Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Homer of the Cesspit (2008)

From the September 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

A hundred years ago this year Emile Zola’s remains were transferred to the Pantheon in Paris.

On 4 June 1908, a horse drawn hearse carrying a coffin containing the six years dead corpse of novelist Emile Zola was led through the streets of Paris. Hundreds of police and troops were drafted in to control the huge hostile crowds. After lying in state overnight, the bones of the ‘maître’ were interred in the Pantheon, the resting place of the great and good of France. The ceremony was solemn and dignified, but immediately afterwards violence again broke out with a determined assassination attempt made upon a certain army officer who had become a close friend of the dead man. The violent and bitter sentiments which had accompanied Zola’s life continued after his death.

Emile Zola is principally famous in Britain for his obscenity. Indeed Zola was the only writer to have his works outlawed in this country in the nineteenth century. In the parliamentary debate leading to the ban Samuel Smith, MP for Flintshire commented: “Nothing more diabolical has ever been written by the pen of man; they are only fit for swine, and those who read them must turn their minds into cesspools.” Even in his own country Zola was equally loathed: “No one before him has ever created such a heap of filth. That is his monument, the greatness of which no one can contest. Never has a man made such an effort to vilify humanity, to insult every aspect of beauty and love, to deny all that is good and decent” wrote Anatole France in 1887. A casual reading of a selection of Zola’s novels would indeed would give this impression. Some of the scenes in his books are as bawdy and shocking as they were when written in the supposedly repressed nineteenth century. Yet the graphic sex and violence serves a purpose. For Zola was a man with a social conscience, not a revolutionary certainly but certainly a radical reformer, which is reflected in his writings. And it is as a propagandist that Zola must be primarily of interest to the socialist.

Born in Paris in 1840 but raised in the small town of Aix en Provence (portrayed as Plassans in many of his novels), Zola was the son of a civil engineer of Italian origins. His father died when he was just small and thereafter the family had little spare money. When he was 18, Zola moved to Paris. A failure as a student, Zola got a miserable job as a clerk, which he soon gave up to devote his life to poetry. Zola attempted to dedicate his life to romantic poetry but found there was no possibility of earning a living from it – indeed at this point in his life he was living in a ramshackle garret trapping and eating sparrows to survive. Instead he turned to journalism from whence he learned the value of sensationalism and the importance of the exposé.

Zola however had not given up the literary life and within a few years had written his first novel. His earliest novels were a form of experimentation in ‘materialism’ - demonstrating supposedly ‘scientific’ theories through literature. Madeleine Ferat (the ‘imprinting’ of a woman with first lover) and the racy Thérèse Raquin (the predetermination of events by innate ‘temperaments’) date from this time. In fact there was nothing scientific at all about these novels as the evidence was, as indeed it would be in a novel, manufactured and the theories mere pseudo-scientific garbage.

The main product of Zola’s literary career was the twenty volume Rougon-Macquart cycle, begun in late 1870 and finished a quarter of a century and 2,500,000 words later. Basically the series was intended as a hatchet job on Louis Napoleon and his Second Empire as experienced by the respectable Rougon family and the unmentionable Macquarts. The collapse of the Empire within a year of the commencement of the cycle did not however render the works of mere historical interest, because social and economic conditions did not materially alter under the Third Republic and thus the Rougon-Macquart became a general condemnation of contemporary society. The Rougon-Macquart is the first great family saga in literature but each novel can be read individually and many readers are not aware that there even is such a series.

The first few volumes were badly received, despite the literary merits of for instance La Ventre de Paris (“The Belly of Paris” known as The Fat and the Thin in Britain). Only with L’Assomoir (published under various titles in Britain, including The Dram Shop) in 1876 did fame arrive. This classic tale of the effects of alcohol was meant as a criticism of the slums (“My novel is simple enough. It relates the downfall of a working-class family ruined by its environs”) but struck a cord with the public and became a perennial hit with the temperance movement. The use of slang and the real attempt to portray working class life was inspirational (“If you wish to have the same sources of inspiration as the ancients, if you wish to rediscover the breadth of the heroic ages, you must study and depict the common people”) and a real eye catching novelty.

In 1880 Zola followed up this success with Nana. With its graphic depictions of high level prostitution, Nana made Zola not merely notable but truly notorious. Yet this was a deeply moral book with a high purpose. A puritan in real life (even his mistress seems to have been acquired with the sole purpose of reproduction) Zola uses the book as a warning against vice among the leaders of a nation, as a cause of military defeat and destruction both personally and nationally. The intention was to make plain the disgusting hypocrisy of the regime.

In 1885 came the most notable of Zola’s books to the modern reader and one which has pride of place in every worker’s library, the classic Germinal. Written from 2 April 1884 to 23 January 1885 and originally to be called Red Harvest, Germinal tells the tale of a strike in the coal mining area of north east France as seen through the eyes of Étienne Lantier, an outsider. Very violent and explicit in places, Germinal brilliantly depicts the effects of the vast impersonal force that is capitalism and the misery and oppression it brings to everyday life. Zola made his intention in writing the book clear: “everything must follow on logically, starting from little factual details, from the original unhappiness and suffering, the cause of which is universal, and traceable to the unknown social factor, the god Capital, crouching in its temple like a fat, glutted beast, monstrous in satiety; all that taking place not by the desire of the masters that I show on the stage, but arising from a state of affairs beyond their control and determined by the age.” As with other works he did not suggest remedies but regarded his mission as merely to publicise the problem: “Germinal is a work of pity, and not a work of revolution”. Long acknowledged as one of the great classics of French literature, Germinal is the only work of Zola to be continuously in print in Britain. Interestingly Germinal was not the best selling of Zola’s novels at the time coming sixth after Nana, La Terre, La Débâcle, L’Assomoir and the dreadful Lourdes.

In La Débâcle of 1892, Zola virtually invented the war novel as the earlier La Bête Humaine had the railway murder story. La Débâcle was a well-researched story of the Franco-Prussian war. Its treatment of the Communards was, given Zola’s radicalism, surprisingly negative and very far from objective.

The following year saw the conclusion of the cycle and Zola at the height of his literary fame. A contemporary noted that the publication of a new Zola was “a boulevard event looked forward to for days previously. On the mornings of publication huge piles of the yellow-backed volumes may be seen heaped up on the stalls of booksellers, and by noon the boulevard is flecked by yellow spots as people hurry along, each holding in his hand the eagerly purchased volume.”

Zola, having completed the Rougon-Macquart, was at a bit of a loss of what to do next. A series of controversial anti-clerical novels followed. However he was most famous at this time for his role in the Dreyfus case. Essentially Dreyfus, an upright but standoffish Jewish army officer, was made a scapegoat by aristocratic army officers unjustly accused of espionage. Zola liked a good fight and had an eye for self-publicity but the Hitchcockian scenario of a man accused of a crime he had not committed would have appealed to his humanitarian sentiments. The series of deliberate forgeries and the extensive cover up by the military revealed the extent of anti-semitism in France and Zola’s forthright support of an unpopular cause made him the most hated man in France virtually overnight. The death threats and persistent mobbing sent Zola into temporary exile but Dreyfus was ultimately exonerated although Zola never regained his former popularity.

The experience further radicalised Zola, perhaps because of the staunch support given Zola during the Dreyfus case by the French leftwingers, and within a few years he became viewed as a socialist. His political views in this period can be particularly seen in Travail (work). Based on the Fourierist (utopian socialist) ideas he came into contact with at the turn of the century, Travail is Zola’s only work of science fiction and depicts a harmonious society without government or classes, where free love reigns and religion has died away. Travail is far from being the French News From Nowhere however. Zola’s brave new world originates in local experiment rather than revolution and is based on the voluntary (!) cooperation of capital and labour. Unlike earlier utopian socialist schemes, the Travail commune is based on a steelworks rather than agriculture but the Fourierist origins are still rather obvious – the commune is termed the Crècherie, not much different from Fourier’s five fingered phalanstery.

Zola was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in his flat in Paris on 29 September 1902. There have been persistent rumours of a deliberately blocked chimney and the death was certainly odd. If it was murder, demise at the hands of the anti-Dreyfusards in the cause of justice would have been no shameful death.

Zola’s work is difficult to summarise. Despite the self-applied labels of ‘Realism’ or ‘naturalism’ there is much that is unrealistic and unnatural about his novels. But art is not a mirror and the ability to create characters larger than life and the extensive use of allegories and symbolism inject an epic tone into the drab real life world comparable with the Coen Brothers films. The melodrama and seemingly endless descriptive passages are perhaps not much to today’s taste, but are preferable to the insipid ‘chick lit’ of modern times. Although some of his work was created purely for entertainment purposes, Zola’s main aim was to use the form of the novel to raise awareness of social problems: “My novels have always been written with a higher aim than merely to amuse. I have so high an opinion of the novel as a means of expression that I have chosen it as the form in which to present to the world what I wish to say on the social, scientific, and psychological problems that occupy the minds of thinking men” (quoted in EA Vizetelly’s Zola in England). As such works such as Germinal were greatly successful at the time, although are perhaps now a little dated. Perhaps the main lesson to be drawn from Zola is that the best form of propaganda is that which is not seen as propaganda – a maxim we would all do well to pay attention to.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

US Combat Troops - Comfortably Numb

From the Class Warfare Blog

I’ve written several times on this blog about the mental state of combat troops; i.e. about their colossal suicide rate or about The way the US Department of Defence is toying with the idea of medicating soldiers to desensitise them to combat trauma. For instance:

Hidden cost of the allied invasion and Guilt Free Soldier and Suicide epidemic among US vets

My argument has always been the same, namely that humans are not naturally aggressive, that we are not predisposed to dish out violence and that governments, realising this, will do anything to conceal the true cost of war, particularly with regards combatants and their inability to handle the stress of front lien combat. Today’s Glasgow Herald informs us that one is in six American soldiers in Afghanistan and one in eight in Iraq, that the Pentagon claims to know of, are on daily doses of prescription antidepressants, sleeping pills or painkillers to help them cope with the stresses of combat. The Glasgow Herald reports:

“The findings mean that at least 20,000 troops are on medication such as Prozac or diamorphine while serving in the front line or on equally dangerous convoy escort or driving duties in conflicts where insurgents regularly target the supply chain.

“While the vast majority would have been barred automatically from combat roles in earlier wars on medical and safety grounds, the pressure to provide up to 200,000 soldiers at any given time for the two major deployments has led to a relaxation of the rules.

“The Pentagon admitted that medication was tolerated because those sent to Afghanistan or Iraq were 'younger and healthier than the general population' and had been screened for mental illnesses before enlisting.”

Common sense suggests that the real reason that medication is tolerated is because the US has garrisons totalling 180,000 men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan alone; there to secure its control of world oil, resources and to start dismissing those found to take mind-controlling drugs, or giving them administrative posts, as is the case in the British army, means the only way they could maintain their oil empire is via conscription. And if your troops are comfortably numb, then what the fuck so long as they are doing their job and keeping open the oil pipelines. Which means that any legit or self-prescribed drug that keeps a soldier deployed and fighting also saves money on training and deploying replacements. But there is a downside: the number of soldiers requiring long-term mental-health services back home soars with repeated deployments and lengthy combat tours and this costs $$$$. But what the hell, there are profits to be had and natural resources to secure.

Drug use is nothing new by any means. If soldiers are not self-mediating then their top brass are seeing they are psychologically fit to kill people they have no real grievance with. Generals, history shows, have plied their troops with medicinal palliatives at least since George Washington ordered rum rations at Valley Forge. During World War II, the Nazis fuelled their blitzkrieg into France and Poland with the help of an amphetamine known as Pervitin. The U.S. Army also used amphetamines during the Vietnam War.

Meanwhile, mental trauma has become so common that the Pentagon may expand the list of "qualifying wounds" for a Purple Heart — historically limited to those physically injured on the battlefield — to include posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


As an aside, still with the Comfortably Numb theme, here’s a music video of Roger Waters and Pink Floyd in one one of the best live performances I’ve seen for a long time.

John Bissett

Mr Brown and Mr Bean

From the Socialism Or Your Money Back blog

In his last speech as Chancellor in 2007 Gordon Brown boasted that “after 10 years of sustained growth, Britain’s growth will continue into its 59th quarter - the forecast end of the cycle - and then into its 60th and 61st quarter and beyond”.

There was always something dishonest about this. There are only 4 quarters in a year, so if growth was going to be sustained into a 59th quarter, this must have meant that it had been going for nearly 16 not just 10 years - in fact since 1992, when the last recession ended. Ten years was chosen by Brown of course since it was ten years previously that he became Chancellor following the Labour victory in the 1997 General Election.

Brown’s boast was supposed to imply he had devised a way of breaking the boom/slump cycle and avoiding a recession. As he predicted (or, more accurately, guessed), growth did continue into the 59th, 60th and 61st quarters (the last three quarters of 2007) and “beyond” into the 62nd, but only just. Corrected figures just released for the 63rd quarter (April to June this year) show that growth has now stopped. The expectation is that the 64th quarter will show a fall. If the 65th does too, as is highly probable, then the British economy will officially be in recession (defined as two successive quarters of “negative growth”, i.e. decline). But we won’t know till the figures are announced sometime next year.

Brown’s boast has been exposed as groundless. He didn’t engineer growth. He just happened to be Chancellor (just like his Tory predecessors from 1992) when world market conditions allowed an expansion of the British economy. Now that they no longer do so, there is nothing he or any other Chancellor can do about it. But if he is being blamed it is his own fault for claiming that the ten-year period of “sustained growth” was due to the policy he chose to pursue.

He can’t have it both ways. He can’t claim credit for the growth years and blame the world market for the bad times. If he’s responsible for the good times then he must also be responsible equally for the bad times. Actually, he’s responsible for neither since governments and finance ministers do not control the workings of the capitalist economy.

Meanwhile the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England Mr Bean - yes, that’s his real name - says that he and his colleagues are crossing their fingers that things won’t get too much worse (see here). Which is about all they can do.

Adam Buick

Friday, August 29, 2008

Barbara Ehrenreich's 'Nickel and Dimed'

Just finished reading Barabra Ehrenreich's 'Nickel and Dimed'.

I love the passage below that closes the book. It's a shame that the excerpt is too long to be emblazoned on T shirts and bumper stickers. It hits the nail squarely on the head:

"Guilt, you may be thinking, warily. Isn't that what we're supposed to feel? But guilt doesn't go anywhere near far enough; the appropriate emotion is shame - shame at our own dependency, in this case, at the underpaid labor of others. When someone works for less pay than she can live on - when she, for example, goes hungry so you can eat more cheaply and conveniently - then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The "working poor", as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else. As Gail, one of my restaurant co-workers put it, "you give and you give and you give."

Someday of course - and I will venture no predictions as to when - they are bound to tire of giving so little in return, and demand to be paid what they're worth. There'll be a lot of anger when that day comes, and strikes and disruption. But the sky will not fall, and we will all be better off for it in the end."

George Bernard Shaw as a Guide to Socialism (1937)

Book Review from the August 1937 issue of the Socialist Standard

Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, republished in the Pelican Books series, in two volumes at 6d. each runs to nearly 500 pages and includes two new chapters on “Sovietism” and “Fascism.”

It contains in handy form Shaw’s views on a vast number of topics. It is an entertaining work with much well-aimed and swiftly-phrased sniping at the defenders of capitalism, but it provokes the obvious question: to what extent is Shaw a reliable guide to Socialism? In a review of the first edition Professor Laski claimed that the book had one merit which far outweighs all the faults: and up to a point Socialists can agree. The feature Laski had in mind was Shaw’s sustained and devastating attack on all the silly or dishonest arguments with which capitalists and their friends defend inequality of income and property. That is a useful piece of work and one still more necessary now that the advocates of inequality have been joined by some new recruits, the Communists, who are to-day anxious to repudiate Lenin’s sensible advocacy of equality.

With the rapid growth of inequality as a deliberate policy in Russia it remains to be seen how long Shaw will continue to regard the Soviet Government as an “amazing success,” for he says repeatedly that Socialism and inequality are quite incompatible – ”Socialism means equality of income or nothing” (page 468).

Socialists, of course, do not accept Shaw’s view – an essentially Utopian one – that there will be money-incomes under Socialism. Shaw shows in every chapter that his great defect is his lack of a thorough knowledge of economics and of the nature of capitalism. When he is blowing up capitalist pretences and prejudices he is good, but as soon as he tries to present an alternative he falls into the error of his Labour Party associates of thinking that the capitalist foundation can be made to support a Socialist system of society. He thinks that the production of goods for sale, the wages system and all the many financial and commercial institutions that minister to the needs of capitalist profit-making can be made the servants of Socialism. So he supports the idea of using “every device of taxation of income, restriction of inheritance and the like” to make incomes equal (page 442). He does not really see that the basis of capitalism is the private ownership and control of the means of production and distribution and that when this has given place to common ownership and democratic control there will be no need and no place for buying and selling, a wages system, money incomes, or a monetary system at all. It will be the job of the population to co-operate in producing the things needed by all and of distributing them freely to the population. Just that and nothing more. Shaw says Marx made a man of him. If only he had let Marx make a Marxist of him how he would have delighted to laugh at the absurd notion that under Socialism those who have produced the wealth by their joint efforts shall not permit themselves to consume it until they have first used a grotesque institution called a banking system to issue to themselves tickets-of-leave labelled banknotes or wasted useful metal on coins of the realm.

This brings us to Shaw’s indefensible attitude towards Marx. He repudiates most of the important theories for which we are indebted to Marx, but nowhere does he give a valid- reason. Always it is some smart irrelevance.

He rejects Marx’s theory of value as “a blunder which was presently corrected and superseded by the theory of Jevons” (page 464), but the reader is left to guess where Marx is supposed to have erred. He finds the Materialist Conception of History to be “easily vulnerable to criticism as a law of nature” (page 465), which would be interesting if Marx or any one else had ever offered it to us as a law of nature. He says that the Bolsheviks nearly wrecked Russia by following Marx, but does not substantiate the statement that they followed Marx, which we, as Marxists, deny.

Altogether Shaw is a bad guide to the basic principles of Socialism because he was unable or unwilling to learn them before offering to teach.

He has, however, a merit which lessens the harm he may do in that direction, the merit of saying plainly what he thinks. Because he is never ambiguous his self-contradictions stand out for all to see. There must be few people who can persuade themselves that they can agree with all Shaw says, so they can hardly fail to start thinking on their own account when they find him wittily “proving” that black is simultaneously both black and white.

Many instances of his contradictions and of his habit of turning and rending his friends come to mind. He says that Russia is an “amazing success,” which pleases the Communists, but it is only a few years since he found Italian Fascism also an “extraordinary success” (see correspondence in Manchester Guardian during October, 1927) and since he violently approved the “civilising” conquest of Abyssinia by Italy (see letter to The Times, October 22nd, 1935).

His friend, Lord Passfield (Sidney Webb), goes into raptures about the new Russian constitution, but although Shaw recommends his readers to learn all about Russia from the Webbs’ Soviet Communism he goes on to describe the new constitution “as a feat of window dressing to conciliate Liberal opinion in Europe and America” (page 442).

Long ago he delighted the Bolsheviks by declaring himself a supporter of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” But in a letter to The Times (August 20th, 1931) he explained that this alleged dictatorship of the proletariat is something:
“By which the proletariat is much more effectively dictated to for its own good than under our system.”
Whether the Russian workers think it is for their own good Shaw, with his innate preference for rule by the “intelligent minority,” i.e., by himself and his fellow-Fabians, would never dream of asking. Shaw has done much harm by his ridicule of democracy and praise of dictators and dictatorship. Typical pronouncements are : –
“Parliament is hopeless.” – (News Chronicle, January 6th, 1936.)
“Sir Oswald Mosley is a personal friend of mine, and I am very much interested in the whole affair [i.e., Mosley’s Fascist movement]. The Parliamentary system is breaking up.” – (News Chronicle, May 18th, 1934)
What Shaw never discloses is that he himself, in the Fabian Essays, and elsewhere right up to the War, helped to encourage the illusion that we could make progress to Socialism by using Parliament to introduce social reforms. Now he scorns the notion and turns to dictatorship, but he has not the grace to say that the S.P.G.B. opposed and exposed the fallacies and dangers of that policy right from the start. Nor does he see that reformism by dictatorship is not one whit better than reformism by democratic means.

One last instance of Shaw’s limitations touches on his inability to discriminate between men of substance like Marx and a political-journalist like H. G. Wells. In a letter to the Bolshevik paper Isvestia (published in the Daily Herald, December 8th, 1924) Shaw wrote flatteringly of Trotsky, but added this criticism : –
“But even he has allowed himself to speak of Mr. H. G. Wells with a contempt which shows that he has not read Mr. Well’s Outline of History, and has, therefore, no suspicion of what an enormous advance, on Das Kapital that work represents.”
Shaw went on to criticise Lenin, too, for his lack of appreciation of Wells and said that since Wells was not duly esteemed:
“What hope is there of any understanding for Mr. Sidney Webb (another English writer who has gone far beyond Marx) or for Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, or, may I say, for myself ?”
Doubtless, Shaw will say that his own reputation has risen since 1924, but even he must wonder now at his own stupidity in comparing the Wells, Webbs and MacDonalds with Marx. But perhaps not. Perhaps he still believes that it is better for the workers to trust in a MacDonald, a Wells, a Mosley, or Hitler than trust in themselves.
Edgar Hardcastle

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain (61)

Dear Friends,

Welcome to the 61st of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

We now have 1321 friends!

Recent blogs:

  • At the conscientious objectors tribunal
  • Gradualism and revolution
  • War in Georgia
  • Coming Events at SPGB Head Office, 52 Clapham High St, London SW4 (nearest tube: Clapham North):

    Saturday 20 September, 6pm

    Which Way the Revolution - What are our differences?

    Ian Bone (Class War) and Howard Moss (Socialist Party)

    Forum followed by open discussion.

    Chair: Bill Martin (Socialist Party)

    A Season of Free Film nights from Sunday 14th September to Sunday 23rd November at 52 Clapham High Street, London.

    All films start at 4 p.m.

    Sunday 14 September: Animal Farm

    Sunday 28 September:
    Who Killed the Electric Car?

    Sunday 12 October: Judgement Day: Intelligent Design on trial

    Sunday 26 October:The Corporation

    Sunday 9 November: Zeitgeist

    Sunday 23 November: The War on Democracy

    Quote for the week:

    "A few days in my old man's factory have sufficed to bring me face to face with this beastliness, which I had rather overlooked. ..., it is impossible to carry on communist propaganda on a large scale and at the same time engage in huckstering and industry." Engels, Letter to Marx, 1845.

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    Monday, August 25, 2008

    Questions of the Day - Human Nature

    Originally posted on the Ragged Trousered Philanthropist blog.

    This excerpt originally appeared in the Socialist Party of Great Britain pamphlet, 'Questions of the Day'.

    One of the principal objections to Socialism is the frequently expressed claim that human nature is such that people as a whole have never acted, and will never act, in an entirely co-operative manner; that for instance, greed, ambition, cruelty and the like are fundamental human traits. It is argued that each human being will do whatever is to his own immediate advantage, regardless of the effect his actions may have upon others and, ultimately, the effect they may have upon himself. Some contemporary illustrations, some guesswork about the past and some misconceptions about the future, are then put forward as evidence in support of the contention. As soon as this evidence is examined it becomes plain that the case against Socialism on this ground, is built upon practices that are uncritically accepted as if essential for all time.

    That such views should be widespread amongst all sections of the population, no matter the class or the occupation of the holders is a striking commentary on the nature of the education most people receive. It leaves them completely unaware of the significance of the changes in ideas that have occurred in the recent past, and even in the lifetime of their own generation. It should be apparent that ideas which were taken for granted as universally true not very long ago would now be laughed at; ideas such as the divine right of kings; that women were incapable of taking part in social affairs along with men; that working men were incapable of taking part in government: that the British Empire was invulnerable; and so on. Yet in spite of this, and in spite of the vast accumulation of information to the contrary, resulting from the investigations of anthropologists and historians, it is still widely accepted that the acquisition of property is the only course for mankind. That social existence is impossible without money, wages, profits, the State, frontiers, wars and all the other paraphernalia that drive us to distraction today.

    When we examine the meaning usually attributed to the term 'human nature' we find that the objectors lump together under this heading acts that are today regarded as anti-social. Human nature is looked upon as fundamentally bad (a carry-over from the theological dogma of original sin), and it is assumed that people commit anti-social acts because 'they are born that way'. Many of those who put forward this view contradict it by urging that the growth of religion, or 'civilising influences', will help eradicate 'evil' conduct. However, the main things people are born to do are to eat, drink, keep warm, imitate, copulate and learn. The relations they enter into with each other at a given time to accomplish these ends set the pattern for the social outlook and the social code. Those who depart from this accepted code, although they may start the movement for a new pattern, are considered to be anti-social or criminal in great or small degree. In the course of history humanity has moved from relative simplicity in the social arrangements. It has moved from a world of isolated communities into a world of large interconnected industrial complexes. But through all the changes the fundamental characteristics of humanity have remained the same; the spur to action has been the probing and planning based on these fundamental characteristics. What people think and how they act is not the result of fundamental ineradicable instincts, but is the result of customs, regulations and inhibitions that spring from the social environment in which people of succeeding centuries have had to solve the problem of living. In other words, that people are able to think and act is a fact of biological and social development, but how they think and act is the result of social conditions. Since private property came into existence, the pursuit of riches has bred murder, cruelty, fraud, enmity and other anti-social behaviour.

    The thoughts and actions of human beings are influenced by their surroundings, which include customary traditions, the education they have received, their living conditions and the other people they have met. The present social arrangements and outlooks are only temporary and are associated with social conditions that can be changed. The duke and the dustman, the millionaire and the mechanic, the tycoon and the counter-hand, the oil king and the labourer; all are separated by barriers that are artificial social barriers that have grown up during centuries of the development of property society.

    Ideas are not just a mechanical reflection of technological processes. In doing things in a certain way men, over a long or short period, see methods of changing these ways that are better, or that they think are better, and it is this that leads to changes in the technological processes. In other words, the process of history is the result of an interchange between man and his environment. It is man who makes the changes; but he can only make them out of the material that is at hand and part of this material, in the form of traditions from the past, slows the pace of change.

    There has been little discernible change in the fundamental make-up of man yet there have been considerable changes in social conduct corresponding to the changes in social conditions. Changed social conditions have been responsible for the changes in attitude towards acts that are identical. For example, stealing today is looked upon as a criminal act whereas in the ancient Greek city state of Sparta stealing was a virtue and was taught to the young.

    A brief glance at history will reveal how great has been the change in social attitudes towards people. In the days of classical antiquity one section of mankind, the slaves, were chattels, and in the much-lauded democracies of those days they were left entirely out of account. In the Middle Ages land was the great source of riches and money-lending was frowned on. The serf was no longer a chattel, but he was tied to the land and to his lord, and if he ran away he could be forcibly brought back. In our day money is the hallmark of social standing and will buy almost everything — beauty, honour, titles and position, yet as late as Jane Austen's day, to be engaged in a trade, put a man outside the circle of gentlemen: and who, in Victorian times, would have dreamt of a miner or a boilermaker rising to the eminence of a knighthood or the House of Lords, or a relative of a royal family serving in a shop or a fashion house?

    The objector will often readily agree that Socialism is a desirable system but he argues that it will be impossible to achieve because of the 'human nature' barrier. (We rarely encounter the objector who considers his own 'human nature' standing in the way of Socialism — almost always it is other people's.) It is urged that it will be impossible to get people as a whole to work together to their mutual advantage because man is selfish by nature, and each individual wants to get the better of the other, to get the lion's share of whatever is going. As to the assumption of selfishness, we would point to the thousands of people who give selfless devotion in all manner of voluntary effort including work for political parties. Let us, however, look at the matter from another aspect. In a socialist society where each would be free to take what he needs there will be no point in anyone trying to get more.

    The very people who argue that the fundamental and ineradicable nature of human characteristics make Socialism impossible, are themselves often engaged in propagating reforms the object of which is to remove conditions that are believed to be responsible for certain forms of objectionable conduct — thus their own actions refute their claim that Socialism is impossible.

    Finally, man's curiosity and humanity make him an essentially reasonable being: when he is free of artificial barriers he readily works in harmony with his fellows. Even within the limits of the present social order there are innumerable examples of the extent to which men are prepared to make sacrifices, even of liberty and life, in the effort to help their fellows.

    The selfish, cruel, anti-social conduct that is laid at the door of human nature is really only conduct that is the outcome of systems based on private property, which compel people to engage in predatory conduct in order to survive. What else can be expected in the present social system where one section of the population monopolises the means for producing the things that are needed by all, while another section is forced to work for the privileged minority in order to obtain the necessities of life?

    Once class monopoly is abolished and replaced by the common ownership of the means of living, that is, when all that is in and on the earth becomes the common possession of all mankind, people will willingly co-operate in harmonious association for their mutual benefit just because it is 'human nature' to seek that which contributes to personal well being.

    Further Reading:

  • Are We Prisoners of Our Genes?
  • Some Notes on Man's Social Nature (SPGB education document)
  • After Bulger Socialist Standard January 1994 (.pdf)
  • Beyond capitalism – making everyone count (2008)

    From the August 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard
    Under capitalism most people don’t get the chance to develop their capacities.
    The current organisation of the world, capitalism, is such that exclusivity governs all areas of life. Inherent in the system is the principle that there shall be winners and losers, employed and unemployed, rich and poor, haves and have-nots. The polarities of capitalism drive a minority to ‘the top’, the vast majority to ‘the bottom’ with a swirling mass somewhere in the middle endeavouring to stay as near the top of that mass as they are able. Life like this is a non-stop competition to hold place or to progress and definitely to prevent regression. The individuals working to maintain their own and their families’ existence are not responsible for this polarity but they very likely either accept it, buy into it or feel that they have no influence over it and so remain passive about it.

    To take education in a reasonably prosperous country as one example: the system may stipulate universal, free education for eleven years with additional options for those judged to merit them. Whilst initially appearing to be a fair and impartial situation with equal opportunities for all, in reality the parents’ economic situation has an enormous impact on the quality and level of education their children will receive. Income determines the areas in which families can afford to live.

    Low income families tend to live in more run-down areas with fewer facilities available in the schools and communities. Generally students of schools in these areas don’t ‘perform’ well according to published league tables of levels of attainment and examination results. As a consequence the expectations of students at these schools tend to be reduced, it may be more difficult to recruit quality staff and so the cycle continues.

    Higher income families tend to live in more spacious accommodation, tend to be more participatory in activities that support the schools and the community and tend to involve their children in a variety of extra-curricular activities. These more affluent areas produce schools which perform better in the league tables, have more students gaining places for higher education and are comprised of families which have sufficient income and motivation to support those who could be seen as potential wage-earners for an additional four or more years.

    Those with significant income often choose the option of private, fee-paying education with the expectation of smaller classes and better examination results giving better and wider choices of higher education. It’s likely that at all demographic levels parents will espouse their wish for their children to do well, even if the expectations of outcome at the opposite ends of the divide are as different as their incomes. Expectations and aspirations are mostly adapted to what are seen as realistic according to the circumstances. These artificial restrictions which have people believing that there can only be so many winners, and therefore many losers, are divisive to society.

    This means that by default many students are receiving less than the best education. Many students who would thrive and do very well in a different, more favourable environment have a much reduced chance of achieving their potential. If the options and opportunities aren’t available to all at a similar level then society can be seen to be restricting the individual growth of its members, denying them reaching their full potential. And by doing this it is potentially restricting the growth in all areas of human endeavour, restricting the achievements of humanity collectively.

    As each individual becomes more valuable to themself through self-development so, too, are they capable of being more valuable to others and to society in general. To deny anyone the opportunity to achieve may deny all the opportunities that their achievement may have presented them. A society which encourages all its members to achieve their full potential, with self-determined goals, is a society mature enough to celebrate all its individual and combined talents.

    Communities, societies are collections of individuals; the world itself is an agglomeration of societies which have more in common with each other than they have differences. Fundamental values, social values are generally shared within localities, values of family and community which bind people together. Economic and political considerations in the current world set-up are aspects which people necessarily seek to utilize to benefit themselves and their own within their own codes of morality. Community values can be more important to members of those communities than are the values espoused by political parties which are perceived as being handed down, prescriptive and distant from reality. Community values are their own. Individual communities know they understand their own needs, requirements and agenda better than do the planners in faraway offices. In so many situations the interests of governments, whose policies are removed from the realities on the ground, do not coincide with the interests of citizens.

    One very apparent phenomenon in this ‘age of globalisation’ is the growing homogeneity of groups or sections of people as they become more and more assimilated into the world order. With increasing frequency more and more people are doing, reading, hearing and listening to the same things, having their hopes and fears directed to the same objects. Although this could be useful in terms of raising awareness of the whole world and its affairs questions abound regarding the value to individuals in being subsumed by the power of the capitalist market and its trans-national corporation’s brands. Reducing all (all who can pay) to the same pattern of mediocrity is a long way from offering all the opportunity of self-realization. ‘Dumbing down’ of citizens by whatever means is the antithesis of self-realization. In no way will ‘dumbing down’ help to realize parents’ aspirations for their children or any individual’s aspirations for themself. A ‘dumbed down’ citizenry may be more pliable and easy to control but will not further the development of humanity.

    An illusion of choice
    In many areas affecting their lives people realize that there is no real choice, only an illusion of choice, a choice between unwanted, unwelcome options presented as the only alternatives. Throughout the ages humanity has sought and achieved advancement motivated by desire, passion and a will to produce something better, to succeed in their aspirations. If not to succumb to the tendency of appearing to be stamped out of a series of similar moulds humans will continue to endeavour to claim more involvement and more choice in increasing numbers of spheres.

    Lack of meaningful choice in national elections and the realization that politicians of all persuasions are failing to represent voters has resulted in steadily declining numbers presenting themselves at polling booths. The last general election in the UK saw a very low turn-out and recorded the lowest percentage of the electorate’s votes for the winning party in many a long year. It is the system itself, not just a particular party, that is out of favour with the electorate. In the present electoral system not voting is both making a choice and not making a choice. If the alternatives on offer are unacceptable then no valid choice has been offered and the process can only be perceived as a sham. Voters, non-voters and reluctant voters all require different alternatives from those on offer.

    When the majority does not recognize the authenticity of the government and what it stands for in supposedly representing them (which they don’t, as revealed by election statistics, i.e. more people don’t vote for the winning party than do vote for it), when they don’t hold the same opinions and sets of values, it is quite clear that the system is not of the people. Many voters feel a fundamental compulsion to exercise their ‘democratic’ right but even a mandatory voting system wouldn’t ameliorate the problems of the electorate having little they can positively support. The system goes against the majority of its electorate and cannot be said to be representative. The interests of governments don’t coincide with the interests of citizens. Policies are removed from the realities on the ground. In the world at large there is an increasing tendency of governments to strengthen their powers over the individual thus weakening the power of the individual voice and collectively weakening the electorate. This situation is directly opposed to that of individuals being free to seek self-determination and places them firmly outside the bounds of participatory democracy.

    One of the greatest challenges presented by a majority who agree that the system is not serving their interests is that the general public is overly complacent and has become accustomed to following diktats with rumblings and grumblings in place of searching questioning and although they agree on this fundamental aspect they have difficulty in coming to terms with the idea of a totally new paradigm (socialism) and are reluctant to investigate or even contemplate the unknown, preferring to live with the devil they know, even though their perception of socialism is probably based on negative misconceptions and prejudice. The arguments against doing something radical about a system that is doubtless failing the vast majority are seldom based on considered evidence but more likely on conventional wisdom, a.k.a. received opinion or on prejudice which is simply opinion without foundation. It is normal to feel challenged when one’s opinion is put under scrutiny especially if it is apparent that the opinion has no substance.

    Received opinion may have some validity, it may have its foundations in truth but as often as not it is part truth and part fabrication or exaggeration. Sometimes it is accepted as truth because it has been handed down by others considered to be more knowledgeable, experts or those who work in a particular field, in which case their credentials, their evidence and their agenda (he who pays the piper calls the tune) need to be scrutinized before accepting their word. Credentials can be granted (and accepted) mistakenly. A well-known figure may be knowledgeable in their particular field or a celebrity may be very popular in the entertainment sphere or sports arena, however this doesn’t validate their opinions per se. What needs to be scrutinized are the motivating factors behind their opinions and the sources of their information.

    To create more opportunities, options and advantages for ourselves and our children the general populace has to be actively involved in all processes, not compelled to be passive onlookers. People will only get more of what they want by being more involved. This entails all individuals having total access to and involvement in all areas which impact upon their lives including the freedom to participate, in the knowledge that their voices will be heard. For that we need to go beyond capitalism.

    The highest human achievements can only be realized when, first, all basic needs have been met and, second, the individual has the freedom to pursue their objectives without hindrance or restriction from any source. As for the first, basic needs such as sufficient food, uncontaminated water, adequate shelter and access to education and health care services are an option denied at the moment to the majority of humanity and the dignity of the second is the prerogative of a tiny minority.
    Janet Surman

    Saturday, August 23, 2008

    Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain (60)

    Dear Friends,

    Welcome to the 60th of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

    We now have 1316 friends!

    Recent blogs:

  • Pioneers of socialism
  • Wages and exploitation
  • Why not socialism now?
  • Quote for the week:

    "I do not want art for a few any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few." William Morris, The Lesser Arts of Life, 1882.

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    Friday, August 22, 2008

    Socialist Party speaker at tomorrow's Glasgow Radical Independent Bookfair

    'Learning from 1968……. To the Present'


    August 23rd 2008

    Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow

    "Recent media reports on the 40th anniversary of the student protests of 1968 recalled students' discontent with class inequalities, civil rights and the increasing beureaucratic control of education. In 2008, in the grip of neoliberalism, recession, temporary contracts, job losses and increasing emphasis on 'employability' in education, it has been reported that today's students no longer want to change society or the education system, but instead just want their education to enable them to get good enough jobs so they can pay their rent. The August RIB will host a symposium that looks at these and other issues surrounding how education policy and practice has developed and changed over the last 40 years, and student/teacher responses to them."


    1pm- Angela McClanahan (worker in higher education): Introduction

    1.45 start- Benjamin Franks (worker in higher education)

    2.05-2.10 start: Gordon Asher (student and worker in higher education)

    2.30 Break

    3pm Christian Garland (author and activist)

    3.20-25 start: Victor Vanni (Socialist Party of Great Britain)

    3.40-3.45 start: Audience discussion, chaired by Angela

    For more information about the Glasgow Branch of the Socialist Party, visit their website.

    Monday, August 18, 2008

    Questions of the Day - Parliament

    Originally posted on the Ragged Trousered Philanthropist blog

    This excerpt was originally published in the Socialist Party of Great Britain pamphlet, Questions of the Day.

    The Socialist Party of Great Britain has always insisted on the necessity for the workers to gain control of the machinery of government before trying to set up Socialism.

    The State is the public power of coercion. It arose out of the early division of society into classes, and developed with the development of class conflicts. It is the result of the desire to 'keep order': order, that is, in the interests of the class that is supreme; order to allow the ruling class to protect its property ownership and exploit the rest of the population. Through the ages the State has been controlled, as a rule, by the class that has been economically the most important. Through its control of the State and its power to levy taxes a class that has outgrown its economic importance can often continue for a time to control social affairs. As the State grew in size and complexity it became more burdensome, and the taxes grew with it. This led to quarrels among property owners over the amount of their contributions. Much of the apparent cleavage between parties in modern States is at bottom only indicative of a struggle as to which section of the property owners shall take the weight of taxation.

    In the development of the State the modern parliamentary system emerged as the most appropriate means for securing the domination of the capitalist class, the last class to obtain social control. Parliaments were subjected to modification in the course of time and the modern product ensures to the capitalist class their ownership of the means of production and the right legally to exploit the working class.

    As the production and distribution of wealth developed on a tremendous scale social affairs have become correspondingly burdensome and complicated. In order to run the State smoothly and secure the peaceable flow of profit, it became necessary to alter parliamentary procedure so that the voice of the mass of the people could be heard; but only in so far as such alterations did not, in the opinion of their leading thinkers, jeopardise the rule of the capitalists. Thus, in due course, helped on by the rivalries of political parties representing sectional propertied interests, each trying to attract working class support and take the edge off working class discontent, the electoral machinery was modified until suffrage became the rule worldwide.

    Subject to certain specific commitments to the European Economic Community, Parliament is the centre of power in Britain. It makes the laws and provides for their enforcement Regional and local bodies have certain law-making and enforcing powers but these are subservient to the central body which is supreme and which, where required, supplies the local body with any extra force necessary.

    The instruments of power are the army, navy, air and police forces. The final word for setting these forces in motion rests with Cabinet ministers. The Cabinet is the executive council which carries out the will of Parliament. Its members belong to the majority group, or by arrange¬ment are allowed to function through a coalition of parties. In other words, the group that has an absolute majority in Parliament can put into operation whatever decree it wishes by means of its control of the executive — the Cabinet. In theory the Prime Minister is appointed by the Crown (though the selection is confined within narrow limits) and has a free choice in the selection of his ministers; but in fact no Cabinet could survive without a parliamentary majority to sanction its proposals.

    Members of Parliament are elected by adult suffrage, and the vast majority of the voters are members of the working class. The result is near enough democratic to ensure that when the mass of the working class understand and want Socialism they have the means to bring it into being through parliamentary action.

    Up to the present, the mass of the workers have lacked this political knowledge and have voted for people instead of principles. They have given their votes to those poli¬ticians who made the most alluring promises. As time proved the hollowness of those promises, the workers turned in disgust from one group of political leaders to another, and then back again, as the memory of the previous disappointments faded.

    This fact has led some to question the usefulness of Parliament and to advocate industrial action. But those who have done this have forgotten that the workers have been as readily betrayed on the industrial field as they have on the political. They have forgotten that whenever the workers have placed their trust in leaders they have almost always been let down. This has not been due to the field of combat, but to the method adopted. When the workers cease to regard certain individuals as endowed with some special capacity of leadership, they will adopt the method of issuing to delegates instructions that are to be carried out regardless of the delegates' own views or wishes. The ground will then be cut from under the feet of those who prosper out of leadership, and such people will no longer have a saleable article for the capitalist in the shape of a blind following.

    There has not yet been a parliamentary test of the power of delegates acting on instructions given them by a large body of workers knowing exactly what they are after and how to get it. In fact outside of the Socialist Party (and our allied parties abroad) the method has never really been applied. Time after time the specious words of some acknowledged leader have diverted groups of workers from their original aims, generally on the plea of expediency. Expediency has for generations acted as a useful pretext to cover the compromising activities of leaders. The foolish belief in leadership has been a considerable barrier to working class knowledge and progress. The power and wealth leaders acquire induce them to fortify their positions and insist on the necessity of leadership as a permanent institution, accompanied by appropriate means of wire-pulling and mutual bargaining for position.

    Socialism will not be possible until the mass of the workers understand it and are prepared to vote for it. When the workers understand Socialism they will know what to expect and what will be involved in putting it into operation.

    Two other theories, both of them dangerous and impractical have been put forward by those who deny the usefulness of parliamentary action to achieve Socialism. One is that the workers can gain control of the State without the vote by means of an armed uprising. The other is that the workers can set up their own machinery of government in opposition to the capitalist State. The two theories converge because in practice the capitalist class, controlling the armed forces through their parliamentary majority, will see to it that no hostile armed force comes into being to challenge their supremacy.

    When the majority of workers have become socialist there is no need for an armed uprising. They withdraw their support from capitalist parties and support the socialist party so that Parliament, which controls the armed forces, will be composed of socialist delegates. If some capitalists did try to organise resistance they would reveal themselves as a small minority, lacking popular support, trying to create chaos in the furtherance of their sectional interest against the declared will of society: they would be bound to fail.

    However this is not the situation the advocates of armed uprising or the setting up of a rival State machine ask us to face. It is not majority action resisted by a capitalist minority they have in mind but a minority action against the capitalist State, with the mass of the workers still not socialist-minded and at most only moved by discontent. This is an altogether different state of affairs. The capitalist government would be in a much stronger position, politically as well as militarily, than the insurgent minority. With the passive backing of most workers, who after all would have voted them to power in a previous election, they would be able to denounce the insurrectionists as opponents of democracy and would-be dictators. Militarily they would have the armed forces and police to crush the uprising.

    Minority action is suicidal folly and could not lead to Socialism even if successful. For unless the immense majority of workers want Socialism there is no possibility of it being established. Even if an insurrectionist minority managed to get control of political power, it could not alter the basic problems and processes of capitalism. It would have to contend with the anti-socialist prejudices of the majority and it might be overthrown in another insurrection.

    Historically, minority action has been a feature of revolutions which Marx called 'bourgeois', that is, of revolutions which swept away barriers to the development of capitalism and led to the rule of the capitalist class. By the end of the nineteenth century, under the influence of Marx and Engels, minority action was being rejected as a socialist tactic. But after 1917 the Bolsheviks used the great prestige of the Russian revolution to put the clock back. A tactic which merely led to a change of rulers in Russia came to be popularised as the only way for the workers to win their freedom. But armed uprisings, led by a 'vanguard' party, are a method of a would-be capitalist ruling class and cannot be used by the workers. The workers' method can only be democratic political action based on socialist understanding.

    In Britain, Parliament has a complete and secure grip upon the armed forces, and government interventions in the strikes and disturbances of past years have shown on whose side they act. These were a forceful illustration of how necessary it is for the workers to obtain control of Parliament before attempting to uproot the existing foundations of society. They further show that the only way to obtain control is by sending socialist delegates to Parliament.

    It has been suggested that when the socialist movement was large enough to challenge the position of the capitalists, the latter would abolish Parliament. The abolition or suspension of Parliament would, in the first instance, end the right of workers to combine, and would thus make illegal all forms of working-class combination, trade union as well as political. But the cost to the capitalists of the abolition of Parliament would be the end of their rule nd the beginning of chaos. The State machine would be unable to function, owing to the conflicting views among civil and military employees of the government.

    The size and complexity of a modern nation is so great that the time has long since passed when members of the ruling class could themselves occupy any considerable number of the administrative posts and manage any appreciable part of their activities. From top to bottom all departments are filled by paid or elected officials, and only a very few of these officials are drawn from the capitalist class itself. Practically all the work of controlling the activities of society today is performed by peopfe who depend for their livelihood upon their pay — members of the working class. The armed forces, including most of the officers, are also recruited from the working class.

    Thousands of functions have had to be delegated to subsidiary bodies like local councils, statutory boards and tribunals. Year by year this delegation of function grows.

    Circumstances, therefore, have compelled the capitalists to place administration in the hands of elected or appointed bodies. If they were to attempt to end this in the face of a determined socialist majority, they would bring their house down about their ears.

    The importance of Parliament is quite plainly recognised by the capitalists, and they give clear evidence of this at election times by the amount of wealth they spend and the inconvenience they suffer in order to ensure their control of it.

    The attitude of the Socialist Party of Great Britain on the need to gain control of the political machinery has been logical and consistent. We hold the same view as Marx as to the necessity of the workers gaining control of the machinery of government before they can establish Socialism. We also hold Marx's view that in the industrially advanced capitalist countries the vote will give that control. The one way to prevent the capitalists from using political power against the workers is to refrain from voting them and their agents into political power. Accordingly we have always urged the workers not to vote for any candidate who is a supporter of capitalism.

    Friday, August 15, 2008

    Capitalism's model behaviour (2008)

    The Pathfinders column from the August 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

    The business of science, it might be said, is to distinguish what is knowable from what is not knowable. The first great flowering of modern scientific thinking, in the days of Newton, Leibniz and Descartes, established a revolutionary perspective of certainty and predictability on a world previously dominated by a largely religious or superstitious belief in nature’s untameable randomness. Instead of being at the mercy of fate, humanity through science could be its master. Everything, in theory, was knowable. If the position, mass, velocity and direction of every particle could be known, so it was thought, then in principle the entire future of the cosmos could be extrapolated from this knowledge.

    This faith in the power of science to unlock any secret seems touchingly naïve today, after the cold showers of quantum physics and chaos theory. But the war continues, between the certainty and uncertainty principles, between what science can do and what it can’t. And inevitably, with possibly the biggest financial crash since the 1930’s on the world’s doorstep, some scientists are looking at the economy and asking the same big questions.

    Do financial booms and busts have causes, and are those causes identifiable, and more crucially, predictable? Or is the economy essentially a chaos system, whose workings a computer the size of Jupiter could still not reliably forecast?

    Sumit Paul-Choudhury argues (New Scientist, 21 June) that financial bubbles are not only unpredictable and unstoppable, but even useful and desirable. According to this theory, bubbles generate an enormous incentive to take reckless risks in developing new technologies or systems with important social benefits but low financial returns. When the bust comes, the reckless lose their shirts, but the social benefits remain for the rest of us. Thus, for example, the dot-com bubble and bust ruined investors but laid the foundations of the modern internet. The recent housing bubble stimulated the building of lots of houses, which will still be there when prices have crashed, and much more affordable in the future.

    There is a lot one could say to this. Firstly, a financial bubble is by definition an inflation in credit out of all proportion to any parallel increase in production, and is in consequence the most inefficient and wasteful method of stimulating development. To say that some good comes out of such catastrophic events is not to say anything at all. Development would have happened anyway, and regularly does, without any inflationary cycle to push it along. Secondly, it is an ivory-tower argument which takes no account of the terrible toll such busts have, not on fatcat investors who can afford it, but on millions of workers who already live on the breadline and have no resources with which to withstand the depredations of global recession. Third, it is an example of ‘spin’, where an admission of lack of control is packaged with a sales-pitch, to make a virtue out of a necessity. It is like arguing that bubonic plague serves a useful purpose, because it stimulates change in society.

    When divorced from this preposterous spin, the admission that humans cannot control the economy walks a very dangerous edge. It is only a short step to the Marxian conclusion that the economy – capitalism – is an irrational system and should be abolished in favour of a more rational one. Aware of this, some scientists pursue the neo-Newtonian ideal of being able to predict the market. To this end, they offer us computer models.

    What one has to say about computer models from the outset is that they can be a very powerful tool for understanding complex systems, provided that the parameters fed into the models are correct in the first place. The more complex the system, the more complex the parameters, and the less certainty over the initial algorithms. Climate modelling is a case in point. The best computers in the world can only predict the weather with any confidence up to three days in advance, after which the variables spiral exponentially out of control. Thus, attempts to predict the consequences of global warming vary widely.

    The established way to test a model is to see how well its predictions accord with past documented events, in this case economic crises. Older models, which presupposed standard economic theories of rational trading and the law of value, that is, prices tending to gravitate towards their proper values, have had no success in predicting inflationary bubbles. Some success is now being claimed for models which recognise irrational elements such as trader fear and the herd instinct, and which are designed around artificially intelligent buyers and sellers who interact among themselves, just like real traders (New Scientist, 19 July). But these new models only deal in probabilities. They estimate that the probability of a bubble and bust event is a good deal more likely than older ‘equilibrium economics’ models suggested. But of course they can’t say when. Worse, while the weakness of fixed parameter models is that the parameters may be wrong, the weakness of artificially intelligent models, computer models which can ‘learn’ and modify their own parameters, is that they may rapidly become as complex and opaque as the system they are trying to emulate. One may end up with a computer model which becomes as incomprehensible as its real life counterpart.

    The observation has been made in this column before that a computer model of socialist production and distribution, while complex, could be a useful contribution to socialist thinking and would not have to factor in such unquantifiable elements as trader fear or speculator frenzy. Indeed the strength of the socialist model would be in its relative simplicity. Once total demand and total supply are known, a small standard deviation would suffice because in the real world, based not on floating prices but on fixed use-values and known energy costs, production would proceed in a steady state. Only large scale catastrophic natural events, such as droughts, earthquakes, tsunamis or severe storms would cause any blip in the production process, but unless an event was so catastrophic that it affected global production, such as an unstoppable plague or an asteroid impact, the essentially steady and predictable production of socialist society would be able to absorb it. There’s a Nobel prize waiting for the computer scientist who comes up with the first working model of socialist non-market economics. But of course, they’d only get their prize in socialism. And, one need hardly add, there wouldn’t be any money attached.
    Paddy Shannon

    Thursday, August 14, 2008

    Pieces Together: Another Labour Party Success (2008)

    From the August 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

    "Britain was the world’s biggest arms seller last year, accounting for a third of global arms exports, the Government’s trade promotion organisation said. UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) said that arms exporters had added £9.7 billion in new business last year, giving them a larger share of global arms exports than the United States. “As demonstrated by this outstanding export performance, the UK has a first-class defence industry, with some of the world’s most technologically sophisticated companies,” Digby Jones, the Minister for Trade and Investment, said." (London Times, 18 June)

    "British forces in Afghanistan have used one of the world’s most deadly and controversial missiles to fight the Taliban. Apache attack helicopters have fired the thermobaric weapons against fighters in buildings and caves, to create a pressure wave which sucks the air out of victims, shreds their internal organs and crushes their bodies. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has admitted to the use of the weapons, condemned by human rights groups as “brutal”, on several occasions, including against a cave complex.The use of the Hellfire AGM-114N weapons has been deemed so successful they will now be fired from RAF Reaper unmanned drones controlled by “pilots” at Creech air force base in Nevada, an MoD spokesman added. (Sunday Times, 22 June)

    "A group of American advisers led by a small State Department team played an integral part in drawing up contracts between the Iraqi government and five major Western oil companies to develop some of the largest fields in Iraq, American officials say. The disclosure, coming on the eve of the contracts’ announcement, is the first confirmation of direct involvement by the Bush administration in deals to open Iraq’s oil to commercial development and is likely to stoke criticism.In their role as advisers to the Iraqi Oil Ministry, American government lawyers and private-sector consultants provided template contracts and detailed suggestions on drafting the contracts, advisers and a senior State Department official said." (New York Times, 30 June)

    Wednesday, August 13, 2008

    Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain (59)

    Dear Friends,

    Welcome to the 59th of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

    We now have 1315 friends!

    Recent blogs:

  • What to Do About Fascism?
  • Not Worth the Paper
  • Free work versus forced employment
  • Quote for the week:

    "Not only can we manage very well without the interference of the capitalist class in the great industries of the country, but that their interference is becoming more and more a nuisance." Engels, 1881, Social Classes - Necessary and Superfluous.

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    Monday, August 11, 2008

    Bangladesh; migrants export class struggle

    From the LibCom website

    In recent days over 800 Bangladeshi workers have been deported by the Kuwaiti government for organising strikes and violent protests.

    There are about 200,000 workers from Bangladesh in the Gulf countries, mostly employed in cleaning services, security guards or construction. Every year thousands of poor Bangladeshis pay a labour recruiting agent (dalal) to arrange temporary jobs in Kuwait and other wealthy countries. Many workers find the labour brokers have ripped them off as pay is much less than promised - and sometimes less than other workers doing the same job. Others find on arrival the agents have failed to provide any work and so leave them stranded at the airport. Accomodation is also inadequate and expensive so that the whole point of the migration - to save and send money to family back home - becomes impossible.

    It is common for employers to demand the passports of workers at beginning of employment, under threat of lower wages if workers refuse. But this makes workers vulnerable as they risk deportation if police find them without documentation. (Unsurprisingly therefore, there are thousand of illegal migrant workers, often using false ID.) If workers make demands on the boss he can simply inform the police that the worker is dismissed and so no longer has any legal right to remain in the country; wages owed to workers are sometimes used to pay for the travel costs of their own deportation.

    Amin Ahmed Chowdhury, a former Bangladesh ambassador to Oman, told "Brokers of employers and recruiting agents take workers' passports on arrival, saying they are necessary for making identity and medical cards."

    "Their exploitation starts with the taking away of passports," said Amin, who pointed out the practice was illegal.

    He added that the brokers of the recruiting agents often made workers sign new contracts in a foreign language for much lower wages than pledged in Bangladesh. ( 7 Aug 08)


    Kuwaiti newspaper Arab Times in a report yesterday said one of the workers alleged that the company has not paid two months' wages to a number of workers, and is not giving them weekly holiday.

    Some of them are even forced to work 16 hours a day without any payment for overtime work, he said.

    Another worker said the manager of the company beat up some workers for no reasons, and deducts five dinars per day if any worker fails to turn up for work due to illness.

    He alleged that the company is compelling them to buy plane tickets from a certain travel agency, which charges exorbitant fares, the Arab Times reported.

    “We want the company to pay our wages through bank, besides paying us for overtime. Most of the workers are falling sick because of the long hours of work. The company is also not allowing us to take sick leave. How can we work under such an environment?” the worker posed a question. (Daily Star 22 July 08)

    The trouble began in the last two weeks of July. Thousands of Bangladeshis and other South Asian migrants (from Nepal, India, probably Pakistan, etc.) employed as cleaners, rubbish collectors and stevedores/dockers went on strike over a long list of grievances; poor wages, poor working conditions, overtime without pay, lack of sick leave and time off, etc. The workers also claim that employers force workers to pay extra for health and accomodation — costs they say should be borne by the companies. Demonstrations at two sites where they're housed outside Kuwait City turned violent, with workers smashing windows, vandalising cars and clashing with camp officials, police and army - who moved in with tear gas and clubs. 800 Bangladeshi demonstrators were arrested on 28th July but clashes continued for several days.

    "The army beat us mercilessly while breaking up the protest and also in detention camps," said Mohammad Ilyas, 28, who started work in Kuwait three years ago after selling everything he owned and borrowing from relatives to afford the agent fees. "Now I am a wretched person. My dream is over, he said." (Reuters, 1 Aug 08)

    As the deportees arrive back in Bangladesh, evidence of beatings by Kuwaiti police and soldiers are plainly visible. While cracking down on the unfamiliar sight of public violent labour unrest by its normally invisible migrant labour force, the Kuwaiti state is obliged to recognise its dependency on exploiting cheap South Asian labour for its menial jobs. So it has conceded that it will abolish the dalal labour broking/pimping system and set a minimum wage at over double the present rates of pay.

    The two exports; Ready Made Garments & Ready Made Workers

    Bangladesh has also announced greater regulation of labour brokers' practices. Despite its complete disinterest in ever previously regulating or limiting workers' exploitation by local recruiting agents, the Bangladeshi state is now also anxious to resolve the labour unrest and repair the damaged reputation of their migrant workforce; over 5 million Bangladeshis work abroad, mostly in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries, sending home around $8 billion a year and providing a vital foreign exchange injection to Bangladesh's economy. This is almost as much as the $9 billion the country's other main export - ready made garments - brings into the country.

    Keeping the home fires burning

    The migrants return to the ongoing struggles at home. Despite the continued State of Emergency in Bangladesh, a report published this week describes the growth in unrest among garment industry workers over the first six months of 2008. There were 72 incidents of labour unrest related to unpaid wages, lay-offs and holiday time disputes; and in 13 cases, workers took to streets to protest at the killing or torture of fellow workers. At least 988 workers were injured in clashes with police; 45 workers were arrested, over 10,000 were fined and at least 78 sacked over participation in demonstrations. The incidents have been spread over all the main ready made garment centers.

    The protests and strikes followed a familiar pattern; an incident in one factory sparks a walkout, then those workers march to other factories and bring out many other workers. Demonstrations often become roadblocks; police actions can often result in rioting, fierce large-scale clashes with cops and sometimes attacks on bosses' property. All this is in the context of some of the lowest wages in the world, ever-higher food and fuel prices and employers often refusing to implement previously agreed improvements in pay and working conditions. Food prices have doubled in Bangladesh since September 2006, while wages have remained largely static.

    The high level of struggle of the Bangladeshi working class continues and now spreads across borders.

    Ret Marut

    Sunday, August 10, 2008

    China's Olympic Trials

    From Dave Zirin's Edge of Sports website

    "Go Red for China!" was the slogan unveiled on the Chinese mainland by Pepsi-Cola, whose ubiquitous blue can will, "for a limited time," be red. Pepsi is just one of many companies advertising at the Olympics, at a cost of up to $6 billion, in an attempt to tap a largely untouched market of more than 1 billion. "You've never seen the Olympics in a market that has such domestic commercial scale," Michael Wood, chief executive for greater China at advertising firm Leo Burnett, told the New York Times. "When the Olympics were in Los Angeles and Atlanta, the U.S. market was already fully developed."

    This is the Olympics the West wanted: games where the grandest prize is not a gold medal but a glittering entree to China's seemingly endless army of potential consumers. This is the reason that George W. Bush will attend the opening ceremonies, the first U.S. President to do so on foreign soil, and that in March, mere days before the crackdown in Tibet, Condoleezza Rice, laughably, took China off the State Department's list of nations that abuse human rights.

    But if the stakes are high for Western capitalism, for China they may well be higher. Beijing has spent as much as $40 billion to build train stations and Olympic facilities, uprooting more than 1.5 million residents, all in the hope that the games would mark, as the official Xinhua news agency put it, a "historical event in the great renaissance of the Chinese nation."

    Image via Amused Cynicism blog

    National renaissance, however, may be giving way to revolt, both internally and from the athletes themselves. The buzz in the lead-up to 8/8/08 is not merely in Beijing. It's in Hunan, Shanghai, Guizhou and earthquake-devastated Sichuan, which have all recently seen mass demonstrations against Communist Party rulers. Provincial authorities are now under extraordinary pressure to crack down on protests. Instructions from Beijing are to "go on a war footing" to head off further upheaval before the games.

    The steady percolation of the conflict at home has been matched -- or even exceeded -- by international anger. Athletes, activists and globe-trotting protesters are poised to raise a panoply of issues, including China's crackdown on Tibet, its support for the Sudanese regime and environmental concerns. The Communist Party has been forced to respond to this pressure cooker by opening a steam valve, announcing on July 24 that public protests will be permitted during the games inside three designated city parks. But as the (New York) Times reported, "Demonstrators must first obtain permits from local police and also abide by Chinese laws that usually make it nearly impossible to legally picket over politically charged issues."

    If Chinese leaders believe that will release enough steam for a smooth games, they could be in for a surprise. Olympic protest may extend beyond the parks. More than 200 athletes from "Team Darfur" may be wearing bracelets and speaking out against human rights abuses. As Jessica Mendoza of the U.S. softball team told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "I don't think it's my place to tell China what to do. But I do think it's my place to tell people what is happening. I want people to know that nearly 400,000 people have been killed in Darfur since 2004." Athletes are also angry that the air quality in what Beijing is calling the "green Olympics" could be hazardous to their health.

    A public relations catastrophe could be in the making if dissenters manage to break through the media blockade that runs from Beijing's troubling record on press freedom to NBC's soft news coverage. It should not be China's to bear alone; it should be shared by the Western nations and corporations that got the games they wanted.

    Dave Zirin

    Also be sure to check out the Socialist Standard's review of Dave Zirin's What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States

    Crunched credit

    From the Socialism Or Your Money Back blog

    One victim of the credit crunch is the theory that banks can create new purchasing power which didn’t exist before, i.e., can “create” credit. While the writers of economics textbooks show mathematically how in theory the banking system as a whole could on certain unrealistic assumptions turn an initial deposit of £1 into £9 or even £99 (and while currency cranks get hold of the wrong end of the stick and that an individual bank can do this), practioners and journalists who observe them know this not to be the case. They know that banks can only lend out money that has been deposited with them or which they themselves have borrowed or their own capital.

    First, a practioner, Bill Browder, chief executive of Hermitage Capital Management, a hedge fund (and, incidentally, grandson of Earl Browder, one-time General Secretary of the American Communist Party who lost his job in 1946 when Moscow zagged and he went on zigging):

    “The banking system is the financial circulating circulation system. If the circulating system doesn’t work, the patient dies” (interview with the (London) Times 4 August).

    Precisely. Banks and other financial institutions involved in lending are in the business of circulating, not creating, money and capital. Ideally from a capitalist point of view, they circulate money from where it is not being used to where it can be applied the most profitably. As Browder points out, the credit crunch represents a clogging up of this circulation of money and capital which, if it continues, could have widespread repercussions on the real world of production.

    Now, the financial journalist, Anatole Kaletsky of the (London) Times:

    “. . . the whole point of a bank is to exchange short-term, liquid, fixed-value liabilities for long-term, illiquid assets whose value is hard to guage - this liquidity and maturity transformation is, in fact, the main social function that a banking system provides” (14 July).

    In other words, banks borrow short to lend long. Borrow ready cash (either from depositors or, these days, from short-term money markets) at one rate of interest to lend to capitalist firms in the hope of earning a higher rate of interest (it has to be added that, these days, banks also engage in speculation on currency and other markets in the hope of making a capital gain bigger than what they have to pay to their depositors and creditors).

    What has happened is that their speculation with a view to a capital gain has gone horribly wrong as they put money into bonds which they themselves describe as “toxic” because not all that credit-worthy. Which now nobody wants to hold, so their price has fallen. This means that, instead of making a capital gain they have suffered capital losses, but they still have obligations to their depositors and still have to pay interest on their short-term borrowings on the money market. But because inter-banking trading has slowed down – nobody wants to be left holding a parcel of toxic bonds – the interest rate on these borrowings have gone up.

    The banks are reluctant to borrow as much as before from this source. Which means they have less to lend out. Hence the credit crunch. Of course if they really could conjure up money out of nothing then could never be a credit crunch.

    Saturday, August 9, 2008

    The Selfish Capitalism hypothesis (2008)

    From the August 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Oliver James doesn’t like “Selfish Capitalism” and wants to return to the “Unselfish Capitalism” he imagines once existed.
    A catchy phrase is always a useful way to draw the reader to a book, and Oliver James, a well known media psychologist (the one with the chunky sweater and scarf) has coined a couple in his latest book The Selfish Capitalist (Vermillion, 2008, £14.99).
    In 1976 Richard Dawkins gave us The Selfish Gene, and the two books are not unrelated. The notion of selfish gene seemed to capture the ethos of the rise of the New Right ideologues, following the end of the post-war Butskellite consensus.
    Welfare capitalism was on the retreat and the young guns of the “night-watchman state” and libertarian capitalism were the ideological vanguard for the restructuring of the relationship between capitalism and the working class. It is this phase of a resurgent capitalism that James calls Selfish Capitalism.
    It is the psychological consequences of these thirty years of Selfish capitalism that James examines in this book. It is an enjoyable read, and it brings together some useful material, but its economic and political foundations are suspect.
    Emotional Distress and Society
    The core of James’s position is that in the English-speaking nations there has been a more rapid increase in the prevalence of emotional distress since the 1970s compared with the 1945-1980 period and when compared with the relatively Unselfish Capitalist nations of mainland Europe and Japan.
    In setting out this hypothesis, James spends the first chapter on “The Fundamental Causes of Emotional Distress”. Dismissing both evolutionary and other biological factors as the only or the most significant factor in the production of emotional distress, James, quite rightly 1 believe, states that:
    “When you survey the literature on the causes of emotional distress, it is abundantly clear that most cases, perhaps the vast majority of them, are responses to environmental factors.” (p. 17)
    For James, the most important of these environmental factors are early childhood experiences, especially those involving sexual and physical abuse, neglect, divorce financial difficulties, late adoption and insecure attachment. However, he does not go so far as to say that experiences subsequent to our sixth birthday are not influential, and that they combine with these earlier experiences.
    These later experiences are tied in with a combination of an individual’s social class, gender, age, ethnicity and where they live. Thus, rates of depression, anxiety, alcohol and other substance abuse, and schizophrenia are significantly higher for someone who is poor, female young, immigrant and lives in a city.
    James’s brief outline of these points is a preamble to his more important discussion of differences in emotional distress between nations. Basing his interpretation on an ongoing World Health Organization (WHO) survey of 15 nations, he shows that in the USA 26.4 percent of the population suffered a period of mental distress in the previous 12 months, compared with 14.9 percent for the Netherlands and 4.3 percent for Shanghai (there were no figures available for the UK).
    To account for these variations, James discusses, and dismisses any explanation based on genetic differences between populations. Moreover, although he acknowledges the effect of wars and economic disasters in increasing the rates of emotional distress, these are only relatively brief periods in the history of a nation. Much more important for him as long term explanations of an increase are the processes occurring in the transition from pre-industrial, rural societies to industrial, urban ones. Drawing on the work of the cultural psychiatrist Arthur Kleinman, James writes that Kleinman:
    “estimated that three-quarters of the hundreds of diseases listed in the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association] are found almost exclusively in the USA and in Westernised elites, whether Asian or European. Problems such as multiple personality disorder, eating disorders and chronic fatigue syndrome are very largely caused by industrialisation and are virtually unknown in pre-industrial communities” (p.39).
    So far then, James has argued that emotional distress is largely environmental in origin, that its distribution within developed (i.e., capitalist) nations is determined by an individual’s social position, and that a significant increase occurred in the transition of nations from pre-industrial, rural communities to industrial, urban societies.
    On the whole, this account would fit in with a socialist interpretation, although it would be preferable if it were couched in Marxist categories. His notion of social class is the typical one, based on income and occupation, rather than in terms of relationship to the means of production, and the connection between social class, gender, age, ethnicity and place of residence is not made clear; they appear to be factors isolated from each other rather than related to each other. Also, the technological determinist notion of a transition from pre-industrial, rural society to an industrial, urban one would be better referred to in terms of the changes in the class relations of production, of a transition from a pre-capitalist (e.g., feudal or Asiatic) to a capitalist mode of production.
    The Selfish Capitalist Hypothesis
    The next step in his argument is to compare levels of emotional distress between industrially developed nations; it is at this point that his notions of Selfish and Unselfish Capitalism come into play. Whilst these nations have comparable levels of industrialisation and urbanisation, the levels of distress are higher in one group compared with another. For example, from the WHO survey, the USA and New Zealand have an average of 23 percent of the population experiencing emotional distress, compared with an average of 11.5 percent for six western European nations and Japan. James’s explanation for this difference is that the English-speaking nations have undergone a shift, since the 1970s, in their economic and political policies from an Unselfish capitalism to a Selfish one, whereas western Europe and Japan have persisted with the Unselfish Capitalist model.
    In addition to these fundamental causes of distress, James proposes that a major cause of distress in the developed nations is what he refers to as “materialism”. This he defines as “placing a high value on money, possessions, appearances and fame” (p.43). According to James, there is a distinction to be made between “survival” and “relative” materialism. In conditions of absolute poverty, where an individual’s basic needs are not met, or are uncertain, then survival materialism can is likely to contribute to their well-being. However, once these basic needs have been met, then any increase in an individual’s level of materialism, to relative materialism, does not lead to an improvement of their well-being.
    Basing his views on a wide range of research, he states that “those with relative materialism are significantly more likely to be emotionally distressed than ones who are unmaterialistic” (p.45). Such views on the apparent paradox that increases in material wealth and possessions do not result in increases in well-being or lower rates of distress have been recently the subject of a number of books such as The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (Schwartz, 2004), and are summed up in the title of an article by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi “If We Are So Rich, Why Aren’t We Happy?” (American Psychologist, 1999).
    Recognising the earlier work of Erich Fromm (although this is limited to his views on consumerism), James points out that such a culture of celebrity, bling, Ten Years Younger, It Could Be You, “you’re fired!” etc. is based on creating high levels of insecurity, low self-esteem and dissatisfaction about the self in order then to sell the commodities that will ease these feelings. Such a need structure is produced from very early on, and vigorously maintained and expanded not only by the institutions of advertising and the mass media, but also by the family and schooling. It is this continuous assault on the self and the impossible nature of the ideals set, that results in the increase in emotional distress. Overall, this discussion of relative materialism provides some useful ammunition for an attack on the vacuous consumerism which characterises present-day capitalism.
    Up to this point, James’s argument has been compatible with a socialist critique of capitalist culture, with its relentless desire to create facile needs and the commodities to fulfil them—although not quite, as a satisfied individual is a customer lost. However, from now on James’s arguments start to be less soundly based from the socialist point of view. It is here that he makes his crucial distinction between Selfish and Unselfish Capitalism, and begins his defence of the latter. The early promise of an attack on capitalism as such turns into a far from novel, indeed geriatric, defence of reformist capitalism, albeit with a therapeutic twist.
    Selfish and Unselfish Capitalism.
    James’s argument is that in the English-speaking nations over the last thirty years such a “materialist” culture has been produced by the adoption of Selfish Capitalist policies. Mainland Europe and Japan, however, maintained their post-war Unselfish Capitalist regimes. In James’s view Selfish Capitalism has four defining features:
  • “the success of a company is judged largely by its current share price, rather than by its underlying strength or its contribution to the economy”;
  • “a strong drive to privatise collective goods such as water, gas and electrical utilities”;
  • “minimal regulation of financial services and labour markets, including the introduction of working practices that strongly favour employers and disfavour trade unions, making it easier to hire and fire. Alongside this, taxes are not concerned with the redistribution of wealth, making it easier for corporations and the rich to avoid them, and to use tax havens within the law”;
  • “the conviction that consumption and market forces can meet human needs of almost any kind”
  • (p.120).
    In contrast to this, he defines Unselfish Capitalism as “a capitalism which limits personal profits and fosters personal well-being” (p.124). To illustrate the differences between the two, he states that the USA is the epitome of Selfish Capitalism and Denmark that of Unselfish capitalism.
    How you define things often sets the limits of what follows. James has limited his basic definitions to the market level, rather than at the foundation of the relations of production. He is concerned more with how the spoils of the exploitation process are divided rather than with the conditions of this process. He does not bother to highlight the essential features of capitalism, but instead focuses on the management of this process by either Keynesian or non-interventionist means. This is why his main emphasis on the political level rather than of the economic one. There is no discussion of capitalism as a society of generalised commodity production organised around private ownership of the means of production and the exploitation of the working class, of production for profit and other essential features of capitalism.
    Rather, private ownership (by private capitalist companies or the state) and working for a wage are an unquestioned given, and emphasis is on a particular choice between the myriad forms which capital can take. No doubt these various forms have important differences from each other, and the effects these have on the working class are worth discussing—and James does provide some useful material—but to restrict one’s vision to varieties of capitalism (under the guise of being “realistic”) is to be captured by the fetishism of commodities. Capitalism is not an eternal, natural system, but a material human creation: we create it, we break it.
    I am sure that James considers himself some sort of socialist; after all he does rage against Thatcher, Blair, Reagan, third-wayism and other enemies of the left and Old Labour. But, like them, his analysis remains on the surface of capitalism and does not penetrate to the anatomy of capitalism. James’s argument is not so much wrong as not just radical enough. It is not a matter of which form of wage-slavery is preferable, but of struggling for the abolition of wage-slavery in itself.
    There is no Unselfish Capitalism. By its very nature, capitalism is voracious, looking for every chance it can to drain what it can out of the working class, but always aware that it mustn’t kill its source of unpaid surplus value. Indeed, it must sometimes make its host fatter in order to realise its own value. It appears as if the worker is healthier, but it is a health in the interest of the parasite and not the host. As Marx wrote: “Capital is dead labour which, vampire like, lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks” (Capital, Vol 1, ch. 10, section 1).
    Ed Blewitt