Wednesday, June 20, 2012

In defense of capitalism (1995)

Book Review from the November 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Struggle for Hearts and Minds. Essays on the Second World War by Raymond Challinor (Bewick Press)

This book lives up to its title, being a collection of articles written for different journals over the years on working class discontent in Britain during the Second World War.

Challinor is under no illusion as to why the war was fought, not to 'defend democracy' and 'defeat fascism' but to defend the conflicting economic and strategic interests of the ruling classes of the countries involved.

He gives a good account of what these interests were but his main theme is about how warring governments also have to take steps to maintain 'the will to fight' amongst the population they rule over. His contention is that, on a number of occasions in Britain, this was in danger of being undermined, but that this was hushed up - and so successfully contained - by the authorities.

Challinor describes how the Labour Party was a loyal defender of the British Empire (one of the key issues at stake in the war) both before and during the war, even ordering the bombing of tribespeople in Iraq to protect British oil interests there. He reminds us too of the ultra-jingoist position adopted by the Communist Party, though only after the German attack on Russia on 21 June 1941. Before that they had loyally supported the Nazi-Soviet Pact, calling for a negotiated peace with Germany, a demand Challinor shows had more widespread support amongst people (and not just Moscow puppets or Nazi sympathisers) than we have been led to believe.

Challinor writes as a Trotskyist (though at the time he was a member of the old ILP, not that the two were incompatible) and so exaggerates not the discontent itself, but the possibilities of exploiting it for anti-war ends. Despite this, this is a book which will be of interest to Socialists. It also contains a number of well-aimed cartoons, one which we reproduce here.
Adam Buick

Who are the ecologists? (1984)

From the August 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is broadly accepted that acid rain is damaging forestry, fisheries, agriculture, buildings and public health throughout Europe, Eastern Bloc countries, Scandinavia and North America. For example over 18,000 lakes in Sweden are "acidified"; 4,000 of them are "biologically dead". According to information put out by Acid Rain '84, an ecology group, 34 per cent of West Germany's forests are damaged by air pollution and in 1982 almost 1½  million acres of woodland were designated a total damage area. These are but two examples of widespread damage to the environment which is admitted to be a rapidly worsening problem.

It is also accepted, except by the Central Electricity Generating Board, that acid rain begins with the release of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, mainly from power stations burning fossil fuels and also from industry. From a total of 20 million tons of sulphur dioxide released in Europe in 1982, Britain topped the league with emissions of 4.2 million tons.

In the minds of many people this presents itself simply as a practical problem of pollution, but if this were the case then there would be no difficulty in solving it. The means for preventing these emissions of sulphur dioxide are available, so technically speaking there would be no difficulty in stopping it now. But the problem is not what it appears to be. At a conference held on the environment in Munich in June 1984, the British Government delegation refused to agree to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions by 30 per cent, stating that in Britain this would cost 1 billion pounds. This is the real reason why pollution is not stopped and therefore the cause of the continuing problem. It is part of the economic constraints imposed on social action by capitalism.

As a pressure group, Acid Rain '84 have their own economic difficulties. Their leaflets ask for donations to their acid rain appeal. One can give £5 or £10 or more, though it is not clear what they do with the money. Doubtless the 1 billion pounds required for a 30 per cent reduction is beyond the scope of their fund raising campaign but they say that the money will fuel their efforts to protect the environment. The group is part of the Friends of the Earth organisation, which shares the outlook of the Ecology Party, which in its turn seeks to form a government to run capitalism. The question arises, where would an Ecology Party government get the 1 billion pounds to finance a reduction in emissions of sulphur dioxide, or possibly the 3 billion pounds to stop it altogether? In their intended version of capitalism an Ecology Party government would attempt to control the use and development of industrial methods through taxation. They would penalise destructive methods by taxing them out of existence and use the money raised to finance ecologically benign ones.

They would introduce new taxes such as a natural resources tax aimed at conservation and re-cycling of materials; a progressive turnover tax which would penalise large enterprises; and a tax on advertising aimed at "consumerism", although the mass of the population might be surprised to learn that they are guilty of wanton consumerism. They would stiffen capital transfer tax and capital gains tax, and again corporation tax would penalise the large enterprise.

All these taxes, however, are not to be spent solely on ecologically safe projects: an Ecology Party government would maintain armies and armaments production. This is according to the ecological principle that the use of chemical weed killers must be stopped but the use of guns for killing people can continue. As their 1983 Election Manifesto states, "Having unilaterally renounced all nuclear weapons, Britain should continue to possess conventional weapons suited to a defensive role". They do allow that "Overall spending on defence should be progressively reduced", but presumably this is on condition that the other side does it as well, which is usually the view taken by the other side and the reason why it never happens.

The Ecology Party, then, stands for the continuation of capitalism complete with commodity production, rival nation states, armed forces and an horrendous taxation system. Though they might think it is a new idea, in fact the notion that a controlled redevelopment of capitalism can be politically stage-managed through the taxation system is an old and failed idea. It originated in the Labour Party, which in the past imagined that class differences could be removed and worthy social projects initiated by control of taxes. The Labour Party also took the view that arms expenditure could be progressively reduced; in practice they have been one of the big spenders on arms.

No Labour government has ever been able to implement its policies based on tax measures. It was Sir Stafford Cripps who, as Chancellor in the post war Labour Government, brought his supporters back to reality when he told them firmly that he was not in a position to impose taxes in an arbitrary way. The question arises, why has no Labour government ever been able to do it, and why will the Ecology Party not be able to do it in the future?

The central contradiction in the arguments of the Ecology Party is that they would be seeking massive government funds for what they consider to be desirable objectives. Not just 3 billion pounds for the reduction of sulphur dioxide emissions but also for many other measures. Yet at the same time they seek to break up the structure of economic viability in energy supply, use of materials, and industrial and manufacturing production methods from which government funds in the form of taxes are derived. In these circumstances, where do they imagine an Ecology Party government would get the money? The structure of commodity production and the particular production methods taken up is not something determined by free choice about what is socially desirable. These production methods are determined by competition in the market.

It is totally unrealistic to imagine that commodity production, whereby goods are presented for sale in the market, can embrace a section of the world capitalist economy which has adopted production methods which are significantly less competitive than the rest. With lower productivity and higher costs the goods produced simply would not sell for a profit and therefore production would not take place. An Ecology Party government would depend for its funds on the prosperity of the national economy and the inevitable result of imposing higher costs on the capitalist economy, either through high taxes or uneconomic production methods, would be collapse and the rapid demise of such a government. If the Ecology Party government seriously attempted to implement its programme it would not last weeks. It would not only be capitalists who would seek to eject them but workers too would quickly want them out.

Nor is it practical to imagine that all sections of world capitalist producers, either as enterprises or governments, including state capitalist governments, could agree to adopt production methods which were less than the most efficient available. The plain fact has to be faced that commodity production is still using, for the most part, energy sources which began with the industrial revolution over two hundred years ago — the burning of fossil fuels. There can be little doubt that the 20 million tons of sulphur dioxide released into the atmosphere in Europe in 1982 represents an increase over what was released in particular years during the nineteenth century. The undoubted reason for this is that this remains the cheapest energy source.

By accepting that capitalist production should continue the Ecology Party has destroyed the credibility of its best aspirations. Like the Labour Party before them they have made a political appointment with failure and disillusion. Worse than this, they are now diverting concern over desperately serious problems into a political dead end which can only have the effect of delaying real solutions.

The resources of the earth do not represent the natural environment in which human life, as part of nature, must find its own equilibrium. They take on an economic form, functioning as the material elements of capital. The economic drive which governs their use is the accumulation of capital, which is itself governed by the economic laws of commodity production. This inevitably results in the inability of society to consciously regulate its relationship with the natural world. The function of the working class is to apply its labour power to natural resources for the object of profit and capital accumulation. Thus oil, coal, natural gas, metals, the land, seas, forests and atmosphere function economically for the object of capital accumulation. This is the system which the so called ecologists want to perpetuate.

With the abolition of capitalism, in which goods take the form of commodities for sale on the market, and the abolition of the wage labour/capital relationship, socialism will establish direct co-operation between producers and goods will be produced directly for need. This will eliminate the economic constraints which at present severely limit the use of production methods. Production for use will consciously regulate production and this will include a choice of methods limited only by available technique and practicality. Socialism will also eliminate a vast amount of waste and at least double the number of people available for useful work.

In these circumstances, production for need will not be solely confined to material consumption. It is a vital need that human activity should interact with the natural environment in non-destructive ways. Socialism would have no difficulty in applying a principle of conservation production which would include working within existing natural systems without altering them. This would be the only safe way to proceed.

Certainly in the field of energy supply the rapid development of safe renewable sources would appear to present the most desirable option. Though these are at present hopelessly uneconomic under capitalism, socialism would have no difficulty in developing and applying this existing technology. Conservation production would mean employing methods that avoid using up and destroying natural resources. For example, standardised machinery could be designed with the minimum number of wearing parts which, with simple maintenance, could be easily replaced and the materials re-cycled and used again. For parts of machinery not subject to wear, durable materials which do not deteriorate could be used. If for some reason such machinery became redundant, the materials involved could be recycled and used again. The principle of conservation production could establish the practice that once materials became socially available after extraction and processing, they would be available for permanent use in one form or another. Thus socialism would bring into use means of production, permanent installations, structures and goods which would last for a long time, and even when redundant could be re-cycled for other uses. With its shoddy goods, built in obsolescence, and the pressure of the market to constantly renew its capacity for sales, capitalism is incapable of applying this production principle.

The kind of world implied by the aspirations of the so called ecologists is one where society could make definite decisions about how best to provide for needs and then be free to implement those decisions outside the economic constraints imposed by capitalism. There can be only one way to achieve this — through the success of the world socialist movement. It is inconceivable that the life of world society can achieve equilibrium with nature unless it first achieves unity and common purpose within its own organisation.

The fatal error of the Ecology Party is in thinking that the mere winning of an election, and the establishment of their own government to run capitalism, will enable their aspirations to be advanced. The problem does not resolve itself solely as a question of who runs capitalism. The fallacy involved in believing this is the one which has brought the Labour Party to failure and disillusion. They would find that capitalism would run them, as it has the successive Labour governments. The Ecology Party has gained membership partly on the basis of the failures of Labour Governments, but in their turn they have adopted exactly the same erroneous position. So much is this the case that we can already anticipate the weak excuses, the shifting of blame and apologies for their inevitable failures. These will be the state of trade in a possible future depression, a balance of payments crisis, the run on the pound, industrial strife, the conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund for granting loans, inflation, renewed war . . . What makes the Ecology Party think that if they were to win an election all these features of capitalism would suddenly disappear?

The continuation of capitalism on its blind and uncontrolled course is a gamble on the conditions of life itself. This is surely within the view of anyone with a serious concern for ensuring a stable balance of natural systems in which humanity can enjoy being part of nature. Who are the ecologists? Socialists are the ecologists. Members of the "Ecology" Party should join us now.
Pieter Lawrence