Sunday, October 31, 2010

Editorial: Class war: we’re all in it together (2010)

Editorial from the November 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

The details of a long-planned offensive in the class war were finalised and announced by the Chancellor on 20 October. The millionaires who lead the government, backed by the business elite, unsurprisingly decided that the burden of the state debt should not fall onto those most responsible for it, nor those most able to pay it. Instead, it should be used as an excuse for an attack on working-class living standards. If you’re not sure if this means you, let us tell you, it almost certainly does. If you rely on the labour market or state benefits for your living, you’re working class. If you rely on investments for your living, you’re capitalist class. An understanding of this simple fact will cut through no end of political propaganda and put you on the road to the truth.

And the truth is that the capitalist class, represented for now by the coalition government and led by the Tories, has no real interest, despite the rhetoric, in individual freedom or rolling back the state. Despite the cuts, everywhere described as ‘savage’, state spending will actually continue to rise. As Lex points out in the Financial Times, the cuts are “all very radical by the standards of the modern state”, but government spending will still rise by a total of 5 per cent over the next three years. This is because the government is not daft. It knows that real-world capitalism can only prosper with the backing and support of the state. The banks and the capitalist class and the businesses that they own all rely on massive state support to survive. What is not acceptable, to them, is for the working class to rely on similar support. This is an “unaffordable” burden, to be cut out entirely where politically possible, or cut back to the bone where not.

The details of the cuts have been widely reported. They total £81bn, and include a massive £7bn cut in welfare spending, a rise in the retirement age to 66 (French workers at the time of writing are on the street to prevent a raise to 62), and cuts to higher education and council spending. Ruling-class propaganda has been so effective that the government could announce, as if everyone should be pleased and proud of the fact, that the cuts to government departments would not be as severe as expected because it had managed to be especially severe on welfare. Workers who understand their own position and interest will know that there is nothing to be gained from throwing those people who rely on state benefits, even those who really are ‘swinging the lead’, onto the labour market. Although the capitalist media does its best to whip up resentment against benefits claimants – and what a good job it does – those benefits are exactly what we might all one day have to rely on to survive (let alone live). Unless, of course, you have been thrifty, wise and hard-working enough to avoid being born into a working family, and have taken measures to ensure that in the future you will never lose your job, get ill, get injured, get old, or get blown up in one of capitalism’s wars. But even if you have taken these elementary precautions, throwing current benefit claimants onto the labour market will just increase competition for jobs, and act as a downward pressure on wages.

There is not, insists the government, any political choice about any of this: the cuts are just inevitable. To their inevitable facts of life, we must pose our own: resistance and socialist education. They started this particularly nasty and vindictive phase of the class war, and we’re all in it together whether we want to be or not. But ask not what the class war can do for you. Ask what you can do for the class war.

Profits first again (2010)

Book Review from the September 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Agrofuels : Big Profits, Ruined Lives and Ecological Destruction. By Fran├žois Houtart. Pluto Press

Whilst fundamentally an investigation into the pros and cons of agrofuels this book is, in large part, a critique of 'the dominant economic discourse' which repeatedly overlooks both ecological and social externalities – the negative effects of industrial and agricultural development etc. Throughout the chapters Houtart reveals the links which lay bare the logic of capitalism with example after example of how the profit motive gets in the way of social and environmental concerns; the incompatibility between taking care of the majority's needs and ensuring the most profitable returns; and which ensure that externalities will continue to be ignored until they impact on profits.

Early on he suggests that the 'socialist' countries of the 20th century in Europe and the USSR would have done well to heed Marx's warning that capitalism destroyed the two sources of its own wealth, nature and labour, implying that, as their model was supposed to be different from the one which dominated world economy, they should have avoided the terrible environmental degradation and social problems of which they, too, were guilty. As those regimes were just a different way of organising capitalism we really shouldn't be surprised that they performed no better.

Agrofuels are discussed in detail with impeccable references for each aspect. What they are, where they are grown, the main players, world views as to their potential for inclusion in the alternative fuel debate, ecological effects and effects on populations plus their place in the newest form of accumulation, the neo-colonialisation of land acquisition. The main argument throughout is that agrofuels are like any other commodities and that capitalism's logic requires that the needs of the North subsume the output of the South.

As far as any statistics are concerned the author reveals a catalogue of horrors of ecological devastation and social destruction all in the cause of profit. However, he goes on to expound that agrofuels could have only a minor role to play in a wholly different system anyway and that the information we are being given by the companies producing them is limited, biased, way too optimistic and ignores all externalities. The true story of agrofuels is mostly one of increased emissions of greenhouse gases compared with using fossil fuels, insufficient available land, huge quantities of nitrates creating dead zones around coasts and the forced removal of untold numbers of people.

An interesting discussion regarding externalities is the individualisation of responsibilities as a characteristic of neo-liberal thought and practice. The challenges that people face in getting to work, for instance. The time wasted using public transport or the decision to use personal transport is an individual choice and, therefore, an individual or socialised problem which can't be taken into account in the financial calculations, can't be factored into business profit margin calculations and the process of capital accumulation. Similarly migrations towards towns or foreign lands are attributed to personal decisions (unrelated to loss of land or livelihood in the case of monocrops for agrofuels or other purposes) – and the individualisation of the problem thus becomes a mechanism of externality.

The capitalist way forward would be to continue apace growing more crops for the rich world's fuel, with the knock-on effect of creating more hungry people and a further degraded planet. Insisting that no global solution will be found without challenging the contemporary development model and reiterating that agrofuels are aggravating and exacerbating ecological and social problems, he goes on to state that a new philosophy of the relationship between human beings and nature is required. Use value rather than exchange value; favouring human beings over capital; human needs becoming the motor of the economy; energy becoming a use value aimed at satisfying the real needs of humans and not to serve the accumulation of capital. 'Such a post-capitalist model, which some call the socialism of the 21st century, stresses values and the qualitative aspects of life, and democracy as a means.'

Pointing out accepted socialist values of true democracy – participation in decision-making, production for need, redistribution of wealth (which for us comes about from common ownership and the abolition of money), with human beings in balance with nature – it's like a handbook for socialists just needing the final chapter explaining that the fulfilment of the ideas to this point will be brought about not by any reforms of the current system and not by convincing capitalists to be kinder, fairer or more human-centric but by the democratic self- emancipation of the working class.
Janet Surman

A Socialist visits capitalist China (2010)

From the September 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

One evening in early July, the Air China plane took off from London on an eleven hour flight to Beijing, through seven time zones. This was to be my first visit to China.

With a knowledge of Russian, one fact about the flight which particularly interested me was that a very large part of the journey would be across the Russian Federation.

Over Russia
After some snoozing in a window seat, I awoke to see the lights of St. Petersburg, 38,000 feet below, with the Gulf of Finland, to the left and the immensity of Lake Ladoga, stretching north-eastwards, to the right. When covered with ice during World War 2, that lake had played a very important role in providing the inhabitants of Leningrad with a lifeline, during the siege of the city by the German Wehrmacht.

I snoozed a little more, occasionally waking up to see the enormity of the Russian taiga (forest), stretching for hundreds of miles, past the Urals and into Siberia. When I awoke again, it was daylight and a vast lake emerged below – Lake Baikal – the world’s largest freshwater lake by volume, looking quite different, from when I had visited it at ground level in 1989. A flight to Beijing really does give an idea about the size of Russia.

After crossing Mongolia with its mountains and the wilderness of the Gobi Desert, the plane gradually descended into Beijing.

Arrival in China
Thirty-nine degrees Centigrade, with very high humidity. Almost like a wall of heat! Those were the conditions on my arrival in Beijing. The taxi ride along the highway to my hotel was rather reminiscent of urban scenery in New York or Chicago, except that the advertising hoardings were overwhelmingly, but not exclusively, written in Mandarin Chinese characters. Just this one hour journey conveyed an immediate impression of China’s very significant capitalist economic development and modernisation, at least in the eastern part of the country.

Like in Russia and other developing countries, many young Chinese are keen to meet foreigners and to practise their English. All the same, as I had realised before my arrival, the proportion of the population with a significant knowledge of English was not large. Hardly surprising really, because of China’s only relatively recent increased communications with the West. Nevertheless, around the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, there was no shortage of young guides willing to accompany foreigners around, describing the sights. This was very worthwhile and an opportunity to find out more about the way of life.

Impressions of Beijing
Attractive, neatly kept parks such as Zhongshan, with ornate, colourfully painted pagodas, gates and red Chinese lanterns. Tiananmen Square, despite its sinister connection with the events of 1989, is very impressive, particularly when the buildings are floodlit at night.

Pollution. Traffic jams in much of the city, where there are many more cars than 25 years ago. However, a large number of people still commute by pedal cycle, together with many of the young on motor scooters and bikes. Metal fencing, segregating the slower lanes for local traffic, provides some limited protection for cyclists from larger, faster vehicles. In spite of this, travelling by road in Chinese cities is stressful, like in other Asian cities, such as Bangkok and Kolkata.

Some beggars on the streets, hustlers peddling their wares. Many of the “hutongs”, or alleyways, with their old houses are being demolished in favour in modern buildings. Visit the shopping mall and street of Wangfujing, near the centre of Beijing, and you could be in almost any western shopping area, apart from the predominance of advertising in Chinese language characters. However, many signs, such as those indicating street names are transliterated into Pinyin, a form of Chinese using the Latin alphabet. In numerous places, promotion of the products of Sony, Panasonic and Samsung, etc., is visible.

Capitalism in China
Without doubt, capitalism dominates China, just as it does the rest of the world. Of course, the form of capitalism is somewhat different from the West. For many years, from 1949 onwards, state capitalism was very much in evidence. Now, the Chinese so-called “Communist” Party is still the only permitted political party. The inverted commas are certainly needed, since the ruling party is no more communist or socialist than Marks and Spencer in the UK.

A huge wave of privatisation has taken place, with commercialism nearly everywhere: on the streets, in the media, etc. Pretty much the same as you would see in the West.

Journeys on the Beijing metro turned out to be of interest. Well air-conditioned! Yes, the underground in London could learn something from this. As I stood in the carriage, I noticed that many of the passengers were looking at the walls of the passing tunnel, much more closely than would be the case in London. I soon realised why. As the train rushed between stations, electronically projected still and movie images, primarily in the form of advertising, were visible, like on a TV screen, – more of capitalism’s propaganda. As in other world cities, many commuters look fixatedly at the screens of their mobile phones and other electronic devices.

The Great Wall
A visit to the Great Wall gives an impression of how far the Chinese tourist industry has developed in recent years. The Wall is one of the world’s most memorable sights, as it winds its way across rugged mountain ranges. Reading the guidebooks had prepared me for the large number of tourists that would be there, and also for the fact that a northerly direction was the best way to go, to get away from the crowds.

All the same, as I did so, it was strange to look back and to see throngs of humanity slowly moving along the tops of the Wall, snaking in the distance, over the rising and falling slopes of the mountains.
Capitalism packages most of the world’s sights, with coach and car parks, entry fees, souvenir shops, cafes, restaurants, etc. Despite this, with a little planning, it is still possible for a person to ignore most of the commercialised tat and to marvel at what one has come to see.

From Beijing, I travelled to Kunming in Yunnan province. This city lies in the south-western part of the country, about 2,000 meters above sea-level. Here I met up with an English language teacher from Canada and her husband, who were spending nearly a year in China, before returning to North America.

I had talks with local Chinese students in the Yunnan University tea-room and found that they were very interested to hear about ideas from the West, since far fewer Westerners are to be found in Kunming than in Beijing.

During my stay in Yunnan, I made journeys into rural areas. Much of the province is very scenic because of its mountainous nature. In the valleys and flatter areas, much of the land is used for agriculture. Little mechanisation is used in farming, with most of the labour in the fields and orchards being done by hand. The work is very arduous, involves long hours and the income is low. That is why many younger people are migrating into the towns and cities. In some parts of the countryside factories are being constructed where the terrain is favourable.

Similarities Between China and Russia
Because of my interest in Russia, I could not help but notice certain similarities between the two countries. The governments of both have used Leninist slogans in their propaganda. The two have presented themselves, in the past as “ideological adversaries” of the Western powers. Now, they still have authoritarian regimes, with a strong emphasis on nationalism, and are frequently portrayed as political rivals to the West.

State capitalism is no longer so dominant in China and Russia, and, like other parts of world, both have significantly embraced privatisation. Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times (8 January 2008) says:
“The new Russo-Chinese model is authoritarian rather than democratic. It attempts to marry capitalism with a large state role in the economy. It holds out the promise of western consumerism for a rising middle class, while rejecting western political liberalism. Rather than relying on democracy or communist ideology to create loyalty to the political system, the Russian and Chinese elites increasingly stress a combination of economic growth and nationalism.”
At the United Nations, China and Russia often oppose the Western policies of exerting pressure on repressive governments – in Sudan, Iraq, Iran, or Serbia. It should be added though, that in the past, a Sino-Soviet split revealed rivalries between Mao’s China and the Soviet Union. In addition, there is still a strong element of mutual suspicion and strategic rivalry, with the Russians wary of the potential expansion of China into sparsely-populated, mineral-rich Siberia.

Officials of the two countries are often ambiguous in their statements about democracy. They declare that liberal democracy remains a long-term goal – but that their countries “must be given time“. They maintain that they will be “democratic” – but they will not allow that idea to be defined for them by outsiders and foreigners.

Gideon Rachman says: “President Hu Jintao of China has called democracy ‘the common pursuit of mankind’. However, the official Chinese line tends to be that small steps are being taken towards a more democratic system – through village-level elections or contested elections within the Communist party – but that it is vital to avoid the ‘chaos’ that could be unleashed by a naive rush towards democracy”.

China and Global Capitalism
Very clearly, capitalism is a global system. More recent developments in China have shown how much that country is a part of the system. Increased privatisation is an example of this.
The Zhongshan or Mao suit, as it is known in the West, which was widely worn in the sixties and seventies has overwhelmingly been replaced by Western style clothing. Most younger people dress very much like their counterparts in the West.

One amusing instance of how things have changed was when I visited a lake land area on the edge of Kunming. Sitting on some benches was a group of elderly men. One appeared to be in his eighties and was holding an ancient Chinese stringed musical instrument. An example of the older part of Chinese culture, to be sure and yet, as I looked at him, I noticed that he was wearing on his head an American style baseball cap, with the word “Sexy” in English, emblazoned across the top.

Capitalism in China
The form which capitalism takes can vary in different parts of the world. In China, the state still has a more important role to play than in the West. Although the ruling party is the only permitted political organisation, how much longer this continues to be the case, remains to be seen.

According to Forbes Magazine (8 October 2007), in 2007 China, with 108, ranked second behind the US, in the number of dollar billionaires. Yang Huiyan, ($16.02 billion) came top of the Chinese list, while Xu Rongmao ($7.03 billion) came second. During the reform period, inequality has clearly risen terms of wealth ownership and, additionally in such areas as household income, consumption of consumer goods, and social outcomes in education and health. On the other hand, economic growth during the past 25 years has brought about a reduction in absolute material poverty. This, of course happened under capitalism earlier in history, in Europe, for example.

During recent times, many workers have lost their previous job security and subsidised housing. According to Amnesty International (Western Australian, 2 March 2007), millions of Chinese workers who have migrated from the countryside to the urban areas are “overworked, underpaid, denied access to health care, education for their children, and even the right to live permanently in the cities which use their labour, and are treated as an underclass”.

The Amnesty report continues: “They are forced to work long stretches of overtime, often denied time off when sick, and labour under hazardous conditions for paltry wages. As well as being exploited by employers, migrant families face discriminatory government regulations in almost every area of daily life.”

China has its own social cultures, such as “guanxi”, a system of favours, services and obligations between individuals. Nevertheless, as it develops, it has become increasingly a part of the world capitalist system.

For me, the visit to China was both memorable and instructive. Memorable, because of the sights, different culture and helpful, friendly people, whom I met. Instructive in the political sense.

In the West, much of the population has been deceived by mainstream propaganda into mistakenly believing that capitalism can only be accompanied by “political democracy”. Nothing could be further from the truth. During the Industrial Revolution, when capitalism developed in Britain and parts of western Europe, for a long time the right to vote was completely absent for the large majority of people, and trade unions were threatened by governments and employers. Privatised capitalism has co-existed and does co-exist quite comfortably, with authoritarian regimes in South America and Africa, as well as with past dictatorships in Europe, such as those of General Franco, Hitler and Mussolini. The state controlled version of capitalism emerged in the Soviet Russia and later in China. Now, Russia and China persist with authoritarian regimes, with which a more privatised version of capitalism has made a convenient accommodation.

Certainly, China never was even remotely “socialist” or “communist” in 1949 or afterwards.
Vincent Otter

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Saving the planet (2010)

Book Review from the October 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

PLAN B 4.0 Mobilising to save civilisation by Lester R. Brown. Earth Policy Institute. W.W.Norton and Company.

The book is built around what Brown sees as four mutually dependent goals – stabilising the climate by cutting carbon emissions 80 percent by 2020, stabilising the population at 8 billion or less (a rather contentious and difficult proposition), eradicating poverty and restoring the Earth's natural systems, soil, aquifers, forests, grasslands and fisheries. 'Plan B is the alternative to business as usual – the ambitiousness of the plan is not driven by perceived political feasibility but by scientific reality.'

The early chapters lay out the extent of the challenges he sees presented by pressures on water and land, climate change and the transition to non-fossil fuel energy, followed by chapters laying out his response to each of these areas in well documented detail. He offers plenty of evidence to show just what could be achieved in a relatively short period of time if there is the will to do it. However, in the capitalist system we live in this, the will, is what is so often shown to be lacking.

The chapters are crammed with solid information, some citing examples of good practice around the world, examples which could be followed with advantage to both people and planet. With his use of unemotional, dispassionate matter of fact language which presents the plan as realistic and rational it could be difficult for some to grasp why world leaders haven't already grabbed the concept and run with it.

It is in chapter 10, the last chapter, that, as socialists, we get what we know to expect somewhere along the line; the let-down of how we are actually expected to put this plan into practice. Up to this point socialists and non-socialists alike could agree that here is a plan about which we could largely have consensus. It would appeal to most rational thinking people who believe we have to address immediately the problems that are facing us right now. But we are about to be divided again. It is the means to the end that divides us.

Non-socialists will accept without question that there is an economic equation to be discussed and will believe that politicians will be focussed in this direction for the good of the planet, reforming taxes and subsidies to achieve the objective and if they're not then pressure will need to be brought to bear on them. This would be some of the action required.

Socialists, on the other hand, will simply want to point out that it is the use of such methods over the long term that has brought us to where we're at now and it is this very system which perpetuates and deepens the problems. Only a move right away from the capitalist profit system will suffice to save the planet. Business not as usual means removing all financial incentives, taxes, subsidies and money itself from the equation, abolishing the wages system in favour of common ownership in a classless society.
Janet Surman

Friday, October 29, 2010

Cooking the Books: Defending capitalism (2010)

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

Capitalism is indefensible (except if you are a capitalist). But that doesn’t stop people trying. One recent example is Lucy Turnbull, member of the Australian Liberal Party and former Lord Mayor of Sydney. “Capitalism is still the only system that works,” she asserted in the Sydney Morning Herald (9 August).

According to her, “price signals, fair markets and free trade are the cornerstones of the capitalist system for creating goods and services”. Prices, markets and trade certainly are features of capitalism but she manages to omit two other, key features: the class ownership of the places where goods and services are produced and production for profit. Without these capitalism wouldn’t be capitalism.

Prices may signal to people and firms what to buy, but it is profits that signal to capitalist firms what to produce. Unless prices are high enough to allow capitalist firms to realise a profit they can signal as much as they like but no production will be forthcoming. In addition, some needs don’t register at all if the person hasn’t got the money to pay to satisfy them. In which case they go unmet.

“Fair markets” and “free trade” are not essential features of capitalism but policy objectives that sections of the owning class sometimes want the government to pursue. At other times subsidies and tariffs have been preferred. Turnbull has made the mistake here of identifying capitalism with a particular policy.

She makes some extravagant claims for her conception of capitalism:
“It alone harnesses the reality of human nature – our continual striving for progress and our competitive instincts to do our best.”
No doubt people do want to do their best, but what has this got to do with competition? If it is part of “the reality of human nature”, then this would continue if the capitalist rat-race to avoid falling into poverty is replaced by cooperation to ensure that nobody‘s needs are neglected.

Competition in fact prevents many people from doing their best. Capitalist firms compete to make profits by trying to keep their costs below the average for their sector; the lower their costs compared with their rivals the more sales – and profits – they can expect to make. It’s a race to the bottom with speed-up and pressures to get a job done quickly taking precedence over taking the time to do it properly.

Turnbull also claims of capitalism: “It alone is compatible with political and democratic freedoms.” Capitalism may well be compatible with political democracy but it’s also compatible with a restricted franchise (as in the 19th century) and political dictatorship (as in many countries now and in the past). Capitalism impedes the carrying out of democratically-expressed wishes to improve housing, health care, education, transport and the like as the workings of its economic laws force governments to give priority to profit-making over these. When it comes to production capitalism is undemocratic. The moment a worker enters the factory gates or the office doors they stop being a “free citizen” and become subject to the authority of the employer.

Socialism alone is capable of ensuring a genuine democracy as, with the means of production the common heritage of all, everyone will be able participate on an equal basis as nobody would have a privileged say in how the means of production are used and nobody would have a privileged share of what is produced. Under democratic control the means of production can be used to satisfy people’s needs not to make a profit for the few.

Practical Politics (2010)

From the October 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Socialist Party is pro real democracy. Real democracy can only be achieved by common ownership of resources and free access to goods and services, because only this provides political equality. The tyranny of money maintains injustice and division world wide. The Socialist Party is thus anti capitalist.

In capitalism, a minority owning class has vast amounts of extra power that it imposes by financial control. Socialists believe in people being able to do the work that they wish to do and directly for their communities, within a fully democratic system. The provision of goods and services can not only be achieved without capitalism – it can be achieved with a giant leap in efficiency. We will be freed from the shackles of the financial system, and we will be able to reap the benefits of everybody’s practical knowledge, because we will all be able to take part equally in decision making processes.

In capitalism, for most of us, the jobs that we have to do, and/or the way that we do them, and a lot more in our lives is not freely decided by us. Nor can it be decided by our elected government. So much that affects so many is decided by the minority of owners, who have the power to set up structures and systems for their limited self interest and to pressurise all of the rest of us to do their bidding.

For as long as there has been a ruling elite, there has been indoctrination simply by living in such a system, that it is ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’. This is added to by propaganda that is full of lies and distortions. In ‘democratic’ countries we have thought that we are ‘free’ – but democracy has been hijacked by the capitalist class, who, via governments, and just like any other dictators, wield the power of armies and weapons of mass destruction, whilst also controlling most of the information outlets, so they can spin all the news in their favour. Even militarily imposed business expansion with hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties, is now called ‘bringing democracy’.

This is not only what capitalism allows, it is what it produces. The victories for sanity that occur are despite capitalism, because capitalism is an insane system which cannot be made fair by reform or regulation. It is a system based on competition instead of cooperation, and its only real purpose is to capitalize without conscience. If you doubt this, think about how it functions: Can’t pay? Can’t have! And: No profit? No production! Capitalism is not devoted to or intent upon supplying what we need, efficient use of resources, appreciation of beauty or being humane – its devotion and its intention is to make a financial profit. Where needs are supplied in some form this is incidental to capitalism; it happens to be necessary for the profit making.

Any benefits that are claimed for capitalism actually come from the workers, who could do a much better job without it. The rules of capitalism have been made to serve the unjust privileges of a few over the common good for people and the biosphere. It will always fix the regulations. It will always drown out calls for equitable reforms with loud demands for profit. It will always encourage us to cheat and lie and, faced with the horrors that the system creates, to not care.

As capitalism has become globally established over the last five hundred years, money has become the main controlling and deciding factor in much of our behavior. The wealthy are the ones with money to invest in new enterprises, and so capitalism generally delivers concentrations of wealth and thus power. The profit priority of the capitalist class results, amongst other things, in wages being as low as possible, and thus generally the priority for the workers is to buy the cheapest. This also leads to the dominance of big business producers and suppliers, which has profound and drastic effects on society. One effect has been a massive increase in the reliance on cars and on road, air and sea transportation of goods using fossil fuels. This is a typical example of something that is considered to be good for the economy – but is not good for communities or the health of individuals – or, as it turns out, for the environment as a whole.

The profit priority results in every form of waste and abuse; from the billions of deceptive three quarter empty plastic tubs of pills to the carnage of war. People are persuaded to buy stuff that they don’t need and/or is harmful to them, money is saved in methods of production by losing quality, by abusive treatment of workers, by cruelty to animals, by pollution of the environment and by squandering resources in manufacturing products with ‘built in obscelecence’. – Not to mention all the useless work involved in just running the financial system.

We are prevented in many ways from doing what is most beneficial and tempted into making unhealthy and unkind choices. This is very stressful - so even those with what is called a ‘good standard of living’ tend to suffer in this system. The diseases of unhealthy affluence are prevalent. At the same time, a huge and growing proportion of the world’s population is malnourished or starving and lacking even clean water. It is a measure of the unhealthiness of capitalist affluence that it is unsustainable; it is destroying the living environment that supplies it. And environmental damage is increasingly a factor in causing poverty and conflict.

This is not democracy failing us – the problem is that we do not have real democracy. What we are getting is clearly not what the majority of people want. Globally, in the twenty first century, more than ever before, war is conducted in civilian areas. More people than ever before are losing their land and communities and being forced into city slums. More people than ever before live on rubbish dumps. More people than ever before are imprisoned. More young people than ever before are imprisoned. More young people than ever before are abandoned and homeless. More young people than ever before are involved in the sex trade.

These are not just problems that capitalism hasn’t got around to solving yet. They are caused by a combination of the effects of capitalism. Neither does capitalism respond to the need to solve problems that it has produced. The issue of global warming is a prime example of this. Global warming is largely the result of the particularly polluting forms of production and organization that have developed in the capitalist system. However, for instance, large profits are being made from the production and use of oil. It is integral to the cash flow in the present situation. Because of having little choice in how our society functions, unyet having to function in it to get money - it is frequently very difficult or impossible for people to have workplaces homes close enough, or to have alternative transport arrangements, so that they do not need a car. Then society becomes arranged around car use; it fits in beautifully with big business supermarkets. Thus the whole system ferociously resists making the radical changes that are needed to protect our environment. Instead, we are taken to war to secure more oil supplies.

When it comes to creating profit for a minority, capitalism is extremely efficient. But when it comes to creating sustainable, healthy, friendly communities, capitalism is extremely inefficient. In this regard it is tragically wasteful of the abundant resources of the earth and of man made technology. - All that waste to maintain something that we don’t really want! Something that is bound to be unhealthy; the undemocratic power of a minority! This is what we agree to when we vote for any capitalist party.

By exploiting the prejudice, separation and general ignorance that capitalism breeds, the capitalist class continues to rule us with majority support. They continue to have vastly disproportionate control over how we live; to force cuts in services, to take the hearts out of our communities, to take us away from our children, to distract us from the truth, to stress us and fill us with rage that we take out on ourselves, each other and our fellow creatures, to make us depressed, to get us addicted, to wreck our environment and to take us to war – and to convince us that there is no sensible alternative! This is not democracy. This is despotism dressed up as democracy. We have to take the democratic systems that have been fought for and won through previous generations and use them to achieve our true desire.

We can change to a socialist system by using the democratic process. As socialists we do not vote for any capitalist party – and that is all of them except the Socialist Party. Other parties may have some good intentions – but in capitalism these will be lost as we have seen before. Socialism will be achieved by majority demand. The working people supply the goods and services in society. We know how to do it and we know how it can be done better, if we are not constrained by financial rules and pressures that do nothing except maintain a harmful system.

Capitalism is a perverting and corrupting influence to whatever degree it is present – and always involves deprivation, slavery and abuse in various forms. It is now in a particularly ubiquitous phase and further deterioration of the situation for humanity looks likely. Just during my life time I have seen many communities and the whole natural world becoming more and more damaged. People run gallant campaigns to help others and to protect the environment – but in capitalism, although there are some temporary successes, this is a losing battle

The battle has to be to overcome capitalism with world socialism. When we remove money from the equation, our priorities can adjust to their healthy natural state. Our priority can be to do what is good. Using truly democratic processes we can find out what is good for us and do that. Our energy will be set free to develop a healthy society and a healthy world – which is necessarily to create justice and peace.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Post-Capitalism: Parecon or a World without Money? Which way to a classless society?

SPGB debate with Z Magazine's Michael Albert at Conway Hall this coming Saturday:

Which way to a classless society?
Debate with Michael Albert (founder member of ZCommunications and author of "Parecon: Life After Capitalism") and Adam Buick (World Socialist Movement) about the alternative to capitalism.
- form of money economy featuring workers' self-management and consumer councils, price-setting, and personal incomes based on effort and sacrifice not property or heredity.
"In the world you desire to attain there is, I presume, production. Likewise, I assume you agree that people will consume. More, beyond production and consumption, is there some regulation of what is produced and in what quantity? The alternative would be that anyone can produce anything, with no concern other than that they wish to. This is nonsense, but if there is regulation of how resources, energies, and labor are allocated to generate outputs, does that regulation reflect the preferences that both producers and consumers have and especially a full valuation of the relative contribution to well being and development of different choices? If it does, then to that extent it includes "money." The valuations are prices, albeit not necessarily as we have known them in market and centrally planned systems".
Michael Albert (ZCom)
- the abolition of the property-based money economy including markets, profits, rent and wages, with all land and goods owned and democratically controlled by the whole society.
"In implementing the long-standing socialist principle of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”, socialist society breaks the link between work done and consumption. Rather than being “allotted” what to consume as under “Parecon”, people would be able to take from the common store of wealth set aside for individual consumption what they judged they needed to live and enjoy life, irrespective of what they had contributed to production. Every able-bodied person would be expected to contribute something, but we don’t share your bleak view that, in this event, not enough would be produced to satisfy people’s needs (that “demand would exceed supply”, as you put it) - and that therefore, not just profits, but the wages system too would have to be retained as a means of both obliging people to work and of limiting their consumption. Just like under capitalism.
Our description of “Parecon” is “post-capitalist capitalism”, i.e. not post-capitalism at all".
Adam Buick (SPGB)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Pathfinders: Quantum socialism (2010)

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

Quantum socialism

Every journalist hack and indeed newspaper buyer knows that if you put ‘sex’ on the cover page you tend to sell more copies. Science magazines and TV programmes appear to have a similar trick with the word ‘quantum’. Presumably this is because readers understand as little about the one as they do about the other, and salivate in a pavlovian reflex at any false promise of enlightenment.

Since nothing in physics is sexier than the search for a ‘quantum gravity’ theory which might underpin and unite the two great arch-enemies, relativity and quantum mechanics, any book which claims some new insight into the subject will be noisily promoted by publisher and media alike. And all the more so if produced by Stephen Hawking, the one physicist that the UK public have actually heard of.

Hawking is already famously quoted from his new book The Grand Design as coming out against the God-squad: "It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going." All well and good, but readers of his earlier, supposedly populist work A Brief History of Time (1988) will know it’s probably necessary to invoke a squadron of fictitious supernatural intellects in order to throw any light on Hawking. Carl Sagan or Richard Dawkins he ain’t.

"M-theory is the theory of everything. It explains how the universe was created out of nothing in the Big Bang, and how it behaves now”, Stephen tells us in a recent Newsnight interview, as if the matter has now been satisfactorily resolved, adding that "M-theory is the unified theory Einstein was hoping to find". A reasonable viewer might conclude from this that M-theory has actually been ‘found’ and that its equations really do solve the fundamental problems of physics. This however would be placing the truth of the matter into some quantum superposition in the eleventh dimension. In fact, as theoretical physicist and iconoclast Lee Smolin pointed out in his book The Trouble With Physics (2006), M-theory is a fictitious label to describe a theory which does not yet and may never exist and for which evidence is almost completely lacking. It is not a theory, it is merely a statement of intent. ‘M’ does not even stand for anything, although Hawking suggests it could stand for ‘master, miracle or mystery’. It could just as well stand for ‘mumbo-jumbo’.

The problem with string theories, whose mutual disagreements M-theory would need to resolve, is that they present us with an unattractive choice between the fundamentally unknowable and the fundamentally incomprehensible. The only way to tie up all the loose stringy ends into a neat package that can explain all those myriad annoying particles with exotic names is a formula that doesn’t just account for our universe but also 10500 other universes too (this is a 1 with roughly this paragraph’s worth of zeroes after it, some 410 orders of magnitude more than the number of atoms in the known universe). Being asked to believe that there are indeed this many universes existing in parallel, 48 quadzillion of them possibly hiding under one of your toenails, does not do much to inspire confidence. Most normal people would suggest that such a theory is no theory at all, but then perhaps normal people don’t go into physics.

Still, maybe we’re missing a marketing opportunity here. We could relabel socialism as M-theory, for Marx or Materialist, and even include our own ‘uncertainty principle’ just for those critics who think we’re smart-alec fanatics who never question our own ideas. After all, we never said we knew everything. And wouldn’t ‘Quantum Socialism’ look good on the cover?

There is also an M-theory in economics, which is monetarism, the opposite of K-theory. In the one, as we are seeing now, you grind the poor and cut services to get out of depression. In the other, you indulge in a Keynesian orgy of spending to get out of depression. Since both were tried simultaneously during the Reagan – Thatcher years and neither worked, we socialists tend to bracket them both under the grand unified theory known as B-theory. This, in case you’re wondering, is named after a gentleman’s personal appendages.

Dawkins deified

Was there a deliberate irony behind the Guardian’s decision to entitle an interview with four prominent scientists, including Richard Dawkins, as ‘Gods of Science’ (11 September)? If there was any embarrassment on Dawkins’ part he didn’t mention it. When asked who his own favourite living scientific hero was he chivalrously cited his co-interviewee David Attenborough. Brian Cox, formerly pop star, now an engaging TV presenter and photogenic professor who presents entry-level astronomy to people who aren’t sure which revolves around what, would probably by his own admission not quite qualify as a God. He cited his co-interviewee Stephen Hawking as his hero. Meanwhile, avoiding any such yuk-factor, Attenborough cited Richard Feynman, whose many sterling attributes do not include being alive. Hawking grumpily refused to cite anyone at all. Maybe next we’ll get a tour round their kitchens in Hello magazine. Celebrity chemist, anyone?
Paddy Shannon

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Pieces Together: Modern Britain (2010)

From the October 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Modern Britain

"Nearly 54,000 children living below the poverty line will be pushed farther down the scale by cuts to housing benefit, according to figures from the charity Shelter. Their families will be left with less than £100 a week once housing costs have been paid. Of these, 33,00 children will be in families trying to live on under £50 a week." ((London) Times, 7 September)

Hunger Amidst Plenty

"India's grain warehouses are bursting at the seams and sacks of rice and wheat lie rotting in the open for lack of storage space. These government-managed stocks are for offsetting a fall in agricultural production in the event of drought or floods, but are also meant for sale to the poorest segment of the population at subsidised prices. But because the public distribution system (PDS) is undermined by bureaucracy and corruption, 60m tonnes of grain is lying in warehouses or under plastic sheeting, and, according to the Hindustan Times, 11m tonnes of it has been destroyed by the monsoons. A committee of experts appointed by the supreme court has claimed that this is nothing short of "genocide", and last month the court ordered the free distribution of the grain to the poor rather than have it eaten by rats. Since the 1970s green revolution, agricultural production has continued to rise, but not to benefit the hungry. Half of India's children aged under five suffer from malnutrition, and the rate remained stable between 1999 and 2006 despite the economic growth in those years. India is the world's 11th largest economic power but still has more people in poverty." (Guardian, 7 September)

Loaded Politicians in USA

"The rest of the country is still struggling with high unemployment amid a sluggish-at-best economic recovery -- but the wealthiest members of Congress are in high cotton. Indeed, the top 50 wealthiest lawmakers saw their combined net worths increase last year, according to the Hill's annual analysis of financial disclosure documents. Combined, the 50 lawmakers were worth $1.4 billion in 2009 -- an $85.1 million increase over their 2008 total . ...The list of 50 lawmakers spans both parties (27 Democrats and 23 Republicans) and both chambers of Congress (30 House members, 20 senators), the Hill reports." (Yahoo News, 1 September)

The Failure Of Reform

"The number of people in the U.S. who are in poverty is on track for a record on President Barack Obama's watch, with the ranks of working-age poor approaching 1960s levels that led to the national war on poverty. Census figures for 2009 the recession-ravaged first year of the Democrat's presidency are to be released in the coming week, and demographers expect grim findings. It's unfortunate timing for Obama and his party just seven weeks before important elections when control of Congress is at stake. The anticipated increase from 13.2 percent to about 15 percent would be another blow to Democrats struggling to persuade voters to keep them in power." (Yahoo News, 11 September)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Gulf Oil Spill

Cross-posted from the Imagine Magazine blog

At the time of writing, the ruptured pipe has been capped, for now, after 85 days of spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Although estimates have varied wildly, BP originally claimed ‘almost nothing has escaped’ (Toronto Star, 13/06/2010), it is now estimated that the total is around seven hundred million litres, or seventeen times the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. It is the biggest oil disaster ever and could get worse as it is not clear how much stress the cap can take before blowing again, and relief wells needed to complete the job have yet to be finished.

In addition, Hugh Kaufman, of the Environmental Protection Agency, criticizes BP for its use of the dispersant, Corexit, and describes it as ‘the Agent Orange of the Gulf’ (Toronto Star, 17/07/2010). Seven million litres of the dispersant have transformed the oil into droplets that cannot be burned or skimmed, and thus will impact the environment for many years to come. The use of Corexit, Kaufman says, is short term gain for long term pain. Friends of the Earth’s count so far of the dead is 1 387 sea birds, 444 sea turtles, and 53 mammals.

The Exxon Valdez spill accounted for 36 000 dead birds, but the Gulf spill may have more economic impact given the amount of sea-based industry on that coast and longer lasting environmental effects because whereas Alaska has a rocky shoreline that does not absorb oil easily, the Gulf coast of sand and sediment will act like a sponge.

The spill is causing widespread failure in an already weak ecosystem. In this sense, the current spill could be more accurately compared to the 1979 Ixtoc spill of 450 million litres, 1 000 kilometres off the coast of Texas that took one month to reach the coast there.

British Petroleum Inc. is the world’s third largest energy company with 2009 revenues of $246 billion. In 2 000 it re-branded itself as the industry’s most sensitive company with an ad campaign of $200 million entitled ‘Beyond Petroleum’, sporting a new green logo similar to that of our Green Party. It committed to alternative energy systems and did succeed in reducing its CO2 emissions by ten per cent and becoming the third largest maker of solar panels. Yet its revenues continued to come ninety per cent from oil, and its record tells a very different story from its new brand.

In 2001, BP was forced to pay a $10 million penalty and spend $500 million in upgrades for violating federal clean air laws at eight US refineries; In 2005, a Texas refinery explosion killed fifteen workers and the company was penalized $87 million by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the biggest fine in the agency’s history; In 2006, BP’s Alaska operations were found to have leaked one million litres of crude oil from eroded pipelines and was forced to replace twenty-six kilometers of pipeline; In April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank killing eleven workers, due to the failure of a blow-out-protector to activate. BP’s initial response was to downplay the damage, to refuse to let scientists have access to the site to determine the flow from the well, and reporters from informing the public, and to blame the Swiss-based company from which BP leased the equipment. CEO Hayward said, “This was not our accident’ (Toronto Star, 13/06/2010). BP did act quickly to buy top Google and Yahoo! search results so that the first result for phrases such as ‘oil spill’ would yield ‘Learn more about how BP is helping’.
The above is not just a list of deadly accidents, but more a result of planned cost cutting. Former CEO John Browne (who became Lord Browne of Madingley) balked at the choice between economic growth and more careful environmental stewardship, contrary to its own advertising campaign. He stated, “If you say to people, ‘Do you want to develop the world and have a good living standard, or do you want a safer environment?’ people are terrified by the choice” (Toronto Star, 9/05/2010).

Under Browne’s term in office, an expense-paring regime figured prominently in maintenance reductions that allowed the Alaskan pipeline erosions and lax safety standards that contributed to the Texas explosion. His successor, Tony Hayward, continued with the cost cutting by slashing $4 billion from operating costs which, obviously, impacted safety even further. Internal documents show that BP itself had concerns before the blow-out occurred. In March, 2010, after several weeks of problems on the rig, BP was struggling with a loss of well control and in June 2009, company engineers had warned that the metal well casing might collapse under pressures at that depth, and concluded that the cement job to seal the pipe was unlikely to be successful. (Ina Urbina of the New York Times, reported in the Toronto Star, 30/05/2010). In other words, BP officials knew the casing violated its own safety standards. The blow-out preventer that was supposed to slice through the pipe and cut off the oil flow, failed. It had never been tested at that depth. In fact, BP’s performance has been so bad that confidence in the company has plunged and investment in the company is considered dead money as stocks have been stagnant since 2000 which compares badly with Conoco Phillips (up 145% in the same time), Chevron (78%), and Exxon Mobil (71%).

What are governments doing to protect the environment and ensure the safety of the workers? The answer is plenty, for the capitalist class, that is. The World Socialist Movement holds that the modern nation state, with clearly defined and defended borders, with a strong central government backed by well equipped armies and police forces, and a legal system that is their own creation, are crucial to the operation of the capitalist mode of production.

Government is the executive arm of the capitalist system and forms the basis of capitalism with the enactment of private property laws. It is its job to maintain and revise those laws to ensure the private ownership of the means creating and distributing wealth in the interests of the owning capitalist class. The government’s collaboration with the capitalist enterprises encompasses protection of the latter’s national and international rights to operate as freely as possible through diplomacy, bribes, and even war, if necessary, and create a not-so-level playing field of economic activity, tipped, naturally, in favour of their capitalists. Sure, they are elected every few years in a quasi-democratic exercise where the largest voting block is usually the ‘did not vote’ group, but we have no choice in that the major parties with the money, organization, and clout to get elected, all vie to run capitalism in the interests of the capitalists. The Gulf oil spill provides several insights into this process of governmental collaboration.

Thomas Walkom (Toronto Star, 29/05/2010) writes that the American regulation of the offshore oil industry has been revealed to be a sham. After all that has come out regarding BP’s record, they are still in charge and have used their authority to refuse access to scientists and reporters to the site to determine and report on the magnitude of the oil spill, as noted above.

Canada’s regulations for drilling in the harsher arctic conditions are even weaker. Paul Martin’s Liberal government relaxed the rules for arctic drilling and the current Harper Conservative government has eased the rules even further. The Newfoundland government strongly supports Chevron’s drilling in the stormy Orphan Basin, 450 kilometres into the North Atlantic where a spill would be impossible to contain. Tax revenues for the province and profits for the investors must take preference over any environmental considerations. Even the Nunavut government, dominated by the supposedly eco-friendly Inuit, supports seismic testing in the Eastern Arctic. The BP oil spill has revealed the immense clout of the large economic sectors and enterprises.
Obama’s moratorium on arctic oil exploration is due to be lifted next year. Despite the hopes of Marcie Keever, spokesperson for Friends of the Earth, that this latest oil spill will trigger a public demand for an end to the era where the oil industry writes its own regulations, and will spawn a sea change in the need to get off fossil fuels altogether, the US climate bill now passing through Congress gets weakened every day with amendments, and will do little to fulfill Keever’s hopes. Some Non-Governmental Organizations estimate that Nigeria has suffered oil spills equivalent to the Exxon Valdez every year since 1969 but a compliant and corrupt government has done nothing to solve the problem over four decades (Toronto Star, 06/06/2010)

At the present time, companies operating in US territory risk a maximum fine of $75 million for oil spills which would equal less than two days’ profit for BP. The oil industry is only following a pattern that is discernable in all major sectors of the economy – pharmaceutical, food, mining, tobacco, etc. Their financial clout is used to support donations to politicians’ election funds, to produce mass propaganda to sway public opinion, to fund thousands of lobbyists whose job it is to remind politicians of their loyalties, and to refute scientific evidence that is detrimental to their industry. The top civil service jobs, particularly in the industrial regulatory bodies, and those of top executives in an economic sector are frequently swapped back and forth, creating an old boys’ club whose members inhabit the same social circles creating a smooth ride around government rules and regulations.

Many left wing and one-issue groups complain that this state of affairs came about with globalization and ascendancy of greedy multi-national corporations. To socialists, this state of affairs is simply the normal operation of the capitalist system. It has been going on since philanthropists and governments tried to alleviate the appalling conditions in factories and mines in the early nineteenth century.

In 1865, Marx wrote, concerning the attempts of the factory acts of the time to introduce safety legislation to stem the large number of industrial deaths and accidents,

“The factory owners of the time formed a “trade union” to resist the factory legislation, the so-called ‘National Association for the Amendment of Factory Laws’, based in Manchester, which collected a sum of 50 000 pounds in March 1855…to meet the legal costs of members prosecuted by the factory inspectors and conduct their cases on behalf of the Association…The factory owners promptly formed their Association, its most prominent members including many who themselves were J.P.s, (Justices of the Peace) and in this capacity had actually to apply the act…The head of the Factory Inspectorate, Leonard Horner, was persecuted and slandered by the factory-owners in every conceivable way.” (Capital, Vol. III, pp184/185, Penguin classics edition).

Rather than this type of evasion of spending for safety and environmental concerns being a modern phenomenon of globalization, then, it is, and has always been, a feature of the operation of the capitalist mode of production. It will remain so until the profit system is replaced with a common ownership system of production for use, i.e. socialism.

(This article originally appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of 'Imagine', the official journal of the Socialist Party of Canada.)

Friday, October 8, 2010

Cooking the Books: Capitalism and the Labour Party (2010)

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

“I’ll make capitalism work for the people,” promised Ed Miliband in his bid to become Labour leader (Observer, 29 August). He explained:
“Britain’s big question of the next decade is whether we head towards an increasingly US-style capitalism – more unequal, more brutish, more unjust – or whether we can build a different model – a capitalism that works for people and not the other way round.”
Apparently, “in 2008, a consensus existed that we should understand the lessons of the financial crisis, not just about regulation, but about the kind of capitalism we needed to build”.

We’ve heard this before. The Labour Party has always tried to make capitalism work for the people but, every time that it has been in office, it has failed miserably. What is new is that previously Labour leaders never admitted that this was what they were trying to do. They said they were trying to gradually reform capitalism out of existence, not building a new kind of capitalism.

Still, an open recognition of what they are trying to do can only help clarify things. It is, however, indicative of how far Labour has changed that Ed Miliband was the candidate supported by the Left in the party. Even they have bought into the idea that there is no alternative to capitalism, only a choice about what sort of capitalism, and dropped the anti-capitalist rhetoric.

Ed’s brother David, the candidate supported by the Right declared that his Labour hero was Anthony Crosland (New Statesman, 30 August). He was the Fabian Society Labourite who argued that capitalism no longer existed. Which might explain why David Miliband, and Blair and Brown before him, refuse to use the c-word.

The reason Labour – and indeed the Tories who also talk of a “people’s capitalism” – fail to make capitalism work for the people is that this is an impossible mission. Capitalism just cannot be made to work in the interest of all. It is a profit-making system that can only work as such, in the interest of those who live off profits and to the detriment of those who live off wages and salaries or, in the absence of these, on state hand-outs.

The driving force of capitalism is the accumulation of capital out of profits. When this slows down, as at present, there is a crisis. So, governments must not do anything that might discourage the making of profits to accumulate as capital; in fact, even if it wasn’t their original intention (as perhaps, giving them the benefit of the doubt, it wasn’t with some Labour governments), they have to end up doing all they can to encourage this.

Inevitably, this brings them into conflict with the wage and salary working class whose labour is the source of profits, imposing wage restraint and/or austerity on them. This is not because the government’s members are nasty or incompetent or corrupt, but because this is how they are forced to act by virtue of being the government in the context of capitalism. They fail because they can’t act in any other way.

Instead of Labour gradually changing capitalism into something else, the experience of running capitalism changed the Labour Party – to the extent that today you are labelled a left-winger if you just mention the word “capitalism”, even to support it.

Socialist Meeting in Norwich on the Zeitgeist Movement

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Greasy Pole: Marshmallows are not the only sweet (2010)

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

It is to be hoped that while some people may damn the Coalition as repressive and impoverishing there will be others who happily acknowledge its vital role in educating us about human behaviour and responses. In particular government ministers have been consistently eager, in justifying themselves to us, to examine how we score in the matter of Deferred Gratification, a concept once so absorbing to sociologists, child psychologists, criminologists and others similarly seeking to explain the need for us to endure so many blemishes on what could be our enduringly fulfilling lives.

For example here is our Deputy Prime Minister outlining a most recent concept of official policy: “…this Government is committed to the long term – to making decisions today that will promote a better future: a more prosperous economy, and a fairer society. Our determination to fix the deficit is matched by our determination to create a more socially mobile society…But in five years’ time we want to be able to look back and say that the children born in 2015 are less constrained by the circumstances of their birth…that true progress was made in making opportunity a right of the many, rather than a privilege of the few”. (It is worth noting that this kind of empty drivel is not spouted exclusively by Liberals and Tories; in his campaign for the Labour leadership David Miliband assured us that he would bring about “…the redistribution of power in Britain, an assault on inequality of life chances…”)

It would have been better – nearer the truth – if Clegg and Miliband had said that if we behave ourselves for the present, in the sense of controlling our urges to achieve a less perilous living standard we shall, in due course, come by our reward in the form of a society which through its social mobility is a model of fairness. This arouses memories of what has gone down in history as the Marshmallow Experiment. At Stanford University in the 1960s a group of four-year-old children were each given a marshmallow and promised that if they waited twenty minutes before eating it they would be allowed to have another. Some of them waited; the others quickly ate the marshmallow. Some years later, when they were 18, they were assessed as to their degree of social adjustment and dependability – the extent of their economic advantage against disadvantage. (It would have been more accurate to call this being profitably exploited in a job against being underemployed). The results showed the children who had stifled their impulse to scoff the marshmallow scoring significantly higher than the others. (Although more than one response doggedly pointed out that it needed only someone averse to marshmallows to score highly enough to invalidate the whole exercise). Perhaps Nick Clegg and his gang might reflect on this, while nursing their confidence about the uncritical acceptance of their pledges for “fairness” and “social mobility”.

To forestall any impetuous celebrations at Job Centres where the staff are flooded under the current influx of claimants or on council housing estates where dilapidations lie undisturbed after financial cutbacks at the local town hall, it must be made clear that, whatever Nick Clegg may imply, social mobility is not a universally available opportunity. David Cameron, for example, would not be eligible for this benefit because his status is already high enough to disqualify him. His late father was born into a family where affluence was ingrained enough for him to describe himself as “a nepotistic heir”. The advantages in this – for Cameron Senior and for his children including the Prime Minister – were in spite of his being born with a physical handicap which would have been crucially restrictive to the ambitions of a disadvantaged family for their children's social improvement. Whatever Clegg's glib mouthing about social mobility – the opportunity for a family or group to improve their material situation and prospects – it is only rarely that they can be immune to pressures which are out of their control by being built into the fabric of this property society.

And of these the most powerful and persistent is poverty; in this country no other factor has so devastating an effect on the life chances of people – on the likelihood of them being able to benefit from Clegg's Social Mobility. For a long time this has figured prominently in the meaningless manifestos of the capitalist parties. This was the Labour Party, asking for a second term in 2001: “A single aim drives our policy programme: to liberate people's potential, by spreading power, wealth and opportunity more widely, breaking down the barriers that hold people back.” And this was Michael Howard, then leader of the Conservative Party, in the 2005 election: “For me the heart of politics is all about people – their hopes and aspirations. People want the freedom, security and opportunity to get on in life.” Fine words for anyone who allows themselves to be so easily impressed. What has happened since then? Among the mass of evidence, a report published in January this year by the National Equality Panel (a brainchild of Harriet Harman) stated that by the years 2007-2008 income inequality had reached the most extreme level since the Second World War, with the top one percent of the population each owning household wealth of £2.6 million while the poorest had £8,800. Being poor inflicts enduring, accumulative damage to a child's education, to where they live and to their life chances: “…people's occupational and economic destinations in early adulthood depend to an important degree on their origins”.

In other words the promises about social mobility, about yet another policy to spirit away the inequality and its social damage inextricably linked to capitalist society are the empty pleadings of political leaders with nothing more original or effective to offer. So let us not be influenced by Nick Clegg and his attempts to persuade us to behave like the good kids with the marshmallows. The need for us to change society is as urgent as it ever was. And marshmallows are deceptive: just sweet and sticky with a very soft centre.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Big Society or Little Trick? (2010)

From the October 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard
Cameron’s Vision Thing is too obvious to fool anybody.
If you are a professional politician your job, as a minister when your party is in office, whether on its own or in coalition, is to take part in managing the general affairs of capitalism in your country. Politicians are elected and so you have to win popular support. Just to say “we’re a better capitalism-management team than the other lot” is hardly inspiring, even though most people do see elections as being about choosing the least objectionable set of politicians. National politicians have even been described as the mere middle management of international corporate capitalism.

As a politician in office you also have to win a degree of popular support for the policies capitalism obliges you to pursue. It’s not enough to be truthful and say “I’m just reacting to whatever problems the uncontrollable workings of capitalism place on my agenda”. You have to give the impression that you are working towards a better life for everyone. Hence the need felt by politicians to do what George Bush called “the Vision Thing”. You must give the impression that you are engaged in doing something more than the mere routine management of capitalism. It rarely works, but politicians still try it from time to time. The latest is Cameron and his “Big Society”.

State and society
Cameron’s “Big Society” is based on a distinction between “society” and “government”, reflecting that emphasised by the German philosopher Hegel between “civil society” and “the state”. In saying he wants “society” to be big he is saying he wants government to be small (or, rather, since that would be going too far from a capitalist point of view, for it to be smaller). His scheme involves transferring some of the services provided by local councils to the “voluntary sector”, i.e. to charities and “social enterprises” (enterprises that are not allowed to distribute their profits). In other words, a continuation of the Thatcherite programme – and the permanent agenda of big business – of rolling back the state so that taxes on capitalist enterprises can be reduced allowing them to keep more of their profits.

Transferring services to the voluntary sector will save money because those working in this sector are generally paid less and have less job security than local government employees. The “Big Society”, then, turns out to be not to be a grand vision but a sordid little exercise in cheese-paring. Or rather, in so far as it is a longer-term view, it’s putting a positive spin on the New Age of Austerity announced by Cameron and his government.

Hegel’s “civil society” (b├╝rgerliche Gesellschaft) is often translated, especially when used by Marx, as “bourgeois society”, which in fact is what Hegel meant: the everyday economic activities of people in pursuit of their personal interest, capitalists competing for markets and profits and workers competing for job and wages. The state he saw as representing and enforcing the overall general interest of society as a whole. Marx showed that, while the state did indeed represent an overall general interest, it was not that of society as a whole but that of the bourgeoisie, the capitalist class, as a whole.

The state is defined not just by socialists but even by conventional academics as a institution with a monopoly in the employment of legitimate force within a given territory. But the state is more than just force. It is also the centre of social control and as such has responsibility for carrying out various administrative tasks essential to the continuation of society such as, these days, education, health care, looking after the vulnerable, town planning and many others.
It is by no means self-evident that these necessary services would be better performed by charities and other civil society organisations than by national or local government. In fact the likelihood is that in most cases they won’t be or won’t be sustainable. But that’s not the point. They will be cheaper. That’s the point.

Voluntary work
There is one interesting aspect of Cameron’s plan. Relying on volunteers to do certain things accepts that there is such a thing as voluntary work, which the ideological defenders of capitalism usually deride. According to them, people are motivated to work only by monetary compensation or by the threat of starvation. In seeking to take advantage, even if only to save money, of the undeniable fact that millions of hours of voluntary work are engaged in by people all the time, the government is unintentionally conceding an important point to socialists. People are motivated to do socially useful work by reasons other than money and so could be relied on to do this too in a socialist society.

In a sense socialism will be a “big society” in that it will be all society and no state. However, what we mean by both “society” and “state” is different from what Cameron means. By “society” we don’t mean bourgeois civil society where everybody has to fend for themselves to get a living, but one based on the common ownership of the means for producing useful things where everyone will be guaranteed a decent living by virtue of having free access to what they need. What people need will be provided by society and will not depend on their own initiative or competitive effort.

While the coercive aspects of the state – what makes it a state and which Cameron has no intention of downsizing – will have disappeared, many of its administrative functions will remain. There will still be central and local councils, though much more accountable and democratic than today and whose personnel won’t be able to allocate themselves any material privileges as everyone will have free access to what they need. In these changed circumstances there is no reason why some of the services provided by these administrations today should not continue to be. On the other hand, there will be scope for some of them to be provided by groups of volunteers. It will be up to the local communities of the time to decide. But the debate then will be a genuine debate about the best way to organise things in the common interest. Not the smokescreen to disguise cost-cutting in the interest of the capitalist class that Cameron’s “Big Society” is.
Adam Buick

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Dig deeper for socialism (2010)

Book Review from the October 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Crack Capitalism by John Holloway, London: Pluto Press 2010

John Holloway’s previous book, Change The World Without Taking Power, was relatively popular and the focus of much debate and discussion, at least in the relatively small circles where you find anti-capitalist activists. A lot has happened since the book’s publication in 2002, but you wouldn’t know it from reading Holloway’s latest, Crack Capitalism, which makes more or less exactly the same arguments.

Holloway’s main point is basically that of ‘autonomist marxism’ and there is one great island of strength in this, which readers might drag themselves onto if they don’t first drown in a sea of verbiage. It can be summed up in a paragraph. It is that the world’s workers create capitalism by going to work. Capitalism is therefore not a thing that stands outside and over and above us, but a social relationship that we create everyday through our daily activities. If we understand this, we can, if we want to end capitalism, merely stop creating it and do something else instead. In fact, according to autonomists, this is actually happening all the time – every time we refuse work, go on strike, call in sick, or even, if Holloway is to be believed, dig our gardens. The workers of the world are always resisting their exploitation, even if only in their own, small, personal ways, and even if they’re not conscious of exactly what it is they’re doing. The task is merely to extend and expand and ‘circulate’ the struggles. Holloway calls these struggles the ‘cracks’ in capitalism. What we need to do is find the cracks, and work hard to make them bigger. “The opening of cracks is the opening of a world that presents itself as closed,” says Holloway. This is a neat way of summarising a fundamental Marxian proposition about class struggle as the motor that drives change. The strength of the argument is that it puts the power and potential for change back where it belongs and where it in fact really lies: in our own hands. The weakness, however, is a very serious one. It is that it risks evading the real difficulties that remain.

According to Holloway, the ranks of the “anti-capitalist revolutionaries” are impressively large. They include the composer who expresses his anger and dreams of a better society through his music, the worker who bunks off work to go read a book in the park, the “gardener who creates a garden to struggle against the destruction of nature”, the friends who form a choir for no good reason except their love of singing, and “the young man in Mexico City who goes to the jungle to organise armed struggle to change the world”. The key to becoming fully human, says Holloway, “is simple: refuse, disobey.” If this didn’t happen, there would be no grounds for hope in a socialist future at all. But if it was enough, then surely capitalism would have collapsed long ago – in fact, could never have got off the ground in the first place.

Imagine, says Holloway, borrowing a metaphor from an Edgar Allen Poe story, that we are all in a room. We are all in it together – some sitting on a comfortable couch, others cramped miserably in a corner, perhaps; but in it together nonetheless. There are four walls, a ceiling, but no windows or doors. And the walls are advancing slowly inwards, threatening to crush us all to death. How would we respond to such a situation? No doubt, says Holloway, some would just refuse to see what was happening and distract themselves instead with the latest offering from Disney. Some would perhaps denounce the walls, but not propose to do anything about it, while others would look forward to and dream of a day when there were no walls. Then there are those like Holloway who would instead run to the walls and try desperately to find cracks, or to create them. In an unintentionally hilarious conclusion, which speaks against his whole argument, Holloway imagines these activists banging their heads against the wall “over and over again” until the wall comes crumbling down. Holloway, for all his straining after poetic effect, doesn’t seem to realise that, in the repeated encounters between a head and a brick wall, the wall very rarely gets the worst of it.

To take another of Holloway’s metaphors, and turn it against him, perhaps the cracks in capitalism are more like the cracks in mud than the cracks in a wall – one short spell of rain can wash them away without trace. To understand this and organise to counter-act it, to get to the stage where the class struggle of our side could conceivably counter, say, capital flight to the other side of the world, or the organised violence of state power, requires exactly the kind of big-picture thinking and dedicated, disciplined organising that Holloway dogmatically opposes.

We in the Socialist Party do not of course oppose most of the activities that Holloway places his hopes in. As individuals, some of us enjoy gardening, for example; and most of us are active in trade unions and similar organisations, even if we do not take up arms and head out into the Mexican jungle. But we do not flatter to deceive, nor dodge the most difficult questions. The problem we have to face is that, in the class struggle, the odds are nearly always against us, and that to build a socialist future, we need a mass organisation of people who know what it is they want and are prepared to work to achieve it. As Engels put it, “The period for sudden onslaughts, of revolutions carried out by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses, is past. Where the question involves the complete transformation of the social organisation, there the masses must be consulted, must themselves have already grasped what the struggle is about, and what they stand for.” Holloway’s work is in many ways an ingenious dodging of this immense task. But the task remains and will remain as long as capitalism does. It’s time we faced it.
Stuart Watkins