Sunday, January 19, 2014

Cooking the Books: Capitalism for ever? (2006)

The Cooking the Books column from the April 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

On 2 March Jacques Attali, author of a recent biography of Marx in French (and former top adviser to President Mitterrand and former head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development), gave a talk with historian Eric Hobsbawm on “Marx for the 21st century” at the Jewish Book Fair in London.

Interviewed in the Guardian (25 February) he was reported as saying:
“Contrary to popular belief, Marx was not mistaken: capitalism will fall and be replaced by a socialist system. The only question is when. ‘For Marx the fall of the rate of profit will appear when capitalism has exhausted its capacity for growth, which is not the case,’ he says. ‘Socialism will come after this.’”
Marx did indeed think that capitalism would prepare the way for and eventually be replaced by socialism (which Attali correctly identifies, both in his book and in his talk, as a world non-market society in which money will have no place and in which goods and services will be freely available for people to take and use). And he could be interpreted as having argued (in the Grundrisse, in the section in Notebook VII on “Contradiction between the foundations of bourgeois production (value as measure) and its development“) that, if capitalism were to continue long enough, productivity would eventually rise to such a level that the unit price of goods would fall so low (their labour-time content being so small) that they would be virtually free and that the prospect of making a profit would therefore be so low that the economic mechanism of capitalism would seize up.

Attali’s reported answer here implies that Marx really thought that socialism would only come when capitalism had reached that stage. Which it clearly hasn’t. So, capitalism would still have some way to go, until in fact it had not only come to dominate the globe (as at present and for at least a century) but had come to exist everywhere including in the currently “undeveloped” parts of the world in Asia, Latin America and Africa. Until, in short, capitalist globalisation had run its full course.

Marx certainly thought that in his day capitalism still had some years to go before it could be replaced by socialism (which is why he supported non-socialist developments within capitalism which he thought would speed up the development of capitalism and with it the material basis for socialism, such as free trade, the victory of the North in the American Civil War, and German unity). But it is doubtful whether the passage from the Grundrisse was anything more than Marx saying what would eventually happen if capitalism were to go on for long enough. In other words, that there were theoretical reasons why capitalism could not literally go on forever. It did have an economic limit, even if this would be far into the future.

Marx can’t be interpreted as saying that capitalism would, or should, continue for that long. His activities as a revolutionary socialist clearly showed that, on the contrary, he thought that capitalism could, and should, be ended by conscious working class action long before it reached its theoretical limit.

Material World: This Land is Our Land (2011)

The Material World Column from the November 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

There was a time when 'land' used to refer to those parts of our habitat that were cultivated for food, grazed by animals for hide, wool, meat, milk and fertilisation, and to forests from which timber, firewood and food were collected and also to where communities lived sharing the common wealth. Now, as with everything else one can imagine, land is just another commodity to be bought and sold at the best possible price and to be acquired whatever the consequences for long-term incumbents. So too is everything it can offer – food, fuel, minerals and water – with the added bonus of investment and speculation.

The phenomenon of 'land-grab', well known now, was originally seen as a way for food insecure and rich countries such as Saudi Arabia and China to gain access to foreign farmland in order to meet the food needs of their own populations. Then came the big push for biofuels following targets agreed by governments at a succession of meetings on climate change. The Worldwatch Institute recently reported that rural populations have been pushed off prime land in 25 sub-Saharan countries for the production of biofuel crops for foreign nations. In other examples, food is grown on an industrial scale solely for export, disenfranchising local populations and turning them into wage labourers if they are lucky, and forcing them into urban areas and likely penury if they are not.

The most exciting opportunity now for big money seeking even bigger money is that of investment and speculation in both food and land. Pension schemes, universities, bankers and large investors are jostling to invest in land for speculation. According to one spokesperson for a large company fund, it doesn't matter if nothing is grown for ten years, you'll still 'turn a good profit.' Pension funds globally run to around $23 trillion. Their investment in land and agriculture is relatively recent but growing fast and admitted by some investment bankers and civil society organisations to be a major cause of rising food prices globally.

At the World Social Forum in Dakar, Senegal, this February an appeal against land-grabbing was launched. By September over 650 organisations had endorsed it. Estimates of land the size of western Europe (227 million hectares) have been sold, leased or licensed in the last decade. One Oxfam case study found at least 22,500 people lost both homes and land in Uganda when they were evicted in favour of a British company, the New Forest Company. There were conflicting versions from the company and from the evicted, but a high court order to restrain evictions was sidestepped and the company put the responsibility onto the Ugandan National Forest Authority. There are numerous accounts of promised benefits to displaced persons and communities not materialising even after several years of waiting. Efforts to draw up and implement regulations for the protection of local populations, even voluntary ones, have been less than robust.

In India government policy is to dispossess its own population. Prime Minister Singh has stated that 70 percent of India's farming population is surplus to requirements and that this surplus must be resettled in urban areas where 1,000 training institutions are being set up to facilitate new employment opportunities. Devinder Sharma, academic and commentator, says that this will be the world's biggest environmental displacement and that what is needed is a production system by the masses not for the masses. He says this policy will add another 95 million to the urban population within a decade, forcing farmers to abandon agriculture, usurping land, water and natural resources in the name of development. In West Bengal, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh fertile land has been taken for industrial development, residential development, businesses and Special Economic Zones whilst big corporations acquire land in other countries, specifically African countries, for development of agribusinesses to cultivate crops for Indian consumption. More than 80 companies have so far acquired land through direct negotiations with host governments but without input from the affected farmers. 1.8 million hectares in Ethiopia alone have changed hands this way to the detriment of small farmers in both countries. 250,000 Indian farmers committed suicide in the last 15 years. In the last decade more than two million hectares of farmland (equal in size to the whole of Kerala state) have been acquired for non-farm purposes, and studies show that India will be a major food importer by 2017-8.

The countries of Africa have been a major target for land-grab with agriculture on an industrial scale reaping substantial profits for investors. Corporate agriculture, however, is not about food production or satisfying the needs of the undernourished or downright starving but about producing profit. How long can it be at this rate before its limits are reached – dispossessed millions starved to death in favour of a tidy accumulation for the few? A lengthy study by the Oakland Institute in Tanzania, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Mali, Mozambique, Zambia and South Sudan looked at the viability of industrial-scale farming compared with small family farms. What they found was that where 100,000 hectares of plantations would employ 1,000 workers, traditional agriculture of the same area would sustain 50,000 families, that is between 200-250,000 people.

This land is our land. Reclaiming the commons for the peoples of the world is a vital part of the socialist revolution.
Janet Surman

Obituaries: L. E. Weidberg and Stan C. Bathurst (1986)

Obituaries from the June 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

L. E. Weidberg

It is with regret that we report the death, after a long illness, of L. E. Weidberg who first joined Manchester branch of The Socialist Party in the 1930s. He read a copy of the Socialist Standard in the public library and was convinced instantly.

Laurie was a socialist eccentric—infuriatingly rude and dogmatic, lovably sharp-witted and passionate. Rarely did I have a conversation with him without finding reasons to expel him from the Party and other reasons to admire him: he was a most appealing rascal, a fellow who could (and did) provoke vicars to swear at him and who always seemed to have riots imminent within the vicinity of his presence. I have never witnesses a better socialist heckler—he must have been given his training by Moses Baritz, the man who blew his clarinet down the ventilator shaft of an SDF meeting from which he had been barred. As a speaker on the outdoor platform at Hyde Park and Lincoln's Inn, his oratory was always much to the point, usually funny, often vulgar and sometimes bloody offensive. His articles in the Socialist Standard possessed all of those characteristics, not least when he was laying in to his pet hate: the Guardian newspaper and its soggy bourgeois liberalism—or "half-baked lefty crap" as Laurie would put it. He worked hard for the Party as a tireless speaker, an EC member for one noisy year, a regular writer and a good friend to the new, younger members who were with him in Islington branch in which he spent his last years in the Party. In the branch he showed himself to possess unusual humility which allowed him to listen to and learn from others combined with the temper of one who took to co-operation like a duck takes to concrete.

For some years Laurie was very ill and knew that he was soon to die. It was this that led him to leave the Party, wrongly concluding that the working class are "a bleeding waste of time". But as a healthy, active man he was second to few in his unrestrained effort to knock socialist sense into the heads of workers. He will be missed by those of us who remember, and persist in, those efforts and our sympathy goes to his widow, sister and three sons.

Stan C. Bathurst

It is with much regret that we report the death of Stan Bathurst, on 2 March, at the age of 80.

Between the wars, Stan's active membership of the Labour Party inevitably brought him into contact with the real socialist message of the SPGB but it was not until the late forties that he came to understand and accept the Party's principles. This came about through his association with the late comrade Bowie, when they were both employed as insurance agents in the south Essex area.

Membership of the Southend Branch in 1951 saw the commencement of Stan's active involvement in the Party's work for socialism. He took a full part in branch affairs and activities, acting as Treasurer for a number of years, canvassing and selling or distributing literature and worked hard during these special campaigns such as publicising the Party message in the run up to general or bye-elections.

Failing health since 1982 necessitated a decline in Stan's activities but he continued writing to local newspapers and selling the Socialist Standard in Basildon and Stanford. Even in the last week of his life, Stan organised distribution of the Standard to his regular purchasers from his hospital bed.

Stan's metier was the personal, one-to-one approach. Canvassing on countless doorsteps was his chief enjoyment and his employment as an insurance agent lent itself well to this type of activity. He derived much satisfaction from spreading the party message in the boss's time.

Stan's industrious and independent outlook led to a number of small but not insignificant achievements in his personal life. For example he built, more or less single-handed, two substantial family homes and made many improvements to a third. These and other achievements were realised mainly by dogged pegging away with limited resources to reach the desired target. Such an approach was mirrored in Stan's Party work where he felt that persistence would get eventual rewards.

The funeral was a simple but moving affair. The Party was well represented and comrade Pat Wilson gave a valedictory address on Stan's Party membership.

Stan leaves a widower and two sons, both of whom are Party members.