Friday, August 27, 2010


From the pamphlet, A Socialist Life, by Heather Ball

I grew up during the Second World War when paper was in short supply for such trivial items as books. Paper had to go towards the war effort. What books were available my parents could not afford to buy so they joined the public library as did each of their children as they came of age. My mother would sit furiously knitting, a book balanced on the arm of a chair, listening at the same time to the afternoon play on the wireless. I once asked her how she managed this trick and she answered, smartly, that the brain was designed to receive and process information on several different levels. Maybe, but the knitting suffered and so did I. I eventually wore the cardigans with the dropped stitches.

I have this memory of my father reading among other things Karl Marx, Freud and Jung. My brother read the P.G. Wodehouse 'Jeeves' stories. I thought them boring but I came across a Biggles Omnibus and Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore and enjoyed those. At the same time I found a Pear's Encyclopedia for nineteen forty-seven and dipped into that. Best of all I loved the William Brown books by Richmal Compton. To the consternation of my mother I began emulating William's bizarre behaviour. My mother reminded me that I was, after all, a girl, but suspecting a flaw in this argument I ignored it. Later I read the Bronte books and Jane Austen. I thought Jane Austen clever and amusing but thrilled with something akin to rapture at the antics of those tortured souls Cathy and Heathcliff in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights.

At that time Dad was doing his stint as a dustman and would occasionally return from work bearing books he had salvaged from dustbins (These days I put my fascination for rubbish dumps and skips down to the 'dustbin' era.) This way I got a schoolgirl annual full of stories about female pupils at boarding school who had midnight feasts in the dorm and whose vocabulary included ejaculations like 'Jolly spiffing'. For a time I longed to go to boarding school away from what I sometimes thought of as my 'weird' family. Dad said the children of dustmen didn't go to boarding school. But all this was before the advent of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

A new chapter of my life began at that stage. The book appeared in the house when I was fourteen and I was not at first inspired to read it. It was a very dense-looking tome and a cursory glance through its pages told me that Mugsborough was a terrible place and I wasn't in the least bit interested in building workers. The male members of the family discussed it enthusiastically as a masterpiece. But my time was yet to come and when it did it was to steer the course of my life and my thinking.

On Friday afternoons at school the kids were permitted to bring their own books to read thereby providing the teacher with a quiet hour or two to sit at her desk marking exercise books. It also gave me an opportunity to take The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists to school with me to show off my 'grown up' reading. The teacher demanded to know what I was reading and told me 'This kind of reading matter is not for you'.

This kind of reading was for me. It came at a time when I badly needed to make some sense of the world. My class had been given a project - to paste pictures of the Royal Family into scrapbooks. This turned out to be a very popular and competitive project with pupils vying with each other to get the best pictures. I took no part in it. For one thing the Daily Worker had no photographs of the Royal Family within its pages and for another I thought it odd, to say the least, that children who sprang from parents who were forced to sell their labour and yet struggled to scrape together enough to possess anything other than the barest necessities should worship people who were rich, privileged and idle. Whilst I was reading Owen's response to the arguments of his workmates this concept lacked any logical train of thought. Feeling a sense of outrage I said as much to my teacher whose reply was that I should try to have a little more humility. I thought 'Fuck humility'.

My father gave me a book list - George Orwell, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, William Morris, and others and I read them all, but it was The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists that first raised my class-consciousness.
Heather Ball

Other short stories by Heather Ball can be found at the following links:
  • Cleaning Houses
  • Joining The Party
  • Misplaced Admiration
  • Uncles
  • Mr Brown
  • Ageism
  • Passing The Time
  • Ordinary People

  • A couple of pieces relating to the aforementioned Robert Tressell

  • Robert Tressell and the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
  • The Great Money Trick
  • Pieces Together: Workers Waking Up (2010)

    From the August 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard


    "Zhongshan, China – Striking workers at a auto parts plant here are demanding the right to form their own labor union, something officially forbidden in China, and held a protest march Friday morning. Meanwhile, other scattered strikes have begun to ripple into Chinese provinces previously untouched by the labor unrest. A near doubling of wages is the primary goal of the approximately 1,700 Honda workers on strike here in this southeastern China city, at the third Honda auto parts factory to face a work stoppage in the last two weeks." (New York Times, 10 June)


    "Northern Ireland's born-again Christian culture minister has called on the Ulster Museum to put on exhibits reflecting the view that the world was made by God only several thousand years ago. Nelson McCausland, who believes that Ulster Protestants are one of the lost tribes of Israel, has written to the museum's board of trustees urging them to reflect creationist and intelligent design theories of the universe's origins. The Democratic Unionist minister said the inclusion of anti-Darwinian theories in the museum was ‘a human rights issue’. McCausland defended a letter he wrote to the trustees calling for anti-evolution exhibitions at the museum. He claimed that around one third of Northern Ireland's population believed either in intelligent design or the creationist view that the universe was created about 6,000 years ago." (Guardian, 26 May)


    "Russia has exported $5.3 billion worth of weapons-related production in the first six months of 2010, the head of the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation (FSMTC) said on Wednesday. ‘With a plan for $9.5 billion, we have delivered $5.3 billion in [weapons-related] production in the first six months [of 2010], which constitutes 56% of the plan,’ Mikhail Dmitriyev told the Engineering Technologies International Forum 2010 in the town of Zhukovsky near Moscow. In 2009, the figure was $8.5 billion." (Ria Novosti, 30 June)


    "A boy aged seven has been found working 98 hours a week to produce decorative Christmas goods for the British high street. He is employed from 9am to 11pm, seven days a week, earning 7p an hour for his widowed mother. The boy, known only as Ravi, not only works but sleeps in a Delhi sweatshop that produces items for Poundland, the cut-price chain store." (Sunday Times,11 July)

    Sunday, August 22, 2010

    “Common sense raised to genius” (2010)

    Book Review from the August 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Hopes and Prospects. Noam Chomsky, (Hamish Hamilton, 2010)

    Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s most important intellectual figures in both the sciences and the humanities, and one of the ten most quoted writers of all time, ranking with Marx, the Bible and Shakespeare, has admitted that his speeches are very boring. But, he says, that’s the way he likes it. It means that, when people turn up to listen to him, and millions do, they’re doing so because they’re interested in the issues Chomsky is talking about, not in Chomsky himself as some kind of intellectual celebrity.

    And seeing as many of Chomsky’s books are collections of his previous speeches, you might expect his books to be pretty boring too. You’d be right. Reading his books is like trying to sprint through a waist-high river to the opposite bank: it may not look like you’ve got far to go, but it will certainly take you much longer than you think. However, the real question is, is it worth getting to the other side? With Chomsky, the answer is always yes.

    Doug Henwood once said that he set up his (excellent) Left Business Observer newsletter because he was convinced that what was needed was a “better empiricism” – in other words, if socialists could just get the facts out there, politics would sort itself out. He soon realised that things are not quite that simple, but still, “better empiricism” is a necessary if insufficient condition for a socialist education. I can think of no better way of acquiring this “better empiricism” than with a regular and constant diet of Chomsky, no matter how bland it might seem to your taste buds.

    His latest book, Hopes and Prospects, a collection of recent speeches, is much like all his others. But yet again, this is not the criticism it might appear. Chomsky is always the same, yet he’s always armed with the most original details and devastating facts, the latest scholarly research and reports, and a common-sense analysis that leaves you thinking that you could have done it all yourself. Indeed, it’s Chomsky’s firm belief that you could have done. His analysis is, as an introductory guide to him once put it, common sense elevated to genius.

    Again like his other books, Hopes and Prospects is supposed to hang together on a theme: in this case, American foreign policy and popular struggles in Latin America. But in fact, the essays range effortlessly, perhaps even eccentrically, over the whole world, ranging from the dawn of human history to current affairs, from what was in The New York Times last month to the history of economic thought, from the Nuremberg trials to those who today commit Nazi-style crimes and yet are praised as altruistic idealists by liberal intellectuals. He is a one-man scholarly resource, an always-reliable first port of call for socialists and anti-capitalists who want to back up their arguments with facts.

    The main criticism to level at Chomsky, although he would not see it as a criticism at all, is that he is insufficiently Marxian. He understands, as he puts it in the book, that many of the crimes he documents are “rooted in deeper features of prevailing socioeconomic and political systems”. But he is unconvinced of the power of Marxist theory. Elsewhere, he questions whether it even is a theory (he means he is doubtful that it can serve anything like the same role as theory in the natural sciences). To go into this is beyond the scope of this review, but it means that Chomsky is able to applaud efforts to democratise capitalist commodity production, without having anything much to say about whether it might be necessary to go beyond this if humanity is ever to achieve a truly free society.
    Stuart Watkins

    Saturday, August 21, 2010

    Pathfinders: Meat Into Veg (2010)

    The Pathfinders Column from the August 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Strange how cultural ideas evolve, or don’t. As far back as records go, four thousand years ago in India, people were arguing about vegetarianism versus meat farming. How one should treat animals depended on how one saw them, and this in turn depended on one’s practical experience of them. The pantheist view of them as sentient beings with ‘souls’ clashed directly with the more down-to-earth farmers’ view of them as brainless kebabs on legs. With the rise of monotheism came an anthropocentric view of nature and animals which has persisted ever since. The Christians repudiated the notion that any non-human creature had a ‘soul’, thus suffering was impossible and any treatment was justifiable. Since then the debate has moved from ‘souls’ to ‘intelligence’ but science for all its advances has not really resolved the question how one should regard, and by implication treat, non-human species. If anything it has blurred whatever species distinctions did exist. Chimpanzees make and use tools, parrots can invent word-phrases, dogs can feel a sense of injustice, and rats can get depressed.

    The debate is likely to re-heat. While many parts of today’s developing world are rapidly increasing their meat consumption in aspiration of Western living standards, advanced capitalist countries are coming to just the opposite conclusion. After the success of the pan-European smoking ban, and imminent plans to tax sugar products in an effort to fight obesity, attention is now turning to another key ingredient of the power food and sedentary lifestyle equation responsible for so much pressure on health services.

    As the global meat industry grows, the pressure is mounting. To feed the world’s population on a western meat diet would take 5 planets because it is inherently such an inefficient use of land. It is also reportedly responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, prompting the UN to brand meat production as bad as fossil fuels. Following recommendations from the 2007 Stern report the UN is pushing for a wholesale dietary reduction (‘UN urges global move to meat and dairy-free diet’, Guardian, 2 June). There are already almost ten farm animals for every human alive and the figure is set to double by 2050 while the human population increases by a mere third (See here). Reaction against this blatantly unsustainable growth is surely not an if but a when.

    One indicator of the force of the propaganda campaign now getting started is the tendency of some adherents or opponents to overstate or distort the arguments. Never shy of a controversial cover page, New Scientist clearly felt unable to resist doing so with a recent headline grabber ‘What happens if we all quit meat? Why eating greens won’t save the world’ (17 July). But if readers were hoping for a vindication of the meat lifestyle they were in for a disappointment, because the magazine did nothing of the sort. Instead it provided the same damning statistics that it had done on many other occasions, with the rather paltry proviso that there might be a place for a few scrawny chickens living on kitchen scraps and perhaps a few goats here and there on small fractions of marginal land that could not be used for grain crops.

    But what of this claim that ‘eating greens’ would save the world? Are there vegetarians so self-obsessed that they go around telling everyone that a soya chunk casserole is the road to earthly salvation? Well, it’s possible. Lierre Keith, a dispirited ex-vegan, seems to have been one of them. She describes the disillusion that drove her to become a born-again carnivore and write a book attacking the very ‘earth-saving’ ideas she had apparently subscribed to for 20 years: “... a desperate and all-encompassing longing to set the world right... to save the planet... to feed the hungry...” (introduction to The Vegetarian Myth, 2009). But more fool her for such grandiose illusions in the first place. Meat reduction could be part of the solution, but it’s not the solution, as any veggie with their finger on the pulse would readily admit.

    The Vegetarian Society does argue that meat reduction would reduce carbon emissions, but does not claim that such a lifestyle will ‘feed the hungry’. Just as well, because land freed from meat production would probably not be used for grain production but more likely for biofuels, since engines are owned by people with money while empty bellies are owned by people with no money and who are otherwise known as ‘ineffective demand’. A meat-free diet can’t change this. A capitalist-free diet could.

    What will become of the meat and dairy industry in socialism? At present the socialist case focuses necessarily on the emancipation of the human species from capitalist-induced oppression and suffering, while the ethical question of how we should regard and treat animals remains as one of the iceberg of other issues submerged below the waterline. What is clear to socialists if to nobody else is that humanity’s relationship to nature was never really anthropocentric but in fact ‘oligocentric’. Nature and everything in it including the vast majority of the human species existed for the sole purpose, use and disposition of the few members of the ruling elites. In the view of those elites, we humans were simply clever animals. Once this highly destructive oligocentric principle is overthrown, a new ethical framework will inevitably emerge in relation to resource exploitation. Quite what this will be and whether it will become genuinely anthropocentric or alternatively expand to encompass considerations beyond the species barrier is at present an open question. If socialists expect a large-scale meat industry they will have to face the fact that there is no ‘ethical’ way to do this. The New Scientist article points out that free-range farming is the most inefficient method both in terms of land use and greenhouse gas emissions, and argues that intensive factory farming is the only logical choice.

    No reasonable person today really questions the fact that animals, or at least farmed animals, are capable of fear and pain. Most people do not visit abattoirs nor do they really want to know what goes on in them, yet there is an unspoken knowledge behind the sterile and sanitized supermarket packaging. As the Nobel Prize winning writer Isaac Bashevis Singer put it in The Letter Writer (1968), speaking of factory farming: ‘In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.’ The rise in demand for ‘cruelty-free’ products in Western countries shows that, given the luxury of choice, people prefer not to be responsible for inflicting such suffering.

    At all events, without a global revolution in the way society collectively owns and controls its resources people are never going to get the luxury of choice over this or any other resource question. Unless and until the welfare and humane treatment of humans is first attended to the question of the ethical treatment of animals must remain an issue waiting for its moment. They still shoot people, don’t they?

    Friday, August 20, 2010

    Bottom of the heap (2010)

    Book Review from the August 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Chinese Whispers. Hsiao-Hung Pai (Penguin Books)

    The changes in Chinese capitalism over the last few decades – privatisation, sackings, factories producing for multinational companies – have led to vast numbers of workers moving to the biggest cities in search of work. Many have also felt they had little choice but to try their luck abroad, if only to earn enough to pay for their children’s education. It is these, usually undocumented and ‘illegal’ migrant workers, numbering perhaps 200,000 in the UK, whose story is told in this revealing book.

    Most Chinese workers who move to Britain in search of work borrow money to pay the ‘snakeheads’ who smuggle them here. They also have to pay the gang-masters who find jobs for them (and if they are sacked or leave their jobs, they have to pay again to get another). Pai, a journalist who sometimes went underground as a pretend undocumented worker herself to gather information, shows the kind of work they do and the conditions in which they labour.

    From assembling Samsung microwaves in Hartlepool to chopping up pork in Suffolk, from picking vegetables in Selsey to washing up in London’s Chinatown, they do the hardest and dirtiest jobs, with little if any training and no health and safety instruction. Typical wages may be £3.20 an hour, well below the legal minimum wage and further below what British workers doing similar work might earn. The hours are long, there are no paid holidays, and there may be compulsory and unpaid overtime when more output is wanted. Pai even manages to speak to some of the three thousand or so undocumented Chinese women who work in the sex trade.

    Being undocumented, the workers have no access to health care or the few protections that capitalist laws provide. Nor can they join a trade union. Most speak little English, which further limits their links to anyone who might help them and opens them to even worse exploitation. They are, however, sometimes able to strike up a camaraderie with other migrant workers, such as Ukrainians.

    The British government has occasionally cracked down on illegal workers and those who employ them, but this just makes the workers’ position even more precarious. Policies on asylum seekers and those denied refugee status contribute to the existence of an army of people desperate for any job they can get. British capitalism makes the most of their cheap and flexible labour power, but even that may not be enough to keep the factories here. In 2005 some of the Hartlepool factories relocated to Slovakia for access to even cheaper labour power. And no wonder many Chinese employers in Britain support the Chinese government’s policies which give rise to all these migrant workers.

    Pai’s book gives a vivid picture of those at the very bottom of capitalism’s heap, and also fills in some of the background in terms of the global nature of production and of the sourcing of labour power under capitalism.
    Paul Bennett

    Cooking the Books: Economic soothsaying (2010)

    The Cooking the Books column from the August 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    One bit of window-dressing George Osborne did on taking over as Chancellor was to set up a supposedly independent “Office for Budget Responsibility” (OBR) to calculate by how much the economy can be expected to grow, for the government to take into account when drawing up its budget.

    Economic forecasting is no more reliable than the weather forecast. It is based on assumptions derived from past experiences and only “forecasts” what is likely to happen, not what will happen. Thus, when, on the budget, the OBR forecast that the economy (GDP) will grow by 2.3 percent in 2011 all they are really saying is that it is more likely than not that something like this will happen. Other economic soothsayers are saying that 2.3 percent is over-optimistic. The Business Secretary, Vince Cable, is saying that there is a one in four chance of a double-dip recession (London Times, 9 July), i.e., of the economy shrinking next year. Basically, it’s just guesswork.

    The OBR prediction of growth next year is based on the key assumption that business investment will recover:
    “Business investment is forecast to pick up during 2010, though in the year as a whole by only 1½ per cent. The recovery is maintained in 2011, although it takes until 2013 before investment returns to its pre-recession peak . . . The measures to reform corporation tax, which are estimated to reduce the cost of capital faced by firms by about 3 per cent, should have a positive effect on investment . .. Business investment also strengthens as resources released from the government sector flow into the private sector.”
    They are right to see any growth as arising from a revival of business investment since capital accumulation is what drives the capitalist economy. But that business investment will resume just because government spending is reduced is an ideological assumption; which is shared by the new government (so much for the independence of the OBR). As the London Times (23 June) put it, that the economy will grow next year “derives from Osborne’s belief that public spending has been ‘crowding out private endeavour’ and is a big economic judgment.”

    The theory is that, as taxes on profits are being reduced, capitalist firms will invest more. But it is by no means as simple as that. If businesses judge there is no prospect of making a profit from expanding production they won’t do it. They will simply hoard their extra profits and build up cash mountains. There are plenty of examples of this happening in the past. Japan’s decade of stagnation in the 1990s, for example. You can bring a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.

    Long-term predictions are even less reliable. Even so, the OBR has indulged in this, predicting (and we record the figures for future reference) that in 2012 growth will be 2.8 percent, in 2013 2.9 percent, and 2.7 percent in 2014 and 2015. This is not worth the paper it’s written on. It’s like the Met Office predicting a barbecue summer in two years time. After all, no economic soothsayer predicted in 2004 that in 2009 GDP would fall by 4.9 percent. They didn’t in 2005, or 2006, or 2007, either.

    The fact is that the way the capitalist economy is going to go is unpredictable. Governments can only navigate by sight within it, reacting to what it throws up.

    NHS: short-term prescriptions (2010)

    From the August 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard
    For Tories, liberty means the freedom first and foremost to make money.
    The new Tory government has been quick to establish its credentials in the cause of liberty – first, we had the Free Schools, as opposed to the Tyranny Schools that previously existed, ground under heel by the dark forces of elected councillors. Now, we have the liberation of general practitioner doctors in the NHS, with commissioning of treatment and budgeting being handed to them, rather than the dark forces of professional bureaucracy. It is now to be composed of independent and competing hospitals and services working in an internal market, with the state playing the role of merely being an insurance provider that provides the ultimate source of funds.

    As many critics have been quick to point out, doctors have spent years training in medicine, and not public administration, and so it is more than likely that in fact their liberation from public bureaucracy will take the form of hiring the services of private bureaucracies to run their funds for them. Indeed, the despicable bureaucrats who will be run out of state employment will probably find themselves being re-hired as shiny and virtuous bureaucrats by the private companies that will provide GP consortia with administrative capacities.

    Profitable opportunities
    The amount of economic activity in the NHS is immense, and the opportunity to turn that into profitable activity for private capitalists – especially in straightened economic times – is as alluring as an oasis to a thirsty desert traveller. For Tories, liberty means the freedom first and foremost to make money. They regard economic activity taken on by the state as ‘crowding out’ the private sector, a private sector they think is inevitably more efficient and cost effective than government bureaucracy. Of course, part of that ‘effectiveness’ would require hospitals, etc., to go bankrupt if they don’t manage their budget effectively. It would also mean that different management teams would have to be able to take over weaker organisations. This creates its own chaos and inefficiency; and it may not be possible to fully replicate a market within the NHS, because mergers to achieve economies of scale would simply see a return to one large provider – this time in private rather than state hands, which would be politically difficult.

    The new NHS organisations will try and save money, and that will mostly come from the terms and conditions of their staff – sweating them, as Marx termed it: providing a service at the same or less cost as before overall, but making their profit out of paying their staff less. Outsourcing NHS administration means breaking up the national pay bargaining mechanisms. Each hospital will be an independent employer, free to negotiate its own terms with staff. Some staff will inevitably do very well out of this, and the Tories would see that as ‘rewarding excellence’ – although, in reality, often enough it will mean merely rewarding those who are in a lucky enough market position to bargain up their position. As has been seen with the banking crisis, monetary incentives aren’t sufficient to obtain good management.

    Under trade union law, because they will be separate employers, it will mean that strikes across the sector will be illegal, and union power may be weakened. The example though, of the railways, where nationally solid unions were able to pick off fragmented employers may haunt the nightmares of the new government, and may be part of the reason why there is talk of further restrictions on the right to strike, by setting further conditions – such as requiring a majority of those eligible to vote, rather than simply of those voting, before a strike ballot is valid. Clearly, their love of liberty does not extend to the liberty of workers to organise to defend and advance their bargaining power in the market place.

    We have the examples of other attempts to use this model of the state as a commissioning buyer. The Private Finance Initiative (PFI) was used extensively under Labour to fund public projects, for much the same reason. The problem with this is that it means the state has to behave like a private business person, rather than as a taxing power in the land. It becomes bound by its contracts, and as Private Eye has been pointing out for years, PFI contracts are locked-in spending, which cannot be altered in the same way as directly run activities can be. Providers have penalty clauses or the option of suing should the government try and reduce their payments. This means that the current round of cuts will have to come disproportionately from the directly administered part of the state sector.

    Tax or borrow?
    Those cuts themselves derive from the fact that over the years it has been easier to pay for state spending by borrowing from private capitalists rather than taxing them. Borrowing by the government increases capital’s revenue whereas taxing reduces it overall. The power relation is also different, with interest rates going up if lenders are not happy with a government’s policies providing a powerful tool for disciplining the state. What this means in practice is that far from the division between Labour and Tories being one of public versus private provision, but about different capitalists who gain their revenue via state or private capitalism.

    Those elements of the state, such as health, education, social benefits that represent an insurance function could also be provided by the private sector. Health costs have to be paid for by someone. Unemployment must be paid for somehow. This is demonstrated in the United States, where the Obama administration has created compulsory health insurance (much as in the UK compulsory motor insurance pays for medical costs arising from traffic accidents, which are not covered by general NHS spending). Compulsory insurance is a tax by any other name, except it must be paid to competing private insurers who will ensure they make their profit from it. Of course, once the NHS has been transformed into an internal commissioning market, it would only be a small step for the government to transfer to a US style compulsory insurance scheme, and cut the state’s role down to providing a subsidy for those who cannot afford insurance. The same end result occurs as now, except that the formal ‘liberty’ and ‘responsibility’ of buying insurance care moves from the state to individual. The difference is more ideological than practical, saving that with private insurers there is profit to be made.

    Of course, the NHS has always had a massive private element – staff in certain sectors have been able to accrue large wage packets from the NHS labour market; pharmaceutical companies and other providers have always been paid through the market. Doubtless, though, a huge campaign to ‘Save the NHS’ will emerge, lead by such unions as Unison which remain committed to keeping a large public sector.

    Ultimately, whatever way it works out in the wash, the provision of health and social insurance within capitalism depends on the capacity of the workers as a class to wring payment out of the owners of the world. So long as the wages system exists the fight is on to secure the means of living, no matter how the owners squabble among themselves about how to pay us our due.
    Pik Smeet

    Friday, August 6, 2010

    Greasy Pole: You're Nicked (2010)

    The Greasy Pole column from the August 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Until recently we were required to know him as plain, unthreatening, monosyllabic Nick Clegg – even if his ancestors were aristocrats in Imperial Russia and he was educated at appropriately expensive schools, which may explain his fluency in four foreign languages but not, perhaps, a perceived problem with maths which, when asked by the odious Piers Morgan to enumerate the women he had had sex with, prevented his reply being more exact than “no more than” thirty. But he has moved on, to the point of surviving the unnerving experience of hearing both Gordon Brown and David Cameron declare in public that they “agreed with” him. Now he is Nicholas William Peter “Nick” Clegg MP, PC, Deputy Prime Minister, Lord President of the Council, Minister for Constitutional and Political Reform, with duties extending beyond robotically nodding at David Cameron's back during Prime Minister's questions. Clegg now has the job of finding out what people think about changing the law – abolishing some laws, making others. In this matter, he says, “ is people, not policy-makers, who know best...It is a radically different approach. One based on trust. Because it isn't up to government to tell people how to live their lives”. This will have come as a surprise to a lot of people who are losing their jobs while Clegg's government orders them to run their lives to an intensity of poverty incurred by trying to exist on the dole, or on reduced benefit or pension. But there is more to him than that.

    To begin with there is the matter of Clegg's persistent self-concept as a statesman rare enough to be changing the face of British politics: “What I find especially exciting about this project is that, now we have got the ball rolling, the debate is totally out of government's control”. But like most conceits this was unhelpful and distorting. Closer to reality were the responses to a website provided by the Telegraph:

  • “Start with the prisons! Criminals are invited into luxury, paid for by the tax payer...”
  • “I would dilute Scottish input here in the UK!...”
  • “I would repeal the hunting act, and also criminalise any hunt protest activities that sabotages the hunt...”
  • “...the legislation we want repealed is the European Communities Act 1972...”
  • A more useful suggestion, was: “Hey! Don't you guys trust Cleggie & Co. I voted for them and they've sold out their principles for a handful of government...”

    Crucially, Clegg's “debate” is based on the misconception that laws can be changed by popular demand because they are laid down to protect the safety and well-being of the majority of people. In truth the whole massive, overbearing, legal and judicial system with its intimidating institutions, its uniforms, its wigs and gowns and its impenetrable precedents composed in archaic verbiage, was conceived and developed in order to perpetuate the standing and privileges of the dominant minority class in society. Politically organisations like the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties (and any combinations between them) exist to promote that outrage through their propaganda – their lies, distortions and false promises.

    A Tory Past
    Buried in Clegg's past is his membership, while at Cambridge, of the University Conservative Association. In spite of the written evidence, Clegg has denied all knowledge of this, perhaps through embarrassment after those fervent denunciations of the Tories in the TV election debates. Then there is the fact that among his jobs after leaving university he worked in the private office as a speech-writer for the Vice President of the European Commission – Leon Brittan who, apart from other achievements in an infamous career, assured himself a reputation as a Home Secretary to satisfy the Tories' most passionate advocates of harsh sentencing.

    But by 1998 Clegg had changed his mind – if that is what happened – enough to be a Liberal Democrat candidate for the European Parliament. By 2005, already spoken of as a future party leader, he was informing Brittan that while he fancied Kenneth Clarke in that year's contest for the Conservative leadership – he was “quite a personal fan of Ken” – he had reservations; the Lib Dems should be on their guard against Clarke moving the Tories into traditional Lib Dem territory – “this big bruiser ...somehow muscling in on our territory”. (Now that Clegg and Clarke sit beside each other on the same Front Bench it is fair to ask what Clarke thinks of the Tories being “muscled in on”). And Clegg was once opposed to a formal alliance with the Tories because “...the deeply illiberal bent of the Conservative Party over the last 10 years” had made co-operation between the two parties “genuinely impossible”. But diplomatically keeping his options open, he did not rule out joining a coalition in principle “if a more liberal Tory philosophy emerged”. Was he just being cautious? Or confused? Or cunningly ambitious?

    All these characteristics would have been useful to a political leader trying to defuse the recent crisis over MPs and their expenses; true to form, Clegg played to outbid the others. Shouting at an interviewing TV camera, he threatened to “come down like a ton of bricks” on anyone found to be fiddling the system. Among these brave words there was no mention of the Lib Dem MPs who were exposed as having overclaimed. And Clegg did not promise to bury himself beneath some conveniently loose bricks because of his own claims, which included monthly interest payments of £1,018 on his constituency home mortgage, £2,600 for a new kitchen, £680 for gardening, £760 to repair a path, £2.49 for a cake tin and £1.50 for paper napkins. Neither did he say whether he was talking about himself when he raged that “People will simply just despair that all politicians look either ridiculous at best or corrupt at worst.” Take your pick. And while you are about it you can contribute to Clegg's “consultation” by asking what penalties there are for politicians who are repeatedly and blatantly dishonest. But don't wait for an answer.

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010

    Cooking the Books: The problem with capitalism (2010)

    The Cooking the Books column from the August 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    “The problem with capitalism”, former Canadian Prime Minister (1993-2003) Jean Chrétien told the London Times (29 June), “is the capitalists. They don’t know when to stop. They want more and more.”

    This is an astute observation from someone with considerable experience in running the political affairs of capitalism. Capitalists do behave in this way. They are always aiming to make as much money as they can for their business, and when they’re on a profit-making spree they don’t know when to stop. Which causes problems from time to time, notably crises of overproduction or overspeculation.

    But why is this? Is it because capitalists are just greedy people? Marx offered an alternative explanation: that capitalists are “personifications of capital” and that, as units of capital are driven to expand, this is reflected in their behaviour:
    “The simple circulation of commodities – selling in order to buy – is a means of carrying out a purpose unconnected with circulation, namely, the appropriation of use-values, the satisfaction of wants. The circulation of money as capital is, on the contrary, an end in itself, for the expansion of value takes place only within this constantly renewed movement. The circulation of capital has therefore no limits. As the conscious representative of this movement, the possessor of money becomes a capitalist. His person, or rather his pocket, is the point from which the money starts and to which it returns. The expansion of value, which is the objective basis or mainpring of the circulation M-C-M, becomes his subjective aim, and it is only in so far as the appropriation of ever more and more wealth in the abstract becomes the sole motive of his operations, that he functions as a capitalist, that is, as capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will. Use-values must therefore never be looked upon as the real aim of the capitalist; neither must the profit on any single transaction. The restless never-ending process of profit-making alone is what he aims at.” (Capital, Vol 1, ch 4).
    In other words, capitalists are greedy because they are in charge of units of capital. They can’t help it as capital accumulation is what capitalism is all about. Some internalise this and will be nasty people, especially the “self-made man” variety. But others behave like this only when running their business and outside this are alright.

    Chrétien sees one of the roles of governments as to restrain capitalists from time to time in the best interest of all of them. As he put it, “You live with it, and you regulate them” (extended interview, London Times, 1 July).

    Capitalists and capitalist firms don’t like being regulated and spend huge sums of money lobbying to prevent this. They want a free hand to make profits in any way they can, without restrictions, or “red tape” as they call it. In the 19th century, as Marx pointed out in Capital, they so ruthlessly exploited the workforce by imposing long hours of work, that they risked the reproduction of future workers to make profits for them. The state had to intervene in the general capitalist interest and bring in the Factory Acts to restrain them.

    What sort of society is it where those in charge of production are driven to be greedy and need restraining to stop them causing too much damage to their workers and to the environment?

    Monday, August 2, 2010

    Descent into barbarism? (2010)

    Book Review from the August 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Socialism or Barbarism. From the 'American Century' to the Crossroads. Istvan Meszaros. (Monthly Review Press 2001)

    In the forward to this book it is stated that in 1992 Meszaros expressed his conviction that 'the future of socialism will be decided in the US' and that it – socialism – has to assert itself universally and in a way that embraces all areas or it won't succeed. As the title suggests the emphasis is on his violent antagonism to capitalism, imperialism and globalisation US-style. He denounces the 'free political choice' of multiparty democracy for what it is – an ever-narrowing political consensus, and points to the increasing downward pressure on pay and conditions worldwide which is having negative impact right across the board. The fact that capitalism is failing in all aspects for most citizens worldwide as, for one instance cited, in India and China where capitalism occurs in enclaves with vast 'non-capitalist hinterlands' and in which populations outside the legitimate economy have to find their own ways to make a living.

    Meszaros views the current phase of US imperialism as 'potentially the deadliest phase' because of the self-stated aims of achieving world domination through policies of 100 percent self-interest, imposing arbitrary decisions on the rest of the world whilst accusing others who attempt to do likewise of nationalism. Its willingness to break international laws and enter into war or invasion to protect its own interests is well known. Regarding the structural crisis of capital he details examples of worsening conditions in the US and the UK such as the ever-increasing numbers of children in poverty and the widening gap between the top one percent and the multitude at the bottom.

    In a section on the challenges facing the socialist movement he calls for international solidarity oriented towards the creation of an 'order of substantive equality' – especially in these times of 'extraordinary environmental threat’. Labour cannot share power with capital (that has been proved time and again) which has to be a top-down authoritarian management of business.

    Part II titled 'Marxism, The Capital System and Social Revolution' is an interview for a quarterly Iranian journal in which he gives his version of globalisation as 'total social capital' and 'totality of labour’. The capitalist system logically has to be global to complete itself. Global labour, on the other hand, is forced to fight amongst itself to stay afloat within the system, and so competes instead of confronting capital. Capital's dependence on labour is absolute; however, labour's dependence on capital was created and is surmountable even if the conditions are not currently favourable. The only way to overcome capital and institute an alternative, socialist system is with the 'totality of labour ' as the 'irreconcilable antagonist of capital' through a process of 'profound social transformation’.

    There is a short section in the interview on the hows and whys of a social revolution but overall the emphasis throughout the book is on it being an all-embracing and truly social revolution, with which we can agree. In the few years since the book was published, as general conditions of employment have continued to deteriorate, capitalism has again shown itself to be indifferent to the impacts of its policies. It would seem, however, that, if we were to rely solely or even largely on US labour to be the catalyst then we might be waiting too long and societal breakdown and barbarism may well win out.
    Janet Surman

    Sunday, August 1, 2010

    Editorial: Is unemployment really the problem? (2010)

    Editorial from the August 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Don’t get us wrong. We don’t want to play down the misery of those who have lost their jobs – or the many more who are going to lose their jobs – in the current slump. We know very well what losing your job so often means. Losing your home (well, you thought it was yours!). Even losing your family.

    But think. If not being employed was really the problem, wouldn’t you expect everyone without a job to be in misery? But there are many people who don’t have jobs and yet live well enough. People who don’t need jobs.

    Native people in the Amazon rainforest, for so long as they manage to preserve their old way of life, don’t need jobs. They have access to land, food, wood, medicinal herbs, other resources they need – to their means of life. When the logging and mining companies move in, they lose access. Sure, then they need jobs.

    Most of us in the “developed” countries lost access to the means of life long ago. They no longer belong to us. They were seized by a small minority who claim to own them. These owners allow us access to things we need only in exchange for money. If we can’t pay, they would sooner have things go to waste – sooner leave houses empty, for instance, than shelter the homeless. They allow us access to productive resources only when they hire us to work for them. If we try to get access without their permission, they call us criminals and send their police and jailors to punish us.

    These people – the employers, the owners of the means of life – are unemployed, every one of them. But it doesn’t bother them a bit! They live on the income from their property. They too don’t need jobs.

    So unemployment is a problem only for people who depend on being employed in order to live. That situation of dependence is what we mean by the real problem.

    Some of us try to escape from the situation of dependence by going into business for ourselves. But chances of success are small – even in good times, let alone during a slump. Many don’t seek escape at all but appeal to the government to create more jobs, hoping to go back to slaving away for others.
    We socialists don’t appeal for jobs. We don’t want jobs. That doesn’t mean we’re lazy. We thirst for the opportunity to do useful work as free, equal, and dignified human beings – work to satisfy our needs and the needs of others. We want to be rid of an absurd system that artificially creates misery and wastes vast material, natural, and human resources. That is why we demand restoration of access to the means of life – their common ownership and democratic control by the whole community.