Monday, January 24, 2011

Greasy Pole: Cable unconnected? (2011)

The Greasy Pole column from the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

In those heady post-election days last May Cameron and Clegg, smirking at the media assembled in Number Ten's garden, assured the nation that Coalition would be the only remedy to the maladies which Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling had so cruelly brought down on our innocent heads. One of the most conspicuous advantages sprouting from this venture into the New Politics (a phrase with implications rather more menacing than they were ready to acknowledge) would be the governmental presence of Vince Cable, influencing official policy on the economy. With all that what could possibly go wrong?

Well just a little over six months later the answer is that an awful lot is going wrong – and not only with what are called the ordinary people who fear for their chances of surviving the cuts but also for the Coalition itself, which can hardly be described as stable and united. For one thing there is the Alternative Vote, suspected by Tories nervously sitting on wafer-thin majorities as a convenient back-door into Parliament for any thrusting LibDem. And then, more calamitous, there has been the schism within LibDem ranks over their surrender to raising university tuition fees after they had in the mass signed that pledge not to do any such thing. Even worse – leading for them on this issue has been the hitherto saintly, all-knowing, all-wise Vince Cable who had the job of working out the details of the policy and then trying to persuade the rest to go along with it.

Cable rocketted to national prominence in December 2007 when, as stand-in leader while the LibDems were electing a successor to Ming Campbell, he drew attention to the new Premier Gordon Brown's “…remarkable transformation in the last few weeks from Stalin to Mr Bean, creating chaos out of order rather than order out of chaos”. (We should not be misled by the consequent rapturous laughter into rating this feeble effort at a joke as historically amusing – MPs are irritatingly liable to relieve their boredom in that way. Even if it had the effect of giving Cable some much needed publicity). Cable's leader Nick Clegg is not famous for making jokes – perhaps because of his sensitivity in the matter after David Cameron said he was one. But he does display a kind of infant passion to develop the necessary political cunning. Looked at in that way it is not difficult to detect a possible strategy involving Cable's allocation to defend the rise in tuition fees.

Train Wreck
It is, after all, not so long ago that Cable was a serious contender for the leadership and – after the Mr. Bean joke and Clegg's first fumbling among the front bench there was expressed regret among the LibDems that he had been so easily allowed to drop out. It could not have helped his case to have to defend the official party line in what Clegg expected to be a “train wreck” of a debate – before which Cable behaved like someone suffering from a serious head injury, apparently unable to decide whether to oppose, or support, or abstain on the increase according to whether he was talking about keeping a pledge or defending Coalition unity or what he called the national interest. In the end, of course, he gave in to blatant, self-interested ambition and held on to his wretched job by going along to the Commons where, professorial spectacles clinging perilously to the end of his nose, he mounted an emphatic defence of the policy which he was supposed to have grave doubts about.

Shell Oil
It is clear from Cable's record that he is no stranger to doubt and confusion. Beginning as a Liberal he moved to Labour then the SDP before returning to what had been re-invented as the LibDems. During this journey he experienced what must have been a seriously instructive spell in the 1970s Scottish Labour Party, including a period as a Glasgow councillor. Eventually his multiple attempts to get into Parliament yielded him the verdant, pricey seat of Twickenham. Heavily qualified as an economist, he was a university lecturer and a Treasury Finance Officer in Kenya. From 1995 to 1997 he was Chief Economist to the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell. During that period the suppression of the people of Nigeria whose lives had been devastated by the Shell operations became an international scandal as the murderous military dictatorship of Sani Abacha developed in intensity and barbarism. In an abrupt loss of his famous powers of grasping a situation, Cable denied any responsibility in, or knowledge of, those calamitous events: an interviewing journalist found him “deeply evasive and avoiding all questions”, another who later asked a spokeswoman for a comment was told “…he does not feel that he knows enough about the latest developments to be able to comment”.

This kind of record is important in sizing up a political ruler who, with an eye to winning high office, is touting for our support. In the case of Vince Cable we have to consider his reputation for unwavering prescience about capitalism's endemic crises which enabled him to sprout into prominence with his (distinctly unoriginal) forecast of the doom which would follow the credit boom. But how usefully did he apply this? In fact he allowed his insights to languish unattended, unspoken. Asked whether he had publicised the disastrous image in his book The Storm he lamely replied: “No, I didn't. That's quite true… But you're quite right…I haven't been to the States for years and years, so I wouldn't claim to have any feel for what's been going on there.” This unconvincing blather leads us to question what gain there is for human society in putting our confidence in leaders such as Cable. How could he be any more reliable and effective than the hordes of malicious swindlers before him? What is stopping us from preferring to have confidence in ourselves to change the world as it needs to be?

Proper Gander (2011)

From the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

“Success and money motivate me. My first word wasn’t ‘Mummy’ – it was ‘money’”. This came from the deluded mouth of Shibby Robati, one of the latest bunch of wannabes to appear on The Apprentice (BBC1). The programme brings together sixteen of “Britain’s brightest business prospects” to compete for a job with a “six-figure salary” working for entrepreneur Lord Alan Sugar. Each week, the contestants are split into teams who compete to win a task, usually to promote and sell a product. Someone from the team which makes less money is ‘fired’ at the end of each episode, until Lord Sugar is left with his new apprentice. Contestants fall into two categories: those whose ego outweighs their talent, and those whose talent is outweighed by their ego. Take, for example, Stuart Baggs, presumably an eight-year old who’s sneaked onto the show, who boasted that “everything I touch turns to sold”. Or Melissa Cohen who, with all the self-awareness of concrete, said “I’m charismatic. I’m intelligent. I’m a damned good businesswoman. I’m at the top of my game and I’m unbeatable”, before she got fired in week four.

Laying into these charm-vacuums is easy because they put themselves forward and are therefore ‘fair game’. But any criticisms should be accompanied by a little guilt, because there’s something sad about how those taking part in The Apprentice have been shaped by the business world. Even allowing for the selective editing to emphasise their faults, none of the contestants are likeable. There’s hardly any warmth on display – you wouldn’t want to go for a pint with any of them. And if you did, instead of a chat they would start pitching to you about how they would market Guinness. Sugar-daddy Alan at least has some wit to lighten his boardroom eviscerations, but who would aspire to the iciness of his co-judges Nick Hewer and Karren Brady? Unfortunately, the young contestants have fallen for a narrow, corporate definition of ‘success’, which hinges on how sharp your suit is and how many people you can trample on. The result? A winner who is 20 percent mannequin and 80 percent smugness.
Mike Foster

A Classic History Book (1968)

Book Review from the December 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Making of the English Working Class by E. P. Thompson

Thompson's excellent work, 800 pages long and first published in 1965, has now been brought out as a paperback. Applying the Marxist view that men make their own history but only out of the materials at hand, Thompson traces the formation of working class consciousness (by which he means the awareness among industrial workers that they were a separate class in society apart from the ruling landed and commercial oligarchy and manufacturing middle class) under the impact of the industrial revolution between 1780 and 1832. But this was not a passive process; working class consciousness was forged out of the struggles of London artisans, weavers, field labourers and Irish migrants against oligarchic government and the factory system.

The early working class is often seen as an ignorant rabble. Thompson exposes this myth and shows how the independent craftsmen who spearheaded the resistance to capitalism, in the Midlands and the North as well as in London, were in fact well-informed and literate with their own view of what society should be like - basically a simple and stable community with a secure place for all.

Wilkes and Liberty, Tom Paine and radicalism, the Corresponding Societies, the pernicious effects of Methodism, Peterloo, the early trade unions, the Cato Street Conspiracy, Robert Owen and Owenism are among the names and events in radical and working class history examined in detail.

Thompson's book deserves a place on every socialist's bookshelf alongside Thorold Rogers' Six Centuries of Work and Wages, the classic history of the workers in England which it (to a certain extent) replaces and certainly supplements.
Adam Buick