Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Mr. Lloyd George on his mettle. (1906)

From the December 1906 issue of the Socialist Standard

After Mr. Bryan, Lord George. Mr. Bryan declares that if his scheme of Free Trade in Trust articles fails, it must mean the growth of a definite Socialist Political Party. Mr. Lloyd George declared at Birmingham on October 22nd, that the period had arrived when the Liberal Party was to be put to the test. He said that
“the new movement represented a real upheaval due to the impatience of the people of the slow progress made by existing parties in redressing wrongs . . . No wonder the people asked ‘why all this tarrying and dallying?’ They said to the old political parties, ‘If you are in earnest you are bunglers ; If you are not in earnest you are rogues.’ The answer rested with the Liberals during the next three years . . . The people had said to them, ‘We are going to give you your chance, but it is only a chance.’ The whole future of the Liberal Party depended upon the practical answer they gave to the expectations of the people.”
So in three years’ time if the Liberal Party do not remove the conditions that give rise to the complaint of the people (vide Lloyd George), “Here you have been tinkering for generations with reform, and the end of it all is slums, pauperism, and great want in a land of plenty,” the Great Liberal Party will deserve to go. We have no fear but that they will so deserve. The “great want in the land of plenty” is due, as has been proved time and time again in these columns, to the private ownership of the means of living, i.e., capitalism, and nothing short of the abolition of capitalism will abolish that “great want.” The Liberal Party represent the capitalist class and we shall watch with interest capitalism proceeding to abolish itself.

After three years’ more tinkering the condition of the workers will not have improved, and the efforts of the liberals, “bunglers or rogues,” will have failed. And then Mr. Lloyd George says the new movement will grow and displace the bunglers. As in the case of Mr. Bryan’s proposals the alternative has already commenced to develope in anticipation of the failure of the capitalists’ suggested remedies for the evils of the system they are so concerned to conserve.
Dick Kent

A Reunion. (1906)

Party News from the December 1906 issue of the Socialist Standard

A reunion of members and friends will be held at Sydney Hall, 36, York Road, Battersea, on Sunday, December 9th. Tea will be provided at 5.30 for those who have previously advised the Branch Secretary, and at 7 a Social and Dance will take place. A Sketch by the S.P.G.B. Mummers and a Collection in aid of the Party Organ Fund will be features of the evening. All will be cordially welcomed.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Socialist Sonnet No. 148: Free School Meals (2024)

From the Socialism or Your Money Back blog

Free School Meals

Empty bellies leave young minds malnourished,

A famine of learning that’s all too rife,

Starving children of their chances for life,

Who might well, properly fed, have flourished.

Free school meals then? Except, nothing is free

For this world in which all necessities

Have a price, and hunger is a dis-ease

Caused not by a lack of food, but money.

Capital, driven by insatiable greed,

Will not, shall not finance gratuitous fare

If it can’t claw back the cost from elsewhere,

Driven to meet profit’s demands, not need.

For now, only air is an oddity,

Not made and sold as a commodity.

 D. A.

Letter: Min or max? (2024)

From the 16th May 2024 issue of the Weekly Worker

Min or max?

Mike Macnair, in his analysis of the results of the elections to the Greater London Assembly, notes that they “show TUSC polling in the same range as the SPGB” (‘Local election barometer’, May 9).

In other words, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, appealing to trade union-conscious workers with a programme of attractive-sounding reforms (what used to be called ‘the minimum programme’), polled more or less the same as the Socialist Party of Great Britain, which was standing on a straight platform of socialism - the common ownership and democratic control of the means of living, with production directly to meet people’s needs, not profit - and nothing but (what used to be called ‘the maximum programme’).

But what’s the point of standing on a minimum programme when you are not going to get more votes than if you stood on the maximum programme? Workers who just want reforms understandably prefer to vote for reformist parties they consider have a chance of being able to implement some.

Seeking support on the basis of reforms to capitalism confuses the issue, by encouraging workers to continue to think in terms of getting a better deal under capitalism rather than to get rid of it. The time and energy spent on this could be more fruitfully spent in campaigning directly for socialism. After all, what is needed is more socialists.
Adam Buick 

Life and Times: Trump v the Binman (2024)

The Life and Times column from the May 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Recently, at enormous risk to himself, a binman rescued a family and their dog from a burning house in the West Midlands. He had a cup of tea in Greggs and then carried on with his job.

How does this tie in with Donald Trump? Well, a recent Guardian article by George Monbiot pointed to the theory among psychologists that human beings can be broadly divided into two groups -‘extrinsics’ and ‘intrinsics’. What they mean by ‘extrinsics’ are Trump types – people attached to ‘prestige, status, image, fame, power and wealth’. They are a group that tends to ‘objectify and exploit other people’, to be rude and aggressive, to ‘have little interest in cooperation or community’, to dismiss social needs and care of the environment, and at the same time to be likely to exhibit ‘frustration, dissatisfaction, stress, anxiety, anger and compulsive behaviour’.‘Intrinsics’ on the other hand are ‘inclined towards empathy, intimacy and self-acceptance’, open to change and reasoned argument and ‘protective of other people and the living world’.

Winners and losers
If this theory is valid – and it does seem to correspond very much to the reality we see around us – how is it that different groups of human beings can be so different? How is it that Donald Trump can seem so manifestly uncaring about anyone other than himself while a binman can risk his life to save the lives of others who are complete strangers? Monbiot points out that, according to the theory, we are not born with either of these tendencies but rather pick them up from the environment – personal, social and political – in which we are nurtured. So ‘if people live under a cruel and grasping political system, they tend to normalise and internalise it, absorbing its dominant claims and translating them into extrinsic values’. In the same way, if they live in an environment ‘in which social norms are characterised by kindness, empathy, community and freedom from want and fear, their values are likely to shift towards the intrinsic end’.

This would seem to account for the widespread support enjoyed by an openly ‘bully’ politician like Trump, who divides humans into ‘winners and losers’, among not just some of the wealthy in the US but also among some of the poorest, most insecure and disadvantaged members of that society. Such people will blame their plight and vent their anger and frustration either on those they see as slightly better off than themselves or on those even worse off than themselves who they see as somehow spongeing off society by claiming ‘welfare’. And they will be particularly hostile towards the ‘intrinsics’, those behaving in a kind, cooperative way, labelling them as ‘woke’ or ‘snowflakes’ or the like. Monbiot suggests that, in the US in particular, this mentality has been engendered by ‘toxic myths about failure and success’ and the importance given to the idea that wealth needs to be acquired at any cost, solely by individual endeavour and without concern for other people or for social or environmental consequences (the so-called ‘American Dream’).

The same kind of mentality is of course widely found, if perhaps in a less overt and brutal way, in other countries too, subject as they are to the competitive ethic and the ‘sink or swim’ imperative of capitalism. In fact, everywhere we look, the system we live under pressures workers (ie, those who form the vast majority of all populations) to ‘get on’, to make money, to compete against others and, if necessary, to blame others if they fail to do that satisfactorily.

In trouble
Yet, as this column has often pointed out and is demonstrated by such acts as the rescue by the binman, people are on the whole powerfully inclined not to behave in selfish, self-seeking ways but to assist, support and be cooperative with their fellow humans where and when necessary. Such interactions are absolutely intrinsic to everyday life, be it in such everyday acts as giving others right of way in traffic, making contributions to and organising food banks, doing simple favours for others, but also in helping others who suddenly and unexpectedly find themselves ‘in trouble’. The fact is that we, as humans, will usually choose to help others in a worse situation than ourselves, if only because it makes us feel better about ourselves and, as has been shown by scientific research, gives us higher levels of well-being. Such examples of help and cooperation without the prospect of material gain or advantage abound but are taken for granted and are rarely reported or commented on precisely because they are so numerous, so common and such a perpetual feature of everyday life. Of course, human beings are also capable of the most horrendous antisocial acts, which may involve selfishness and brutality, but these are not the norm. This is so much the case that, when they happen, they stand out, leading to the ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ scenario whereby we seem to be constantly bombarded by ‘bad news’.

This says something about how human beings, though their behaviour is extremely flexible, are fundamentally ‘ultra-social’ creatures, who, given the opportunity, are only too ready to make common cause with their fellow creatures unless influenced into doing otherwise by circumstances or deeply embedded conditioning. This is the default, that, despite contrary ideas common in the past, is now widely accepted by those qualified in the subject of human behaviour. Of course, as exemplified by the Trump cult in the US, where the conditions of society push many people into behaving in unkind, uncooperative ways and in seeking to maximise their own self-interest, there is still a long way to go. Yet in a society organised in an entirely different way from the current capitalist one, it is clear that people will not have the slightest problem in behaving as ‘intrinsics’, ie, in operating in a harmonious and cooperative way most if not all of the time. In such a society, a socialist one of common ownership, free access to all goods and services and democratic organisation, the natural human tendency to share and cooperate will surely be its guiding principle.
Howard Moss

Pathfinders: Death by algorithm (2024)

The Pathfinders Column from the May 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

The world held its breath last month as April showers of Iranian missiles descended on Israel, only to be blown out of the sky by Israel’s Iron Dome defence system. Would regional war flower as a result? Iran has around ten times the population of Israel, but Israel has an elite air force, courtesy of the USA, and some of the best technology in the world. Now insiders have revealed that it has been using AI in the war in Gaza.

According to a non-profit magazine run by Israeli and Palestinian journalists, Israel has been using AI to identify ‘tens of thousands of Gazans as suspects for assassination, using an AI targeting system with little human oversight and a permissive policy for casualties’. According to six Israeli intelligence officers involved in the Gaza war, some of them actually in the targeting rooms, the AI system, known as Lavender, is designed to remove the ‘human bottleneck for both locating the new targets and decision-making to approve the targets’. The officers say that, in the early stages of the war, the Israeli Defence Force almost completely relied on Lavender to identify the domestic homes of up to 37,000 high to low-ranking Hamas and Islamic Jihad military personnel for potential drone strikes. Such was the cursory nature of IDF oversight, which is demanded by international law, that Lavender’s outputs were treated ‘as if it were a human decision’, and the kill lists given ‘sweeping approval’ without anyone checking the raw intelligence data. This was despite it being known that the system had a 10 percent error rate.

Moreover, the AI system was designed to target militants at their most vulnerable, when they had returned to their domestic dwellings to be with their families. A second AI system, chillingly known as ‘Where’s Daddy?’, identified when the militants actually entered their family homes. ‘We were not interested in killing [Hamas] operatives only when they were in a military building or engaged in a military activity,’ one intelligence officer said. ‘It’s much easier to bomb a family’s home. The system is built to look for them in these situations.’

For lower-ranking militants, the army decided not to use smart bombs, which can take out an individual or a car, but unguided ‘dumb’ bombs which destroy entire buildings or apartment blocks on top of the target individual. ‘You don’t want to waste expensive bombs on unimportant people — it’s very expensive for the country and there’s a shortage’, said one officer. Two others added that the army had also agreed that ‘for every junior Hamas operative that Lavender marked, it was permissible to kill up to 15 or 20 civilians’, while for a battalion or brigade commander, the permissible civilian deaths could be over 100.

This explains why the number of women and children killed has been so enormous. In previous operations, the IDF had strict rules of proportionality, in compliance with international law, and requirements to cross-check, verify, incriminate and confirm the target’s presence in real time. Because human targeting generated limited results, it was feasible to stick to these rules. Since October 7, targeting has been given over entirely to AI, which has produced gigantic kill lists, and all the verification rules have gone out of the window. Who the system identifies as a target depends on where the users set the bar. It could be little more than changing one’s address or mobile phone. ‘There were times when a Hamas operative was defined more broadly, and then the machine started bringing us all kinds of civil defense personnel, police officers, on whom it would be a shame to waste bombs.’

To call this unprecedented is an understatement. Nothing like it has been known before in Israel’s military operations, nor that of anybody else’s including the USA, not even against high-ranking targets like Bin Laden. A US general and former commander of operations against ISIS said, ‘With Osama Bin Laden, you’d have an NCV [Non-combatant Casualty Value] of 30, but if you had a low-level commander, his NCV was typically zero. We ran zero for the longest time.’ For the Israeli Defence force however, things were different. ‘There was hysteria in the professional ranks,’ said one officer, ‘They had no idea how to react at all. The only thing they knew to do was to just start bombing like madmen.’

What will be the long-term upshot of this policy of indiscriminate, AI-assisted slaughter? The Israeli whistleblowers are under no illusions: ‘In the short term, we are safer, because we hurt Hamas. But I think we’re less secure in the long run. I see how all the bereaved families in Gaza — which is nearly everyone — will raise the motivation for [people to join] Hamas 10 years down the line. And it will be much easier for [Hamas] to recruit them.’

So, never mind rules, never mind international agreements, this is the shape of wars to come, where the critical factor is not law but LAWS – lethal autonomous weapons systems which track, target and destroy human life with no human oversight at all. The irony is that capitalism’s technological revolutions have created a global productive capability that could put us all beyond any need for outdated capitalist trade relations, where we could live in peace without markets, prices, wages, debts – or wars. Yet capitalism’s internal logic is to compete for profit, to grow or die, and the inevitable extension of that logic is war. Now AI targeting and LAWS are genies out of the bottle. If we don’t abolish capitalism soon, the human race could end up being obliterated by its own technology.
Paddy Shannon

Does veganism help? (2024)

From the May 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

The term ‘greenwashing’ is often used to describe attempts, often by big companies, to convey the false impression that their goods are produced in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way – and this sometimes with a view to distracting attention from their involvement in other environmentally damaging practices. Some, in fact, see the whole of the current ‘green’ agenda as, under cover of support for the environment, actually extracting from it resources it cannot afford to lose and, no matter how good the intentions of the ‘deep’ or ‘bright’ greens, as no more than a sop to capitalism’s growth. This consists of regarding the Earth only as a target for producing goods for sale on the market and of being unable by its nature to do other than subordinate real care for flora, fauna and climate to the imperatives of growth and production for profit. In the words of one writer: ‘Our way of life doesn’t need to be saved. The planet needs to be saved from our way of life’ .

As part of ‘greenwashing’ in production and consumption via various ‘green’ solutions (eg, solar panels, wind turbines, green energy storage, recycling, LED lights, electric cars, hydropower, biomass, geothermal energy, etc.), some now add a particular lifestyle often presented as a way to reduce climate change and human impact on the environment: plant-based eating or veganism. In a recent article in Monthly Review entitled ‘The Case for Socialist Veganism’ , Benjamin Selwyn and Charis Davies point to the fact that many of the companies and corporations that have embraced the plant-based market use this as ‘cover’ for the damaging environmental impact they cause with their other production (‘meat, dairy and other environmental ruinous activities’). This, they say, represents ‘attempts at corporate brand greenwashing’ and is aimed at continued expansion of their sales and markets. It includes fast-food chains such as McDonald’s and Burger King, whose products are still overwhelmingly meat-based but who have developed plant-based product lines in an attempt to cash in on growing concerns for the environment or animal welfare. A chart the authors have put together demonstrates that plant-based brands not readily associated with big corporations often turn out to be owned by large non-vegan parent companies (e.g. Vivera by JBS, the world’s largest meat company; the Vegetarian Butcher by Unilever; Alpro by Danone, one of the biggest dairy companies in the world). And all these companies continue to have a massively damaging environmental impact in such areas as support for deforestation, mass-scale meat and dairy production, high levels of plastic pollution and damage to natural water sources. So JBS, while promoting Vivera under the flag of promoting ‘the wellbeing of the planet’, slaughters 8.7 million birds, 92,600 hogs and 42,700 head of cattle every day of the year, thus making an appreciable contribution to climate breakdown via deforestation, greenhouse gases from cattle and cultivation of massive quantities of feed crops. Unilever, for its part, was, in 2022, named as one of ‘the top ten global polluters’, and Danone too is a leading plastic polluter and, despite its stated aim to encourage ‘healthy eating trends’, is largely focused on cow’s milk production, which produces three times more greenhouse gas emissions than plant-based milk and, like for like, uses ten times more land.

The charge here is that, however much veganism may have the potential to reduce human impact on the environment, the relative monopoly held by the big food producers makes that impossible. Focused as they are on animal-based production, any positive effect of vegan production is likely to be small and may in fact be negated completely if it simply increases the profits and investment power of the big producers and so aids their continuing focus on producing meat and milk as cheaply as possible, and so paradoxically increasing animal suffering and exploitation.

An ethical marriage?
So what to do? The solution which the authors of this article propose is to move the food system towards what they call ‘socialist veganism’, also described as ‘an ethical marriage between veganism and socialism’. This, they tell us, would involve the hundreds of billions of dollars currently spent on so called ‘green transitioning’ being directed towards what they call ‘an ecosocially transformative political-economic agenda’. This, they maintain, will help to ‘shift the balance of class power away from capital to labor’ and can be achieved, as they see it, via movements ‘from below’, largely, that is, through collective action by unionised workers to ‘alter the balance of class power between capital and labor in favor of the latter’.

The kind of development they see as necessary is an extension of ‘welfare provision’, through which ‘services are provided across an expanding array of social life as part of the transformation and increasing equalization of society’, and what they call a ‘decommodification of food’. This would mean, they say, that ‘food production itself could be increasingly brought under democratic control by workers, their communities, and consumers’. And this would be part of a ‘broader process of managed degrowth’ and ‘a socialist green transition’, which would include, in the words they quote of John Bellamy Foster, ‘growth in such areas as regenerative agriculture, food production, decent housing, clean energy, accessible health care, universal education, community welfare, public transportation, digital connectivity, and other areas related to green production and social needs’.

They also have other indisputably admirable ambitions, such as various alternatives to chemical-intensive farming assisted in part by use of computerisation and robotisation, hydroponics with plants growing without soil in vertical farms, and precision fermentation producing a whole range of tasty foods that mimic meat and milk products but do not come from animals. Precision fermentation could, we are told, ‘produce the same amount of protein as soy production does in the United States on 1,700 times less land’, which in turn ‘could, through reducing cropland, enable large-scale rewilding (to expand the world’s carbon sinks and restore the diversity of plant and animal species), through restoration of grasslands, wetlands, forests, and savannas’. Part of this transformation would, as the authors see it, allow ‘animals to be raised in more compassionate and ecologically sound ways’, and ‘with reductions in the role of meat in the overall Western diet’. So, the authors, while having a soft spot for veganism, do not necessarily advocate its universal adoption. They say, rather, that ‘vegan food production can, through decommodification and democratization of social life, contribute to providing good quality and affordable food for the many, mitigating climate breakdown, and contributing to mending the metabolic rift’.

Powers of government
Overall, an extremely positive and optimistic case is made by these authors for what they term ‘socialist managed degrowth’, even if, with its only ‘partial’ veganism, it is not what many socialist vegans, especially if coming from an ethical standpoint and favouring universal veganism, would want to hear. But it’s also a proposition that needs to be looked at through the lens of the operating procedures of the society we live in and of what it will take to move to the different operating procedures of a socialist society. Two beliefs seem to underlie the picture painted by the authors. The first one is that the shift to a different kind of society can take place bit by bit via a series of struggles by workers who gradually impose on governments their demands for greater fairness and more equality. The second belief is that governments have the power to bend and flex at will the capitalist system they administer and regardless of the profit imperative that underlies it. For all the good intentions of the authors, these beliefs are untenable, since the role of governments is to be the executive committee of the small class of people who own the productive forces, against whom they cannot act in any substantive way. It’s true that governments sometimes can and do intervene in the running of the system in the wider interests of its survival, such as in the case of America’s ‘New Deal’ of the 1930s (referred to in some detail here by these writers) and in the recent Covid crisis. But they do that to keep the system working not to make it fairer or more equal, even if sometimes reforms they bring in may turn out to give some relief to those suffering most from its effects. But they simply cannot regulate to their heart’s content the system of production for profit and buying and selling.

Tweaks or consciousness?
So what needs to happen to establish the kind of society that no doubt the authors of this article would ultimately want to see – a leaderless, stateless, marketless society which will recognise the necessity to produce and distribute sustainably while being sensitive not just to the needs of the human species but to the whole environment of which we are a part, including its geology and its flora and fauna? What needs to happen is not just some tweaks to the way we live and work today brought about by pressure on governments (which would usually be reversible anyway) but the growth of a democratic movement expressing a majority will of the world’s people which will win control of political power, probably via the ballot box, and then collectively organise that new society. This can only happen of course once the necessary spread of consciousness has been achieved and plans to democratically organise that society are in place. It will then be up to that conscious majority to make all sorts of choices about how they live, including whether humans should continue using animals for food and other purposes and, if so, how and to what extent.
Howard Moss

Material World: Will technological innovation lead to a post-capitalist society? (2024)

The Material World column from the May 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

That capitalism’s vast and ever-growing structural waste is a major practical impediment to the realisation of a post-scarcity society should be obvious. This is because of the extent to which it diverts human and material resources away from the goal of mitigating scarcity itself. But what of technology? Could the very thrust and momentum of technological innovation, in itself, somehow usher in a post-scarcity society, despite this impediment? Might we expect the impact of new technology on society that, capitalism notwithstanding, might yet transform our prospects and beckon a life of material comfort, security and ample leisure for all?

Yes, according to Jeremy Rifkin, author of a best-selling book, The Zero Marginal Cost Society, in which he wrote that the ‘emerging Internet of Things is speeding us to an era of nearly free goods and services, precipitating the meteoric rise of a global Collaborative Commons and the eclipse of capitalism’.

The core of Rifkin´s argument appears to be that thanks to technological innovation, prices are set to decline as the marginal costs of producing things – the cost of producing one extra or additional unit of the product in question – plummets to zero. A ‘Great Deflation’ in other words. Self-replicating machines, powered by solar energy and hooked up to an intelligent network called the Internet of Things will increasingly displace human labour and, in due course, overwhelm us with plenty. All this, in turn, will undermine the need for private property, along with an old-fashioned top-down hierarchical model of social organisation, while ushering in more horizontally organised forms of collaboration beyond the market: the so-called ‘sharing economy’.

Falling prices presuppose, or are made possible, by the declining marginal costs of production. This, for Rifkin, represents an inexorable trend that, by a process of extrapolation, will reach the inevitable endpoint characterised by the widespread availability of ‘nearly free goods and services’ when prices can presumably fall no further.

At this point capitalism will succumb to an existential crisis – a victim of its own remarkable success in having inadvertently laid the foundations of a ‘zero marginal-cost society’ (so called). This will signify, in effect, the extinction of ‘investor-based capitalism’ – the very essence of capitalism, as we know it, with its insatiable lust for ever greater financial returns – leaving behind merely some residual commercially based activities that would carry on alongside, and help to support, the sharing economy. A hybrid system perhaps, but essentially a post-capitalist system.

Could all this really happen? It is certainly a tantalising vision of the future and one that might be said to derive from an extrapolation of certain trends we already see around us. However, the problem with relying on extrapolation is that those trends we are talking about can sometimes turn out to be reversible.

Rifkin is focusing on the observable phenomenon whereby businesses seek to undercut each other pricewise through cost-cutting technological innovation, and arguing that further technological developments are supposedly ‘speeding us to an era of nearly free goods and services’. But how would this be possible? After all, if goods and services were to become so cheap one has to wonder how those businesses supplying them might secure a sufficient revenue to remain in business. Some of them sooner than others would go out of business. By doing so, they would stop producing. As a consequence, the supply of the goods in question would contract in relation to demand. Its price would begin to rise.

In focusing narrowly on the concept of marginal costs, Rifkin seems to have overlooked the wider concept of total production costs (including the wages bill) that businesses face and, not least, the transactional costs involved in the whole business of financing production – for instance, the repayment of bank loans or the payment of rent.

If there was any truth in his claim that we are steadily moving into an era of ‘nearly free goods and services’ produced by the ‘Internet of Things’, one has to wonder why, then, people are continuing to work comparatively long hours (or getting further and further into debt) to obtain the money they need to purchase all these (supposedly) soon-to-be free (or nearly free) goods and services in the first place. Not only are they still working long hours but the employment rate (defined as the percentage of population, aged 20 to 64, in work) in places like the (technologically advanced) European Union has actually increased slightly – from 66.8 percent in 2005 to 72.4 percent in 2020.

The problem with his argument, apart from its fundamentally faulty economics, is its crude, technologically determinist assumption that capitalism will somehow mechanically disappear, or wither away, of its own accord without any need for human or political intervention. Rifkin himself has apparently denied he is a technological determinist and has argued that he sees the role of technology as merely enabling. Maybe. But, even so, it is difficult to see how he can evade the charge of, at least, inadvertently endorsing technological determinism.

This is not to deny that the kinds of technologies Rifkin has in mind could indeed prove to be enormously beneficial to a post-capitalist society. But we have yet to arrive at such a society and we are still a long way off from achieving it. This is not a matter of us closing some imagined technological gap but rather, of opening minds to the possibility of achieving that society. It won’t happen otherwise. It is human volition (and understanding), not the technological potential to produce more, that is the missing ingredient today.
Robin Cox

Cannon fodder needed (2024)

From the May 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

In The Big Engine, by sci-fi writer Fritz Leiber, the protagonist posits his theory that people were ‘just machines, set to do a certain job and then quietly rust away.’

So no surprise to find a capitalist-supporting politician appealing to the hang ‘em, flog ‘em brigade who begrudges ‘their’ taxes keeping the ‘work-shy’ in supposed idle luxury whilst they themselves resent their wage slavery drudgery.

‘Young jobseekers who repeatedly turn down work should be conscripted for two years’, a Tory MP has said. Richard Drax, a member of the Commons Defence Select Committee, said there is a growing issue with work-shy youngsters: ‘In some cases, particularly among some of the young, they have got to a point where, for whatever reason, they’re not prepared to contribute to our country and to serve their country. If they can’t be encouraged to do that, then maybe we’ve got to a point where they should be told to do so.’

What would, once upon a time, be surprising is that Labour Party politicians, (not even making a pretence at being a working-class party any more), is as evangelistic in its support for the capitalist system and for capitalists.

Not only does capitalism need bodies, to produce and to be exploited, but it also needs cannon fodder.

The ‘war machines’ are becoming more vociferous and more insistent. Many more establishment voices, here and abroad, are ingraining the idea of a forthcoming war – probably with Russia and the necessity to protect the Motherland, ie, capitalist interests, either through voluntary swelling of the military or through compulsion. Understandable if, as an exploited class, you ask, in the manner of the The People’s Front of Judea, what’s the motherland ever done for us?

Richard Drax lays it out plainly – ‘And if they’ve refused three offers of a job, or whatever the number would be, and they say ‘I’m sorry, I’m not doing any of that’, you then say – in which case you must go and do two years in the Armed Forces’ (Daily Express 12 March).

Sir Alex Younger, an ex-head of MI6: ‘Britons have been “infantilised” since the end of the Cold War and the Government should consider having the power to “compel” people to serve’ (MailOnline 5 April).

General Sir Patrick Sanders, the outgoing Chief of the General Staff opined that ‘British citizens should be ‘trained and equipped’ to fight in a potential war with Russia – as Moscow plans on ‘defeating our system and way of life.’ It’s not known if he was pointing his finger Lord Kitchener style when warning that ‘increasing army numbers in preparation for a potential conflict would need to be a ‘whole-of-nation undertaking’.’

SkyNews said the comments are being read as a warning that British men and women should be ready for a call-up to the armed forces if NATO goes to war with Russia. It comes after Defence Secretary Grant Shapps said in a speech earlier that we are ‘moving from a post-war to pre-war world’ and the UK must ensure its ‘entire defence ecosystem is ready’ to defend its homeland.’

The Estonians, no friends of Russia given their history, are also adding fuel to the conflagration. The Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said in a BBC interview: ‘We have a reserve army of 44,000 people. That would equal for Great Britain around two million people. Two million people who would be ready to defend their country, who know what they have to do’ (Daily Express 4 April).

In Ukraine at the beginning of the year, the former Commander-in-Chief of Ukraine’s army Valerii Zaluzhnyi said that the army needed another 500,000 soldiers: ‘Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has signed a law that will lower the country’s minimum conscription age from 27 to 25, potentially boosting the number of men available to fight Russia’s invasion. A statement published by Parliament upon passing the law in 2023 said it was “inappropriate” that “a significant number of citizens” who were fit for military service could not be called up, despite the present need, under martial law. Martial law also prohibits most men between the ages 18 and 60 from leaving Ukraine, unless they are deemed unfit for military service for health reasons or have an exemption’ (CNN 2 April).

Sensibly following the example of many American young men who, during the Vietnam war, chose to absent themselves from America, many Ukrainians have adopted ‘flight not fight’: ‘Approximately 650,000 Ukrainian men aged 18-60 have left Ukraine for Europe since the start of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022′, BBC Ukraine reported. Citing data provided by Eurostat a report notes over half a million male refugees are currently residing in the 27 EU member states, as well as Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and Norway, many of whom are undocumented. In Germany, it is estimated that 100,000 unregistered individuals are residing in the country, while in Austria at least 14,000 Ukrainian men arrived using forged documents or the services of smugglers.

Under martial law, Ukrainian men between the ages of 18–60, with some exceptions, are not allowed to leave the country because they could be called up for military service. As Ukraine faces the challenge of maintaining adequate military personnel, recent reports indicate that nearly 20,000 Ukrainian men have managed to evade conscription, finding various routes to leave the country’ (Kyiv Independent).

John Richards’s song, Don’t Despise The Deserter, about a soldier who is executed by his country, has historical precedents. Three hundred and six British and Commonwealth soldiers were executed by the state in World War One.
‘So I ran from the fighting, and I threw down my gun,
I ran by the moon, and I slept with the sun.
Arrested by government, charged by the king,
To be shot, ’cause I can’t kill in order to bring
Peace to a foreign land.’
Less about peace and more about capitalism.

Don’t let yourself be persuaded to become cannon fodder for the capitalist class.
Dave Coggan

Cooking the Books: Uninvestible (2024)

The Cooking the Books column from the May 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

That was the word used by Chris Weston, the CEO of Thames Water, to describe how the business was regarded by its shareholders in the absence of the water companies’ regulator, Ofwat, allowing an increase in the price charged to customers (Times, 29 March).

It’s an odd word, not to be confused with ‘uninvestable’ (with an a) which refers to some item of value that cannot be invested because it cannot be money-capital. ‘Uninvestible’ (with an i) refers to a project which those with money-capital won’t invest in.

Last year the US Commerce Secretary said that businesses had told her that China had become ‘uninvestible’ because it was too risky due to interference from the government there. In the case of Thames Water it is simply a euphemism for ‘not profitable enough’:
‘Thames Water Plc said its £18.7 billion ($22.7 billion) plan to strengthen its finances won’t get funding from investors unless the regulator changes the rules to allow fatter returns. The UK’s largest water company said delivering on its full business plan, published belatedly on Thursday, rests on getting £2.5 billion additional equity from shareholders for 2025 to 2030. However, it warned that investors can get better returns in UK gilts and investment grade corporate bonds. It called on the Water Services Regulation Authority, Ofwat, to make significant changes to the rate of returns allowed for regulated water companies. (…) Thames Water called for a “material move up in the allowed rate of return” set by Ofwat in its initial guidance’ (Bloomberg).
There is little sympathy from other capitalists for the shareholders (one of which is, ironically, the Chinese sovereign wealth fund). Jacob Rees-Mogg, a capitalist as well as an MP, tweeted:
‘Thames Water ought to be allowed to go bankrupt. It would continue to be run by an administrator, the shareholders would lose their equity but they took too much cash out so deserve no sympathy and the bond holders would face a partial loss. This is capitalism, it won’t affect the water supply.’
Monopolies such as the essential utilities —there can only be one national grid for electricity, gas or water — present capitalism with a problem. If left in private hands, the capitalists who own the distribution system are in a position to hold the rest of the capitalist class to ransom by charging a monopoly price. The way the other capitalists found round this has been either nationalisation, where the state runs the industry keeping prices down, or regulation, where the state imposes a limit on the amount of profit that the privately owned utilities can make.

Historically, the US chose regulation while Britain chose nationalisation until, that is, the Thatcher government in the 1980s switched to regulation. One reason for this switch was to attract outside capital to invest in them, which made the change as much ‘internationalisation’ as privatisation. This part worked, as illustrated by the fact that, besides China, another of the owners of Thames Water is a Canadian pensions fund.

With regulation, the private owners are not in a completely weak position as they can, if they are not allowed to make enough profits, simply walk away, as the owners of Thames Water are threatening to do.

There is a lesson here for the future Labour government whose plan for growth relies on offering private capitalist enterprises an incentive to invest in some project by the state part-financing it. These enterprises, too, will be in a position to put pressure on the government by dubbing some project uninvestible unless they are allowed ‘fat returns’.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Socialism through the looking glass, or wage-labour as liberation (2024)

From the May 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Anyone on the left in France during the past two decades cannot help but be struck by the constant references to the need for the Labour Movement to defend, yes defend, wage-labour (le salariat.) The problem here is partly that of translation. For English speakers, a ‘salaried worker’ is an ’employee’, often someone who has a certain security of employment. Salaried staff were paid monthly by direct payments into a bank account. Le salariat retains something of this flavour. In Britain in the sixties, indeed, parents were happy if their offspring could get the qualifications needed to work in a bank, earning a salary; regular work, a permanent contract, good pay, and the chance of finding accommodation. Salaried work was what got you out of the uncertainties of hawking yourself around for factory work in return for low earnings paid in cash. Those old enough to recall the sensation caused by Clive Jenkins when he succeeded in recruiting white-collared salaried staff into the trade union movement know all about this. However, that was then. Nowadays, insecure and poor pay has made massive inroads into the world of white-collar employment.

Similar considerations hold for France of course. But in this case the increasingly frequent inroads into employment conditions undertaken by the capitalists have led some Communist Party intellectuals to openly defend le salariat notably against the promotion of the pseudo-independence of workers in the so-called ‘gig economy’. As a result, calls for ‘l’abolition du salariat’ have become inaudible, if not incomprehensible. The CGT trade union literature which once considered the elimination of le salariat as tantamount to the abolition of capitalism now call for the former’s consolidation. Take for example, the 2002 leaflet by Bernard Vasseur Vers l’après capitalisme (‘Towards post-capitalism’). Or the very popular writings of Bernard Friot, very much the leading expert of social security on the left. In these publications there is the idea that le salariat represents something of a power independent of capitalist relations of production, French workers having succeeded in imposing preconditions on the employment of labour which have not only improved the bargaining power of workers but largely conquered a bulwark against exploitation. They have done this collectively by partially socialising the wage itself through reforms based on the contributory welfare system, unemployment insurance, family allowances, municipal housing and so on. In all this, the building of the code du travail has been a major vector in this progressive tendency.

Doubtless, the popularity of the notion of le salariat is due to the massive entry of women into paid work and the expansion of the service sector. This has undermined traditional trade union practices largely centred on manual workers or their French equivalent, les ouvriers. In France (but not exclusively) ouvrièrisme tended to be heavily gendered even when practised by the so-called Marxist left and white-collar workers were seen as doubtful class allies. The notion of le salarié by contrast encompasses both white and blue-collar work irrespective of gender and is clearly a step towards the notion of a wage-earning class. Nonetheless it creates its own peculiar difficulties. For example, it implies that militants have to wrestle with the intricacies of social policy given that the state is necessarily more heavily involved in the social reproduction of this class than in the simple cash nexus of nineteenth-century exploitation. The remaining confusions probably derive from the difficulties involved in capturing the reality of an exploitation which was once exclusively identified with noisy factories in the private sector.

True, however, to their often eccentric reading of Marx, the French Communists of this tendency have signally failed to rise to this challenge, their confusions over the centrality of exchange value production leading them to badly fudge its relationship to wage-labour (see Alain BihrUniversaliser le salaire ou supprimer le salariat. A propos de “L’enjeu du salaire” de Bernard Friot). As a result, when wage-labour is identified with the separation of the worker from the means of production and subsistence, they are surprisingly silent. Perhaps this is a tribute to the all-encompassing nature of the French ‘welfare state’, now up for grabs. For whatever reason, students of le salariat on the French side of the Channel are more prompt to mask the reality of lack of property than English social historians. Hardly surprising then that the former civil servants enjoy an almost legendary status as exemplary salariés largely because they benefit from the security of lifetime employment. It’s surely not an accident that many of the policy recommendations outlined by Friot and his collaborators read like an extension of the terms and condition of public service employment into the private sector. With politicians tending increasingly to move the cursor in the opposite direction, it is surely important to devote some effort to understanding the link between capitalist growth and the reality of dispossession.

So what then is le salariat? 
Much of the conceptual groundwork for this thinking is to be found in Robert Castel’s Les metamorphoses de la question sociale. Une chronique du salariat published in 1995. The American edition, which heroically translates ‘salariat’ as wage-labour, tends to over-determine the notion but is fairly uncontroversial. Castel usefully traced the development of wage-labour from its origins on the fringes of medieval society where (artisanal) work took place in organised guilds operating in parallel to peasant production. Such forms of labour were gradually supplanted by employment in its modern form as factory work although semi-artisanal forms of labour persisted and indeed still do. Marx, of course, concentrated his attention on the situation of those who begin their working lives as the sellers of labour-power on the open market. Similarly, in constructing his own particular genealogy, Castel (rightly) laid stress on the long transitional phase where a certain class of workers were pitchforked into vagrancy as a result of the dissolving of feudal relationships. Here propertyless workers emerged as vulnerable vagabonds and marginals; the despised scum of a traditional culture.

The singularity of Castel’s approach to this historical development is the emphasis he placed on the long period in France wherein semi-artisanal forms of labour co-existed with the continuation of small and medium-scale peasant holdings. Because the French economy was less subject to the large-scale enclosures typical of English agriculture, the mobility of the French working class tended to follow seasonal patterns of inter-sectional mobility. Much of the large-scale economic development took place in the rural hinterland where wannabe capitalists tended to rely upon sub-contractors and worker-peasants, classes which defy easy definition. The sharp cut-offs and sudden take-off into capitalist industrialism of the English case are not so evident in France.

In this context, employers were often sub-contracting entrepreneurs hiring members of peasant households. But there were also forms of labour involving skilled artisanal workers in the urban areas and a fluctuating group of nomadic semi-artisanal workers who dovetailed seasonal patterns of work in agriculture with occasional remunerative work in the urban areas. With the advent of industrialisation French workers managed to transform what could have been an unpromising situation of economic dependence by mobilising what civic advantages were available.

Following the French revolution, the existing code civil was extended to produce the famous code du travail. This was a movement towards a legal framework which clearly identified employers as the agents responsible for undertaking the tasks outlined in a work contract based on legal equality. (In England, of course, the relations between workers and their employers were governed by the class-biased Master and Servant Acts backed up by the severely repressive Poor Laws.) Although the emphasis placed upon legal égalité, took the form of an explicit recognition of the subordination of the wage-earner to the employer, this subordination was limited by co-managed industrial courts.

In the case of some workers, a very varied population of workers (ouvriers) recruited by sub-contractors into piece-work were increasingly paid time-wages and identified as salariés. The employers were obliged to accept their legal responsibilities towards their workers and could no longer rely upon management through intermediaries. Over time, the collective power of the working class has consolidated around trade unions which have skilfully used these legal structures to good effect. This has meant that in France permanent contracts still operate as the standard of employment in industrial tribunals and employers often have difficulty in opting out of their obligations in this respect. This is very much the reality that the notion of the salariat (or the société salariale) seeks to capture.

The current situation
This being said, Castel later traced the unremitting efforts of the French capitalist class to weaken the collective strength represented by le salariat with legislation aimed at creating a more precarious class of hired hands. (The list is long.) Against this the French Communists involved in promoting the salariat are really all involved in defending the way wage-labour has been constructed around integrative measures. This is a good way to avoid welfare-statism, or the patronising idea that wage earners as helpless workers need protection against poverty. After all, many of the measures identified with ‘welfare’ were constitutive of wage-labour and its reproduction. To a large extent, their elimination is often not at all on the agenda. On the other hand, de-naturalizing is more often than not the objective sought after.

Thus, for example, the existing pension schemes in France were better defended against budget cuts by arguing that they were in fact a continuation of the salary of the worker rather than depicting them as deferred savings granted to the elderly poor. In the same way, unemployment insurance can be seen as nothing more than a continuation of the salary during the inevitable downswings of economic activity and redeployment. Similar things can be said about family allowances which, for all their shortcomings, constitute a real salary capable of replacing the haphazard pseudo-equality of nominal wages. These are some of the more interesting points contained in the notion of the salariat, students of Titmuss would do well to note.

These points being made, does all this mean that wage-earners should be satisfied with their current position within global capitalism? Obviously not. Interestingly, Friot himself promotes measures aimed at the abolition of what he describes as ‘lucrative property’ presumably meaning private ownership of the means of production. But this is precisely the axis around which the relationship between capital and wage-labour turns, the workers being obliged by their slim grasp on the means of subsistence to sell their labour-power to employers bent on the expansion of capital. This is the point we already raised. At the moment, the impersonal forces operating within the sector of finance capital are imposing conditions of work which have more to do with profitability than with the preservation of le salariat, however defined. So to some extent the fraught relationship between capital and labour is being dragged backwards towards the conditions of the nineteenth century.

Worker co-operatives in the capitalist system (2024)

From the May 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Proponents of capitalism would have you believe that there is no alternative, that the free market provides the most efficient system of exchange and that any deviation risks endangering freedom and prosperity. This is a falsehood, for humans have demonstrated throughout history a remarkable capacity to co-operate without private ownership and the insatiable need for profit. Closer examination of worker co-operatives, despite their long-standing orientation towards generating wealth within the capitalist system, offers a glimpse at how humanity may one day succeed in recasting incentivisation to meet people’s needs rather than to make a profit.

The history of worker co-operatives and self-management is deeply rooted in the 19th-century efforts to address the socio-economic challenges brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Robert Owen, a visionary social reformer and industrialist in the early 1800s, laid the groundwork for the co-operative movement. Owen championed the idea that workers should collectively own and manage the means of production to ensure fair wages and better working conditions. His experiments at New Lanark in Scotland and later at New Harmony in the United States provided early models of co-operative living and working. Others like Charles Fourier, a French social theorist, contributed to the co-operative movement by proposing the concept of phalansteries—self-sustaining communities where individuals could live and work co-operatively. Although Fourier’s ideas were not widely implemented, they inspired later developments in the co-operative movement.

Elsewhere, the Rochdale Society of Pioneers, formed in 1844 in England, played a pivotal role in shaping the co-operative principles that persist today. They established a successful consumer co-operative, emphasising open membership, democratic control, and distribution of surplus based on patronage. Indeed, the so-called ‘Rochdale Principles’ became a blueprint for subsequent co-operative endeavours.

The modest successes of the co-operative movement led Marx to pronounce that worker self-management proved the superfluousness of capitalist managerialism; a statement ostensibly corroborated decades later during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Worker co-operatives and self-management gained prominence across the Republican zone as a means for labourers to assert control over their workplaces. In Catalonia, particularly in the city of Barcelona, workers took over factories and implemented self-management practices. Notable examples include the textile industry with enterprises like Fabrica de Hilaturas Fabra i Coats and the metal industry with companies like Talleres Roca. These initiatives were characterised by worker assemblies, decision-making through consensus, and the elimination of hierarchical structures. The success of these worker co-operatives during the Spanish Civil War was evident in increased productivity and improved working conditions. The textile co-operative, Fabra i Coats, for instance, not only maintained production levels but also witnessed enhanced efficiency under worker control. Similarly, in the metal industry, Talleres Roca thrived under self-management, showcasing the viability of co-operative principles in sustaining economic activity during a tumultuous period.

However, the existence of worker co-operatives within a capitalist system has inevitably led to certain contradictions. Notwithstanding the inculcation of workplace democracy and equality, the necessity to compete and accumulate in the broader system persists, and in face of these structural demands, worker co-operatives have often proven ineffective and unreliable.

Despite his visionary ideals, Owen’s experiments at New Lanark and New Harmony faced internal strife and financial difficulties. The co-operative model struggled with issues of governance, as decision-making by consensus often led to slow and inefficient processes. In New Harmony, the lack of a clear organisational structure and the imposition of Owen’s communal ideas contributed to the ultimate failure of the experiment.

Similarly, during the Spanish Civil War, worker co-operatives in Barcelona faced both internal and external challenges. While some co-operatives thrived, others struggled with management issues, as decision-making by assembly sometimes hindered effective responses to rapidly changing circumstances. Even the relatively successful Fabrica de Hilaturas Fabra i Coats faced difficulties due to disagreements among workers on key decisions, highlighting the challenges of implementing democratic practices in high-stakes situations. External factors too, such as wartime pressures and political instability, also impacted the sustainability of these initiatives. The Barcelona co-operatives, despite notable successes, faced challenges in the broader socio-political context of the Spanish Civil War, ultimately contributing to their limitations and demonstrating the complexity of implementing worker self-management in tumultuous times.

That said, worker co-operatives endure today. The Mondragon Co-operative Corporation, based in the Basque region of Spain, is an often-cited example. Founded in 1956 by a group of visionary individuals led by Father Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta, Mondragon has grown into one of the world’s largest and most successful co-operative networks. Proponents point to the active participation of employees in decision-making processes through a system of co-determination, where major decisions are made collectively by the workers and management, as well as the commitment to equality of income. While wage differentials exist based on skills and responsibilities, the ratio between the highest and lowest-paid worker is significantly lower than in traditional corporations. This approach promotes a more equitable distribution of wealth among the co-operative members. In terms of profit distribution, a portion of the profits is reinvested in the co-operative, another portion is allocated to social and cultural activities, and the rest is distributed among the members.

Critics, however, argue that Mondragon, while often lauded as a successful worker co-operative, still operates within the broader capitalist system, raising concerns about its limitations and contradictions. One major criticism is that, despite its co-operative structure, Mondragon has adopted certain hierarchical elements, resembling a conventional corporation. While the co-operative members elect management, there exists a professional managerial class that holds considerable decision-making power, potentially diluting the essence of true workplace democracy.

Additionally, Mondragon’s global expansion has led to accusations of replicating conventional corporate practices, including outsourcing and wage differentials, especially in its international subsidiaries. Critics contend that this compromises the co-operative’s commitment to equality, as the wage gaps between the highest and lowest-paid workers have widened in some instances.

Furthermore, the co-operative has faced challenges in maintaining its founding principles as it expanded. In certain situations, Mondragon has implemented cost-cutting measures and layoffs, contradicting the ideal of job security within a co-operative framework. The co-operative’s financial structure has also been a subject of scrutiny, with some arguing that it still operates within the capitalistic framework, reliant on traditional banking and financial institutions. These criticisms highlight the complexities and challenges of attempting to establish a fully co-operative model within the capitalist system, revealing that Mondragon, despite its successes, does not represent a complete departure from capitalist structures and practices.

World co-operative commonwealth
Thus, it is evident that simply introducing a system of worker co-operatives cannot expunge capitalism. The worker co-operative in its current form is not a panacea. Like other workplaces it is geared towards the generation of wealth within the capitalist system. However, the worker co-operative endures as an ideal, an alternative framework where decision-making is collective and understanding one’s role in a larger societal context becomes paramount, fostering a spirit of co-operation and shared responsibility.

If humans across the globe were to adopt worker co-operatives within the confines of capitalism, it would likely serve to mitigate some of the exploitation associated with the current economic system by redistributing wealth and cultivating workplace democracy. That said, an integral component of the capitalist system would remain in the form of surplus value and money exchange, and so there would persist a means to profit through the exploitation of workers. The ideal of a global system of co-operatives could only reach its full potential on the basis of world socialism, a system in which production is geared not towards sale and the accumulation of private wealth but towards using one’s abilities to meet both individual and community needs.
John Elliston

Reforming capitalism (2024)

Book Review from the May 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Climate Change as Class War. Building Socialism on a Warming Planet. By Matthew T. Huber. Verso, 2023. 312pp.

American geographer Matthew Huber has produced a thought-provoking book on society and climate change. It examines in wide-ranging and immensely knowledgeable fashion how history (and in particular the history of capitalism) has got us where we are as a species and offers considered proposals for addressing the current planetary environmental crisis in a way the author sees as benefitting the majority of the population, ie, those who have to sell their energies to an employer for a wage or salary in order to live.

He makes it clear from the start that his concern is for this latter group, ie, the world’s workers. And his aim – his ultimate aim anyway – is a non-class-divided society. Then of course there is the perennial question of how to achieve that, and this – in part at least – is what this book is about. However, since in the author’s view post-capitalism in terms of a classless society is not on the immediate horizon, he sees immediate action of some kind as essential, otherwise the climate crisis will engulf humanity and nothing will be left to save.

The action he advocates (focusing almost exclusively on the US situation – something he recognises) is the strongest possible pressure on government to adopt and implement ’Green New Deal’ policies (described as ‘a working-class environmental program’). Such policies would involve the government taking over the energy sector completely and instituting drastic policies of decarbonisation to achieve a ‘just transition to a clean energy economy’. One of the keys to this he sees as the overwhelming adoption and use of electricity to replace fossil fuels for the purpose of producing and supplying energy and so, in his view, avert the dire climate consequences and environmental degradation we see at present. This is because, in the author’s words, ‘electricity is at the core of almost everything we do in an increasingly digital world (…) economic activity is impossible without electricity’. He sums up his vision by saying that ‘the politics of the Green New Deal seeks to conjoin working-class and ecological interests into one, under the umbrella of a politics of life’. How will this pressure be placed on government? The author sees it as happening via sustained trade union action by workers from ‘a broad and diverse working class’, but especially those in key industries with ‘strikes and disruption at the point of production’.

Is this possible or likely? Of course, the author is perfectly right in arguing that, when trade union action is sufficiently solid and well-focused, employers and governments have no choice but to listen and may make concessions. He gives certain examples from the experience of industrial action in the US to show that ‘strikes can build power and win’. But the question then arises, what would be the consequences if such a strategy were successful in the key sector of energy and the government moved to take over the sector?

To answer this, it is worth mentioning a book possibly dating from after when Climate Change as Class War was written. This is   by Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith and Max Wilbert (reviewed in the January 2023 issue of this journal), which explains how any Green New Deal agenda, even if implemented, would be no less harmful than the fossil fuel use it might seek to replace. This is because, with the money and market system still operating (even if under government supervision), the Earth would still be a target for commodification, and the process of production and setting up and maintenance of infrastructure even for ‘green’, ‘renewable’ sources of energy would continue to extract from the environment resources it could not afford to lose and in this process carry on causing climate change and destroying the Earth’s geological fabric.

So though, as already stated, Huber’s book is extraordinarily wide-ranging in the many areas and sources it draws on, would it be possible for governments, whose very function is to be, in the author’s own words, ‘committed to private capital and anarchic market competition’, to somehow change their nature and the role of managing and supporting the market system, to truly recognise ‘the inherent antagonisms between capital and the climate’ and to no longer act as an executive committee for their national owners of capital?

Then there is the author’s focus on trade unions. While unions are necessary institutions for workers to try and resist the encroachments of capital and get what they can in terms of pay and working conditions, they are by their nature defensive bodies, whose purpose is not, nor can be, ‘political’ as such. Trade unions may of course be places where political ideas circulate and where socialist consciousness may spread, but they cannot in themselves offer solutions to the fundamental inequalities inherent in the class-divided society, which the author rightly sees as fundamental to capitalism and its market system. Still less can unions be a tool for some kind of quick solution to the problems of ecological breakdown that threatens the whole planet.

So rather than look to the short-term ‘fix’ (which isn’t actually a fix at all) of action to try and force governments to take control over energy, a far more practical purpose would be served if all those who, like Matthew Huber, have striking and often subtle insights into how the world is organised, recognise the class-based nature of society and understand its highly detrimental effects both for human life and the biosphere as a whole, campaigned as part of a democratic political movement putting forward the case for majority action of the world’s people to collectively organise for a leaderless, stateless, marketless society – one that will emancipate the human species, protect the environment and look after the Earth’s ecology as a whole. That will be the real ‘just transition’.
Howard Moss

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Socialist Sonnet No. 147: Cross Purposes (2024)

From the Socialism or Your Money Back blog

Cross Purposes
Polling stations are closed, ballot boxes

Collected, votes totalled, winners declared.

Capitalism has again been spared

Serious challenge as suffrage locks us

Once more into the status quo. The cross

Has been the mark of illiterates,

Also the spot where buried treasure waits

To be revealed. Votes are precious because

Potentially they could well change the way

The world is now to what it could become,

Fashioned for the benefit of all, not just some.

That’ll be a red-letter election day,

When all the old parties of left and right

Are voted down as the workers unite.

D. A.

Friday, May 3, 2024

Historical fascism (2024)

Book Review from the May 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Blood and Power. The Rise and Fall of Italian Fascism. By John Foot. Bloomsbury, 2023. 416pp.

It has become common for the cry of ‘fascism’ to go up, from both right and left, every time a government or political party enacts or proposes policies which seem destined to increase state control over the system we live under. Some even argue that western capitalism itself is in fact fascism, if a cleverly dissimulated form. One thing historian John Foot’s new book on Italian fascism does is to give the lie to all this. It shows, in the starkest possible terms, how different fascism, in its original incarnation anyway, really was from what many idly give that label to today.

Blood and Power takes the reader on a harrowing journey of violence, torture and murder, without which fascism could never have taken hold of Italy and then ruled the country for over 20 years, only finally collapsing when its leader, Mussolini, made the fatal mistake of allying himself with Nazi Germany and being brought down when Hitler was brought down. Otherwise, the author speculates, the regime may have lasted longer, as did the similar set-up in Spain under Franco. But this book is not just a conventional, linear account (of which there are many) of Italy’s ‘ventennio nero’ (‘black 20 years’), but rather an excavation of that period ‘from below’, seen in large part, that is, via the on-the-ground experiences of many ‘ordinary’ individuals who lived, and not infrequently died, under fascist terror.

And terror it truly was, some of it stomach-churning as we see it depicted on the page. From as early as 1919, those who opposed the politics of fascism, either through declaring themselves ‘socialists’ or ‘communists’ or just voicing opposition to its ‘lawless’ approach, were subjected to brutal and terrifying treatment at the hands of increasingly large and merciless bands of fascist thugs. They were intimidated, beaten, tortured, maimed and often murdered, while the ‘democratic’ state and its authorities (ie, police and military) looked the other way, allowing a sort of ‘state within a state’ to develop. As the author writes, ‘fascism eliminated its opponents with gusto or reduced them to a state of fear’ (…) ‘it was fundamental, visceral, epochal and life-changing: both for those who experienced it, and those who practised it’.

Nor was there any redress for victims, and once the fascist party had taken full power from 1925 onwards, after which elections and any semblance of democracy ceased, it became all the more implacable. So, for example, as the author tells us, ‘it became nigh on impossible to print or distribute any kind of newspaper that wasn’t in full support of Mussolini and fascist rule (…) prisoners were often ‘disappeared’ or ‘committed suicide’ in prison (…) ‘torture was common, ritualised and sanctioned from above.’ The regime relentlessly pursued all its opponents, having no compunction about even sending its spies and agents abroad in pursuit of those who had fled the country and wreaking vengeance on them there. In all, according to the author, Italian fascism was ‘responsible for the ‘premature deaths” of at least a million people, in Italy and across the world’, including of course many thousands of Jews who were transported from Italy to the gas chambers in the latter part of the war.

How does all this compare to what is often referred to as fascism, or at least potential fascism, nowadays, in particular the ‘populist’ politics and regimes that have risen up in recent times? How, for example, does it compare to the current right-wing government in Italy, often labelled ‘neo-fascist’? How does it compare to the politics of Donald Trump in the US and the foreboding about what might be to come if he wins the 2024 presidential election? How does it compare to attempts by the Conservative Party in this country to undermine trade unions or criminalise certain forms of expression or to the apparently racist and ultra-nationalistic policies of right-wing groupings such as the Reform Party? The knowledge that this book imparts of the reality of Mussolini’s one-party state makes it clear that, however retrograde and undesirable it may be, the kind of modern-day populism exemplified above does not bear comparison to the vicious, ultra-repressive, anti-democratic nature of fascism in its original Italian form.

What, however, Italian fascism does share with today’s ‘populist’ ideologies or governments and indeed with the more ‘enlightened’ administrations in most Western countries is that the purpose of them all is to manage the profit system (ie, capitalism). And, broadly speaking, this takes place most effectively, as far as capitalism is concerned, in a political environment where there are democratic elections and scope for relatively free circulation and exchange of ideas. Regimes that do not allow this (eg, China and Russia today), while by no means impregnable in the longer term, inhibit such development and, in the way they operate, are the closest things that exist today to the kind of system excavated and characterised so expertly by John Foot in his exploration of Italian fascism. It should be added that such regimes also inhibit the spread of consciousness necessary for the establishment of the alternative system of society beyond the system of wages, money and profit which this journal calls socialism.
Howard Moss