Thursday, December 19, 2019

Rear View: ‘A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism.’ (2019)

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

‘A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism.’

This is the famous opening sentence of The Manifesto of the Communist Party by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. The original Manifesto of 1848 listed some progressive reforms, but ceased advocating them by 1872. The measures – ranging from nationalisation to a heavy progressive or graduated income tax – may have had merit in 1848 but not today. Indeed, Marx and Engels in their joint preface to the 1872 edition stated: ‘No special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of Section II. That passage would, in many respects, be differently worded today.’ Yet this does not stop our opponents, particularly on the Right, from resurrecting ideas, long dead and buried, to besmirch socialism/communism. The Mises Institute, for example, has used them to suggest that socialism is to blame for the suffering of our class in state capitalist Venezuela. More recently, in an article titled ‘How the Presidential candidates rehash failed communist ideas’ (thedailybell.com, 15 October), Joe Jarvis writes ‘Marx would fit right in running for President amongst the current crowded field of “democratic socialists” clamoring to one-up each other with the most communist platform. For instance, Bernie Sanders’ platform includes a top estate tax–aka inheritance or death tax–of 77%.’ Later, for good measure, he adds the failings of Bolsheviks and state capitalist China to the mix. Pure nonsense of course because, as Rosa Luxemburg said succinctly, ‘without the conscious will and action of the majority of the proletariat, there can be no Socialism.’


‘Social democracy is nothing but a stinking corpse’

This is Rosa Luxemburg again, in a speech to the founding conference of the KPD (German Communist Party). This, like Marx and Engel’s spectre, was rather premature. Even Jarvis in his article notes: ‘This list included things like free public education, a progressive income tax, and a state-owned central banking monopoly. That’s all been accomplished of course.’ Socialists acknowledge that certain reforms won by our class have helped to improve general living and working conditions. Examples are to be found in fields such as education, housing, child employment, work conditions and social security. However, such ‘successes’ have in reality done little more than keep workers and their families functioning as the fundamental relationship between worker and capitalist remains unchanged. ‘Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him’ (Karl Marx, Capital, Chapter 10, The Working Day). The reforms which today’s Social Democrats and others pursue will not end war (‘Americans want an end to forever wars. But that’s not what Trump offers’ (theguardian.com, 18 October) and poverty (‘Essex lorry deaths: All 39 migrants found dead were Vietnamese nationals, police say’, mirror.co.uk, 1 November).


Gravediggers unite!

The Communist Manifesto: ‘What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own gravediggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.’ Don’t despair! One Dr. Rogers, researching into early societies, was once quoted in the Guardian (17 December, 1980) as saying: ‘I do not think aggression is innate. I think aggression is something that man learns. Aggression comes as soon as you get possessions’. More recently (29 October, 2017) in the same paper there is a fascinating report on the Ju/’hoansi people of the Kalahari. ‘They have always been fiercely egalitarian. They hate inequality or showing off, and shun formal leadership institutions. It’s what made them part of the most successful, sustainable civilisation in human history.‘ ‘The internet was brought about by widespread voluntary cooperation, open standards and freely-produced software. Capitalism only made it unbearable and unusable with pop-up ads, overlay ads, full-page ads, pre-video ads, autoplay videos, firewalls, data regulations and malware’ (@OfficialSPGB, 31 October). We also agree with author Arundhati Roy that ‘Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s minds and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead’ (socialist-courier.blogsot.com, 2 November).


Learning from the dead

Socialism, as originally expressed by the followers of Robert Owen, appeared for the first time in their Co-operative Magazine of November 1827 and meant common ownership (not nationalisation or state capitalism). Later, in 1875, at the first meeting of the German Social Democratic Party, Eduard Bernstein and others claimed that capitalism could be reformed to meet working class interests. By championing gradual, ethically-inspired reforms they rejected socialism’s revolutionary and materialist foundations and paved the way for the likes of the UK Labour Party.


Neo-Liberalism: Old Religion Repackaged (2019)

From the December 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

It’s not neo-liberalism that’s to blame – it’s capitalism

In Marx’s day the doctrine that the government should not interfere in the operation of the capitalist economy was known as ‘Manchesterism’ after the city in the north of England where capitalist industry was then most developed and whose capitalists wanted to be free to pursue profits as they thought fit.

Its advocates preached ‘free trade’ (the abolition of tariffs on imported goods and bounties on exported goods) and letting market forces operate freely. They even opposed laws against adulteration and to limit the hours of work of those they employed. Also known as ‘economic liberalism’, it had roots in the eighteenth century in French manufacturers and merchants who told the royal bureaucracy to leave them alone and let them get on with their business (‘laissez faire’) and in Adam Smith’s curious theory that behind market forces was some ‘invisible hand’ ensuring that these operated for the common good.

However, a practical problem soon arose over industries and services which all capitalist businesses had to make use of, such as transport (roads, canals, railways) and communications (post, telegraph). Capitalists did not want these to be in the hands of any one group of their number who would thereby be in a position to hold the rest of them to ransom and charge monopoly prices. This was why in Britain, as early as 1844, a Railways Act contained a clause providing, if need be, for state ownership, so-called ‘nationalisation.’ In Europe railways had been in the hands of the state almost from the beginning because of their strategic importance for transporting troops in times of war. In the event Britain settled for price regulation by the government, which was also a violation of laissez faire.

Economic liberalism never caught on in its entirety outside Britain as ‘free trade’ was seen, not without justification, by rival capitalists in other countries as a means of giving British capitalists a competitive advantage. They demanded that their governments ‘protect’ them from such competition through tariffs on imported British goods. Beyond that, however, they embraced the doctrine that governments should not interfere with their pursuit of profits.

Enter Keynes
Between the two world wars of the last century even Britain abandoned free trade and the gold standard. An era of government-created fiat money opened up, in which governments had to pursue an interventionist policy to manage their currency. With the financial crash of 1929 and the big slump in production that followed, governments also came under pressure to intervene in the capitalist economy to try to get it expanding again. ‘Public works’ programmes were initiated, such as Roosevelt’s New Deal in the USA and Hitler’s rearmament in Germany. In his 1936 General Theory of Employment, Interest and Income the British economist John Maynard Keynes provided a theoretical justification for such ad-hoc schemes. He argued that left to itself – laissez faire – capitalism would not necessarily recover from a slump of its own accord, as economists had preached till then, but that government intervention, in the form of a tax policy to stimulate demand was required. In the event of a boom, this could be prevented from ending in a slump, as booms had previously always done, by the government pursing the opposite policy of using taxes to discourage consumption. Thanks to government intervention, steady capitalist expansion could be engineered.

Naturally this theory, especially stimulating demand in a slump by redistributing purchasing power from the rich to the non-rich, was acclaimed by reformists as a justification for the reforms they already favoured. Those that had still regarded themselves as in the Marxist tradition abandoned Marx for Keynes.

Keynesianism was not consciously pursued as a government policy till the beginning of the Second World War. When that war was not followed by a slump, as the end of the First World War had been, but by a 25-year period of capitalist expansion with only minor ‘recessions,’ many open supporters of capitalism hailed Keynes for having saved capitalism.

But this was an illusion. Put to the test when the post-war boom came to an end in the 1970s, Keynesian policies resulted in what was called ‘stagflation’ – a rise in the general price level while the economy remained stagnant. The post-war boom had been caused by other factors such as reconstruction and the spontaneous expansion of internal and world markets.

Exit Keynes
The end of the post-war boom led to what was called a ‘fiscal crisis of the capitalist state’. Governments depend for what they spend on levying taxes, which ultimately fall on capitalist profits, and on borrowing money from those who have it. With less profit being made, there was less to tax and less to borrow. Government had no alternative but to cut their spending rather than increasing it as Keynes had advocated they should do to get out of a slump. Another economic theory was required to replace Keynesianism and justify this.

The new theory, popularised by the American economist Milton Friedman, called itself ‘monetarism’ as it advocated a tight monetary policy, i.e. cutting government spending, and letting market forces revive the capitalist economy by restoring profitability of its own accord as asset prices and real wages fell. This was not really a new theory but a revival of pre-Keynesian economic liberalism.

There is some justification, then, for calling this replacement policy ‘neo-liberalism.’ What is not justified is seeing its application as a free choice on the part the part of governments. It was something imposed on them by the workings of the capitalist economy, given the situation it was in. Governments had no choice but to apply it. In other words, capitalism was the cause, with neo-liberalism merely the political and ideological justification.

What the capitalist conditions imposed was that governments should cut their spending or, rather, cut taxing profits with the result that they had less to spend. With less to spend, ‘austerity’ was the order of the day in all countries irrespective of the political colour of their government. It was not just Reagan and Thatcher in the USA and Britain but also Mitterrand in France. Public services were cut back. ‘Welfare’ and ‘benefits’ were slashed, especially for those who for one reason or another were not able to find a job. Since the economists preached that there was a so-called ‘natural rate of unemployment,’ which could be as high as 6 percent, millions of already poor people had their standard of living reduced even further. Other reforms enacted during the post-war boom were whittled away or rolled back.

To reduce their borrowing, governments sold off state assets to private capitalist firms, who were granted the right to make profits from them in return for themselves raising the capital to finance them.

As a policy of trying to ensure steady sustained capitalist development, neo-liberalism has been just as much a failure as Keynesianism was, as spectacularly shown by the Crash of 2008 and the Great Recession that followed. What this showed is that, no matter what policy governments adopt, capitalism goes relentlessly on its way, repeatedly going through the boom/slump cycle that it has done since the 1820s. The fact is that governments do not – cannot – control the way the capitalist economy works. It is the other way round. It is the operation of capitalism that constrains what governments do; all they can do is little more than react to what capitalism throws at them. There is a sense in which they do have a choice. They could choose to try to defy what capitalism’s economic forces dictate but, if they do, they will make matters worse. As Marx pointed out with regard to banking legislation, while governments cannot make things better, they can make things worse:
  ‘Ignorant and confused banking laws, such as those of 1844-5, may intensify the monetary crisis. But no bank legislation can abolish crises themselves’ (Capital, Volume 3, Chapter 30, Penguin Books edition, p. 621).
This warning is apt because left-wing populists are calling for neo-liberalism to be replaced by government intervention to spend money to end austerity and get capitalism expanding again – a revival of Keynes’s discredited idea that could be called ‘neo-Keynesianism.’ As Marxists know, both from the past experience of such attempts and from a knowledge of how capitalism works, this is doomed to fail and would make things worse.

It is not neo-liberalism that is the problem, but capitalism. It is not a change of policy that is required, but a change of socio-economic system.
Adam Buick

Pathfinders: Getting Out Of The Fast Lane (2019)

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

If you’re a driver, you probably know that it’s a bad idea to put Meatloaf’s Bat Out Of Hell on your car stereo when driving down the motorway. Before you know it, you will be ramming pedal to the metal in the fast lane with a crazed ‘death or glory’ look on your face, earning yourself a speeding ticket at best and a funeral at worst.

You will often have asked yourself why they bother to make cars that can do 120mph when there’s nowhere apart from racetracks or the German autobahn that you’re allowed to drive at that speed. Because speed is a selling point, even if you can’t use it. We take it for granted that speed is good, and that the need for speed is limitless. The UK government is spending around £90-100bn on a new high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham because the old Victorian coastal lines are so winding and serpentine that they seriously limit the speed of even the modern tilting Pendolino trains. A century of urban development and infrastructure is built around these lines so straightening them out would involve demolishing and rebuilding half the country, and thus unthinkable.

But why does anyone need to get to Birmingham so fast anyway? So we can have 200-mile commutes in 90 minutes? So Birmingham can become a dormitory province of North London? The government claims it’s to regenerate the North, but the BBC barely ever mentions the North and most politicians probably don’t even know where it is.

But never mind all that. The rail link is fast, and everyone knows fast is good.

Just like Just In Time delivery. Who wants to pay for expensive warehousing space when you can order tomorrow’s supplies at close of business today and get it hefted up the motorway overnight for delivery at 9am? Magic capitalist solution! Who cares about the petrol costs, the customer will pay those. Environmental costs? Bugger them, they’re just externalities we don’t need to worry about. JIT is the key to online shopping success too. But what about all that new inner-city congestion and traffic fumes from all those fleets of competing delivery vans all parking illegally because minimum-wage drivers have to do 80 deliveries a day and don’t have time to find proper parking spaces? Not to worry, that’s just their choice to work in the gig economy, and it looks great for the government’s employment figures too.

And then there’s Just Eat. Who wants to go to the tedious labour of cooking one’s own food, or even going out of the house to get a takeaway, when you can get someone to drive it right to your door? Environmental/social objections? Nonsense, see above.

Speed is good, it created the modern world. And what can we do with the time we save? Work harder, buy faster, die quicker, and make the rich richer!

But wait, let’s all take a chill pill and consider this idea. What if socialism was all about slow? Once we’ve abolished the anarchic casino of the market system, which periodically lurches from slump into boom and then into slump again, we can have a sensible, steady-state economy. Without capitalism’s endless speculator frenzy there’s no reason for demand to go up and down like a demented yo-yo, so production can be smooth, sustainable, predictable and largely automated.

So where’s the rush? Speed is just stress. Speed is unnecessary accidents. Speed is not looking at anything as you pass by, not appreciating what is around you. All the really good things in life are better if you take time over them, so why not life itself?

With predictable production comes predictable supply. There’s no need to rush things up the motorway by juggernaut at the last minute. An expanded rail service would make better sense, or even, dare we suggest such a steampunk notion, a rebuilt canal system? It doesn’t matter if materials only move at 6 miles an hour if they arrive at the factory every day, as they did in the eighteenth century when the UK’s canals, laid end to end, would have spanned the Atlantic to America.

If you don’t mind contemplating slow, you can easily think of other slow examples. As with everything else in socialism, transport and travelling would be free. But does it have to be fast? Why hurry, why not just take your time and enjoy the sights? Don’t laugh, but many companies right now are working on new safety technologies for airships, which don’t use dangerous hydrogen but perfectly-safe helium (‘How airships could return to our crowded skies’, BBC, 8 November). There are many advantages to airships over jet planes, notably safety, fuel economy and heavy freight haulage. And even though they’re slow, they’ll still outrun a Maserati in top gear, believe it or not. If capitalism is contemplating bringing back this 1930s technology, it’s not at all preposterous for socialists to consider it too.

In socialism you won’t want, or have to, zoom up the motorway or HS2 link for 200 miles to get to work. As work will be voluntary anyway, you’ll find something you can do in your local area, within comfortable walking distance, or work online. If you can’t, you can move somewhere else without the worry of rents, mortgages or desirable catchment areas for your kids. You probably won’t need to cook very often because it makes no sense to waste collective time and resources cooking separately when you could take turns cooking together in free community kitchens.

Life is meant to be enjoyed, not endured, and that is best done slowly and at leisure. The only need for speed that socialism has is right now, in capitalism, which we urgently need to kill off before it finally spins out of the fast lane and kills us all in the burning wreckage of the planet.
Paddy Shannon


‘You’ve Had It, Ain’t Ya?’ (2019)

The Proper Gander column from the December 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard
‘You’ve Had It, Ain’t Ya?’
So said a bloke in a flat cap when asked by a 1980s film crew about what preparations could and should be made for nuclear war. It’s hard now to empathise with the grim expectation that the bomb would drop which coloured life through the Cold War; even current worries about climate change don’t carry the same dread, somehow. The mood of the time was conveyed well in BBC4’s recent Arena documentary A British Guide To The End Of The World, which also brought home how those with their finger on the button felt about the rest of us.

The programme covers two aspects of the possibility of nuclear war: the provisions for ‘civil defence’ in Britain from the 1950s onwards, bookended by footage of soldiers who took part in nuclear bomb tests. The documentary is made from archive film and narration from the soldiers and civil defence staff, including excerpts from earlier programmes, such as a 1980 edition of Panorama called If The Bomb Drops.

In 1957, groups of British soldiers went on a four-week cruise across the Pacific Ocean to the tropical paradise of Christmas Island. The soldiers made the most of free time spent swimming among the fish around the beautiful reefs, while above them soared flocks of guillemots and gannets. ‘It was everything you could have dreamed of, but nobody knew anything at all about why we were there’. Between exploring the island and partying, the soldiers worked on building a runway and hangars. When they learned they were there to test nuclear weapons, they were told they weren’t in any danger, even though the scientists and senior staff had been issued protective clothing and the indigenous people had been shipped out. The soldiers sat on the ground and waited, while loudspeakers played upbeat music. The bombs, a thousand times stronger than those used on Japan, were dropped from planes and exploded as few as 23 miles away from the camp. ‘The flash seems to come through the back of your head. You could see the bones in your fingers through your closed eyes, bearing in mind the light was not in front of you, it was behind you’. They were then ordered to watch the explosion, ‘like the creation of another sun’, an ‘angry, evil-looking thing’. The loudspeaker voice ordered them to find cover for when the ‘pressure wave’ blasted across the island. The bomb had sucked the sea up into the sky, which then fell down as blackened rain. Flocks of birds were also caught in the blast, and hundreds of burning guillemots and gannets landed around the island. Later, the soldiers were sent to collect the bodies, which had formed a ‘floating crust’ washed up on the beach. The soldiers didn’t talk about what they had experienced: ‘it happened, and that was that’. The film ends by detailing the longer-term effects on the soldiers, such as cancer and infertility. One man thinks that not being able to have children might be for the best, as other veterans’ sons and daughters had health problems linked to radiation poisoning. Unearthed documents show that the soldiers, and their children, were being used as part of an experiment to see what effects the bomb would have on people.

So it was with this information that governments through the Cold War years made preparations for how Britain would cope with a nuclear attack, although ‘preparations’ is probably an overstatement. At the time, it was widely accepted that the recommendations of how we could ‘protect and survive’ would be woefully inadequate.

Any advance notice of nuclear war would have come through hundreds of smallish boxes distributed to community hubs around the country. These early warning systems would make constant bleeping noises, which would stop when the bombs were on their way. The one in the pub in Monyash, Derbyshire, was often switched off as the bleeps soon became annoying. And as the village didn’t have a siren, the pub’s landlord would instead give the four-minute warning by cycling through the village shouting ‘the Russians are coming’. A man in a parka was designated to be responsible for law and order in a post-apocalyptic Monyash, meaning that he would get a few lads together to see off any radioactive refugees from elsewhere. How to deal with people ‘wandering around’ was also tackled by the civil servants shown acting out attack scenarios. ‘They’re going to die anyway, so what’s the point of bringing them under cover?’ says one of them, nonchalantly. These practice scenarios were played out in secret underground local government shelters, which in a war would co-ordinate reports from other monitoring stations. These bunkers were luxurious compared with the shelters recommended for the rest of us: under a table or a lean-to made from doors, shielded by bags of clothes and boxes of books, or in a shored-up trench in the garden. Anyone with several thousand pounds to spare could splash out on a swankier underground shelter, complete with hand-cranked air filter, although if the bomb dropped, would this just be a more upmarket coffin?

As the documentary shows, any provisions which might have looked good on paper would likely have had ridiculously little practical worth in a nuclear holocaust. One of the civil servants featured says that the plans were largely just to persuade people that what they were doing was a worthwhile exercise. The risks and dire consequences of nuclear weapons were downplayed by the authorities, both to the soldiers on Christmas Island and the people who would have to rely on makeshift shelters and local militias. The civil defence plans and the soldiers’ stories have in common a contempt for those lower down the social ladder from the government and senior military. Behind the threat of nuclear war, the class war was the real conflict taking place.
Mike Foster

Credit and Control in China (2019)

From the December 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

One consequence of new technology has been a vast increase in the extent of surveillance of people, whether by the state or private companies. CCTV, facial recognition, tracking the use of debit and credit cards, having access to phone records, cookies and other ways of recording a person’s use of social networks and the rest of the internet: all this shows how much information (often using big data and processed by artificial intelligence) is held about people. The ways in which this information can be used vary enormously, but nearly all relate to controlling behaviour or influencing opinions or making profits. The term ‘surveillance capitalism’ has been used by some to describe the way people are observed and tracked.

Hardly anywhere, though, is the extent of information and the degree of control greater than in China, where the ‘social credit’ system is widely used. In a sense this is rather like the idea of credit scores in the UK and elsewhere, which provide a numerical statement of how likely a person is to repay money they owe. If you have a low score, you will probably find it difficult to borrow money, take out a credit card or have a mortgage; and even if you are able to do these things, you are likely to be charged a higher interest rate. Providing credit scores has become an industry in its own right.

Part of what happens in China is rather similar, with people being given a social credit score by various private companies. There are also some local government schemes which rely on ‘good deeds’ such as donating to charity or giving blood and on bad ones such as going through a red light, and increase or reduce your score as a result. But there are also much grander plans for a system run at national and governmental level, though this is not planned to come into existence until some time in 2020, and it is not even clear if that deadline will be met. A Chinese State Council document from 2014 described the social credit system as ‘an important component of the Socialist market economic system and the social governance system … its reward and punishment mechanisms are incentivizing trustworthiness and restricting untrustworthiness’. Despite what is sometimes claimed, though, social credit is not as yet an all-pervasive system that intrudes into everyone’s daily life to snoop on what they’ve been up to.

People can be blacklisted in a number of ways. For instance, the journalist Liu Hu writes about censorship and government corruption. Apart from being fined, he was banned from flying and using some train lines, without being informed in advance. A similar ban on travel by plane or train affects several million people. It is possible to pay the fine or whatever the court demands in such cases, and so theoretically be removed from any blacklist, but this does not always happen in practice, especially as there is little supervision of the Chinese legal system.

Various kinds of infraction, many of them pretty trivial, are covered, such as smoking in a no-smoking part of a train, spending too much time playing video games, posting fake news, quarrelling with neighbours or walking your dog without a lead. In contrast, being a ‘good citizen’ can earn you discounts on energy bills and even boost your profile on a dating site. The supposed intention is to combat corruption and fraud, but of course what is done goes well beyond anything that could be relevant to that. For instance, people’s mobile phone usage is closely tracked. And there are supposedly 200 million surveillance cameras in China, which can snoop on people’s activities.

The system is part of a much wider move towards greater repression, such as those against Uighurs in Xinjiang, Tibetans and the protests in Hong Kong. Xi Jinping has removed limits on the terms of office of the president, so could in theory remain in charge for life. Human Rights Watch has recently referred to ‘increasing repression under Xi’s rule’, including the jailing of journalists, academics, religious teachers, protestors against sexual harassment and others. In addition to keeping tabs on individuals, there are also mechanisms for tracking what companies do, supposedly to cut down on fraud and ensure compliance with the law. Overseas companies operating in China may have to conform to even more governmental requirements too.

Overall, and however much it is fully implemented in the future, the social credit system is designed to keep Chinese workers on the straight and narrow, penalising anyone who steps out of line. Any resistance to the rule of the ‘Communist’ Party and the ruling capitalist class will be one of many actions that lead to being penalised in one way or another.
Paul Bennett

How the Few Govern the Many (2019)

From the December 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

The time of street revolutions is over. Socialism’s future lies in class-conscious workers expressing themselves through collective action and the ballot. How, then, has the ruling class been able to prevent the working class up to now from achieving this goal? There are two obvious possible answers. The first is to skew the vote against the workers, privileging the elite. The second is to entice the workers into voting against their class interests.

The first was suggested by the radical liberal John Stuart Mill, who suggested in his Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform (1859) that ‘every person should have one vote, but that every well-educated person in the community should have more than one, on a scale corresponding as far as practicable to their amount of education’ . The second was put succinctly by David Hume :
  ‘Nothing appears more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is, therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.’ (First Principles of Government)
Both stalwart classical liberals had , then, a deep scepticism when it came to democracy, and sought ways to restrict it.

More recently Jan Fleischhauer wrote in the Guardian (9 April) that: ‘Democracy is overrated anyway. The truth is, it only works reasonably well if the number of voters who have no idea (or perhaps worse: are convinced they do) are not too big on the day.’ We ask ourselves: how might people have an idea? Surely, the answer is the media, reporting on the facts and showing how to criticise the government, along the lines of Jeremy Browne, the then Foreign Office Minister, set out during a speech in April 2011 in Hanoi : ‘In democracies, the media is fundamental to political life. It provides facts to allow us to be better informed about the issues that matter to us. It provides criticism and debate to ensure that that information is tested and examined from all points of view. And it provides investigation and examination to ensure that power is checked and decision-makers are held accountable’ (www.gov.uk/government/news/role-of-media-in-society). Let us, perhaps without justification, take this as true. Why does the situation outlined by Fleischhauer arise then? The answer is clear – the media does not do what it claims to.

Least trusted
In fact, the British press is the least trusted in Europe, according to a 2017 survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre. The British Social Attitudes Survey found in 2014 that a majority did not think the media provided them with adequate tools to criticise the government. This majority has most likely increased in the last five years.

In 2017, BSA found that two-thirds of the population think there is ‘quite a lot of poverty’ in Britain, and 78 percent said that the gap between high earners and low earners is too large. This is strikingly different to what the previous chancellor, Philip Hammond, said on BBC’s Newsnight on 3 June when he rejected ‘the idea that there are vast numbers of people living in poverty in this country.’ He claimed that the suggestion was ‘a nonsense’, and his reasoning for such a bold claim was ‘Look around you, that is not what we see in this country.’ This was in response to Philip Alston, a UN Rapporteur, whose statement in November 2018 following a visit to the UK was damning. He wrote in his conclusion that ‘Thomas Hobbes, […] memorably claimed that without a social contract, life outside society would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’ The risk is that if current policies do not change, this is the direction in which low-income earners and the poor are headed.’ An even more biting conclusion he drew was that ‘Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so. Resources were available to the Treasury at the last budget that could have transformed the situation of millions of people living in poverty, but the political choice was made to fund tax cuts for the wealthy instead.’

What do these simple facts show? Firstly, that Hume and Mill were both right, simply on the wrong side. Their conclusions were absolutely correct. The rich being more privileged and public opinion being restricted are the most effective mechanisms for restricting democracy. The media, now that it is election season, are diverting their efforts to whichever horse they have in the race. The Guardian remains on the centre-left, and is the closest thing to representation of the left-wing in the mainstream – but that is a far cry from any considerable change to capitalism. The Times has devoted columns and columns to spelling out the disastrous consequences of Labour in power, etc, etc. Public opinion is confined to such narrow boundaries that renationalising the railways seems like something out of Marx’s Capital.

There are a number of reasons for this, the foremost being that the media are profit-seeking corporations and are subject to business interests. It is not in their interest to suggest that there is an alternative to the profit system. The public are not so easily duped, as shown by their dissatisfaction with capitalism above, as well as their scepticism with respect to the media. Melanie Phillips in an article in the Times (12 November) wrote: ‘Few British or American students are told about the evils of communism in the same way as they are told about the evils of Nazism. […] Few are taught that capitalism is the precondition for freedom and prosperity.’ It is hard to see a more ironic statement than an organ of propaganda claiming that freedom cannot exist without capitalism, and socialists are wrong because they do not allow freedom. George Orwell wrote in his essay The Freedom of the Press (1944), ‘the English intelligentsia have plenty of reason for their timidity and dishonesty, indeed I know by heart the arguments by which they justify themselves. But at least let us have no more nonsense about defending liberty against Fascism. If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’

Matthew Goodwin, in another recent article in the Times (3 November), wrote of ‘angry, divisive populism that is eroding everything once considered essential to our culture of consensus.’ By this populism, he meant the ‘belief in a corrupt, self-serving and neglectful elite that undermines the interests of the ‘pure’ people.’ It doesn’t take much to work out why such a view is so quickly disparaged by the capitalist press. Indeed this ‘civic culture’ he extolled might be seen as a society in which the elite do as they will and those below are docile and humble enough to submit to this rule. Though, he isn’t stupid, and he knows that the public is not either. He knows that this view will ‘resonate with voters’, even though ‘Britain will drift further from the civic culture that was considered to be one of its most valuable features.’ But ‘valuable to whom?’ Clearly not valuable to the majority, who are beginning to shake off the neoliberal denial of class altogether.

A genuine alternative is obviously needed. Discontent with the status quo is growing. Of course, the alternative is not, as the capitalist press have it, Jeremy ‘class war’ Corbyn, but socialism. Obviously, this is totally against the interests of the ruling class and therefore not something they want the public to hear. What are the majority then to do? Now seems an appropriate time to make the case for socialism and show that the poverty of many and greed of some is not the only way. The extension of democracy to all aspects of life, including work, is the foundation of socialism, and it is hard to think of something more apt to our times. The challenge is to overcome an anti-democratic media that seeks to restrict opinion and to keep the majority obedient.
M. P. Shah

The Fall of Rojava (2019)

From the December 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

Amid the horror of the Syrian civil war it had seemed that there was one shining beacon of hope. In the north of Syria Kurdish militants, inspired by the political thought of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, filled the vacuum when the Assadist forces abandoned most of the Kurdish regions, and were combatting and defeating the seemingly unstoppable Islamic State.

The nature of the new regime being created under the protection of the YPG/PYG was greatly attractive to leftists and anarchists. Ocalan in prison had been influenced by the writing of Murray Bookchin and other anarchist-inspired writers and this had shifted the PKK and its allied Kurdish parties away from a rigid and military Stalinism towards a polity which stressed mutualism and participatory democracy.

The vision of this communitarian experiment becoming flesh in the villages and towns of Syrian Kurdistan in the teeth of Islamist obscurantism and Turkish militarist assault galvanised solidarity. Recruits came from all over the world to embattled ‘Rojava’ (the Kurdish word for ‘west’ as the western part of the wider region, spanning several countries, inhabited by Kurds). One volunteer unit renamed themselves the Bob Crow Brigade after the British rail union leader.

At the time voices urging a certain caution tended to be drowned out or were silenced by the sheer enormity and barbarity of the opposition that the Kurdish forces faced. For socialists, as long as the capitalist world system exists, there can be no ‘islands of socialism’. No matter what the wishes or intentions or, no matter how sincere the participants are, eventually the logic and demands of the capitalist state system will prevail.

Rojava, trapped within a spider web of competing Great Powers and local powers, either faced extinction or acceded to this logic and took its own place as a junior partner to one or other of the great military powers. Becoming the armed fist of the US effort against ISIS must have seemed a sure bet; arms, advisors and money poured in, at a time when the democratic Syrian opposition was being starved of support and the rebel cities were being pounded into rubble by Assad and his Russian allies. 

The abandonment of Rojava to Turkey by Trump’s Twitter diplomacy led to an almost ritualised ‘changing of the guard’, as Russian troops took over on patrol where US special forces had been just days before. But this masked a more brutal exchange as Kurdish forces abandoned Syrian villages to Assadist forces and the brutal Mukhabarat secret police.

With America’s betrayal and Turkey threatening its very existence, it is unsurprising that the nascent state of Rojava would be drawn to the siren call of Putin’s Russia. The alliance with Assad may shock a few of their Western cheerleaders, but nationalism, however it justifies itself ideologically, will always be first and foremost a movement for the establishment and defence of a nation within a capitalist world system; Rojava’s principles would always take a second place to this.
D.W.

A capitalist own goal (2019)

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

In July we drew attention to an article by George Monbiot in the Guardian (25 April) in which he announced that he had come to the conclusion that capitalism as such – as a profit-driven system geared to the endless accumulation of capital – and not any particular variety of capitalism, was the root cause of environmental damage.

We were not the only ones to comment on this. Apologists for capitalism sprang to its defence. Robert P. Murphy wrote an article (1 October) for the Institute of Energy Research entitled ‘No, Capitalism Doesn’t Threaten Humanity’. He picked on Monbiot’s rather daring statement, in the subtitle of his article, that ‘the economic system is incompatible with the survival of life on Earth’.

Over-interpreting this to mean that ‘capitalism, left unchecked, will cause the literal extinction of humanity’, Murphy did not have too much difficulty in refuting such a claim.

Monbiot’s statement was not based, as is Extinction Rebellion’s, on global warming eventually making the Earth uninhabitable, but on resources eventually running out due to capitalism’s imperative to pursue endless growth. We have heard this argument before as when in 1972 the Club of Rome predicted that the world would run out of gold by 1981, mercury and silver by 1985, tin by 1987, zinc by 1990, oil by 1992, and copper, lead and natural gas by 1993 (LINK).

None of this happened as there is a distinction between ‘exploitable’ resources and physical resources. The physical resources are there in the ground, but what under capitalism is exploitable depends on whether or not it is profitable, which in turn depends on the cost of extraction and the price that the particular resource can command on the market. As a resource becomes more difficult to extract and the paying demand for it continues, its price rises and it becomes profitable to extract it from places where previously it wasn’t.

What is extracted is, as Murphy pointed out, ‘only a small fraction of the physical stockpile’ in the ground because ‘at any given time, it’s only sensible to have located the precise deposits of a healthy margin of such depletable resources.’

This is why there is no danger even under capitalism of material resources becoming exhausted. Capitalism threatens humanity in all sorts of way, but this is not one of them.

So, Murphy marks a point against Monbiot but he goes on to score an own goal when he writes:
  ‘Even if we imagine a scenario—contrary to reality—where humanity did run into a crisis because of natural resource crunch, the best way to deal with the situation would be reliance on private property and market prices’.
But academic economics argues in effect that there is, and always will be, a ‘natural resource crunch.’ Because human needs are (absurdly) assumed to be infinite, its textbooks teach that resources can never be enough to satisfy people’s needs and that therefore they have to be rationed through being ‘private property’ and people having to pay for what they need.

In refuting Monbiot’s claim that if capitalism continues resources will eventually run out, Murphy is also refuting the basic tenet of economics textbooks. If only a ‘small fraction’ of resources in the ground are used – and so there is no ‘natural resource crunch’ – this means that ‘private property and market prices’ are not imposed by nature and that humanity can make other arrangements to satisfy its material needs, namely, the common ownership of resources and their use to directly meet people’s needs without the intervention of the market and money.

Pointless Work (2019)

Book Review from the December 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

David Graeber: Bullshit Jobs. Penguin £9.99.

Socialists often refer to the fact that so many jobs under capitalism are useless in terms of satisfying people’s needs. Everything to do with banks, insurance and accounting falls into this category, as do the armed forces, courts and prisons, bailiffs, advertising and so on.

But here David Graeber takes this idea much further, with the idea of a bullshit job: ‘a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.’ Such jobs are mostly white collar, and one survey showed that 37 per cent of workers felt that their job did not ‘make a meaningful contribution to the world’. Jobs which are unpleasant and badly paid, but which need to be done, are not bullshit jobs but rather are characterised as ‘shit jobs’.

Much of Graeber’s evidence is taken from email and other responses to his requests for examples of bullshit jobs from workers performing them, and he quotes at length from these accounts. The jobs themselves are of various kinds, including flunky jobs (designed to make someone else feel important), duct tapers (who solve problems that should not really exist) and box tickers (who allow an organisation to claim it is doing something which in fact it is not). Such jobs often lead to increased stress and anxiety, while more meaningful work may be done in a more collaborative way. Moreover, the more a job benefits others, the less the worker is likely to be paid (though of course there are many exceptions to this).

Although it is hard to quantify, the number and proportion of bullshit jobs appears to be increasing, and Graeber attributes this primarily to what he terms ‘managerial feudalism’, a concept which seems to mean that managers want more power and so more underlings to make them feel and appear important. He also cites a remark made by Barack Obama, that rationalising the US health care system would lead to the problem of what to do with the millions who work for medical insurance companies: in effect admitting that they are not doing useful work at all, but then wondering how they would otherwise be employed.

The final chapter contains a proposal for a universal basic income, but the book’s interest lies in the earlier chapters, where a great deal is said about the reality for so many of employment under capitalism. One worker in a bullshit job is quoted as follows: ‘I consider a worthwhile job to be one that fulfills a preexisting need, or creates a product or service that people hadn’t thought of, that somehow enhances and improves their lives. I believe we passed the point where most jobs were these type of jobs a long time ago.’ Indeed, and it would be straightforward to make work more satisfying and to reduce working hours, while still producing enough to meet human need.
Paul Bennett

Free Transport (2019)

Book Review from the December 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

Free Public Transit and Why We Don’t Pay to Ride Escalators. Ed. Judith Dellheim and Jason Prince. Black Rose Books. 2018. 274 pages.

As the subtitle suggests, it is not the idea that people should be able to travel for free from one part of a city or town to another that is odd but that they should have to pay to do this. They wouldn’t have to in socialism but in a number of places this is not the case under capitalism either. Fares-free public transport for all users exists, we are told, ‘in as many as 97 cities and towns worldwide’ (56 in Europe, 27 in the US, 11 in Brazil, 2 in China and 1 in Australia). Partial free transport, where a section of the population such as pensioners can travel without paying is much more widespread.

The book, made up of articles by various authors, covers the subject comprehensively, both past struggles and current arrangements. It begins with the free transport policy introduced in Bologna, in Italy, for a while in the 1970s and covers failures, as in Montreal and Toronto, as well as successes, including Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, the biggest place to have introduced it.

The authors approach the subject from an ideological point of view, seeing free transport not just as an answer to the pollution and congestion caused by private cars, but as a move towards a change of society, writing of ‘socio-ecological transformation’ and ‘decommodifying public services.’ However, where it has been introduced, this has been more for more pragmatic reasons. In the US the driving force has often been ‘downtown’ businesses wanting to encourage customers to visit their stores. In France schemes are partly financed by a tax on employers, who benefit from not having to include an element for travel to and from work in the wages they pay. In some small towns it has been a cost-saving exercise as, given the relatively small number of users, it has proved cheaper to subsidise the service from local taxes than to erect a superstructure to charge and collect fares.

Since under capitalism money has to be found to pay for everything, how free transport is funded is a big issue. Various ways have been advocated or implemented – national or regional subsidies from general taxation, local taxes, one author here suggests a tax on land values near stations and bus stops.

The ideologically-motivated campaigners have often ended up relegating free transport for all (let alone socialism) to a long-term aim and concentrating on obtaining it only for disadvantaged groups as ‘transport justice’, clearly a reform to capitalism’s poor law system rather than a step towards a change of society. As reforms go, not having to pay for local public transport is unobjectionable, even of benefit to workers, but it’s not a step towards free access for all, although it does show that there is nothing unfeasible about this given the common ownership and democratic control of the means of life.
Adam Buick


Courting Popularity (2019)

From the December 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

POPULIST! This is the political vogue word of the moment, a pejorative term presently in common use especially in the media. President Trump, the Brexit vote, both are cited examples of what is being cast as a growing tendency.

Yet the word has a more honourable past. Originally, it referred to members of the US People’s Party, founded in 1891. It had a social agenda, championing public ownership of public services and graduated income tax.

It was a manifestation in the USA of the then emerging social democratic trend represented in Britain by the Labour Representation Committee and the Independent Labour Party, leading to the founding of the Labour Party.

This social democratic tendency was a working-class response to capitalism in the same way as – and emerging from – trade unions. An attempt to seek radical ways of reforming capitalism to favour the majority, to use democracy to improve the lot of working people.

The subsequent history of social democrats being elected to government has demonstrated that such populism, however heartfelt and well intentioned, is no match for the power of capitalism. Reforms conceded can be all too easily clawed back when the profit motive demands it.

However, while socialists must continue, as they did in the 1890s-1900s, to point out that reformism is a doomed strategy, being a populist was not deserving of the opprobrium associated with the word today. Indeed, the basic populist principle was advocating the right and ability of the common people to govern themselves.

Indeed, replace the phrase ‘common people’ with working class and there is the essential element of socialism, the working class acting politically for itself.

So what has happened to turn populism into a reactionary tendency? The problem lies not in any particular manifesto, but in the actual principle of courting popular support. This is denial of the working class acting for itself.

Instead, it relies on the ‘common people’ playing a passive role, even encourages such passivity. Political programmes, radical or otherwise, are concocted by parties standing apart from the people they purport to represent. There may indeed be working people involved in that party, but it is a small self-selected group presuming to know what’s best for the masses.

The aim is to elicit widespread support for a pre-formed programme exclusive of popular input. The only role for the electorate is to vote for it and trust the party will act on their behalf. In this sense, all parties putting themselves forward for election are populist.

A current example is the Scottish Nationalist Party seizing on the EU referendum vote in Scotland running counter to the overall British vote. Popular discontent is to be exploited for the sectional interests of the SNP, turning the voters’ gaze away from rather more pressing economic and social problems to which the SNP do not have answers.

Other parties in Scotland, seeing an opportunity to raise their profiles, tail along behind the SNP, hoping to gain some popular kudos, or pose a contrary British nationalism. This is where the populist motivation is problematic. Whatever its intent, it serves the political interests of capitalism by limiting the political interests of the working class.

Issues become binary: for or against independence, leaving or staying in the EU, Labour or Conservative and so on and on … And the only role for the working class, the electorate, is to choose one of the other. Proportional representation or transferable vote systems are merely variations on this essentially passive process.

Parties will even compromise their own programmes to court popular support, as the Liberal Democrats and The Green Party are presently doing as a ‘Remainer’ coalition. What none of the Westminster parties are doing, or can do for that matter, is to engage with the one fundamental issue: in or out of the EU the problem(s) of capitalism continue unaddressed.

A true working class populism must involve the working class organising itself through its own political institutions to determine how its best interests can be served. Democracy requires the popular acceptance of responsibility for playing an active part.

Otherwise it’s merely grumbling about, yet voting for, selected performers strutting about the parliamentary stage in ‘Westminster’s Got Talent’, a popular show for the moment – until those merely watching in the audience realise they could take the stage for themselves.
Dave Alton