Thursday, May 7, 2009

What is to be done? (2009)

From the April 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

As capitalism loses some of its legitimacy, what should those who want to get rid of capitalism be doing?
After the battle of El Alamein, Churchill famously said “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”.

In some ways, the socialist position on the latest slump should be similar (minus, of course, the celebration of mass slaughter). Capitalism has lost its veneer of invincibility, which is much of its strength. Pundits who a couple of years ago would have referred to “the economic system” – as if there was no other – have started to refer to capitalism. And as the possibility of pensions fades out of view, job security becomes a memory (to those who ever had it), people lose their houses, their savings, we can expect a similar reaction amongst those members of our class who had previously had no cause to question their life's trajectory within capitalism.

It is therefore imperative to use this opportunity, as capitalism's feet of clay are broken, to build afresh rather than patch up the past. And we are building from a weak base. Across the entire spectrum of political opinion membership numbers in parties are down – the working class has been demobilised politically, and often only ageing cadres remain, preserving political traditions rather than engaging in productive activity, recruitment and debate.

The battle of ideas
The first, most important battle is to continue the destruction of capitalism's legitimacy in the minds of our fellow class members. That is, to drive the development of our class as a class-for-itself, mindful of the fact that capitalism is a thing that can be destroyed and a thing that should be destroyed. As it rapidly crumbles from a high peak to a lower base, most workers “shouldn't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”, as the song has it.

The second is to develop an effective medium of engagement between workers and politics. A great deal of energy has been expended on this topic in the past, mainly because all political parties which lose membership will, understandably, see this as an institutional failing. This is frankly hubris. For an organisation to think that it is capable of single-handedly failing the working class is to reject the materialist approach, that our ideas come from our life circumstances and not from an all-knowing vanguard. This medium of engagement has to take account of society's development; open-air meetings at Hyde Park, for example, may be superseded by Second Life. The only way to establish this is to explore all avenues and reinforce those that work, while remaining confident in the class's revolutionary potential.

The third is to ensure that the right ideas for the working class win out, and constitute the basis for the overall class struggle. Historically this battle of ideas has been waged both in the mind – in debates, lectures and social events – and on the streets. We of course favour the first approach, and do all we can to keep activity there. This is not just a matter of aesthetics. All of capitalism's power, including its coercive power, is in the hands of the working class; fighting can only firstly divide us and secondly weaken us.

Capitalism digs its own grave
While socialists have few resources, capitalism's own failings have far more reach and power to convince our class of the folly of capitalism than we possess – the largest organisations claiming to be revolutionary may just about win a couple of column inches with a large demonstration, as opposed to daily front page news of corruption, failure and despair from the mainstream press. Capitalism will provide its own gravediggers. Existing organisations can at best address points two and three above – re-establish a mass political culture amongst our class, whilst engaging in debate between the various political traditions and throwing the matter open to our class, that the best ideas win in terms of membership.

This also determines the level of cooperation between these traditions. All, presumably, want a climate in which working class ideas can flourish. Though some may be powerful enough to have their own mass papers, in practice preaching is only to the converted.

Authoritarian parties are hostile at the second level: rather than defending their own ideas, they create their own political ghettoes, such as the old Communist parties which denigrated and suppressed their opposition so as not to compete (and fail) at the level of demonstrating the relative values of their ideas. This is where streetfighting plays its role: physically removing opposition that one cannot overcome in a battle of hearts and minds, whilst destroying the climate in which the working class can find its way. The revolution is aborted in the process, not defended. This is another reason why a socialist revolution must be peaceful, at least as far as our class is concerned.

By contrast, a genuine revolutionary party in capitalism is, by definition, a party of the working class. A depoliticised working class cannot make a socialist revolution. It must be a party that operates at the level of discussion between workers, not so as to fetishise a particular political form but because a successful socialist revolution is made by the working class coming to revolutionary ideas.

Let’s have a party
This brings us to defending our own political tradition. We are a party of the third part, so to speak: we focus on debate between traditions, engaging workers in the process, whilst maintaining the medium (finding out how people engage in politics, making the process a positive one). Even if we had the power to affect the news, we would have no need to engage in 'propaganda' in its pejorative sense; the simple facts damn capitalism amply enough, and it is enough to shout these facts from the rooftops along with our call to action.

We focus our differences at the level of ideas. Front organisations are only organisations that suppress debate and engage in conflict at a lower level. Classic cases are the recent Socialist Alliance, and Respect, coalitions which have been the means for various Left traditions to draw working class support together, all to then vie with each other to recruit for members within this pool. Only in such an environment could one use the word 'comrade' to refer to an organisational enemy. The Weekly Worker often carries records of physical ejections from meetings, even beatings, amongst these supposed comrades. The working class is profoundly deterred by these antics; perhaps more importantly, the idea that workers can never attain more than “trade union consciousness” is made self-fulfilling by denying debate.

The coming months and years will see many organisations, calling themselves working class, trying to establish or re-establish themselves. Calls will be made to support this or that country, this or that leader, this or that party. There is a simple way to negotiate this maze: those that do all they can to make space for the working class themselves to become revolutionary, are revolutionary: all others are impostors. The object must be nothing short of a society that has the liberation of our class from capitalism as its precondition: the abolition of wage slavery. We have the power to do this if we are confident and not distracted. We as a class must be trusted with our own decisions, and credited with the ability to know our own interests. And there should be no preaching of violence within the class; we fail when our energies turn against each other. In effect, this means that the revolution should be as peaceful as possible; all those who now bear arms are workers like ourselves, and history has shown how unwilling workers can be to fire on each other unless backed into a corner. But we should be hostile to all those who try to sow defeatism amongst our class, doubt our revolutionary ability or ability to organise ourselves, who attempt to turn our energies to their own ends.

We have, of course, more to say than this. Lessons from history that have been learned, the writings of past revolutionaries, and more. But these things are a touchstone to avoid the errors of the past: the revolution should be for the class and by the class, together as comrades. We may not, this time, end capitalism. But we can sense the beginning of the end; and get going a political party with socialism as its objective, not small reforms but the overthrow of capitalism – that is the end of the beginning.

Food: commodity or need? (2009)

From the April 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

Enough calories are already produced in the world today to avoid anyone having to starve. It’s just that millions can’t afford to buy the food containing them.
Air, water, food; the three essential requirements of life. Humans can survive for barely 2-3 minutes without air, several days without water and at most a few weeks without food. In our earliest days all were born with totally free access to these most basic necessities of life – access as required. Now we still have free air, if of questionable quality, although it is possible to buy a refreshing booster session of pure, clean oxygen in such cities as Tokyo. Water is still freely available to some – an ever-shrinking number – although many of these have to manage with a contaminated or disease-ridden supply, daily risking serious illness or even death. It has become a commodity denied to many, a basic requirement of life withheld, leading to aggressive acts in local, national and international arenas. Food, like water, finds those at the end of the supply chain, those who need the commodity rather than those who desire the profit, are the least likely to be consulted regarding the supply.

According to T. Lang in The Ecologist (March 2008) food is a $6.4 trillion-a-year economy, selling a necessity of life, which impoverishes more people than any other sector. There has to be a moral conundrum here if some of us are reduced to a daily recurring position of no money, no meal.

The discussion as to whether the world does or can produce enough food for the current population is generally heard through the loudspeaker of the economic/political sector which suggests that overpopulation is the problem. However, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's figures for 2006 there are enough calories for everyone even in most of the poorer countries, pointing to the fact that hunger is simply a problem of the barriers to distribution.

For example, in India between 2001-3 where 20 percent of the population (212 million) were undernourished there were 2440 available calories per person per day.

Another example is that in Ethiopia in 2001-3 with 46 percent of the population (31.5 million) undernourished there were 1860 available calories per person per day.

So, if enough food to feed domestic populations is available, why do so many have to go without and where does the surplus go? Lack of money is the answer to the first part and export to the second. Remember the Irish 'potato' famine when thousands upon thousands died of starvation as a result of potato blight decimating the crops of the indigenous population? Food was not scarce, there was plenty of production of food for export and for the wealthy but beyond the means of the local poor whose staple diet was potatoes. What's different but the century, the geographical location and the sheer scale of the iniquity of the market? The “market” – as if this were a lifeless entity with no human input. The market – in control or out of control, controlling or controlled – can have no moral or ethical standards for these are human qualities to be included or discounted at the decision-making, policy-making processes.

The export of food from the South on a grand scale is part of what leaves millions undernourished but export is a two-way process. The North also exports food to the South, highly subsidised food which makes it untenable for farmers in the importing country to compete, forcing them to switch to crops for export or go out of business. Thus the cycle continues. More impoverishment. More hunger. A glance at the 2008 subsidy figures of the US reveals $50+ billion given in particular to export crops. In diminishing order, corn, wheat, cotton, soybeans, rice, sorghum, barley, peanuts. Absent from the subsidy list are fruit and vegetables and crops grown for local US markets.

One of the legacies of the colonisation of the South by the North has been the imposition of methods of farming along with the types of crops to be grown. Huge areas of previously diverse multi-crop forests were reduced to plantations growing single crops specifically for export – bananas, sugar cane, pineapples – decimating the land through soil erosion from this unsuitable method of farming and taking away the land and livelihood of local peasants. The heavy-handed, arrogant approach of incomers showing no regard for centuries old successful sustainable methods of farming.

Reinforcing food's place as a commodity rather than a right to a need is the way decisions are made by transnational corporations with respect to environmental consequences. The North's subsidised food puts populations in poor countries off their lands and into urban environments where they then work in manufacturing; manufacturing that has been exported there for their cheap labour. A World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987 reported that transferring manufacturing to the South was the same as exporting pollution. Lawrence Summers, when at the World Bank (he’s now Obama’s chief economic adviser), put his name to a document which only half-jokingly suggested that exporting pollution to the poorer countries was a good idea financially on another count – people in those countries died younger anyway from other diseases and we would be saving on our own pollution clean-ups and health-care bills by so doing. Had Southern pollution control met minimal Northern standards the annual bill would have been $14.2 billion more. In other words, make it impossible for peasant farmers to compete with your highly subsidised food crops, watch them migrate to cities where they can no longer even grow food for themselves and employ them cheaply in polluting manufacturing jobs producing goods for export back to you.

“You are what you eat” or “Food is Life” may be seen as mantras of diet-obsessed wacky people but on a science-based, physiological level they happen to be true. To be effectively nourished and maintain decent health requires an adequate supply in reasonable balance of carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals and fibre. Fresh, whole foods, uncontaminated by polluted air and water or dozens of chemical sprays and manufactured additives. More and more studies contradict the conventional view of the industrial agricultural complex, generally upheld by politicians, which pushes farming on a huge scale and uses manufactured fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, hormones and genetically modified seed, promoting the idea that bigger is better. It may yield more profit but that is about all. Outside the industrial agricultural complex it is recognised that organic methods are more favourable to producers, soil, sustainability of the environment and to the consumers. A 2007 report from the University of Michigan said that an organic world could yield over 2,641 calories per person per day and that small farms are the most productive. This could be interpreted that food viewed as a need rather than a commodity is a viable prospect and enough could be available for all when the requirement for profit is removed. Unfortunately, as yet, this is a disparate group of movements and pressure groups worldwide which has far from the political clout of the entrenched industrial agricultural complex and transnational corporations' lobby which leaves us with the obvious conclusion that the only solution is the urgent dismantling of the system of commodities in favour of one of free access for all.

(References from Wayne Roberts' “The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food” – one of a series from New Internationalist).
Janet Surman