Sunday, May 4, 2008

Winners and losers (2008)

The Greasy Pole column from the May 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard
One law for the poor, and another for MPs.
Day after day, in magistrates’ court up and down the land miserable, friendless wretches stand a-tremble as they wait to hear how they will be punished for behaviour which, they are encouraged to believe, is akin to a weapon of social mass destruction. For these are the benefit frauds, people who have successfully claimed a state hand-out which the rules – the law – says they are not entitled to. In some cases, perhaps dependent on where the court is situated, the illegal claimant is surprised to find that the prosecutor from the benefits agency and the magistrates are not unsympathetic to the defence that it was the misery of persistent extreme poverty – perhaps trying to get by as a lone parent or on the starvation wages of a cleaner or a carer or the like – which led, inexorably, to the false claims. But in other cases, when the circumstances of the claimant are not so bleak, they are liable to hear themselves denounced as a threat to an orderly, fair society in which everyone has their place and where all benefits will come to those who are grateful enough to wait. In such cases a sternly salutary sentence is in the offing.

A recent example of this was heard at a court in Somerset, when a David Wilshaw was sent to prison for 20 months. His offences were to claim, over a period of four years, tax credit for 16 children who did not exist. It all began, he said, when he claimed legitimately for two children of his partner and saw that he was not required to provide any proof, such as birth certificates, of their existence. This encouraged him to invent other children, which brought in over four hundred pounds a week. It was said that when he was arrested he hinted that he should be congratulated rather than punished; he had, he said, done a “public service by identifying this loophole” which, although showing that he was typically acquiescent in the delusions about the essential justice and progressiveness of class society, did not persuade his sentencers to go easy on him. After all, they had already heard some other facts about him, for example that he had many previous convictions for fraud and was a gambling addict who could run through six hundred pounds a week. It did not help his case that while he was at the betting shop his partner was contending with her own addictive needs, swallowing a minimum of two bottles of brandy a day.

So there you have it – a man who, rather than tackle his personality defects exploits the generosity of a compassionate society. Except that he is not alone in this; a BMA report in January 2007 described Britain as heading for a gambling epidemic, with an estimated 300,000 addicts, while widespread and easily available “treatment” –stifling, or perhaps substituting for, the compulsion – is urgently needed. Gambling is no longer mainly a male preoccupation for it is now known as “female friendly” – although what is “friendly” about it is not easily apparent – and it now threatens to engulf children. The outlook is that the problems will get worse. A Labour MP who sat on the committee which examined the laws of gambling said that new opportunities, such as on-line gambling, were bound to result in a rise in addiction – and “addiction,” he said, “isn’t like flu; it doesn’t just go away and you can’t take a pill to beat it”. Which, true as it is, avoided the point that this Labour government, like its predecessors on the other side of the Commons, had actually aggravated the addiction, akin to forcing someone with flu to stay outdoors in bad weather.

The Gambling Act 2005, among other things, eased the entry requirements for casinos and bingo halls and sanctioned TV advertisements for casinos. Professor Mark Griffiths, who was co-author of the BMA report, commented on the likely effect of this: “The liberalisation of gambling and the number of different ways people can do it, such as mobile phones and spread betting, means the figure (of addiction) will go up”. The Act also allowed the establishment of the “super casinos” ( although in deference to loud protests and, it is rumoured, Gordon Brown’s Presbyterian background, this has since been modified) and other such establishments whose purpose is to supply an hour or two of fantasy to some particularly desolate workers while separating them from what is left of their wages. Gambling is a big, growing industry in which about nine and a half billion pounds are “lost” each year. Such harsh realities threaten the very foundations of working class dreams.

Gravy Train
It might be that none of this is of interest to David Wilshaw sitting in his cell but at least he has time there to reflect on his wasted life, which may be more instructive for him than crossing off the days until he is free to get back to his sad, alcoholic partner and the local betting shop. It might occur to him that the treatment given to those who offend against capitalism’s expectations is not unconnected with their social standing. Newspaper addicts will be aware of the turbulence over the scale of expenses available to MPs and the manner in which these have been claimed, giving the overriding impression that Honourable Members are happily aware that they are on to a good thing. Among the most blatant examples of working the system was that of Tory MP Derek Conway, who claimed allowances to employ his two sons and the boy friend of one of them to work for him as “researchers”.

The problem was that there was no evidence of any of them doing any research or even of attending the Commons other than when being entertained on the Members’ Terrace. One of the sons is a university student and the other a “fashion writer” whose day job is to arrange swell parties for upper class youngsters at the exclusive Mahiki night club, a favourite haunt of Prince Harry when he is not preoccupied with clearing the Taliban out of Afghanistan. The estimates of the amounts paid to these “researchers” varied but it was clear that in total it ran into tens of thousands of pounds. Naturally the other MPs got very cross about this unwelcome exposure of their gravy train and as a result Conway had to make the usual noises about being sorry, he was ordered to repay just a part of the money he had misappropriated and he was suspended – told not to turn up for work for a few days. By David Wilshaw’s standards, not too bad a result.

Why were there such differences in the treatment of these two cases, both of which involved obtaining money through false declarations? Both men gambled on not being found out but Conway had the better chance of getting away with it in that he relied on the established system based on the assumption that MPs, who spend their time telling the rest us how to behave, and passing laws to ensure that we do as they say, are incapable of abusing their own rules. Nothing must be allowed to undermine this assumption. Some analysts would regard this as an addiction as powerful and as destructive as the one which bring all those desperate people into the dock and shut David Wilshaw away in prison.

Iraq: Violence Without End Or Purpose? (2008)

The 'Material World' column from the May 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard
"Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business." Michael Ledeen (American Enterprise Institute)
Last month 100 U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan held hearings in Washington to describe their experience. Named Winter Soldier after a similar meeting of Vietnam veterans in 1971, the event was ignored by the major corporate media outlets. In contrast to Vietnam, media coverage of these wars is sanitized. Viewers see no scenes of carnage, hear no cries of pain. No publicity accompanies the coffins on their return.

On the internet, however, there is uncensored testimony, including videos and personal blogs (e.g.:,,,, These are the sources on which I draw here.

The recruiter’s lament
Let’s start with the army recruiter who inveigles the na├»ve youngster into the inferno. A sinister figure? Or just another victim? After all, he didn’t seek transfer to the Recruitment Command. Now he has to make his quota or else endure constant humiliation, weekends in “corrective retraining” and the threat of the sack. So he works himself to exhaustion, answers the kids’ questions with lies, and recruits anyone he can, whether or not they meet official standards of health, education or “moral character” (i.e., no criminal record).

Few now join for “patriotic” reasons. Most are bribed with the promise of financial benefits, often payment of college fees. Many foreign residents sign up as a way of becoming U.S. citizens. Over 100 have been awarded citizenship posthumously.

Destroy the enemy
A few weeks of basic training and the new teenage soldier, who has probably never been abroad or even in another region of the U.S., suddenly finds himself in a strange, uncomfortable and disorienting environment. He does not understand the language, nor can he decipher the Arabic script. He has been taught to fear every haji -- the term used to dehumanize Iraqis – as a possible enemy. He starts to kill and goes on killing, usually with the connivance of his superiors, often with their open encouragement. He kills in blind fear, or on orders, or even out of boredom. Most likely he feels no shame: his mates take souvenir photos of him standing by his “trophies.”

It is not necessarily only Iraqis who he kills. When Marines find their forward movement blocked, one blogger tells us, they “start using their training ‘to destroy the enemy’ on civilians or other Marines.” Violence and degradation pervade relations not just between the military and Iraqi civilians but also within the military. Soldiers are abused and humiliated by officers. Rape is commonplace.

To what purpose?
It is hard to see what purpose all this violence can possibly serve. The U.S. government would like to suppress all resistance to the occupation and stabilize a client regime that can be trusted to keep Iraq open to plunder by Western (mainly U.S.) corporations. But the more people are killed the more of their relatives and friends will take up arms to avenge them. Various militias temporarily ally themselves with the occupation forces in order to eliminate their rivals, but later they too will fight the Americans (as well as one another). And the persisting “instability” and destruction of resources make Iraq less appealing to corporate investors.

So the chances are that the U.S. will cut losses and give up, although the process will no doubt drag on for years. Otherwise the fighting will continue until the whole population is dead or has fled the country. In that case there will be no one left to run the puppet government or work for the corporations. Of course, the chore of administration could be dumped on the UN and workers brought in from abroad.

The sanctity of property
Amid the bloody mayhem, measures are still taken to preserve the sanctity of property – or at least of American property. One soldier tells of being sent with others to guard a military contractor’s truck that has broken down on the highway. After hours of warding off hungry Iraqis who want to take the food stored inside, they received the order to destroy the truck together with its contents. On another occasion they were ordered to destroy an ambulance.

When capitalists are forced by circumstances to abandon their property, they evidently prefer to have it destroyed rather than permit its use to satisfy the needs of desperate people. That is the true face of the real enemy – the class enemy.

The cost to American society
The cost of this futile war to American society can hardly be compared with the damage inflicted on a devastated and shattered Iraq. It is quite substantial nonetheless. As always, the working class pays by far the highest price for their masters’ insane adventures.

Over 4,000 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq so far. This may seem quite modest in view of the 50,000 killed in Vietnam. However, the number killed is a misleading indicator of the amount of suffering. Due to medical advances, the ratio of wounded to killed, which was 3:1 in Vietnam, is 7:1 in Iraq. Many soldiers who in previous wars would have died of severe brain injury, loss of limbs or extensive third-degree burns have been “saved” – not restored to health, but salvaged to live out the rest of their lives in pain and discomfort.

Brutalized and traumatized
Even more numerous are the psychological casualties. Apart from those who serve in office jobs and rarely if ever leave the Green Zone (the specially secured part of Baghdad where the U.S. embassy and military headquarters are located), there can be few who return from Iraq free of psychological trauma -- “post-traumatic stress disorder” as the psychiatrists call it. (Over 100,000 are seeking treatment, but there must be many more who do not seek treatment – and, indeed, it is doubtful whether any effective treatment exists.)

Many veterans feel unbearable guilt for what they have done, although it is those who sent them who are mainly responsible. So it is not uncommon for a young soldier to return home “safe and sound” only to hang himself the next day. Besides suicide, the veterans are prone to alcoholism and depression, homicide and domestic violence.

And there are so many of these brutalized and traumatized veterans! While “only” about 175,000 troops are deployed at any one time (currently 158,000 in Iraq and 18,000 in Afghanistan), at least 1,400,000 soldiers have fought at some time in one or both of these wars. The damage to the social fabric is therefore enormous -- in the same way that the social fabric in Russia, for instance, has been torn by its wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya. And a new war against Iran is still on the cards. Nor can we exclude a U.S. military intervention against pro-Taliban forces in northwestern Pakistan.
Stephen Shenfield