Friday, February 28, 2020

Who needs money? (1992)

Book Review from the June 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

Money & Survival. By Melvin Chapman. Third Millenium Press. £5.85.

The basic proposition of this book is that money is the organising force in society but that it is inefficient, wasteful and inhumane and should be dispensed with before nuclear war or ecological disaster overwhelm human beings.

Many of the topics Melvin Chapman deals with, such as education, crime, human nature, production for need, and the wastefulness of the financial system are familiar to socialists. What they will find lacking, however, is any acknowledgement of the historical development of capitalism which gave rise to the universal power of money with which he is so concerned; any examination of the class structure of modern society which has been responsible for the unsatisfying and mainly unhappy lives of most of the population—the working class.

A disproportionate amount of space (twenty-two pages) early in the book is devoted to an examination of the social losses resulting from the running down of the railway system in Britain. Many readers (including this one) will be unable to judge whether his figures for tonnages of freight carried and passenger miles travelled help to justify his conclusions that the British transport system has been less efficient overall as a result. And the impact of the chapter is further weakened by his use of the term “money” to cover almost every aspect of capitalist economics. What he is trying to show, presumably, is that profitability is not the same thing as efficiency and often works against it, in spite of the loud claims made by politicians and economists. But he should have said so.

A similar obscurity or reticence blunts many of the other points made in the book. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of acute perception here of the workings of modern society and the way in which life would change when money was no longer regulating production, consumption and behaviour.

In not giving any attention to the fact that society's means of production and distribution are owned and controlled by a small section of the population, Melvin Chapman helps to make his arguments for a moneyless society seem unrealistic, and that is a pity. When he deals with the question of property he considers little other than personal property and sees no reason why the owners of fortunes should not be allowed to keep them. He does not seem to realise that the poverty and the drudgery of the working class is caused by the profits, rents and interest extracted by these fortunes from unpaid labour. Nowhere, in other words, does he consider the nature of capital.

Without this class dimension, Melvin Chapman has no suggestion of a social force to bring about his moneyless society other than the power of a "good idea”. Subscribing, if only tacitly, to the myth that ours is a united society with common interests, he lays the responsibility for the piecemeal removal of money upon "The Government”, without questioning how it is that governments have never yet made the economy operate in the interests of the whole population.

Money & Survival is interesting to socialists in that it makes a wide-ranging indictment of capitalist society without, apparently, owing anything to the Marxian tradition. But it demonstrates, yet again, how crucial was the contribution of Marx and Engels in identifying and analysing the class nature of capital.
Ron Cook

Action Replay: Bastia Disaster (1992)

From the June 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard
“I have done it again.One year in every ten I manage it.” (Sylvia Plath).
Sadly, one year in ten is not frequent enough for the exploiters of the public’s taste for football to draw blood in their pursuit of profit. Three years, almost to the month, after Hillsborough we have what appears to be an action replay. Once again a cup semi-final; once again avoidable casualties; once again preposterous attempts at victim-blaming; once again inadequate medical provision.

Let us make no bones about it—the Furiani stadium bloodbath in Bastia was caused by the profit motive proving too strong for the authorities to adequately consider safety aspects which most of us would regard as more important. Like the ram-raider who causes damage ten times worth what he steals, they couldn’t resist the temptation to sell 10,000 more tickets even though they must have known there was a grave risk in erecting a temporary stand for such a game.

That they knew is (at least circumstantially) evidenced by the fact that warnings were given to the crowd not to stamp in unison in that stand. The outrageous suggestion that you can expect a cup-tie crowd to behave like a chamber concert audience insults the intelligence of all but the dourest apologists for unbridled capitalism.

The parallels with Hillsborough continued when we saw the players taking down the perimeter fencing which, if there had been a quite understandable panic in the crowd, would have prevented their escape to safety.

The emergency services, to their credit, were fairly quickly on the scene at Furiani but hospital facilities for the dying and injured were far from close to hand. The nearest hospital was five kilometres away in the mountains and utterly incapable of coping with the scale of the disaster.

Again, as at Hillsborough, the dignity of the plain people of Bastia made a sharp contrast with the posturing of those in charge. The same newspaper which shows a crippled victim of the disaster attending the funeral of one of the dead reports that efforts were being made to stage a makeshift cup-final between Monaco and Marseille. The chief consideration in the timing of this event appeared to be when it was convenient for Mitterrand to grace the proceedings with his presence.

Have we learned nothing? Socialists would argue that we should have learnt never to trust a capitalist who is in a position to make a few bob. Have the capitalists learned nothing? We would argue that the rules of capitalism don’t permit them to learn any more than they need to know to make a profit.
John Usher

The Socialist Party's Summer School 2020 (2020)

Party News from the February 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard



The Socialist Party’s 2020 Summer School on 7th-9th August, looks at technological progress and its application in the past, present and future. This weekend of talks and discussion is an exciting opportunity to share and explore revolutionary ideas, in the relaxing setting of Fircroft College in Birmingham.

From the development of the first tools and the wheel through to the invention of the printing press, the steam engine, the microprocessor and beyond, technology has always shaped how we live. Scientific developments take place in the context of the social and economic conditions of the time. In capitalism, technological progress and how technology is used are driven by what is profitable and cost effective more than by what is really needed and wanted. This means that technology is often used in ways which go against our best interests, whether through environmental damage, the development of ever-more destructive weapons or the misuse of data gathered online and through social media. In a future socialist society based on common ownership and democratic organisation of industries and services, technology could really be used to benefit us, in harmony with the environment.

Full residential cost (including accommodation and meals Friday evening to Sunday afternoon) is £100, and the concessionary rate is £50. Day visitors are welcome, but please book in advance.

E-mail enquiries should be sent to spgbschool@yahoo.co.uk. 

To book a place online, go to spgb.net/summer-school-2020 or send a cheque (payable to the Socialist Party of Great Britain) with your contact details to Summer School, The Socialist Party, 52 Clapham High Street, London, SW4 7UN.

Venezuela: Rooting out corruption? (1999)

From the September 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

In 1989, following mass rioting, after government austerity measures which cut working-class incomes, 300 people were killed by the security forces in Venezuela. Most of the bodies “disappeared”; but in October 1996, because of a putrid smell in a building in a cemetery, on a hillside just outside the capital, Caracas, dozens of unidentified corpses were discovered. They had been dumped there secretly by the state, and left to rot.

It was not, however, just the bodies of the workers that were left to rot. Much of Venezuela was in a state of decay. Moreover, as we pointed out last year (Socialist Standard, October 1998), the economy had been teetering on the edge of total instability throughout the 1990s. Not surprisingly, Venezuela was badly affected by the economic crisis spreading throughout much of the world. The government, whose currency had been under intense pressure for some time, launched an immediate round of public spending cuts. What has happened since then?

Seven years ago, Hugo Chavez led a failed military coup against the government, “in the name of Venezuela’s poor”; but was democratically elected president last February. He is a belligerent populist, who claimed that he would root out corruption, of which there is a lot, in Venezuela.

Following his inauguration, Chavez soon showed his hand. He began to prepare for the elections in August. He flouted the electoral laws by promoting his own candidates, and by appointing army officers to senior government posts. And he claimed that he had strong support among the poor majority. And he has been proved right. His left-wing coalition, which included his wife, his brother and about 20 of his former military colleagues, won 122 seats of the 131-seat assembly, in an 80 percent turnout.

He says that the new assembly will renew institutions which have been dominated by the two old parties for 40 years; and he wants the assembly to dissolve congress and the supreme court. Following his victory, Chavez claimed that:
  The victory of the patriots has been pulverising. We are building a true democracy in a way that those who destroyed the country from here didn’t know how to (Guardian, 27 July).
Official statistics admit that sixty-five percent of Venezuelans live in poverty, despite the fact that the country possesses the largest oil reserves in the Western Hemisphere. During the last three decades, the per capita wealth of Venezuela has dropped twenty-five percent. In October last year, we asked: what of the working class? And we said that, for them, it can only get worse. We were right.

Despite the stabilisation of the currency, there has been a sharp economic downturn of the economy, resulting in the loss of about 600,000 jobs since Hugo Chavez took office as President in February. Moreover, we can safely predict that the majority of the people of Venezuela, the employed and unemployed working class, will continue to exist in poverty and deprivation, in the dilapidated apartments of Caracas, the run-down shacks of the surrounding ranchos or the one-storey slums of Maracy in Aragua state.

All Chavez’s proposed reforms, and all the present support of the workers, will not make one iota of difference. Only a change from capitalism to socialism will achieve that.
Peter E. Newell

A disaster waiting to happen (2000)

From the February 2000 of the Socialist Standard 

When the global economic crisis hit, first, the Pacific Rim countries and, later, Latin America and elsewhere, just over a couple of years ago, Venezuela was, as we noted (Socialist Standard, October 1998), particularly vulnerable. It had been economically and politically unstable for at least two decades, and corruption was rife (see Socialist Standard, September 1999).

In February last year, Hugo Chavez, the former paratrooper who had led a failed military coup d’état seven years previously, was elected president; and in August, he and his left-wing coalition won an overwhelming victory (but on a 53 percent turnout) in the elections to the National Assembly. He had proposed a complete rewriting of the constitution, the draft of which went before the new assembly, and was passed on 16 December.

According to his mainly right-wing critics, President Chavez has become a virtual dictator. He has increased, against the general trend worldwide, state intervention and control of the economy, reduced civilian control of the armed forces, and has probably secured the presidency for himself until 2012. He says that he needs such powers in order to “root out corruption” which, of course, he blames on previous governments. And, said Chavez, he would solve Venezuela’s economic ills. Nevertheless, between February last year, when he became president, and the beginning of December, unemployment had increased by a massive 700,000.

On polling day, last August, there was heavy rainfall throughout much of Venezuela, causing a number of landslides, 37 deaths, and the destruction of up to 2,000 homes. But worse was to come.

Beginning around 10 December, almost a year’s average rain fell, outside the usual rainy season, in five days. Torrential rain continued for another five days. The worse affected area was the tiny Vargas state bordering the Caribbean Sea in the north-west of Venezuela. Much of the country is flat; but there are hills and mountains, such as Mount Avila, inland and parallel to the coast, from Guacara in the west to the east of Caracas, the capital.

By 15 December, huge amounts of mud as well as large rocks and boulders began to slide down towards the coast. The soils, have, moreover, suffered constant erosion over the years; and when the natural dykes broke rivers formed, sending floods of muddy water onto the low-lying areas. Large swathes of the northern coast were swept into the sea. One of the towns to be worse hit was Carmen de Uria. It only had dirt roads; and it straddled what had been a small river, which had no proper embankment. After 10 days of rain, the river overflowed, cascading through many homes. Shortly after, Carmen de Uria was entirely buried under mud.

Floods like these claimed 100,000 lives in Venezuela

“It was,” said Piero Feliziani, an Italian geologists, “a holocaust waiting to happen.” But it need not have caused so much death, destruction and misery, even if it was a “natural” disaster. (The Archbishop of Caracas said that the rains “were divine retribution” for President Chavez’s radical policies!)

The basic cause, however, was the rapid development of a commodity-producing, capitalist, market economy from the early 1950s. According to Michael McCaughan in the Observer:
  “Venezuela, like neighbouring Colombia and Peru, was a largely rural society with strong family community ties until the fifties, when civil unrest and depressed crop prices forced millions into misery belts around the cities, where they piled high in precarious dwellings” (26 December).
For decades, there has been rapid, uncontrolled, unregulated immigration from the rural areas of extreme poverty to, and around, Caracas and other cities seeking employment, first, in the expanding oil industry and, then, in tourism. Indeed Venezuela’s weak economy depends almost entirely on oil and tourism for its foreign revenue. Vargas state has 500,000 workers who service the tourist industry, or commute each day to Caracas from the shanty towns and ranchos in the hills surrounding the capital. “Corrupt politicians and planners” turned a blind eye to such developments, where up to 350,000 workers existed, often without electricity, running water or main drainage.

This urban overpopulation is, according to Luisa Romero, an investment broker based in New York, “one more effect of the globalised economy”. It has also resulted in the death, disappearance and loss of habitation of hundreds of thousands of workers. Indeed, at the time of writing these lines, the numbers are not known, and may never be known, but have been estimated at more than 450,000, then times the number killed in Venezuela’s previous catastrophe, the earthquake of 1812.

Surely, if nothing else, the events and disaster in Venezuela at the end of 1999 demonstrate the need to replace capitalism by a new, democratic society of production, not of profit, but of use and the satisfaction of people’s needs; a socialist society of common ownership of natural resources (including Venezuela’s oil reserves if still required) and the means of production.
Peter E. Newell

Proletaires—Unissez-Vous! (1976)

Party News from the May 1976 issue of the Socialist Standard

What happened the other Sunday morning had to be heard to be believed. Our man in Hyde Park was patiently explaining the mechanics of inflation to a fair crowd when a French television crew arrived (TFI, no less) with a polite request to interview the Party. This was an offer we couldn’t refuse, and off we went, s’il vous plait.

First question: “‘Est le Parti Socialiste de Grande Bretagne (yes, they got it right!) contre la Monarchie?” Now, it so happened by some quirk of Fate that our bloke on the platform, at that moment, had a smattering of French (apparently picked up in the more sleazy joints behind the Pigalle). The word rapidly shot round: they came running from all quarters to enjoy the fun.

Deuxième question (Second Question, to you): ‘‘Est le Parti Socialiste contre l’Aristocratie?” Réponse: “Oui. Socialisme will abolish all titles, ranks and privileges, Lords, Dukes and Queens as the French bourgeois did in 1794. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité — remember? But they replaced aristocracy with plutocracy. Socialism is social equality.”

By this time our bloke’s slender stock of French was rapidly running out. Third question: “What do the British people think of Princess Margaret and her affairs?” This was a question for the British people, not the Socialist Party, and the speaker therefore translated to the audience. ". . . !” shouted a large man at the front. ". . .? Qu’est-ce que e’est . . .?” said the TV producer. So they had to be content with “Rien” — nothing. “We don’t think about Princess Margaret at all. Nothing.”

“Nothing?” “Don’t you understand any English at all?” roared the exasperated speaker. “Mais oui” responded the TV man. The speaker then proceeded, as we usually do, to interview the interviewer. “May I ask if you are a member of the French working class?” The TV man gave a typically Sacha Distel shrug: “Je ne sais pas: I don’t know!”

“Well, we do,” said the Socialist party speaker. He turned to the audience: “Come on, somebody — ‘wage-slave’ in French?” And from the inexhaustible resources of working-class knowhow, back the answer came — in a piercing girlish treble from a pretty mademoiselle in the audience: “l’esclave salaire”.

“That’s it! You are an ‘esclave salaire’. And what’s more, you’re working on Sunday while we’re all enjoying ourselves discussing Socialism.” By this time, the the interviewer was in the van amid mutual “Au revoirs”, “Venez chez nous encore” and “Merci beaucoup”. Cheers! handshakes! Formidable, magnifique, etc.

So now we need linguists. All Party speakers must learn at least two foreign languages. Anyone who knows French, Swahili, Arabic, Spanish, Chinese or Urdu should come along to Hyde Park and help the Workers of the World unite.
Horatio