Monday, November 10, 2014

Life in the New York Cities (2014)

Book Review from the World Socialist Party of the United States website:
Tales of Two Cities: The Best and Worst of Times in Today’s New York, ed. John Freeman; illustrated by Molly Crabapple. Published by OR Books in association with Housing Works.
The “two cities” in the title of this book are both New York. John Freeman in his introduction tells us that he set out to collect stories about life in New York that focus on the human consequences of inequality of wealth, which “is at its most acute in the ‘world cities’ where the rich choose to live (or invest their fortunes in real estate).” What does it “feel like” to live side by side with people who are vastly richer and/or vastly poorer than you are?
Some of the thirty stories are true accounts of experiences in the authors’ own lives. Others are fictional, but these too are meant to be true to life. About half of the authors dwell on matters that have no direct bearing on the theme of economic inequality. I am not complaining: their stories are also of interest. But here I want to reflect on a few of the pieces that do focus on the ostensible theme of the collection.
An epidemic of child suicides
Maria Venegas describes her experience teaching in an after-school program for children in an inner city area. The kids find it hard to cope with the demands made on them and often break down in tears. One of them says she wishes she could kill herself. Indeed, ten NYC public school students did exactly that in just seven weeks in 2014 – an “epidemic” by comparison with the previous NYC norm of ten child suicides a year.
“What is pushing these kids over the edge?” – asks the teacher. The immediate “push” is clearly their anxiety about getting the high marks expected of them in tests that are often confusing and badly designed. But let’s look deeper. She gives us a clue when she mentions that a 10-year-old girl in her class has an “H written across the front of her sweatshirt” – H for Harvard. After a few pages we learn that the hallways at the charter school attended by this girl are named after Ivy League universities: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc. “The Ivy Leagues dangle before her every day.”
Nowadays every American youngster is constantly bombarded from all directions with the message: You can make it if you try hard enough. This “encouragement” is regarded as a big advance on the bad old days when low-caste children were taught humbly to accept their place at the bottom of the pile. But the new message is actually even crueler than the old one, because it carries the clear though unspoken implication that if you don’t make it that will mean you didn’t try hard enough. You will have only yourself to blame.
As those who perform this charade of “equal opportunity” must know very well, only a few of the children before whom they “dangle” the highly exclusive, elitist and expensive Ivy Leagues will ever get there – and even fewer will make it through to graduation. The teacher herself, although she probably comes from a background somewhat less disadvantaged than that of her students, went to the University of Illinois, one of the more accessible and considerably cheaper state colleges. The “dangling” is the psychic equivalent of hurling these kids into a brick wall – again and again and again. The remarkable thing is not that some of them commit suicide but that most of them do not.
Such are the fruits of efforts at reform – undertaken in many cases with the best of intentions – that leaves intact the capitalist structure of our society.
The housing treadmill
Several of the stories are about housing – “a perpetual concern,” as Freeman notes. An increasing number of city residents cannot afford to rent a home, let alone buy one. Freeman cites some astonishing statistics (they astonished me, anyway): nearly a third of New Yorkers pay over half of their annual income in rent, while in the Bronx, which is the poorest of New York’s boroughs, rent swallows two thirds of the income of the typical household. Besides the problem of high rents, there is also the endless struggle to get basic services and force landlords to make essential repairs.
And yet New York has a long history of legislative reform aimed at controlling rents and protecting tenants against eviction and mistreatment. A recurring theme is the minimal impact of these reforms in practice. Landlords have many ways of evading legal restrictions, some of them quite ingenious. Of particular interest in this respect is the contribution by D.W. Gibson, a lawyer who specializes in the thankless, frustrating, and poorly remunerated task of protecting tenants’ rights (most lawyers prefer to practice law in more lucrative fields). He describes how landlords who want to evict tenants but lack adequate legal grounds for doing so induce them to leave by making life unbearable, one method being to remove kitchen and bathroom installations under the pretext of renovation.
One place where those who couldn’t afford the rents used to go – in the 1990s, before the authorities decided to seal them off – was the tunnels beneath the city. There are several hundred miles of tunnels and a couple of thousand people lived down there together with the rats. In a memoir evocatively entitled “Near the Edge of Darkness” Colum McCann recounts his explorations of this underworld.
Tables turned
Jonathan Dee’s story stands alone in being written from the perspective of the rich. The narrator and his wife get caught in a snowstorm as they drive home to their townhouse from a charity dinner. They encounter a poor man with a shovel who offers to dig them out – for $100, a charge that he soon raises to $200. The narrator considers this unreasonable and swears at the man, but ends up buying the shovel off him for $937 – all the cash that he has in his wallet. The man responds to his rant by explaining: “It’s called the marketplace, bitch. It’s called knowing what your customer will bear.”
The rich guy is used to having his way, and under normal circumstances he has the resources to get almost anything he wants. Under the exceptional circumstances of the snowstorm, however, he and his wife find themselves isolated inside a “bubble” where the only other person is the poor man, and it is he who happens to own the only “means of production” that matters in that particular situation – namely, the shovel. The tables are turned: for once the narrator experiences the vulnerability of those who do not own the means of production to the blackmail of those who do.
Caught in the toils of the engine
My own favorite story is Bill Cheng’s “Engine.” The author describes the loneliness, emptiness, self-loathing, and self-pity that he felt as a young man struggling to make a living as he drifted from one dead-end job to another. His philosophical reflections are succinct and to the point. For instance:
“I don’t know how to talk about money. It’s one of those things we can’t seem to get shook of. As much as we pretend it doesn’t matter, it sets the stage for all our relationships.”
Alone among the contributors, it seems to me, Cheng has a clear concept of the functioning of the capitalist system inside which we all live. He uses the potent image of “the Engine”:
“Even now there are still times when I can almost glimpse the Engine in its entirety: its high walls, the gears and cogs and avenues through which wealth and power traffic.”
We are all caught in the toils of the Engine.
In this respect he contrasts favorably with the book’s editor John Freeman, who has no concept of the system as such. He is more interested in the secondary issue of why some people “succeed” and others “fail” and does not perceive the mechanism that generates, deals out, and assigns meaning to these human fates. But I willingly agree with his conclusion that chance (“luck”) plays a major role in deciding this secondary issue.
A final observation. The units in the competitive struggle are no longer families, as they were in traditional class societies, but lone individuals. This is exemplified by the story that Freeman himself tells about his relationship with his younger brother. An inheritance has enabled Freeman to buy an apartment in Manhattan, while his brother lives in a homeless shelter. He tries to help his brother, whom he loves and to whom he dedicates the book, but it apparently never occurs to him that he could simply provide him with steady financial support. No doubt his brother’s “pride” would prevent him from accepting such an arrangement.

Organise to end the profit system (1991)

From the June 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard
Socialist Party member Fred Edwards was a candidate last April in the election for the two delegates from the Yorkshire and Humberside district of NALGO to the 1991 TUC Conference. We reproduce below his election address. He obtained 3628 votes as against 9172 and 7669 respectively for the two other candidates, who were elected. We would not want to claim that all those who voted for him fully agreed with the socialist views expressed in his statement. All the same it is encouraging that the socialist message obtained such a wide and receptive hearing.
In 1989 when I was first nominated by my branch as a potential delegate to the TUC Conference I indicated then my history in the trade union movement over the past twenty years or so and as such feel it not a necessity to cover old ground, suffice to say that the views I had then are as strong now with regard to the effectiveness (or lack of) by our "leaders".

Throughout the years our "leaders" (for that is what they like to be called) continue to place themselves in a position of trying to influence the powers that be that, by tinkering with a social system which continues to put profits before people, all will be sweetness and light.

However, the reality is whenever workers endeavour to gain a few extra crumbs from they cake they themselves bake the capitalist class and its apologists remind them of the need to be realistic. By which they do not mean that workers should acquaint themselves with Marxian economics and the workings of the class struggle, but rather that the employee class should accept less today in exchange for a share in Utopia tomorrow. In the meantime, the working class have to endure the deprivation of their inferior social position, while the capitalist class can continue to enjoy their parasitic privileges derived from profit, interest and rent.

Production under capitalism is anarchic, as the profit requirement must be placed before the needs of the majority. That is why tens of millions of human beings starve to death each year, while farmers are subsidised not to produce food. Similarly whilst thousand of building workers remain unemployed tens of thousands of workers remain homeless.

Alongside over-production for the market there is under-production for human need. This basic contradiction has remained despite reformist attempts to eradicate working class social problems. They have failed as they address effects rather than the cause: commodity production.

In conclusion, I ask of you, the voter, if you agree that my assertion is substantially correct and the TUC should be educating towards a classless, moneyless, private-propertyless society then please vote for me. If you disagree then you will obviously vote for someone else.

The great task which confronts the working class is to organise consciously, politically and democratically throughout the globe so that a speedy end may be wrought to the system.
Fred Edwards

Action Replay: Seeing Red (2014)

The Action Replay Column from the November 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

It gives you wings, according to the advertising slogan. That’s the energy drink Red Bull, though the Austrian firm behind it is far more than just a soft drinks company. It owns a very successful Formula One motor-racing team and sponsors a series of air races that constitute a world championship. It has a US record label, Red Bull Records, but sport is clearly its main marketing tool in the quest to establish an exciting image for the brand. It spends about a billion euros a year on sports marketing, which helps it to sell over five billion cans of the stuff each year.

The main audience targeted by the advertising is young men who are into extreme sports of various kinds, and the company’s ownership of sports teams is part of this whole campaign. In 2005 it bought an Austrian football team and renamed it Red Bull Salzburg: they won the league title by a mile in 2013–14. In 2009 it bought a lower-league team in Leipzig, but this time it was renamed RB Leipzig to comply with sponsorship regulations (we should explain that the RB does not stand for ‘Red Bull’). Supporters of other German clubs have complained that it does not follow the rules on clubs having members who express their views at general meetings. When they played RB at home, Union Berlin fans displayed a banner ‘Football culture is dying in Leipzig’.

The drink (they are a drinks company, remember) is a minor variant on a beverage originally developed in Thailand. There have been claims that it poses a health risk, and it has been banned in some countries, though no risk has been conclusively demonstrated. It is the case, however, that since 2008 six athletes have died in Red Bull-organised events, from extreme skiing to motorbike racing.

Forty-nine percent of shares in Red Bull belong to Dietrich Mateschitz, who has an estimated net worth of over $5bn and owns an island off Fiji. Red Bull gives him profits. 
Paul Bennett

Tory Bluster About ‘Human Rights’ (2014)

From the November 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Tories are hard at work trying to reaffirm their reputation as the Stupid Party. In an imbecilic and shambolic fashion, they have announced they intend to repeal the Human Rights Act (HRA) and replace it with a British Bill of Rights. Even further, they are threatening to renounce the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) and withdraw from the treaty. Noticeably, they only sent their press release announcing the move to the Fleet Street tabloids, ignoring the broadsheet press. The draft document was then found to be error-strewn and ill-thought out.

When their document became available legal minds across the internet immediately began to pick it apart, showing up inaccuracies and ignorant comments scattered throughout. It claims, for instance, that the European Court of Human Rights has banned whole life sentences: when in fact all it did was say that there must be a mechanism for review of the sentence (and, indeed, the British Supreme Court has since said it believes sufficient such structures are already in place).

It has been pointed out that narrowing the ability of courts to read legislation in such a way as to make it compatible with human rights (as they are obliged to do under the HRA) would lead to courts striking down legislation more often. They also promised to stop British courts being bound by Strasburg rulings, when they are already not. Just as all courts have always done, they listen to rulings and reasoning from other jurisdictions and use it as part of their own reasonings.

It has also been suggested that the Westminster Parliament alone might not have the power to repeal the HRA or withdraw from the ECHR, because the devolved bodies for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have had these documents incorporated into their foundation (in the case of Northern Ireland, this is underpinned by an international treaty).

Former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, who has been booted out of the government for opposing this policy, has written in Prospect Magazine pointing out that since 1815 the UK has signed up to over 800 treaties that commit to some sort of international arbitration, and the ECHR is just one of those. Far from the EHCR undermining political sovereignty of Britain, it in fact entirely relies upon the Sovereign British state entering into and agreeing to uphold treaty obligations.

The power to make treaties is an executive power (or, in the byzantine world of the British state, a matter of Crown prerogative). It is thus part of the anti-democratic aspect of the state. The Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary can negotiate, practically in secret and bind the state in the eyes of the world. Necessarily, this limits what Parliament can and can’t do since it means that Britain cannot pass legislation that would break its obligations to other countries. This is the basic means by which Britain has entered into the European Union, and all European Law is actually a treaty obligation which is given effect by the British Parliament passing compatible legislation.

As Grieve notes, ‘in promoting the Convention and adhering to it, we have followed a long tradition that has seen our national self-interest bound up in promoting international order.’ That is, British capitalists benefit from promoting international order and transparent processes to protect their property rights and investments.

The rights of property
The ideology of capitalists has always been based around contract, as they seek to mediate both competition between themselves and against other classes in society. In particular, in their battle with the absolutist states of feudalism they sought protection in the language of rights to protect their property and business interests. In today’s world, they still have to protect themselves from arbitrary expropriation by state actors (and also from other capitalists reneging on their obligations). The interest of big British business depends on a stable rights-based world, where contracts can be enforced. We need only look at Russia, where rival groups of capitalists have used the state to imprison their rivals (and indeed, have frequently resorted to British courts to try and resolve their differences).

Codified human rights are a way of ensuring that the state cannot be used by rival factions (and also so that state actors can know what they are supposed to be doing). That is the function of rights within the ruling class. Rights, though, also form a sort of peace treaty between the ruling capitalist class and the working class. Rather than fight in the ditches over every single scrap, rights allow us and them to let routine matters of conflict be resolved. Their state gets to operate in a way which is considered broadly fair by the wider population. When it doesn't, then open fighting resumes (usually in the form of riots, strikes and civil disruption, but also at the ballot box). The enunciation of civil rights and their enforcement is a reflection of the balance of class power.

This can be seen in the history of every significant document of rights. The Twelve Tables of Rome, the Muslim Constitution of Medina, Magna Carta: all were created following a period of civil strife as a means of putting an end to the present conflict (and also leaving the existing social structures in place). What this means in practice is that rights are not essential, universal or transhistorical, they are always the outcome of the social relations in a particular society and the relative strengths of the class forces to enforce them. The 1936 constitution of the USSR was touted as the most democratic on Earth (as, indeed it was, on paper). The fact that it was completely ignored and useless in practice was down to the lack of any independent capacity of the population, and the working class, to demand it be lived up to.

Human Rights are an outgrowth of both the competitive class and social division of society and the existence of the state. Just as people who do not keep lions do not need a set of written lion safety manuals, so a society of free individuals without a state will not need a written set of state safety manuals. Instead of rights on paper, we would have the practical fulfilment of human needs with the equal access to sufficient democratic power to secure those needs.

The Tories know that this is just bluster and window dressing. They cannot effectively remove the rights in the ECHR. The games they are playing are just symbolic efforts to shore up a right-wing coalition. The number of times they fulminate against Traveller sites and planning laws in their document on the British Bill of Rights shows that they are mostly interested in addressing the grievances of people who are big fish in small village ponds (the sort who may vote UKIP because they don’t have big businesses that rely on international stability).

At most, they are seeking to bring control of the law back into the hands of British judges, who share cultural and family relations with the domestic capitalist class, and can be relied upon more than foreign judges to support the interests of the ruling elite. These judges, though, have already shown a willingness to incorporate human rights language wholesale into common law, and have made significant rights based rulings without reference to either HRA or the ECHR.

We should not let ourselves depend on these judges for our freedoms, though. We can defend ourselves and protect what freedoms and rights we have best by building our own movement for socialism and pursuing the class struggle through our unions. We can only ever have the rights we fight for and can defend.
Pik Smeet

No Marx (1989)

Book Review from the June 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

Farewell To Marx: an outline and appraisal of His Theories by David Conway (Penguin)

In the continuing flood of literature about Marx and Marxism, whether hostile from the defenders of Market Society—be they Fabians or Fascists, Conservatives or Communists—or friendly from would-be critics of contemporary society, the lack of intellectual discipline is depressing and confusing. It is doubly depressing and no less confusing coming from a Ph.D teaching philosophy.

Elementary text books of logic teach us that terms employed must, to avoid confusion, be univocal and not equivocal. They must also be mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive of the subject under consideration, but:
It is Marxists who have been responsible for establishing socialism in those countries which are socialist. And it is Marxists within the non-communist countries who are the most vocal opponents of capitalism and the most vocal supporters of socialism.
the USSR, if arguably not socialist, is certainly not capitalist.
in communism individuals become entitled to means of subsistence on the basis of their need for them. No one is forced to engage in productive activity in order to procure the remuneration necessary for the purchase of his or her means of subsistence. Productive activity is, thus, undertaken purely for its own sake. It is therefore freely chosen.
the means of subsistence are distributed to individuals on the basis of their need or want for them.
Is Russia really like this? Has Western propaganda deceived us to this extent? There are pages of this sort of rubbish. And other sorts.

Conway quotes Engels' oration at Marx's funeral that the forms of government, the legal conceptions, the art and even the religious ideas of the people must be explained in the light of the degree of economic development attained during a given epoch. Conway argues that human beings cannot engage in politics and cultural pursuits without eating and sleeping but it does not follow that eating and sleeping explain the form politics and intellectual activity. Of course Marx never argued that it did. He argued that the relations men entered into in their economic life determined their politics and intellectual activity. We would say today that the relations are a better starting point from which to explain and predict their politics than other starting points. Conway pleads:
Given that there is so little to be said for historical materialism, what is it that accounts for its appeal?
What indeed? Could it be that those concerned to explain the past and predict the future find the material basis of life a more fruitful starting point? Conway rabbits on tediously about the "justice" of exploitation, yet admits that Marx expressly and repeatedly rejects any talk of injustice as "obsolete verbal rubbish". He quotes Allen Buchanan to the effect that Marx thought capitalism unjust but did not want to emphasise its injustice. But if we are to speculate upon what Marx thought as opposed to what he said, here we are where are we!

He says that primitive accumulation of capital was achieved by the first capitalists showing abstinence and drivels on about "sums scraped together" and "pared family budgets" and holds up Richard Arkwright as a model. Shome mishtake here, as Private Eye would say. Does he really mean Carlyle's "Historical phenomenon, that bag-cheeked, pot bellied, much enduring, much inventing barber" who was exposed in 1785 when the courts cancelled "his" patent rights and exposed him as a thief and a fraud, as Ann Beedell has written.

This nonsense about abstinence is only a smokescreen however, and Conway finally comes out with what is really on his mind: the Enclosures, the deserted villages, the war waged by the flag-waving oligarchy on the yeomen of England and the free peasantry everywhere, driving them off the land and into destitution.
Although the less affluent cottagers and squatters may have lost, as a result of the enclosure movement, use-rights in common land previously enjoyed, they were compensated by more work and greater regularity of employment after enclosure.
The Nazis found similar justification, with enabling legislation, for their dispossession of the Jews. "Arbeit Macht Frei!" Doctor Conway appears to be endorsing the acquisition of property by force, an extraordinary view in one charged with the moral and ethical formation of the young!

We must add to Doctor Conway's difficulties with logic a strong urge to contradict himself. On page 50 he writes "It is the simple fact that acquisitiveness and selfishness antedated capitalism by thousands of years  . . . If one accepts that people are on the whole are self-seeking . . ." But on page 133: "People are not in general as envious as Marx seems to be supposing them to be."

He is right, however, in seeing scarcity as the cause of unsocial behaviour:
Scarcity continues amid affluence. There is no reason to suppose that this will not continue for the indefinite future . . . Scarcity together with limited sympathy necessitates the institution of private property as a means for avoiding interpersonal conflict.
So there we are. Time has stopped and to make sure it stops we must organise scarcity by paying people not to produce where the collapse of the Market has failed to discourage them.

The loonies have taken over the madhouse!
Ken Smith