Saturday, June 19, 2010

Hypocrisy Exposed (2005)

Book Review from the December 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Simon Schama: Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution. BBC Books

Forget Schama the TV historian - this is a solid piece of research into a sordid piece of British and American history from the late 18th and early 19th century. The European colonists in America rebelled against their British rulers, leading to the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

This was the period of slavery and the slave trade, and many black slaves (and 'free' blacks) saw through American protestations about liberty and supported the loyalist (i.e. British) side. Some black people fought on the patriot (American) side, though slaves were excluded from the American army and giving arms to any black people was anathema to many, especially in the south.

But once Britain had been defeated, the question arose of what would happen to these black 'loyalists'. Some escaped slaves were recaptured by their owners, but most managed to avoid this dire fate and were given certificates by the British commandant of New York, stating that they were free to go where they wished (i.e. they were no longer slaves and subject to the orders of their owner).

In 1783 many loyalists, both white and black, were shipped off to Nova Scotia to start a new life. But the 3,500 black settlers there were subject to appalling discrimination, being always last in line for such things as food supplies and allotment of land. Consequently, many of the former slaves travelled (in some cases, returned) to Africa, specifically to what later became Freetown in Sierra Leone.

Under the initially somewhat paternalistic regime of the Sierra Leone Company, they attempted to establish a settlement of their own where they could produce their own crops and trade with local chiefs. In principle, everything was run democratically, with each head of household having a vote, including women. Says Schama, 'the first women to cast their votes for any kind of public office anywhere in the world were black, liberated slaves who had chosen British freedom'.

But this freedom was illusory: in 1800 the black residents of Freetown rebelled against mistreatment but were savagely put down, by a Company army partly consisting of Maroons (former Jamaican slaves who now fought on the British side). Two of the leaders were hanged.

Schama effectively exposes the hypocrisy of the rulers on both sides. The British government scoffed at the Americans' pretensions to freedom while owning other human beings, and Americans condemned a system where the poorest inhabitants of British cities were little better than slaves. He also brings out the courage and tenacity of slaves and ex- slaves who fought for some dignity in their lives.
Paul Bennett

Pathfinders: Blow-out (2010)

The Pathfinders column from the June 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

The deep-water blow-out currently gushing gigantic quantities of crude into the Gulf of Mexico threatens at the time of writing to be the biggest environmental disaster in US history, and already the blame slick is reaching into every inlet and niche of government and the oil industry.

The fact that there could conceivably be industrial disasters in socialism means that, for socialists, the big question is how we would manage affairs better. What, if anything, would a democratic, communally-managed global society do different?

In the first place, we would have to ask whether we are really so desperate for oil that we are willing to maintain an industry now recognised as one of the most dangerous in the world. In a moneyless society, who would volunteer to risk their lives, when other sources of energy remain untapped, unexplored or undeveloped? There have been 858 fires and explosions, and 55 deaths, in the Gulf since 2001, yet new drilling licences have been granted every year by the hundreds. Many of these, like the one BP got for Deepwater Horizon, are a ‘categorical exclusion’ exempting the operator from scrutiny by the Environmental Protection Agency and intended only for projects where environmental damage in the event of failure is expected to be ‘minimal or non-existent’ (New Scientist, 15 May).

Even supposing that socialism could not break the addiction to oil, a very large supposition indeed and one too great to explore here, the question arises whether as a responsible collective we would dare push the drilling technology to its limits and well beyond our knowledge and ability to recover from a catastrophic failure. What is striking about this affair is the lack of preparedness shown by all parties. The Gulf spill is at nearly twice the depth required to crush a Navy submarine, making direct human intervention impossible. The blow-out preventer failed. The huge 125 tonne containment dome failed. The robot-teams trying to shut off the valves failed. The secondary drilling shaft may work but will take another two months. The ‘plume’ problem was not anticipated. The injection of dispersant at the well-head had never been tried, and may have contributed to the plume problem. Even the amount of oil coming out has been consistently underestimated, with BP at first playing for a safe 1,000 barrels a day, then later revising this to 5,000 while independent researchers estimate between 5 and 14 times as much as this (Guardian, 17 May).

BP have been criticised already for this downplaying and reluctance to provide information, but it’s easy to see their motives. In socialism there would be no stock market share-price to consider, or corporate image to protect, or litigation to avoid, all of it leading to a tendency to talk down the scale of the disaster and be tight-lipped with information in the interests of damage limitation. BP stock prices have fallen sharply, its ‘green’ image is in tatters, and already over a hundred lawsuits in Louisiana have been consolidated into a class action which will sue BP for hundreds of millions, a figure itself dwarfed by the cleanup costs which BP are of course trying to offload onto the Swiss company Transocean who ran the Deepwater Horizon rig.

“It is incumbent upon us to inform all of our neighbours, not just the islands, but those countries that could be affected by disasters that happen within our territorial waters”, says the US State Department (BBC Online, 19 May). Perhaps pro-capitalists will miss the irony here but socialists certainly won’t. In socialism these neighbours would have been consulted, and the risks made known, before any drilling went ahead, not merely informed after a disaster they had no say in preventing.

It is also not likely that, given consultation, socialist engineers would ignore or overlook published research which anticipated all the above problems. A report in 2000 revealed that blow-out preventers (BOPs) might fail at depths of a mile or more, causing catastrophic pollution. BP and Transocean can scarcely say they didn’t know this, as they co-authored the report (New Scientist, 15 May). The problem of deepwater ‘plumes’, where oil and water emulsify into gigantic underwater columns which never reach the surface and therefore cannot be contained by any known surface collection methods, may have astonished local oceanographers in the Gulf but was already known from experiments off Norway in 2000 (New Scientist, 22 May).

It is also vanishingly unlikely that socialist society would entrust such drilling to an operational team found responsible (BP were fined $87m plus a further $50m to settle criminal charges) for 270 safety violations which led to 15 deaths in an explosion in 2005. And in another court judgment in Texas in December 2009 BP were fined $100m and branded ‘serial polluters’.

The cost of the cleanup plus litigation to BP is estimated at between $1 – 2bn , but this has to be set against the year’s profit BP is expected to make from its drilling operations of around $20bn, so even in a worst case scenario it’s still cheaper for BP to pay out for cleaning up and court costs than avoid the disasters in the first place. In fact, BP is cleaning up in more senses than one.

And what of the future, now that the US government is aiming to raise the corporate liability cap from $75m to $10bn? The likelihood is that deepwater drilling will move to fields with no such regulations. One recent find off the Falklands is a case in point, and in waters three times deeper than the site of the current spill. The mind can only boggle at what will happen if a drilling operation there suffers a similar blow-out.

Socialism, and its productive and extractive processes, will be driven primarily by consideration of human need, and the way to define and then provide that need will be one of socialist society’s most pressing debates. In capitalism there are no such concerns. It follows the money, wherever it leads, even into the depths of hell, while human society and the environment inevitably get dragged down with it.
Paddy Shannon

Socialist Meeting in London: Class struggle and climate change

Socialist Party public meeting

"Class struggle and climate change - the politics of personal consumption."

"We keep being told, these days, to reduce, re-use and recycle, to cut down on the meat, the car, the pets and the foreign holidays, to turn down, switch off, unplug and stand-by. The moral pressure-front of climate change is firmly upon us, yet when we take a look at the figures we find that the domestic share of consumption and waste is a small part of the overall picture, and that the lion's share is neither in our control nor even in the control of governments. It is in the hands of the tiny percentage of the Earth's population whom luck or inheritance have made into the super-rich. These are the people defecating on the global doorstep and then blaming the rest of us for the smell.

It's enough to make any class-conscious worker spit and say to hell with recycling. But that would be a big mistake."

Speaker: Paddy Shannon

Saturday, June 19th


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Arty capitalist (2001)

Book Review from the February 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

Supercollector: A Critique of Charles Saatchi. By Rita Hatton & John A. Walker (Ellipsis: London, 2000).

This book is frustrating to say the least, due mainly to the authors' naïve, sub-Trotskyite standpoint. However, it still gives quite a useful overview both of Charles Saatchi as a "super-collector" and of capitalism's ongoing relationship with art in general.

Saatchi, better known perhaps as a high-flying advertising guru, is described as someone who, as a player on the art market, "could be said to have taken control of the means of production and distribution". This indeed seems to be the case, as his influence on contemporary art is immense. He is someone with the means to buy, show, advertise and sell art in vast quantities. It can even be said that the ludicrously named "young British art" (yBa) movement (if you can call it that) "was possibly the first movement to be created by a collector". The way it all works is described thus:
"By seeking out new art before it became well known and expensive, Charles and Doris Saatchi were able to buy it relatively cheaply. If and when it increased in value they could re-sell it and use the profits to buy yet more new, cheap art . . . The beauty of the scheme . . . was that the increase in fame and monetary value of the art they had acquired was due in part to the very fact that they had bought it and—once they had a gallery of their own—exhibited it and memorialised it in catalogues" (p. 121).
Art buyers may be investment managers who need never actually see the artwork in question—the market value and the likelihood of it holding or increasing its value is the important thing rather than any aesthetic qualities. Works of art tend to hold their value well even in times of recession so they will always be a good punt for the anxious capitalist investor. The very fact that Saatchi has been seen to buy work by a particular artist is one way in which it is signalled that work by this individual is "valuable" and therefore worth buying. For producers of art then it became important to get noticed by a big-time buyer and reseller like Saatchi if their work was to become saleable. It became advantageous then for artists to produce work that fitted the profile of the stuff he and others had been buying—producing art entirely to meet prevailing market demand. Until that is the super-collector finds something else "new" and "sensational" which he can buy into cheap, exhibit and sell at a profit. The views of one art critic, Robert Hughes, are summarised like this:
"To meet the demand for so many shows in cities around the world ... fashionable artists ... are compelled to raise productivity and operate on almost an industrial scale"(p. 79).
Industrial capitalist relations between buyer and seller of labour demand industrial methods to keep up with demand for the commodity. It could be argued that this has been reflected in the sort of art that has been produced lately, especially in Britain. We hear for example of Damien Hirst's Some Comfort Gained from the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything; a piece of work consisting of two cows sliced into 12 parts and preserved in glass and steel cases which Charles Saatchi bought for $400,000 in 1996. No doubt abattoir workers may be wondering how the "artistic process" behind this piece differs from what they have to do day-in, day-out. This is an important point as "conceptual" art like this is just that: a "concept" thought up by an artist, who will then often hire other people to actually make it.

Piles of bricks, bits of cow or heaps of electrical goods (such as Turner Prize-nominated Tomoko Takahashi's Line-Out) are basically everyday objects which have been recycled as "art" and given a massive price tag. Essentially we all know that there is no difference between Tracy Emin's unmade bed and our own, other than that one is labelled "conceptual art" and worth a fortune and the other is an unmade bed. This sort of stuff can be produced quickly though, which is no doubt why it has proved so popular with the art market. The most striking thing about conceptual art is probably the lack of concepts. At best the ideas that inspire much of it seem to be superficial poses, and the almost total lack of any bodies of theory or ideology behind the recent art "movements" is surely a testament to this. An interesting point this book does make is that of the links between conceptual art and advertising (the two fields with which Charles Saatchi is personally associated). Both aim at instant impact, sensation or controversy and both do so to sell a product and mask a total lack of real substance or meaning.
Ben Malcolm

Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain 149

Dear Friends,

Welcome to the 149th our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

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    The battle of ideas (1999)

    Editorial from the August 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

    We really know very little about the complex process by which people become socialists. But we do know that advocates of socialism and supporters of capitalism are very far from entering a level playing field. There are powerful social forces that combine to keep the present system going. The schools and universities teach us, subtly and sometimes not so subtly, that buying and selling, handling money, seeking employment, voting for leaders every few years, thinking in national terms, and so on, are all part of the "real world" in which we live.

    The newspapers and journals we read don't need screaming headlines urging us to choose capitalism—their "news", features and advertising unite in assuming a capitalist world. The TV programmes, films and videos we watch and the radio programmes we listen to are similarly slanted. We are sometimes entertained by sagas from pre-capitalist times, but never stimulated by scenes depicting a possible socialist future. The books we read, whether fiction or non-fiction, are overwhelmingly non-political, which means they carry the covert message: "Don't even think about changing the system—better still, don't even think there is a system." Even the theatre, whose plays occasionally feature ideas that socialist reviewers can relate to, is routinely a place where our imagination is invited to venture no further than the bounds of private property society.

    In a world of conformist and consumerist education, mass media, popular culture and entertainment, can we expect conversations between individuals to be any different—perhaps less capitalistic, maybe on a higher plane? We can expect, but we shall be surely disappointed. In the family circle, among friends or neighbours, on the way to work, at work, at play, you can hear variations on a sadly small number of themes. The talk is topical and predictable. It emanates largely from the media: what we saw on the box, what we heard on the radio, what we read in the paper. The antics of our leaders or the royals, what numbers won the lottery, how the match was won or lost, what's in fashion, the latest crime, what's good for the "economy" (even the skint may regurgitate views on that last one).

    If capitalism relied on the support of capitalists to keep it going it wouldn't last a day. It is kept going by the ideas and behaviour of workers. Most of the population—not socialists, of course—passively and sometimes actively participate in their own exploitation. Socialists living in capitalism are exploited but strongly object to being so—and we do all we can to explain to others the nature of this exploitation and the way to end it.