Sunday, July 27, 2014

What is capitalism? (2000)

From the December 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard
"Anti-capitalism" has become a popular slogan, and a good thing too. But if this is to have a positive impact people have to be clear as to what they mean by capitalism
To put our cards on the table straightaway, what we mean by capitalism is an economic system where productive resources are used as "capital", i.e. they are used to produce more wealth with a view to profit; this sets in motion an impersonal and uncontrollable economic mechanism which leads to the accumulation, in fits and starts, of more and more capital, of more and more wealth used to produce further wealth with a view to profit. Capitalism is, then, a system of capital accumulation. Hence, of course, its name.
Not just a market economy
This is not how defenders of capitalism like to portray things. Many shun the c-word and talk instead about a "market economy". To most people a market is a friendly place where you buy things you need so the term "market economy" is employed so as to conjure up the idea of an economy geared to serving consumer demands.

It is possible to envisage such an economy on paper but it would be vastly different from capitalism. It would be an economy of self-employed farmers, artisans and shopkeepers, each producing a particular product which they would exchange on the market, via the medium of money, for the products produced by the others which they needed. There would be no profit-making, no exploitation and no accumulation, just independent producers exchanging their products for their mutual benefit.
The farmers, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers and others would be producing their particular products which would sell at a price reflecting the average amount of time required to produce it. There would be no profit and no exploitation because everybody would be receiving the full value of what their labour had produced. They would just be exchanging so much labour in one form for the same amount in a different form.
Marx called such an economy "simple commodity production" (a commodity being, for him, an item of wealth produced for sale), but it is doubtful whether it has ever existed in a pure form. The nearest that may have come to it would have been in some of the early colonial settlements in North America, but even Adam Smith writing over two hundred years ago in 1776 assumes an economy in which there is already production for profit and accumulation.
Capitalism is indeed a market economy, but not a simple market economy. A key difference of course is that under capitalism production is not carried out by self-employed producers but wage and salary workers employed by business enterprises. In other words, under capitalism, the producers have become separated from the means of production. This makes all the difference. The producers are now not bringing to market what they have produced (that belongs to their employer, the owner of the means of production) but only their working skills, so they receive the value not of their product but only of their ability to work, which is less. The product is still under normal circumstances sold at its full labour-time value but the proceeds go not to the direct producers but are pocketed by the owners of the means of production. Profit is the difference between this and what they pay, as wages and salaries, for the working skills they purchase on the labour market.
Production for profit
So capitalism is not a simple market economy. Marx explained the difference well when he said that what happens in a simple market economy is that the producers brought to market a product of a certain value which they sell for money in order to buy another product or products of equal value. The economic circuit is commodity-money-commodity (C-M-C), the aim being to end up with a basket of useful things. Under capitalism the economic circuit is different. A capitalist sets out with a sum of money which they use to buy commodities (factory buildings, raw materials, working skills) that can be used to produce other commodities with the aim of ending up, after these other commodities have been sold, with more money than they started off with. So the circuit is now money-commodities-more money (M-C-M').

It is now clear why capitalism cannot be described as an economy geared to satisfying consumer demands. The products of capitalist production have to find a buyer of course but this is only incidental to the main aim of making a profit, of ending up with more money than was originally invested. Production is initiated not by what consumers are prepared to pay for to satisfy their needs but by what the owners of the means of production calculate can be sold at a profit. This is what makes the wheels of capitalism grind—or not grind, or not grind so quickly, as the case may be—depending on the level of the rate of profit.
But the picture of capitalism is still not complete. Capitalist investors want to end up with more money than they started out with, but why? Is it just to live in luxury and consume in riotous living? That would suggest that they aim of capitalist production was simply to produce luxuries for the rich. Once again, it is possible to envisage such an economy on paper. Marx did, and called it "simple reproduction", but only as a stage in the development of his argument. By "simple reproduction" he meant, logically enough, that the stock of means of production was simply reproduced from year to year at its previously existing level; all of the profits (all of M' less M) would be used to maintain a privileged, exploiting class in luxury and idleness. As a result the M in M-C-M' would always remain the same and the circuit keep on repeating itself unchanged.
Capital accumulation
This of course is not how capitalism operates. It is not a "steady state economy". On the contrary, it is an ever-expanding economy of capital accumulation. In other words, most of the profits are capitalised, i.e. reinvested in production, so that production, the stock of means of production, and the amount of capital, all tend to increase over time (not in a smooth straight line, but only in fits and starts, but that's another story). The economic circuit is thus money-commodities-more money-more commodities, even more money (M-C-M'-C'-M'').

This, however, is not the conscious choice of the owners of the means of production (given the choice, they'd probably prefer to consume it all themselves). It is something that is imposed on them as a condition for not losing their original investment. Competition with other capitalists forces them to reinvest as much of their profits as they can afford to in keeping their means and methods of production up to date. As a result there is continuous technological innovation. Defenders of capitalism see this as one of its merits and in the past it was insofar as this has led to the creation of the basis for a non-capitalist society in which the technologically-developed means of production can be now—and could have been any time in the last 100 years—consciously used to satisfy people's wants and needs.
Under capitalism this whole process of capital accumulation and technical innovation is a disorganised, impersonal process which causes all sorts of problems—particularly on a worldscale where it is leading to the destruction of the environment and the absolute impoverishment of many formerly independent producers in the so-called Third World—which have rightly ignited the anger of the new wave of anti-capitalist protesters.
Alternatives, viable and unviable
Unless these anti-capitalist protesters take the time to study what exactly capitalism is and how it operates they risk not advocating a viable alternative. (We are assuming of course that they want to be pro-something and not merely anti-capitalist, not merely a feeble counterweight within capitalism to the excesses of certain international capitalist organisations and corporations.)

One danger is that the anti-capitalists will be diverted into campaigning to try to put the clock back by returning to the simple market economy that may have existed in early colonial North America. This is an important strand in Green and anarchist thinking as exemplified by the slogan "small is beautiful". We are offered the idyllic picture of an economy of self-employed smallscale producers producing for a local market or of an economy composed entirely of LETS schemes. This wouldn't be capitalism but it wouldn't be possible either, if only because enough to feed, clothe and house the world's present population would not be able to be produced on this basis.
More sophisticated Green thinkers, sensibly, don't want to go that far. What they advocate is a steady-state market economy, a variant of Marx's "simple reproduction". The idea is that the surplus would be used not to reinvest in expanding production, nor in maintaining a privileged class in luxury but in improving public services while maintaining a sustainable balance with the natural environment. It's the old reformist dream of a tamed capitalism, minus the controlled expansion of the means of production an earlier generation of reformists used to envisage.
But it is still a dream because it assumes that a profit-motivated market economy can be tamed, and made to serve human and/or environmental needs. History has proved that it can't be; capitalism has shown itself to be an uncontrollable economic mechanism which operates to force economic actors to make profits and accumulate them as more and more capital irrespective of the consequences. This mechanism first came into operation in the 16th century and since then has spread to dominate the whole world in the form of the world market. Capitalism today could in fact be described as the profit-motivated, capital-accumulating world market economy.
Other anti-capitalist protesters see this fact that capitalism is a world system as being the problem and the solution as being to break it up into separate capitalisms operating within national frontiers behind protective tariffs walls. This hardly justifies the description "anti-capitalist" of course, and parallels a nasty strand of nationalist thinking which has always associated capitalism with a sinister "cosmopolitan" conspiracy. Indeed, the danger is that, in the absence of being presented with a credible alternative, it is here that the "anti-capitalist" protests will find the loudest popular echo. The US labor unions took a nationalist line in Seattle and in Britain the Green Party has already endorsed the reactionary "Save the Pound" campaign.
So, given that anything that rejects technology and the existence of one world is a non-starter, what is the credible, viable alternative to capitalism as a world system of production for profit and uncontrolled and uncontrollable capital accumulation? It's where all the productive resources of the Earth have become the common heritage of the people of the world—"make the Earth a common treasury for all", as Gerrard Winstanley put it right at the beginning of capitalism—so that they can be used, not to produce for sale on a market, not to make a profit, but purely and simply to satisfy human wants and needs in accordance with the principle of, to adapt a phrase, "from each region on the basis of its resources, to each region on the basis of its needs".
Adam Buick

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Cooking the Books: More conservative mottos (2005)

The Cooking the Books column from the November 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

That wage increases cause price increases is an old lie. This assumes that capitalist firms can raise the price of their products at will. But they can’t. They can only charge what the market will bear. Workers are in a basically similar position. But the market for products and the market for labour power are two different markets. Assuming that firms are charging what the market will bear  and they’d be foolish not to  then, if the labour market allows the workers a chance to push up wages, firms just have to live with increased costs and lower profits for the time being.
It is because wage increases eat into profits  not because they supposedly cause “inflation”  that employers fight them and, as far as they and the media are concerned, any old argument, even one that’s not true, will do to oppose and discredit groups of workers demanding a wage increase.
In any event, even if a wage increase in a firm did lead to an increased price of that firm’s products, that would not be inflation, which is an increase in the general price level. Such an increase can come about for various reasons  increased demand for products in a boom, a fall in the value of gold when it’s the money-commodity, and an overissue of a inconvertible paper currency. Even though the double-digit inflation of the 1970s is over, inflation still exists today and is mainly caused by inflating the currency. The Bank of England has a remit to inflate the currency by 2 percent a year. Which is why both prices and wages tend to increase annually by more or less this amount, depending on conditions in particular markets.
The view that wage increases cause price increases has long been argued over. In 1865 the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association in London devoted four meetings to discussing it. At the last of these Marx decisively refuted the argument in a lecture that was published after his death as a pamphlet Value, Price and Profit. This has now been republished, under what was its original title of Wages, Price and Profits, by the Communist Party of Britain, which publishes the Morning Star and which is the real political successor to the old Communist Party of Great Britain (and not to be confused with another group which has usurped this name and which publishes a paper called the Weekly Worker).
After explaining why workers should always press for the highest wages they can get, Marx famously urged the unions:
Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day's wage for a fair day's work!’ they ought to inscribe on their banner therevolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wages system!’”
In his introduction, Robert Griffiths of the CPB’s Economic Committee can’t ignore this and has to pay lip service to Marx by writing that he held that “workers would forever be commodities to be exploited until capitalism and its wages system were abolished”. But he then ignores this completely, going on to advocate that unions should aim at, as well as higher wages, “statutory price controls”, “better state benefits and pensions”, “more public services”, “controls on the export of capital”. All of which assume the continuation of capitalism.
If Marx returned today we know what he would say: Instead of the conservative motto ‘statutory price controls/better state benefits, etc, etc’ the unions ought to inscribe on their banners the revolutionary watchword ‘Abolition of the Wages System’.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Pathfinders: War – the Enders in Sight (2012)

The Pathfinders Column from the April 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

The recent news that a US soldier in Afghanistan has gone loopy and machine-gunned a whole bunch of small children will have shocked even those veteran war-observers with long memories of such ‘My Lai’-type massacres. With the omniscience of modern communications it is no longer feasible to hush up such inevitable excesses, and the incident is bad news for politicians and strategists trying to wind down Western involvement in Afghanistan and extricate their countries with some shred of dignity.
But it will also add weight to the arguments of developers aiming to remove human agency altogether from the battlefield. As technology and economies of scale continue to accelerate, these arguments are gathering force. Existing military ‘training’ involves the unsavoury business of trying to turn sentient mammals into cold-blooded killing machines without conscience, self-regard, emotion or independent thought. The problem is, it doesn’t work and never has worked. Despite thousands of years of history and the most intense training schemes ever devised, humans are just not very good at war. Most soldiers in wartime never fire on or even at the enemy, despite their supposed motivation for doing so. Of those that do, the stress can easily send them over the edge, resulting in embarrassing murder sprees.
Practically and tactically, robots are better. They shoot what they are supposed to shoot; obey without demur; don’t rape or torture; don’t sleep, eat, desert, mutiny, fight each other, get ill or go mad; they retain functionality even when damaged; and they do not tie up rescue resources when badly damaged. No grieving populations need await casualty figures; no moral tide threatens to wash away public resolve; no breast needs beating at military reversals; no songs of regret need writing about Little Johnny never coming home because Little Johnny never went in the first place. If war has its own form of utopia, this is it.
The main problem with robots is that they are stupid and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Artificial intelligence systems can give a measure of independent decision-making to battlefield robots along the lines of the self-driving car or the Mars-lander, but giving autonomy and firepower to machines risks the same kind of blow-back effect that banished gas as a viable battlefield weapon. For the moment, humans have to be in charge.
The process of robotising warfare is however under way.  Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) drones fly sorties and strafe enemy targets, while improvised explosive device (IED) drones trundle up to suspicious roadside objects in a selfless act of identification before the bomb disposal experts move in. The Pentagon recently invited manufacturers to design ‘disposable’ satellite systems for intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance that could be launched in the field by a soldier using a handheld device (BBC Online, 14 March). Research is ongoing into powered exoskeletons. Essentially, these install the human controller inside the armoured robot. Problems with power supplies, however, mean ‘robosquaddie’ is still some way off.
One might be tempted to imagine future battles being fought entirely between robot armies without any direct human agency at all, but although socialists wouldn’t complain about the lack of worker self-sacrifice involved, this is unlikely. The 1985 novel Enders Game, currently in film production, describes a society where war is fought remotely like a computer game, and in the gradual distancing of humans from the live action we can indeed see signs of the virtualisation of war.
The future of war is not on any physical battlefield, where indestructible Terminators can too easily be hacked and turned against their own side. It is in the virtual fields of the internet, fast becoming the nervous system of the world. Already awash with amateur viruses and professional adware and spyware, the internet is now hosting covert state attacks on social and political infrastructure. Last November Foreign Secretary William Hague warned of such attacks during a cybersecurity conference in London. He avoided mentioning China and Russia by name but in any case the finger points in both directions, and most state administrations have some form of a cyber ‘defence’ department devoted to hacking and undermining economic adversaries.
All this is to put in somewhat larger perspective recent news reports about the ‘boring’ nature of ICT lessons in British schools. That the state should decide to direct so savage a critique at a central part of its own education strategy is surprising and the question needs to be asked: why this, and why now? The ICT syllabus was, like every other syllabus, designed around the supposed needs of future employers at a time when young people had little access to computers and wouldn’t know a spreadsheet from a spark plug. Today computers are vastly easier to use, but more to the point, with social networking changing the youth lifestyle, students are often more tech-savvy than their mostly unqualified teachers. The overwhelmingly office end-user orientation of the school syllabus will comfortably turn out armies of low-paid administrative assistants, but that’s not going to reignite the white heat of British technological creativity and employers know it. Apps, games and cyber-security are where it’s at, and for that you need to get ‘under the bonnet’, down among the program code. The recent anti-establishment successes of hacktivist groups, Anonymous and Lulz-Sec have caught states flat-footed, but they’re catching on fast. Virtual war is coming, and the state with the most IT-literate population will be the one which wins, or at least survives, the coming cyber-conflicts.
For socialists there is an upside to all this. As the needs of capitalism become ever more sophisticated, power flows into the hands of the workers whose job it is to run that system. But it is a perpetual arms-race between the ruling elite and workers, each one learning to be smarter, faster and more devious than the other. When workers in Iran, Burma and Egypt broke out in rebellion, the state shut down communications channels in a massive denial-of-service which protesters found ways around. But in Syria the regime was cleverer and hacked the rebels’ own communications, flooding them with gibberish. The Syrian regime may win in the short term through sheer medieval brutality, but you can’t run a modern state without a sophisticated infrastructure and a working class trained to run it. And that inevitably gives capitalism its Achilles heel, and workers their ultimate weapon against war itself.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Mixed Media: 'Feminist Awakening' (2013)

The Mixed Media Column from the January 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Feminist awakening
Hattie Morahan was effervescent as Nora Helmer in A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen at the Young Vic last year.
Ibsen, the father of modernism brought a realism and naturalism to the theatre with A Doll's House (1879), and was an influence on George Bernard Shaw and Eugene O'Neill. Ibsen's play highlights the lack of women's freedom, and was critical of marital roles in middle bourgeois society. In the middle bourgeois class, hearth and home, domesticity, motherhood and wifely duty were sacred institutions.
A Doll's House depicts the feminist awakening (‘I'm a human being before anything else’) of Nora, a 'good' middle bourgeois wife of a lawyer, and a mother, who begins the play as a beguiling 'doll'. Nora ends the play as an emancipated 'Woman', literally flying the nest, abandoning her children, and her act of slamming the door as she leaves has come to represent the play itself. Ibsen commented that ‘a woman cannot be herself in modern society since it is an exclusively male society’.
Eleanor Marx was an admirer of A Doll's House, and played Nora in a 'private' performance in a Bloomsbury house in 1885 with Edward Aveling as Helmer and George Bernard Shaw as Krogstad. In 1886 she wrote the article The Woman Question where she identified that ‘the position of woman rests on an economic basis’ with ‘no solution in the present condition of society’ but in socialism ‘the woman will no longer be the man's slave but his equal’. Eleanor Marx quotes Ibsen as Helmer says to Nora ‘home life ceases to be free and beautiful directly its foundations are borrowing and debts’. In her 1891 article A Doll's House Repaired, Eleanor Marx satirises the English petty bourgeois reaction to the play and ‘repairs’ the last act in a parody ending.

Eleanor Marx criticised bourgeois women reformers who advocated palliative not remedial measures but in the early 20th century bourgeois women became prominent in the Suffragette movement which campaigned for middle bourgeois women to get the vote on an equal property qualification as men. The Socialist Standard in 1908 wrote that the Suffragettes, who were campaigning in practice for ‘votes for rich women, were ‘a bulwark of capitalism directly opposed to the interests of the working class’ and that ‘the salvation of working class women lies in the emancipation of their class from wage slavery’. The Suffragettes suspended their campaign in 1914 to support the Great War. In 1912 Rosa Luxemburg said the vote for proletarian women could ‘threaten the traditional institutions of class rule and advance and intensify the proletarian class struggle’.
Emma Goldman in her work The Significance of the Modern Drama of 1914 concluded about A Doll's House; ‘when Nora closes behind her the door of her doll's house, she opens wide the gate of life for women, and proclaims the revolutionary message that only perfect freedom and communion make a true bond between man and woman, meeting in the open, without lies, without shame, free from the bondage of duty’.
Steve Clayton

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Towards Post-Industrial Capitalism? (1998)

From the December 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

In 1973 Daniel Bell's seminal work, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, was published. Its impact on the emerging discipline of socio-economic forecasting—or "futurology"—was considerable. But what exactly does a "post-industrial society" mean?
Robert L. Heilbroner in his Business Civilisation in Decline defined its core features as: the growing predominance of the tertiary (services) sector over the primary (agriculture and mining) and secondary (manufacturing) sectors of the economy; increasing emphasis on the role of knowledge-based inputs and education; and, finally, a decrease in the highly polarised class conflict of traditional (industrial) capitalism with the emergence of less hierarchical; organisational structures more suited to the socio-economic environment of the late 20th century.
This concept of a post-industrial society rests on the assumption that social development is essentially driven by technological change. The invention of the first programmable digital computer during the Second World War—to decode military messages—is seen as marking the start of what Alvin Toffler called the Third Industrial Revolution. Based on the application of ever more sophisticated information technologies, this revolution is now seen as gathering pace, precipitating a "general crisis of industrialism" and heralding what is exponents claim is a new kind of society.
It is tempting to draw parallels here with a Marxist scenario of social change. For Marx, it was development of the "productive forces"—roughly speaking, technology—that is the driving force of history. As these productive forces develop, they come into conflict with, and are increasingly held back by, the existing "relations of production"—the system of property relationships that define a particular mode of production. This ushers in a period of social revolution, of growing class struggle, in which the political victory of the ascendant class over the old ruling class establishes a new system of property relations more compatible with the developing productive forces, as exemplified by the transition from feudalism to capitalism.
However, there are significant differences between this and the theoretical model espoused by the exponents of post-industrialism.
Technological determinism
Firstly, the Marxist model gives primacy to the concept of the "mode of production". It is the mode of production which essentially defines the kind of society we live in and by this is meant the combination of relations and forces of production. Technological determinists, on the other hand, tend to focus on the "forces of production" but why did they downplay the importance of property relations?
One reason is the theory of "convergence" which gained currency among social scientists during the Cold War. According to this, industrial development would cause the Russian bloc countries and the advanced western economies to increasingly resemble one another in social structure and outlook. How then could one account for such similarities if—as it was assumed—the "communist camp" and "capitalist camp" represented two different modes of production? This led commentators to infer that the concept of the mode of production had little explanatory value.
By contrast, Marxists pointed out that the world was not divided into two opposing social systems each rooted in distinctive mode of production. There was instead a single world system based on a capitalist mode of production with so-called communist countries representing a variant of this mode of production—namely, capitalism run by the state, or "state capitalism".
Another reason has to do with the oft-stated claim that there has been a decisive shift in power from the capitalist class to a technocratic or managerial elite. Prominent advocates of this view include Burnham (The Managerial Revolution) and J.K. Galbraith (The New Industrial State). Toffler put it this way:
"Left-wingers are so obsessed with the idea of property—ownership—that they are often blinded to the actual facts of the matter. The very concept of property is turning itself inside out. The people who dominate advanced 'capitalist' countries are not necessarily those who 'own the means of production'. Increasingly, the people who dominate do so because they control the means of integration—they are the managers. In the US, which is supposed to be the heart of world capitalism, property has been losing its significance for a generation. Basic decisions about the future of our society in the United States have been, and are being, made by business executives who often have no ownership of capital or of machines, whatever" (Previews and Premises 1984, p. 101).
In a world in which the ten richest individuals own as much wealth between them as the combined national incomes of the 48 poorest countries put together, according to last year's UN Human Development report, such observations seem grotesquely inapt. But even if "basic decisions about the future of our society" are being made by individuals who may not themselves possess enough capital to qualify as capitalists, that is not the issue. What matters is the context in which, and in whose interests, such decisions are made. It is not the motivation of individual capitalists that concerns us but the logic of capital accumulation itself with its manifold consequences for the rest of us.
A second major distinction between Marxism and technological determinism concerns the relationship between technology and society. For Marxism, technological progress is not an autonomous process impacting upon and altering the nature of society from without; rather it both conditions, and is conditioned by, society. As Marshall McLuhan put it rather well, "we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us".
As Kortunov adds in his The Battle of Ideas in the Modern World, that while the "apologists for technological determinism" appear to borrow Marx's idea that the "development of the productive forces is the basis of historical development", they, in fact, "completely distort this idea inasmuch as they separate the productive forces from the relations of production and discuss them apart from their connection with (the) socio-political formation".
Lean production
In his historical survey of changing production techniques in chapter 7 of his The End of Work, Jeremy Rifkin describes how in craft production highly skilled workers using hand tools crafted their products to the design specifications of individual buyers, the essential characteristics of this form of producing being its high degree of flexible but low level of output. With industrial production, based on the moving assembly line, the very opposite is true: high volume production alongside an inflexible technology. The "American method", as Rifkin dubs it, really began in Henry Ford's automobile factories in the early 20th century. The design function was effectively separated from actual production with the worker being reduced to the status of an unskilled appendage to the machine, routinely assembling standardised products for the mass market. The need to maintain continuous production to justify investment in such costly machinery necessitated a hierarchical system of management characterised by a pyramidal command structure through which information flowed up and decisions flowed down.
Then in the early post-war years a new system emerged, called "lean production". Originating in Toyota's factories in Japan, this differed from both craft production and industrial production in its ability to combine the flexibility of the former with the high volume output of the latter. Underpinning this new approach was the increasing application of information technology, such as automated robots, and the "flattening out" of the traditional management structure. Hierarchical decision-making was largely replaced by multi-skilled teams with groups of workers collaborating at every stage, from design to quality control, with each team member contributing to a process of continual improvement ("Kazen") while simultaneously being allowed access to all computerised information generated within the company.
From a socialist perspective, this development is an interesting one, presaging the "polytechnic worker" Marx saw as the mainstay of a socialist system of production. It also confirms our belief in the link between motivational commitment and a more egalitarian approach to decision-making. However, it would be naive to separate such a development from its capitalist context. Its internal repercussions for the enterprises concerned are a sharp contraction in the number of workers employed, significantly longer hours spent working, and increasing levels of stress arising from the pressure to conform to work schedules dictated by the team; externally, it has meant an increasing emphasis on "out-sourcing"—contracting out work to often poorly paid, part-time or temporary workers in the interests of "greater flexibility".
This shift from craft production to industrial production and finally "lean production" today cannot simply be viewed as an autonomous technological development; at every stage it was driven by the need to accumulate greater profits by driving down unit costs. This meant employers searching for more effective ways to exploit their workforce. The current trend is away from the kind of heavy-handed coercion associated with traditional management towards a system of "management by stress" which simultaneously allows firms to better utilise the "knowledge assets" of their workers. Hence the growing emphasis placed on education by governments.
Initially, when the more traditional kind of enterprises began to invest heavily in information technology the results proved rather disappointing. However, as Rifkin points out, by the early 1990s, this picture began to change with many major corporations in America registering sharp increases in productivity. What made that possible was precisely the "re-engineering" of corporate structures, enabling such corporations to make more profitable use of the technology at their disposal.
This process along with its associated "downsizing" of the workforce is now sweeping through every sector of the economy. Unlike in the past, when job displacement in the primary and secondary sectors was largely cushioned by the growth of the service sector, that sector is now itself succumbing to structural unemployment brought on by automation. According to Rifkin, with no new sector on the horizon capable of generating more jobs we face the prospect of steadily growing unemployment, albeit masked by the growth of part-time work.
With ever fewer opportunities for formal employment and with governments increasingly constrained by market pressures to curtail their welfare budgets, how, it might be asked are increasing numbers of workers to obtain a livelihood? The oft-mooted concept of a universal "social income" does not really address this problem since what is being proposed is little more than a glorified form of social welfare which governments could not afford and which moreover would tend to undermine the capitalist work ethic now being reinforced by the system of "lean production".
The dilemmas that this scenario presents have led commentators like Rifkin to talk tentatively of the "Dawn of the Post-Market Era" and the growth of voluntarism as an alternative to paid employment, all of which is music to the ears of socialists. But we would be neglectful if we did not add a word of caution: capitalism is not going to disappear of its own accord. Not that such commentators envisage its complete disappearance, but if that is what we desire then this has of necessity to be the work of a politically conscious socialist majority.
This brings us finally to a third major distinction between Marxism and technological determinism: the notion of human agency. Whereas Marxism sees human beings as the makers of history, technological determinism sees history as the outcome of a technological imperative. Whether or not that imperative will lead to the dramatic decline of the "global labour force" now being prophesied, bringing us to the very threshold of a post-market society, it is for human beings themselves to finally cross that threshold. Insofar as we have that choice, our future has not already been decided.
Robin Cox

Material World: Bashing the Bushmen (2014)

The Material World Column from the July 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently warned ‘Preventing people’s access to safe water is a denial of a fundamental human right...deliberate targeting of civilians and depriving them of essential supplies is a clear breach of international humanitarian and human-rights law.’
Botswana uses water as a weapon against the Kalahari bushmen in an attempt to force them from their land. The government smashed their only major water borehole, a terrible act that was only overturned in court years later. It has continued to forbid them access to wild-life water-holes and mining water supplies.
The indigenous Bushmen people (or the San or Baswara, all names having pejorative roots) have been in conflict with the Botswana government for several years. Many live in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve where they have continued to be persecuted to drive them from their land. Banned from hunting, and forced to apply for permits to enter the reserve, they are now being pushed to the brink of extinction. The government policy is clearly to intimidate and frighten the Bushmen into staying in the resettlement camps, and making the lives of those who have gone back to their ancestral land impossible. The government boasts that all San in Botswana get free schooling, free medical help and if they register they receive free food. Despite government promises of a better life outside the Reserve many are now gripped by alcoholism and HIV/AIDS, previously unknown.
‘We are used to feeding ourselves – now dependant on government hand-outs, we are being made lazy and stupid,’ says Sesana. ‘Now we are being treated like dogs. The dog is the only thing that can't bring its own food home. It has to wait for its owner to give it some food.’
Goiotseone Lobelo speaks fondly of life in the reserve, where she would wake up every morning and join the women in the village in collecting berries, nuts and roots to eat. ‘I miss my home and the way we lived. Life was easy, there were lots of fruits, animals and there were no bars and no beer. Now we are lost,’ says Goiotseone. She remembers the day they were forced to leave ‘The police came, destroyed our homes and dumped us in the back of trucks with our belongings and brought us here. They dumped us here like we are nothing.’
In the early 1980s, diamonds were discovered in the reserve. Soon after, government ministers went into the reserve to tell the Bushmen living there that they would have to leave because of the diamond finds. Gem Diamonds has stated publicly that its Gope mine contains a diamond deposit worth an estimated $3.3 billion.
At the same time as preventing the Bushmen from accessing water, the government allows a safari company to operate a tourist camp in the reserve that made no provisions for the rights of the Bushmen on whose ancestral lands the camp sits. While Bushmen  struggle to find enough water to survive on their lands, tourists sip iced cocktails by the swimming pool.
Desmond Tutu has condemned the eviction of the Kalahari Bushmen. ‘The San Bushmen represent a 100,000 year-old culture that we should consider one of the world’s treasures. And while progress is necessary, it cannot be that the only way to achieve progress is to remove the San from their ancestral lands and drive their traditions away. We’ve already seen this with the American Indians, the Aborigines, and it is also happening with the Tibetans. When a culture is destroyed in the name of progress, it is not progress, it is a loss for our world. Hundreds of thousands of years of wisdom, knowledge of nature, medicines, and ways of living together, go with them’ (a plant used by the San was patented and licensed by a pharmaceutical company to produce an appetite suppressant drug for dieting).
In February this year Botswana’s President Khama was a guest at a conservationist conference, alongside Prince Charles and Prince William. Khama has banned all hunting nationwide under the pretext of clamping down on poaching. However, it emerged that trophy hunters who pay up to $8,000 to hunt giraffes and zebras are still being allowed to hunt on private ranches that have been exempted from the ban. Yet Bushmen who hunt with spears, bows and arrows are being arrested, beaten and jailed for subsistence hunting.
Survival International’s director, Stephen Corry, said ‘Banning hunting in order to feed your family, but allowing the wealthy to hunt for trophies, plays to a lobby still rooted in racist beliefs about tribal peoples’ inferiority. The national park movement entailed the enforced eviction, often the complete destruction, of the tribes who lived off the land. Satellite imagery now proves that many tribal peoples are the world’s best conservationists, yet they’re still being destroyed. It’s not ‘conservation’; it’s just an old colonial crime, and it’s time the responsible organizations opposed it. Instead, they hide behind hollow policies, while continuing to support governments guilty of such inhuman behaviour.’

Obituary: Tom King (1881-1970)

Tom King at the 1905 SPGB Annual Conference.
Obituary from the February 1971 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is our sad task to record the death in a Manchester hospital late in December, of the last of our founder members, Tom King, aged 89 years. We recognise, of course, that it is not only our loss but that of his family to whom we extend our deep sympathy.

Tom led a full life and like so many pioneer Party members was a respected craftsman, in his case, in the sphere of water and heating engineering. He grew up in Hertfordshire and it was as a member of the Watford branch of the Social Democratic Federation (founded in the year of his birth) that he came into association with that group of men and women that was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the contradiction between the Marxian theories of their economic classes (run in Watford by Jack Fitzgerald) and the political opportunism and reformist programme of the Federation.

In 1904 they were to make a clear break following a conference at Burnley, they made history by setting up the first working-class party in the world to be based upon the clear-cut scientific Socialist principles, the first to recognise that political democracy within capitalism can and must be used for revolutionary ends, the first to be wholly democratic in structure, without leaders or led.

Because of the strong foundations upon which it had been built, the Socialist Party of Great Britain was proof against the myth that Socialism was the outcome of the Russian revolution and from 1917 in our journal, the Socialist Standard, consistently pointed out that it was state capitalism that was being developed under Bolshevik rule.

Through both world wars this firmly knit organisation remained loyal to the idea of international working-class solidarity.

The research historian will not find the name Tom King listed among the initial members although his wife-to-be figured early on as the Watford Branch Secretary under her maiden name of King. It was to confuse the authorities when he was 'on the run' during the first world war that Comrade Wilkins came to be known as Bill France and then, being settled in Manchester, hence called Tom King for the rest of his life.

Sixty-six years after playing a part which will guarantee him at least a modest place in history, the Party he helped found, remains largely unknown to the vast majority of workers in this country and the capitalist system he sought to replace by world Socialism continues in being with the tacit support of those millions of people. Yet progress has been made, however slow, however little in relation to the immensity of the task. We do not stand alone. Our sense of loss on the death of a pioneer is shared by comrades as far afield as Vancouver and Stockholm, Boston and Vienna, Auckland and Jamaica — small in numbers but resolute in their determination to carry forward the often unromantic but none the less revolutionary work of making more Socialists.

William Morris, who had also broken with the SDF, wrote of the Socialist future as he imagined it might be in his book "News from Nowhere". In those happier days to come he supposed that toast would be drunk from time to time to the memory of those who had struggled in the early days to make it all possible. Tom King was one such.
E. S. G.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Scene of the Crime (4): Love on the Dole (1975)

From the February 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard

The City of Salford, to the west of the city of Manchester, covers an area which in 1844 was described by Frederick Engels as "The Classic Slum". Almost a hundred years later, Walter Greenwood's novel and play Love on the Dole (1933), depicted a part of Salford close by the Parish Church of Pendleton known as Hanky Park which had changed very little since the time of Engels.

The novel Love on the Dole has a quotation on the flyleaf from James Russell Lowell — "The time is ripe, and rotten ripe, for change; then let it come . . . " But the right time for change for capitalism is when the competitiveness of the system demands a change in the overall pattern of industrial production. New productive methods, re-siting of industrial areas, new methods of transportation, improvements in shipping, railways and road transport.

Salford in 1933, like other industrial areas in Britain, was suffering from unemployment which had begun in the early 1920s. Love on the Dole like many novels of its kind deals with the lives of working people, their personalities shaped and fashioned by the full-time commitment of working for wages, that is when work was available; when it was not, they spent their time on the dole, an experience made as uncomfortable as possible, since society's attitude to the unemployed had changed very little from the days of the "Poor Relief" of earlier years. From birth, expectations of the working class are tied to a period of socialization in slum conditions. The environmental influences of education and deprivation develop personalities suitable only as replacements for those workers who physically and mentally are no longer considered suitable for exploitation.

This at its best; at its worst the economic system based on capital and wage-labour plumbs the degradative depths, denies any flowering of the creative potential that lies stagnant and rotting in personalities shaped by its greed for profit and which under the more humane conditions of a free, Socialist society, would blossom beyond present-day experience.

The Salford of 1933 was becoming less and less influenced by the cotton and mining industries. A greater effect upon it was being made by the industrial area of Trafford Park, which claimed to be the heaviest concentration of industry in Europe, and of course the Manchester Ship Canal developed for the transportation of manufactured goods. Such concentrations of industry kept a large working population tied to within easy reach of its source of life, employment for wages. The homes available for working people of the area had been built a century before. They could hardly be described as dwellings, they were merely places of refuge in which human beings rested between periods of being in work or on the dole.

Love on the Dole successfully portrays its characters and their behaviour in an environment of poverty. One of the novel's main characters, Larry Meath, is a skilled workman who spends his leisure time in reading and political activity. Political activity for Larry Meath is of course the reformism of the Labour Party, as of course was the author's. In 1933 the Labour Party was engaged in attracting the working class of Salford from its support of the Conservative and Liberal Parties. Such colourful characters as Joe Toole, who represented South Salford in 1924 and himself a product of the salford slums, spread confusion in the minds of the working class since they began to identify Socialism with reforms, particularly better housing conditions — they had even begun to notice that (see Our Old Man, Millie Toole, 1948).

To-day Salford can boast of two Labour MPs who for all intents and purposes might as well not exist. But since Love on the Dole raises the question of the need for social change we might turn our thoughts to the Salford of to-day particularly in the area once known as Hanky Park.

Hanky Park, the area of terraced slums, has given way to the modern interpretation of high-rise slums, because to the Socialist what defines a slum is comparison with that which could be a reality under the prevailing technological possibilities of the times. A few hundred yards from this great social experiment of high-rise flats and modern shopping precinct is an area known as Lower Broughton picturized in the BBC's Man Alive programme entitled "Get us out of here" (Saturday 9th November, 1974). In housing conditions which would make the Classic Slum look like a description of lordly estates, working men and women still live and cry out for a place in the sun.

But what about the motorway system which has made Salford and Manchester perhaps better served than anywhere in the country? These modern roads for the purpose of transporting manufactured goods, quick returns on capital investment, are the last word in technological innovation. In planning the new Salford and its industrial estates, places like Hanky Park, if they were in the way, had to come down. Lower Broughton and the other areas of Salford like it will have to wait; the needs of industry come first. A Labour government has shown that it can reform no quicker than any other Government since the system to which it can only act as handmaiden will determine how quickly and in whose interests social reform will take place.

A truer historical perspective of the Classic Slum is a book with that title written by Robert Roberts (1971). The author writes:
Through a familiarity so long and close, this district must have become for Engels the very epitome of all industrial ghettoes, the classic slum itself. He died in 1895 having seen that little world change, develop, prosper even, yet stay in essence the same awful paradigm of what a free capitalist system could produce. By 1900 the area showed some improvement; his cow stable had doubtless been demolished together with many other noisome den, but much that was vile remained.
In 1974, a Socialist revisiting the Salford in which he was born and lived in childhood has to admit that change has undoubtedly taken place. But much that was vile in the time of Engels and in the time of Walter Greenwood still remains and will remain until with purpose and the correct understanding, men and women create a new society which they will manipulate in their own interest and not in the interest of an economic system which, as cities like Salford glaringly illustrate, has outlived its usefulness.
Alf Atkinson

The Scene of the Crime (3): These Poor Hands (1975)

From the January 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Scene of the Crime: 3

These Poor Hands (B. L. Coombes)

Novels and narratives concerned with working-class lives have always been a favourite theme with writers whose interests have lain within the field of realism. Such writers could be placed within two categories; those who observed and wrote mainly "from the outside" and whose writings bear the imprint of "academics" and those who wrote "from the inside" having actual experience of the anguish, despair and poverty of which they speak. The latter, when it emerges, cannot but bear the stamp of authenticity and such a writer was Coombes.

It is often the case that the reader is "manipulated" by the use of sentiment and characterization often larger than life combined with theatrical situations. Not that writers whose roots lay in the working class did not do the same thing. Robert Tressell in his Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and Jack Jones in his novels were masters in the art of the humorous and theatrical. These Poor Hands has its modicum of humour as well as pathos. It is exploited cleverly in the attitude of "Tiger", an old rabbit-catcher, who when handed a religious tract by a travelling evangelist and told that it was "a letter from the Lord" said: "Well, I'll be damned. It's a heck of a time since I heard from him".

Then what can be more pathetic than the picture which describes the processions of labourers and their families with their pitiful possessions piled on wagons, the women and children peeping from underneath oilskin sheets as do animals on their way to market; as such indeed they were, for this was Candlemas time when farm labourers were thrown out and others brought in. Any illusions of a contented country community where people lived close to nature and "watched the turmoil of the outside world" go by, are shattered by such scenes. This situation has continued throughout the years and up to the present time.

In the Wales where Coombes made is home one can see large areas of rural depopulation at the present time. As in the industrial areas, the countryside shows clearly what happens when workers cannot find an employer. The village cottages become "second homes" for holiday-makers, while large areas of fertile ground are given over to caravan sites rather than made to grow food. All this has given room futile activity by Nationalistic groupings who cannot see that the exodus of workers in one direction and the influx of people in another direction is part of the need for employment on one hand, and the need for relaxation from the stress of industrial and city life, on the other. Both these needs can, under the circumstances, only be met by the possession of money.

It is not that the workers of Coombes' youth were ignorant of the source of power that slumbered under the opiates dished out by the church and state. There were some, like his father who when he asked a local landowning Squire to rent him a piece of waste ground was told that it was far too valuable. "Certainly not", said the squire: "It's the most valuable piece of land I've got". "Some months later", says Coombes, "the same gentleman approached my father and say 'I suppose you have heard that I am standing at the next Election? we've been neighbours for some years. Can I count on you for your vote?" "Certainly not", said his father. "It's the most valuable thing I've got".

The miners threw up their leaders, men who in the main were of the blood and guts of the valleys' but such is the nature of leadership that corruption is ever-present. Coombes complains, for example, of the isolation of the miners' leaders from the mass of the men. Their very absence from the heart of the industry, he says, "makes them feel more contented with the conditions of those they represent." This, looking at the situation prevailing in the great trade unions of the present time, is a growing phenomenon. The trade union movement is also forced to co-operate in the business of running industry "for the sake of the country". The spectacle of the gulf between leaders and led is one that has certainly been growing from the times mentioned in Coombes' book. Last month one of Wales's leading poets wrote a satire on the role of leadership in the mining industry. He obviously refers to those who, with a modicum of mining back-ground, trade on the sentiments (and political ignorance) of the miner: -
Shine up the blue scar on my forehead
A bluer there's not to be found
There's lucky I was to be clumsy
The two days I worked under-ground
In the evolution of the British working class one knows that from about the middle of the 18th century the picture begins to change with rapidly increasing impetus. Rural Britain and its field labourers gives way to industrial Britain and its factory workers (though vestiges of the mediaeval system still lingered during the years of Coombes' boyhood, as he shows). One is not surprised to find an increased impetus in literature of a sociological character. Coombes followed in the line of Tressell and others even lesser known, like George Walker and Sykes to whom we owe the tale of "Ben o' Bill's The Luddite" who, together with his comrades "banded together to resist the encroachments and the cruelty of Capital."

Coombes, though a man of very little formal education and an √©migr√© to Wales, found that the worker is the same kind of person everywhere. His book is an autobiography which affords food for thought as to whether, technological changes notwithstanding, the lot of the working class has changed in a fundamental sense. When he speaks of the stoppages and strikes of 1926 we are reminded of the events of last year. When he tells us of the terrific surge for coal from 1893 and the throughout the 1914 war we are reminded of one of the strongest arguments put forward by Keir Hardie and others for nationalization — to ensure that Britain had a secure source of fuel for the Navy and the security of the country. In telling of the life of the miner, this rugged old collier reminds us of those countless "poor hands" which left their bloody marks on the coal. It is up to the reader to find the cause for the tragedy, the suffering and the wasted lives he speaks about.

And so one still meets the Coombes of this world: words penned by fingers broken in the service of capitalism. Thus, literature of the kind we have been discussing serves a purpose, be it a limited one. It should be looked upon as a whetting stone which one would hope leads on to the desire for Socialist knowledge, for it is only by the acquisition of Socialist knowledge that our class can abolish for ever the suppression of one class by another. If the reader of this Journal will but get down to a study of the Declaration of Principles contained herein he might decide that it is time he (or she) began to do something positive to ensure that the writers of the future will have no cause to write the kind of book such as we have been discussing.
W. Brain

The Scene of the Crime (2): No Mean City (1974)

From the November 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard

A series of articles recalling famous books about working-class conditions in particular areas of Britain, and viewing those areas today.

During the thirties, a Gorbals bakery worker and a journalist by the names of McArthur and H. Kingsley Long wrote a novel describing the Glasgow slum area — the Gorbals — as it appeared to them in the 20's and 30's.

Basically, it is the story of a slum hooligan named Johnnie Stark, nicknamed Razor King, and of the gangland violences which were regular features of Glasgow life at that period. The gangs in Glasgow were not organized for criminal purposes and were hooligans trying to overcome the boredom and monotony of a sordid existence. Most lived in squalor — ten and eleven to a room — most were unemployed.

The authors concentrate their story round the Gorbals area (McArthur lived there), but the social conditions they described could be found in all working-class slums in Glasgow; Bridgeton, Anderson, Plantation, Calton, Townhead. All that these misguided hooligans could hope to gain from their inter-gang wars was permanent facial disfigurement as a result of razor-slashing, or a cracked skull as a result of being hit on the head by a beer bottle. But the excitement and anticipation of the fight relieved the boredom, and this was a major factor in making their miserable social condition tolerable.

This perverse way of looking at life could not, nor cannot, be explained if the slum background is ignored.


The Gorbals became part of Glasgow in 1846. Situated in rather a pleasant area on the banks of the Clyde, it was originally a fishing village. (Glasgow, in fact, specialised in salmon fishing up until the 18th century). The Clyde was a fordable stream about three feet deep at the Broomilaw (eventually deepened to take ships of 25-foot draft).

The commercial development of Glasgow was due to the tobacco trade. Ships took manufactured goods, leather work, saddles, clothing materials, etc to the American colony, Virginia, and returned laden with tobacco. The Glasgow "tobacco lords" made huge fortunes.

The more pleasing architectural parts of Glasgow owe their origin to the wealth and largesse of the tobacco lords. The tobacco trade collapsed with the American War of Independence in 1776, and the heavy industrial development of the Clyde valley (coal, iron and steel) began a few years later, and started to intensify in 1815 when George Watt designed the first steamship. Glasgow became a huge immigration centre for Eastern Europeans, mainly Russian and Polish Jews, Italians, Germans, Belgians, and of course Irish (the New York of the 19th century). All came to seek employment in the mills, mines and shipyards.

Scotland generally had no large indigenous labour force, and needed immigrant labour. Glasgow probably had the highest proportion and the least time in which they could be absorbed into the meagre social background which existed. Tenement houses were literally thrown up in the immediate areas of the factory or mill. Mile upon mile of these social abominations still form the bulk of working-class housing in Glasgow. Most consist of two rooms with no bathroom or hot water and outside W.C. on each of the four floors.

A slum is a product of overcrowding and through the lack of proper washing facilities, the house usually becomes verminous. Engel's descriptions of the slums of Manchester and Salford apply with more force in Glasgow. Overcrowding, lack of privacy, and domestic discomfort forces the slum-dwellers into the streets and eventually into the pub. It is no accident that Glasgow had, or had up until recently, the highest number of pubs per square mile than any other city in the world.

Not unnaturally, the people became heavy drinkers. Unlike the slum dwellers of Calcutta and Bombay, who at least have the warmth of the sun for an ally and can even sleep in the open air, the Glasgow tenement and slum-dweller is not so lucky. Living in a soot-laden atmosphere in a cold, wet and windy climate, he becomes dominated by his living conditions and the tedium of work (and the lack of it). Such is the urgency of immediate existence they become aggressive, argumentative, and intolerant. Directed along Socialist lines this would be an advantage, but as it is these only serve to perpetuate a narrow conservatism and a suspicion of any new ideas, including those of the SPGB.


Much has since changed since 1932. For one thing Glasgow, far from being the second city in the British Empire with over 1 million inhabitants, now has a population of 816,000 (1972 estimate) — a reduction of 18 per cent in the last twelve years. Many of the slums have gone, but many more remain. In fact, the slum reception housing areas built in 1933-37 like Blackhill and Shettleston are rapidly becoming slum areas as overcrowding grows afresh. It should not be assumed that it was socially enlightened planners and politicians who were responsible for demolishing the slums. A far more potent reason was the appalling health hazards which these slums produced. Apart from inevitable poverty diseases like TB and rickets, infectious diseases like scarlet fever and diphtheria were quite common in the 'twenties and 'thirties in the Gorbals in the south, Calton and Bridgeton in the east; Cowcaddens in the north and the highest infantile mortality rate of any industrial county. The infant mortality rate for the city as a whole in 1935 was 110 per thousand.

The tower blocks rise in the Gorbals — whole streets have been demolished. The Irish and the Jewish immigrants of the old Gorbals have been socially assimilated, but the Pakistanis and Indians and other Asian immigrants now take their place. The same old squalor plagues these newcomers and racial tension has now become a new element in gang warfare. The post-war slum reception areas like Castlemilk, Easterhouse and Possil have produced their own gangs and vandals, and little wonder. These cheerless cellular dormitories could only inspire in the young the urge to get out of them as quickly as possible.. Miles from the city centre, poor transport services, little or no amenities; in fact, pubs were not allowed in pre-war housing schemes. They present such a desolate prospect that many wish they were back in the slums again with its intensive social life based on the camaraderie of poverty.

Full employment after World War II eased the worst rigours of poverty. The Bingo halls and the betting shops are full. The pubs are now catering for women (a post-war innovation), and more whiskey and less "red biddy" is being drunk.


The creation of an industrial sore such as Glasgow in the heady days of unrestricted exploitation in the 19th century has taught the capitalists a very expensive lesson. The scale of re-housing, health and welfare services, were and are far higher than any city of comparable population in the UK and possibly Europe. And yet Glasgow, it is claimed, is the success story of the social reformer! Low rents, good Council housing, health centres, new schools and hospitals. The poverty of the past, we are told, is so much water under Jamaica Bridge. The drunks and the derelicts still sleep it off in the Glasgow Green, but a newer phenomenon, the prostitutes and drug addicts, are now to be seen in George Square. Truly a sign of the affluent society, as nobody could afford either in pre-war Glasgow.

Politically Glasgow has had more than its share of prominent Left-wingers. A stronghold  of the ILP for many years, it certainly did not lack advocates in Parliament — Maxton; McGovern; Campbell Stephen; Kirkwood; MacLean and others. But still Glasgow does not flourish. As unemployment re-emerges, as prices rise, and the threat of redundancy becomes more imminent, the old feeling of apprehension returns. Have the good times gone — will slump and poverty return?

The Socialist knows that we cannot have capitalism without these for very long. There is no permanence in social reform. It all has to be done again and again.


Why should the working class in Glasgow and elsewhere gamble on poverty or capitalist prosperity? This choice need not be made. Glasgow has allowed itself to be wrung dry of surplus-value by the rapacity of capitalism. Its sons became undersized, undernourished, under-housed and over-worked in order to build massive fortunes for a race of arrogant parasites. There is absolutely no reason why they should continue to do so.

If they will look beyond the sponsored parochialism of local politics to the broader issues of Socialism and consciously associate themselves with a working-class movement intent on the abolition of capitalism, then and only then will Glasgow flourish.
Jim D'Arcy

The Scene of the Crime (1): The People of the Abyss (1974)

From the August 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Scene of the Crime: 1

A series of articles recalling famous books about working-class conditions in particular areas of Britain and viewing those areas today.

In 1902 Jack London, already established as a writer in America, went to stay for seven weeks in the East End of London and write a book about it. He rented a room in a shabby quiet street, bought old clothes and a dirty cap in Petticoat Lane, and walked the streets as a sailor down on his luck. On 22nd August he wrote to his friend Sterling in California: "I've read of misery, and seen a bit, but this beats anything I could even have imagined." In later years he said: "Of all my books, I love most The People of the Abyss. No other book of mine took so much of my young heart and tears as that study of the economic degradation of the poor."

Jack London's East End was Limehouse, Poplar, West and East India Dock Roads, Mile End, Whitechapel, Spitalfields. He slept and ate in the spike, the casual ward ("I must beg forgiveness of my body for the vileness through which I have dragged it, and forgiveness of my stomach for the vileness which I have thrust into it"). He tramped the streets wet to the skin and went to the Salvation Army barracks, where the crowd of paupers were made to stand four hours and listen to speeches and prayers before being given a skinflint breakfast. He went to the hop-fields in Kent, and watched Edward VII's coronation parade in Trafalgar Square.

To what he sat, he added copiously from official statistics, newspaper items, trade unions' and social workers' reports. A census of the alleys in Spitalfields:
In one alley there are ten houses — fifty-one rooms, nearly all about 8 feet by 9 feet — and 254 people . . .  In another court with six houses and twenty-two rooms were 84 people — again 6, 7, 8 and 9 being the number living in one room, in several instances.
A report on the factory workers in "dangerous trades":
The children of the white-lead worker enter the world, as a rule, only to die from the convulsions of lead poisoning — they are either born prematurely, or die within the first year.
No wonder that Jack London wrote to Anna Strunsky: "I am made sick by this human hell-hole called the East End."

Of course he was not the first to write graphically about it. Arthur Morrison's A Child of the Jago, to which London referred, was published in 1896.  Morrison was an East Londoner himself: "the Jago" was the frightful Old Nichol district on the boundary of Bethnal Green and Shoreditch. According to Charles Booth, it had the greatest poverty of all in the East End. Morrison also, incidentally, had no good to say of the Salvation Army's charity — in his book he called General Booth the "Panjandrum of philanthropy, a mummer of the market-place".

But what impressed Jack London most was the parody of human physique in the Abyss. He wrote repeatedly of its "woebegone wretches" — the East Ender with the scrawny arm, the "stunted forms, ugly faces", the young fellow who boasted of being a fine specimen and weighing ten stone:
I was ashamed to tell him that I weighed one hundred and seventy pounds, or over twelve stone, so I contented myself with taking his measure. Poor, misshapen little man!
And the incident with two men who, walking along with him, picked up orange peel, crusts and apple cores from the filthy pavements to eat: "And this, between six and seven o'clock in the evening of August 20, year of our Lord 1902, in the heart of the greatest, wealthiest and most powerful empire the world has ever seen." London, a worshipper of strength, would notice all that specially, but others too observed it. In his book about the 1914-18 war, Disenchantment, C. E. Montague wrote of British troops on the road beside Canadian and Australian ones: "Battalions of colourless, stunted, half-toothless lads from hot, humid Lancashire mills; battalions of slow, staring faces" — against the Dominions' "taller, stronger, handsomer" men.

The People of the Abyss was published in 1903, illustrated with the author's photographs taken in East London. When submitting it to the publishers he described it as a report "from the field of industrial war", and added that it
proposed no remedies and devoted no space to theorizing — it is merely a narrative of things as they are.
However, after consultation with the publishers he made some modifications, and a letter accompanying the revised manuscript said:
I have wholly cut out the reference to the King of England in the Coronation chapter, have softened in a number of places, made it more presentable in many ways, and added a preface and a concluding chapter. 
What is the Abyss like now? Some of it is still there. The streets and alleys of Whitechapel were the scene of the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888, and a book on the murders published in 1972 has recent photographs of two places where they were done. But it is all coming down, fast. Limehouse, the  dockside setting of a famous silent film called Broken Blossoms, is now an estate of council flats; Ratcliff Highway, a terrible place, is the same. So is Sidney Street, where the Russian terrorists were besieged and killed in 1911. The docks, now little used, are intended for a massive redevelopment with all kinds of amenities spoken of.

No one would say "hell-hole" now; but "affluent society" would be a misconception too. "Itchy Park," where human derelicts gather, is as appalling as anything Jack London saw. Repeatedly, cases of violent crime come out of the same East End — not by demented individuals but by gangs from those dull, neat flats (the "in" crime at present is stealing lorries for their loads). The shops and stalls along the high roads are crowded with clothes and household things which are showy but cheap and shoddy. You have the feeling in the East End that people are out of the Abyss, but only by the skin of their teeth.

The major factor in the reforms there have been was the 1914-18 war. Lloyd George told the capitalist class they had gone too far: a starved working class had scarcely the blood to shed for them. The point was taken and applied in social welfare, housing and medical services. The effect has resembled the policy of a stingy farmer, accepting the necessity to feed his stock for a profit in the market but watchful that the creatures get not a turnip more than they have to.

In one respect alterations have brought no change. Jack London wrote of the "man-killing" air of the East End:
Sir William Thiselton-Dyer, curator of Kew Gardens, has been studying smoke deposits on vegetation . . . six tons of solid matter, consisting of soot and tarry hydrocarbons, are deposited every week in every quarter of a square mile in and about London . . . Sulphuric acid in the atmosphere is continually being breathed by the London workmen through all the days and nights of their lives.
Today lorries roll in thousands continually along the highways through East London, and the result is called pollution.
Robert Barltrop