikh. An inconclusive trial, of sorts, followed. The aftermath once again was violent and began in Tahrir Square: “bloody scenes prompted fears that Egypt is drawing ever closer to a sustained religious conflict that cannot be controlled. There were reports of violence erupting in several Egyptian towns and cities with large Christian populations in the aftermath of the pandemonium in Cairo” (Daily Telegraph, 9 October). Divide and conquer? Election dates are still under discussion. The time-frame to elect a president put forward by the ruling military council remains nebulous: “perhaps the end of 2012, or early 2013”.

Regime-change in Libya came next. The same socio/economic reasons underpinned the uprising by Libyans but in contrast to Tunisia and Egypt the conclusion didn’t look so clear cut to Western leaders. Thus, under the charade of a humanitarian mission Western planes and missiles bombed General Gaddafi’s forces so that the outcome would become predictable. Another example of  how quickly a friend becomes your foe under capitalism—and why—was when the BBC reported (25 March 2004) the amicable meeting between Qaddafi and Tony Blair in 2004, supposedly for Qaddafi to join the West in its fight against terrorism. However, as discussions took place “it was announced Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell had signed a deal worth up to £550m for gas exploration rights off the Libyan coast.”

On September 8, Naji Barakat, the Health Minister of the National Transitional Council, stated “that about 30,000 people were killed during the war. At least 50,000 war-wounded, about 20,000 with serious injuries . . . but this estimate was expected to rise” (Wikipedia). Six weeks later the New Statesman reported that “running up the Stars and Stripes in “liberated” Tripoli last month, US ambassador Gene Cretz blurted out: “We know that oil is the jewel in the crown of Libyan natural resources!”. Not wanting to miss out on the profits scramble Philip Hammond, British Defence Secretary advised that, “British executives should be “packing their suitcases” and heading to Libya to win contracts” (Daily Telegraph, 4 November). The ongoing conflicts in Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen didn’t warrant humanitarian intervention. However, intervention carries on unabated in Afghanistan. IPS (2 November) reports that: “US Special Operations Forces (SOF) killed well over 1,500 civilians in night raids in less than 10 months in 2010 and early 2011”. That’s just SOF. And at night.

Only an insane profit-driven system would site nuclear plants in an area prone to earthquakes. In March an earthquake and tsunami devastated the north-eastern coast of Honshu, Japan, killing tens of thousands. Six months on and the Mayor of Rikuzentakata, one of the towns to feel the full force of the tsunami could state that, “the government has said it will give us funds for reconstruction, but we haven’t received any money yet” (BBC, 12 September). More inmates reduced to begging from their political masters.

On 1 May the world was notified that it could sleep easily in its bed with the assassination of the world’s number one bogeyman: Bin Laden. America was deliriously happy, Pakistan less so. Throughout the year stories of phone hacking by Murdoch’s hacks continually made the front pages. Newsnight was besotted by it. The broadsheets wrote piously about it. On 11 July that citadel of great British hackery, The News of the World, ceased printing. Then came the pantomime of the big bad wolf, Murdoch himself, and his slavering young cub of a son having to appear in front of a flock of pious MPs. Liars, cheats, fraudsters and hypocrites have been implicated in these revelations – and that’s just the police involvement.  How long before the Sun on Sunday appears?

The police were also involved in August in ‘The Riots’. Yes, surprise, surprise, we had rioting in London. Must have been our turn. LA next? Chicago? Paris?  The media has been hard at work trying to uncover why. Perhaps the risibly named Ministry of Justice figures might help: “90% of those brought before the courts were aged under 21. Only 5% were over the age of 40. Thirty-five percent were claiming out-of-work benefits, which compares to a national average of 12%. Of the young people involved, 42% were in receipt of free school meals compared to an average of 16%. Three-quarters of all those who appeared in court had a previous conviction or caution. For adults the figure was 80% and for juveniles it was 62%. Seventy-five percent of the young people in court were classed as having some form of special educational need, compared to 21% for the national average”. What the capitalist asylum excels at is converting children into criminals.

Famine in Africa was once again worth some newsprint and the usual pleas for money. Absurdly, reformers beg for money to alleviate poverty when its existence is the root cause of poverty. On September 25th the good King Abdullah, of that bastion of freedom and justice, Saudi Arabia, granted women the right to vote. However, they’ll still need to be driven to the polling station as its illegal for them to drive or to be seen in public without a male chaperone watching over them.

Very little ink has been wasted on climate change. But Reuters (23 October) provided this snippet: “global temperature rise could exceed “safe” levels of two degrees Celsius in some parts of the world in many of our lifetimes, if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, two research papers published in the journal Nature warned”.   Got kids? Grandkids? Content to sit on your arse?

As a backdrop to the above events we have “The Crisis”, which is gaining momentum, rather than abating as most of capitalism’s gurus envisaged. Bank of England governor Mervyn King said, “this is the most serious financial crisis we’ve seen at least since the 1930s, if not ever” (BBC, 7 October). And nearly “15% of the US population relied on food stamps in August, as the number of recipients hit 45.8 million” (Wall Street Journal, 1 November). People in every country are struggling with the repercussions of “The Crisis”. This has led to class conflict – the dynamic of change. What began in Tunisia in January has evolved in to a different type of struggle – one that is still evolving. It’s a struggle to see through the bourgeois opacity that Anton Pannekoek described as: “the power of the inherited and confused ideas, the formidable spiritual power of the middle-class world, enveloping their minds into a thick cloud of beliefs and ideologies, dividing them, and making them uncertain and confused”.

If a fiction writer had to plot a path to socialism, Chapter One might include: a socio/economic backdrop that exacerbates the gulf between the classes; a growing distrust, dislike and willingness to take on politicians, and those that enforce the states’ laws; an embryonic distrust of academia and the media; a generalised growth of discontent with the status quo; a meeting-up of people with divergent ideas in a central area where discussion could take place; the technology to instantly exchange ideas and arrange meetings locally and globally; an exponential growth of these leaderless movements across continents; the veil of morality that bourgeois ideology hides behind falling ever further to reveal more and more of its contradictions and hypocrisies.  Chapter Two—Reclamation.  Understanding socialism is relatively easy. Understanding capitalism, first, is the hard part. All socialists had to undergo that process.

The New York Times (26 November 2006) reported Warren Buffet as saying, “there’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning”. And he’s right. We are losing. But only a battle, in a war of ideas. 2011 has been memorable. Those actively engaged in the struggle deserve our respect and admiration. Perhaps 2012 could be the year that we can puncture Warren Buffet and his class’s smugness. A year to give our class cause for optimism. There isn’t an infinite amount of time in which to win this war. The madhouse is becoming increasingly mad. Now is the time for those who’ve been content to sit on the sidelines to become active. If not, then the war could be lost. And the mad will have won.
Andy Matthews

Christmas Crackers (2011)

The Halo Halo! Column from the December 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Yes, it’s December at last. The shops and high streets have been inflicting their Christmas spirit and other assorted Christmas crap on us for weeks now. There’s no escape from it, so let’s just get it over with. Welcome, then, to your jolly, festive, merry Marxian, Christmas issue of the Standard.

So what’s been happening out there on the ‘peace and goodwill to all men’ front? Well, unfortunately, the season of goodwill got off to a shaky start back in October when the hierarchy at St Paul’s Cathedral couldn’t decided what to do about the anti-capitalist protesters camped on their doorstep. It was a tricky situation because, as we all know, Jesus saves. (Assets managed by the Church Commissioner amounted to nearly £6 billion including stock market and other investments according to a www.propertycommunity.com report dated 10 November 2008) so it wouldn’t do to upset the bankers too much.

“What would Jesus do?” they asked each other. His reply is not recorded but within days there had been three senior clerical resignations and they decided that although they couldn’t ignore the protesters, perhaps after a few subtle hints and a flood of pious and suitably banal clichés they’d all go away.

A “loss of moral compass” and a “gap between peoples values and the way our country is run” were discovered. A “wake up call” and a “crisis of concern” were announced. And it was solemnly declared that “maximising shareholder value should no longer be the sole criterion” for screwing the workers. “Fairness and a sense of proportion” were required, and there was a “pressing need to reconnect the financial with the ethical”.

The next move was to appoint Ken Costa to head a new initiative to build links with the banking industry. Costa who has been a banker for 30 years and is the former chairman of an investment bank is now chairman of the Alpha International organisation that runs evangelical Christianity courses all over the country. He is also said to read his bible at breakfast every morning.

So, can we expect a miracle from Ken, the god-bothering banker? Don’t build your hopes up too much. He holds the view that “The New Testament’s way is the responsible enjoyment of all the good things that we’re given. And by responsible I mean the recognition of where the goodness comes from”. But unfortunately, no, that doesn’t mean he realises that all wealth is produced by the working class.

Good Christian men are not all rejoicing in other places this Yule-tide either. There’s one hell of a ding-dong going on merrily on high between Ireland and the Vatican. Following the row earlier this year over the Catholic Church’s handling of the sex abuse cases and accusations that the Vatican had encouraged secrecy, relations have plummeted even further. Catholic Ireland has closed its embassy to the Vatican. It was being closed said Dublin’s foreign ministry because “it yields no economic return”. Yes, even saving lost souls has to be economically viable.

The Vatican was said to be “extremely irritated” by the statement equating diplomatic missions with economic return. Particularly, it said, because the Vatican sees its diplomatic role as “promoting human values”. Presumably they don’t mean the kind of human values they demonstrated in the numerous Catholic priests’ sex abuse cases?
Nick White

Tiny Tips (2011)

The Tiny Tips column from the December 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Indian government has announced a drop in the number of poor people in the country by massaging the criteria used to measure poverty. By its reckoning, less than a dollar a day is enough to get by:

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China has accused European workers of being ‘slothful’ and ‘indolent’ after refusing to put any of its vast resources into rescuing the euro. The head of the Chinese state’s overseas investment arm said he would only help Europe if it reformed its ‘outdated’ labour laws and welfare systems. Jin Liqun, chairman of the board of supervisors of China Investment Corporation, said Europeans should stop ‘languishing on the beach’ and work harder it they want to drag the eurozone out of its downward spiral. And he said Europeans have become too reliant on state handouts and should stop looking to outside sources to tackle the debt crisis threatening the euro:

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In recent weeks, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has received a spate of applications from enterprising merchandisers, lawyers and others seeking to win exclusive commercial rights to such phrases as “We are the 99 percent,” ‘’Occupy” and “Occupy DC 2012.” Organizers of the protest centered in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park went so far as to file for a trademark of “Occupy Wall Street” after several other applications connected to the demonstrations were fi led with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Wylie Stecklow, a lawyer representing the protesters, said the Oct. 24 filing was done to prevent profiteering from a movement that many say is a protest of corporate greed:

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Since the abolition of serfdom and human trafficking more than 150 years ago, slavery is against the law in all countries on earth. And yet, according to the UK’s Anti Slavery International (ASI) there are still some 27 million people living in slavery, living at the mercy of landowners, earning virtually nothing:

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“In 1917, average income — including capital gains — among the top 0.1 percent was 127 times the average income of the bottom 90 percent,” Professor Hacker said. “Average income among the top 0.01 percent was 509 times as great. In 2007, average income among the top 0.1 percent was 220 times average income among the bottom 90 percent. Average income among the top 0.01 percent was 1,080 times as great.”

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The Occupy Wall Street movement has landed at Harvard University, where some 70 students walked out of an introductory economics class last week to protest what they saw as biased teachings. The students explained their walkout in an open letter to professor Greg Mankiw posted on the website of the Harvard Political Review. “Today, we are walking out of your class, Economics 101, in order to  express our discontent with the bias inherent in this introductory economics course,” they wrote. “We are deeply concerned about the way that this bias affects students, the University, and our greater  society.”

Oliver Letwin – Eccentric or Fake? (2011)

The Greasy Pole column from the December 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

There is more to West Dorset than the Jurassic Coastline. It is also a parliamentary constituency where, in the 2005 general election, they registered the highest turn-out in the United Kingdom. Effectively it is the Lib Dems who are now the opposition there – and this in a constituency which includes the tragic village of Tolpuddle. The Tory-comfortable loyalty of this corner of rural England is now represented by Oliver Letwin, consistently one of the party’s policy wonks, once Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Shadow Home Secretary, author of a doctoral thesis Ethics, Emotion and the Unity of the Self, but also the originator of some of the most spectacular blunders even among Honourable Members. He refuses to read newspapers because they tell him “nothing I need to know” – but what they tell us about him suggests there are other reasons for his calamitous record.

Liberals and Fabians
Even before he came into Parliament, Letwin was displaying symptoms of what we might politely call a characteristic confusion. At Cambridge he was active in the university Liberal Club and later explained how this fitted in with his career aim to become the Conservative leader: “I was also a member of the Fabian Society…this was because I was interested in the thoughts of Liberals and Fabians (and still am) rather than because I was a Liberal Democrat or a Fabian”. It is probably kindest to assume that the famously brainy Letwin resolved this contradiction with a typically clever evasion – joining a party opposed to both the others – which, incidentally, offered him the best chance of reaching the top in politics. His first attempts to become a parliamentary candidate were for two London seats. West Dorset in 1997 was much gentler and more secure, offering shelter from Tony Blair’s landslide. But then came the blunders. In 2001 he was credited (Gordon Brown went so far as to thank him) with helping Labour to stay in power by proposing, as Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, that a Tory government would reduce public expenditure to the tune of some £20 billion – a seriously unpopular suggestion. Many politicians would have responded to such pressure by simply bluffing it out, but Letwin chose to go underground, which provided yet more ammunition to his opponents, such as the Labour party member who dressed as Sherlock Holmes and, complete with bloodhound, pretended to sniff out the fugitive Shadow Minister.

Predators
Letwin’s stints as Shadow Home Secretary followed by the equally prestigious Shadow Chancellor, may have boosted his self-esteem to the point of seeing himself as a future party leader and then, after a little inter-reaction with the voters, Prime Minister. But it would also have made him vulnerable to the predatory tunnelling of his rivals. In 2003 he was leaked as saying that he would “rather go out on the streets and beg” than let his children go to an inner-city London comprehensive. In reply to the consequent storm of outrage the best he could do was to protest that the remark had been made in a private conversation – which failed to answer his critics and left untouched the central matter of Letwin’s acceptance that what is called education is, like all else in capitalism, class determined.

Schooled in these prejudices at Eton, Letwin is now a director of the Sherborne School for Girls, whose annual fees are as much as £26,700. A multimillionaire, he works for N.M.Rothschild, described as a finance house, where he “earns” £5020 for 35 hours work in a year – not enough to pay for a place at Sherborne but a useful sum to the parents of comprehensive kids. This secure lifestyle is in contrast to that of employees such as teachers and hospital staff, who were recently attacked by him for their supposed lack of application to their work. At a meeting at KPMG – another collection of financiers – he gave vent to what seemed to be a particular frustration to him: “You can’t,” he raved, “have room for innovation and the pressure for excellence without having some real discipline and some fear on the part of the providers that things may go wrong if they don’t live up to the aims that society as a whole is demanding of them”. However, he seemed to be ready to abandon his own guidelines for disciplining fear when in May 2005 he was moved from Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs at his request for a less demanding job to follow his career among the bankers and the hedge traders in the City. After the Tory win in May 2010 he got even more free time when Cameron appointed him to the new, vaguely titled job of Minister of State for Policy.

Sheffield
Despite his reassuringly avuncular exterior, Letwin can give voice to some pretty scabrous opinions on those he regards as his social inferiors. In April, in a clash with his fellow Old Etonian Boris Johnson over the expansion of airports, he sneered “We don’t want more people from Sheffield flying away on cheap holidays” – which united Johnson and several thousand others, including Sheffield Hallam MP Nick Clegg, in outrage. Undeterred, Letwin attracted further merciless exposure in the media when he was observed, while walking in a Westminster park, stuffing a lot of official correspondence into rubbish bins and giving some to a collector. His attempt to defuse the matter by explaining that “I…simply wanted to make sure the pieces of paper were not weighing me down” was less than helpful to him. It has been known for a politician who is in a tangle with the voters to try to divert attention from their confusion with a cloak of beguiling eccentricity. It is, however, unusual to be confronted by so blatant and unrepentant a practitioner as the Rt. Hon Oliver Letwin MP – one of the more extreme, exotic leaders to personify the system’s stagnant and wasteful character.
Ivan

Taking it easy (2011)

Book Review from the December 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

In Praise of Slow. By Carl Honoré. Orion Books.
How To Be Free. By Tom Hodgkinson. Penguin Books.

Honoré’s book is hard to pigeon-hole. Part self-help manual, part commentary, part investigation and part a downshifting guide book, it looks into some fundamental questions about how we in the West particularly live our modern lives.

So much of today is rushed, pushed on by rabid consumerism and overbearing industrial culture that we are in danger of losing ourselves, our perspectives and our direction as individuals as well as a species. The pace of modern living continually re-enforces the ‘speed is good’ culture, the work harder, work longer, live faster ethic. In this book Honoré looks at what drives this insanity and the growing rejection of it by ever larger numbers of people. Although mainly anecdotal and sometimes trivial even, the light style is easy to read. He investigates various ways in which individuals and groups are rejecting the constant work-earn-spend cycle and taking time to live a little, before going on to suggest ways in which you can adopt a slower lifestyle.

Reading this as a socialist, I found some of the arguments obvious and some a little woolly, but to be fair to the author I don’t think he set out to tear into the cause behind what he refers to as the ‘cult of speed’. We know that capitalism is the driving force that creates many, if not all, the problems referred to in the book. The solutions proposed and, indeed, being implemented by some groups clearly have merit, but are not available to all and never will be without wholesale revolutionary change.

However, the reasoning behind acting, thinking and generally taking life a bit slower is something we can all aspire to and provides a topic to engage people in discussing the shortfalls of modern life and how things can be better under a different system.

Hodgkinson’s first book, How To Be Idle was reviewed here last month.  I read his How To Be Free on the recommendation of a friend. It had inspired him to leave behind London for Sussex and adopt a ‘good-life’ complete with chickens. Must be some book I thought!

Hodgkinson’s writing style is very readable. Each chapter is a short guide to breaking free from the chains modern society binds us with. Railing against supermarkets, the nine-to-five culture, careerism, mass-production, and pensions, amongst others, with humour, literary references, quotes from songs and poems, fascinating historical anecdotes and large slices of real life, he explains how each of us can be ‘free’.

Although the book is written with some tongue in cheek, it does make for a great read and emphasises some salient points about the way we live under capitalism and how and why it could and should be much better. The ideas are rooted in doing something with your own life now as individuals rather than through any collective action, although conversely much is made of the advantages of being in a group.

Whilst much of the book gives good ideas and can sow the seeds of rebellion, most assume a position of some luxury to start with (I don’t think Hodgkinson has come from a council estate in Manchester). I enjoyed reading it and have even gone so far as trying out some of the ideas, but kept coming back to the fact that for most people taking up some of the suggestions would be very impractical. However, as a book that questions the ethos behind consumerism and urges the reader to take personal action to stop buying ‘stuff’, it is a great read.
David Humphries

Tariff Reform, Free Trade or No Trade? The fiscal fraud exposed (1910)

From the May 1910 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Why and the Wherefore
The increase in the number of working men rallying to the cry of Tariff Reform”, and the near prospect of another General Election during which that cry will be greatly heard, are the reasons that the “fiscal question” is again dealt with in these columns.

The enormous extent of unemployment and misery amongst the workers after a glorious 60 years of “Free Trade” provides “Tariff Reform” with a ready audience to receive its plausible policy.

Why is “Tariff Reform” advocated by various sections of the capitalist class?

The answer is found if we recall that “Free Trade” was adopted when Great Britain was the chief manufacturing nation of the world, but economic development has brought countries, then mainly agricultural, into competition with her for the world market. Certain sections of the capitalist class, therefore, are feeling the effect, and see in Tariff Reform, a policy for keeping their trade with the profits it brings.

To achieve this they are, by means of their “Tariff Reform League,” baiting for working-class support, by saying that Tariff Reform means the end of unemployment and poverty.

Great Britain, they say, is the only Free Trade country. Every other country has “Tariff Walls”. And they point to the conditions in these countries to show the effect of Tariff Reform. But if we examine the conditions in these other countries, we find the facts offer us little inducement to favour Tariff Reform.

Is Great Britain solitary in possessing a working class suffering from poverty and unemployment?

Look at Spain, Italy, Portugal, Russia, Austria – countries whose conditions compel the admission that the workers are no better placed than here.

What of France? Mr. Harry Marks, the Tory M.P. for Thanet, gave in the House of Commons (April 28th, 1909), some interesting details of French wages. Tailoring: the men average 4 francs (3s. 4d.) per day; homeworkers get. 1s. 3d. to 1s. 8d. for a day of 12 hours. Lace trade: men, 4 francs 75 cents (about 4s. 1d.) per day; women 2 francs (about 1s. 8d,) per day. Cardboard box trade: men 3s. 1d per day; women 1s. 3d. for a day of 12 hours.

The Fraud of Tariff Reform
When the Trade Boards Bill was before Parliament recently, Tariff Reformers declared that it was useless while goods made under sweating conditions abroad were imported into England, thereby naively showing the fraud of Tariff Reform claims.

But America and Germany are the “trump cards” of the Tariff Reformer.

Of American unemployment this may be said: The only States that officially collect and publish figures are New York and Massachusetts. This latter State, after official enquiry issued a return showing in March 1908, 16.18 per cent. and on December 31st, 1908, 10.98 per cent of trade unionists unemployed.

The Department of Labor of the State of New York reports in the September 1908 Bulletin 30.2 per cent, and in the September 1909 edition states that 17.5 per cent of the trade unionists reporting were unemployed. The New York correspondent of the Daily Telegraph reports in that paper (April 27th, 1908) that after very careful enquiries he put down the number of unemployed in the U.S.A. at 3 millions as a moderate estimate.

The same paper for January 21st 1909 states:
  “In New York this morning 3,000 men applied for work at clearing away snow, and as only 1,000 were needed, the applicants fought among themselves until the police reserves arrived.”
In the Land of the Millionaires
Mr. Sam Gompers, speaking for the American Federation of Labour at Washington, February 10th 1909, and basing his remarks upon branch reports, said: “I am sure it is not an exaggeration to say that there are now in this country and have been with very little variation since October 1907, nearly 2 million wage-earners unemployed.”

The Times (October 2nd, 1908) said: “Economic laws have tended to assert their sway until the total number of unemployed, entirely or in part, in the whole country, cannot be less than 3 to 4 millions.”

The conditions of life for the workers were recently illustrated by the struggle at the works of the Steel Trust at Pittsburgh and the tramworker’s strike in Philadelphia.

We will now quote from a book written by a prominent Tariff Reform journalist and politician (the Tariff Reform candidate at Leicester at the recent election) after personal investigation into the industrial life of America. (America at Work, 1903, by John Foster Fraser.)

Regarding poverty he says:
  “I went into some of the poorer districts. I have seen our slums in English towns, foul and loathsome, but never quite as bad as I saw in Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh slums are dreadful ; the houses wheezy, unsteady, filthy. In one street I saw a lake stretched half across the way of little else than sewage. The men were pale, worn, not well set up and they were all anxious faced.
  “Chicago has its poor and plenty of them.
  “Life is hard, many workmen go to the wall.
  “Mr. Davies, the chief factory inspector of  Illinois State said ‘I can take you to places where life is just a struggle, where if you gave a cent banana to a family of five it would be the greatest treat that they have had for weeks’. In the sweatshops the places were wretched, furniture was lacking, the finger of poverty was there.”
Wages in America
As to wages he points out that:
  “After working out calculations, based on the increased cost of living, I am convinced that the American shopworker is no better off financially than the English.
  “The ruck or the girls” (in departmental stores) “get badly paid, as low frequently as 10s. 6d. per week, and this in a city where living is twice as expensive as in London.
  “The average wage for all Chicago – poor women who get a penny for sewing trousers and managers of firms who get £20,000 a year – is about 38s. per week.
  “The skilled workman is not required. What is required is, firstly, the man who can devise fresh labour-saving machinery, secondly, the labourer who will do one little routine thing year after year, and do it expeditiously.
  “Wages can only be reckoned by their purchasing power. Therefore while the American workingman earns more than the Briton he has to work harder, and he has to pay more for the necessaries of life, in the case of rent about 3 times as much.
   “I find taking America as a whole, that on the last ten years, wages are on the decrease while the cost of food is on the increase.”
The reward of toil in after years is thus indicated:
  “It is a life of strained nerves. It explained many of the grey hairs I saw on boyish heads. It explained why I saw hardly any grey beards. Where are your elderly workmen? I asked a Philadelphia manufacturer, once, twice, three times. At the third time he said, ‘Have a smoke and we’ll take a car ride along to the cemetery.’
  “Practically every railway company refuse to engage a new man if he is over 35 years of age.
  “The British working man may think these conditions frightfully hard. So they are. If a man falls out of work say at the age of 38, his chances of getting work are practically gone.
  “The American working man is soon played out, that is why you seldom see an old man in big industrial concerns.
   “Employers, if trade unions are in their way, set about to smash them.
  “The American employer can often snap his fingers at his men because if there is any trouble others can be brought in.”
Bleeding the Children
Regarding child labour be says:
  “Of recent years the New England manufacturer has been hit hard by the great cotton industry — due to the introduction of Northern capital — which has sprung up in the South, in Georgia and in North and South Carolina. The labour  is cheap — men only get about 23s. a week of 66 or 70 hours. In some places there are no regulations as to the age of child workers, and little ones of 8 or 10 are to be found by the hundred in the Southern mills working these long hours for 5s. per week. Child labour is one of the blackest spots on American industrial life.
  “There are 40,000 boys employed about the anthracite mines, i.e., one in four of the total employees, and thousands or them are obviously under 14 and 12. The employer evades responsibility by getting an affidavit from the parents that the child has passed the legal age, and the parents, eager for an extra half dollar a week, lie readily. Children of 12 are to be found in a Pennsylvania mine, a cruel thing.
  “I had a long talk with Mr. Davies about the employment of children. He told me that there were lots of children under 12 working in Chicago. When I refused to believe him he took me to his office and brought out report after report of inspectors who had found children of 12 earning their poor 4 shillings a week amid the horrors of Chicago slaughterhouses. The law of Illinois State is that employers shall not knowingly employ children under 14. Some of the pork-packing firms repudiate responsibility by flaunting the signed declaration in Mr. Davies’ face. But Mr. Davies told me of the cases of boys obviously under the age of 14 that had been enquired into by the inspectors, quite 98 per cent. were found to be under age.”
The extracts that we have given above can be supplemented, but enough have been given. Before leaving the case of America it may be as well to state that unemployment in America is said by Tariff Reformers to be due to extensive immigration, but this claim recoils on those who make it, because the majority of the immigrants come from lands where Tariff Reform exists.

Germany is the pet illustration of the Tariff Reformer. We saw by means of the Berlin Sweating Exhibition in 1906, the terrible struggle for existence there. The official Income Tax returns of Prussia show that out of a population of 38 millions 21 millions have an income of less than 17s. 3d. per week per family.

Official returns state that there are 33 unemployed colonies in Germany. In December 1908 the Official Labour Gazette showed that the applicants for work at the Labour Bureaux were more than four to each vacancy.

The Daily Telegraph (17th Feb, ’09) states that the census taken by the “Free Trade Unions” showed 101,300 unemployed in Greater Berlin. This was done by a house-to-house visitation. This paper also points out that in November 1908 the Berlin municipality called upon the unemployed to report themselves on the 17th and they report that 40,000 did so.

The “protectionist” Morning Post (20th January, 1908) says:
  “The unemployed question can and undoubtedly must be discussed in part at least, without reference to fiscal policy, because it results in part at least, from causes unaffected by tariffs or their absence. Unemployment is found in the United Kingdom under Free Trade, and it has not been banished from other nations by their tariffs. Germany is the classic home of experiments for dealing with the unemployed – by labour colonies, labour registries, vagrancy laws and relief works. German official reports recognise a problem indistinguishable in character for those we are familiar with here”.
After this comparative survey a more scientific examination is necessary.

The same issue of the Morning Post says:
  “The universality of unemployment makes it necessary to look for its explanation not only to the differences but to the common features of the industrial systems of all countries.
  “In so far as unemployment is an incident of modern industry it is an incident of individualistic industry. Nor is there any difficulty in showing how individualism in industry leads necessarily to unemployment or the constant fear of unemployment. So long as the workman depends upon a private employer whose business fluctuates or may cease altogether, so long as competition exists to produce strenuous fits of over-production followed by stagnation, so long as whole trades may be revolutionised or destroyed by new inventions, — the constant possibility and the occasional realisation of unemployment must remain. If the solution of the unemployment problem means the guaranteeing of absolute continuity of employment to every man at all times at his own or something like his own trade, it does mean nothing less than the ending of industrial competition and the superseding of the private capitalist by a single universal employer.”
We are constantly told that “the one thing needful” for us is “more work,” to obtain which the commerce of the capitalist class must be increased. Thus trying to get the worker to identify his interests with his master’s. But unemployment by itself is not the plight of the worker. If unemployment was the real trouble then the capitalist class would fare badly. Though unemployed, they live sumptuously. This illustrates that the real trouble is the lack of the necessaries of life already produced by the workers but owned by the masters through their possession of the instruments of production, the workers being only allowed to use these on condition of parting with the wealth they produce. The ever increasing amount of wealth produced by the working class and the attempt of each employing unit to sell to as large a number of buyers as possible, alongside of the increasing insufficiency of the workers’ wages to enable them to buy back their product, causes industrial crises, which we see are the result of the workers having done too much work

It is also erroneous for the Tariff Reformer and Free Traders to claim that an increase of trade means more employment in that trade. Dozens of trades could be named where the output has increased although the number employed is less or the same as with a smaller output.

This is accomplished by means of wages-saving devices, more perfected machinery, the splitting up of processes and speeding up; also by the merging of several plants under one control, thus eliminating waste and duplication. The Daily Mail’s Special Commissioner into the “Problem of No Work”, said (6.10.08):
  “Constantly, too, I have had labor-saving machinery indicated to me as cause of much unemployment. . . Almost everywhere the tendency is to employ fewer hands and to require less technical ability. I heard an echo of this at Fulham. Local gasworks have been turning men off for some time past. Coke can now be broken and retorts can now be emptied by machinery. Men with 20 and 30 years’ reference from the Gas Co. have been applying to the Distress Committee for a few days’ digging or dirt shovelling. Anything that will give them a chance to earn something. It is the same with a very large number of men following trades connected with the Building”.
The policy of Free Trade and Tariff Reform both show their fallacy and they go to pieces in face of this fact, that no alteration of fiscal methods can prevent the use of the mightiest industrial weapon (the machine) that the capitalist has in rendering workers relatively superfluous, cheap, submissive, and in drawing into the vicious circle of modern factory life, the woman and the child. The very development of capitalism itself – whether tariffs exist or not – extends and intensifies this process.

Capitalist society, under Free Trade or Tariff Reform, cannot assure an existence to the makers of its wealth. The private ownership of the instruments, together with the results, of production, has shown that if social development is to proceed, Socialism must be instituted, i.e. a system of society wherein all those who labour shall jointly possess and use those things which are necessary to satisfy the wants of all.

Both Free Trade and Tariff Reform involve the sale by the worker and the purchase by the capitalist of value creating energy – the source of the wealth of capitalist society.

Economic development has made trade an anachronism, and the next step in social evolution, that is Socialism, means a system where trade “free” or “protected”, is rendered impossible by the fact of the common ownership of the means of wealth production.

Socialism therefore — a society wherein we have the free and equal association of the wealth producers, operating the means of production they commonly own, making everything for use and for use alone — is the next stage in social progress. Onward! Speed the day!
Adolph Kohn