Friday, January 17, 2014

The image of capitalism (2000)

Book Review from the December 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

We review Naomi Klein's passionate exposé, No Logo. But what does she suggest we do?

In No Logo (Flamingo, £14.99) Naomi Klein tells the story of the rise of the brand name, the way in which this typified in a logo has achieved a position way beyond ordinary advertising and in so doing has had an impact on the lives of many people. Her study is based on researching and exposing the operations of some powerful firms, such as Nike, Wal-Mart, Shell, McDonalds, Microsoft and quite a few more.

What happened was that in the late 70s and 80s the rôle of the logo, in the beginning only seen on clothing, escalated from a small emblem, discreetly placed on say the inside of the collar to a position of prominence:
"Gradually the logo was transformed from an ostentatious affectation to an active fashion accessory. Most significantly the logo itself was growing in size, ballooning from a three-quarter-inch emblem into a chest-sized marque. This process of logo inflation is still progressing, and none is more bloated than Tommy Hilfiger who has managed to pioneer a clothing style that transforms its faithful adherents into walking, talking, life-sized Tommy dolls, mummified in full branded Tommy worlds."
Klein's contention is that this scaling up of the logo's rôle has become a change in substance; "logos have become so dominant that they have essentially transformed the clothing on which they appear into empty carriers for the brands they represent".

This started the process in which the brand names began to divorce themselves from the actual process of manufacturing; their rôle became that of selling, but selling an image, while the making the articles that carried the brand image was given to others. The consequences of this had huge economic and social repercussions, especially in the US, where most of these firms were based. In the first place the manufacturers were going to go for the cheapest manufacturing costs they could, which of course inevitably meant basing their factories in the Third World. In the second place, it meant massive job losses in the factories formerly based in the US and Canada, where thousands of workers were made redundant, with not much hope of getting another job in an economy which was in transition to what is known as "service".

In the Third World factories things were even worse. Industrial estates were set up, managed by all sorts of chicanery, to be enclaves independent of the labour laws existing in those countries, mainly the Philippines, Malaysia and China. Young mostly female labour was and is employed, and any form of workers' industrial organisation ruthlessly discouraged, to the point where the life of a known labour organiser was precarious indeed. If all this reminds you of the early days of working-class history in America and Britain not to mention Europe, you are indeed right, and it only goes to show that nothing is ever gained permanently in the capitalist system and that the lot of the working class is a never-ending struggle to gain small improvements in their wages and working conditions an equally difficult one to hold on to them. Klein personally visited many of these Third-World factories, managed, with difficulty, to talk to people forced to work incredibly long hours, and heard of abysmal working conditions, of pregnant girls who are frightened to reveal their condition for fear of the sack and cases where babies are born at work and mothers who have died because they were pushed too far.

The social consequences of "the brand image" in its country of origin have in the ten years or so since the concept of goods being marketed as a lifestyle in which you are invited to kill to obtain designer labels have been immense and have permeated deep into the Western world. Not content with advertising alone, firms have infiltrated the universities, schools and sport. Deals have been struck with universities for the monopoly to sell and promote such brands, Coca-Cola one of the foremost. Even the educational material offered by the host has been influenced by or actually supplied by commercial companies, one of the worst offenders being Microsoft. All this goes under the name of sponsorship where the benefits supposedly go to the recipients but in actuality are firmly in the hands of the donors.

This has had repercussions on "normal", shall we say existing, labour relations within capitalism. In the highly-skilled creative areas of firms like Microsoft, traditional labour contracts have been replaced by something more akin to supply. Job security, such as it was, is a thing of the past. Whilst some are happy with this the major result has been an increase in mental illness and a rising level of stress-related sickness.

There is much more in Klein's passionate exposé, but inevitably we reach the point where we have to say, what are we going to do about it? What should our reactions and actions be? Capitalism is a social system which has showed a great ability to change yet stay the same. Klein appears to believe that something worthwhile can be done within the system of capitalism. She is an activist, who believes that by a series of demonstrations, street parties and suchlike activities this current trend within capitalism can be contained and we can return to, what? The idyllic days of some non-existent period of capitalism in which everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds?

There is a new dogma which is challenging the social democratic reformists like the Labour Party or the pseudo-revolutionary totalitarian reformists like the "Communist" Party, which is that "global capitalism" has brought about a totally new kind of capitalism which requires new tactics. On examination these consist of making an awfully big fuss and causing a moderate amount of damage to property in the hope of bringing about publicity and public sympathy for their ideas. In some mysterious way this is supposed to halt the profit system from behaving in the way it was always behaved, that is, exploring any avenue legal or otherwise in the hope of maximum profit. It won't work. No reform has ever achieved its aim in the past and this is another one which is doomed to failure, as well as wasting an awful lot of energy. Even the limited aim of achieving favourable press coverage won't work because such coverage as is obtained is reported as the work of "anarchists", "militants" or whatever the current term of abuse may happen to be and the damage to property is reported as the work of "mindless hooligans". Capitalism cannot be humanised, cannot even be slowed down. It will grind its own remorseless way until we organise to replace it with socialism.

Opportunism before principle (1989)

From the October 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

It was only in 1918 that Labour officially adopted the word socialism to describe its aim. It is true that prior to that date Keir Hardie, the father of the Labour Party, had stated his aim to be that of working for a socialist society whose character we would not have argued against. But Hardie's views was one amongst many in an organisation primarily concerned with representing trade union interests in parliament. He also mistakenly believed that socialism could be offered up to workers after winning mass support for reform programmes.

So why did this party representing a vast mix of reformers and single-issue campaigners adopt the word socialism in 1918? It was a pragmatic decision to present Labour as a serious contender for power. The Conservatives had Toryism, the Liberals Liberalism, and Labour needed a label, something to wear on their lapel with which to court the newly enfranchised workers—the label was Socialism. As Samuel Beer wrote in Modern British Politics:
Labour saw the real possibility of achieving parliamentary power with the help of the new working class votes. The adoption of socialism as an ideology was functional to this choice of political independence.
Labour Seeks To Govern
The achievement of state power to govern over people has never had any place within socialist thought. The state could never exist within socialist society as, with its agents of coercion, the armed forces, the police and all other representatives of law enforcement, it only exists only to serve and protect the interests of the ruling class. The Socialist Party was formed to urge upon workers the need to understand their position of exploitation under capitalism and to organise to end class society, abolish the state and to replace "government over people" with "the administration of things". This can never be achieved as long as workers continue to leave parliamentary power in the hands of leader.

Wring in 1905 in Socialism and Society Ramsay MacDonald, who at the time as the Secretary of the Labour Party was one of its top leaders, made it quite clear that Labour only ever intended to use workers to gain power and that he considered them incapable of autonomous thought:
It is practically impossible to maintain a pure and simple socialist party . . . in Great Britain. The mass of the people are prepared to accept the new doctrines not as absolute ideas, as the fully fledged socialists do, but as guiding principles in experimental legislation. That is what the rise of the Labour Party means, that is all it need ever mean.
It should not be thought that MacDonald's use of the term socialism bears any resemblance to what socialism really is. He took his cue from the Fabians who envisaged socialism as ownership by the state in a society run by "enlightened intellectuals". These enlightened intellectuals were to be  . . . you've guessed it, themselves.

Share Ownership or Common Ownership?
Labour is now having doubts about whether socialism still is a useful label today to help win power. It is now seeking to win support by emphasising the virtues of the free market which is what its leaders perceive to be the popular bandwagon. At last year's Labour Conference the Sunday Times (2 October 1988) quoted Bryan Gould, architect of Labour's "new realism" as saying:
It would be stupid . . . to be frightened of labels by saying that anything which bears the name 'shares' is not socialist.
Labour have never been frightened of labels, it is all they have ever dealt in. But Gould went on in his cynical abuse of socialist concepts to say that "workers owning shares in the company they work for is a form of common ownership". In support of this idea Labour's Deputy Leader, Hattersley, referred to "the full clause four of our constitution".

Labour has never understood the true meaning of common ownership. Their Clause Four speaks of common ownership of the means of exchange, which is a contradiction in terms. It has been left to us to explain that common ownership is the ownership of all the means of production by society as a whole and that it must mean the disappearance of exchange as there cannot by any exchange of what is commonly owned.

So, with another Labour Conference on the horizon, can we unmask Labour's real intent? All we need do is let them speak for themselves. There are the words of Kinnock, again speaking at last year's conference, that "we will be faced with a market economy and we are going to have to make it work better than the Tories". Socialists have never seen Labour as trying to do anything else, but this sort of talk shook the faith of some of those present. One exasperated delegate declared:
Given that we, ordinary working people, built the bakery in the first place and installed the machinery, we should own the bloody bakery. (Daily Telegraph, 4 October 1988).  
If workers listen to the rhetoric of leaders, who time and again promise a fair and equal society—on condition that you give them power of course—and if workers let these leaders occupy the political arena with their smug assertion that all will be safe in their hands, then the result is inevitable. It is—as this delegate learnt—betrayal.
Tony Dobson