Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Fiscal Exercise (2014)

The Proper Gander Column from the December 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Considering how important our income is in shaping our life, talking about it can feel more embarrassing than a conversation about genital herpes. Channel 4’s How Rich Are You? aims to encourage some fiscal debate with its mix of interviews, pundits, comments from the studio audience and lots of statistics. Even when jazzed up with flashy graphics, the show’s stats give a depressing picture of our divided society. For example, poorer people die up to 12 years earlier than the rich on average, and just five families have as much wealth as 12 million other people. The widening gap between rich and poor is explained by a tendency for an increasing proportion of wealth to end up as capital rather than being paid as wages. This is illustrated with a replica of a machine built during the 1960s at the London School of Economics, which pushes cold tea through pipes into containers marked ‘taxes’, ‘capital’, ‘labour’ etc to represent how money flows round the economy. While much of this data would benefit from clarification, and terms like ‘rich’ and ‘wealth’ are often left fuzzily defined, the clear message is that the capitalists are still winning the class war. As one member of the audience says, while a minority are laughing their way to the bank, he’s on his way to the food bank.

One of the show’s richer contributors suggests that to get assets, you should ‘get off your fucking arse’, as if that’s how he acquired his inherited booty. As economist Dr Faiza Shaheen points out, effort and talent are less important in determining our income than the circumstances we’re born into. Social mobility has reduced as wealth inequality has increased. So, it’s now harder to break free of the constraining opportunities and life expectancy we grow up with. Dr Shaheen gives plenty of examples of how wealth inequality damages our wellbeing, but her disappointing conclusion is only that too much of a divide hinders capitalist growth. And presenter Richard Bacon’s two-penn’orth is to say that we need some rich people for society to function. Unfortunately, capitalism itself isn’t questioned by those participating in How Rich Are You?, only how it’s administered. Despite this, the programme still reminds us why the system doesn’t work in the interests of the majority.
Mike Foster

Obituary: Vic Heaven (1980)

Obituary from the August 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

For over forty years the socialist cause has been kept alive in Bristol by a trio of members with a happy collection of names—Force, Flowers and Heaven. Our small era came to an end when Vic Heaven died on 22 April, aged 81.

Vic joined the army as a boy trumpeter in 1914; political maturity came a decade later. In 1925 he became a socialist and gave his war medals to his children, saying "Here, you can have these begging irons as toys, they're only fit for standing on the pavement with and selling matches". A nice sense of proportion made him keep and cherish the eleven medals he won as an amateur footballer.

Soon after joining the Party he teamed up with a Comrade Howell. Heaven and Howell used to delight in walking around Bristol and calling out to the navvies digging trenches "when are you blokes going to realise that you're being exploited?" The night before Howell died of cancer he threw a party and Vic was pleased to play the piano as Howell sang the Red Flag for the last time.

I first met Vic in 1935, when I was studying for holy orders and was walking through Bristol with my vicar. Heaven was there, selling the Socialist Standard, and he put the case to us. After hearing it, the vicar intoned pompously, "young man, you are 200 years before your time". With his lightning tongue Vic flashed "old man, you are 2,000 years behind the times!" My religious belief evaporated.

Later Vic became a civil servant with the Ministry of Labour, and this cramped his public propaganda work. Nevertheless, he was pleased to have advised every conscript who passed through his department during the second world war of the alternative to fighting for capitalism.

On retirement Vic kept a beautiful cottage garden and, amid the pear trees, he would talk socialism with all his visitors. "The world's first socialist candidate, Clifford Groves" holidayed there; and "Fellow Worker White", so-called because anywhere, and without warning, he would shout "fellow workers!" and gather an audience to hear the socialist case.

Our sympathy and gratitude go to Vic's four daughters, who looked after him in his latter years.
J. Force

Brotherly Love in the U.S.A. (1930)

From the April 1930 issue of the Socialist Standard

Mr. Sinclair Lewis, the author of "Babbitt," "Main Street," and other widely read novels, dealing with life in the U.S.A., was on the spot during the recent embittered struggle between mill-owners and cotton workers at Marion, North Carolina, one of the new industrial areas in the Southern States. He was inspired to write a pamphlet, "Cheap and Contented Labor," in which he tells of some of the incidents of industrial conflict as it is waged in America. It is written in simple, direct language, and is a powerful indictment of the unrestrained brutality of the employing class when they believe their interests to be endangered.

The operatives were on strike for an increase in their wages of 13 dollars a week—a starvation wage at American prices.

No sooner had the workers struck than all the forces of capitalist suppression were turned against them. Armed militia fired upon them on the least provocation. Hospitals refused to tend their sick and wounded. The law courts discounted their evidence, and charges were fabricated in the favour of the employers. Parsons ranted and demanded public whipping posts as a punishment for the "agitators."

General housing and social conditions in Marion are appalling, and call to mind the conditions of the mining and cotton districts of England in the early days of English factory development. Mr. Lewis, who has visited the Lancashire cotton districts, says that the condition of the workers there "is the abomination of desolation," but, he adds, these are "some three or four hundred per cent. superior to those of the workers in Marion." To any who are acquainted with the cotton districts of England such a comparison is enough.

We are also told that the conditions of the mill-workers of Marion are representative of scores of mill towns in America.

However, America still is a land of "prosperity and golden opportunities"—for the Capitalist. For the workers—slavery.

Mr. Lewis wants to abolish this slavery, although in this pamphlet he does not tell us what are his own views on the method of doing it.
H. W.

Dreaming spires and screaming tyres (1991)

From the December 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard

A resident of the Blackbird Leys estate in Oxford describes the background to the recent riots there.

For a week during the summer Blackbird Leys, a housing estate in Oxford, was catapulted (and I choose that word carefully) to the the forefront of public attention after a sudden and apparently spontaneous outbreak of violence. Rioting occurred and petrol bombs were thrown when police tried to break up crowds of young people who had come to watch a display of the driving of stolen cars, something of a local pastime. Why did this happen? What is the origin of this conflict with authority in the shape of the police which is such a feature of Blackbird Leys? And why did it erupt on this occasion, as it never had done before, into such open violence?

The violence and conflict was not the product of simple material deprivation; unemployment at 9 percent, but this is not the highest in Oxford. It was more subtle; to do with things which are more intangible; boredom, police insensitivity and the alienation of a whole category of people from mainstream values, opportunities and ideals, and the establishment of a youth culture with its own values which are irreconcilable with the bourgeois values of the wider society.

Blackbird Leys is a large featureless 1960s council estate with a population of around 9,000 which, although it is technically part of the city of Oxford, is attached to the south of Oxford, outside the main Ring Road, in a way which gives it the definite appearance of being an afterthought, something which is artificial and created, not something natural or organic but an excrescence, manufactured to cope with a category of people somehow left out of mainstream society. This feeling of exclusion both physical and social is real and tangible. The actual situation of the estate—you have to go there specially; it is not on the way to anywhere—is mirrored by social exclusion, the feeling of being somehow outside the rest of Oxford and not integrated into the community at large.

The estate itself is oval-shaped and lacks any proper social centre or focus. The nearest thing to this is "the oval"—roads around a rectangular space with trees which functions as a traffic island. It is around this space that most of the driving stolen cars for excitement and danger takes place. The whole estate with its long straight roads is laid out in a way that encourages this joy-riding and speeding. Recently humps that were put in by the City Council to slow traffic down on these long roads have made joy-riding even more exciting and have only served to inconvenience legitimate traffic.

Blackbird Leys was originally built to house Oxford's population overspill and to serve the nearby Cowley car plant, an ambitious programme of public building which one could never imagine happening today. The reality was quite different: it was not built with people and their real needs in mind and was a planning failure. Blackbird Leys is now perceived as an area which is "bad" and which concentrates Oxford City's unwanted into one area, a sort of semi-unofficial social asylum, housing, for example, those with criminal records, and "problem" families. Not surprisingly it also has a high immigrant population. It is also large enough to have its own social differences. Away from the centre are streets of mostly privately-owned houses whereas nearer in and closer to the centre are the more regular and featureless council properties.

Blackbird Leys also borders on to the south Oxfordshire countryside with its picture-postcard villages. Garsington is one of these and is a particularly exclusive small village (exclusive in a real economic sense—it excludes others from participation in its way of life and in its attractiveness) with its beautiful small church, manor-house and thatched cottages. From the centre of Garsington can be seen a swathe of green country which suddenly turns grey and out of which rise tower blocks. The contrast is striking, both between the grey and green and between the life of some and the life of others. From the centre of Blackbird Leys one can see a pleasant green wooded hill which speaks of an otherness to the regularity and featurelessness of the area.

This real sense of difference both from the city and the country only serves to heighten the isolation of the residents. If you have money you can participate in the richness and variety of life, you can live in attractive surroundings, and if you don't you are demeaned and devalued and such things as pleasant surroundings are not seen to matter or to be important—or necessary. These social differences will surely be exacerbated even further by the new development of Greater Leys, a private development starting to enclose Blackbird Leys from the south. This is an estate which is very different, both qualitatively and quantitatively from its larger neighbour. A no-man's-land separates the two and walking across it there is a feeling of stepping from one section of society into another.

Police clampdown
The immediate trigger for the Oxford violence was a long-planned police clampdown on the persistent problem of joy-riding and the opportunity which this gave to frustrated, bored excluded young people in hot weather for a confrontation with authority. By coming in as they did, as a posse, the police made themselves a target for violence and aggression. They were perceived as representing mainstream culture and the interests of the privileged and powerful rather than those of (this particular section of) the working class. Thus they presented a symbol of authority against which the original trouble was a reaction.

This insensitivity made the situation much worse. At the height of the trouble the estate crawled with police spoiling for a row and television camera-crews (I saw some from Germany) and journalists from the national press falling over themselves to film any sign of violence. This turned a fairly small-scale confrontation into one played out for a national and international audience. This, of course, electrified the atmosphere and prolonged the trouble.

Various superficial attempts have been made to improve the situation on the estate. These concern the symptoms but not the underlying disease and, in fact, the situation cannot be resolved within capitalism at all. The wide oval in the centre of the estate where joy-riders do their handbrake turns has been narrowed in a way which has made the featureless, impoverished centre into even more of an eye-sore. The tarmac extensions to the pavements look ugly because no attempt has been made to harmonise them with the existing pavement. Pathetic attempts like this make it more difficult to express the symptoms of the underlying disease, which is capitalism, an economic system, which separates people from each other and makes them compete in a cut-throat way for the necessaries of life; it creates an underclass which never gets a look-in to the better things of life.

What is needed is a wholesale change, a revolution, and end to the misery of private property and the inevitable inequality which goes with it; a new system of society which integrates everyone and distributes its wealth according to the reasonable needs of its members. This new socialist society would abolish at a stroke the problems of deprivation and exclusion of Blackbird Leys and inner-city areas. It would enable the wasted talent of those who are presently excluded on economic grounds from a proper participation in the life of society to be properly developed. The energy squandered on destructive and anti-social pastimes like joy-riding could be put into activities which are more rewarding, fulfilling and socially useful. Young people have much energy, enthusiasm and intelligence and the loss of this is a tragic waste, for society and for those who never fulfil themselves. What is really needed in Oxford is not condemnation from the Home Secretary, nor more police or re-designed pavements but a fundamental change in society.
Iain Jamieson

The Myth of National Characteristics (2014)

From the December 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard
There once was a very bad TV situation comedy called 'Mind Your Language'. The basis of this unfunny comedy was a well-meaning hero teaching an adult night class the English language to a cliché-ridden group of non-English speakers. Stereotypes abounded.
There was the sexually attractive French girl in a short skirt, the randy bottom-pinching Italian, the very proper but dull German and a wide variety of stupid Orientals and Asians. The whole thing was complete nonsense and it says much for the better informed prospective audience that the whole thing sunk without trace after a short run. Although this particular attempt at national characteristics failed the notion that whole groups of people from a particular geographical area are genetically programmed to behave in particularly predictable fashion is very widespread. It would be almost impossible to watch TV or read a newspaper without observing a reference to 'Latin temperament', 'Germanic thoroughness', or even 'American brashness'. In journalism so-called national traits are the norm. In tabloid journalism like theSun or the Daily Mail they are almost mandatory. What lies behind this crass affectation? After all journalists are not stupid and they must recognise the wide variety of human foibles and unique behaviour patterns that exist amongst people. The basis of this pernicious poison lies in the misguided nationalistic aims of the mass media. These means of communications exist not just to sell and make a profit they also have a very important function to perform for the owning class.
It is imperative for the smooth functioning of a class-divided society that the working class imagines that they share a common identity with their exploiters. Thus we have deluded wage slaves on the last night of The Proms puffing out their chests and chanting 'Land of Hope and Glory'. This is a world-wide illusion. BeProud That You Are British or exulting in the American Way of Life are all of a cliched pattern.
It is impossible to imagine how capitalism would function so smoothly without the poison of nationalism. In the event of an economic crisis we must learn to buckle to and beat Johnny Foreigner. In the event of a war we must fight and die for 'our country'. In reality of course the working class have no country. It is an accident which country you were born into - it is probably even an accident that you were born at all. There is nothing to be proud or ashamed of the country you happen to live in. `
So wake up to reality, Bertie Wooster! You are not British. Put your non-existent monocle away and stop sticking out your pinky when having a cup of char. Aunt Agatha isn't going to call shortly.