Sunday, May 30, 2010

Pieces Together: Housing Madness (2010)

From the May 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard


"Charities are demanding an urgent rethink of government housing policy after a Guardian investigation found that almost half a million homes are lying empty in the UK enough to put a roof over the heads of a quarter of the families on council house waiting lists. The startling picture of neglect (we estimate that more than 450,000 properties have been empty for at least six months at a time when there is an acute housing shortage) was pieced together using information gathered from local councils under the Freedom of Information Act" (Guardian, 4 April).


"As you work on your taxes this month, here's something to raise your hackles: Some of the world's biggest, most profitable corporations enjoy a far lower tax rate than you do – that is, if they pay taxes at all. The most egregious example is General Electric. Last year the conglomerate generated $10.3 billion in pretax income, but ended up owing nothing to Uncle Sam. In fact, it recorded a tax benefit of $1.1 billion. Avoiding taxes is nothing new for General Electric. In 2008 its effective tax rate was 5.3%; in 2007 it was 15%. The marginal U.S. corporate rate is 35%” (, 1 April).


"German carmaker Daimler has pleaded guilty to corruption in the US and will pay $185m (£121m) to settle the case. The charges relate to US Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission investigations into the company's global sales practices. Daimler, the owner of Mercedes-Benz, admitted to paying tens of millions of dollars of bribes to foreign government officials in at least 22 countries" (BBC News 1 April).


"Thousands of homeless people are being forced off the streets of South Africa to hide the scale of poverty there from World Cup fans. More than 800 tramps, beggars and street children have already been removed from Johannesburg and sent to remote settlements hundreds of miles away. And in Cape Town, where England face Algeria on June 18, up to 300 have been moved to Blikkiesdorp camp where 1,450 families are crammed in a settlement of tin huts designed for just 650 people. Johannesburg councillor Sipho Masigo was unrepentant. ‘Homelessness and begging are big problems in the city,’ he said. ‘You have to clean your house before you have guests. There is nothing wrong with that’" (Daily Mirror, 28 March).

Puppets on a string (2010)

From the May 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard
Despite women-only lists and quotas for minorities does it matter who the politicians running capitalism are?
Capitalism, without a doubt, is unpopular. It would be strange if it were anything else. A system under which a small percentage of the people own just about everything worth owning, while everyone else has to spend his or her time working for the support of this small minority of owners, could hardly expect to win any popularity stakes. That is why everyone trying to seize power, whether in democratic countries or in despotisms, always proclaims that change is desperately needed. (When did you hear of any new leaders taking over a country with the slogan, “Let’s keep everything just as it is”?)

It is true that some changes, some reforms, may benefit some groups, though at the same time other groups may be worse off. It is also true that some changes may benefit some groups in some ways, but make those same groups worse off in other ways. One big change certainly is needed – a change from capitalism to socialism, that is to say abandoning a system organised for the advantage of a small minority, and introducing a system that works for the good of all: but since enormous propaganda machines are operating full-time to persuade people that any change like that is not possible, the result is that the reforms introduced with such fanfares are doomed to be futile, or at best merely cosmetic. If most of the people in Parliament, or in the government, are white, then the cry arises – let’s have more black people. If most of the people running the country are men – then let’s have more women. If most of the top politicians are Christian – then let’s have Muslims, or Buddhists, or Hindus, or atheists. Whatever they are now, let’s have the opposite. If most people in Parliament were women, the cry would probably arise for more men; if most were black, people might well demand more white faces; if most were Muslim, the cry would go up for more Christians, and so on.

If we are talking about the future of Britain, or of the world, then a person’s skin-colour, sex, religious or cultural background, or any other consideration, is of small importance compared with the question of what that person does. A person’s actions, which follow on from their ideas and their attitudes – these are the things that matter.

Take the case which is exercising the government, and the courts, and the newspapers, at the moment: the case of Binyam Mahomed, who is an Ethiopian who lived in Britain from the time he was fifteen. He was arrested in Pakistan in 2002 on suspicion of being a terrorist; he was then smuggled out by the Americans to Morocco and Afghanistan, finally being imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay in 2004, where he stayed for the next five years, without trial. During that time he was tortured by the Americans, or by their allies. Last year a US District Court judge accepted as accurate Mahomed’s account of his treatment, which “included being beaten with a leather strap, subjected to a mock execution by shooting, being punched and kicked, listening to other prisoners screaming and being cut on his chest, penis and testicles with a scalpel. He was also deprived of sleep and had drugs put into his food” (London Times, 11 February).

The UK Court of Appeal has agreed with “Mr Mahomed’s assertion that the UK authorities had been involved in and facilitated the ill treatment and torture to which he was subjected while under the control of the US authorities”. The Master of the Rolls, presiding at the court, also said in his draft judgment that MI5, the British security service, “operated a culture of suppression and disregard for human rights; that it deliberately misled a Parliamentary committee and that its assurances could not be trusted”. The Foreign Secretary sent high-paid lawyers to the court to get this criticism cut out of the judgment. The British government, indeed, has been trying to keep everything secret, on the grounds that the US government would be annoyed if these things came out – despite the publication of the judgment of the US District Court. The American government would not be so friendly and co-operative, thinks Gordon Brown, if everyone knew how they behaved; which raises the question, how friendly and co-operative do you want to be with a government that tortures its prisoners – and imprisons them without trial?

So we have the unedifying spectacle of a member of the Labour government, the Foreign Secretary David Miliband, defending the collaboration of Britain’s “security” services in the torture by the Americans, or their allies, of a “terrorism” suspect. This is justified by officialdom because of the need to preserve our democratic freedoms. In other words, Britain is justified in going along with torture, to make sure we are not overwhelmed by other states, which use completely unacceptable methods such as torture. It is justifiable to use torture in order to save us from – torture. If the Foreign Secretary really believes this, he is in line for a starring role at the next Clowns’ Reunion.

There are in Britain numerous racial or religious or cultural minorities: in fact everyone belongs to a minority of one kind or another. David Miliband is from a Jewish background; his forebears came from eastern Europe, with its grim history of racialism, of oppression, of pogroms against minorities. Who, in the past centuries in Europe, has suffered more than the Jews from despotic regimes which think you can justify torture if you look at from the right angle? But David Miliband has become Foreign Secretary by joining a party which in effect appeals for support at election times by declaring it will run capitalism better than the other contenders for the job. If it is thought that the interests of the British capitalist state demand kow-towing to the Americans, then the British government – including Miliband – kow-tows to the Americans, even to the extent of accepting and colluding in the torture of its own residents. Having a Foreign Secretary from one of the many UK minorities makes absolutely no difference to the final result.

Black people, too, have suffered horribly under the private-property system of society, to the extent that many Africans were actually violently seized and forcibly made into private property, slaves who were owned by – for example – the American and West Indian landed gentry. Surely if a black person was running affairs (it was once said), things must improve. Well, the President of the United States is now black – his father was a Kenyan African. Does anyone think American capitalism is now somehow less capitalist? And many African states which were once ruled by foreign white empires now have black leaders. In South Africa, for example, Nelson Mandela became president, and was succeeded by Thabo Mbeki and then by Jacob Zuma. Numbers of people with black skins appear to have done very well out of the change-over. “Last year South Africa overtook Brazil as the country with the biggest gap between rich and poor” (London Times, 11 February).

We also used to hear that capitalism would somehow be more tolerable – more kindly, more benign – to the vast majority of non-capitalists if a woman was running it. But in the last few decades we have seen numbers of women running countries – among those who have risen to the top of the political pile have been Isabel Peron in Argentina, Gro Brundtland in Norway, Sirimavo Bandaranaike in Ceylon, Indira Gandhi in India, Golda Meir in Israel, Angela Merkel in Germany, and of course Margaret, now Lady, Thatcher in Britain. What difference did it make?

In 1975 Isabel Peron ordered the Argentine armed forces and its secret services to “annihilate . . . subversive elements”, and there followed more than a thousand kidnappings, assassinations, and “disappearances” of people who either opposed the government or who it was thought might oppose it in future. (Isabel Peron’s allies abroad included the benign and kindly quartet Ceausescu of Romania, Gaddafi of Libya, Mobutu of Zaire, and the Shah of Iran; she fled to Spain after leaving office, and two years ago the present Argentine authorities tried, but failed, to get her extradited.) The history of Mrs Thatcher alone would explain why the so-called “feminist” argument – that a woman Prime Minister would somehow make capitalism softer, gentler, more acceptable – has now been exploded. In fact it is the accepted view now that the methods of the Thatcherite cabinet were tougher and harsher than those of most other governments which had men as Prime Ministers.

If you are running capitalism, the fact that you are a Jew or a Gentile, or black or white, or Christian or Muslim, or Hindu or atheist, or male or female, is completely irrelevant. Whoever you are, you can’t run a turkey farm for the benefit of the turkeys.
Alwyn Edgar

Bullshitters (2010)

Book Review from the May 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Bad Science. By Ben Goldacre. Fourth Estate

In 1986 an American philosopher called Harry Frankfurt wrote an essay “On Bullshit” in which, according to Goldacre who writes a “Bad Science” column for the Guardian, he drew a distinction between lying and bullshitting. A liar knows the truth and seeks to disguise it. A bullshitter doesn’t know or even care about the truth but is out to impress.

Most of those Goldacre criticises in this book are bullshitters rather than liars – though not all, there are some genuine fakes and frauds amongst them. He starts with an easy target, homeopathy, which is patently absurd (as if bottles of diluted water shaken in a particular way could cure anything) but relatively innocuous (drinking diluted water won’t harm you). Some homeopathic practitioners, however, are not and, Goldacre reports, can be very nasty towards critics.

Their argument – and that of all the other ‘alternative’ medicines – is that their treatments work. They certainly seem to in some cases. People do get better after taking the pills or whatever. But the question that needs to be answered is why. Is it because of the pills or is there some other reason? There are a number of possible explanations other than the theory of the ‘alternative’ practitioners. Sometimes the body recovers spontaneously. Some ailments go in cycles, so a bad period will be followed by a less bad one. In others, any therapy, no matter what the theory behind it, will work: any therapy or even sympathetic listening will help. Then there is the ‘placebo’ effect (people getting better because they believe they are being given a certain treatment when in fact they haven’t been) which Goldacre discusses in interesting detail.

Much of the book is devoted to his criticism of popular TV and other ‘nutritionists’, who he identifies as prize bullshitters. Why? Because there is no verified, or even verifiable, evidence for their claims. Some of them may sincerely believe in what they say but their main aim is to make money. Goldacre is quick to add that the same applies to the pharmaceutical companies who are always inventing new ‘syndromes’ for which their pills are the best cure.

Goldacre also criticises scientifically-illiterate journalists who are more interested in a story that will keep readers or pander to their prejudices, so maintaining newspaper or magazine sales, than with the real situation. This can be dangerous as over the MMR scandal as it was because of them that a number of parents left their kids unprotected against measles which they and others later contracted.
The socialist angle on all this is that under capitalism people are forced to make money, one way or another, in order to live and, given this, some will adopt dubious and even dangerous ways of doing this. And that there’ll be no snake-oil salesmen in socialism.
Adam Buick