Saturday, July 11, 2020

Desperate exit (1982)

From the July 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard
“People who do kill themselves, often they’re very responsible people” (Director of a Samaritans Branch).
Suicide is a peculiarly human way of dying and its frequency varies under some specifically human influences.

At present it is most common in Hungary and East Germany. In the latter country the rate is about twelve times as high as in Greece; in peaceable, antiseptic Switzerland it is about six times that for stricken Northern Ireland. In England and Wales a high point for male suicide was 1932—when 4045 killed themselves—which was also the peak year for unemployment during the Slump. From 1963 to 1970 the rate kept falling but since 1975 it has been going up by roughly 3 per cent a year. (Attempts at suicide, which have been rising since 1961, now stand at about 200,000 a year.) Is this a despairing response to the current recession and the increase in unemployment? The Samaritans say that many of their calls now are from people in economic distress. In his book Suicide In London Peter Sainsbury is convinced that there is a link:
  . . . the unemployed experience in an exaggerated form the disturbance found in all classes at times of economic upheaval. The latter is the common factor causing both suicide and unemployment and so, in some measure, accounting for the association between them.
According to the most recent figures, in England and Wales about 4,000 people a year are taking their own lives—something like one fifth of all those who die from causes other than natural. This is some way below the rate for a lot of other countries, although there are differences in the official definitions of suicide. In this country a coroner’s court decides the matter and must be satisfied there was an intention to die. In Sweden and Denmark suicide may be presumed unless there is evidence to disprove it. The whole process is subjective and open to influence from conflicting concepts.

For a long time suicide was condemned as one of the lowest crimes. In Ancient Rome there were laws against it as an act which too often deprived a slave owner of a piece of his property, as the slaves took the only way they knew out of a life of intense misery. It was clearly set down as a crime in England from 1485 and from Elizabethan times suicides were often buried at cross roads with a stake through their body or a stone on their face, which was supposed to confine an evil spirit. This happened as recently as 1823, in London. Until the turn of the century the property of a suicide might be confiscated and it was not until 1961 that the law was repealed under which an unsuccessful suicide attempt led to a prosecution, often after a police officer had sat doggedly at the bedside until the patient was well enough to sign the charge sheet.

The first reasoned case for reassessing suicide as a result of social pressures rather than as random, personal criminal offences, was compiled by Emile Durkheim at the end of the 19th century. Durkheim’s conclusions were that people were more or less likely to kill themselves according to their background; divorced people were more likely than married, Protestants were more likely than Catholics, those in cities more likely than those in the country and so on. Research since then has more or less confirmed the drift of Durkheim’s findings; certainly it has not put them in any doubt. The statistical model of a likely suicide now would be an elderly man, widowed or divorced, without children, living in a densely populated area with a “high” standard of living and who has experienced a crisis such as unemployment or a serious physical illness. The least likely would be a married female with several children, living in a rural area with a low (but not too low) density of population and holding to a philosophy like religion which consoles and reassures rather than questions and explains.

The theory implicit in these models is supported by the fact that the suicide rate actually falls during a war (which may account for the present low rate in Northern Ireland). Between 1936 and 1939 there were about 5100 suicides a year in this country. During the war the figure fell to an average of about 3500 and after 1945 it rose again, exceeding 4700 by 1949. The apparent contradiction here—that people may be more optimistic about life when they are under the greatest pressure is explained by the fact that in wartime, whatever the suffering, there is an encouragement towards social cohesion. People are more easily integrated with each other because they are convinced they are pulling together for the common good, with a perceptible object. They offer mutual support, sharing disasters and set-backs.

It is in the absence of this type of social cohesion—however spuriously based it may be—that the suicide rate tends to rise. Any additional stress, such as unemployment, is not easily coped with. The lonely old man in the city has less protection—is less integrated—than the woman with her family in the country village where everyone knows her. Peter Sainsbury wrote that in 1955 the suicide rate in London was at its highest in the areas where there were a lot of hotels and boarding houses; 27 per cent of the cases that year were living alone. One of the persistently high rates is in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which is thick with solitary bed-sitters as remote and as desolate as a far island.

But that is only the surface of it. To understand why some people are not socially integrated, why there is a lack of social cohesion in the very places where millions are living cheek by jowl, we must go further than the researchers and have some reference to the basis of society. The social system we now live under is a commodity society. Its wealth is produced not to satisfy human needs but to be profitably sold. The distribution of wealth is not then primarily a process of human consumption but a struggle for dominance over a market. Commodity society is a society of competition, of division rather than cohesion.

In the drive for profit and the accumulation of capital, commodity society concentrated its people into festering cities; the emphasis is on their exploitation before their welfare. Here there is a special, ominous meaning to the word “success” and for the failures there is often the penalty of being a misfit, of rejection and isolation. This can start a chain reaction of withdrawal and further rejection until the failure is almost in a trance, sometimes protected by persecutory delusions. There may be a progression of self-damaging episodes—addiction, neurosis, anxieties. At the nadir the sufferer feels beyond all help and death seems the only possible relief. The end comes in a dingy room, in a silent house standing amid the tumultuous city. It is part of the price for “success”.

There will be an inquest which will say that it was death “while the balance of the mind was disturbed”. The jury will sit and the coroner will preside and they will all have “balanced” minds. This means that they will be functioning under the pressures of capitalism; they will subscribe to its standards of success. Nowhere in their verdict will they question whether the dead person broke down as a rational response, a defence against the intolerable demands of a society dominated by the commodity.

Far from giving succour, capitalist society makes a priority of forcing its people into conflict with one another. It relies on millions doing jobs which are entirely designed to place one group against another—police, servicemen, lawyers, judges, prison officers, security guards . . . In their jobs, struggling to improve—or even to survive—means that workers must often treat each other as enemies. In this society of such sophisticated savagery, the fact that so many survive so well is a measure of human resilience. The more fragile minority end up as a statistic in the deaths of the Registrar General’s annual report.

To be a deviant in capitalism—to question and reject its economic basis, its moral and philosophical superstructure is a protection. Such deviants look forward to a social order of integration, when the world’s people will co-operate in a life so abundant and satisfying that no one will want to die.
Ivan

Running Commentary: Relief work (1982)

The Running Commentary column from the July 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

Relief work

There are many well-intentioned charitable organisations, some quite small, some very large, which seek to alleviate the socially produced hardships of the profit-system. Prominent among these are three major international agencies which specialise in operating food aid for the underdeveloped world: the United Nations’ World Food Programme; and the United States’ two voluntary organisations CARE (Co-operative for American Relief Everywhere) and CRS (Catholic Relief Services).

Capitalism is a social system, however, which works on the basis of producing things to be sold at a profit. Producing things simply to be consumed and enjoyed because people need them is not what the system of profit is all about, and all the striving of the charity organisations is relentlessly negated by the way production is socially arranged. Although the three major agencies distributed food to more than sixty million people in 1979, there were still thirty million deaths the following year caused by starvation.

The latest policy for allocating food supplied introduced Food For Work projects which connect food distribution to socially useful development (Guardian, 11 June ’82). Here the motives are sometimes less philanthropic than prompted by a concern to cultivate workforces and industrial territories into which existing ruling-class interests can expand. The Brandt Commission endorsed the linking of food aid to promotion to agriculture and employment in the South.

The Failure of meagre “handouts” and even training for skills to improve the general condition of the world's destitute is conceded by Tony Jackson in his book Against the Grain (published by Oxfam). He observes the case, for example, of one island off Haiti which now boasts about 200 miles of roads built under a Food for Work project. There is no commercial traffic of any kind on this island. The few vehicles that do use the roads belong to missionaries and food agency staff. The islanders continue to travel on foot or by mule.

The condition of the person reliant on Food for Work projects for his or her subsistence is in many ways worse than that of a classical slave, for at least the latter was maintained while there was no work to be done. In Bangladesh there are over 7,000,000 recipients of food aid from the United States each year, but Food for Work projects have generally benefited the local landowners through provision of roads and irrigation systems. The landless labourers involved are in exactly the same position at the end of a project as they were when it began — destitute.


Royal rubbish

On a BBC1 programme last month we were given the opportunity to listen to HRH, Prince Philip putting forward political arguments in defence of class-divided society. The Duke, in a modestly appointed room in Buckingham Palace, was being interviewed by a painfully deferential Gerald Priestland about the latest royal contribution to modern political philosophy a book of essays called A Question of Balance. This was also the name of the programme and in reply to the first question — what did he really mean by “A Question of Balance”? — the Duke began his apology for privilege as cogently as his entire argument was to run. “1 wish I knew!” was his reply. Looking around at the chronic social problems of poverty, unemployment and destruction, the Duke attributes the causes of these problems to the personal shortcomings of particular people:
  Until each of us accepts that our problems are not created by such abstract concepts as Industry, Religion, Capitalism, The Third Word, the Bourgeosie or the world economy but by our own individual standards of morality, behaviour and competence, we shall never begin to cope with the causes of our discontents.
According to this theory the millions of humans who die each year from malnutrition and the thousands who are thrown out of employment each month after years of hard work have only their own defective moral codes to blame, whereas it is a superior set of moral ideas, and nothing more, which secured for Philip his unearned income of over £100,000 a year and his other gigantic wealth. In an employers’ journal, The Engineer, Philip was once quoted as saying “The Welfare State is a protection against failure and exploitation” (November 1976), and from his position in society and the size of his dole cheque you can see what he meant.

At one point in the interview the Duke explained his views about areas of life where he thought that opinions of members of the working class should not intrude in decision making. Then, getting carried away with himself, he casually hypothesised.
  If I was going to go out to get a job, I don’t want to get a job with a chap that I have to tell how to run his business . . . and provided my conditions are reasonable, I’m prepared to put up with what he says has to be done because I reckon that’s part of his business to know.
Clearly then, Phil must have appplied for the job of being Duke of F.dinburgh on account of the “reasonable conditions” of service.

The Duke went on to ‘refute’ the arguments of Marx with all the wisdom and expertise of a Daily Express editorial writer, and quoted approvingly the ideas of the eighteenth-century conservative, Edmund Burke, the man who first referred to the working class as “the swinish multitude”. The Duke defended a society based on a privileged minority and an impoverished majority by reference to “human nature”: but for some one who seemed to have acquired a profound understanding of people, Philip used some curious analogies. Explaining how we should best deal with the “avalanche of lawlessness threatening to engulf our civilisation” he outlined his criminological theory of the measures required to keep the rabble in order. “Having had to deal with dogs and horses and things of
that sort, and tried to train them to do certain things, the process of teaching them to do what you want them to do is a process of rewards and punishments.” With expertise of this calibre the defenders of the wages-system would do more good for their cause by keeping quiet and concealing their prejudices from public examination.


A1 for Lloyds

It was just as well the Pope turned up because, apart from the sustenance he provided for the delusions of millions of Catholics (and other religions) in Britain, the visit was supposed to make a bit of money. It failed in this, but not for want of trying.

The Catholic Church had put two years of planning and over £6 million into the event. No wonder they mapped out so concentrated, relentless a schedule for this elderly man only recently recovered from serious gunshot wounds.

The Church hoped to receive about £5 million, mainly from a ten per cent royalty on the sale of “approved” souvenirs like teaspoons, ballpoints, mugs and sweets. A lot of other trash was unapproved, churned out by manufacturers equally eager to make something from the papal endurances.

Overseeing the official marketing operation was IMG (not those well-known gadflies of the political left, but the International Management Group) who cashed in for 20 per cent of the royalties, as well as a share of savings from any improved efficiency they could organise.

This was no foreign field for IMG, whose clients include many famous sports starts and showbiz personalities other than the Pope. With the cold eye of commercial reality, they firmly discouraged any delusion that the Catholic Church is unconcerned about the financial balance sheet.

Prudently the whole show was insured: one report said the London insurance market stood to lose £7½ million if the visit had been called off. There was much easier breathing in Leadenhall Street as the Pope first stepped from his aeroplane and kissed the earth.

It is not outrageous that a church should be so concerned with a profitable operation. Religion has always existed comfortably in capitalism, a willing purveyor of the morality of class exploitation.


Patriotism at a price

Lord Matthews is famous for being a very patriotic man. With his readiness to sacrifice all for his country—and to tell us about this at every opportunity he is an object lesson to all the cynics and Doubting Thomases. No wonder they made him a Lord.

Of course he owns a lot of ships and hotels and the odd newspaper or two. He has made a lot of money from the exploitation of British workers so it is natural he should think this is a wonderful country full of generous people.

One of his proudest possessions is the great ocean liner the QE2. A little while ago Lord Matthews angered a lot of his fellow patriots by wanting to register his ships under flags of convenience. The idea was to enable his companies to employ foreign crews, who could be paid less than British workers. Somehow, he managed to reconcile this scheme with his professed patriotism.

He was a proud man too when the government took over some of his ships—including the QE2—for the war in the Falklands. No question about his patriotism here—and in any case there was the compensation which was a useful windfall when the shipping industry is so depressed.

Unluckily—or rather through the recklessness of some Argentine airmen—one of Lord Matthews’ ships got sunk, which must have upset some other patriots at Lloyds who had insured it. Now that the QE2 is back, preparing to resume its career as an expensive cruise liner, the question arises of replacing the lost ship, the Atlantic Conveyor.

And here again Lord Matthews is showing himself to be hard headed as well as patriotic. The Atlantic Conveyor, he has announced, will be replaced by a ship built in Japan. Now this is very curious because, as any admirer of the British forces in the Falklands knows, the Japanese have not been among the most fervent supporters of the British effort there.

So why is Matthews the patriot giving the Japanese his custom? The answer is that, like those crews under the flags of convenience, he can get a cheaper job done there—a more profitable job, better for his company’s balance sheet.

Lord Matthews is a member of the capitalist class so his patriotism will naturally be limited to what is profitable to him. It is the other class, the people who go to war in the capitalists’ interests, who are persuaded that patriotism has no boundaries. After all, they are disciplined to make the ultimate, boundless sacrifice of death, so that people like Matthews can remain in their position of privileged superiority.

That is the true cynicism, the boundless deceit of patriotism.

Letters: Christianity (1982)

Letters to the Editors from the July 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

Christianity

Dear Editors,

Having purchased my first ever copy of the Socialist Standard, I was dismayed to find “Socialists Against Religion” on the first inside page. What a philosophical and social disaster! As socialists we do not want to alienate the Christians; for a start, 1 aspire to be both a socialist and a Christian. I agree with socialist principles on all levels and I am not politically illiterate or 1 would not have purchased a copy of your journal.

You have probably heard the suggestion before, but I will repeat it anyway as it has a bearing upon my argument: Marx who was after all, along with the Levellers and such like, a father of socialism, gained much of his fraternal and communal theories from the influence of early Christian life. We know early Christians lived a communal life, sharing goods and work in common. My opinion remains that Christ was a socialist — the faults and greeds of men have corrupted this fraternity ever since. You confuse the ultimate equality and egalitarian message of many of the world’s religions with the rotten and corrupt uses made of less powerful peoples by the owners within society. After all, as a female, I have more to gripe about in a subservient role still imposed on me by the corrupted values of a so-called Christian society.

Furthermore, you must be aware that the Methodist movement was founded by a strong Tory and that several socialists specialising in the sociology of religion and that of work, have attempted to prove the Wesleys were involved in stopping a labourers’ revolution in the eighteenth century. Therefore, to cite Methodism (which I do know something about) as reformist is not really true. Also remember that the Quakers, during the time of the Hundred Years War refused to make gun metal, material for making military uniforms, or to sell timber. Instead they turned to food manufacture and suffered very much for it.

It is also irresponsible to deal only with a man’s physical needs. Even if you take a functionalist view of religion it has important spiritual uses. The loss of a son or daughter in an accident, a home due to an earthquake, or the gaining of a much desired child, all need spiritual or mental help and understanding. I will admit to having a vested interest as I begin university in October to sit Psychology (seen, incidentally, by HM Government as a subversive subject, as I was reliably informed), but R D Laing, “left wing” as he is, says the unconscious is very important to the whole self.

Let us have a social revolution, political revolution, by all means, but let us also have a religious revolution—use it to free us from spiritual oppression as well as physical oppression. Do not be like the capitalists and discourage free thought. Bear in mind that John Paul II, much as the writer of the article might dislike him, is the first Pope ever to have laboured by the work of his hands and to have spoken on the true dignity of the worker and his right to work as he wishes.
Your fellow in Socialism
Y. E. Garwood 
Kent


Reply:
While it is not the function of socialist propaganda to “alienate" any worker, it is essential that we expose all anti-socialist ideas, and one of the most powerful of these is religion. As we pointed out in the article “Socialists Against Religion” in the Socialist Standard (May 1982), religion attempts to divert the working class from the task of establishing socialism by the delusion that the problems of capitalism can be solved by making some moral adjustments. Socialists must oppose such an idea; only a revolution will rid us of capitalist society’s inadequacies and social ills.

Marx’s historic role was to place socialism, as far as it is possible, onto a scientific footing. He drew on the work of a mass of historians, philosophers, economists and the like, many of them religious. But this did not make him religious; indeed, it led him to formulate the Materialist Conception of History, which explains historical development in terms directly opposed to religious idealism. This conception sees capitalism as the logical development from former social systems, arising from revolutionary changes in the mode of wealth production. Ms. Garwood’s idea, that capitalism is a corruption of a long-ago purity in human affairs, is a typical religious misconception: it simply does not fit in with the facts. The article described many (not all) Methodists and Quakers as reformist, because they readily became involved in movements like CND and Anti Apartheid, which try to eliminate some problems of capitalism while leaving the system in being. Quakers are commonly pacifists; they have a moral objection to war—which is an inevitable product of capitalism—but, illogically, no objection to capitalism. Socialists argue that the nature of capitalism cannot be changed; those who object to its effects should work for its abolition.

Whatever the distinction between “conscious” and "unconscious” thought, neither can operate without material support and nutrition. Neither can they exist outside the material world; all human thought is fashioned by that world and works in material terms to change it. In human social development it is the mode of production which is the motivating force and which, by stimulating changes in ideas, drives society towards socialism.

Although Catholics may like to put emphasis on it, the Pope’s personal background is irrelevant. Whether he once laboured physically or not, he is the purveyor of a false idea which has no reasoned basis, and as such he powerfully helps to keep the world working class in their wage slavery.

It is important to the spread of socialist ideas that the working class are able freely to discuss all theories, including religious ones. We should, of course, remember how many dictatorships have been and are being aided in their repression by the Church in their country.
Editors.


Legal freedoms

Dear Editors,

The dogmatic stance of the SPGB is to some extent counter-productive in the struggle to achieve socialism. I refer essentially to the Party’s position on social reforms.

Reforms need not always be categorised as anti-revolutionary, because they do not solve problems, since some reforms are nevertheless necessary stages in the workers’ struggle. It is true that the Labour Party’s efforts throughout their history have been futile (welfare state, state owned housing schemes, nationalisation, etc.) and have merely served to create a more hard-line Tory Party and to distract the working class from activity in its real interests. However, how is the “intellectual revolution" to be achieved through the parliamentary process when most of the world does not have a parliamentary process? Surely a prerequisite to the revolution is the establishment of some significant degree of democracy and freedom of expression throughout the world.

When the majority of Poles, Turks, Chileans, Iranians, South Africans, Eastern Bloc citizens, to name but the obvious few, have little or no real education or legal rights to control their political destinies, is it not pompous for the SPGB to pledge support for "liberation movements” only when they unite for socialism? Such reforms will be beneficial to the people as being not just useful, but necessary steps towards the establishment of a world of free access.

Or does the SPGB envisage a miraculous short cut?
Andy Spencer
Berlin 39 
West Germany


Reply:
That a socialist party should not advocate reforms has always been our policy, although we do not hold that reforms of capitalism can never benefit the working class—some can and do, while many are futile and harmful. Similarly, while we do not support non-socialist organisations which claim to be fighting for or defending democracy, we certainly do not minimise the importance of certain legalised freedoms for the working class and socialist movement. This position may appear ambivalent or dogmatic; in fact, it is a consequence of the recognition that workers’ political struggles must be waged along class lines.

The political activities of non-socialists necessarily express capitalist interests, for the simple reason that they are helping—however unwittingly—to maintain the existing order of society. Andy Spencer believes that our stand is counter-productive, that by failing to support those who demand limited political freedoms in authoritarian states we are weakening our case. But how can we, on the one hand, urge British workers to pursue their class interests and, on the other, tell those abroad to ally themselves with any political Tomas, Ricardo or Henri? We call upon workers everywhere to organise to defend their interests on the industrial field, but we don’t urge British workers to support the TUC’s political and industrial policies. Likewise, while the struggle of, for example, Polish workers to achieve a degree of freedom of political expression (a "necessary stage”, if you like) is warmly to be welcomed, we cannot support Solidarity because of its manifestly pro-capitalist, nationalist outlook. Doubtless, many of its members would endorse Ronald Reagan’s view (expressed to British MPs last month) that in Eastern Europe we should “foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allow a people to decide their own way”.

Democracy is a weapon, politically valuable, it is true; but like every other weapon it can be used for self-preservation or self-destruction (in 1933, for example, a majority of the German electorate voted for its abolition). Unemployment, poverty, insecurity, militarism and the other evils of capitalism will remain, no matter whether the form of its political administration be democratic or dictatorial. This is why we stress that the limited freedoms of expression obtainable under capitalism can only be consolidated and expanded to the extent that workers also adopt a socialist standpoint.
Editors.

Algeria: filling the vacuum (1982)

From the July 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

Twenty years ago this month Algeria became an independent state after a colonial war which had lasted nearly eight years. From a purely military point of view this war had been won by the French army which, by a ruthless policy of repression (tortures, kidnappings, murders, the concentration of the rural population into strategic villages, the mining of the frontiers with Morocco and Tunisia), had succeeded in “pacifying” Algeria. When peace talks started in 1961 there were only a few thousand poorly-armed FLN guerrillas actually inside Algeria, mainly in the more remote mountainous parts of the country.

Politically it was a different story. The support of the Algerian Muslim population had not been won over. International opinion was against France as an increasing number of states recognised the provisional government in exile (GPRA) which the FLN had set up. The Algerian war was draining French resources and destablising its political institutions. Indeed, it was the Algerian question which finally brought about the downfall of the Fourth Republic when a settlers’ and generals’ revolt in Algeria brought De Gaulle back to power in 1958.

De Gaulle had a shrewd sense of political realities and soon came to realise that the only solution was an independent Algeria, if possible closely tied to France ' like the other French colonies which had been given independence in 1960. Negotiations between the French government and the FLN opened in 1961 and eventually led to an agreement which was signed in Evian in March 1962.

The Evian agreement provided for the establishment of an independent Algerian state, if that was what the population showed they wanted in a referendum. The position of the non-Muslim minority in Algeria — some 10 per cent of the population made up of the descendants of European immigrants since Algeria became a French colony in 1832 and of those of the original Arab-speaking Jewish communities which had existed in pre-colonial Algeria — was to be protected by a number of safeguard clauses similar to those negotiated more recently for the whites in Zimbabwe. The referendum gave an overwhelming vote for independence, the safeguard clauses turned out to be quite academic. The non-Muslim population, joined by many pro-French Muslims, simply voted with their feet. By the time of independence in July 1962 some million people, including nine-tenths of the non-Muslim population, had left Algeria never to return.

This exodus decisively affected the future course of events in Algeria as it represented the flight not only of the bulk of the qualified workforce (white collar and supervisory workers, civil servants, even skilled manual workers) but also of the capitalist class large and small, and of the landowners (on the eve of independence 22,000 Europeans owned about 25 per cent of all cultivable land, 40 per cent of land actually cultivated). It also meant the depopulation of the towns, especially those along the coastal strip which had all had substantial European minorities; Algiers and Oran in fact had even had European majorities.

The places, the jobs, the positions, the homes of the exiles were taken by Muslim Algerians; 1962 was a year of rapid upward mobility for those Algerians who had some money and some education. They were able to acquire very cheaply good houses, even whole apartment blocks and small businesses, and rapid promotion to top and middle ranking jobs in the civil service. For this new petty bourgeoisie independence and the flight of the Europeans had been a bit of very good luck.

At the political level too there was a vacuum to be filled and the same struggle for power, place and privilege also occurred here. On independence the members of the GERA rushed back to Algiers to stake their claim to being the new government, but they had acted too hastily forgetting that in the end political power depends on controlling some armed force. When a dispute broke out between them and Ben Bella and the other political leaders of the FLN itself, the armed force — in this case the army of the frontiers, in Morocco and Tunisia, under the command of Colonel Boumédiène whom the GPRA had upset by trying to replace — backed Ben Bella. Boumédiène marched his troops across Algeria from Morocco and installed Ben Bella in power in Algiers. The National Liberation Army (ALN, later the National People’s Army or ANP) was in fact the only organised force in Algeria in the chaotic conditions of 1962 and it was thus logical that whoever won its support should end up in control of political power, another factor which decisively shaped the future course of events in Algeria.

A further feature of this period was the occupation of the farms, and to a lesser extent of the factories, left vacant by the flight of their European owners. The Algerian farm workers organised to take over and run the abandoned farms themselves. This was a normal, even natural reaction in the circumstances — they could hardly have been expected to sit back and do nothing, leaving uncultivated the land which also produced their own food — but it caught the imagination of Leftists outside Algeria. This was the Revolution as they had always imagined it: workers spontaneously taking over the means of production and running them themselves through workers’ councils! The most prominent of those who came to Algeria to help the new regime was the Trotskyist leader Michel Raptis (Pablo) who became an official adviser to Ben Bella.

The government later rubber-stamped the workers’ actions here by officially nationalising all properties left vacant. In time however “workers self-management” became more and more of a delusion as real decision-making power passed to the full-time managers who were in effect appointed by, and in any event responsible to, the central state.

Under Ben Bella Algeria became officially a one-party State, the single party being the “Party of the FLN” The first peace-time congress of this party was held in Algiers in April 1964 and adopted a programme known as the Charte d’Alger. This committed the FLN unequivocally to building “socialism” in Algeria —to developing the country on the basis of state ownership of the main means of production and of central state planning. This was not quite the Soviet model since a large space was to be given at least on paper, to workers’ self-management (autogestion). The FLN Party, however, was still not really a political force in its own right. The only organised force remained the Army under Boumédiène. In the end the Army grew tired of the posturings and eclecticism of Ben Bella who was projecting himself on the international scene as a sort of African Castro. On 19 June 1965, the even of an international conference in Algiers which was to consecrate Ben Bella as a leader of the Third World, the Army seized power and Boumédiène became President, a post he was to occupy for 13 years till his death at the end of 1978. Ben Bella remained a prisoner in Algeria till 1980. He emerged from prison a Muslim fundamentalist.

The first nationalisation measures, as we saw, concerned those properties and businesses left vacant by the flight of the European minority. This was followed in 1966 by the nationalisation of foreign mining interests, the first step in a sustained policy to eliminate foreign-owned businesses from Algeria which had led by 1974 to the creation of a substantial state capitalist sector embracing banks, insurance, foreign trade, heavy industry, mining, oil, gas, pipelines, railways and shipping as well as some sections of light industry and commerce. By 1977, 80 per cent of industrial employment was provided by the state sector. Since this figure does not include civil servants, it is clear that the state is by far the biggest employer in Algeria.

Private capitalist enterprise, however, has not been suppressed, though it only plays a subordinate, supporting role to the state sector. The nationalisation measures of the period 1966-1974 only concerned foreign-owned businesses, “national capitalists” were allowed to survive and were for a period actively encouraged. Private enterprise plays a significant role in the building trade, in the consumer goods sector and in the retail trade (where it predominates), but everywhere has to face the competition of state firms.

Unemployment has remained a chronic problem in Algeria. It has been estimated that in 1975 nearly 40 per cent of the adult male population of working age were unemployed, some 1,500.000 people, a figure greater than those in industrial and civil service employment. With the continuation of the world crisis this won’t have changed much today, especially as since 1974 emigration to France the traditional safety valve for unemployment in Algeria has been stopped.

In addition to this chronic unemployment, workers in Algeria suffer from poor housing (shortage of accommodation, overcrowding, shanty towns), shortage of consumer goods, poor transport, health and other services. Frustration over this, and over low wages and bad working conditions, expresses itself from time to time in strikes and riots as in 1977 and again more recently. The language policy of the government — trying to impose the use of Classical Arabic as the official language (as opposed to the other languages spoken in Algeria, namely, popular Arabic, Berber and French) — has also aggravated the existing social discontent among the minority of Berber-speakers. It sparked off the serious riots in Tizi-Ouzo in April 1980, which had a marked social content over and above their linguistic aspect.

From 1965 to 1976 Algeria existed virtually without a Constitution, with effective power in the hands of a Council of the Revolution composed mainly of army officers and headed by Boumédiène. By 1976 this ruling group had come to the conclusion that the political situation was stable enough to be institutionalised. A Constitution was drawn up and adopted. Constitutions rarely tell where real power lies and the Algerian Constitution of 1976 is no exception despite its frank proclamation of the leading role of a single Party. In actual fact however real power is not in the hands of the Party leadership as such but only to the extent that the leadership of the Party and that of the Army overlap. In other words, real power lies in the hands of the leaders of the Army for whom the Party is a means of political control rather than vice versa as the Constitution might suggest.

When Boumédiène died in December 1978, the Political Bureau of the FLN Party (the old Council of the Revolution) chose as his successor another military man, Chadli Bendjedid, who is the current President of Algeria. The Prime Minister, Mohamed Abdelgani, also comes from the Army, thus clearly indicating where real power still lies in Algeria.

Algeria is one of a number of countries outside the Russian and Chinese blocs which claim to be “socialist”. In Algeria’s case the claim is not yet to be a “socialist country”, but only to be “building socialism”, defined as a system based on the state ownership of the means of production in which the principle “from each according to their ability, to each according to their labour” will apply. In other words, Lenin’s mistaken definition later enshrined by Stalin in the Russian Constitution of 1936.

This claim has not gone unchallenged. In fact most critics of the Algerian regime both outside and inside Algeria, regard the country as being, economically, state capitalism and, politically, a “bourgeois state”. One of the earliest and most persistent of these critics has been Mohamed Boudiaf. Boudiaf was one of the founding members of the FLN in Cairo in 1954, but ended up on the losing side in the struggle for power which broke out after Algeria became independent in 1962. For him, the Algerian regime represents the rule of a new class, a new bourgeoisie which has emerged out of the “bureaucratic petty-bourgeoisie” (officials of all kinds, governmental. Party, military, economic) which came to the front as a result of the flight of the Europeans.

A similar criticism was expressed in the period 1963-4 but this time from within the FLN by a group associated with the weekly Revolution Africaine. This was (and still is) an official organ of the FLN Party but during this period adopted an independent line as the voice of left-wing elements within the Party. Among its journalists were a number of French Leftists who had come to help the “Algerian Revolution”, such as Gerard Chaliand, later author of a number of books on Third Word struggles. As early as 1964, in his L’Algerie, est-elle socialiste? (“Is Algeria socialist?”) Chaliand wrote:
  Today there exists a bureaucratic bourgeoisie, essentially turned towards strengthening itself within the framework of a State capitalism which it is working to set up.
This concept of a “bureaucratic” or “administrative” or “state” bourgeoisie ruling on the basis of state capitalism is also put forward in a number of other books such as Le Capitalisme d’Etat en Algerie by Marc Raffinot and Pierre Jacquemot (1977) and the excellent collective work, by “Dersa”, L’Algerie en debat, published last year. Even the Trotskyists regard Algeria as state capitalist, somewhat inconsistently in view of their attitude on the very similar regimes in Russia, East Europe, China, Vietnam and Cuba. It is true however that they regard state capitalism in Algeria only as a transitional stage to the sort of fully-fledged private capitalism we know in the West which, in their view, must sooner or later emerge in Algeria.

Even though this affirmation is based on the Trotskyist dogma that a state capitalism without a proper private capitalist class cannot by definition be a stable, lasting system, it is not to be excluded. At some time in the future Algeria could go the way of Egypt under Sadat. On the other hand, the system in Algeria has now lasted some twenty years (which in Russia takes us to 1937, by which time a definite ruling class had evolved there) and shows no immediate signs of changing. Thus the question must be seriously faced of whether or not a more or less permanent bureaucratic class system, or state capitalism, has emerged in Algeria as it did in Russia.

This conclusion presents no problem to those who, unlike the Trotskyists (and, indeed, the ideology of the Algerian regime) do not identify capitalism with the existence of a private capitalist class. It is a conclusion that is well-developed in the collective work L’Algeri en debat:
  The first point that must be noted in this respect can be resumed in this truism: “State capitalism is a species of the capitalist system”. The most obvious particularity of this species is clearly the legal form of property. The private appropriation of the means of production and exchange does not entirely disappear, but the most important means of production are owned by the State itself and it is the economic institutions of the State which effectively control and manage production. This particular form of ownership of the means of production does not in itself involve any fundamental change in the social relations of production. Labour remains paid for by a wage and generates a surplus value (the capitalist expression of surplus labour) over which the producers have no command and whose use they do not control. The criteria for the choice of investments and for deciding the aim of production are determined by the objectives of maximising profits whatever the term used to designate this — and domination of the exploited strata.
So a picture has now emerged of the origin, rise and nature of the Algerian ruling class. On independence in 1962 the group of self-styled “revolutionary patriots.” recruited from various social backgrounds who had led the war against French colonialism found themselves not only in control of political power but also obliged, due to the flight of the European capitalists and to the weakness of the Algerian ones, to assume economic control too. Eventually, on the basis of a predominating state sector, some of them evolved into a replacement capitalist class.

This privileged group is made up of the leaders of the Army and of the Party (often the same), top government and civil service officials, and the senior management of the state industries. Their domination of the most important means of production is not private and individual, nor is there any reason to believe that it will necessarily have to become so, but is collective and as a class. They monopolise — own, in a sociological, non-legal sense — the means of production collectively, as a sort or corporation, through their control of the state in a situation where the main means of production are state-owned.

In other words, for the ordinary workers and peasants of Algeria “independence” has only represented a change of masters.
Adam Buick

Thursday, July 9, 2020

A Trotskyist Oddity (2020)

Book Review from the July 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

I Want To Believe: Posadism, UFOs and apocalypse communism by A.M. Gittlitz. Pluto Press, 

The Argentinian Trotskyist J. Posadas is mostly known among left trainspotter circles for his belief in UFOs and advocacy of nuclear war. This book reveals a different story. Rather than a crankish outlier, he is revealed as pretty much a typical guru of a Trotskyist sect, with policies and positions typical of mainstream Trotskyism.

Born Homero Cristalli, in 1912 in Buenos Aires, he was the child of Italian immigrant shoemakers, who were themselves involved in left-wing politics. He grew up malnourished, and became an entertainer, and (briefly) a professional footballer. Football would be an enduring feature of his life, and his cadres at conferences would be required to have a match, leading in one instance to the French police being called to their supposedly secret meeting place because neighbours heard the shouting.

He became involved in the radical Buenos Aires milieu, and came to the notice of a group of Trotskyists after a short poem calling for unity with the Spanish government (during the civil war) he wrote was published in a left newspaper. The group, the International Communist League (LCI) had been typified as ‘coffee-bar wankers’ (the author, incorrectly, attributes this to Trotsky himself), and were seeking to break out of their intellectual ghetto and connect with the working class.

Cristalli proved to be an enthusiastic and energetic organiser, and made successful work with the shoemakers union. His working class authenticity made up for his limited theoretical grasp of Trotskyist positions. J. Posadas was a collective name of the group’s leadership, and Cristalli began to join in writing Posadas’s editorials. Eventually, he would possess the name entirely (the ‘J.’ was never defined).

Although Trotsky is venerated in many parts for his theoretical subtlety, in reality, his plans amounted to ‘go back to your constituencies and prepare for civil war’. His orientation was to try and form the command/control of a military force that could win that civil war, hence his and his followers focus on leadership. In practice this usually meant small groups trying to orientate towards and piggyback on bigger movements. In Argentina, this meant the strongman Juan Peron, who successfully co-opted the workers movement for his own ends.

Cristalli became a full time revolutionary, depending on the income his faction could bring in from its membership in the Fourth International, and he came to prominence in the internecine manoeuvring of the factions in the international, and became a supporter of Michel Pablo, who ostensibly led the International after Trotsky’s murder. This position, along with his energy and charisma, led him to being among the pre-eminent Trotskyists in Latin America, eventually with groups in Cuba, Brazil and Ecuador.

When the Second World War failed to bring about the revolutionary wave Trotsky predicted, the Fourth International’s leadership veered between trying to enter mass communist parties or supporting anti-colonial guerrilla movements. Cristalli visited Cuba after the revolution there and ended up being singled out as a leader of the Fourth International by Castro as he denounced and suppressed Cuban Trotskyists.

It was the Cuban missile crisis that developed Cristalli’s position on nuclear weapons. He was, though, not alone in wanting a nuclear confrontation with America: Che Guevara and Castro both wanted the conflagration. Cristalli’s position was that the imperialist states would not surrender to socialism without using their nuclear weapons, such a confrontation was inevitable; but that with the greater population of the communist world, only communism could emerge from the aftermath. This was simply a logical continuation of the basic position of Trotskyism to a world with nuclear weapons.

His other famous position, on extra-terrestrials being communists, was in fact not his position. Gittliz reveals that his notorious essay, ‘Flying saucers, the process of matter and energy, science, the revolutionary and working-class struggle and the socialist future of mankind’, was in fact written to close down debate from an enthusiast for UFOs in his party. In some senses his argument ‘We must appeal to the beings on other planets, when they come here, to intervene and collaborate with Earth’s inhabitants in suppressing poverty. We must make this call to them’ is simply a continuation of the notion of appealing to powerful figures to try and make changes.

 The UFOs simply became a distinguishing feature by which other Trotskyists could deride him and distinguish themselves from his organisation.

The secrecy of Cristalli’s organisation was essential in the face of real repression (some of the cadres were arrested and murdered by repressive regimes in Latin America). This, coupled with stern sexual moralism (including seeing homosexuality as degenerate) led to Cristalli controlling the sex lives of his cadres, separating married couples to work in different areas. He abandoned ‘democratic centralism’ in favour of his personal rule of the organisation, or ‘monolithism’.

It comes as no surprise to discover that he was caught receiving oral sex from a young female recruit. He responded in a fashion we are becoming accustomed to from the US president, of accusing all of his colleagues of being sexually promiscuous. He expelled them all, and then fathered a child with the recruit. As Gittlitz notes, this situation is not unique, and other Trotskyist sects had similar stories (Gerry Healy and the WRP springs to mind).

The book ends with an essay on the birth of the Posadas meme as a generation of young leftists rehabilitate the Ufological legend for the slogan ‘Fully automated space communism’, used ironically but still indicating a search for hope in a time of fallen ideas. Gittlitz points out that for a short period, references to Posadas outranked Trotsky himself in Google searches thanks to the memes.
Pik Smeet

Covid-19 and the Money Mine (2020)

From the July 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Capitalism has not directly caused the covid-19 pandemic. This coronavirus is by no means the first, and will not be the last, species-jumping outbreak. Nor could socialism guarantee to prevent something like this happening as it is a natural process. However, its rapid spread to ill-prepared recipient societies is most certainly exacerbated by capitalism.

Capitalism has become global while retaining national structures. It is this contradiction that allowed the virus to wreak the havoc it has. The competition engendered by those national structures restricts coordinated international action to temper the worst effects of the disease.

Presently, there is some supra-national cooperation into antiviral and vaccine research, no doubt spurred on by inhibited profit-making caused by national lockdowns. But, stable doors and bolted horses come to mind.

Of the 18 major pharmaceutical companies, 15 had withdrawn from research and development in vaccines, antivirals and antibiotics. There just wasn’t sufficient profit to be generated, unlike from addictive painkillers, tranquilizers and impotence drugs.

Similarly, ventilators and PPE equipment could have been manufactured and held in storage. That a pandemic of some sort was more than likely, and its effects devastating was shown by the Cygnus flu simulation exercise in 2016, and a similar exercise in Scotland in 2018, but the logic of capitalism dictated that no preparations were made.

Why go to the expense of manufacturing, purchasing and storing equipment for something that may not occur? A question and logic that does not seem to apply to the insurance business. Health services, such as the NHS, had endured over a decade of restricted funding that would have made buying preparatory materials beyond their means. And governments wedded to austerity most certainly wouldn’t provide the funds.

Here is the crux. Capitalism has been in a financial crisis of sorts for over a decade. It seems the international debt, which had increased from $84 trillion in 2000 to $173 trillion in 2008, now stands around $250 trillion. A debt more likely to rise than ever to be paid off.

This is the context in which national governments operate. They must protect capitalism, as they did by intervening during the financial crisis of 2008 to prevent banks becoming insolvent. It is imperative that interest rates are kept as low as possible so as not to exacerbate debt levels.

Central banks, through quantitative easing, supply ‘new money’ and indulge in purchasing debt. The major beneficiaries of this policy are the largest national capitalist concerns because, being already relatively rich, means they are safer havens for that ‘new money’ and cheap credit. Those teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, countries as well as companies, can go to the wall.

Meanwhile, the working class, through whose labour power all value is created, face increasing impoverishment. New and increasing debt causes governments to pursue austerity. Those who advocate using government spending to satisfy the needs of the majority and so increase consumption run up against the danger of provoking inflation driving interest rates up.

As prime minister, Theresa May declared there was no magic money tree. The pandemic, though, seems to have opened up a money mine, and deep mining there is taking place. Just as capitalism didn’t create covid-19, so covid-19 didn’t create the capitalist crisis, but it has made it a whole lot worse.

The measures governments have been forced to take to prevent economic and social collapse means the money miners are going to be digging deep for some time to come. The aim must be to restore production as quickly as possible by easing the lockdown and directing spending towards increasing profitability.

Capitalism demands the primary defence of national capital at the expense of the working class. If capital sees only declining, or vanishing, profitability production will be limited or it will cease. The ruthless logic is that the most effective fiscal policy is to supply money to the wealthy, no matter how loudly reformists bleat.

Every time capitalism stands on the ledge, it takes huge infusions of money to entice back inside, money raised at the expense of the satisfaction of human need. Health and social care, pensions, rising standards of living, the whole social wage is regarded as a drain on profitability, to be restricted and reduced.

Response from workers
How does the working class respond? During the pandemic largely magnificently. Many have literally given their lives to bring medical care to those afflicted with the virus. The penny-pinching lack of PPE has had dire consequences. To see the prime minister, and others of the complicit cabinet, standing behind a lectern declaring, ‘Defend the NHS’ has stretched irony beyond satire. It seems such a defence doesn’t entail trying to keep them alive.

Unlike the volunteer workforce that toiled to supply what the government has not, face masks, scrubs and scrubs bags, vital for health and care workers. The tired canard set against socialism is that people are selfish, greedy even and certainly won’t work without the lash of the money whip. Except, in large numbers, they have.

Capitalism provides precious few opportunities for demonstrations of social solidarity, but covid-19 has. The dedication of health and care workers, way beyond their contractual obligations, has been inspiring. As have the efforts of shop workers, delivery drivers et al. While government has fallen disastrously short of fulfilling its responsibilities, people, without requiring direction or material incentives, have stepped forward.

Workers now need to assess what best serves their futures. Brief applause on a Thursday evening was a sign of social solidarity, but also served as a shield that government wielded to fend off scrutiny. How long will ministerial lauding of the NHS last once austerity resumes its principle role?

The treatment of teachers serves as an example. They were praised for remaining at their posts for vulnerable children and to free up essential workers (what percentage of the workforce is deemed non-essential one wonders?), risking their own health in the process. Now they are being portrayed as a self-interested impediment to opening the schools again. Nurses, take note.

There is much talk of how, as lockdown is rescinded, there will be a new normal. A green future perhaps. A benign state, having demonstrated its willingness to intervene economically and socially, may play a positive, ‘socialist-ish’ role to some. Labour and Conservative parties will vie to portray themselves in this guise, the Greens will perhaps promote schemes such as the basic social income. Then capitalist reality will impose itself.

The phrase ‘logic of capitalism’ has been used above. However, there is also capitalist cognitive dissonance. A government that will gamble on leaving the EU without any trade agreements as if nothing has actually changed since the pointless referendum of 2016 seemingly fixed things for all time.

Schemes such as basic income may have an appeal, but it can only be paid for ultimately by drawing money from the total value created for capitalism. Wages, taxes and profit all originate from this source: higher wages, lower profit. Add in the basic income, along with the cost of its administration, and profits must be affected.

Of course, value is created by the working class, so, by whatever means, they are only receiving in part what is actually theirs. Except capitalism does not exist to return to its workers the value they create, only that part they need to live, and work. Right-wing politicians know and accept this, left wing ones either pretend they don’t know this, or delude themselves (and, unfortunately at the present, most of the working class) that it can be otherwise without fundamentally changing society.

Covid-19 has caused a pause for reflection. Politicians have been found wanting, but ultimately the responsibility for their failures rests with all who keep voting for them. The bottom of the money mine is being scraped at the moment, and the ore brought to the surface turns out to be pyrites.

The huge majority, collectively the working class in all its wide variety of roles and manifestations, has the intellectual and creative resources at its disposal to transform the world. There will be future pandemics, but with democratically owned production to satisfy need not profit, a moneyless society to which people freely contribute their talents and abilities, such eventualities may be prepared for and attenuate.

Socialism cannot abolish disease, but it can mitigate its effects without having to be concerned about profits and share prices. Then, and only then, will we all be in it together.
Stood at the kerb of capital,
Striving not to be misled,
Do not look to the left or right,
Keep your vision straight ahead.
Dave Alton

Empire, Free Trade and Brexit (2020)

From the July 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

The people in the driving seat of the Brexit project love to talk about free trade, looking back to the glory days when free trade was the ideology Britain spread to the world through its empire. This doctrine was so important that the Grun’s The Timetables of History lists the British penetration into South American markets as one of its significant events in that chronology. Freed from the restrictive barriers of the EU and its protectionist ideology, so the doctrine goes, Britain will be able to spearhead its way into genuine free trade around the world, and a new golden age of prosperity will begin.

This ideology is based upon purposeful forgetting built upon purposeful forgetting. The core of the British Empire was most certainly not free trade. As William Dalrymple, in his book The Anarchy, notes, the East India Company – the core of Empire building in India – included waging war in its founding charter. Force, more than free trade, characterised the rule of the British in India. India, in its turn, was the foundation upon which the Empire was built. As per David Graber’s observation in his Debt: The First 5,000 Years, the origin of capitalism is an alliance of interests between the merchant and martial classes.

Dalrymple notes, the East India Company was a private company, and its rule in India was the rule of the bottom line. It was the corporate take-over of a subcontinent. Marx, in Volume 1 of Capital observes:
  ‘English East India Company, as is well known, obtained, besides the political rule in India, the exclusive monopoly of the tea-trade, as well as of the Chinese trade in general, and of the transport of goods to and from Europe. But the coasting trade of India and between the islands, as well as the internal trade of India, were the monopoly of the higher employees of the company. The monopolies of salt, opium, betel and other commodities, were inexhaustible mines of wealth. The employees themselves fixed the price and plundered at will the unhappy Hindus. The Governor-General took part in this private traffic. His favourites received contracts under conditions whereby they, cleverer than the alchemists, made gold out of nothing’.
In turn this was the basis for the primary accumulation of wealth that allowed sufficient capital to be freed up to be invested in industrial production. This is the process that the Marxist geographer and theorist David Harvey refers to as ‘accumulation through expropriation’ the emphasis is not on market exchange, but the direct forceful seizure of wealth.

This was the situation through the period of the rule of the East India Company, and after through the direct rule of the British government. Eric Hobsbawm in his Industry and Empire tells us that the doctrine of free trade never applied to India, and the planned extraction of rents and taxes formed a massive basis of the transfer of wealth from India to the British ruling elite throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries.

Included in that rent money was the opium trade, which the British peddled to their subject Indian population (in part as a form of control) and forcibly exported to China (leading eventually to wars in which Britain sought to use violence to continue selling those drugs to China). No wonder that late nineteenth and twentieth century pulp fiction was filled with the fear of the opium being forced back onto the British public.

Direct extraction was not the only role India played. According to Hobsbawm, India came to be an important market for British cotton textiles. The industrial revolution helped Britain to smash the advanced Bengali cotton industry, but British rule also helped, and the laws of commerce and trade it imposed to give itself the advantage. As Shashi Tharoor in his book Inglorious Empire notes, this also happened to India’s merchant shipping and ship building industries. Perhaps the Brexiteers are haunted by this historical spectre, and the fear that being entangled in Europe might mean that the trick might well be reciprocated upon them one day (they are fond enough of appropriating the language of decolonisation and ‘independence’ for their cause of tearing away from the EU trade club).

India was permitted some exports: human beings were exported to labour in different parts of the empire, such as building the railways in Africa, and later serving as implanted populations to play off against other communities such as in the West Indies. It also helped to export force, since India was compelled to pay the upkeep of the massive army that ensured British control, and allowed them to send forces from the Indian army overseas: particularly in World War One where India sent over a million men out to France, the Middle East and to garrison the Suez Canal, allowing Britain to check the rise of its rival Germany.

India was a far from backward or underdeveloped land when the British arrived, although it was wracked by factional wars which weakened it politically and which the East India Company exploited to gain the upper hand. The looting by the British contributed to substantial underdevelopment that it has taken a long time since independence to begin to address. Of course, pointing such things out is seen as anti-British by the forgetting machine that wants to block out the real memories of empire.

It is unlikely that this link between force and Britain’s position in the world has escaped the minds of the more serious members of the government. After all, Theresa May tried to focus on security co-operation as a bargaining chip in her dealings with the EU, a sign that people at the heart of government were aware of this. Britain remains a significant military power, but it is unlikely to be able to repeat the conquest of the world by military means, at best it will only be able to exploit its position in worldwide organisations and as an ally of the United States to try and draw off a share of profits and exported ill-gotten gains of despots the world. From the pirate island of empire to being a well-armed tax haven is not an inconceivable trajectory.

The most significant take away is that free trade has never been the reality of Britain’s rise to power in the world, and as its formerly colonial possessions assert their strengths on the world market, short of resorting to insane warfare, British capital can only look forward to a subordinate position in the world league tables. Those other capitalists will have learned the lesson of Britain’s former success, and will use all their might to bend the rules to their advantage. Trade is inextricably tied up with the state and power.
Pik Smeet

Luxury Legoland (2020)

The Proper Gander Column from the July 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Monaco is a strange country, a haven for the super-rich on the Côte D’Azur, where the excesses of modern capitalism mix with old hangovers from feudalism. Filmed one year BC (Before Covid-19), Inside Monaco: Playground Of The Rich (BBC2) showed us inside its casinos, government offices and black-tie events. This particular playground costs a fortune to play in – keeping out the riff-raff – and its swings and roundabouts are all gold-plated.

Being not much bigger than Hyde Park in London, Monaco is the world’s second smallest state, after the Vatican City, and the most densely populated. It’s a constitutional monarchy headed by Prince Albert II, who can see more than half the country he rules from his office window. Albert’s ancestors captured the area disguised as monks nearly 800 years ago, and he’s still defended by soldiers (the ‘Carabiniers’) today. The affable prince has allowed the cameras to follow him on his tightly-choreographed official duties and time off, joking that ‘spontaneity has to be scheduled’. We also meet others who live and work in the pocket-sized principality, such as those who clean and organise hotel rooms which cost tens of thousands of Euros a night to stay in, and staff in air traffic control and the harbour who manage the influx of wealthy visitors’ yachts and helicopters. The streets and buildings of Monaco are sleek and pristine, but soulless, like, as someone points out, a ‘luxury legoland’.

Monaco’s demographics are different to those of other countries. Monégasques, or inhabitants with citizenship, are in the minority at just over a fifth of the population, which mostly comprises European ex-pats. There are strict rules around non-natives gaining citizenship, which is granted personally by Prince Albert for those who have lived there for ten years and satisfy other criteria. Citizenship confers benefits such as subsidised rents and priority for employment over foreign nationals. Non-citizens can only last there if they’re sickeningly wealthy. So, another difference between Monaco’s population and that of other places is that as many as a third of its inhabitants are millionaires, often identifiable by their self-satisfied, surgically-enhanced smiles. Proof that wealth is strongly linked to health is shown by the country having the world’s highest life expectancy, at around 90 years. This means that many of its inhabitants are elderly, leading to efforts to court younger super-rich people. These include the social media stars invited to Monaco’s Influencer Awards, whose president is Princess Camilla of Bourbon-Two Sicilies. At the gong-giving ceremony, one ‘influencer’ is asked ‘what are you doing here?’ and quips back ‘looking fabulous’; another is wearing a t-shirt saying ‘make money not friends’.

Proportionate to the number of its inhabitants, Monaco has one of the largest police forces in the world, and they have a zero-tolerance attitude to any misdemeanour and also the right to question anyone at any time. There are strict rules and laws: Monégasques can’t use the country’s casinos and the paparazzi are banned. Even camper vans, uploading photos to social media and walking down the street barefoot are forbidden. But rather than all this stirring up concerns about living in a police state, it’s welcomed among inhabitants as it protects their wealth and privacy. If you can afford to walk along the High Street (not barefoot) wearing millions of Euros’ worth of jewellery, you want to be reassured that you won’t get either mugged or papped.

Monaco isn’t large enough to accommodate industry or agriculture, and so its economy is based on commerce, and especially gambling. In the mid-nineteenth Century, its state was in the financial doldrums until the opening of the Monte Carlo casino, which drew in punters and their money from France, where gambling was then illegal. Since then, Monaco has also hosted money-spinners like the Influencer Awards and, more traditionally, the Grand Prix car race. During this event, Prince Albert hosts a reception at the Royal Palace for 700 guests, who enjoy wine priced at thousands of Euros a bottle and dishes with ingredients including a truffle worth £35,000. There’s enough money flying around that the state doesn’t need to charge income tax, a move which has attracted more millionaires and billionaires to the principality.

Monaco hasn’t found a way of managing capitalism which could be replicated anywhere and everywhere. Despite its sovereignty and quirkiness, Monaco’s economy is tied in with that of the rest of the world, even more so than other countries’ are. Its wealth relies not on the spin of a Monte Carlo roulette wheel or spectacles like the Grand Prix and the Influencer Awards, but ultimately on countless people elsewhere, whose work produces the profits which eventually end up being bet on red or invested in a bespoke super-yacht. All countries are concentrations of capital, and Monaco is also a concentration of capitalists. The lack of common ground between their lifestyles and ours highlights the extent of the class divide.
Mike Foster

UBI – Useless Baseless Initiative (2020)

The Cooking the Books column from the July 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘Coronavirus has united left and right on value of universal basic income’, was the headline of an article in the Times (2 June) by Philip Aldrick, its Economics Editor. This is the reform to capitalism under which the state would pay each of its citizens an unconditional minimum income.

The ‘right’ favour it to take the place of free and subsidised services provided to the poor; they want to give them instead the money to buy these services from private capitalists, The ‘left’ see it as a desirable social reform, some as a way to break the link between income and work. The Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has endorsed it, on behalf of the ‘centre’. Socialists are not keen on it at all.

On the face of it, giving people more money to spend seems a good idea. Who doesn’t want more money? But it won’t work, at least not as intended; for two reasons.

The first is that the payment from the state is never going to be much more than ‘basic’, something near the poverty line such as the level to which in Britain a person’s income is made up to under the Income Support scheme. This is in part because the capitalist state will want to keep the amount spent on UBI down, but also because, if the income was too high, it would undermine the economic coercion that is behind the wages system.

If people could live, even if rather sparsely, on the income there would be less pressure on them to go out and find an employer. Some advocates of the scheme say this would strengthen the low-paid workers’ bargaining position and see it as a reason why it should be introduced. But this is precisely why no capitalist government would introduce it at any level other than around the poverty line.

So, if introduced, it would only be as a tweak to the welfare or tax systems, with the basic income replacing other benefits, amounting to no more than a ‘redistribution of poverty’. The results of the Finnish experiment, on which reformists placed such hopes, showed that it did bring some benefit to the unemployed who received it in that they no longer had to submit to what even the Economics Editor of the Times called ‘intrusive and dehumanising’ means testing, nor trying to find a job that wasn’t there (capitalism needs a certain level of unemployment, so there are always going to be some unemployed), nor going on useless courses about how to fill in a CV. On the other hand, those receiving it didn’t show any extra inclination to seek out a job; which was why it is not going be adopted.

The other objection to the scheme is that, as it would be paid to every citizen, whatever their situation and even if they were employed, it would be bound to have an effect on wages; it would strengthen the employers’ hand in bargaining over wages as the price of people’s working skills. Wages reflect the cost of reproducing these skills. So, if wage-workers are paid an amount by the state, the employer will not need to pay so much. This wouldn’t happen immediately but it would exert a pressure for money wages not to rise in line with the general price level. In the end, what the right hand gave the left hand would take away.

The only viable way to break the link between income and work is on the basis of the common ownership of productive resources; that will allow the principle of ‘from each according to their their ability, to each according to their needs’ to be implemented.

Sting in the Tail: Telling porkies (1993)

The Sting in the Tail column from the July 1993 issue of the Socialist Standard

Telling porkies

Clive Soley, the Labour MP for Hammersmith, has really got upset with the government—he believes they may be telling lies about the unemployment figures. Gosh, shock, horror!

In his local paper the Hammersmith Gazette (7 May), Mr Soley is quoted as saying:
  The Tories can't fiddle or fix the Census figures like they fiddle the unemployment figures. They used 27 statistical changes and all sorts of other schemes to get the unemployment figures down. The Census shows that you can't trust the Tories.
He was referring to a 13.5 percent higher figure revealed by the Census than admitted by government figures for Hammersmith. A defence of the government figures was made by officials in the same issue of the paper:
  Not so, the Department of Employment responded. It is simply an easily explained difference between people who are unemployed and people who think they are unemployed. “There is always going to he a difference", said a Government spokesman.
Well, that's alright then. There's a lot of people walking about Hammersmith—some of them are unemployed and some of them only think they are unemployed. Got it?


All right for some

Ever wondered how top executives get those fabulous pay rises we read about?

The Independent business section (2 May) provides “10 arguments commonly put before remuneration committees to justify large pay increases for the chief executive”.

What they all boil down to is contained in argument Number 10:
“You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours". Mr B, the chairman of the remuneration committee, is keen to be generous to the chief executive, Mr A, because he has something to gain. Mr B, after all, is the chief executive of a company whose remuneration committee includes Mr A . . . Mr B hopes that if he raises Mr As pay, Mr A will return the favour by raising his pay when the time comes.
Just imagine if the trade unions decided one another's pay claims in this way, and just imagine the howls this would produce from those same top executives.


It’s a carve-up

A consortium of two shipyards, one on Clydeside and the other in Barrow-in-Furness, has won a £170 million contract to build a naval helicopter assault ship.

They undercut Swan Hunter on Tyneside by more than £50 million. This is an amazing amount and there have been furious claims on Tyneside that the successful bid must have been made below cost and with the aim of driving a competitor out of business.

If Swan Hunter does close then the Clydeside and Barrow yards will have the British warship market all to themselves, and this, despite what they all say about “welcoming competition”, is what every company dreams about.


Trained Youth

One of the nuttier ideas about at present is that crime, especially amongst the young, is caused by indiscipline. Anyone who has that idea should read about an extremely well-disciplined group of young workers— the British army's pride and joy: the Paras.

In the Independent on Sunday (16 May) we learn about one young man in the Parachute Regiment:
  He had his moments, nevertheless, and describes hard-drinking, brawling evenings, interspersed with elaborate rituals involving the consumption of vomit, urine and excrement. Such evenings would usually end with heart-felt renditions of "Lorelei” (“Tomorrow Belongs to Me”), “The Eullschirmjager Song", and “When We March on England”.
So there you have it. Singing Nazi storm-trooper songs, these well-disciplined hooligans are better organised than ill-disciplined hooligans anyday.


More confusion

A visitor to the SWP May Day rally at Alexandra Palace told the Independent (4 May):
  Last year I came for the first time, and I was just overwhelmed: so many people in the same room with the same ideas to talk and argue with. Really exciting.
Come again? Here is a party which recruits on the basis of single issues— troops out of Ulster, the right to work, national independence struggles, any strike, etc. In fact everything except the abolition of the wages system and its replacement by production for use, so it is hard to imagine that there could be “many people” at any SWP function “with the same ideas".

Proof? Ask any ten SWPers for a definition of socialism and you'll get ten different answers—and each will be more ridiculous than the last.


Putting the boot in

It was inevitable that many employers would use the recession to attack workers' wages and conditions, “Lucky To Have A Job” (BBC1, 17 May) showed just how far some of them have gone. Many workers must accept longer hours and less pay or be sacked. There are Essex milkmen who have to work a 70-hour week for no extra pay; full-time workers who are forced to go part-time; part-time workers put on “zero hour” contracts, which mean they only get any work when it suits their employer: and more.

The milkmen's boss justified the 70-hour week by claiming “they choose to do it for the social contact they enjoy”, while the boss of some zero hour workers said they could now “develop their hobbies and pastimes”.

Watching the smirking cynicism of the employers' spokesmen was galling enough for socialists, but what was worse was the meekness and resignation with which the workers involved accepted their lot.