Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Mr Brown (2000)

A short story from the November 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

On a dark and rainy day, recently, a representative from the Department of Social Security called at our home. We had been warned by letter that a visit was imminent and though we knew what day it was to be we didn't know exactly what time the interview was to take place. Then at precisely 9.30am there came a ring on the front door bell. Enter Mr Brown.

Once ensconced in an armchair in the sitting room Mr Brown lost no time in telling us that due to a "discrepancy" on the computer our long-term claim for benefit had not only to be cancelled but we were also in debt to the department for a large, but as yet unspecified, sum of money. You can say what you like about the wonders of the computer. It didn't do us any favours. Big Brother had been watching us.

The seventy-five pence awarded to pensioners by Tony Blair's "listening" government had done little to boost our respective pensions. We live modestly and buy our clothes from charity shops yet it had not escaped our notice that though we scraped by each week never going hungry, owing money to nobody, we were never going to go on a world cruise and if the boiler went kaput tomorrow it would make more than just a dent in our bank balance. This estimation of the nature of our standard of living was not something that obsessed us; it was no more than mere fact. Now the shattering news that our claim for benefit was withdrawn and that, meanwhile, we had been building up another debt had us mentally reeling.

Whilst Mr Brown went on doing his stuff I wondered about him. I am reluctant to describe his appearance. Smartly dressed, well-scrubbed politicians long ago sent me the message that a wholesome, outward exterior has little to do with what is going on inside a person. Let me just say this: his tones were reasonable. He didn't gloat. He even apologised for being the bearer of bad tidings. His manner was mild, his visage pleasant. He was somebody's son, brother, partner, father, nephew, uncle, I tried to remember. None of it was personal. His salary was the justification for the meting out of this kind of treatment. Had it ever crossed Mr Brown's mind that we had toiled all our lives on a restricted income only now to find ourselves in our sixties and still relatively poor? Was the representative from the DSS aware that there were rich, idle people who, though celebrated, made little, if any, contribution to this society except to flaunt their wealth? And did he know that there were businessmen who had embezzled thousands and nothing very detrimental had befallen them as a result?

Across the planet there are millions of Mr and Mrs Browns carrying out orders without ever thinking to question them. It is a common enough problem. What it all comes down to is your wages and salaries, your cars, your mortgages and your holidays abroad and if doing your job means that a few people must go to the wall then that is only what capitalism has taught us from birth. What matters most is the survival of the fittest and that attitude goes hand-in-hand with never stopping to think, never attempting to question the ethics of the work you are doing, why you are doing it and for whom? And because so few questions are asked wars are waged and people who have no vested interest in fighting them are killed or maimed and still children are dying of malnutrition.

Mr Brown tidied his papers, put them back in his briefcase and made ready to leave. "Now I will leave you in peace," he said. Because I am without words I wrote on my slate "PEACE" and held it up for him to see. He took a squint at it and said, "Sorry, I don't understand." Exit Mr Brown.
Heather Ball

Pioneers of socialism (1998)

From the November 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Socialist League, a breakaway from the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), which was established in the 1880s by William Morris, Eleanor Marx, Edward Aveling and other pioneering socialists, was remarkably close to the Socialist Party in its ideas and aims. However its confused position on parliament and the ballot box despite its correct opposition to campaigning for reforms led to it being overrun by anarchists and to the resignation of genuine socialists such as Morris.

The strategy of Morris and the others was the "making" of socialists who understood and wanted an end to capitalism and wanted the establishment of a socialist society. This ran counter to the object both of anarchists who simply wanted to destroy the state, and of those "socialists" who wanted to concentrate on building a large party with its roots in the trade unions which could somehow reform capitalism out of existence. Some fourteen years after the Socialist League was overrun by anarchists in 1890, the Socialist Party of Great Britain was founded. Like the League, it was a breakaway from the SDF but, while echoing the League's call for revolution and nothing less, addressed the issues which had led to the League's failure.

Revolution not reform
The Socialist League was founded in 1884 after the resignation of a number of socialists from the SDF which had taken the position of working gradually for socialism through the winning of reforms, so-called stepping stones to socialism. Disgruntled with the undemocratic nature of H.M. Hyndman's leadership and seeing the absurdity and inevitable failure of trying to change capitalism and its essential profit-making drive through legal changes, William Morris, Eleanor Marx, Edward Aveling, Belfort Bax and others established a separate body committed to socialism and nothing less. Morris wrote:
"The palliatives over which many worthy people are busying themselves now are useless because they are but unorganised partial revolts against a vast wide-spreading, grasping organisation which will, with the unconscious instinct of a plant, meet every attempt to bettering the conditions of the people with an attack on a fresh side."
The Manifesto of the Socialist League, drafted by Morris and Bax and adopted in 1885, stated firmly the stance of the League against reformism and for social revolution and nothing else:
"As to mere politics, Absolutism, Constitutionalism, Republicanism. All have been tried in our day and under our present system, and all have failed in dealing with the real evils of life.
Nor, on the other hand, will certain incomplete schemes of social reform now before the public solve the question.
Co-operation so-called—that is, competitive co-operation for profit—would merely increase the number of small joint-stock capitalists, under the mask of creating an aristocracy of labour, while it would intensify the severity of labour by its temptations to overwork.
Nationalisation of the land alone, which many earnest and sincere persons are now preaching, would be useless so long as labour was subject to the fleecing of surplus value inevitable under the Capitalist system.
No better solution would be that State Socialism, by whatever name it may be called, whose aim it would be to make concessions to the working class while leaving the present system of capital and wages in operation: no number of merely administrative changes; until the workers are in a possession of all political power, would make any real approach to Socialism.
The Socialist League therefore aims at the realisation of complete Revolutionary Socialism, and well knows that this can never happen in any one country without the help of the workers of all civilisation."
After a century and more of failed attempts at reforming capitalism, the position of Morris and the League has been proved correct, as has its position against what they called "state socialism" (more accurately described as state capitalism) which has only succeeded in dividing the working class and replacing the issue of class with the issue of supporting one capitalist "nation" against another.

The ballot box
The League, however, was opposed to the idea of achieving socialism via the ballot box and parliament. This was not on the grounds of wanting to lead the working class to revolution in the belief that a socialist majority could never exist, but on the grounds that campaigning for election to parliament inevitably meant advocating reforms of the present system. This mistaken conclusion was drawn due to the number of so-called socialists in this period who were turning away from social revolution and towards gradualism. Parliament, according to the League, was a capitalist institution which would only be strengthened by reformist policies and which would subvert a socialist party from a body which campaigned for social revolution to a corrupt body which would inevitably campaign for election on a reformist programme. Even so, Morris did envisage that, at some stage, socialists would enter parliament as rebels to dissolve capitalist power:
"I believe that the Socialists will certainly send members to Parliament when they are strong enough to do so; in itself I see no harm in that, so long as it is understood that they go there as rebels, and not as members of the governing body prepared to pass palliative measures to keep Society alive."
It was its opposition to the use of elections by connecting them to the policy of reformism which was the weak link in the League's armour. Opposition to parliament and elections led to the increasing membership of anarchists, who saw the problems of society not as connected to capitalism but to the institution of the state itself. They did not seek to remove capitalism (the disease) by making socialists but sought to destroy the state and authority (the symptom) by acts of violence. It was this section of the League which grew in strength and eventually displaced the genuine pioneer socialists who had established an organisation and produced literature which still remain an inspiration to socialists today. It has to be said, however, that many of these pioneer socialists were beginning to turn to gradualism themselves, as the working class seemingly turned to this course (but in reality only opting for small improvements now rather than any conscious socialist idea).

The Socialist League collapsed in the early 1890s with the departure of William Morris in 1890 (who formed the Hammersmith Socialist Society). After this its publication Commonweal, with the party in general, declined to an ignominious mess after control passed to the anarchists whose squabbles were an irrelevance to the working class.

Thus, the voice of socialism (despite the League's few inconsistencies) was lost until the formation of the Socialist Party of Great Britain in 1904 and its solving of the problems of earlier socialists. Formed after a group of socialists grew disillusioned with the reformist stance of the SDF (as the League pioneers had been twenty years earlier), the Socialist Party solved the problem of reform or revolution by a unique commitment to the use of the ballot box and the democratic sending of socialists to parliament with the sole aim of abolishing the profit system; a possible socialist minority in parliament being committed to opposition to all policies that would help prolong capitalism.

The Socialist Party has stood for socialism and nothing but ever since. A bastion of socialist consciousness in a political wilderness of capitalist party against capitalist party; free market or nationalisation, private ownership or state ownership, left or right, tweedledum or tweedledee. 

Capitalism is capitalism whichever mask it is attempting to wear and the Socialist Party is the only party to have stood for socialism throughout the twentieth century despite the diversions of Lenin, Keynesians and a host of others attempting to change capitalism without a socialist majority that understands and desires it. Capitalism's appearance may have changed in the last hundred years but no amount of tinkering can change the essential labour-fleecing and profit-seeking which makes it tick and which socialists understand must be removed before socialism can exist. Socialism remains as relevant for humanity today as it did then.
Colin Skelly

Crassness (2009)

From the May 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard
An educational dialogue explaining the workings of modern capitalism and rebellion, based on genuine events.
Scene: An alternative bar in North London. Cool movie posters plaster the walls. Electronic music pumps out unusually quiet from speakers – it is a week day evening.

Enter Pik Smeet, wearing broad brimmed hat, trying to look like a Puritan. He approaches the bar, buys a bottle of cider, and sits at his chair of many years usage. After him, come two middle-aged male punks, spikey haired, leather-clad with tattoos and chains strewn around their bodies – back from smoking outside. They sit around the corner of the bar from Comrade Smeet.

Punk 1: …So, my boss says, when you’ve got all the money in, that's it, you can go home.
Punk 2: Gah! Like I need another reason to hate you – easy street.
Punk 1: Yeah, I hate me too. We own market places all over London. Go round, collect the cash, nice little job.
Punk 2: Bet you get a stack of griping from all the stallholders.
Punk 1: That’s why I don’t hang around after I’ve picked up the rent.
Punk 2: Too right. You have many places?
Punk 1: Yeah, Camden, Oxford Street, Piccadilly Circus. All over the joint. Going to be more now, we’ve just bought out a former Woolworths store, now they’ve collapsed.
Punk 2: Oh, really, what you going to do with that?
Punk 1: Well, unless a big firm comes along and makes us an offer, we’re gonna turn it into small units. You make more money breaking big stores up into units, see. Could get you a place if you fancy one.
Punk 2: Well, I’m only interested as a customer.
Punk 1: Ah, well, then, you’ll like our night clubs. They’re good money too – we have a chain of clubs, you know the ones, one near Farringdon.
Punk 2: Oh, them – the strip places?
Punk 1: Well, call them night clubs, but, basically, well, they’re brothels. Then, that’s where the money is.
Punk 2: Yeah – you should try working in making porn films, I make good money shooting them.
Punk 1: Well, I used to, but I got out because the money isn’t there any more. And, y’know, that’s why you do it, I mean, it’s fun, you get to travel the world, but the bottom line is the money. If you’re not making any, there’s no point doing it.
Punk 2: You reckon?
Punk 1: Yeah. You see, America – yer biggest market, y’know, they won’t allow you to import films any more. And you can’t get a visa to enter the states and shoot the films. That’s it, no point being in the game any more.
Punk 2: Well, I still make good money – hand over fist – I think you should have stuck with it, mate, it’s a good game – so long as it’s not the only thing you can do.
Punk 1: That reminds me – one girl, we were driving her round London, showing her some sites, got to Trafalgar square, I said “And that’s Nelson’s column” she said to me “Who?” I mean, totally dumb – nothing else she could do that be in the business.
Punk 2: Was she English?
Punk 1: Perfectly, girl next door. The quality product, not one of your Eastern European girls.
Punk 2: Ooh, the very thing. Mind you, when I was living above the brothel your English birds would last until lunchtime, and when there wasn’t plenty of food forthcoming, they be off out the door. Least the eastern birds have to hang around.
Punk 1: On our shoots we’d have about four hundred quid a week to just send out to Sainsbury’s for food. We were a big crew, so, you know, we’d all need feeding. Twelve hours a day we were doing – a laugh. I know, half hour bursts of work, but we were there for the whole long day. Great fun.
Punk 2: Have you tried flogging your stuff over the internet?
Punk 1: That’s just it – who wants to pay forty quid for hardcore pornography when you can download stacks of it for virtually nothing.
Punk 2: Well, you get to control your own business, from beginning to end – production and distribution – everything except the credit card payments – you need someone else to do that –
Punk 1: Usually from Russia.
Punk 2: You have to be careful with them, but, yes, the Russians can helps you with the financial side of things.
Punk 1: Y’ See, I mean, the technology is out there, anyone can make porn – and it’s the home-made look, with the girl next door, that really draws in the punters.
Punk 2: That’s what we’re good at doing – your punters want realistic-looking sex, and we do home-made look quite well. It’s a skill to achieve that look. That’s what we bring – technology is cheapening the production process, but we still add value through our skills.
Punk 1: Well, the value we add gets less all the time, I reckon I’m better off collecting the rent. Right, next fag.
Punk 1 stands up, on his shirt is sewn a badge with a picture of Karl Marx, over his heart. He pulls on his studded leather jacket, and goes out for a smoke.
Smeet (to himself): Well, that’s punk for you, rebellion within capitalism – non-conformity can be highly profitable. Reckon I’ll go home and write all this down – a little morality play full of symbolic resonances and the like.
Pik Smeet

A postscript to the article is the following discussion of its content at the recent Autumn Delegate Meeting of the SPGB, and the response by the writer on the Spintcom discussion list:

"Another example of an article was 'Crassness'. Report of dialogue between punks. Apart from anyone else it's boring. (May 2009 Socialist Standard). Makes a lot of assumptions. Moral is the punks are all stupid because they don't understand the Socialist case."

1) It was a genuine report of a real conversation, that I thought illustrated some of the failings of punk rebellion, viz.,

2) It in no way implies stupidity on their part - far from it, it implies that they know how to get on under capitalism, and make a quid or two. I can't see how the implication of stupidity can be read into it, because the text makes no mention of the socialist case, at most the irony of the faux-rebel, who's just spent ten minutes talking about collecting rent, living off prostitution and and pornography, wearing a Karl Marx badge, is mentioned.

3) The point was that the rebellion of punk is in no way anti-capitalist, but in fact ultra capitalist, in that being prepared to go into ways of earning money considered outside "normal" mores they are able to make a fine living.

4) It touched on how even the porn industry is subject to the cheapening of the means of production, and the cold hearted business case at the bottom of the industry.

5)The moral, if there was one, was that punk is rebellion within capitalism, and not a rejection of it.
I'm sorry that [the comrade] it boring, but it was only meant as a light piece, and was submitted with my expressions that I thought it only had an outside chance of seeing print. I should add, though, that boring was part of the point - here were two people in full punk regalier, and large swathes of their conversation - about collecting rent, retail opportunities, etc. could have been heard from any golf club bar room bore in slacks and loafers. That was my chief inspiration to write it down as soon as I ear wigged it.

That said, further incidents in the same pub, which I've blogged about elseplace, did lead me to thinking about submitting for a regular column of such stories entitled "As soon as this pub closes"...
Pik Smeet