Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Economic Crisis: Will Capitalism Fail?

From the Socialist Party of Canada website

Despite the recent pronouncement by the governor of The Bank of Canada that the recession is over, we are suffering through the worst crisis in capitalism since the 1930s Depression. Even he had to admit that the employment figures might not recover until 2014. So for the over seven million North Americans who have lost their jobs in this recession, the recession is definitely not over. The Toronto jobless rate was recently pegged at 9.6% and 15% for the 18-24 age group. These figures are even worse as they are shamelessly manipulated and ‘seasonally adjusted’ to reflect only a fraction of the real rate. For example, those who have given up looking for jobs, those in part-time jobs who want full time, and those who are underemployed and take temporary jobs until something better comes along, are not counted. Unfortunately, the job of the modern-day economist is to be a cheerleader for the capitalist system and put a happy face on the bleak outlook that capitalism offers. Recently, an ‘economist’ interviewed on CBC radio, explained the continued rise in unemployment as a good sign because it meant that more people must be looking for a job and that is a sign of their confidence in an improving economy! Today, however, the TSE dropped a gut-wrenching 316 points, wiping out much of the recent gain that gave rise to optimism.

Oprah reported that 10 000 American families per day were losing their homes to repossession. The houses sit empty because the stock of unsold houses is so high. Thus we have millions of families who have to live with friends or relatives, or, worse, in tent cities because they have no home, and millions of homes standing empty waiting for tenants. It’s all part of the madness of a system that can only produce for those with the money to pay for their commodities and to hell with those who can’t.

The financial meltdown triggered by the sub-prime mortgage fiasco is the greatest financial disaster since 1929. Venerated financial houses, such as Lehman Brothers, that have been solid for decades and with assets in the hundreds of billions came tumbling down or required billions in federal money to stay afloat. And, of course, the collapse of General Motors, the cadillac of corporations, is something no one would have predicted just a short time ago.

Every recession is a crisis in the capitalist mode of production. Marx wrote that capitalist production moves through certain periodic cycles. It moves through a state of quiescence, growing animation, prosperity, overtrade, crisis, and stagnation - what is referred to today as ‘the business cycle’. The manifestation of a recession is an oversupply of goods to the market that cannot be sold immediately, sending a signal to the production units to slow down or stop production and thus creating unemployment. The production units reduce orders for the means of production, raw materials and machinery, which causes more lay-offs and the unemployed reduce their purchases, creating a snowball rolling down a hill effect. But what causes the overproduction? Marxist scholars such as Rudolph Hilferding and Mikhail Tugan-Baranovsky pointed to the anarchy of capitalist production as the culprit and scientific socialists developed this idea. For steady sustained growth, capitalist production needs a state of equilibrium between the various sectors of the economy and between supply and demand. The absence of social regulation means that this is rarely achieved and only for short periods of time. Production is based on the expectation of profit and profit is highest in a boom period. Then the drive for maximum profits sees production lines ramped up and new ones created. No one wants to miss out on the bonanza and no one expects to be the one who can’t sell his commodities. Eventually, of course, all this expansion means that productive capacity goes beyond what the market can absorb and productive capital is tied up in the form of unsold goods. Profits drop and capital turns over slower or is withdrawn altogether. In addition, the reserve army (that part of the work force that is often unemployed or on welfare and kept around only to be activated in times of expanded production) disappears in a boom so that demand for labour increases, raising its price and reducing profitability and depleting the investment fund of the capitalists. This results in a lower demand for producer goods, i.e. natural resources, machines, etc. producing a crisis in that sector. Thus the anarchy of production, the loss of equilibrium between sectors, and rising wages, create the climate for recession.

Once the recession is upon us, conditions that are favourable to a recovery become apparent. Companies that declare bankruptcy sell off their assets cheaply to their rivals. Less demand for producer goods means lower prices. The reserve army and many others are laid off creating a competition for jobs and thus lowering wages. Lower demand for loans reduces interest rates like any other commodity. The large stocks built up before the advent of the recession gradually decline to a point where production is again necessary. All of these factors make investing in production more attractive and the cycle begins its upward swing. It is evident then that the seeds of every boom are to be found in every recession and, conversely, the seeds of every recession are to be found in every boom. This boom and bust cycle is an entirely natural occurrence of the capitalist mode of production. It hasn’t collapsed capitalism yet, and, in fact, recessions tend to strengthen the system by weeding out the weak and inefficient enterprises, something not apparent in the state-run capitalism of the Soviet Union, contributing to its demise. Collapse theories developed in the latter part of the nineteenth century, in part as a response to the Long Depression, 1873 to 1895. Several leading theoreticians and leaders of left organizations presented collapse scenarios. Karl Kautsky said that capitalism is incapable of prolonged survival because of the inability of markets to keep pace with production. Henry Hyndman, of the Social Democratic Federation, thought that the depression would bring an attempt to substitute collective for capitalist control, i.e. a social revolution. Engels wrote that while productive power increases in geometric ratio, markets increase in an arithmetic one. Rosa Luxembourg, Kautsky, and Bogdanov based collapse theories on the restricted purchasing power of the working class. This underconsumption theory argued that aggregate demand, i.e. workers’ consumption fund plus capitalists’ consumption fund could not buy the total product, especially when the capitalists used some of their fund for reinvestment thus reducing the total available for buying products. Luxembourg theorized that the extra product, not bought by the workers or the capitalists, was disposed of in those parts of the world not yet under the capitalist mode of production. Since the tendency of capitalism is to expand and spread, then that market would shrink until the extra product could not be sold putting capitalism into a crisis from which it could never recover. The companion parties of the World Socialist Movement argued that total aggregate demand consists of workers’ consumption plus capitalists’ consumption plus capitalists’ investments because those investments were not lost but used to buy the means of production – raw materials, machinery, buildings etc.

In addition, since the exchange value of a commodity is determined by the amount of socially necessary labour embedded in it, then a value equal to that must be shared between the workers and the capitalists, i.e. the total purchasing power is equal to the total sum of values. Even though value and price may vary (according to the supply and demand of the market) the sum total of values equals the sum total of prices. Thus the workers and the capitalists together would be able to buy all the products on the market. If underconsumption were true, then it would have stifled the growth of capitalism completely. A second collapse theory centered around the falling rate of profit due to the rising rate of the organic composition of capital. Capital invested is divided into two parts. Constant capital is that part that buys the raw materials and producer goods such as machinery and is transferred directly through the productive process to the finished product. Variable capital is used to buy labour-power that produces surplus value (that value created by the worker over and above his wage) that is embedded in the commodity and realized at its sale. That is the only source of profit. As technology and machinery develop, more of the invested capital goes into the constant part and less into buying labour-power, more into dead labour (machinery) and less into living labour. Thus the part producing surplus-value shrinks and with it the rate of profit. However, so far, the fall in the rate of profit has been very slow and often not apparent at all. Marx noted that this falling rate is only a tendency, not a law, and is offset by many other factors such as shift work, increased use of the machinery, ( increases the rate of exploitation), cheapening of the elements of constant capital (cheap goods that don’t last long), higher productivity, including higher intensity of work, and the increased rate of the turnover of capital. Thus, it is unlikely that the rise in the organic composition of capital will bring about collapse of the system. The real evidence is that capitalism has continued and continues to expand despite regular crises and doesn’t look like collapsing any time soon. Whether other factors such as the end of an oil-based economy or global warming will have a major effect on the health of capitalism remains to be seen What we can say for sure is that :

(1) A recession is a normal consequence of capitalism.

(2) A recession can invigorate capitalism.

(3) Capitalism is not likely to collapse of its own accord any time soon.

(4) If collapse theories were true, all socialists would need to do is sit back and do nothing.

(5) If capitalism did collapse, it wouldn’t necessarily mean that socialism would follow.

(6) Socialism is the task of the working class and can only come about by the actions of a conscious majority understanding and wanting socialism.

(7) Thus we must assume capitalism will continue and work towards its demise.

(8) Collapse theories therefore undermine the real work of socialists, just as do time and energy spent on reforms and alternative systems within capitalism such as cooperatives, fair trade, and communes.

Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain 110

Dear Friends,

Welcome to the 110th of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

We now have 1521 friends!

Recent blogs:

  • The power behind the shame
  • Capital, science fiction and labour
  • Fat Cats: creaming off profits
  • Quote for the week:

    "Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him." Marx, Capital, Volume I, Chapter 10, (1867).

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    Wednesday, August 26, 2009

    Socialist Meeting in London: Marx, Myth and Money

    The Socialist Party


    Marx, Myth and Money

    Speaker: Pat Deutz

    Saturday, August 29th


    The Socialist Party Head Office,

    52 Clapham High Street,

    London SW4 7UN.

    (nearest tubes: Clapham North and Clapham Common.)

    Website: SPGB


    Socialism Or Your Money Back Blog

    Friday, August 21, 2009

    Did Trotsky Point the Way to Socialism?

    Two part video of a debate between Adam Buick of The Socialist Party and Hillel Ticktin, editor of the Critique Journal, from January of this year.
    The debate took place in Hillhead Public Library in Glasgow on the question of 'Did Trotsky Point the Way to Socialism? Ticktin was arguing in the affirmative with Buick taking the opposing view:
    Part 1

    Part 2

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009

    Glasgow Meeting: Why the Scottish National Party Must Fail

    Glasgow Branch of the Socialist Party


    Why the SNP Must Fail

    Speaker: Vic Vanni

    In his talk the speaker will look at the birth of the SNP and why it’s nickname was "The Tartan Tories” and he will explain how the SNP was transformed from the mere handful it had been until the late 1950s to the major political force it is in Scotland today.

    The speaker will also look at the conflict which raged in the SNP for decades between the traditionalists and the pragmatists and why the triumph of the latter paved the way for this rags-to-riches transformation.

    The SNP can hardly wait for the next General Election when it expects to make the substantial gains, probably at the expense of Labour, which it hopes will be a major step towards their goal of a fully independent Scotland.

    Could this happen at some point in the future and would it be in the interests of the working class in Scotland if it did?

    Wednesday, August 19th

    8:30pm - 4:00pm

    Community Central Halls,

    304 Maryhill Road.

    Website: Glasgow Branch of the SPGB


    Socialist Courier Blog

    Monday, August 17, 2009

    Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain 109

    Dear Friends,

    Welcome to the 109th of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

    We now have 1522 friends!

    Recent blogs:

  • Politics of Apathy
  • Job-Seekers from the Isle of Sun and Poverty
  • The Right to be Lazy
  • Quote for the week:

    "Just as the chicken developing within the shell is compelled as a condition of further existence and development to burst the shell which had till then served as a necessary condition of further growth, so the working-class will sooner or later become conscious of this hindrance to their development - become conscious that they are the only useful class and progressive force in Society - conscious that they are potentially, the Society of the Future..." TA Jackson, Socialist Standard, (1906).

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    Commonly Civic (2009)

    Book Review from the August 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

    The Internet and Democratic Citizenship. By Stephen Coleman and Jay Blumler: Cambridge University Press £14.99.

    It is hardly controversial to say that the Internet opens up new possibilities for political discussion and for dissemination of opinions and news. From websites and mailing lists to blogs and videos downloaded from mobile phones, details of events and commentary can be circulated far more quickly and widely than was possible even twenty years ago. In this book, though, former Socialist Party member Steve Coleman and his co-author go much further, arguing that citizens’ participation in democracy can be greatly increased by the establishment of what they call a ‘civic commons’.

    This would not be just a matter of e-voting but of true e-participation. An example of the latter would be the discussion on domestic violence in 2000, whereby a parliamentary committee’s sessions were webcast live and an online forum enabled ‘the public’ to submit evidence. This and similar examples, however, illustrate top-down e-democracy, run by government bodies, which can lead only to a kind of pseudo-participation.

    In contrast is e-democracy from below, where people get together to share knowledge and mobilise for action of one kind or another. An example would be netmums, an online group which aims to support mothers locally and provide information, such as the location of toddler groups (see The Stop the War coalition is another instance, with a website as a point of first contact for anyone interested.

    Beyond this is the idea of an online civic commons, a democratically-moderated space that is nobody’s property (like unenclosed common land in medieval times). A new public agency would gather and coordinate people’s views on a range of problems, and public bodies would have to react formally. A hypothetical example is given: a debate on the teaching of reading is initiated by a government minister, and parents, teachers and others contribute via the civic commons, where an online library is established and a series of e-guides produced.

    The problem is that there is an unspoken assumption behind all this that capitalism could and should be made more democratic in this way. The authors acknowledge that the Internet is not inherently democratising, but they say far too little about possibilities for democracy under capitalism. The notion of class is entirely missing, and the division into governors and governed is never balanced by anything on owners versus employees. With its vast inequalities of wealth and power, capitalism is inherently undemocratic, and this can at most be only slightly modified by means of a civic commons.

    A socialist society might well employ something like a civic commons, and there could still be sites along the lines of netmums. But the Internet has little if any potential for increasing democracy under capitalism.
    Paul Bennett

    The power behind the shame (2009)

    From the August 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard
    It was the political power that the Catholic Church once exercised in Ireland that allowed it to cover up for so long the child abuse exposed in the recent Ryan Report.
    I travelled to Dublin in the early 1950s as a member of a delegation from a Northern Ireland Labour group. Our purpose was to discuss with the leaders of the Irish Labour Party the desirability and feasibility of extending this party into Northern Ireland.

    The Irish Labour Party was then part of the coalition government which abandoned the constitutional ties with Great Britain and declared the state of Eire “The Republic of Ireland”. Its leader was William Norton who was the Coalition’s Deputy Prime Minister (Tanaiste) and Minister of Labour. He was the Leader of the delegation we were meeting on the Sunday morning. The rest of its delegates were Senator Luke Duffy, the Party’s General Secretary, James Larkin (son of the courageous Labour Leader of 1912 fame) and Roddy Connolly, (the son of James Connolly, the erstwhile socialist who was executed by the British for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising).

    We met in the Tanaiste’s office, a very grand location in, if I remember correctly, Merrion Square. Connolly had met our delegation the previous evening and he and three of our delegates were nursing the consequences of the hospitality. Norton sat in grandeur behind a massive desk that would have silenced the impoverished; he looked and sounded unctuous, distracting from his excellent delivery with a continuous ’washing’ action of his hands.

    I threw a bomb into the pleasantries when I asked him if it was true that he had told journalists during the elections just passed that Labour’s policy was not only compatible with Catholic social doctrine but was actually based on Rerum Novarum, a Papal Encyclical “on the Condition of the working classes”, from the prolific pen of Pope Leo XIII released some 59 years earlier in May 1891.

    Norton prefaced his politician’s reply with a sloppy compliment to my youth and what he perceived to be the intensity of my idealism. but I had to learn that politics was the art of the possible. Another member of our delegation, Michael Callaghan - the only one who, like me, was not a Catholic - equated the remark I had attributed to Norton with the comment of a North of Ireland Prime Minister that his was a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people.

    Larkin stood by the window, silent, sullen; Connolly, too, despite pledges of the previous evening, when he’d quipped about bishop’s with invisible Ministerial portfolios, was silent. On being pressed to answer Norton agreed that he might have made the remark. Rerum Novarum was an old document…he couldn’t exactly remember the detail of its main thrust - but Russian ‘communism’ had made things awkward for Labour in a Catholic country.

    The rest of our delegation were untroubled by the implications of the suggestion that the Leader of the Irish Labour Party who held the Labour portfolio in the Irish government overtly agreed with the bitterly anti-socialist, anti-democratic Papal bigot whose conception of freedom was naked corporative capitalism under the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church. They were there to make history and, anyway, we had to show courtesy.

    Callaghan and I knew we had been rebuked by serious aspirants to professionalism - and political ambition in a country where the Church was an invisible upper chamber had frightening portents. The reality of these were corruptive of the democratic process in an allegedly democratic country.

    The Unfree State
    When the British withdrew from the greater part of Ireland, henceforth to be called the Irish Free State, the IRA split on the terms of the settlement with Britain, and a bloody civil war ensued. Under these warring conditions administrative structures had to be developed. The war with Britain was for faith and fatherland; those who were killing one another in an internecine war over the nature of the fatherland were at least united in faith and there was no discernable concern about the Catholic Church becoming almost wholly responsible for the general ‘education’ of the young, including places of care and security like orphanages and juvenile penal institutions.

    The approximately 27 percent of the population of Ireland who were not Catholics and might have acted as a counterweight to the arrogant authoritarianism of the Catholic bishops were now largely concentrated in Northern Ireland. Only some 9 percent of the population of the Free State was non-Catholic, mainly Protestant. These latter had been identified with the enemy during the three years of fierce guerrilla war that preceded the new constitutional arrangements and they were not anxious to be involved in controversy, especially controversy pertaining to the power of the church.

    There were from time to time minor scandals involving clerics but journalists ‘blessed’ themselves in the presence of a priest and ‘housewives' brought out the china cup and saucer for his visit and, of course, everybody knew that the pleasant-looking young ladies that frequently wined or dined with them in the local hotels were their sisters. The State maintained a censor and an Index of banned books on which appeared the titles of any Irish writer who ever wrote an honest word. Nothing of significance happened without the attendance of a priest.

    In 1926 the republican rebels who had been defeated in the civil war reformed politically under the aegis of Fianna Fail and achieved control of government in 1932.The new Taoiseach (Prime Minister) was Eamon De Valera, the main architect of the civil war; an austere, well-informed Catholic. In 1937 his government changed the name of the state to Eire and introduced a new constitution in which was mentioned the favoured place of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

    The New Republic
    In 1948 the political inertia of the years of official neutrality during the second World War to end all wars came to an end with the spawning of yet another incarnation of republicanism in the shape of the Clann na Poblachta. The new Party was led by Sean McBride who had been chief-of-staff of the IRA before the war and had resigned his position when the IRA’s Army Council agreed to the planting of bombs in England. McBride was a French-educated lawyer and senior counsel who, incidentally, was later involved in the founding of Amnesty International.

    The new Party was optimistic about it chances of winning a majority in the Dail (Irish Parliament).In the event they won a credible ten seats and went into a coalition with the Irish Labour Party, Fine Gael, National Labour and a Farmers’ Party - the latter two now demised - under the leadership of John A Costello. The coalition contained some figures regarded as radical within an Irish context; it made Eire “the Republic of Ireland” , it flirted with notions of changes in education and health but it surrendered before the power of the bishops and their priestocracy.

    The Coalition’s Minister of Health, Dr Noel Browne, was a young medical doctor who was in remission from tuberculosis - a poverty-promoted pulmonary illness rife in Ireland. I had met Browne at an early meeting of the Clann na Poblachta; he claimed he was a socialist but his sole political preoccupation seemed to be a well-intentioned obsession with the need for a system of state-structured health care and it was no surprise when he introduced a Bill to provide free health care for pregnant women and children up to the age of sixteen.

    Unfortunately, health, like education, was deemed by the bishops to be a vital part of the Church’s constituency. Governance over education was clearly prescribed under the Church’s Code of Canon Law cc. 1381, 1382. Control of the minds of the young was vital to the adult acceptance of the outrageous basis of religious belief while control of the ramshackle health provision was an important instrument of social control and evidence of a ‘caring’ church.

    The threat of even a very limited secularised health service enraged the bishops. They were, of course entitled, like any other interested party, to offer their opinion but they were not ‘any other interested party’. The then Archbishop of Dublin. John Charles McQuaid issued an instruction for Dr Browne to meet him and a coterie of his arrogant colleagues at the Archbishopric at 24 hours’ notice. The proposed health service was abandoned and the Minister of Health replaced; the puny mercies of the proposed service would have to wait for another day when material conditions would clear away some of the cobwebs of ignorant and superstition that history had imposed on the people.

    Just as electricity had played a major role in banishing the fairies new material conditions in the Republic were putting the myths under strain. Those who knew from their awful experiences - and there were thousands of them - that many of the Church’s educational and ‘care’ institutions were cesspits of sexual, physical and emotional depravity were terrorised into silence but there were whisperings now; the Index, as the banned books listings was called was no longer tenable and the bishops could not ban the airwaves. Even more pertinently, Ireland was strategically placed on the western flank of an expanding Common Market. New technologies were leading to much greater mobility of capital which, in turn demanded vastly expanded educational and training facility.

    All the sexual taboos which Popes railed about, while the Church manoeuvred its clerics around the world to escape child abuse charges, were increasingly unenforceable in the Republic. New living standards needed two incomes and the ‘rhythm method’, the Church’s absurd means of contraception, was not only emotionally sordid and restrictive but often ineffective. Wits in Ireland were known to question where they would get a ceili band in the middle of the night and when an Irish-American beauty revealed that the father of her teenage son was the stringent Bishop Casey of Galway it was legitimate to ask why he was not using the rhythm method.

    The church’s dirty washing was becoming public. Early offerings were decent priests who had abandoned the holy pretence to identify with their sexual partners and provide for their children. They were not the ‘bad apples’ the very devout perceived them to be; the real bad apples, whole orchards of them, priests, nuns and Christian Brothers remained in the fold to torture and rape innocent children whose care they had been charged with all sorts of power-lusting, creative abuse was waiting to be revealed by tens of thousands of victims against a thousand members of religious orders.

    Eventually public disquiet became so clamorous that the Irish government, fearful of legal action by victims for dereliction of the State’s duty of care had to do something about it. Given the abundance of proven cases not only in Ireland but in other countries throughout the world where paedophile Irish priests had been moved by church authorities in order to escape the opprobrium that their public conviction would bring on the Church, it was reasonable to expect swift and intensive action into sources of information that would help the Authorities to get details of the identity of the criminals and their current location. But the Garda did not bring their battering rams to the doors of Bishoprics where such information might be found. Not a single officer of the Church who was complicit in withholding information into these utterly heinous crimes appeared in the dock.

    Instead the state went into negotiations with the church authorities about setting up a Commission of Enquiry into the disgustingly unsavoury affair and the church authorities - presumably the cardinal and the bishops - agreed to co-operate with the Enquiry on the basis of an undertaking from the State that it (the church authorities) would not have to reveal the identity of its miscreants and that the Church’s liability for financial compensation to victims should be capped at some 128 million euro. This latter is currently estimated at 1.3 billion euros which leaves the Irish taxpayer liable for some one billion euros for the crimes of the clergy.

    The Ryan Commission heard evidence from literally thousands of victims into rape, buggery and brutality in Catholic institutions where children and young people had been placed by the State for care and protection over a period of some four decades. The Enquiry took ten years and its conclusion was that these utterly depraved practices were ’endemic’ in such institutions.

    It is hard to imagine the magnitude of suffering inflicted on children of all ages over decades by brutal priests and nuns numerously permeated into a grossly arrogant and sanctimonious church whose maintained code of silence must surely have equalled the evil of its utterly debauched clerics.
    There is no suggestion that the church promoted or encouraged this depravity but it must be obvious that the offenders, especially paedophiles, recognised the opportunities the Church with its regime of power and unquestioned obedience offered for the pursuit of their foul practices.

    The guilt of the Church was, and is, in the appalling fact that in order to preserve its awesome power over its credulous membership it was prepared to protect those engaged in the most vile practices against children. Those who rape, sodomise, and physically abuse defenceless children have deep and intractable problems; this writer does not pretend to understand the causes of such behaviour but assumes their mental condition is a factor in their guilt. There is no such subtlety in the behaviour of an organisation that conceals such depravity in order to preserve its power and privilege.
    Richard Montague

    Tuesday, August 11, 2009

    Socialist Meeting in Toronto: Socialism as a Practical Alternative

    The Socialist Party of Canada


    Socialism as a Practical Alternative

    A discussion on the problems of society and how to solve them.

    Saturday, August 22nd

    2:00pm - 4:00pm

    Toronto Reference Library

    789 Yonge (just north of Bloor)

    Website: The Socialist Party of Canada


    The Socialist Party of Canada on MySpace

    The Socialist Party of Canada on Facebook

    Who The Hell Was Karl Marx? (1998)

    The following piece is a paper that was presented at the Socialist Party of Great Britain's 1998 Summer School, Marxism Revisited, which was held at Fircroft College in Birmingham, England. It is reproduced from the pamphlet, Marxism Revisited.

    "Prepare to meet the greatest, perhaps the only, genuine philosopher of our times, who will soon attract the eyes of all the world. Imagine Rousseau, Voltaire, Holbach, Lessing, Heine and Hegel, fused into one person - I say 'fused', not juxtaposed - and you have Karl Marx."

    That was written by Moses Hess to his friend, Feuerbach, at the time when Marx was only twenty-four years of age. By that time, he had already attracted the attention of most of those people in Europe who were interested in formulating socialist ideas. He had made the acquaintance of the leading radical democrats in Germany; and, of course, he had met with the one person who, before Marx had been writing about communist ideas, had been producing work advocating a communist society in Germany, namely, Moses Hess, whose work, The Sacred History of Mankind, put forward ideas later to be adopted in Marx's writings.

    That is one, very complimentary, statement about Marx. Here is another:

    "Marx was the best hated, and most lied about, man of his time. Governments, both absolutist and republican, deported him from their territories. Capitalists, whether conservative or ultra-democratic, vied with one another in heaping slanders upon him. All this he brushed aside as though it were cobweb, ignoring it, answering only when extreme necessity compelled him; and he died, beloved, revered and mourned by millions of revolutionary fellow workers - from the mines of Siberia to California, in all parts of Europe and America - and I make bold to say that, though he may have had many opponents, he had hardly one personal enemy. His name will endure through the ages; and so will his work!"

    That was, of course, the speech at his graveside on the 14th of March 1883 by his lifelong collaborator, Frederick Engels.

    Here is just one other comment which tells you something about the personal qualities of Marx, personal qualities that are often somewhat overlooked. "Of all the great, little, or average men that I have ever known, Marx is one of the few who was free from vanity. He was too great and too strong to be vain. He never struck an attitude: he was always himself." That was William Liebknecht's comment in the biographical memoirs of Marx that he wrote.

    I want to begin by saying, not simply, "When Karl Marx was born . . ." but that Karl Marx was born. In other words, he was a human being. Unlike many great figures of history and of philosophical thought, whom people gather to remember and to think about, Karl Marx is not some kind of miraculous, messianic figure who came down to earth in order to produce some sort of miraculous picture of the future. He was not someone from whom works of genius emanated because he was, himself, some extraordinary genius. He was not somebody who was out of this world; he was somebody who was of this world. He made mistakes: he was born at a certain time; he reflected that time; he transcended many of the conventions and errors of that time; and he was to make errors of his own which would contribute, to some extent, to the understanding of Marxism in our own time, and that is a very important point, because I think that, at the outset of a weekend of talking about Marx and who he was and what he did, it is extremely important that we don't push ourselves into this rather dangerous ghetto of turning Marxism into a figure of religiosity and Marx himself into some kind of extraordinary, non-human, prophetic entity.

    So, Marx was born, Marx died, Marx left us a legacy of ideas that we must now build upon; and I propose to deal with those ideas (and a huge number of such ideas) in four categories. Marx started off in his writings in the 1840s by addressing himself to the problem of human alienation. Marx did not discover the alienated position of human beings in society. Human beings in property societies have always felt alienated. They have always felt to some extent separate from themselves; mediated in their social activity through the channels of property; limited and constrained in their development because of the particular class they were born into; capable only of that which was historically possible at any one time. And there has always been an element of frustration and constraint within the human condition as long as people have been divided into classes in society.

    Marx started off in the group around the philosopher Hegel, and particularly the radical disciples of Hegel, who looked at the problem of society as being the expression of alienation through religion, and who questioned religion as being a means of salvation from alienation. Marx went on to produce his own critique of their anti-religious position, because what he said is that to simply secularise what had hitherto been seen as religious problems is in fact to fail to understand why a society requires illusions in the first place in order to sustain it.

    Marx says, "The real happiness of the people requires the abolition of religion, which is their illusory happiness. In demanding that they give up illusions about their conditions, we demand that they give up a condition that requires illusions."

    There is something fundamental in the methodology of Marx's thinking inherent in that statement. It is that illusions themselves are not simply errors of judgement. They are not simply failures to grasp what sensible people would understand. They are, in fact, the reflection of a condition in which the only way that you are going to be able to develop yourself - the only way that you are going to be able to reflect the social situation that is around you - is by building illusions that will protect you.

    In a capitalist society of the kind that we have now, the illusion that, not only do we have to go to work to earn a living, but that there is some sort of innate freedom in going to work and some choice in whom we work for, is precisely a reflection of a condition in which we do not have those choices. In fact, in any society, the more that people talk about choice, the more you can be certain that choices simply do not exist. It is only a condition where there is an absence of choice that makes choice such an important part of the lexicon of self-delusion.

    Marx is therefore saying that to seek happiness - and one can actually find enormous reservoirs of happiness in illusion; in self-deception; in the belief that life might be miserable, but heaven will be wonderful; in the assumption that, if you work hard now you will have a horrible time and you will be paid very little and perhaps your family and your immediate circumstances will suffer, but think of what life will be like in ten years' time when you are one rung up the ladder of wage slavery. These illusions are part of a necessary superstructure which exists to reflect a society that requires illusions in order to tolerate it.

    The essence of these illusions, for Marx, is not simply metaphysical or about philosophical apprehensions of existence, but it is, in fact, rooted in the most material activity of human beings - arguably, apart from speech, the most unique capacity of human beings - and that is the ability to work. Work, says Marx, is the basis of alienation in a property society, because property is, in fact, merely the accumulation of appropriated - or, if you like, stolen - work from other people. So, in his earliest writings about alienation, Marx says:
    "The worker does not affirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and unhappy, develops no free physical and mental energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind. His work is not voluntary but coerced, forced labour. It is not the satisfaction of a need but only a means to satisfy other needs. Its alien character is obvious from the fact that, as no physical or other pressures exist, labour is avoided like the plague."

    And, of course, we see that today with the distinction that arises in our vocabulary between work and employment. When people say, "I hate work!" They don't hate work: they need to be physically and mentally energetic. They will very often return from their jobs to work very hard, to have hobbies, to go to places, to help other people, to do things which are going to be of benefit to themselves and those they like; but what they hate and what they regard as some sort of fearsome plague is the coercion of having to work for somebody else, of having to be employed, which after all comes from the French verb 'to be used' - to be used up - by somebody else.

    Marx went beyond what most philosophers start and finish with, which is a position of human beings alienated in society, and an attempt to enquire as to the cause of that alienation. Marx said, not only is the position of human beings as, at worst, an unfree people within a productive environment which does not allow them to be free, which necessitates illusions as a source of happiness; but all of this is historically rooted.

    Here is a second, broad theme of Marx's outlook in relation to human development. He sees history as a dynamic force. "In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will." The first, very important, point: people do not enter into relations with one another in society because of choice - again that important concept which is always there as a delusion where you don't have real freedom. There is no independence from ones social environment. There is not a choice about whether you are rich or poor, whether you are born into the aristocracy or whether you are a peasant. There is not a choice as to which part of the world you are born into and what kind of historical developments have occurred before you are born. These relationships are inherited as a result of the position of classes that have gone before you and the formation of society into a pattern which is independent of you. These relations of production, says Marx, correspond to a particular stage of development of the material forces of production.

    So here Marx juxtaposes two approaches to production: the relations of production and the forces of production. Broadly speaking, we can say that the forces of production are the means whereby wealth is produced, services are produced. The factories, the mines, the offices, the transport systems, the communication systems - these are forces of production, and they develop at a particular rate and in a particular way; but they develop within the context of particular relationships, and those relationships are relationships of class: who owns them; who doesn't own them; who has power over them; who doesn't have power over them; who has access to the people with power; and who is disempowered entirely. The forces of production and the relations of production are the two key concepts. The sum total of these relations constitutes the economic structure or, you might say, the system of society, the real foundation upon which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond particular forms of social consciousness.

    Two points here: the first one is that there is a social system. Marx is moving beyond this idea that society is simply a set of relationships which are developing independently of people's wills, and a set of forces of production which have their own independent momentum. He is saying that there is, in fact, a systemic whole; there is a structure; there is something which is beyond exit if you are going to be part of society, and that is the system of society in which you live. You cannot live as a person of capitalist society in a feudal society. You could not live as a feudal landlord in the classical antiquity of slave ownership. You are entrapped within that system of society as long as those particular relationships exist. And, secondly, Marx is saying that the ideas which support that society, the laws, the political ideologies, all of the social consciousness, is in fact an ideology. It is, in Marx's own terms, a false consciousness which is there in order to bolster and maintain and concretise those relationships of society and make them in fact appear as if they will always exist.

    "The mode of production in material life determines the social, political and intellectual life processes in general." And then Marx says, "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness." And here, again, Marx is saying something extraordinarily important, and something that nobody had said before: that the way in which people think is not, as the idealist philosophers had imagined, the process of the production of ideas independently of the material environment within which the humans live. The mind does not have some life of its own. Ideas do not have some capacity to uproot themselves from the world around them, but, in fact, the basis of all social consciousness is the existence of human beings in a material world. And most importantly here - and here is where the concept of dialectic, very often associated with Marxist thought, is so important - the thought of human beings is itself part of the material environment. The material environment is not separable from thought. And, similarly, thought is inconceivable outside of the material environment. So, in fact, the material determination of thought means simply that ideas cannot emancipate themselves independently from the social environment that they are in. (They cannot meaningfully do so, at least. One could conceive of a situation where people fantasised within a particular material environment about that which is, in reality, materially quite impossible.)

    What Marx was not saying here - and he had been frequently accused of saying this - is that economics determines everything. What he is not saying when he talks about the forces of production and how those forces of production, in developing, set the scene for particular relations of production to develop, and then break the boundaries of existing relations of production, he is not saying that there is nothing in life apart from production, and nothing aside from a rather vulgar, reductionist, economic analysis that one needs to think about. He is not saying that the music of any period or the artistic production of any period or the philosophical creativity of any period in contemplating the times in which people live is something aside from and irrelevant to what is happening in society. What Marx is saying is that there is something fundamental, there is a primacy, about the economic drive of the development of society which means that all of those other factors, artistic, political, legal, become secondary in relation to it.

    Engels, in a letter of 1890 clarifies this: he says,
    "The determining element in history is ultimately the production and reproduction of real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. If therefore somebody twists this into the statement that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms it into a meaningless, abstract and absurd phrase."

    So Engels himself, reflecting everything that Marx also wrote about historical materialism, is saying that history is something greater than economics but not extricable from the economic process.

    What Marx particularly turns to in understanding the relations of production is the manifestation of these relationships in broad social terms in the class position of human beings. What is the class position of human beings? It is the relationship in which any one of us stands to the means of production. Is it a relationship of ownership and control or is it a relationship of disempowerment, of dispossession, of having to sell ourselves in one form or another physically in the form of a slave for eight hours a day and forty hours a week in the form of a wage-slave to an employer?

    Marx, in the Communist Manifesto, put the position of classes as a manifestation of social relationships over and above anything else. In a very famous opening to the very first section of the Manifesto he says (and he wrote it together with Engels), "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." Straight away, that means that when you go back to that first notion of alienation: the single, frustrated, self-deluding, constrained individual in society and you look at this notion of history and forces and relations, you now have a concrete, historical picture. You start to have something which is empirically testable. You can look at history and say, is it the history of class struggles, or is it the history of great men, or evil, or moral goodness, or creative ideas, or sublime imagination, or the will of God? Is it any of those things, or is it, as Marx says and as I think the historical picture shows, the history of class struggles, between free men and slaves, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, all standing in contrast to one another.

    Modern capitalist society, said Marx, which has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society, has not doneaway with class antagonisms. That is very important because, bear in mind that Marx was writing at a time when capitalism was new. That is probably one of the biggest differences between Marx and us. Marx was writing at a time when capitalism was new, confident, and asserted all kinds of illusions which had yet to be tested, but which people like Marx could see to be untrue. We are at a time when capitalism is old, sterile, used up. Unconfident in its own programmes for change; lost for any kind of ideological direction; and no longer open to be tested in terms of its promises to be about liberty and fraternity and classlessness - all of the promises of the early capitalist system, from the French revolution and the American revolution onwards.

    So it is a class society, capitalism, and it has established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in the place of old ones. Our epoch has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is splitting up more and more into two great hostile camps into two great classes directly facing each other: the capitalists and the proletariat, or the working class.

    Is this true? Well, let us look at those excellent figures that Adam Buick produced for the Socialist Standard a few years ago which went into this in great detail, because one can not simply assert these things: one has to analyse them; one has to investigate them; one has to find out from the very authorities of capitalist economic control - the Inland Revenue, the Treasury - are these figures true or not? What we were able to show was that the top one per cent in British society - where there is a more even spread of wealth than in the vast majority of countries in the world at the moment - the top one per cent of the population owned 18 per cent of the marketable wealth, nearly one fifth. The top two per cent owned a quarter of all the wealth; the top ten per cent, fifty-three per cent of the wealth, more than half the marketable wealth so it would seem that what Marx was saying about the significance of class in understanding history is still extremely important. How could you understand the Gulf War; how could you understand the Second World War; how could you understand the conflict between one party and another, or the imagined religious difficulties between one group and another without understanding it in terms of the real underlying class conflicts?

    Marx, in a letter to Annenkov in 1846, says something which, I think, helps us to move on to the next theme and helps us also to understand the very essence of why history is at the heart of Marxism: "A man who has not understood the present state of society may be expected still less to understand the movement which is tending to overthrow it." And I think that what Marx is saying there is that the movement to overthrow society is not something which stands above history, as an ideal, as a dream, as a transcendent force rejecting history because history is something too messy and horrible and divided and antagonistic. It is actually born from within history. It is a process of history. That which it leads towards is itself historical in its very essence.

    Then Marx gets into perhaps the most complex investigation of his life. Perhaps the one that is overstated in relation to his historical investigation because of its unique brilliance. That is the understanding of the economics of commodity production. First of all, Marx makes a distinction between that which is produced for use and that which is produced as a commodity. A baker bakes bread all day in order to sell it. He doesn't care if it is stale; he doesn't care if it tastes good; he doesn't care if it contains all kinds of things that make people sick. And then he bakes one loaf of bread, not to sell, but to eat, for himself, to share with a friend, to pass on to somebody who is not well in hospital, let us say; and that is the distinction between the production of commodities and the production for ones own needs.

    But what is it that makes a commodity have a value? Commodities derive their value from social labour. And Marx considers it important to talk about the crystallisation of social labour, not simply an individual making one particular thing in separation from everyone else, but socialised labour. The value of a commodity, for Marx, is determined by the total quantity of labour contained in it. But part of the quantity of labour in any production of commodities is unpaid labour, because labour power, that commodity which the working class has under capitalism, that commodity which defines the working class, is in fact a quite unique commodity. It is the only commodity which has the capacity to produce values over and above itself. It can, by being applied to other wealth, make more wealth than it can be sold for on the market.

    So when one talks about the application of capital as a relationship which is there to produce more and more and wealth (that is the function of capital - wealth which is there to produce more wealth) that is to say everything which is not part of the human labouring process in production; the fixed machines, the dead labour embodied in those machines; the electricity and other energy sources that are used; the lighting that is used during the production process - all of that is constant capital. It starts out with one value; it finishes with one value, and that value has to be embodied into the commodity that is produced.

    But then there is a second form of capital, and Marx recognises the importance of this in terms of the trickery of capitalist production. That is variable capital, the human labour power which goes into the production of all commodities. And the importance of human labour power is that it produces value greater than itself and it is paid, therefore, less than the value of what it produces.

    So commodities can be sold at their value, whilst at the same time labour power in being paid its own value is always producing more and more and more than that value. And the moment, of course, that labour power does not produce more than its own value it becomes redundant. It becomes dispensable. It can be thrown on to the scrap heap of unemployable labour power, as, of course, has happened to millions of people here in Europe at the moment and millions more throughout the world.

    Marx then says, well, what do you do in response to this sense of being a seller of labour power, of being forced into this position where you can do nothing else but go out and work for someone else by hand or by brain - in fact, by both. What do you do in relation to all of that? And what the trade unions were saying, even then, in the early days of industrial capitalism, is that, if you constantly push up the value of labour power - if labour power which is producing all of this surplus can claw back some of this surplus - then it will be able to bring dignity to labour. It will be able to provide the full fruits of labour and fair wages and decent jobs and all of the other things which, at that time, at least seemed like a radical proposition and now seems like a rather sterile and laughable trade union demand.

    Marx put an extraordinarily radical and revolutionary position in relation to that trade union attempt to keep your head above water within the market. First of all he said, do it, because if you don't do it you will be stamped on and degraded to the lowest possible position. So Marx had no argument with the need for strike action, for trade union organisation, for workers to try to get as much as they can. But he said:
    "Quite apart from the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects. They are retarding the downward movement but not changing its direction. They are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerrilla fights incessantly springing up from the never-ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economic reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto: 'A fair day's wage for a fair day's work,' they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: 'Abolition of the wages system.'"

    I want to say two things about that. First of all, that what Marx was saying here was that there is essentially a choice, a fundamental political choice that you have in any position confronted with any power that you don't like to be up against. One is to constantly try to drive back the malignant consequences of that power that you don't like. One is to constantly find yourself on this treadmill of resistance against the awful developing and ever more sophisticatedly original ways of making your life difficult and exploited and oppressed. But the other, and the revolutionary one, says Marx, is to actually see the system as a system; to recognise that there will never be such a thing as a fair wage, because wages are, by their inherent nature, legalised robbery. They are taking from the workers that which produces profit by denying the workers the ability to have all of the fruits of their labour. And secondly, what Marx is doing here is positing the possibility of there being an alternative to the current system. This leads to the final section of what I have to say: the necessity of revolutionary action, the necessity of revolution.

    Returning to the earlier quote that I gave from the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, there is a point there where Marx is talking about how the relations of production change. He says, "At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution." Now, actually, that epoch of social revolution existed when Marx was writing. It was inherent in the very birth of industrial capitalism; the very contradictions between the ability to produce an abundance and the lack of access to wealth by so many people who were in positions of poverty; the capacity to create enough for everybody to have harmonious and peaceful lives and the inherent drive towards competition and its ultimate manifestation: warfare and mass murder; the ability of human beings to become creative and ever more intelligently in control of their environment and the crushing control of the social system as an environmental force upon people, surrounding people, entrapping people within the system. What Marx was saying is that there comes a point where these contradictions become such manifest fetters on development in society that the epoch of revolution begins. Well, we are now in the epoch of revolution. Of course, it is a very long epoch of revolution, but then all of history has been an epoch of revolution, because history is itself a constant state of motion. History is not something which is a final situation; it is a dynamic and dialectically developing process.

    So to the necessity of revolution: in the Communist Manifesto, Marx says, "All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interests of minorities. The working class movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority." Two very important points, here: one is that when you come to look at the historical movements, however grand their rhetoric, however much they talked about fraternity and liberty and equality; however much they talked about national liberation and the rights of man, and so on, they were essentially, all of them, movements of minorities to take power at the expense of the majority. The significance of the development of the working class is that the working class is the first class in history which is a majority class. It is not a minority. When the working class becomes aware of its position, it becomes aware of the position of most people, and it becomes aware of the audacity, the exploitation, the oppressiveness of only a minority of people.

    Secondly, the working class movement, when it becomes a movement for itself, not simply an unthinking movement but an intelligent movement, is a self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, for the immense majority. It is, in other words, a movement directed by the members of a class because they are members of a class, in order to end the system of class relations. They have understood the relations of production in which they find themselves, and they have decided to end that as a majority - not to become a new ruling class, but to end class.

    Marx became involved in the 1860s, in 1864, at the very time when he was struggling with this huge economic effort of trying to produce an analysis of commodity production, with an organisation called the International Working Men's Association, which is now known as The First International. His life at this time was really divided, split between three things: first of all the struggle for his own survival that was often not an easy one with a large family, frequent problems of intense deprivation for members of his family, certainly the early death of at least one of his daughters as a result of poverty; certainly at least one of his children who died soon after he was born died as a result of poverty and the absence of health care; and the early death of his wife - all of those things Marx was struggling to deal with. Secondly, he was struggling, very much on his own, very much as an independent scholar, looking at the economics of capitalist society; and then, thirdly, he was involved in this new international social organisation of the working class, which he was desperate to try to move, politically, in the direction of understanding the economics and historical dynamic of capitalist society, rather than planning to reform that society or reconstitute it as another kind of capitalism or co-operative capitalism or more trade unions within capitalism.

    In drawing up the rules for the First International, Marx sat on a committee with two other people and established as the very first principle of the working class movement internationally that the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class themselves. The working class cannot, in other words, rely upon others to change society for them, leaders to do it for us, and, above all, cannot be a movement which is outside of this idea that he puts in the Communist Manifesto of being a majority, independent, self-conscious movement.

    I began by saying let's not turn Marx into a heroic suprahuman figure of history. He wasn't. He made mistakes. He didn't always apply the theories that I have outlined here to everything that he looked at practically or participated in. He didn't always manage to see what was ahead of him, and he didn't always fully understand the history of every part of the world that he wrote about, because he had an immense determination to write about countries, not only that he lived in, but that he didn't live in, and he actually taught himself languages at a speed that would certainly be beyond most of us here.

    That was Marx, the man. What we are left with is Marx, the legacy: the legacy of a theory of society which is fundamentally revolutionary, which is absolutely pertinent to the kind of society we are living in today (which is still a capitalist system of society) and a theory which will simply not go away, much as it is derided or declared dead, as long as there is a capitalist society to be analysed, fought against and replaced by socialism.
    Steve Coleman

    Monday, August 10, 2009

    Jack Straw – getting to know you (2009)

    The Greasy Pole column from the August 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

    You know Jack Straw. The one who always sits on Gordon Brown's right at Prime Ministers Questions. Composed, dapper. Careful hair, expressionless eyes. Unmoved by the rowdy disorder around him. Alone among the servile front benchers working on his papers, jotting down a note or ticking a box. The very image of a Minister of the Crown exuding confidence that after the next election he will be back on that bench – perhaps even the one responding to brickbats from the opposition. It was not always so. Old photographs tell of a different someone – a young student experimenting with a variety of clothes and hair styles, whose eyes swivelled behind thick-framed glasses. Before he apparently took advice from an image consultant to help him up the greasy pole Straw was a student activist to satisfy the most expectant lefty. His 1966 elevation into the chair of the Labour Society at Leeds University was with the support of the Communist Society there. Abruptly he was rewarded by a Foreign Office denunciation as a “...chief troublemaker acting with malice aforethought” for disrupting a student trip to Chile. A couple of years later, by now President of the Student Union, he spear-headed a four day occupation of the university in reprisal for alleged security checks on the students. And again when a passionate speech of his on a conference resolution was apologetically interrupted by the – bewildered – chair reminding him that he was supposed to be speaking for the other side. Which, without so much as a tremor of embarrassment or apology, he did. Yes – you know Jack Straw.

    You might not know (although you should have had your suspicions) that from his teens Straw nurtured an ambition to be a successful politician, using the name Jack rather than John in salute to the 14th. Century peasant leader. In 1974, after a spell as President of the National Union of Students, he began to work for Social Security Minister Barbara Castle – whose plans to restrict the unions, set out in the infamous In Place Of Strife, virtually finished her chances to be Labour's first female leader. Straw was well placed to succeed her in 1979 as MP for the safe seat of Blackburn. Conforming to the principle, popular among Labour MPs, that support for the local football team is essential to maintain a healthy majority, Straw had to wear a scarf and wave a rattle for Blackburn Rovers. Whatever this did for him on the terraces of Eward Park the impression he made in Parliament was uneven; the infinitely nasty Tory MP Alan Clark sneered “I remember 'slapping him down' when I was a junior employment minister and he was a backbench socialist 'trying' to find his way”.

    But Westminster is no place to be sensitive about such slights. After a string of Shadow posts Straw's place in a future Labour government looked safe when Blair gave him the job he had relinquished when he became party leader - spokesman on Home Office affairs. The plan was that he would carry on where Blair had left off, expunging the impression that a Labour Home Secretary would be soft on crime. Quickly justifying his leader's confidence in him, Straw set about doing what had been assumed to be impossible – promoting the impression that there could be a Home Secretary more authoritarian and punitive than the detested Tory Michael Howard. To this end, at one time or another, Straw has bellowed out tabloid-attractive policies such as locking up people who have not committed any crime but who may do so because they are classified as suffering from a “personality disorder”; or curfew orders designed to keep under-16 year-olds off the streets; or drives to suppress “aggressive beggars, winos and squeegee merchants”. Unsurprisingly, Margaret Thatcher was numbered among his fans: “I trust Jack Straw. He is a very fair man” was how she put it while many others agreed with lawyer Louis Bloom Cooper that he was “...the most reactionary Home Secretary we have had”.

    Ever anxious to still any doubts about him going soft on crime, Straw recently grabbed the headlines by overturning a Parole Board recommendation to release Ronnie Biggs, the last of the Great Train Robbers. The usual reason for such a decision is that the person concerned is likely to be a danger to the public by committing further serious offences. But Biggs is said to be frail and sick, unable to walk or talk or feed himself, which is done through a tube into his stomach. So Straw had to come up with some other justification – that Biggs is “wholly unrepentant” and “outrageously courted the media” about his escape to Brazil.

    Well, if we are looking for repentance we might have expected Straw to regret his ready acceptance of the government's lying excuse for attacking Iraq, with all the consequent destruction and killing, for in January 2003 he wrongly asserted that the Blix report “contains the clearest possible evidence that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction...Several thousand rockets are unaccounted for”. Does he regret his decision to allow General Pinochet to return to Argentina, although he was wanted elsewhere for trial for thousands of people being tortured and murdered, on the grounds that the dictator was too sick to stand trial? What does he think now about his rejection of an asylum application from an Iraqi man with the advice that “we have faith in the integrity of the Iraqi judicial process and that you should have no concern if you haven't done anything wrong” ? And will Alistair Campbell have to flee to Brazil now that Straw has ruled that “outrageously courting the media” constitutes a reason for him to lock you away?

    You should get to know Jack Straw, for what he has promised and what he has done and failed to do, for he may soon realise his dream to stand in triumph on the steps of Number Ten proclaiming his pledges and his excuses. Then you should turn and trust yourself to do all that is needed and proper for the world.

    Sunday, August 9, 2009

    Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain (108)

    Dear Friends,

    Welcome to the 108th of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

    We now have 1524 friends!

    Recent blogs:

  • Oscar Wilde: the soul of man under socialism
  • The New Scramble for Africa
  • Ordinary people
  • Quote for the week:

    " ..The only thing that one really knows about human nature is that it changes. Change is the one quality we can predicate of it..." Oscar Wilde, The soul of man under Socialism (1895).

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    Is the working class still the agent of socialism?

    Originally posted on the Socialism Or Your Money Back blog, this book review is from the February 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

    G A Cohen departed this world on the 5th of August and one of his major works has been reviewed in the Socialist Standard which is worth a peruse.
    If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? By G A Cohen. Harvard University Press, 2001.
    In 1978 Cohen wrote a basically sound (if tedious) book called Marx's Theory of History: A Defence. In this series of lectures given in 1997 but only published as a paperback last year he explains why he now thinks Marx was wrong after all.
    He claims that Marx's agency for the socialist revolution was the "industrial" working class which would form the majority of the population but that this has not come about because of the rise of modern technology which has resulted in the "industrial" working class forming a shrinking proportion of the working population. However, Marx was well aware that the development of the division of labour and specialisation would lead to the development of a section of the working class not involved in direct factory work.
    When workers are trained to perform certain tasks for example, they have to be taught and instructed, and this involves teachers and instructors. The teacher or instructor can teach or instruct inside the factory or outside it in a school or college. It is absurd to regard the teacher as an industrial worker when employed inside the factory but a "middle class" professional when employed in a school or a college. The function they perform is exactly the same and so also is their relationship to the means of production – they are still teaching or training future workers and they are still reliant on a wage or salary in order to survive.
    As industry becomes more complex and as technology develops there is a need for an increasing army of educators, organisers, researchers and the like. As a result the proportion of "front line", factory workers shrinks. This change in the composition of the working population does not alter one iota their relationship to the productive wealth of society, nor does it alter the fact that it would be in their interest to overthrow capitalism. There is no justification for regarding factory workers as being exploited whilst teachers, lecturers, organisers, researchers, etc are able to escape this exploitation. It is true that most of these "white collar" workers would deny that they are being exploited but so also would most factory workers.
    Cohen claims that workers in advanced industrial countries are no longer exploited (not that he defines what he means by exploitation). His claim is that exploitation now takes place in the factories and sweatshops of underdeveloped countries and that only these fit Marx's description of the industrial proletariat. However, he goes on, these again cannot be regarded as the agents of revolutionary change as they do not constitute the majority of the population in these countries because they are swamped in a sea of peasants. He does not pay any attention to the fact that the "exploitation" of his workers in the underdeveloped world has led to the undermining of the incomes of factory workers in the advanced countries.
    He concludes from this that there is no hope of a revolutionary transformation of capitalist society and that only a development of altruistic attitudes can usher in a better and different world. He can only come to this pathetic conclusion by either ignoring or not understanding the capitalist system.
    Most liberal political philosophers who claim to strive for "a just and equal society" view modern society as being stratified from top to bottom into different income and status groups ("social classes") and that it can only be a question of redistributing wealth more "fairly" within these groups. Other political philosophers see this as posing a potentially serious problem in that it could lead to a slacking of effort on the part of the top strata as this could affect their efficiency and effectiveness "in the pursuit of the general good". In other words, that there is still a need for some inequality in order to provide an incentive for those able and willing to take on demanding, responsible positions in society.
    Volumes and volumes are written on this theme and writers like Cohen demonstrate their learning and cleverness by finding loopholes in each others' theories and developing their own irrelevant versions of the same. What they have to say and write has no bearing on what is happening in the real world. For the real world is not merely made up of a population stratified into different income groups. It is true that the working class can be divided into different income groups. But between these groups there is no direct opposition, tension and conflict – they are just groups of people having different characteristics in terms of income, education and status.
    The real world is a world in which the population is divided into two main groups obtaining their incomes in distinct and completely different ways. One group obtains its income from the ownership of the productive wealth of the world and the other group obtains its income from the sale of its labour power to the owners of productive wealth. The first group has to attempt to continually increase the productive wealth its owns by continually revolutionising their productive techniques and by attempting to reduce or limit the income of the non-owners. To do this they have to accumulate as much wealth as possible under given market conditions. The whole system depends upon, and is defined by, this compulsive need of capitalists to accumulate wealth. To think that it is possible to intervene or halt this process through any system of redistribution of incomes – either through taxation or "rich" egalitarian political philosophers foregoing part of their incomes – is unrealistic nonsense. The social system such philosophers wish to reform bears no resemblance to the social system they conjure up in their analyses.
    Nowhere is Cohen's pathetic position more clearly demonstrated than in his belief that he and his fellow philosophers are "rich". They are not rich even by comparison with other salary earners; when compared with the incomes of the capitalist class their incomes are pitiful. What is more, like most workers they have to consume their incomes in order to survive at the prevailing standards of comfort of their peers. The individual consumption of the capitalists, on the other hand, although often colossal when compared to the individual consumption of workers, is normally only a small proportion of their income as they are compelled to accumulate most of it in order to survive as capitalists.
    Lewis Hopkin.

    A deficit of logic (2009)

    Book Review from the April 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

    The Credit Crunch. Graham Turner. 2008. Pluto Press.

    Graham Turner has made a number of appearances on BBC2’s Newsnight in recent weeks, helping Paul Mason deconstruct the credit crisis and slump.

    Turner is a Keynesian of sorts and a fan of ‘quantitative easing’ i.e. of central banks flooding the financial markets with liquidity in the hope that this will get banks lending again, literally giving people more money to spend. As history demonstrates though – and Marxian economics explains – the practical effect of this is further doses of currency inflation as it is likely to accelerate the continuing overissue of inconvertible paper currency that has been going on since the Second World War.

    This book is currently one of the most widely available explanations of the financial crisis in UK bookshops. But in essence it is a confused book and Turner seems to think that the reason the Keynesian remedy hasn’t worked on any previous occasion is because the policy levers weren’t pulled in quite the right order, or at quite the right time.

    As an illustration of the book’s confusion, there are a large number of pages discussing in great detail what Turner apparently sees as the supposed significance of trade deficits and surpluses in various countries affected by the asset price bubble. But then he concludes, all of a sudden and for no particular or stated reason – much in line with the historical evidence but against the line of his own argument presented here – that ‘It does not matter that much whether a country is running a trade deficit or a surplus: a bubble is a bubble, and there are far too many around’. Indeed.

    Though it includes some interesting and useful statistical data and graphs, after this point it was difficult to take the book entirely seriously and George Cooper’s rival explanation in the Origin of Financial Crises (reviewed in March) is clearer, more in accordance with reality and much to be preferred.

    Green-lite reformism (2009)

    Book Review from the August 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Fuelling a Food Crisis – The impact of peak oil on food security. By Caroline Lucas, Andy Jones and Colin Hines. (See here for more details).

    Current methods of food production and distribution are having a negative effect on the environment. The facts of the case are set out in this report by Green Party MEP Caroline Lucas and the two others, on behalf of the Green Group in the European Parliament, even though the measures they offer are no more than “green-lite” reforms.

    They show that the increased industrialisation of farming, particularly following the end of WW2, means that current methods now consume 50 times the energy input of traditional agriculture and in the most extreme cases “100 fold or more.” “Including energy costs for farm machinery, transportation, processing and feedstocks for agricultural chemicals – the modern food system consumes roughly 10 calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food energy produced.”

    The UK has developed an increasing dependence on imported food. Figures from the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) show that between 1988 and 2002 imports in tonnes increased by 38 percent and that 50 percent of all vegetables and 95 percent of all fruit consumed in the UK now come from overseas.

    How necessary are these imports for the consumers? The 'New Economics Foundation', in its UK Interdependence Report for 2006, published a list of food imports and exports, showing a two-way process of similar products travelling in opposite directions being both imports and exports simultaneously: in 2004, UK imported 10.2 million kilos of milk and cream from France – and exported 9.9 million kilos of milk and cream to France. The figures traded between UK and Germany for milk and cream were 15.5 million kilos to and 17.2 million kilos from the UK. UK imported 1.5 million kilos of potatoes from Germany and exported 1.5 million kilos of potatoes to Germany. UK imported 44,000 tonnes of frozen boneless chicken and exported 51,000 tonnes of fresh boneless chicken (countries not specified).

    These examples are a tiny fraction of the crazy methods of the globalised food trade which have scant regard for either environmental protection or actual consumers.

    A report for DEFRA in 2005 on “The Validity of Food Miles as an Indicator of Sustainable Development” concluded:
    “Transport of food by air has the highest CO2 emissions per tonne and is the fastest growing mode. Although air freight of food accounts for only 1 percent of food tonne kilometres and 0.1 percent of vehicle kilometres it produces 11/ percent /of the food transport CO2 equivalent emissions.” (
    Whilst the UK imports almost twice as much food as it exports vegetable and fruit imports account for over 60 percent of its food air freight. This is the upside-down world where there are, on the one hand, international agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while, on the other, trade agreements to exchange foods internationally involving unnecessarily flying foodstuffs around the globe, so increasing the emissions.

    Food has to be transported but all transportation is at cost to the environment. How it is transported and how far are not decisions about which the consumer is consulted. Individuals could make a difference by the choices they make using their own moral code – providing they are equipped with all the available information – but, like travel, unrestricted flying, expansion of airports etc., individual actions make little impact. Action groups can and do make differences by boycotting certain food outlets or companies to affect their stance on political, humanitarian or moral issues (apartheid South Africa, NestlĂ©'s infant food formula sold in countries where customers had no access to clean water for mixing it, Fair Trade products) but these successes, whether small or substantial, don't address the root problem and there's always the need for yet another campaign.

    Also topsy-turvy are the various goals set for using crops as alternative fuels. The authors quote George Monbiot that “It has been calculated that meeting the EU's target for 20 percent of transport fuel to come from biodiesel by 2020 would consume almost all of Britain's croplands.” Presumably, attempting to achieve this target would imply relying even more heavily on imported food with all the associated extra environmental damage, plus the damage to domestic farmland and the environment from growing a monocrop.

    Then there is the environmental impact of modern industrial agriculture's use of fertilisers:
    “The manufacture of synthetic fertilisers is particularly energy intensive and accounts for around one third of the UK's agricultural energy consumption. It has been estimated that 40 percent of world food protein now relies on synthetic nitrogen fertilisers.” “The fourth most traded bulk commodity in world shipping trade after iron ore, coal and cereals is fertilisers and their raw materials.”
    Peak oil and natural gas are not seen as a problem for future manufacturing in the fertiliser industry as there are sufficient coal reserves for 200 or so years at current production levels. “The consequences in terms of climate change, however, would be catastrophic. Additionally, production of ammonia from coal is 70 percent more energy intensive than production from natural gas.” Fertilisers are both big business and big polluters. Damage is caused during production, during distribution and to soil and water post-use, upsetting natural soil balance and leaching into water sources.

    The authors conclude:
    “The mandatory rules of trade that promote the interests of agribusiness, industrial production and long distance transport, and that force countries to compete to produce each other's food at the expense of domestic production . . . are a disaster for food security, particularly in poorer countries, as subsistence farmers are increasingly put out of business or forced into export production instead.”
    As alternatives to this environmentally destructive madness what do they recommend?
    “Relocating our food systems will require a complete change of direction, away from the policies of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy and the rules of the World Trade Organisation . . . Instead, the central aim of trade and food policy should be a just and environmentally sound food security programme, for all nations."
    They go on to list some measures (i.e. reforms) that "would be instrumental in helping to meet the challenge." For instance,. "Production methods would have to meet key environmental and animal welfare standards, as well as provide healthy food . . . the reduction of fossil fuel use would need to be prioritised across the framework." Other proposed measures include fair wages and adequate income, national import controls as a prerogative of all countries, reduced profit margins for food processors and supermarkets, restricting the market share of individual supermarkets, promoting self-reliance and ending subsidised dumping, and rewriting the EU Treaty and the rules of the WTO.

    The trouble is that each one of these reforms, or something similar, has been promoted, implemented, tried, reworked and discarded in favour of whatever is the latest fad. They are offering palliative treatment when only invasive surgery will do. As for agriculture and the environment, there is plenty of evidence pointing to how to get well and truly onto a sustainable path worldwide. Studies and statistics abound from universities, national and international farming networks, coalitions on food sovereignty, and organic farming which demonstrate that traditional intensive farming methods can out-perform industrial agricultural methods and are more beneficial to the health of both people and the environment. People may desire this change but the economic framework of capitalism won’t allow it.

    "At a time when water tables are falling, temperatures are rising as a result of climate change and oil supplies will soon be shrinking the need for decisive action could not be more urgent." Without a doubt. But, whilst the authors set out a wealth of solid information, and display a desire both to improve the lot of worldwide farmers and to ensure enough healthy food for all, their focus throughout their report on the monetary costs of everything – inevitable in a capitalist world – is their downfall for it is this very element that is fuelling both the food and the environmental crises.
    Janet Surman