Thursday, November 30, 2006

Penal Profits

Latest post from the SPGB blog, Socialism Or Your Money Back

Since 1997, the Labour government has passed over 120,000 pages of legislation. 'Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime,' has become a favourite Blairite battlecry.

The vast bulk of this legislation comes via the Home Office, which has fashioned a total of 59 bills since 1997. Not content with the fact that 10 years in office has led Labour to introduce over 3,000 new offences, The recent Queen's Speech informed us that the Home Office believes there is not enough legislation. Five more bills were announced.

Where the hell is all of this leading?

The answer comes from this morning's Guardian. At the moment British prisons are full like never before - the highest in Europe in fact - 80,000 this week and rising! Some 8,000 new prison places are needed we are told. Will the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, cough up the requisite sum needed to incarcerate these scallywags? Not on your nelly! He obstinately refuses.

To the rescue comes the Home Office with a brilliant idea. 'Let's offer the public shares in prisons', they say. 'Get the public to invest in a company that can build jails and then rent them out!'

As the Guardian reports:
'One incentive for small investors is that the government's punitive penal policy has seen prison numbers rise relentlessly over the past 10 years and would appear to guarantee a steady stream of rental income with no apparent shortage of prison "tenants".'

Who says crime doesn't pay?
John Bissett

Socialism and Voting (2005)

From the Pathfinders Column in the June 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Would people in socialism spend all day voting on everything?
A socialist society will be one in which all people will be free to participate fully in the process of making and implementing policy.Whether decisions about constructing a new playground, the need to improve fish stocks in the North Sea, or if we should use nanobots to improve our lives, everyone everywhere will be able to voice their opinion and cast their vote. However, the practical ramifications of this democratic principle could be enormous. If people feel obliged to opine and vote on every matter of policy they would have little time to do anything else. On the other hand, leaving the decision-making process to a system of elected executive groups or councils could be seen as going against the principle of fully participatory democracy. If socialism is going to maintain the practice of inclusive decision making (which does not put big decisions in the hands of smallgroups) but without generating a crisis of choice, then a solution is required, and it seems that capitalism may have produced one in the form of 'collaborative filtering' (CF) software.

This technology is currently used on the internet where a crisis of choice already exists. Faced with a superabundance of products and services, CF helps consumers choose what to buy and navigate the huge numbers of options. It starts off by collecting data on an individual's preferences, extrapolates patterns from this and then produces recommendations based on that person's likes and dislikes. If you have already made purchases via the internet then you are probably familiar with the statement 'People who liked this product also liked . . . ', which is CF at work. As well as making recommendation on what you should buy, it also suggests what you may like to watch on telly, what concert to attend or where to go on holiday.

With suitable modification, this technology could be of use to socialism - not to help people decide what to consume, but which matters of policy to get involved in. A person's tastes, interests, skills, and academic achievements, rather than their shopping traits, could be put through the CF process and matched to appropriate areas of policy in the resulting list of recommendations. A farmer, for example, may be recommended to vote upon matters which affect him/her, and members of the local community, directly, or ofwhich s/he is likely to have some knowledge, such as increasing yields of a particular crop, the use of GM technology, or the responsible use of land by ramblers.The technology would also put them in touch with other people of similar interests so that issues can be thrashed out more fully, and may even inform them that 'People who voted on this issue also voted on . . .'

The question is, would a person be free to ignore the recommendations and vote on matters s/he has little knowledge of, or indeed not vote at all? Technology cannot resolve issues of responsibility, but any system, computer software or not, which helps reduce the potential burden of decision making to manageable levels would.

How would people vote?
The traditional image of huge crowds with their hands up in council meetings, or queues of people lining up to put a piece of paper in a box, is obviously becoming old-fashioned, even in capitalism. The UK government, along with many others, has been toying for a long time with the idea of greater public participation through e-democracy and e-voting. Many MPs already maintain websites and many more are being encouraged to interact with the public in this way.

Noting the enthusiasm of young people to use telephone and online voting in TV competitions, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister thinks e-voting could have a major effect on turn-out in the hard-to-reach youth age group. Stephen Coleman, professor of e-democracy at the Oxford Internet Institute, regards this as a dubious aim and claim, instead arguing that the relationship between MPs and people has to change throughout the period of government, not just at elections: "The relationship is changing. Politicians who don't use the internet will miss out and will eventually fall by the wayside", he said. (BBC News technology, Tues, May 17)

Even allowing that MPs take the professor's advice, it seems unlikely that an appearance of greater participation will actually translate into genuine participation, given that capitalism is only interested in giving us a say when the issue at stake doesn't really matter. Nonetheless, capitalism's drive to make its democratic forms look more participatory may be doing socialism's work for it, so that in the future the technology to debate, dispute, appeal, complain, conference and vote will all be in place - at the touch of a phone button.
Paddy Shannon

Iran; Nuclear Disarmament; Cuba & Practical Socialism

Latest posts from the Socialist Party of Great Britain blog, Socialism or Your Money Back:

  • Iranian President Ahmadinejad's letter to the American people
  • Remembering CND (Confused about Nuclear Disarmament)
  • Socialists and Cuba
  • Practical Socialism
  • For more information about the SPGB - the publishers of the Socialist Standard magazine - please visit their website.

    Wednesday, November 29, 2006

    Rendition To Torture

    From the Socialist Party of Great Britain blog, Socialism Or Your Money Back

    A derisive report by MEPs has attacked Britain's role in torture flights and shown the Labour Party top brass up for the lying reprobates socialists have always claimed they were. The report states that European governments, including the British, knew all along about the CIA practice - known as extraordinary rendition - of flying 'terror' suspects to countries where there was a high probability they would be tortured.

    Not only is the report highly critical of Geoff Hoon, Minister for Europe, it further lambasts the chief legal adviser to the Foreign Office, Sir Michael Wood, for holding the view that receiving or possessing information extracted from torture was not forbidden by international law if there was no direct participation in the torture.

    The report further focused on UK residents who had been seized in The Gambia, handed over to US agents and flown to Guantanamo Bay, and to Martin Mubanga, a UK citizen, also flown to Guantanamo Bay in 2002, where he was tortured for 4 years before being released without charge (or trial).

    The report referred to 170 CIA rendition flights that had stopped over at British airports, bound for countries known for their appalling humans rights abuses.

    No doubt the wily Blair will wriggle free from this mess and, come the next election, selective-amnesiacs will have forgotten all of this and voted in their millions for the Labour Party's new clown prince - Gordon Brown. Neither will they recall that it was Blair who once referred to Guantanamo Bay as "an anomaly."

    Cast your mind back. Prime Minister's Question Time. 7th December 2005:
    Charles Kennedy (then Liberal Democrat leader): "The United States Secretary of State said yesterday that "extraordinary rendition" had been conducted in co-operation with European Governments. To what extent, therefore, have the Government co-operated in the transport of terrorist suspects to Afghanistan and elsewhere, apparently for torture purposes?"

    Prime Minister Tony Blair:
    "First, let me draw a very clear distinction indeed between the idea of suspects being taken from one country to another and any sense whatever that ourselves, the United States or anyone condones the use of torture. Torture cannot be justified in any set of circumstances at all. The practice of rendition as described by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been American policy for many years. We have not had such a situation here, but that has been American policy for many, many years. However, it must be applied in accordance with international conventions, and I accept entirely Secretary of State Rice's assurance that it has been."

    Mr Kennedy: "Given that assurance, can the Prime Minister therefore explain why the published evidence shows that almost 400 flights have passed through 18 British airports in the period of concern? When was he as Prime Minister first made aware of that policy, and when did he approve it?"

    Mr Blair: "In respect of airports, I do not know what the right honourable gentleman is referring to . . . "

    Come forward a week: Prime Minister's Question Time. 14th December 2005:

    Charles Kennedy: "Last week, the Prime Minister acknowledged that he had been aware of the United States' policy of rendition for quite some time. If terrorist suspects are not being transported to a third country for the purposes of torture or mistreatment, will he explain to the House for what purpose they are being transported?"

    Tony Blair: "First, let me again make it clear to the right honourable gentleman that this government are completely and totally opposed to torture or ill-treatment in any set of circumstances. Our country is a signatory to the United Nations convention against the use of torture, and we will continue to uphold its provisions absolutely."

    And forward another week: Prime Minister's Press Conference, 22nd December 2005:
    Question: "Prime Minister, speaking of European leaders who have expressed ignorance of the American practice of shipping prisoners back and forth through airports in Britain and Europe to countries that may practise torture, Colin Powell said this week: 'Most of our European friends cannot be shocked that this kind of thing takes place. The fact is that we have over the years had in place procedures that would deal with people who are responsible for terrorist activities, and so the thing that is called rendition is not something that is new or unknown to my European friends.' Now that you know, do you approve it or will you stop it?"

    Mr Blair: "Well it all depends on what you mean by rendition. If it is something that is unlawful I totally disapprove of it; if it is lawful, I don't disapprove of it . . . all I know is that we should keep within the law at all times, and the notion that I, or the Americans, or anybody else approve or condone torture, or ill treatment, or degrading treatment, that is completely and totally out of order in any set of circumstances."

    In capitalist politics there are lies, damned lies and then Labour Party leaders.

    Just for the record:
    "No State Party shall expel, return or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture."
    From Article 3 of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT).

    Britain and the USA are both signatories.
    John Bissett

    An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

    Film Review from the December 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

    An Inconvenient Truth (2005), directed by Davis Guggenheim

    This film is advertised as 'a passionate and inspirational look at one man's commitment to expose the myths and misconceptions that surround global warming and inspire actions to prevent it'. That one man is Al Gore: company director, author and professional politician for the Democratic Party of the USA. Thus, it is perhaps unsurprising that a substantial portion of this so-called documentary feels more like a political broadcast. The film is based on footage of a lecture on climate change given to a sympathetic audience, interspersed with short asides on Gore's career as a professional politician, his privileged upbringing, his personal life and accounts of him driving and flying around the world to lecture on the effects of fossil fuel usage.

    Gore presents quantitative and anecdotal evidence for climate change in an easily digestible way. Some time is spent on the history and methodology of atmospheric carbon dioxide and temperature measurements. The data is clearly presented in graphs, diagrams and photographs but Gore doesn't distinguish between measurements and extrapolations. Some of the graphs are presented in a way that magnifies small differences in data, and effects of climate change that are speculations are presented as inevitable with no reference to the likelihood of their occurrence or other theories.

    At one point Gore seems to be arguing that Ice Ages are caused solely by declining greenhouse gases; he says 'when there is more carbon dioxide the temperature gets warmer'. He does not point out that among the theories for the causes of Ice Ages changes to the composition of the atmosphere are seen as just one component, or even as a result of the Ice Age not a cause itself.

    As the film progresses Gore increasingly overstates the effects, or evidence for the effects, of climate change. Species loss, re-emergence of suppressed diseases and the emergence of new diseases such as SARS are all implied to be a result of climate change without evidence. The importance of the climate change issue does not need to be exaggerated.

    In an aside, Gore reflects on his time in Congress promoting action on climate change, he laments: 'the struggles, the victories that aren't really victories, the defeats that aren't really defeats, they can serve to magnify the significance of some trivial step forward'. He blames the present administration of the state and their links with the oil and gas lobby. For Socialists it is obvious that the government will rarely go against the interests of capital, especially a section of the capitalist class as powerful as the energy industry.

    Gore states that climate change 'is really not a political issue so much as a moral issue'. His remedy for the problem is to advise people to exercise their power as consumers in choosing energy efficient appliances and cars and use 'our political processes, in our democracy', and he just happens to be a professional politician concerned about climate change. He states it is a false dichotomy to say that the choice is economy or the environment, we can have both: 'If we do the right thing, then we're going to create a lot of wealth and we're going to create a lot of jobs . . .'. The details of this were left sketchy but it seems that hope triumphs over experience and he still has faith in capitalism.

    In conclusion Gore states, to rapturous applause, that 'We have everything we need save perhaps political will . . . We have the ability to do this . . . The solutions are in our hands'. He is correct, but for him this means more of the same old futile politicking. Socialists realise that profit will always be the priority for capitalism, the solution in our hands is to bring the means of production under direct democratic control so that everybody can take part in deciding how global resources are used.

    This documentary film follows a novel format and is visually impressive. It is a good introduction to the basics of human-made climate change problem, but is tarnished by the lack of convincing solutions.
    Piers Hobson

    Piers Hobson blogs at Border Fever

    Tuesday, November 28, 2006

    Saddam's Death Penalty (2006)

    Editorial from the December 2006 Socialist Standard

    It was nauseating to hear President Bush pontificate about the decision to execute Saddam and using words such as "victory" and "justice". If Bush could have cited any moral superiority he has over Saddam then his words might have carried weight, but the simple truth is that this was one opportunistic and blood-drenched killer revelling in the misfortune of another and, far worse, for political expediency.

    The very fact that the death penalty was passed on Saddam two days before the US mid-term elections, at a time when Bush's popularity in opinion polls was recording a serious fall, can hardly be ignored. Saddam had been in custody for two-and-a-half years before any charge was levelled against him and the Iraqi Higher Criminal Court miraculously came into existence the same week he was captured. When the time came Saddam was no longer a tool of US foreign policy but an instrument of Republican Party domestic policy.

    The first thing to observe is that Saddam's trial was not an Iraqi legal procedure; it was a White House coordinated process from start to finish. It was funded by a $138 million grant from Congress and orchestrated by a large team of staff know as the Regime Crimes Unit and operating from the US Embassy in Baghdad.

    It was Washington and London who selected the trial judges, who were then sent to London to be trained on how to handle the case and who were then taken to Italy to rehearse the trial.

    Several judges stepped down, one having been rounded on by the Iraqi government because he was considered to lenient. Three defence lawyers were kidnapped and murdered and a similar fate befell one witness for Saddam. Many have asked why Saddam could not have been tried in a similar manner to Slobodan Milosevic whose case was heard at The Hague. Quite simply Washington would have pooh-poohed such a suggestion, just as it has refused to recognise the International Criminal Court or judgements laid down by the International Court of Justice. Indeed the US has little regard for any international legislation or treaty, including the Geneva Convention. All are seen as meddlesome in the pursuit of its global corporate interests.

    Historical amnesiacs would do well to remember that Saddam came to power via CIA assistance and was financed and chemically-armed by the West for many years in his war against Iran. Successive American and British governments turned a blind eye to his atrocities, including his mustard gassing of Iranians and the poison gas massacre of 5,000 Kurds at Halabja in 1988, only showing concern when he invaded Kuwait without the nod from Washington and worried the pro-American oil sheiks of Saudi Arabia in the process.

    From 1991 up until the US-led invasion of 2003, an estimated 1 million Iraqis died as a result of UN Sanctions. When, Madeleine Albright, the US secretary of State to Iraq, was questioned on American TV about the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children as a result of economic sanctions, she commented that it was "a price worth paying." Since the 2003 invasion some 655,000 Iraqis have been killed. Throughout Saddam's 24-year reign he never killed this many humans. Meanwhile, US-led intervention in Iraq in 15 years has resulted in the deaths of almost 1.75 million. And this is in the name of justice!

    There is of course nothing the warring factions in Iraq have to celebrate about the death penalty. Their lot has not been improved one iota since the US-led invasion and even if they live in a relatively stable Iraq they will exist as wage slaves, their lives subordinated to dictates of profit-merchants and the whims of religiously-aligned warlords, their future always over-shadowed by the dangerous game of geo-politics, their blood worth far less to the powerful than the country's oil.

    Monday, November 27, 2006

    Money Must Go

    From the World Socialist No.4 Winter 1985-86

    Money Must Go

    This was the title of a short book published in 1943. Written by two sympathisers of the Socialist Party who used the name "Philoren" (from their names Philips and Renson), it was an attempt to expound the case for socialism without using conventional jargon which they considered to be an obstacle to the spreading of socialist understanding. The book had its limitations, but can generally be regarded as one of the finest political documents not to have come out of the World Socialist Movement. 5000 copies were printed and sold but as the book is now out of print these are some selected passages from it to show the clarity of its ideas.

    Professor:- I am not proposing the abolition of money alone, nor a return to barter. In fact, the abolition of money alone, would solve no problems and undoubtedly create many difficulties. But what I do propose is, that the whole system of money and exchange, buying and selling, profit-making and wage-earning be entirely abolished and that instead, that instead community as a whole should organise and administer the productions of goods for use only, and the free distribution of these goods to all members of the community according to each person's needs.

    Since money would not exist, and wealth could not, therefore, be measured in terms of money, no person could say that he owned a share of such-and-such value in the people's means of production. In fact all the world's means of production such as land, factories, mines, machines, etc, would then belong to the whole of the people of the world who would co-operate in using them.

    The main features of the World Commonwealth are really quite simple, so I'll proceed to sum them up for you in a few sentences.

    Firstly, the new social system must be world-wide. It must be a World Commonwealth. The world must be regarded as one country and humanity as one people.
    Secondly, all the people will co-operate to produce and distribute all the goods and services which are needed by mankind, each person willingly and freely, taking part in the way he feels he can do best.
    Thirdly, all goods and services will be produced for use only, and having been produced, will be distributed, free, directly to the people so that each persons needs are fully satisfied .
    Fourthly, the land, factories, machines, mines, roads, railways, ships, and all those things which mankind needs to carry on producing the means of life, will belong to the whole people.

    Suppose that the new social system were to start tomorrow; the great mass of people having already learnt what it means and having taken the necessary action to bring it about.

    Everybody would carry on with their usual duties for the time being, except all those whose duties being of an unnecessary nature to the new system, were rendered idle: for example, bank clerks, commercial travellers, salesmen, accountants, advertising and insurance agents etc. These people would, in time, be fitted into productive occupations for which they considered themselves suitable. Periods of duty would then be regulated so that over-production would no ensue . Some sort of shift system would be necessary in some countries to begin with, and it would be as well to add that duty periods could not be reduced very much at the beginning.

    George:- Why not Professor?

    Professor:- Obviously, George, because there would be need for an immediate increase in the volume of production of many kinds of goods to relieve those people who were suffering from the evil effects of the old system and to supply the needs of those who were in the process of transferring themselves from obsolete to useful occupations.

    For example, it would be necessary to produce lots of clothes of all sorts to be distributed to the millions of poverty-stricken people who always lack them nowadays. The agricultural parts of the world freed from the restraints of the present "money-based system" would pour out the abundance of health-giving foodstuffs to feed the half-starved populations of the world; not, as often happens nowadays, to be burnt, thrown into the sea, or otherwise destroyed because they cannot be sold at a profit.

    For the first time, the conditions would exist for turning into reality the beautiful plans for housing people in real homes instead of the sordid slums or dull cities which the present social system has called into existence. These plans exist today - on paper - and will remain so, while it is necessary to have money to get a decent home. Released from the "money" necessity, architects, builders, designers, artists, engineers, and scientists would be enabled to get together to build towns, homes and work-places which would be a joy to live and work in, a job at which even today their fingers are itching to get.

    How long this period would last depend on the size and mess left by this "precious" system of ours. Personally, I don't think it would take very long since we have seen how quickly even the obstacles of the present social system, backward countries can be developed by modern industrial methods. It should not, therefore, take very long for those parts of the world which are already highly industrialised to turn out enough goods to make the whole of humanity tolerably comfortable as far as the fundamental necessities of life are concerned.

    Well, having got rid of the worst relics of the old order, production would then be adjusted so that enough is turned out to satisfy fully, the needs of everyone, making, of course, due provision by storage for the possible, though, infrequent, natural calamities such as earthquakes.

    Having produced all that is required, all that is necessary is to distribute it to the people so that each person's needs are fully satisfied. In the case of perishable goods it would merely be a matter of transport from factory or farm direct to the local distributing centres, and in the case of other goods to large regional, county or city stores or warehouses. From there it is but a step to the local distributing stores which would stock the whole range of necessary goods - a kind of show-room or warehouse - and from which goods could be delivered to the homes of people, or, of course, collected by them if so preferred.

    After all, George, the daily, weekly, and monthly needs of any given number of people in a district are easily worked out, even nowadays - take, for example, the distribution of milk - so it should not be very difficult to find out what stocks the local stores would require.

    We wont want boundaries and frontiers in the World Commonwealth, nor the hundreds of rules and regulations that go with them. The World Commonwealth rule will be "fitness for purpose", and it will be solely that, whether it be man or mankind with which it is concerned. Just as the man most fitted for as certain duty will do it because he wants to, and not through bureaucratic compulsion or unfortunate necessity, so will these regions of the world most suited for the production of certain goods be used for their production, because it would be stupid to do otherwise. In the World Commonwealth goods will be "distributed" not "exchanged", neither "exported" nor "imported"; just as if the whole world's goods were pooled and then each region were to draw what is required.

    When I say that production will be planned, do not make the mistake of imagining some super-bureaucratic organisation or World State imposing such a plan. This would not be necessary as the process would be so simple. The average requirements of a person are known : say X pounds of this, Y pounds of that; multiply by the number of people in that locality concerned, and you have on an average the total amount necessary to be "shipped" to that place for local distribution.

    Now, isn't that, though in a difficult and complicated way, exactly what's being done now? Doesn't Mr Brown, the wheat importer, know almost exactly, how much wheat he can distribute to his factors and doesn't he import accordingly? Why should things be different in the World Commonwealth, tell me that? Though perhaps I'm being somewhat hasty. Things will be different, but only in a small way. Whereas now you have dozens of importers for wheat, eggs, butter, and so on, in the World Commonwealth there will be a food control or administration

    George:- There is nothing new about that, Professor , it's the usual thing in war-time.

    Professor:- Quite, George, but with this difference. The function of such a control in war-time is a rationing of supplies due to the possibility, or the actual existence, of a shortage. The World Commonwealth control will have no need to concern itself with rationing or shortage. Rather the reverse. Its function will be to organise production so that there is no excessive surplus, and that distribution so that the demands of the people are satisfied.

    I was saying that production will be planned; I should have no need to add, it will be planned for plenty. The food control in each region will arrange for the satisfaction of the needs of that region, and will in addition plan for distribution of its own products in excess of its needs, to other regions. There will no doubt be need of a central world organisation - probably a statistical body - to control the whole output of the World Commonwealth, but I can foresee few difficulties in that direction.

    I believe I have already explained how distribution would proceed from this point. From place of production to distribution depot, and from there to local depots. From the local depots there would be daily delivery of perishable goods, such as we have today for milk, and possibly weekly and monthly deliveries of other foods. Clothes and other goods not required frequently or regularly, would be obtained at large stores somewhat similar in layout, I should imagine, to present-day Selfridges or Gamage's/ These will be placed at points in the various localities according to the needs and convenience of the local population. At these stores people will do their "shopping" without money, much as they do today with; but of course with this difference. Whereas they would be able to obtain all their requirements without money, most people nowadays are unable to do so because their purchases are limited by the amount of money they get as wages.

    That's all, George. Simple, isn't it?

    George:- It is, truly, and not very different technically from nowadays.

    Professor:- That's the point, George. Its shows quite clearly we are not planning a Utopia. We are taking the people of today and the world of today and simply changing the methods of working, the organisation - for use instead of for money-making.

    Sunday, November 26, 2006

    Jack Common and Working Class Writing (1991)

    From the October 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard

    It could easily have escaped your notice that Jack Common is back in print. Jack who? Here is a write whose life was dogged by bad luck, never receiving the recognition he deserved. Passed over by the literary and academic world, his writings have been highly acclaimed by a small group of admirers, the most famous being George Orwell. Reviewing Common's Freedom of the Streets in 1938, Orwell wrote that "this is the authentic voice of the ordinary man, the man who might infuse a new decency into he control of affairs if only he could get there, but who in practice never seems to get much further than the trenches, the sweatshop and the jail."

    So who was Jack Common? He was born in 1903 and grew up in the back streets of Heaton, a working class suburb of Newcastle. His father worked on the railways and his mother in the home. Common received a basic education and picked up some office skills at a local college. His working life was punctuated by a variety of jobs such as clerk, mechanic, labourer, museum caretaker and film scriptwriter. He was to use these experiences in his writings. A prolonged period of unemployment led Common to move to London in 1928 in search of work.

    Some of his early essays impressed Middleton-Murry and he was given a job as a circulation pusher on the left-wing literary magazine the Adelphi. Common progressed quickly, contributing more articles and obtaining editorial responsibilities. It was here that he met and became a close friend of Orwell. While Common continued to write for a range of newspapers and journals he had to take labouring jobs to support his family financially. During the 1950s, writing against a backdrop of poverty and house evictions, he produced two important biographical novels. His death in 1968 went largely unnoticed and his writings slipped out of print.

    Common's literary output over a period of 40 years was rather small and can be divided into two phases. Firstly, in the 1930s there were the social and political essays he wrote for Adelphi, Tribune, New Statesman, Manchester Guardian, etc. In these he explored various aspects of working class culture, an area which was just beginning to attract attention. Writing in ther Adelphi in December 1934, he provides a map of the side of town which interests him:
    " . . . the queer half-lit geography familiar to the proletarian, an affair of boozers, boxing halls, fried fish-saloons, corner-ends where meetings are held, missions, secular society rooms, spiritualist haunts, odd debating societies and Labour Halls." (Christmas Carol)

    Amongst these articles are sketches of street life, factory work and the life on the dole. There are also discussions about politics, religion, unions and schools. This is how he describes the experience of signing on the dole:
    "What a day! An invalid's wife with daily attendance at a hospital for financial incurables, maddening in every restriction, because normal good health with its healthy wants is beating in the blood. A day to be endured, to be got through, like all those who come till the luck changes." ('Why Work?', Manchester Guardian, 27/10/1930)

    Common was ahead of this time in exposing the role played by the mass media, advertising and consumerism in maintaining capitalism. Ken Worpole described him as "perhaps one of the most original political and cultural commentators of the 1930s" (New Society, 14/8/1980).

    The selection of writings, Jack Common's Revolt Against An 'Age of Plenty' (1980) compiled by Benyon and Hutchinson is out of print but the good news is that another small book of essays, Freedom of the Streets (1980), is available from People's Publications. One of the concerns found here and elsewhere is that the working class have not got many books which express their own views and experiences. They are what Grey has aptly called the "silent majority" in his study (1973). In his essay The Silent Majority: A Study of the Working Class in Post-War British Fiction'How Proletarian Are You?', Common Writes:
    "Glance into any library and you'll come across acres of accurate and lively descriptions of life amongst the bourgeoisie. The proletarian, though, has few books to his name, and those fumbling ones. He's no hero, that's why. He's a something-something, poor fellow, busy trying to spell it out and make it come different this time."

    One practical way Common tried to give the working class a voice is found in Seven Shifts (1938), a collection of short accounts of working-class life he edited, introduced and inspired. In the Preface he writes:
    "My friends include members of the literary bourgeoisie and lads from the un-printed proletariat. Both parties talk well, and you'd probably enjoy a crack with them as much as I do. But here's the pity. The bourgeois ones get published right and left, especially left; the others are mute as far as print goes, though exceedingly vocal in public houses."

    He continues:
    "Well, here is the result: seven narratives in which workingmen describe their jobs, their conditions, and some of their reactions to the life they lead. They are not highly literary compositions, yet the lads can write, as you'll see."

    The second part of Common's writing career involved two autobiographical novels: Kiddar's Luck and The Ampersand. These books were published in the 1950s before the upsurge of interest in working class writing. He was a forerunner of such writers as Braine, Barstow and Sillitoes. Kiddar's Luck (available from Bloodaxe Books, 1990) has rightly been described as a small masterpiece. Common draws upon personal memories of his childhood and youth to produce a highly authentic yet entertaining picture of working class life at the turn of the century. The writer Sid Chaplin described Common as "perhaps the finest chronicler of the English working class to follow Robert Tressell" ('A Wry Smile from Tyneside', Sunday Times, 12 May 1968).

    The narrative traces the relative freedom enjoyed by Willie Kiddar on the streets with his friends and the increasing constraints and limitations imposed by the prospects of a life of mundane labour and wage-slavery. Common's sting-in-the-tail technique of writing allows him to deal with this is a self-mockingly humorous way. Take the marvellous use of irony in the opening passages where Kiddar (in the form of his genes) reflects on is bad luck on being born into the working class and missing all of the opportunities going on the night of his conception:
    "I at once came under the minus sign which society had already placed upon my parents. They were of no account, not even overdrawn or marked 'R.D.', people who have worked for a living and got just that, who had a home so long as they paid the weekly rent and who could provide for offspring by the simple method of doing without themselves".

    He continues:
    "Naturally, there were some bad fairies gathered round the bed at such a conception. One, somewhat like a tramp, chalked upon the bedstead the sign which means 'no handouts here'. Another, four-belted as a ghostly navvy, swung his pick in promise of future hard work; a blear-eyed one, faintly lit up, lifted the bottle and one looking like a magistrate made a bitter mouth over the syllables of unspoken 'Borstal'".

    Common used his childhood in Kiddar's Luck as a means of reworking many of the ideas and concerns found in his earlier writings like the Freedom of the Streets. For example, the self-taught uncle who introduces Kiddar to radical books and ideas is one of the most "unhonoured intellectuals" debating on the street corners in the essay 'Great Men of the Gutter'. A passing reference is made to the SPGB in this context. Common was opposed to capitalism and the way it limited and thwarted working class potential. One of the institutions involved in preparing children for the world of work is the school. In the Freedom of the Streets, he explains that school:
    " . . . is in origin quite alien to working class life. It does not grow from that life: it is not 'our' school, in the sense in which in other schools can be spoken of by the folk of other classes".

    This critique is taken up in chapter five of Kiddar's Luck:
    "I had acquired the one faculty with which every school infallibly endows its pupils - that of being bored. It is very important, of course, that every child should in the course of time becomes fitted up with this negative capability. If they didn't have it, they'd never put up with the jobs they are going to get, most of them, on leaving school. Boredom, or the ability to endure it, is the hub on which the whole universe of work turns".

    Sociological studies, such as P Willis's Learning to Labour (1977), show this is still the case. Kiddar's Luck ends in 1917 when Kiddar is fourteen and about to apply or work. The sequel, The Ampersand (which is out of print) continues the adventures of Kiddar, although her is renamed Clart. These autobiographical novels are not simply about Common or Kiddar/Clart; the experience and fate are intended to be representative of others in similar circumstances. Kiddar, as the name suggests, is a typical product of the environment. Returning to the opening passage:
    "I had picked the bottom rung of the ladder with a vengeance . . . A sad mistake. Though millions make it, I think it still deserves a mourning wreath."These books show working class writing at its best. They are full of witty observations and interesting insights from one born under a minus sign".

    Common did not belong to any political party and was highly critical of those left-wing organisations that claimed to speak for and lead the working class. He ends Freedom of the Streets with:
    "No conclusions, then. You can work them out yourself, and its odd's on you'll get at least as good an answer as I should. The things I've been talking about hit you as hard as they do me, mate, and that's a fact. I'll leave it to you, then - all the best."

    Common's own highly individualistic "socialism" is often confused and confusing. However, whilst you will find plenty of things to argue with in these books they do help to show the potential ordinary people have themselves to change society. Get hold of these books while you can, because knowing Kiddar's luck, they will be out of print before you can say Jack . . .
    Brian Rubin

    Sunday, November 19, 2006

    Tony Blair: "Iraq is a disaster"

    Latest post from John at the SPGB's blog Socialism Or Your Money Back:

    "Only those suffering from selective amnesia will not recall the nauseating lengths to which Tony Blair went in promoting the case for the invasion of Iraq, how he used 10-year-old information gleaned from the internet, and some student.. dissertation to boot, to argue that Saddam Hussein was quite capable of lobbing a missile at Britain within 45 minutes." READ MORE

    Thursday, November 16, 2006

    Cooking The Books (2006)

    From the November 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Cooking the Books (1)

    Abnormal behaviour

    The Bank of France is worried. Capitalist enterprises, it seems, are not behaving normally.

    In an article entitled "Is the investment behaviour of enterprises 'normal'" in the August issue of its Bulletin , the Bank notes that enterprises in the G7 countries (US, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Canada) are registering "very strong profitability" and that "as a percentage of GDP enterprise profits are at their highest level for decades", but that an unusually high proportion of these profits are not being reinvested in production. Some (most in fact) are of course but what is not normal, according to the Bank, is that in 2005 the enterprise sector of the economy was a net lender to other sectors, which is "disconcerting as one would normally expect enterprises to be in general net borrowers" (i.e., to be borrowing money to invest in production), adding "in fact this has always been the case up till now" and that "it is particularly surprising to note that investment is not more dynamic when long-term real rates of interest are at their historical lowest level".

    Two questions arise. If they are not investing enough, what are enterprises doing with the extra profits? And, more fundamentally, why are they not investing them?

    The Bank identifies a number of ways in which enterprises are using the profits that they are not investing. First, holding them as liquid assets (placed on financial markets in forms that can be readily be converted into cash): "liquid assets represent 9 percent of their total assets, a level that is difficult to explain by any historical precedent or traditional economic approach". Second, distributing them to shareholders. Third, spending them on taking over other enterprises.

    As to why, the Bank offers two scenarios. In the "optimistic" one, the current underaccumulation of physical assets is seen as the other side of the coin to the overaccumulation that took place in the 1990s; in other words, as one phase of the capitalist business cycle; sooner or later the profit hoards will disappear as they are absorbed by rising wages and interest rates when the cycle moves on to its next phase.

    In the "less optimistic" scenario, the unusually high level of uninvested profits is seen as the result of investment in physical assets being more risky than placing the money on financial markets. The Bank lists three reasons as to why investment is currently regarded as being too risky: geopolitical uncertainties, anticipated inevitable exchange rate adjustments, and the threat of protectionism.

    At the moment, the Bank says, this can only be conjecture, but:
    "A situation where the risk premiums of physical assets are very different from those of financial assets cannot go on for ever. In the long term financial assets only reflect an underlying 'real' economic reality. These two categories of risk premium can in time only converge".

    The Bank says that it is "of the greatest importance for the world economy that this process [of convergence] should take place in an orderly manner" (ie., without a financial crash and its consequences), but doesn't seem too optimistic that it will. It might of course. We shall see. In any event, what sort of economic system is it in which it is normal to have to rely on whether or not a big enough profit can be made to get things produced?

    Cooking the Books (II)

    Statistical errors
    There is a silly argument going on at the moment between the government and an organisation called Migrationwatch which favours tougher controls on immigration. The government claims that people born abroad working in the UK have caused "a small but positive increase to gross domestic product per capita". Migrationwatch claims the opposite and argues that in future only immigrants whose work contribution raises GDP per head should be allowed in.

    GDP per head, i.e., total annual production of goods and services divided by total population, is simply a statistic; it doesn't cause anything but is a measure or reflection of a situation caused by real facts. If GDP per head falls because GDP has fallen or has remained unchanged while population has gone up this might indicate a deterioration in general living standards (though even then most people could be unaffected since a fall in GDP per head does not mean that everybody is worse off any more than a rise means everybody is better off). But GDP per head is not falling but rising. So, what the government and Migrationwatch are arguing about is the hypothetical question of whether it would have risen faster if there had been fewer immigrants.

    But how do you measure what a worker contributes to GDP, i.e., to total annual production? Migrationwatch explicitly, and the government implicitly, assume that a worker contributes only the equivalent of their wages. As Migrationwatch argue in a recent "research paper":
    "In the calendar year 2003 the UK's GDP was 1.099 billion pounds. 613 billion pounds of this amount was 'compensation of employees'. So, apportioning this amount of GDP generated by employment earnings amongst the working population of 27.6 million people this gives average earnings per worker of 22,200 pounds a year" ('Selection criteria for immigrant workers', from the migrantwatch website).

    But if workers produced only 613 billion pounds of a total production of 1,099 billion pounds who produced the rest? The same statistics show that the rest is made up of profits (25 percent), "mixed income", i.e., the profits and the labour contribution of the self-employed, (6 percent), and the difference between taxes and subsidies.

    Since work is the only possible source of new wealth, a more accurate calculation would be to divide 1,099 billion pounds by the working population; which gives a contribution of 39,800 pounds per worker. This would reflect the fact that all productive workers, whether native-born or born abroad, contribute to GDP considerably more than their earnings but what they produce above this goes as profits to their employers.

    This rather demolishes Migrationwatch's convoluted calculations to reach the conclusion that "a worker must earn about 27,000 pounds a year to make, on average, a positive contribution to GDP per head" and that only migrants earning this or more should be allowed in.

    Migrationwatch's stigmatising of any worker, native-born ones too, earning less than 27,000 pounds as a burden since they contribute less to GDP than average so dragging GDP per head down is just plain ridiculous. As GDP per head is an average there will always be some above and some below it. Migrationwatch's proposal to raise the average by eliminating some of those below it would achieve this but it would reduce GDP (since even Migrationwatch admits that any immigrant who works contributes something to GDP). A bit like cutting off your nose to spite your face. But then, Migrationwatch is only deploying apparently sophisticated statistical arguments to back up its already-decided policy of "keep the riff-raff out".

    Tuesday, November 14, 2006

    It's the same in China

    Latest post from the SPGB blog, Socialism Or Your Money Back.

    The Challenge of a Better Future (2004)

    Editorial from the September 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard

    On Sunday, 12 June 1904, a meeting was held at Printers' Hall, Bartlett's Passage, Fetter Lane, London. It had been called by a Provisional Committee of ten and was attended by some 140 or so people who then formed the Socialist Party of Great Britain. These were men and women who were determined to uphold socialist principles and work without diversion for a clearly defined socialist objective. As former members of the Social Democratic Federation they had become deeply dissatisfied with its increasingly reformist policies. They had also become victims of its undemocratic practices. Given their socialist analysis of problems and their commitment to organise unswervingly for a new society based on common ownership, democratic control and production solely for needs, circumstances gave them no option but to form the new party.

    In September 1904, these founder members of the SPGB produced the first issue of the Socialist Standard. Its editorial began, "Having inaugurated The Socialist Party of Great Britain, we find it indispensable that we should have a journal in which our views may be expressed." We now look back on a remarkable record of monthly issues over 100 years. For over a century the Socialist Standard has met its monthly deadline without fail.

    The Socialist Standard has applied a consistent socialist analysis to events and trends as they unfolded throughout the century. This set these in a clear socialist perspective, reinforcing time and again the argument that only socialism could solve the problems caused by the capitalist system. In this way the Socialist Standard has also kept alive the hopes of all people for a world of peace, well-being and happiness. This has been a great tribute to the men and women who set out on this socialist course of "sane and sound pronouncement", and of course to all those who have since taken up their example.

    Although regrets at past failures of the working class to change society are of little practical use, it is both instructive and relevant to the present to recall the political arguments which were decisive in setting the 20th century on its disaster-filled course. This happened because the ideas that won the day amongst the various parties of the working class movement, at the beginning of the 20th century, held no possibility that the problems of the great majority of people could be solved.

    The great reformist hope was that having won the vote, at least for working men, an elected working class government would be in political and economic control. Then, through a programme of reforms, nationalisation, measures to tax the rich out of existence and, in unity with the trades unions fighting on the industrial front, such a government would raise the living standards of all workers. Some took the view that such a programme would introduce a new socialist society.

    As these ideas gained ground and went on to contribute to the founding of the Labour Party, the socialists who broke away from the Social Democratic Federation understood very well that the hopes placed in these reformist policies were illusory. They applied socialist theory in a way that gave them a full understanding of the economic limitations of political action within the capitalist system.

    An article, 'A Plain Statement', in the February 1905 edition of the Socialist Standard said the following:
    "The Socialist Party of Great Britain presents the plain issue. They say the ownership of a few people of the means of life is the cause of working class misery. They say the only remedy lies in the common ownership and control (ownership and control by the whole people) of these means of life. Which is socialism. Therefore we say that those who know that socialism alone is the remedy and yet make alliances with those who are not Socialists, with the object of realising certain reforms that cannot, even if realised, benefit the workers, are betraying the cause of labour. They may have the best of intentions but the result is the same. By their work they are delaying the time when the workers will see the truth and apply the remedy. To that extent they are keeping the power of the capitalist strong."

    The writer could not anticipate that this would need to be repeated in the columns of the Socialist Standard throughout the next century. To say the least this has been unfortunate, but any disappointment that we may feel cannot offset the continuing truth and predictive power of what he wrote. Since then, despite social reform and the policies of Labour and Social Democratic governments the capitalist system still rules our lives. More and more people struggle to live within the wage labour/capital relationship; more people produce goods for profit. There is a greater pool of capital still being accumulated from the exploitation of workers than ever before. Capitalist states are stronger with more arms and greater powers of destruction. The capitalist system has spread as a global system. It now exists as a gigantic structure, with economic events in one place having repercussions throughout the world.

    The socialists who founded the Socialist Party and its journal understood that the capitalist system operates primarily as a system of labour exploitation, profit and capital accumulation. This imposes a definite framework of economic limitations on the actions of governments, corporations and on society as a whole which cannot be evaded. The political consequences of this are immense; ultimately they shape our society. The idea that any government, however well-meaning or inspired by revolutionary sentiment, can replace profit and the accumulation of capital with the needs of the community as the objects of capitalist production is a misguided doctrine that has led to failure, broken promises and boundless political confusion. It has put back the clock of social progress and made the sound work of building the socialist movement more difficult.

    There has been no worse example of this than the events that followed the Bolshevik takeover of power in Russia in 1917. Whatever may have been the revolutionary intentions that motivated these activists the Socialist Standard was very early in pointing out that in the backward economic and political conditions that existed, and particularly in the absence of a socialist working class, there was no realistic prospect for the establishment of socialism. After noting with approval the fact that having taken Russia out of the war the Bolsheviks had "stopped the slaughter", on the question of whether they had also achieved the "establishment of the social ownership of the means of life", the August 1918 Socialist Standard said:
    "Unless a mental revolution such as the world has never seen before has taken place, or an economic change has occurred immensely more rapidly than history has ever recorded, the answer is 'No!'"

    In July 1920 the Socialist Standard was already seeing the system in Russia as a state capitalist system. Whilst this was not denied by Lenin he nevertheless justified it. In April 1918 he said: "Only the development of state capitalism, only the painstaking establishment of accounting and control, only the strictest organisation and labour discipline, will lead us to socialism." This could not happen and it never did happen; it was unfortunate that this myth of a society advancing towards socialism captured the minds of many millions throughout the world.

    The reality was that from the beginning, the Bolshevik leadership, first under Lenin, then under Stalin and later others, used every means of intimidation and terror to run a state capitalist system for their own power and personal advancement. This had countless victims and one of these was the language of socialism which was corrupted by its association with state oppression. Against this, it was left to the Socialist Standard, over the next 70 years to point out the brutal tyrannies of the Russian state-capitalist system whilst maintaining a clear idea of what socialism means.

    The great and enduring contradiction of the capitalist system, which has devastating consequences on our lives and which is at the root of most of our problems, is that whilst it has developed immense powers of production, it is incapable of using them for the benefit of the whole community. By putting profits before needs, the rule of market forces, which are unpredictable in movement and direction, places the production of goods and services, on which all our lives depend, outside the control of society. Market forces serve minority interests and generate the insecurities, crises, wars and civil conflicts that shape the way we live. In line with this view that was first expressed by socialists, every government, has acted out these forces to great human cost.

    The passage of time has done nothing to diminish the validity of the socialist analysis of problems. On the contrary, it has vindicated the principled stand taken by the first members of the Socialist Party in the first issue of the Socialist Standard, and by their successors in every issue since. But we do not rest on this case. When most parties prefer to erase their past actions from political debate, and to pretend that all options are new, for which they have new policies, socialists take the more sound view that we should address the failures of the past and learn from them. To be politically disconnected from experience and to not learn its lessons provides fertile ground in which false hopes can flourish and mistaken ideas can lead to more disaster; the dangers in this are immense.

    Whilst the capitalist system continues, so will the socialist analysis continue to have a timeless relevance. A democratic system organised solely for needs would bring not just a sane way to live but a world-wide celebration of all that is best in being human. This could be so easily within our grasp. There is nothing in the human make-up that prevents this from becoming a reality. We are all capable of co-operating in each other's interests.

    It would be tragic indeed, and it is difficult to imagine the catastrophic circumstances in which it could happen, if one hundred years hence, a Socialist Party will find it necessary to bring out a bi-centenary edition of the Socialist Standard. The way to avoid this is to join in the work of organising for socialism and bring it to success. There can be no better cause.

    Wednesday, November 8, 2006

    Do You Remember the Sandinistas?

    Latest post from the Socialism or Your Money Back blog.

    The Sandinistas are back. Or are they? In any event, Daniel Ortega, who headed the revolutionary junta that took over after the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 and who was President of Nicaragua till he was voted out in 1990, has just been elected President again.

    For those with short memories, in the 1980s the Sandinistas enjoyed the same prestige and support amongst Leftwing romantic revolutionaries as does Chavez today. “In 1979,” read the blurb on the back of Nicaragua: The Sandinist Revolution by Henri Weber that came out in 1981, “Nicaragua’s long-lived Somoza dictatorship fell before a mass insurrection led by the Sandinist movement, which has now established the first anti-capitalist power on the American mainland.”

    Weber was then a prominent member of the French equivalent of the old IMG. Later he became a “Socialist” Party senator. Ortega’s political evolution has been in the same direction. While still an anti-yankee nationalist he now emphasises his Christian rather than any “Marxist” (read Leninist) credentials.

    The Sandinistas were a guerrilla group inspired by the Cuban revolution (and named after a Nicaraguan nationalist who fought against US domination in the 1920s). At the beginning, in 1979, they shared power with the representatives of the liberal bourgeoisie, who were also against the Somoza dictatorship. But they soon came to monopolise power and attempted to transform Nicaragua into the same sort of state-capitalist regime as existed in Cuba, with the same “Marxist-Leninist” ideology: a minority vanguard would liberate the people through opposition to US imperialism, land redistribution, social reforms and a cultural revolution against capitalist influences which would create a “new man”.

    The USA wasn’t having it and financed and armed the “contras” who waged a relentless guerrilla campaign against the Sandinista government, so weakening it that in the end it had to agree to abide by the outcome of internationally-monitored elections. Ortega lost, ironically to one of the representatives of the liberal bourgeoisie would had been a member of the original 1979 junta. Most people in Nicaragua were simply fed up with the civil war and the economic privations it and the failure of the Sandinistas’ economic policies had caused.

    For the first time a self-appointed “Marxist-Leninist” vanguard had been voted out of office. In any event, even in the absence of the US-provoked civil war, the Sandinistas would have failed to establish socialism or even improve the position of the working class. Quite apart from the fact that, due to the already world nature of capitalism, socialism cannot be establishment in just one country, and certainly not in an economically backward one like Nicaragua (or Cuba), no minority can impose socialism on a majority that does not want and understand it.

    Once in power that minority has no alternative but to work within the context of capitalism, but capitalism cannot be made to work in the interest of the class of wage and salary workers. Which was why even in their hey-day the Sandinista government was opposing strikes and urging workers to work harder. They had no alternative since, just to survive within world capitalism, they had to keep costs down so as to make a surplus (a profit) to pay for essential imports.

    The Sandinistas’ failure was not that of “the first anti-capitalist power on the American mainland” but the failure of an attempt to establish a Leninist state-capitalist regime there.

    Adam Buick

    Monday, November 6, 2006

    Anarchism in Britain Today (2006)

    From the November 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

    We review a new book by an anarchist on what anarchists in Britain think and do today.

    There are anarchists and anarchists. Bomb-throwers and pacifists, syndicalists and communists, primitivists and egoists, even anarcho-capitalists. Knowing to our cost that the same can be said of "socialists", we must be careful not to use what one group who call themselves anarchists think as typical of what anyone who calls themself one does.

    Benjamin Franks's book, Rebel Alliances: The means and ends of contemporary British anarchists (AK Press,), deals with anarchist groups today who he calls "class struggle anarchists". Which means we can ignore here the individualists and the anarcho-capitalists, but even so the groups left still have different approaches, especially as, for some reason, Franks includes "council communists" and "autonomist Marxists" among them.

    He lists four criteria for being considered a "class struggle anarchist".
    1. "A complete rejection of capitalism and the market economy".
    2. "An egalitarian concern for the interests and freedoms of others as part of creating non-hierarchical social relations."
    3. "A complete rejection of state power and other quasi-state mediating forces".
    4. "A recognition that means have to prefigure ends".

    Franks places emphasis on the fourth and uses it to judge the principles, organisational forms and activities of "contemporary British anarchists", in particular Class War, the Anarchist (formerly Anarchist Communist) Federation and the Solidarity Federation (direct descendant of the old Syndicalist Workers Federation). The people around the best known anarchist publication, Freedom, are excluded as "liberal anarchists".

    Prefiguring future society
    We, too, hold that the means have to prefigure the end but reached this conclusion from a quite different starting point: that of democracy in the proper sense. Democracy means, literally, the rule or power of the people, i.e. popular participation in decision-making. It allows various ways of reaching a decision but, in the end, if consensus cannot be obtained, it has to come to a vote; in which case the majority view prevails. Democracy does not mean that all decisions have to made at general assemblies of all concerned or by referendum; it is compatible with certain decisions being delegated to committees and councils as long as the members of these bodies are responsible to those who (s)elected them.

    Socialism is a society based on the common ownership of the means of life but, since something cannot be said to be commonly owned if some have a privileged or exclusive say in how it is used, common ownership means that every member of society has to have an equal say. If there wasn't such democratic control there wouldn't be common ownership, so there wouldn't be socialism.

    Democratic control is not an optional extra of socialism. It is its very essence. This being so, socialism cannot be imposed against the will or without the consent and participation of the (vast) majority. It simply cannot be established for the majority by some vanguard or enlightened minority. That is our case against all forms of Leninism. The socialist revolution can only be democratic, in the sense of both being what the majority of people want and of being carried out by democratic methods of organisation and action. No minority revolution can lead to socialism, not even one that destroys the state (our case against certain anarchists) - and of course socialism will involve the disappearance of the state as a coercive institution serving the interests of a minority. Hence our conclusion that the movement to establish socialism, and the methods it employs, must "prefigure" the democratic nature of socialism.

    Traditionally, anarchists have rejected democracy as an organising principle (not just the democratic state but any form of democratic organisation). The early British anarchists that William Morris met in the Socialist League in the 1880s denounced democracy as "the tyranny of the majority" (which Morris regarded as an absurd position). The anarchists who controlled the pre-WWI CGT union federation in France favoured the activities of an "active minority". Emma Goldman in Anarchism and Other Essays declared, in an essay entitled "Minorities versus Majorities", that "the living, vital truth of social and economic well-being will become a reality only through the zeal, courage, the non-compromising determination of intelligent minorities, and not through the mass". As the Socialist Standard commented on this in September 1924: "such views mean that the great body of the people will depend upon the kindness and wisdom of the Anarchist intellectuals to guide and mother us".

    It is only in recent years that some anarchists have come to embrace democracy as an organising principle, mainly under the influence of industrial unionists and council communists (who claimed rather to be Marxists). Still, better late than never. But even now most anarchists have difficulty in justifying why someone should conform to a majority decision that he or she doesn't agree with; they still seem to think that no external decision can bind the "sovereign individual" of individualist anarchism (and bourgeois ideology). One group which did accept binding majority decisions - the now defunct Anarchist Workers Group in the late 80s - was denounced by the others, and again by Franks in this book, as crypto-Leninists.

    This same ideology is reflected in the difficulty anarchist groups have with the concept of "representation". What they call "representative democracy" (whether in the state or generally) is rejected on the grounds that no group can be "represented" by anyone and that any "representative" inevitably stands in a hierarchical relationship with the group they claim to represent. But why can't a group (s)elect some of their number to represent them - unless you think that the supposed "sovereign individuals" who make up the group cannot sign away their right to speak and act for themselves?

    Since even anarchists admit that not all decisions can be made by general assemblies or referendum, they get round this by saying that "delegation" is acceptable. But any attempted distinction between "representative" (bad) and "delegate" (good) is just playing with words.

    This is not to say that what is called "representative democracy" in relation to the capitalist state is ideal. Far from it, even in the Swiss cantons and US States and cities where it is supplemented by the right of initiative (of a certain number of citizens to propose laws and call referendums) and the right to recall (unelect) a representative.

    State elections
    Capitalist democracy is not a participatory democracy, which a genuine democracy has to be. In practice the people generally elect to central legislative assemblies and local councils professional politicians who they merely vote for and then let them get on with the job. In other words, the electors abdicate their responsibility to keep any eye on their representatives, giving them a free hand to do what the operation of capitalism demands. But that's as much the fault of the electors as of their representatives, or rather it is a reflection of their low level of democratic consciousness. It can't be blamed on the principle of representation as such.

    There is no reason in principle why, with a heightened democratic consciousness (such as would accompany the spread of socialist ideas), even representatives sent to state bodies could not be subject - while the state lasts - to democratic control by those who sent them there. The only arguments that anarchists have ever been able to put against this are that "power corrupts" and that this practice is not allowed by the constitution. But if power inevitability corrupts why does this not apply also in non-parliamentary elected bodies such as syndicalist union committees or workers councils?

    Somewhat surprisingly, Franks does not condemn out of hand anarchist participation in state elections. Discussing Class War's standing of a candidate in a parliamentary by-election in 1988 he says that there could be occasions when this could be done as long it is done in a way that doesn't "reaffirm representative democracy", as he claims we do when we stand candidates. We would reply that when we stand candidates we do "prefigure" the genuinely democratic nature of future socialist society in that our candidates do not stand as leaders or offering to do anything for people but merely as potential delegates of those who want socialism, as mere "messenger boys (and girls)" pledged, if elected, to submit to the democratic control of those who voted them in. We suspect, however, that in not completely ruling out any participation in state elections Franks will be regarded by other anarchists as having conceded far too much.

    The book - despite the drawback of having been originally written as a university thesis - does give a useful and comprehensive view of the discussions that have gone on in anarchist circles in recent years. It is interesting to note that some of these have been paralleled by discussions within our party, for instance, whether the revolution is to be a class or a non-class affair, and to what extent can community struggles outside the workplace be assimilated to struggles at the point of production. (For the record, our view is that the revolution has to be the work of the working class, but as the working class understood not as just manual industrial workers but as anyone forced to work for a wage or salary irrespective of the job they do, i.e. most people today; and that non-workplace struggles such as tenants associations and claimants' unions are as legitimate defensive struggles as the trade union struggle over wages and working conditions.)

    On the other subjects which divide contemporary anarchists, we would side with the syndicalists in saying that economic exploitation is primary, but with the anarcho-communists in saying that future society will involve community-based administrative councils and not exclusively industry-based ones. We oppose the blanket rejection of the existing trade unions as proposed by the ACF (and the council communists). And we would agree with statements quoted by Franks (and have said the same thing many times ourselves) that "we exist not as something separate from the working class, not as some leadership for others to follow, but as part of the working class working for our own liberation" (Subversion) and "to the Left the working class are there to be ordered about because we are too thick to think for ourselves" (Class War).

    In Franks's scheme, we would be classified as a group practising "propaganda by word" with occasional forays into "constitutional activity" in the form of participation in elections. What we don't do - and which all the anarchist groups engage in - is to participate, as a group, in "micropolitics", local single-issue campaigns. We don't necessarily dismiss all such campaigns as entirely useless but think it best to leave them up to the people directly concerned, merely advising them (if asked) to organise and conduct themselves democratically, without leaders and without outside interference from Leninist (and, indeed, anarchist) groups. As a group composed of people who have come together because we want socialism, we see our group's task as to concentrate on spreading socialist ideas.
    Adam Buick

    Saturday, November 4, 2006

    The Axis Against Evil (2006)

    From the November 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard
    The US is generally perceived as the central pillar if capitalism, yet US hegemony is increasingly losing flavour with people around the world.

    The double standards operated by the US are plain for all to see: the US has a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons, yet will not allow Iran and North Korea to develop their own. The lies about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction were followed by a brutal war there, with ever-increasing numbers of casualties. Moreover, the US uncritically supports Israel, and at the time of the recent invasion of Lebanon the US actively delayed condemning Israel's actions in the hope of giving them time enough to destroy Hezbullah. Behind all this lies the need to control oil supplies. After 9/11, the new Patriot Act and the heightened profile of Homeland Security resulted in dissenters at home being portrayed as traitors.

    Bush and co propagate a picture of "us and them", "us" being the US and its allies and friends and "them" being anyone remotely in opposition to their idea of world order. But who, more particularly are "us and them"?

    According to received opinion and Cold War propaganda it used to be simple. It was "us", the capitalists who loved freedom and "them", the Communists (USSR), who were under state control. With the fall of the USSR the Cold War was over and a new threat had to be manufactured to fill the gap. So now "them" is the Axis of Evil, terrorists and dissenters, all standing against "democracy" and therefore against the "free" market.

    However, the Axis of Evil or what's left of it - Iran, Syria, Sudan, North Korea – aren't in opposition to capitalism. Their rulers are merely in favour of running it their own way, in their own interests, which appear to be directly opposed to the wishes of the US. It is also a challenge that Iran and Syria are believed to sponsor terrorism, i.e. have a different view of and vision for the Middle East. External dissenters will have pressure brought to bear by the various trade organisations using economic sticks and carrots, by threatened withdrawal of aid and even by the (deliberately) weakened UN.

    Another "them"
    The newest "them" is of a different order, spreading across Central and South America, including the Zapatistas of Mexico; Bolivia which refused to privatise gas and water and now has Evo Morales pushing the social agenda further; Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, the Bolivarian circles and the new People's Constitution; Argentina and the Unemployed Workers' Movement; Brazil's Landless Workers' Movement. All these reject the idea of being underdogs in a US-dominated world order.

    These movements do not aim at the overthrow of capitalism but they are standing together against its symbols in the shape of the WTO, IMF, World Bank, and transnational corporations. Add to these movements the anti-globalisation, anti-capitalist forums, which have led, for instance, to US students fighting to ban Coca Cola from a growing number of campuses. This is because in certain countries unionised workers have been ditched and even murdered, and in India village water has been seriously contaminated by Coca Cola bottling plants. Another example is the ongoing "Nestles Kills Babies" campaign against the policy of promoting baby formula mixed with (often contaminated) water in favour of mother's milk. The "Fair Trade" movement attempts to provide more than a subsistence wage to farmers around the world and give a guaranteed price even when prices on the world market fluctuate.

    World poverty is the subject of a myriad of movements present at the World Social Forum, like the Brazilian Landless Movement and the anti-Big Pharma Brigade which campaigns against the big pharmaceutical companies which lock poor farmers into the buying their seeds, fertiliser and insecticides. Other well-known campaigns are those such as are fronted by celebrities like Geldof, Bono and Clinton. These latter campaigns raise the profile in a large part of the world with many people who would otherwise remain ignorant of the problems, widening awareness, interest and questioning.

    The US home front
    On the home front in the US divisions are widening too. It's one year after the destruction and loss of life from Hurricane Katrina when most of the residents who fled the destruction are still living "in exile" with little opportunity to get back home and scant prospect of work. Almost half of the demolition and construction workers in the area are now imported "Latinos" rather than the formerly resident "Afro-Americans" because, surprise, surprise, the contractors find the immigrants more easily exploitable.

    Outsourcing of jobs continues to drive down wages and living standards for the majority. The crisis in the high price of oil raises the level of discontent. It may be nearly the cheapest petrol in the world at the pumps but if you can't afford to fill your tank you can't get to work. Control of the oil can be seen as a prime motivation of the White House and the Pentagon, high prices being good for them and their cronies personally. However the US public want to see their soldiers "home" and the price of gas down.

    All of the above, the Axis of Evil, the terrorism, the dissenters, the thousand-and-one movements across the world seeking to "make a difference", the discontent at home, are threats of differing degrees to the current position of the US. While they are not socialist, more and more people are rejecting the idea of a world ruled by US capitalism. And that makes them more open to listening with an open mind to the case for socialism.
    Janet Surman

    Friday, November 3, 2006

    The Science of Morality, the Morality of Science (2006)

    From the Pathfinders column in the November 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

    The Science of Morality, the Morality of Science

    A friend recently remarked that she had been obliged to take her cat to the vet for the third time this year. When asked if the animal had contracted some nasty virus she replied: "Oh, it"s nothing like that. My cat suffers from depression." If the cat had been present to witness the ensuing howls of laughter from the assembled throng, he would no doubt have gone into terminal decline. And, strange as it may seem, he would be right to deplore such a display of callous human ignorance. For feline depression, as it turns out, is nothing unusual, with eight out of ten vets in one survey reporting cases of stress and depression in animals left alone at home while theirowners go out to work (BBC Online, 25 August 05).

    But it's not just a case of yowling dogs or sulking moggies hungry for bigger portions of human interaction and a side order of self-validation. The social consensus has moved a long way from the days when medieval farmers were told by priests to cut the feet off their runaway pigs since, not having souls, they wouldn't feel anything. The centuries-long debate about animal sentience, more recently informed by a respectable body of research into animal behaviour, has culminated in zoologists and ethologists concluding that not only do many animals feel, they can think. "The whole climate over whether to accept sentience has changed hugely in the last 15 years", Joyce D'Silva of Compassion in World Farming told the BBC back in 2003 (BBC Online, 9 May 03). And thinking is only the beginning, argues the CIWF, since there is evidence among social vertebrate species of altruistic behaviour and even a crude understanding of morality.

    And if humans respond to these concepts with a milk bowl full of scepticism, it is not surprising, since many scientists are also fighting a rearguard action against them. "Just a couple of decades ago, the words 'animal' and 'cognition' couldn't be mentioned in the same sentence". says primatologist Frans deWaal, "With this fight behind us, emotions have become the new taboo" (New Scientist, 14 Oct.) In a world where per capita meat production and consumption are probably higher than at any time in recorded history, talk of emotionally aware animals feeling mean or loving or jealous is likely to begreeted with cold disdain. Yet field studies of primates report displays of sympathy, compassion, a clear understanding of what is fair and what is not fair, and instances of group punishment of individuals who disobey rules and inconvenience others. One recent study at Montreal University suggested that even mice may be capable of empathic responses.

    The difficulty which this sort of behaviour poses is that modern secular society tends to assume that morality is something which comes from the outside, an abstract intellectual construct established by articulate beings who are capable of imagining all the dire consequences of not knowing right from wrong. At its extreme, among religious groups, morality is located so far outside the species that it does not reside in any known place but in the imaginary mind of an imaginary being in an imaginary universe. But what if morality actually comes from the inside, hard-wired into us? And what if it's not just us? What if other animals share some of the moral and emotional characteristics that we imagine are exclusive to humans, where does that leave our moral justification of ourselves, especially in relation to how we treat them?

    It isn't just burger bingers who will start looking guiltily at their Monster Mac. There is a larger philosophical question at stake which affects even scientists, and socialists. What is the point of striving for a value-free science, if we know that in practice it never has existed and in theory never really could anyway? Many have argued vociferously, over issues like the Bomb, genetics, or even stem-cell research, that science without morality is a dangerous and unhinged form of knowledge, yet the problem with the argument is that it is moral in itself.

    Thus morality argues in defence of morality. But if we recognise that forms of proto-morality are built-in to higher mammals and primates, perhaps the argument in favour of the moral dimension begins to look less circular and more solidly based.

    And what of socialist politics, which is in the habit of highlighting the socio-economic forces which drive changes in society, often to the extent of regarding personal 'lapses' into moral outrage as a form of intellectual flabbiness? Does the case against capitalism and for common ownership and production for use do better with or without a moral dimension? Is it valid to say that capitalism is not only an inefficient and downright destructivesocial system, it is also plain wrong?

    Of course, knowledge would not have progressed as far as it has if moralists still held sway, as they have for most of human history. Morality means different things to different societies, and to base one's strategy for the future upon whatever concept of morality is fashionable today would clearly be a big mistake. Yet if a chimpanzee can show the instinctive compassion of onesentient creature towards the suffering of another sentient creature, perhaps it is not for us to attempt to rise above our basic animal instincts as if they were not really ours but, literally, given by the hand of gods. Perhaps it is just as important to oppose capitalism because it is evil, and not merely because it is 'incorrect'.

    No planes, no brains.
    Another conversation, another friend. This one was on that increasingly tedious subject: did the Americans blow up the Twin Towers themselves? Some people, such as UFOlogists, numerologists, and readers of Nexus magazine, foreswear the genuine wonder of scientific discovery and evidence-based knowledge in favour of fantasies, rumours and conspiracy theories conjured up by dedicated charlatans who from time immemorial have always preferred the tall story to the telling fact.

    The 'no-planers' believe that American missiles crashed into the World Trade Center in 2001, and to explain what we all saw with our own eyes they offer the amazing suggestion that these missiles were cloaked in holographic images of passenger jets. In an article in the New Statesman (quoted in the New York Times, 7 Sept), Brendan O'Neill describes an interview with two noplaners, ex-secret service agents David Shayler and Annie Machon, as they enthusiastically describe, following the French journalist Thierry Meyssan, author of 9/11: the big lie (2002), how it definitely couldn't have been a plane that hit the Pentagon.

    "Just look at the news footage," says Shayler. "You won't see any plane debris on the Pentagon lawn." O'Neill almost chides himself for feeling obliged to print the web address of a site which features photographs of plane wreckage inside the Pentagon.

    The no-planers, like the no-landers, by which term Pathfinders herewith dubs those obsessed cranks who insist that the Americans never landed on the moon, are in sore need of a certain cheap and easily available piece of scientific equipment. This invaluable device, known as Occam's Razor, is in fact more of an old saw, which asserts that if several different theories fit all the known facts, then the correct theory is probably the simplest. To answer the no-planers, the simplest explanation for something that looked exactly like a plane flying into the North Tower is that it was a plane flying into the North Tower, and for the no-landers, the difficulty and complexity of an operation to get humans onto the moon would be as nothing to the difficulty and complexity of pretending to do so and then getting away with the pretence for the last thirty-five years. Perhaps the conclusion to draw from all this is that, just as some animals are more thinking and moral than we care to admit, thus overlapping with us, we humans retain the capacity to be dumb as ducks, thus overlapping with them.

    Postscript: Unable to resist, Pathfinders finally succumbed to the primal impulse and clicked on the above link to view the wreckage. The link didn't work. Now that is suspicious . . .