Sunday, September 26, 2010

Pocket Money

Cross-posted from the Socialism Or Your Money Back blog

“TAXMAN WANTS ALL OUR WAGES. We would just get pocket money” screamed the front page headline in the Daily Express (22 September). As the London Times had explained five days earlier:“HM Revenue & Customs is considering plans to deduct tax directly from workers’ pay packets before salaries reach their bank accounts”.

So what’s new? Income tax is already deducted before wages reach worker’s bank accounts, only this is now done by employers not the government. This in fact is one reason why we have said that, as far as income tax on wages and salaries is concerned, workers don’t even pay it. They never see the money. It’s paid by employers.

PAYE (Pay As You Earn) was introduced as part of the war-time Beveridge Plan to “redistribute poverty”, i.e. to try to ensure that the total wages bill was distributed efficiently, from a capitalist point of view, amongst the working class, so that no worker got either too much or not enough to reproduce their working skills taking into account their family circumstances.

Basically, it involved cutting the take-home pay of single workers or workers whose wife worked as they didn’t need to be paid to maintain non-existent dependants. Employers couldn’t be expected to do this themselves as their only concern was the quality of the labour power they purchased, for which they paid the going rate irrespective of the family circumstances of its seller. So it was done through the tax system

The Marxian theory of taxes and the working class is one of the most difficult concepts to get over. Sometimes it’s mistakenly expressed as “the workers don’t pay taxes”. The accurate and scientifically correct way of expressing the concept is that “taxes are not a burden on the working class”.

Even if workers don’t pay the income tax that is deducted from their pay packets before any money reaches their bank accounts”, workers do physically pay other taxes. For instance, workers in employment pay council tax in that they themselves have to pay this either in cash or by a cheque or transfer from their bank account.

Workers also pay indirect taxes such as excise duties on alcohol and tobacco and VAT on the goods and services subject to it. These, insofar as they increase prices, increase the cost of living and so the cost of reproducing labour power. This is passed on to employers as higher than otherwise money wages. It is in this sense that taxes on wages and on goods and services workers consume are ultimately a burden on employers.

We’re talking here about average expenditure. Only taxes included in expenditure on goods that enter into the general average cost of living are passed on to employers, not all the indirect taxes that an individual worker might pay. Just because a worker spends more than average on alcohol and cigarettes does not mean that economic forces will lead to their employer paying them a higher wage or salary.

So, yes, individual workers can be affected, adversely or favourably depending on their spending habits, by changes in the taxes they pay. Naturally those who end up worse off will complain, but this is not a class issue as an issue that concerns workers as a whole.

Whether income tax is deducted by employers or by the government is certainly of no concern to workers. What’s relevant is not the gross pre-tax figure that appears on their pay slip, but their take-home pay as that’s what they have to spend on reproducing their working skills. “Pocket money” is rather an apt description of this but surprising coming from a rag like the Daily Express.

Adam Buick

Friday, September 24, 2010

SPGB London Day School: 'Can You Buy Happiness?'

Day School

Saturday, 25th September from 12.00 noon

Socialist Party premises,

52 Clapham High St, SW4 7UN

(nearest tube:Clapham North)

Happy Shopper

Ed Blewitt (Clinical Psychologist) will look how our understanding of happiness is closely related to consumerism. Ed’s talk on the ‘Happy shopper’ is taking a look at how the happiness industry developed in the 19th century in the form of the good life through to its modern guise of an ‘individual feeling’. This shift in the social perspective is compatible with the capitalist notion of an atomistic individual separated from society where the search for happiness is the individual’s goal in life.

Manhattan for a handful of beads

Peter Rigg (Analytical Psycho-therapist) He's titled his talk 'Manhattan for a handful of beads’ in a systematic approach which argues and illustrates how we’ve been sold consumerism in the form of cars, mobile phones, holidays, etc., in exchange for true democracy. Peter will be drawing a parallel between infantile functioning and consumer culture and between psychological maturity and democracy, besides touching on the illusion of being a sovereign consumer. In short, Peter will be putting consumerism on the couch!

The consumption of capitalism

Brian Johnson (retired Disability Counsellor) We’ve all heard the phrase, ‘Keeping up with Jones’ but rarely established how such phrases have impacted on the social relationships within the family and wider society. Brian will investigate the social drives that set consumerism in motion with a thorough analysis on how consumerism affects all classes. His talk on ‘The
consumption of capitalism’
delves into how consumerism is having an effect on our expectations and aspirations, lifestyles, perceptions of reality and much more.

Refreshments will be available during the talks. There will be a social in the evening with some light musical entertainment by Peter Rigg along with food and drink. All in all this half day school promises to be an event full of insight; engaging and entertaining.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

China’s working class drives capitalist development (2010)

From the September 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard
The heroic and inspiring struggles of China’s working class will only lay the ground for new and improved exploitation methods – unless, that is, the struggle turns political – and socialist.
“I do the same thing every day,” said one employee at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, where more than ten workers have committed suicide. “I have no future.” Many, perhaps most, workers will know exactly how he feels. But to the bourgeois mind, it’s all an impenetrable puzzle. There was something criminally stupid and sickeningly idiotic about the reaction to the suicides of Terry Gou, the billionaire founder and chairman of the company, which makes electronic parts for the likes of Apple and Dell. According to a report in Bloomberg Businessweek (7 June), Gou said that he had no idea why the suicides were happening. “From a logical, scientific standpoint, I don’t have a grasp on that,” said Gou. “No matter how you force me, I don’t know.” Another worker interviewed at the factory might have given the hapless Gou a few clues: conversation and human interaction on the production line is forbidden, bathroom breaks are kept to ten minutes every two hours, and workers are yelled at frequently and fined for breaking the rules. According to a report in the Daily Telegraph (27 May), the pace of work in China is so intense that 50,000 workers a month burn out. When the workers go home at night, their hands continue to twitch and mimic the motion of the production line. Overtime last year was an average of 120 hours per month per worker, bringing their weekly hours up to 70. And yet Gou continues to apply his mind in vain to the intricacies of science and logic in search of an answer to the mystery of the suicides. While the search goes on, the company installed netting around outdoor stairwells of dormitory buildings to prevent people from jumping. It’s nice to hear that they care so much. The desperate measures taken by the poor souls at Foxconn have succeeded, however, in making things slightly better for the workers they left behind. Foxconn has since boosted wage levels by 30 percent and promised further 66 percent rises from October – conditional, of course, on worker performance.

A slightly happier story of worker revolt comes from the Denso car parts plant in China’s southern province of Guandong. A 21-year-old worker, who had never been on strike before, told the Observer’s Jonathan Watts (4 July) that she was worried, yet excited and determined when the action began. “We started our shift at the normal time, but instead of working we just walked around and around the workshop for eight hours. The managers asked us to return to our jobs, but nobody did.” The next day this was repeated, the corporate union begging the workers to return to work. Again they refused. There was no chanting, no speeches, no violence. Nervous of a crackdown from the ruling ‘Communist’ Party, the workers have acted very cleverly. Nobody is named as a leader or organiser, leaflets are used to make demands instead of computers or mobile phones, which can be traced to individuals, and, on the day of the strike, the frustrated management had to push for the official union to organise a vote so that there was someone to negotiate with. But a quiet and dignified determination not to work until the demands for improved pay were met won the day.

This struggle, and many more like them, along with a fall in the numbers in the reserve army of labour, have improved the bargaining position of workers in China, and wage levels are now predicted to be on an unstoppable upward trend. The “spate of strikes has thrown a spanner into the workshop of the world,” says The Economist. There are lessons here for all workers, and other groups in southeast Asia and the rest of China have not been slow to learn them. If the factory down the road or just across the border has won 50-odd percent or more pay rises, and improved conditions, why not us? Labour disputes in China were 30 percent higher in 2009 than a year earlier, and Guangdong alone saw at least 36 strikes between 25 May and 12 July, according to the Economist. Several cities have raised the minimum wage by up to 20 percent. Chinese labour costs have tripled in the decade after 1995 (although this was offset, for the capitalists, by a fivefold increase in productivity). And the example is beginning to spread, not only throughout China, but throughout the rest of the southeast Asian region too, especially in Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos – regions with reserves of cheap labour, and which capitalists have been eyeing up, along with inland areas in China, as possible alternative locations for their businesses if the Chinese workers get too ‘bolshy’.

But, interestingly, this is not generally seen in the bourgeois press, including the papers so far quoted, as a bad thing. This might surprise those who are used to seeing wage demands and union organising closer to home ritually denounced as silly, greedy, selfish, and so on. This is the standard liberal line of being against all wars, and in favour of all progressive movements for change, as long as they took place in the past, or are happening in another country. But there are also sound, pro-capitalist reasons for welcoming the strikes and the pay rises. The capitalists and their representatives in the press will probably have been led to these reasons more by their practical involvement in the world and their nose for profit than any deep understanding of theory. But for those of us familiar with Marxian theory, their pronouncements were entirely predictable. Look at the history of China through Marxian lenses, and the motivation behind Western capitalists’ cautious welcoming of Chinese wage struggles will become clear.

China’s textbook development
The standard view portrayed in the capitalist media is that, once upon a time, China experimented with communism. When it realised what a ghastly mistake that was, the country came to its senses and converted, at least partially, to the standard, Western, free-market system – the only system that works, as all right-thinking people know as a matter of common sense. So much for the fairy tale. The truth is somewhat different. In fact, the story of China is pretty textbook – if the ‘textbook’ we take is Karl Marx’s Capital.

Looking at China today is very much like looking back in time. The capitalism currently flourishing there is pretty much indistinguishable from the capitalism of Victorian England that Marx and Engels spent so much of their lives analysing. The historian Tristram Hunt, in his entertaining biography of Engels, compares a passage from Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England, written in 1844, with the testimony of a Chinese migrant worker in Shenzhen in 2000. They are indistinguishable from each other, and the story is the same as in the relevant sections of Marx’s Capital: 12-hour days, overtime with shifts sometimes going on for 40 hours at rush times, ‘accidents’ and loss of limbs due to the pace of work and inadequate provision for human need, no breaks for meals, low wages, the exhaustion and crippling of the human body as a sacrifice to the altar of profit-making. How did China get to this depressing state of affairs? And where is it heading in the near future? Well, let’s turn to the textbook. In abstract, Marxian terms, the recent history of China’s development goes something like this.

China’s period of state-led primitive accumulation and capitalist industrial development began under Mao (a period falsely called ‘communism’ in mainstream accounts, but differing in particulars, not in substance, from what has happened historically in all the advanced capitalist nations). This development was, in capitalist if not human terms, an enormous success. However, like all capitalist development, sooner or later it ran into barriers to its further expansion. It needed, in particular, to increase labour productivity, reform and improve the productivity of agriculture, and attract foreign capital. Reforms under Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, culminating in the massacre at Tiananmen Square, aimed to move the state-capitalist economy to a more market-based system, while at the same time destroying many of the working class’s (and peasantry’s) customary entitlements to the means of living (the destruction of the Chinese working class’s moral economy, perhaps we could call this, following the process described in EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class). This created a free labour force – free in the double sense of free to choose an employer, and free from the ownership of, or any entitlements to, the means of production or living, and hence free to starve or live in grinding poverty if you choose not to enter the labour market on capital’s terms. Further reforms in the 1990s then sought to integrate Chinese capitalism into the world market, opening China, and particularly its vast reserves of cheap labour-power, to exploitation by foreign capital.

With the creation of and access to the this free working class, global capital could then embark in earnest on the strategy of extracting ‘absolute surplus value’ – this means, in the absence of any customary or legal or moral limits to the working day, the capitalist class sweats the working class to produce as much profit as possible. The workers are made to work more and more for less and less. This was successful in China for a while – and was indeed hailed as an economic miracle by Western apologists for slavery. And a miracle it was – not only were there bumper profits to be made for the owners of capital, but the influx of cheap goods into Western economies helped to keep a lid on the value of labour power, and hence Western wage demands.

But again, the limitless drive to accumulate capital always hits up against real-world limits in the end. In the case of the extraction of absolute surplus value, the limits are real and obvious enough. There are only so many workers on the labour market, and those that are working can only work so many hours in the day without collapsing or dying. Capital, dead labour, can live vampire-like only by sucking the blood of the living. By sucking the workers dry, it destroys the basis of its own life – yet still it can’t help itself. Even if it wanted to, or began to feel moral pangs about its own behaviour, the external force of competition drives it on regardless. Enter into this picture, then, the working class itself. Unless these human beings are to meekly put up with being crippled and tortured for ever, with being beaten down into a position worse than that of slaves, worse than that of the most maltreated beast of burden, then working-class resistance is inevitable. The working class itself, then, begins to demand a limit to its own exploitation – a shortening of the working day, an increase in wages, an improvement in working conditions, and so on. Although this will, in the short term, eat into the profits of capital, and hence be bitterly resisted, in the long term, this is in the interests not just of the workers, but of the sustainability of capitalist development itself.

In fact, more than that, it drives capitalist development forward. As working-class gains are generalised, the capitalist again opens up an offensive, this time not in the direction of open, naked, unashamed, brutal exploitation, but with the more subtle and veiled technique of ‘relative surplus value’ extraction. This means that, with wages rising and profits slipping, it becomes economic for the capitalists to invest more in machinery and technology. This enables them to extract more profits not from sweating, but from improved productivity – producing more stuff in less time with fewer workers. Technological development, then, hailed by the capitalists as the fruit of their own genius, is driven by the struggles of the working class. And what should be an advance and a benefit for humanity and a cause for celebration becomes little more than a tawdry counter-attack in the class war. And the working class’s own heroic and inspiring efforts to carve out a life worth living merely lays the ground for their future, more sophisticated, exploitation.

And that’s why capitalists, even those who haven’t read their Marx, can come to welcome the demand for higher wages.

Disastrous consequences
What the mainstream press misses or downplays is the potentially disastrous consequences of this development for humanity. The first is that, as well as exhausting the worker, the development of capitalism also threatens to destroy the environment. China is facing a serious environmental crisis, including pollution and the exhaustion of its soil, which are a threat to itself, but also the emission of evermore greenhouse gases, which is a threat to us all. Rising wages also give rise to a consumer market, which in turns drives further capital accumulation, urbanisation, and pointless and wasteful and environmentally damaging consumerism. There is also the prospect of another devastating world war. This is pointed out in a very good and prescient series of articles in issues 14 and 16 of the libertarian Marxist journal Aufheben (see here). As the development of an internal consumer market and urbanisation proceed, a possible outcome is that China will move from its current position as a mere workshop at the service of global capital accumulation, to a centre of accumulation in its own right, and hence a competitor to the United States and Europe. This would of course mean that Chinese capital would develop needs and interests of its own, which in turn could easily lead to inter-imperialist conflicts over oil and other raw materials. Indeed, some argue that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were pre-emptive moves on the part of the US to win strategic control over such things from China from the start.

There is an alternative, of course, to such doomsday scenarios, and it’s one that the ruling elites are very well aware of, in China as elsewhere. This is how The Economist put it:
“As students of Karl Marx and of history, China’s party leaders will know that labour movements can begin with economic grievances and end in political revolt. By concentrating people in one place, Marx argued, factories turn a crowd of strangers into a ‘class’: conscious of its interests, united with each other and against the boss.”
And a working class organised politically could take the initiative out of capital’s hands and develop instead in a socialist direction. The Economist doesn’t mention such a possibility and probably wouldn’t take the prospect that seriously anyway. Perhaps it will be proved right to do so. But it’s where socialists place their hopes nonetheless. As a 20-year-old strike leader at a Honda plant in Foshan, Li Xiaojuan, quoted in the Guardian (30 June), says, "we must not let the representatives of capital divide us”. Workers in this country could do worse than follow developments in China very closely, and imitate their very fine example. The struggles must, however, turn not only political but socialist if our efforts are to do more than merely lay the ground for a new round of capitalist exploitation – or worse.
Stuart Watkins

Socialist Meeting in London: Hunter, Fisherman, Shepherd and Critic

One for your diary:

And the accompanying blurb:

Hunter, Fisherman, Shepherd, Critic: Karl Marx's Vision of the Free Individual

A lot of nonsense is talked about Karl Marx, most of it from people who have never read him.

Many consider his work to be discredited by the dictatorial regimes that were set up in his name. But what did Karl Marx actually have to say?

Was he in favour of dictatorship? Did he think that the state should impose dull uniformity, rigid regimentation and boring work on its citizens? Did he think that human nature and talents should be suppressed in the name of equality and altruism and for the benefit of a collectivity?

No. In fact, Karl Marx's driving passion his whole life was the free development of the individual. Karl Marx was not opposed to the capitalist ideas of choice, liberty and individual freedom. He supported the ideas, but opposed the society that prevented them becoming a reality.

He wanted to be able "to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic".

In this talk, we will consider whether Karl Marx's vision of the free individual is just an idle dream, or something that could actually be achieved. And if so, how?

Speaker: Stuart Watkins

All welcome.

Free entry. Free discussion. Free refreshments.

I'm sure it will be an excellent talk. The speaker at the meeting is an excellent writer for both the Socialist Standard, and his personal blog, Big Chief Tablets.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Material World: Fascists Take Over Russian Communist Party (2010)

The Material World Column from the September 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

In a Russian-language document now circulating on the internet, Yevgeny Volobuyev, a member of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) in St. Petersburg, “sounds the tocsin to warn of the danger of the CPRF finally turning into a fascist party”.

Volobuyev explains that Russian fascists have been arguing for a long time on their websites about “what to do with the CPRF”. Some said that they should just put communists “up against the wall”, but others argued that they should first join the CPRF and take over its structures. In recent years, with openly fascist organizations like Russian National Unity fragmenting and losing legal status, “fascists and people inclined toward fascism streamed into the CPRF”. There they found many party leaders “demoralised by the collapse of the Soviet Union” and sympathetic to their cause. With the help of these leaders, they “were able to create an unofficial fascist faction inside the CPRF” (officially the party does not allow factions). They also managed to gain control of the party’s internet sites.

The infiltrators would have been less successful had the ground not been so well prepared for them. Ever since the CPRF was founded in 1993, it has been dominated by the Russian nationalist (“patriotic”) tendency led by Gennady Zyuganov. Until now, however, the party also had a place for people who still call themselves “internationalists” and “Marxist-Leninists”. (For an analysis of tendencies within the CPRF, see Chapter 3 of Stephen D. Shenfield, Russian Fascism, NY: M.E. Sharpe 2001.)

Mass expulsions
That is now changing. The fascist faction, acting through its allies in the party leadership, is carrying out individual and mass expulsions with a view to purging the CPRF of all opponents of Russian nationalism: “The party organizations of entire regions are being destroyed.” Some local branches, such as the one to which Volobuyev belongs, have been targeted simply because of their multiethnic composition. “The situation has descended to the point of measuring skulls.” Only people of pure Russian descent are wanted.

The “internationalists” are accused of refusing to participate in the “national liberation struggle” against Jews and other ethnic minorities branded as enemies of the Russian nation. Many party members are also accused of “neo-Trotskyism” – on the face of it an absurd accusation, as Volobuyev remarks, because with hardly any exceptions they have never read Trotsky and have no idea what Trotskyism is, let alone neo-Trotskyism. But the Russian nationalists know that Trotsky was the most prominent opponent of Stalin, whom they count as one of their own. And they know that Trotsky was a Jew.

“Communist” oligarchs
The nationalists and fascists in the CPRF are allied with various party figures – all of ethnic Russian origin, of course – who are also big businessmen (“oligarchs” in current Russian parlance). One such figure is Alexander Afanasyev, owner of a chain of pharmacies. According to Volobuyev, the motive underlying the destruction of 22 of St. Petersburg’s 29 district party organizations was to clear a space on the CPRF list of candidates for Afanasyev to get a seat in the State Duma (parliament).
Another “communist” oligarch is the CPRF functionary and insurance and vodka tycoon Sergei Shtogrin, currently deputy chairman of the Duma Committee on Budgetary and Tax Issues. Shtogrin has argued in favour of encouraging greater alcohol consumption as a way of increasing state revenues.

The Leninist organizational model
Most of the fascists’ victims do not understand what is happening. They believe that a “mistake” has been made and that “if they appeal to Zyuganov and the Central Committee truth will triumph”. As “disciplined and law-abiding communists”, they are reluctant to consolidate their forces by creating an “internationalist” or “Marxist-Leninist” faction, because that would break party rules.

This sense of “discipline” reflects the basically undemocratic structure of the CPRF, which remains wedded to the Leninist organizational model of “democratic centralism”. It is clear from Volobuyev’s account that ordinary members and even branch organizers still look to remote leaders for guidance and initiative. They take pride in the awards they receive from the leaders and are chastened by their reprimands – just like in the good old days of the “Soviet” regime.

The undemocratic structure of the party facilitates the fascist takeover in other ways too. There is weak democratic oversight of the process of admitting new members, so there is no effective barrier to the infiltration of people whose real views are incompatible with party principles. Arbitrary decisions can be made "from above" to expel members and whole branches without adequate explanation.

What next?
Assuming that no effective moves are made to block the fascist takeover of the CPRF, what are the likely consequences for Russian politics? The CPRF will lose many of its local activists and depend increasingly on funding from oligarchs. It may end up with little to distinguish it from Zhirinovsky’s Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia, competing with the LDPR for the same extreme Russian nationalist electorate.

Some new organizations may be formed by “internationalists” expelled from the CPRF. These people do not share the same views except on the admittedly important issue of nationalism. Some would like to restore some version of the “Soviet” system. Others think in terms of reforming private capitalism or envisage some kind of “market socialism”. Perhaps at least a few will be prompted by their experience in the CPRF to move toward a more democratic mode of organization and conception of socialism.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Cooking the Books: Overproduction or underconsumption? (2010)

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

“Is Marx’s analysis of capitalism still valid today?” asked Jonny Ball in the anarchist paper Freedom (19 June). While trying to be generally sympathetic to Marx, he didn’t always get it right. According to him:
“Crises are not so much of a problem of overproduction, as this in itself is not a problem if people have the purchasing power to buy back what they produce, but the trigger in any recession is in fact, underconsumption.”
To back this up he quotes “the Marxist writer George Jackson” who wrote about production before 1929 increasing “without a corresponding increase in the ability of the great labouring masses to buy back what was being produced” and that therefore “it was underconsumption (not overproduction)” that led to stock market crash of 1929.

Overproduction occurs when too much of some good has been produced in relation to the market demand for it (not the same as the real need for it). It can affect any type of good – raw materials, steel, ships, consumer goods, anything.

Underconsumption has been defined in various ways but all have in common the view that consumer (paying) demand is too low.

Cruder versions of underconsumption argue that, because workers cannot buy back all they produce, a chronic shortage of purchasing power is built-in to capitalism requiring, for instance, exports to bridge the gap. It is true that workers cannot buy back all they produce but total paying demand is not made up just of what workers buy; it also includes what capitalist firms buy (raw materials, buildings and equipment, finished and semi-finished products).

More subtle versions argue that because the share of consumer demand in total demand is too low this prevents sustained, balanced growth. On this theory a crisis is precipitated when the production of consumer goods increases faster than consumer demand, which is mainly that of wage and salary workers.

A crisis can be triggered by such an overproduction of consumer goods, and a case can be made out for this being a factor in 1929, but this is not the only way a crisis can be triggered. Overproduction in any sufficiently important sector of the economy can do this. This is why it can be said that overproduction (not underconsumption) is the cause of crises, as the anarchic, competitive struggle for profits leads to the total production of capitalist firms in a particular sector coming to exceed the paying demand for its products and this having a knock-on effect throughout the economy.

It is not clear what Ball means when he says that overproduction “in itself is not a problem if people have the purchasing power to buy back what they produce”. If this is the case then there is no overproduction. Maybe he means overproduction in relation to needs rather than to paying demand, but this is not the sense that “overproduction” is usually used in economics.

But who is this “Marxist writer” George Jackson? Yes, it is George Jackson, the Black Panther and Soledad Brother, who was murdered in prison in 1971 at the age of 29. He spent his time in prison reading up on things and did become reasonably well-informed, but he would not have regarded himself as an authority on Marxian economics.

In any event, his “Marxism” was the so-called “Marxism-Leninism” of Mao Tse Tung. Not quite the same thing. Despite this, he did argue cogently for a moneyless society:
"Consider the people's store, after full automation, the implementation of the theory of economic advantage. You dig, no waste makers, no harnesses on production. There is no intermediary, no money. The store, it stocks everything that the body or home could possibly use. Why won't the people hoard, how is an operation like that possible, how could the storing place keep its stores if its stock (merchandise) is free? Men hoard against want, need, don't they? Aren’t they taught that tomorrow holds terror, pile up a surplus against this terror, be greedy and possessive if you want to succeed in this insecure world? Nuts hidden away for tomorrow's winter. Change the environment, educate the man, he'll change. The people's store will work as long as people know that it will be there, and have in abundance the things they need and want (really want); when they are positive that the common effort has and will always produce an abundance, they won’t bother to take home more than they need. Water is free, do people drink more than they need?" (Soledad Brother, Letter of 17 June 1970).

Greasy Pole: Home Sweet (?) Home (2010)

From the September 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

David Cameron and his Coalition Gang are working tirelessly to introduce the novelty of a more balanced economy, fortified against any repeat of the so-called Credit Crunch, the collapse of the banks, the calamitous recession. Their proposed method is anything but novel – cutting spending so as to reduce what are known as services, lowering our living standards, enforcing a larger element of austerity into our daily lives. That is also true of the terminology – punitively flavoured – which they call into use to excuse their policies. How often in the past have we heard of the need to “tighten our belts”? Of unavoidably therapeutic “tough decisions” which have to be taken? The assurance that “we are all in this together”? The concept of mendacious, self-promoting ministers proposing to take their belt in a few notches is risible enough to lighten an hour or so at the Job Centre. From experience we know that “tough decisions” are not something we participate in; they are imposed on us to teach us to mend our ways. And are we supposed to be ”all in it together” with a government crowded with millionaire wealthy products of the public schools? Like Eton?

A provocative, newsworthy addition to the groups whose profligacy has landed the country into its present desperate state – like the inveterate unemployed, the chronically disabled, the pensioners – has recently been unearthed by David Cameron – the long term council tenant. “There ls, “ he recently told a Birmingham audience “A question mark about whether, in future, we should be asking when you are given a council home, is it for a fixed period? Because maybe in five or ten years you will be doing a different job and be better paid and you won't need that home, you will be able to go into the private sector”. This was more than just random speculation: a consultation paper suggests that councils should keep an eye on their tenants so that, if they are observed to be rattling around in some three bedded mansion when strictly speaking they could manage on just two, or living it up with expensive holidays abroad on an income to compare with some of Cameron's friends in banking they can be made to “downsize” – in other words kicked out. Presumably it will be overlooked that to restrict council housing according to a tenant's income would dissuade unemployed, or low-paid, people from trying for a better situation – which could mean council estates sinking into concentrations of workless poverty with all that means in terms of alienation, crime, sickness. This would serve to justify the prejudices about council estates, about the behaviour of those who live there and the conditions they create for themselves – which Cameron was appealing to.

Among the expected minor tsunami of response there was one supporting both Cameron and his implied threat to the stereotypically pampered but ungrateful council tenant: “I grew up on a council estate just after the war and it was not a bed of roses”. Indeed. One such estate in west London can be as bustling at the middle of a week day as a town centre – because there are so many workless residents there, out on the drab streets rather than going quietly mad inside their tower block. It was in fact from the balcony of one such block that a TV set was once vengefully aimed at an unpopular fellow resident taking the air below. During bad weather it was not sensible to visit one tower at another estate a few miles away. The lifts were likely to be out of order and the stair well made perilous by the rain or snow driven through the holes hammered by the residents in the surrounding concrete walls. But these were tragic chapters in what might once have been presented as a happy fiction – a romance – of the human benefits of well built, comfortable, secure social housing.

Fit For Heroes
The whole massive and expensive question – clearing slums as well as the provision of stable and affordable homes- was among the preoccupations of politicians for much of the 20th century. At times it was a crucial factor in determining the standing of the minister concerned – as in the case of Harold MacMillan and his promise to arrange the building of 200,000 council houses a year. In the late 19th century, in recognition of the profitability benefits of a safely accommodated work force, the principle responsibility for housing was placed with local authorities so that social housing became in effect homes which were built, owned, managed and allocated by the council. Several measures, such as the Addison Act of 1919 which purported to provide the promised Homes Fit For Heroes after the First World War, were designed to ensure the smooth running of the system. But there were some unforeseen problems, among them the reluctance of tenants to be dragged from communities which, however rancid, had the merit of neighbourly cohesion and support, to be dumped in some blandly frigid new development a long way off. And in any case the slums persisted; by the outbreak of the 1939/45 war there were some 470,000 of them, bad enough to be knocked down.

It can be assumed that the council's living-space police implied by Cameron's scheme will be selective about those they spy on. Cameron himself, for example, will be exempt from their attentions in spite of his possessing two large homes, one in a trendily costly part of London and the other in Oxfordshire with wisteria which has to be trimmed - naturally paid for by his expenses. Between them he and his wife have a fortune of some £30 million. Chancellor George Osborne (whose first name is actually Gideon - he changed it because "life was easier" as a result) is heir to a fortune arising from the family wallpaper firm and a huge property portfolio. He spent his early life in a £3 million mansion in Berkshire with a swimming pool, tennis court and gamekeeper. These two, and their associates, have no concept of what it means to live under poverty - of struggling in unsavoury, cramped homes, of the fear of being homeless through ill health, unemployment or eviction. The most effective way of informing them of these realities would be to evict the very system which shelters them.

Communist Camp (2010)

From the August 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

What happens when you swap your wage-slavery for a rucksack? You get communism. That, at least, was the argument of Aditya Chakrabortty in a column for the Guardian (13 July), drawing on the arguments of the late Marxist philosopher GA Cohen. Camping and caravan trips last year were up 27 percent on the previous year and sales of tents and other equipment continue to climb, as workers cut back on holiday spending due to the recession, according to a report in the same newspaper. But camping, says Chakrabortty, is not just a bit of fun (or a horrific trial comparable to fleeing a war zone with your belongings strapped to your back, depending on taste): it’s also a “socio-political experiment” demonstrating the feasibility of communism.

How so? Well, on a camping trip, “adult hierarchy is flattened, utensils and resources are pooled. Tasks are performed as a unit: you may lay on the food, but your friend is a better cook, and her boyfriend will clean the dishes. There is no question of people being paid differently for different tasks. Nor [can you claim a] ‘banjo bonus’ for providing a highly-valued service enjoyed by less-talented souls.” And the objections to this communist picture? What if someone on your camping trip demands more room in the tent than everyone else? Or a greater share of the food? Or dominates the decision-making about what to do? In real, everyday life, we would just say, “For heaven’s sake, don’t be such a schmuck”. But in political discourse, especially in the wilderness of the camp of public opinion, where passions run as high as the bog roll is scarce, and the odd real insight blows by unremarked like tumbleweed, such objections are taken to be the stuff of profound criticism. Chakrabortty will have discovered this for himself if he ever went to read the comments section on his article when it was posted on the Guardian website (See here). To be fair, although the noise of the screeching in the chimp enclosure was at levels you’d expect from internet discussion forums, all the important issues were also raised, and the comments reflected genuine concerns about the socialist project – concerns that very rarely get a hearing in Camp Public Opinion.

The chief objection was that, as far as Guardian readers could see, there was very little resemblance between a camping trip and a labour camp in Siberia (or alternatively a very great resemblance, again depending on taste). In other words, ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ are still associated in the public mind with the state-capitalist tyrannies of the former Soviet Union and China and so on. These arguments are very frustrating to socialists, but actually they make a fair point. To the vast majority of people, the words ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’ refer to realities that they are quite right to reject – indeed, to regimes and practices that genuine socialists have always rejected on principle. That’s why we in the Socialist Party are always careful to explain exactly what we mean by socialism (or communism, by which is meant the same thing): a moneyless, stateless, classless society, where the means of producing and distributing wealth are held in common and controlled democratically by the whole community. This is a different proposition to state ownership. State ownership and control of capitalist industry is just that – an inevitable and necessary aspect of the normal functioning of capitalist society, resorted to as freely by ‘free market’ ideologues as ‘communist’ demagogues. Socialism, on the other hand, is a total change in human relationships; the realisation of the liberal dream of democracy. It means democracy everywhere, from the home to the workplace to the global administration of production, not just the right to choose different management teams every five years.

A related objection is that communism only ever comes about if forced on a country against the will of its people. Again, this is an idea that it is quite right to reject, and the exact opposite of the truth: genuine communism is impossible unless a majority of the population consciously chooses it and expresses its choice democratically, at the ballot box; and not just in one country, but globally.

Another predictable objection, given the example Chakrabortty chose, was that people like living in the modern world and do not want to give up their homes or their hard-won comforts to live in a field or wash in a bucket. Again, the hecklers have a point. Living in a mud hut may appeal to a small handful of romantics, but socialism is all about building on what capitalism has bequeathed us, not razing it all to the ground and heading back to the trees. It will often be conceded that communism is possible among small groups – it can hardly be denied now thanks to the popularisation of anthropology on some very good television programmes, such as Bruce Parry’s Tribe on the BBC – but the idea that it can also take place on a larger scale is dismissed as obvious rubbish. This is false on both levels – hunter-gatherer egalitarianism could be and was organised with millions of people and over vast continents; and if there’s a reason why a postal system, or an airline, or a world-wide industrial system, couldn’t be organised on similar principles, then it has yet to be demonstrated exactly why not.

Of course, Chakrabortty’s specific arguments about camping shouldn’t be taken too seriously. As he says later in the same article, “it's not as if camping is the only situation where the normal rules of pay-as-you-go market exchange are suspended”. He cites the example of libraries and blood donation, but the examples could be massively extended. As Marx pointed out, even within a capitalist factory or workplace the basic organizational principle is still largely communist internally: if someone wants to use your stapler, you hand it over, you don’t charge by the hour. Within the family, too, the principle “from each according to ability, to each according to need” applies: parents do not generally need to put padlocks on the fridge door. Indeed, as Marx shows in Capital, capitalism is actually parasitic on this form of communism – it takes the natural gains of human cooperation and nature as a free gift, then pours them into the pockets of private individuals.

When we go camping, the usual, normal organizational principle of human life – i.e., communism – naturally takes over. The question is, as Chakrabortty says, “if people choose to live like this for a few weeks each year, what's to stop them doing so all the time”? What indeed? Our answer is nothing at all apart from the political will and the kind of dedicated organization needed to see it ushered in. “The argument then becomes not whether to have socialism but how to have it,” says Chakrabortty. When the argument progresses to this level, assuming it ever does, then indeed socialists will be able to say that they have scaled the north face of the Eiger. And camping will be optional.
Stuart Watkins

More tea, vicar? (2010)

Book Review from the September 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

For All the Tea in China. By Sarah Rose (Arrow Books)

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the British Empire, via the East India Company, made vast fortunes from selling opium to China and buying tea from China with part of the proceeds (the tea was then re-sold in Britain at much higher prices). All attempts to grow good-quality tea outside China had failed, though it was realised that doing so would lead to even greater profits. The ruling Qing dynasty made sure that the secrets of tea were not exported outside China.

Discovering new plants and crops was an important aspect of the British Empire. Botanists sailed with Captain Cook to Australia. Nathaniel Ward had invented a kind of portable glass house, nowadays known as a terrarium, to keep plants alive without water on long voyages.

In 1848 the East India Company employed Robert Fortune – yes, that really was his name – to travel to China and obtain (i.e. steal) tea plants and seeds, together with knowledge of how to cultivate them, and bring them back to Calcutta and the Himalayas. After many vicissitudes – attempts to transport plants were unsuccessful – Fortune was eventually able to transplant seeds in Ward’s cases. Then in 1851 he persuaded a number of Chinese experts to work in India and give advice on how to plant and irrigate tea and how the Indian workers should cultivate it. As Rose says, all this was pure industrial espionage, ‘the greatest theft of protected trade secrets that the world has ever known’.

The Chinese monopoly on tea was broken, and it would now be spread to Ceylon, Kenya and so on, to the immense profit of those who ran the British Empire. In addition, it increased the demand for sugar, hence the colonisation of the Caribbean, and led to improvements in sailing boats and the development of the tea clipper. And of course it had an enormous impact on daily life in Britain.
Rose’s book is mostly a rather over-dramatised popular history, but also makes some useful points about the consequences of Fortune’s plundering of the secrets of tea and its relation to the spread of empire and the development of capitalism.
Paul Bennett

Editorial: Make austerity history (2010)

Editorial from the September 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Fifty years ago politicians and pundits were promising that automation and increasing productivity would mean a shorter working week, an earlier retirement age and a doubling of the standard of living every twenty-five years. As late as 1979 Chris Evans, “a psychologist and computer scientist” was predicting that by 2001 “we will all have a 20-hour working week and retire at fifty” (See here). No, not Chris Evans, the celebrity radio presenter, though it might as well have been.

Listen to the politicians now. All the talk is about austerity, cuts and pain. Public sector workers, those on housing benefit and the jobless are the main targets but everybody (except for businesses and shareholders) will be hit one way or another. And the retirement age is to go up not down.

Why? Why this failure to realise the promises of yesteryear? Because we are living under capitalism, and capitalism is not geared to meeting people’s needs and improving our lives. It’s an uncontrollable system geared to making and accumulating profits.

In 2008 the accumulation of profits – which Gordon Brown foolishly thought would just go on and on – faltered as it regularly does from time to time. This presented the government with its own financial problem – tax revenues fell, so they had to borrow more – but also with the job of facilitating conditions for the revival of profit-making.

That’s why they’re axing government spending, freezing government wages, cutting benefits, keeping interest rates low and, last but not least, lowering corporation tax on profits.

There’s no guarantee that this will work, but there is a guarantee that people will suffer.

With millions of able bodied people sitting in enforced idleness, with factories closed or working short time, with an abundance of natural resources, skills and technical know-how, it’s surprising that we are being told that we will have to undergo a period of austerity. But it’s a lie.

If the profit system did not exist, and if we all owned in common the places where useful things are produced, we could reap the benefits of scientific advances and modern technology to provide plenty for all, so making poverty and austerity history.

The resources to provide enough healthy food, decent housing, good health care and other amenities for all exist now and have done for many years, but the profit system stands in the way. All the advances in technology over the last fifty or so years mean that austerity is even more unnecessary today that it was then. In fact, every scientific advance, each new invention makes socialism all the more possible.

The fact that the politicians are now talking about a “New Age of Austerity” in a world of potential plenty is a damning indictment of capitalism.