Thursday, February 7, 2019

On Banning the National Front (1979)

Editorial from the January 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Socialist Party of Great Britain is wholeheartedly in favour of the fullest freedom of speech. This is because we hold that out of full and free discussion of today’s social problems only one valid conclusion can emerge: that Socialism alone will provide the framework within which they can be solved.

Full free speech means exactly what it says: any and every view should be allowed expression so that it can be examined and shown to be wrong. One of the more obnoxious views current these days is racialism, the idea that some human beings are inferior to others and ought to be treated as such.

Many well-meaning people, appalled at the growing support for the National Front and determined that a racialist party should never again be permitted to gain political power anywhere, have been prepared to listen sympathetically to those who call for the NF and its views to be banned. This is an understandable gut reaction but a little dispassionate reflection will show it to be wrong.

Would banning the NF lead to a diminution in racialist sentiments and ideas? Indeed, have the various Race Relations Acts banning the expression of racialist ideas in their cruder forms led to this? The anti-racialist legislation on the statute book has only led to racialists being more careful about the words they use. Ideas cannot be suppressed by legislation.

The real problem is why do certain sections of the working class hold racialist views and how can they be got to abandon them. It is fairly clear why certain workers entertain anti-black prejudices. Suffering from bad housing, poor hospital services, poor schools, etc., and having seen an immigration of black people into their areas they mistakenly link the two together to conclude that it is the coming of black immigrants that is the cause of their problems.

The various racialist Immigration Acts which have been passed by both Conservative and Labour governments to keep black people out have done much to give respectability to the view that immigration rather than capitalism is the cause of today’s social problems.

So workers with racialist ideas are workers who, in their search for an explanation of and solution to their problems, have reached a mistaken conclusion. How can they be convinced that they are wrong? If they can’t be convinced by legislation they can be convinced even less by the tactic of the Socialist Workers Party and others of insulting and even physically assaulting them. The only way is to try to demonstrate to them that their conclusions are wrong.

This is the approach the Socialist Party has always adopted and why, rather than physically fighting with the British Union of Fascists, the Union Movement or the NF, we have exposed their dangerous racialist nonsense before an audience of interested workers.

People who deny the validity of our tactic of combating racialism in calm, open argument are in effect denying that workers are capable of being convinced rationally of the error of racialism. Many of these people have been influenced by Lenin and his contemptuous claim that left to themselves the working class is capable of evolving only a trade union consciousness. They believe that the working class is only fit to be led, in one direction or another, by some minority or other, and so need protection from those who like the NF seek to “mislead” them.

The ultimate basis of all arguments for censorship (and the call for the NF to be prevented from expressing its views is a call for censorship) is such an assumption that people are too stupid or irresponsible or immature to make up their own minds and that some superior body must therefore decide for them. For the SWP and others this superior body is themselves—the self-appointed vanguard of the working class. If they ever came to power the application of this claim to decide what the working class shall and shall not hear would mean the end of free speech for workers just as it did in Lenin and Trotsky’s Russia.

Mere anti-racialist propaganda on its own, unlinked to propaganda for socialism, can’t be effective. It offers no solution to the problems and frustrations which drive some workers to embrace racialism. It leaves unchallenged the cause (capitalism) while trying to deal with the effect (racialism).

The only effective way to combat racialism, then, is to propagate socialism.

Extracting profits (2019)

The Cooking the Books column from the February 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘Tide has turned against capitalism, but socialism is a failed alternative’ read the headline of an article in the Times (4 December) by its economics editor Philip Aldrick. Of course socialism hasn’t failed as it’s never been tried; the examples he gave of Russia, China and Venezuela were state capitalism not socialism. But he also had something to say about Marx:
  ‘Marxists believe that their ideological father was right, that capitalism would destroy itself once growth was exhausted and profits could be accumulated only by appropriating the wages of labour.’
After bemoaning that an increasing number of workers had no stake in capitalism as they couldn’t afford to buy a house and to point out that inequality had increased since 2006, he went on:
  ‘For Marxists, there are other signs that their time is coming. At a global level, capital has been eating into labour’s share of the economic pie, proof that profits are being extracted from wages. According to McKinsey, incomes were flat or falling between 2005 and 2014 for two thirds of households in 25 countries.’
Aldrick seems to be accepting, as taught in economics textbooks, that both capitalists (called ‘entrepreneurs’) and workers contribute to the ‘economic pie’ and normally get their fair share, as profits and wages respectively, in accordance with their contribution. Things have gone wrong, according to him, as profits have begun to eat into the workers’ share, a view he attributes to Marx.

This implies that profits are not normally made by exploiting wage-labour. Marx’s view was that all profits arise from the surplus value produced by wage workers over and above what they are paid as wages. It does not come from reducing wages (even if this is a way of increasing profits). In fact profits are extracted from wage workers even if wages are rising.

For Marxian economics, wages are the price of what workers sell to their employer – their mental and physical energies, their working skills, what Marx called ‘labour power’. Like all prices this is determined by what it costs to reproduce, in this case the cost of what workers have to consume to restore the mental and physical energies used up in the course of their work. Normally they receive the full price but are still economically exploited as, while working for a capitalist employer, they produce more value than that of their wages and which is appropriated by their employer.

Marx was aware that some employers paid wages that were less than the value of their workers’ labour power, but this could not last as, if the workers couldn’t fully restore their labour power, then their health and so the quality of their work – and their employers’ profits – would suffer. Marx explained that this was the capitalist rationale behind the Factory Acts. Employers don’t have an interest in doing this and it is only done these days by small hole-in-the-corner capitalists employing the most unskilled labour. As Terry Woolmer, of the engineering employers’ federation, put it, ‘it has long been recognised that a healthy workforce is a more productive workforce’ (Times, 26 November).

Wages have stagnated or fallen over the past decade, not because employers have started to exploit workers (they do that all the time), but because that is what happens in a slump. The reduced demand for products means a reduced demand also for what workers have to sell, so, in accordance with the law of supply and demand, its price falls. If this helps turn the tide of workers’ opinion against capitalism, that’s all to the good.

On Your Way! (2019)

From the February 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

There can be few experiences worse than being evicted from your home, but this is a problem affecting more and more people. In 2017, according to Ministry of Justice figures, an average of 169 evictions a day took place in the UK, an increase of over half since 2010. This ignores those who move because they are threatened with eviction, or fear they may be, or cases where the eviction is illegal, so the figures understate the extent of the problem and how much it impacts on people’s lives.

The effects of course can be devastating. In 2013 a housing association tenant in London killed himself as a result of being evicted, while a study in Sweden found much higher levels of suicide among those evicted than the general population (New Statesman 28 March 2018). One woman, who had been evicted with her husband and two sons from a London house for the second time in two years, said, ‘With young children it is a nightmare. It is awful to live like this, where every year you’ve got to move. We’ve got boxes that we haven’t unpacked. Everything is so temporary’ (Guardian 18 August 2018). In such cases the children’s education is inevitably disrupted. Eviction can also have major implications for people’s physical and mental health and their prospects of finding and keeping a job. In the US, being evicted can show up on a person’s official record, which may make it harder for them to get public housing.

As for the reasons behind evictions, falling behind with the rent naturally plays a large part. The introduction of Universal Credit has created problems for many tenants, with initial payments being delayed, and many landlords now refuse to accept tenants who receive any kind of housing benefit. But a surprising number of evictions are of the no-fault type: under section 21 of the 1988 Housing Act a landlord can evict a tenant who has paid their rent on time and has not damaged the property in any way. An Assured Shorthold Tenancy can be brought to an end because the landlord wants to sell the property, divide it into more flats or bedsits, or ‘improve’ it in some way. Such no-fault evictions have more than doubled since 2009, and there were over ten thousand last year.

The government’s response to such developments is to say that the reasons for evictions are complex, and cannot simply be ascribed to problems with Universal Credit. Of course, that does not stop politicians offering simplistic arguments, such as the claim by James Brokenshire, the housing secretary, that the big increase in rough sleeping was partly due to the spread of psychoactive drugs such as spice (Guardian 18 December). Now, probably most evictions have a fairly complicated story behind them. Even a no-fault eviction will have some tale about why the landlord wants to get rid of existing tenants, and other evictions may involve such matters as illness, unemployment, the break-up of a relationship, problems with claiming benefits, and so on. There may well be a vicious circle of poverty, eviction, unemployment, poverty.

But that does not mean that there are no underlying causes behind evictions – and behind homelessness and poor housing in general – and it is not hard to see what these are. Housing is provided, not to meet human need, but to make a profit for the landlord, house-builder or whoever. Many people simply cannot afford the rent, let alone the mortgage, for a decent home, and the number of ‘affordable homes’ is nowhere near the amount needed.

There are various ways in which the insecurity of workers under capitalism makes itself felt, such as fear of unemployment, a wage cut or a reduction in working hours. Fear of having your home repossessed is another example of how the profit system makes so many lives a misery.
Paul Bennett