Friday, October 11, 2019

Letter: In Search of Nebulous Reforms (1994)

Letter to the Editors from the October 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Editors,

I should like to draw your attention to — and perhaps spark some debate amongst your readers — what I see as a nihilistic attitude developing amongst some Socialists towards reformism.

An attitude appears to be developing that reforms don’t do any good, are irrelevant to the emergence of real socialism, and are therefore not worth bothering about.

This is obviously nonsense. Of course it's true that any reforms under capitalism are nebulous and could disappear at any moment — indeed in the last fifteen years many of the earlier gains have been eroded or diminished — but it's also true that in many areas, reforms over the last 100 years have alleviated distress and provided better working conditions for many. It is far too glib to suggest that these reforms have been granted to the working class by the ruling class in order to consolidate their own position and for no other reason. If it wasn’t for the work of the activists and reformers in the last 100 years, we would be living in a country not unlike South America in the seventies perhaps.

It's perfectly reasonable for someone like myself to support campaigns such as that against the Criminal Justice Bill whilst at the same time recognising that winning a victory in this battlefield is not an end in itself and that socialism is the only ultimate answer to our problems. I’m perfectly capable of holding both positions simultaneously and indeed using the struggle against the Criminal Justice Bill as a vehicle for the propagation of socialist ideas.

Indeed, it’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that some reforms such as free health care, education, housing and perhaps ultimately basic foodstuffs (now there would be a genuine common agricultural policy!) and clothing could be enough to give the average man-in-the-street a taste of what full socialism could be like in its entirety, and we might find ourselves flooded with enough supporters to build the common majority we need to bring about full socialism.

In short, my view is that we should stamp on this defeatist tendency to wash our hands of the real world, and start working to change it to a better one. Socialism won't come about by writing pamphlets and passing them amongst ourselves, it will come about through years of working-class struggle in every field and on every front.
Andy Stephenson, 
Newhaven, Sussex

Yes, socialism will only come about through years of working-class struggle in every field and on every front — but for socialism not for reforms of capitalism.

You are quite right too that it is obviously nonsense to suggest that reforms haven’t done any good. Of course some have. Health and safety at work legislation (now being watered down, by the way) would be an obvious case in point. But then we have never taken up the position that reforms do not, or cannot, improve things for workers under capitalism.

Our position is that it is not the purpose of a Socialist Party to advocate reforms. Its purpose is to advocate Socialism. That’s why we were set up and that’s why people join us.

Nor would we deny that as a matter of historical fact struggles by workers have got the ruling class to bring in reforms. But we would make three points here.

First, you underestimate the extent to which reforms which lead to a more healthy and better educated working class do benefit the capitalist class and that this has been an equally, if not more important, factor in their introduction.

Second, if workers had struggled for Socialism instead of for these reforms, they would still have got them — and probably more as the capitalist class made concessions to try to ward off their coming expropriation.

Third, there are other ways of improving things under capitalism than reform legislation: trade unions, tenants associations and like organisations in which workers organise themselves collectively to bring direct pressure to bear on those making decisions that affect their lives. We have always said workers should get involved in such organisations and our members, as workers, get involved in them themselves (and are just as capable as you of recognising that winning a victory in these struggles “is not an end in itself and that socialism is the only ultimate answer to our problems"). But as a party we don’t. We stick to our specific role of campaigning for Socialism.

Where we would take serious issue with you is when you claim that some reforms are relevant to the emergence of real socialism. We recognise that you are not putting the classic gradualist position that a series of reform measures can lead to Socialism step by step (free housing one year, free transport the next, free heating the year after, till in the end everything is free).

But you are suggesting that we should campaign for what might be called “socialist leaning" reforms. Quite apart from the fact that some of these reforms have been enacted (free education, free libraries, etc. exist while free transport has existed in some places) without having the effect on people's ideas you predict, if we were to campaign for them this would inevitably be to the detriment of our campaigning for Socialism.

And, as we pointed out earlier, if we do struggle for Socialism we'll probably get them anyway as a by-product of that struggle. That’s why it is saying that we should struggle for reforms that is defeatist, not the other way round. This is to concede that Socialism is not an urgent necessity, is not the immediate agenda. If you want Socialism, the quickest way to get it is to campaign for it directly. So, if you want Socialism, join the Socialists in that campaign.

#    #    #    #

If Paddy Small, of Glasgow, would let us know his address (not necessarily for publication) we will gladly consider his letter for publication. We regret we do not publish anonymous letters.

Voice From The Back: Taxing Your Incredulity (2012)

The  Voice From The Back column from the May 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

Taxing Your Incredulity
A study by HM Revenue and customs found that the extremely rich are using avoidance schemes to reduce their income tax rate to an average of 10 per cent – less than half the average level. The Chancellor personally studied the ‘anonymised’ copies of the tax returns submitted by some of the country’s wealthiest citizens which showed some people are able to avoid paying income tax entirely. “Mr Osborne told the Daily Telegraph: “I was shocked to see that some of the very wealthiest people in the country have organised their tax affairs, and to be fair it’s within the tax laws, so that they were regularly paying virtually no income tax. And I don’t think that’s right.” He said, “I’m talking about people right at the top. I’m talking about people with incomes of many millions of pounds a year” (Daily Telegraph, 10 April). For a Chancellor of the Exchequer to be “shocked” and state that he doesn’t “think that’s right” is indeed incredible. Millionaires protecting their property is the very basis of capitalism.

Land of the Free?
Politicians in the USA like to depict America as the epitome of freedom and democracy and sneer at the repressive measures of totalitarian states, but their boasts are ill-founded. “America which is known as the freest country in the world has incarcerated more of its citizens than the rest of the world combined. 7.1 million Americans are either in prison, on probation or under correctional supervision. The numbers continue to climb each year as more prisons are built nationwide” (CNN, 2 April).

Recession? What Recession?
We are supposed to be living in an economic depression but this does not affect large sections of the owning class. More than 200 real estate brokers and lawyers, filed into an Off Broadway theatre last month to discuss a real estate boom. “While the brokers sipped wine and nibbled cheese, a panel of lawyers and a banker reviewed some of the biggest sales made to Russians, including the $188 million spent on properties in Florida and New York by trusts linked to Dmitry Rybolovlev, who made billions from potash fertilizer; the $48 million that a composer, Igor Krutoy, paid for an apartment at the Plaza Hotel; and the $37 million spent by Andrei Vavilov, a former deputy finance minister, on a penthouse at the Time Warner Center. … Over the past four years Russians and other citizens of the former Soviet Union have signed contracts to buy more than $1 billion worth of residential real estate in the United States, according to estimates from lawyers and brokers” (New York Times, 3 April). As the number of billionaires in Russia and Ukraine has more than tripled since 2009, to 104, according to Forbes, it is far from a depression for them.

Poverty and Plenty
Much is made of India’s industrial and commercial progress, with daily reports in the media of the increasing wealth of its millionaires, but this being capitalism there is another side to the story. “In India 93 million people are estimated to be living in slums; fully half the population of the capital, New Delhi, lives in slums, while the figure could be as high as 60 per cent in glittering Mumbai” (Inter Press Service, 4 April). Amidst growing affluence we have a growth in poverty and slums – that is how capitalism works.

Squalor And Splendour
The awful poverty and downright squalor of the Chinese working class is amongst the worst in the world but the affluence of their owning class is equally obvious. “The Chinese economy is booming at a blistering pace. It is driven largely by the Fudai: the superrich who call the superpower home. Many are just in their forties. From building 30-storey towers in just 14 days, to amassing a luxury fleet of sports cars or a private jet – China’s million millionaires and 600 billionaires are helping to change the country’s landscape. And China’s mad rush to urbanisation is only helping these elites get richer and richer” (Al Jazeera, 10 April). That this country of billionaires and poverty can still claim to be communist is surely one of the world’s greatest travesties.

More Monkey Business (2012)

The Pathfinders Column from the May 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

More Monkey Business

Following our remarks of last December’s Pathfinders regarding the long-established link between status in a group and levels of stress, immunity levels and heart disease, a new study of macaque monkeys seems to have established in which direction the causal link travels (BBC Online, 10 April). There probably aren’t many people confidently predicting that monkeys with naturally poor immunity, bad hearts and high levels of stress would somehow as a result end up at the bottom of the social pecking order, but so far it hasn’t been possible strictly to rule this out. The new study however appears to do just that. It shows that while an examination of the activity level of immune genes gives a reliable estimate of an individual’s social level, a change in that individual’s social rank will spark off a change in the activity levels of the immune genes, more activity corresponding to higher status. The conclusion, in other words, is that ‘status drives immune health, rather than vice-versa.’

‘Though the findings might seem to suggest that low social rank, or a decrease in social rank, can lead to reduced immune health, the team said it was “encouraging” that the effects can be counteracted by a change in the social environment’. While this is quite easy with monkeys, by changing the order in which they are introduced into a group – later arrivals being lower status – the question of how to do this in human society is politically somewhat more complicated. Since capitalism is essentially a hierarchical pyramid in which roughly 99 percent of humans have relatively low status and therefore by implication poorer health, the conclusion for a socialist is easy. Pro-capitalist reformers will have a struggle to figure out a workable solution, however.

Not that socialism will be an instant panacea for all human ills. A separate study last year revealed that ‘Infant stress in monkeys has life-long consequences’ (BBC Online, 18 August, 2011). Baby rhesus monkeys who had been separated from their mothers at birth continued to show signs of anxiety, depression and anti-social behaviour even three years later, suggesting that early trauma caused irreversible changes in the brain. Similar effects have been found in humans, with childhood stress or maltreatment being linked to a raft of adult health conditions including mental health problems, aggression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia. ‘It appears that stress in childhood, for monkeys and humans, can lead to behavioural and health problems that can only be partially repaired in later life’, the article states. From a socialist point of view the conclusion to draw is that the early years of socialism will be a period of withdrawal symptoms and recovery, with some effects caused by capitalism continuing to be long-term.

Golden profits of the sun
At a cleared site near the town of Caderache in France stand concentric rings of gigantic blocks that look like a modern Carnac or Stonehenge. These blocks, so enormous they have to be constructed on site in a purpose-built factory, are in fact electro-magnets, designed to be cooled to within a few degrees of absolute zero. Suspended above some of the coldest things in the galaxy will be one of the hottest things in the universe, a plasma ring shaped like a doughnut, a new sun on Earth.

This is ITER, an experimental fusion reactor, likely to be one of the most expensive science projects in history and therefore a joint collaboration of all the great powers, whose siting has been a bone of contention for a decade and whose completion is still decades away. ITER is being built to answer two key questions: how to contain a sun when no known element can withstand the heat, and how to extract a net surplus over the energy required to fire it up. The holy grail of this experiment is relatively clean and abundant energy that can among other things solve water shortage problems with large-scale energy-hungry desalination, but which more to the point cannot be held hostage by foreign powers.

A recent book on future technologies (Abundancesee review on page 22) curiously doesn’t mention fusion at all in its section on energy. Much of the optimistic discussion revolves around collection processes (eg solar) and storage or conversion (eg batteries, hydrogen etc), but without ever considering the problems. Solar energy, for example, is of less use in northern countries and particularly questionable in an age which is debating whether to seed the stratosphere with sulphur in a bid to create global dimming in order to offset greenhouse warming. Solutions involving hydrogen as an energy vector or sodium as a battery component take no account of the cost of producing these hard-to-get elements. Of the methods of generating new energy, biomass is too land-hungry, wind and tide may have unforeseen effects on weather patterns, fossil is too dirty and fission too risky. Every solution brings new problems. Extracting shale gas deposits by hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ is currently causing concerns over polluting water tables, but somewhat worse is the recent discovery that it is destroying the very same underground shale fissures currently being earmarked for carbon capture and storage (New Scientist, 28 March).

Not that these are necessarily insurmountable obstacles. From a socialist perspective a judicious mix of small-scale energy production, collection and conversion systems may do very well, especially given the new parameters of an environmentally friendlier social system. But such DIY technologies may not necessarily be the most profitable solution for capitalism. Anybody can fit a few solar panels, run a compost generator or hoist a windmill, but it takes states and multinationals to build nuclear fusion plants. The power, for the ruling class, resides in being able to fence off what people need and supply it at a premium price, while depriving people of alternatives. Fusion potentially offers that chance for fat profits.

This raises a question for socialists. Often this column goes along with the straightforward assumption that what capitalism invents, leaving aside its obnoxious military research, socialism can usually find a use for. But would socialism really want or need to run hundreds of mini-suns, at a huge ongoing cost in maintenance and risk, to say nothing of the gamma-riddled waste which, though not comparable to fission, would still be considerable? Caderache is an attempt at a capitalist solution to a capitalist problem, but even if it succeeds, whether fusion technology would be considered necessary to socialism is not by any means a given, and will be one of the things socialists will have to think hard about.
Paddy Shannon

Letters: Barmy Lammy (2012)

Letters to the Editors from the May 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

Barmy Lammy

Dear Editors

In the March Greasy Pole – Baby David Speaks – Ivan wrote a witty and perceptive account about the August Riots and Tottenham’s MP David Lammy.

Lammy is a typical reformist Labour professional politician. It is bewildering that Lammy links the riotous behaviour to legal restraints on parents smacking children. It is quite obvious the anti-social behaviour by young people is caused by poverty and alienation endemic in the capitalist system (1 million 16 to 24 year olds unemployed also 50 percent of young black men are unemployed) and also harassment by the guardians of the state and private property, the police. I would like to add that as a Socialist I do not condemn the young people who ‘looted’ goods like Apple I-Phones and expensive trainers from shops last August. These are the branded goods/commodities that are fetishised in the capitalist consumer society and young people were only desiring the same commodities that the affluent can afford. Young people are surrounded daily by images of get rich quick, cutting corners, quasi- legal means of making money like in the banking sector and their “looting” is chicken feed compared to the financial looting/terrorism of the financial capitalist class.
Steve Clayton,
London SW8.

Sinking wages

Dear Editors

The crew members of the Titanic were employed by the ship and not by White Star Line. This meant their pay stopped when the ship sank. If they died and a next of kin had not been named on the ship’s articles (employment contract) any pay earned would be retained by White Star Line.

Fred Moore, 

Economic power?

Dear Editors

Thank you for the Lloyd George commentary in the March edition of Socialist Standard. It is certainly important to get our historical lessons straight. I had thought that the upheaval in Russia, and the subsequent rebellious state of the interventionist force of England, France and the United States, would have had some influence on Lloyd George’s attitude when he reputedly referred to the army as “disaffected”. Indeed, I had heard that there was even strong sympathy for the Bolsheviks and that some British troops declared themselves the “Yorkshire Soviet.” If this is true, it tends to demonstrate that at a time of extreme stress of the capitalist system state control of the engines of oppression can falter in their commitment to act as instruments of class rule. Perhaps this is what rattled your “windbag”. But he was as “innocent” of the power of industrial unionism as the union leaders were ignorant.

Aside from that, I found in my collection of dusty pamphlets a small item called Craft Unionism versus Industrial Unionism, by F.S. Budgen and L. Cotton. They wrote for the SLPGB, and in the1934 edition of their pamphlet they had some relevant commentary to offer in a chapter entitled “The Wage War of 1921 and the Triple Alliance Fiasco.” The thrust of their argument was that the reason the “Alliance” folded was precisely because the prevailing structure of unionism at the time was based upon archaic craft divisions that divided workers rather than uniting them. “Intrigue and treachery of the trade union leaders characterize ‘Black Friday’”, they wrote, but did not explain it. “By the masses it wields, and the political atmosphere it can create by setting them in motion, trade unionism is potentially capable of challenging capitalist rule in the workshops and the State, but it is entirely incapable of backing up that challenge with any effective action. All of their class instincts awakened by the approach of such a situation, the capitalists entrench themselves behind their ownership of the tools and their possession of State power; and trade unionism, having totally unfitted the working class to assume control of the productive machinery, and having rendered them morally and physically incapable of facing the power of the State, has only the choice between a forlorn hope or surrender at discretion. In their own interests the trade union leaders capitulated.”

Union-wise, things haven’t changed much but should.

Bernard Bortnick, 

The old pamphlet you dug out exaggerates the power of workers’ unions vis-à-vis the state. In the end, any government can, if it so chooses, see off any challenge to its authority by unions, whether these are organised on a craft or an industry basis. This is because they control the state machine and because workers can’t hold out for more than a few weeks. In this particular case the leaders of the unions in the Triple Alliance backed down because they realised this and because they did not want to overthrow the government. Neither did their members. The lessons to draw from this failure are (1) the imperative need to first gain control of political power before trying to change the basis of society from class to common ownership, and (2) the equally imperative need for the majority of workers to want to do this and to be organised politically as well as industrially – Editors.

Banking Demystified Again (2012)

The Cooking the Books column from the May 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

If we keep banging on in this column about banks only being able to lend money they have, it’s because the opposite view – that they can make loans out of thin air – is so widespread amongst critics of capitalism.

Here are two examples taken from leaflets posted on a wall near the Occupy camp at St. Paul’s. One called for “an end to creating money out of thin air on computer screens and charging interest on it.”  The other claimed that “Money” is created as borrower debt to banks. Most of today’s so-called ‘money’ is actually bank credit, just numbers in a bank account. “These numbers are created simply by borrowers promising to pay these numbers back to the bank!”

And here are two counter-examples. Last year The Times (21 November) reported on the situation in the Inner Mongolian city of Ordos in China:
  “Money made from the region’s huge coal reserves or land compensation has made many residents rich, people who, instinctively, have looked for ways to invest that money as real interest rates from bank savings have slipped into negative territory. By way of loan sharks and other methods of underground financing, that money has been churned back into property investment and more building.”
What you had there was people with money to lend and others who wanted to borrow money. Because the official banking system was unable to satisfy this, an ‘underground lending market’ developed. Even if those who acted as intermediaries between the lenders and the borrowers were shady individuals and gangs, they were acting as banks everywhere do: borrowing money at one rate of interest and lending it at a higher rate, making a profit out of the difference after their expenses had been settled.

If banking could create loans out of thin air you can be sure that the underground bankers of Ordos would have done this as, with no interest to pay the people lending them the money to re-lend, it would have been much more profitable. The only reason they didn’t was because they couldn’t. Nobody, whether above board or shady, acting as a bank can conjure up money to lend from nowhere. They have to have the money before they can make a loan.

The second example is that of the high-class pawnbroker Borro which last year proclaimed in an advertisement in the London Evening Standard (13 December):
  “Borro provides short-term loans from £1,000 to £1 million against valuables, including Jewellery, Luxury Watches, Fine Art & Antiques, Gold and Prestige Cars. Their service is discreet and flexible with no credit checks. Money can be provided within 24 hours.”
One of the claims of those who say that ‘money is debt’ is that money is created by a bank as a counterpart to the IOU signed by the borrower by simply keying in some numbers into a computer. But if banks can create money to lend simply on the basis of an IOU signed by the borrower, why can’t pawnbrokers? But they can’t. They must have the money first. The Times (28 December) revealed the source of the money Borro lends: “Loan funding has come from Kreos Capital, which also backs Wonga, the payday loans company whose high interest rates provoked controversy recently.”

Banks are no different in this respect. They, too, have to get “loan funding”, whether from those who deposit their savings with them or from what they themselves have borrowed on the money market or from their own resources.