Saturday, January 31, 2015

Obituary: Irene Robertson (1989)

Obituary from the May 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

Sadly we have to record the death in Italy of Comrade Irene Robertson, long-time comrade and partner of Max Judd. Irene joined the Party in 1943, arriving at socialist ideas and conclusions on a totally independent basis. Max joined some while later and they met at a Party dance. In spite of sometimes being less fit than she would have wished, Irene took on various tasks including Branch Secretary at Lewisham, Election Agent at Bromley, writing to the local press, canvassing the Socialist Standard on doorsteps and up and down blocks of flats in the Lewisham area. She always made clear her political views, quite bluntly at times, not always making friends by so doing. Her socialist ideas were the main driving force and sustenance of her life and she and Max spent much time discussing the daily horrors of the brutal and vicious society we live in, or perhaps considering some current topic being debated within the Socialist Party.

To Max, son Carl, and brother John, we send our condolences.
P. Hart for South West London Branch

How socialism can increase food production

From the April 1984 issue of the World Socialist

The statistics which arise persistently throughout the world from the problem of malnourishment and starvation, exceed all other measures of death and misery. Yet whilst this is the problem from which humanity in 1984 suffers most, the solution to it in socialism would be straightforward, taking relatively little time.

World capitalism can enter up on the debit side of human suffering hundreds of millions of dead from lack of food. Despite the abundance of labour, technique and productive resources, the absolute numbers of men, women and children dying from lack of food are greater than ever before. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation state that in 1974/5 a conservative world estimate of seriously undernourished people was 435 million. This was 75 million higher than 5 years previously. UNICEF state that 40,000 children are dying every day from starvation or malnutrition related-disease, or annually around 15 million.

Malnourishment is not only a problem of "underdeveloped" countries. Within the EEC, 30 million workers are living below the poverty line, which means living on less than half the average income for those countries. This results in impoverished diets, a reliance on cereals, starchy root vegetables and sugar. The London Times reported in July 1983 that "Thirty-two million of the (American) population of 233 million are graded as below the poverty line, but the mayors say that soup kitchens are not keeping pace with the hungry". The London Sunday Times reported in August 1983 that some pregnant women in Hackney, London, were consuming only 1,613 calories per day during the first 3 months of pregnancy as against their needs of at least 2,100 calories. The FAO definition of "seriously undernourished" is a calorie intake of 1,600 calories per day and less.

Malnourishment exists in every country of the world because under world capitalist production, food is produced as commodities for sale at a profit on the market. Food production is not organised directly for human needs, it is geared to market capacity where profit is realised. To support the market the EEC destroys food every year, and maintains a policy of restricted food production. In 1982, American farmers took 82 million acres out of food production.

A great deal of discussion about socialism centres on how needs will be determined in the absence of markets, money and prices. How will decisions be made about production? Needs are socially given by the nature of existing problems. The objective of socialism is to organise society directly for human needs and therefore support for socialism must be on the basis that we take over the means of production and resources, and then concentrate the priorities of social action on the areas of greatest human need.

This element of material necessity is a pressure on what social ism is bound to do. This existing material position pre-empts the important social policies of socialism and these policies are not therefore subject to arbitrary choice. The socialist movement is bound to formulate its programmes of action for dealing with problems in advance of the capture of political control and foremost amongst these actions will be the increase of food production from the present artificial scarcity in relation to sufficiency for human need.

This is not to suggest that every option open to world socialism for increasing food production is determined mechanically by the pressure of necessity. The socialist movement is committed now to the overall policy of increasing food production within socialism, but within this overall policy of action, the need for particular democratic decisions will arise.

The organisation of the production of food must be considered together with the social procedures for decision-making. The working class organised for world socialism, acting consciously and politically, will take over the various State machines of capitalist governments and immediately adapt these structures for the purposes of useful world administration. This will mean the capture of the machinery of government at the various local and national levels, and the conversion of these State instruments of government into local and regional councils, with the present United Nations Organisation providing a ready-to-hand administrative facility for a world council.

Centralised State control is hostile to democracy. The present position whereby governments impose their decisions on the wider population will have to be replaced by a system of decision-making and action where the decisions flow from the broadest social base to make up the democratic view of the community. This is the reverse of the present system of centralised state control, and it is what is meant in the socialist object by "democratic control . . . by and in the interests of the whole community".

In practice, this means that the basic unit of social organisation, and therefore of decision-making will be the local community. The local community will elect its delegates to the local council, and these persons will be delegated the responsibility of local administration. One procedure could be that these members of the local councils could elect, from amongst their numbers, delegates to the regional council. If this procedure were to be adopted then it would follow that the regional council would elect from amongst its numbers, delegates to the world council.

This system of electing delegates to the various councils would have to include machinery whereby these councils could be instructed by poll. On an everyday basis, matters could be left to these delegates and provided that the numbers were enough they would reflect general opinion. But circumstances could arise where these various councils would want to ascertain precisely the view of the whole community on specific issues. The same machinery could be used to challenge a council decision.

The poll of the community would be the final arbiter on all social issues requiring a social decision. On this basis we would have a system whereby local communities would instruct their local councils, the sum of local council opinion would instruct the regional council, and the sum of regional council opinion would instruct the world council.

The three spheres of decision-making, local, regional and world, are an adaptation of existing structures; they also coincide with the different scales on which production is required to be organised.

We need local agriculture, and the local work of producing useful goods according to local needs and work preferences. We also need local services. Also we need world bodies, mainly for the organisation of the extractive industries such as oil and metals, and then world transport, world communications, control of space, energy supply etc.

Between the local and world scales, regional organisation will be required. This would be particularly for the manufacture of component parts and assembly of goods and equipment. Tractors, for instance, would be produced regionally and distributed to the various localities covered by that region.

Democratic decision-making must be integrated with the organisation of production in the local, regional and world spheres, and applied as a priority to the need to increase food production. We can envisage ways in which firstly, local communities can increase food production; secondly how this local food production extends to regional manufacture, and thirdly how this also extends to world productive organisation.

To overcome the problem of scarcity of food on a world scale we estimate on the basis of all the available evidence that socialist society will have to increase food production by at least 60% as a short-term target.

The production of the great variety of vegetables, salad crops, fruits, oil seeds, spices, animal produce, fish farming etc., could be organised on a local basis. In local communities, the knowledge and unique experience of working particular soils exists. Those individuals with this experience would be given the assistance required to organise the ways in which local food production could be increased. In its first period, the greatest advantage that socialism would enjoy would be the availability of extra labour, which would be released as a result of the ending of the useless functions associated now with the running of capitalism. With the availability of all the people at present engaged in insurance, finance, banking, commerce and competition, plus the present labour wasted in armed forces and armaments production, the state bureaucracies and the millions of unemployed, socialism would be able to at least double the numbers of people available for useful production throughout the world.

By immediately concentrating greater numbers of people on the work of increased local food production results could be quickly achieved, especially with labour intense methods of cultivation. In the short term this would be appropriate, since the work of providing more mechanised equipment would take time.

Having emphasised that socialism could quickly increase local food production by more people getting on with this work, at the same time, regional manufacture would also be applied to this priority of production. A great advantage to local food production in the temperate climates would be the use of greenhouses. By this method it is possible to more closely control the conditions of cultivation, extend the season of growth, and diversify the crops. In response to the desirability of local food production for local consumption, local communities would want to construct greenhouses. But obviously, not every local community would have its own glass-works. Glass would be produced on the regional scale of manufacture, and we assume that the existing glass production facilities, taken over by socialism, would be under great initial pressure to supply glass.

Arising from this position of a widespread requirement for glass, decisions will be called for. Once durable greenhouses are in place in local communities they will be available for use over a very long time. Production for need, in the position of inherited scarcity is a pressure to produce, but it also embodies a limit to production. At a certain point local communities have sufficient greenhouses for their purposes.

In response to this very high peak of initial requirements, the region could increase the means of production, that is, build more glass works to increase the productive capacity. But as a prudent society, socialism will not want to create massive over-capacity. This would be increased production facilities set up to cope with the high peak of initial requirements but then soon becoming redundant. This has to be set against the consequences of not increasing productive capacity, which would be that the high peak of initial requirements would take longer to supply. Getting the balance of this right would be one of the decisions which would have to be made.

In socialism, since this matter would involve regional production facilities, it would come within the framework of decision-making of the regional council. Those who have taken on the responsibility of running the regional glass works would put all the relevant information in front of the regional council together with the various options which arise from that information. On this basis and in consideration with possible information from any other relevant source, the regional council would make a decision, bearing in mind that the regional council will be made up from delegates from all the local communities of that region.

This example of glass production is one of how a social priority, the need for more food, extends from local organisation to regional organisation, and also how food production extends to manufacture.

The work of setting up local greenhouse cultivation would extend to regional manufacture but it would also extend to organisation of production on a world scale. Greenhouse structures require rigid supports. Socialism would be unlikely to use timber. It is not a durable material, it would require a lot of maintenance, and moreover, socialism has to plant trees not cut them down.

A metal such as a durable alloy could be used, and also suitable would be plastic. Plastic is a product of oil extraction, and this would be organised by a world body. Obviously the regional facilities for converting oil into oil products already exist, but we are bound to have a world oil body monitoring the process of extraction and use in relation to the reserves of the material.

Demand for oil products would flow from many needs. A particularly important use of oil will be with plastic water pipes, arising from the need to supply piped clean water to the entire world's population. Working with the world council, and in association with other world bodies, the world oil body would have to assess how best this material could be used in respect of the wide range of initial needs, and also in respect of other possible solutions.

The sequence of productive activities we are describing is initiated as a response to needs in local communities, and as with such items of food production equipment as tractors, flows through regional manufacture of components and assembly, and then to the supply of basic materials from the extractive industries organised on a world scale.

Whilst the great variety of foods included in vegetables, fruits, salad crops, oil seeds, spices, animal produce, fish farming, etc., are most suitable for local production for local consumption, the basis of agriculture is cereal production. In response to the urgent need to increase world cereal production, socialism is bound to take a world view of the problem. The present world bodies which could be adapted for useful organisation are the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the International Wheat Council.

With the continuation of world capitalism, it is accepted by the FAO that no remotely feasible rate of economic growth could eliminate serious undernourishment in the forseeable future. The FAO have predicted that a continuation of a 2.8% increase in agricultural production given for 1977 (it is lower than this now) will result in an increase in the numbers of seriously undernourished from 435 million to 590 million in the year 2000 with the position rapidly worsening into the 21st century.

These projections assume an increase in the world's population from the present 4,415 million to 6,199 million during the sixteen years between now and the year 2000. It must be emphasised here that the cause of the problem of world hunger and malnutrition is not one of numbers of people in the world. The problem is entirely the result of the motive of capitalist production—profit, and the operation of the world capitalist market, and cannot be understood by an alleged imbalance between numbers of population, availability of labour, technique and productive resources.

The International Wheat Council monitors the world production of cereals or grains. Their work is aimed towards achieving a balance between world production of grains and market capacity so that wide fluctuations in the world market prices can be averted. In its present work, the International Wheat Council is not the least interested in human needs except as they are expressed as market capacity. As with the FAO, the forward projections of the International Wheat Council about world grains production and market capacity are equally pessimistic in respect of satisfying human needs.

In 1980 world production of all grains was 1.45 billion tonnes. This was an average per person of the world population of 329 kilograms for all grain uses.

The projected figures for the next sixteen years to the year 2000 for world grain production given by the Council are 2.177 billion tonnes, which with assumed population increases, will amount to a total grain use of 357 kilograms per person.

Not all grain use is that of direct consumption. Of the average per capita consumption of grains in 1980 of 329 kilograms, 162 kilograms was directly consumed, and the remaining 167 kilograms was used as animal feeds, brewing, etc. Behind these figures for average world total grains consumption exist wide differences of real individual consumption. These differences range from 203 kilograms per person in the "developing countries" to an average of 588 kilograms per person in the countries of Western Europe, USA, Canada and Australia.

However, again within these populations, different levels of consumption apply as a result of class differences and the different positions of individual workers. On existing patterns of food consumption, determined by individual access to the market, and the limitations of that access according to relative poverty so far as workers are concerned, the present world production for a world market of approximately 1.6 billion tonnes, forms the background against which 30 million people die every year from lack of food.

Whilst forward projections of the operation of the world capitalist market are subject to many unpredictable variables the projections of current market trends put out to the year 2000 by the International Wheat Council is one which must assume over 500 million deaths from lack of food over the next 16 years.

The standard of food consumption which is average in Western Europe and North America is based upon a total grain use of 588 kilograms per person per year. (With 138 kilograms being used directly as food, and the remaining 450 kilograms being used for animal feeds and all other uses.)

On these existing patterns of food consumption, and to bring every individual on the planet up to the standard of food consumption which is average in Western Europe and America, socialism would need to increase world grains production from the present 1.6 billion tonnes, which is world market capacity, to 2.6 billion tonnes for human needs on present world population numbers. For a world population of 6,000 million, projected for the year 2000, socialism would need to produce 3.6 billion tonnes of grains for human need, as against the projected 2.2 billion tonnes for market capacity.

With socialism, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, working in cooperation with the world and regional councils, would be responsible for coordinating this work of increasing world grains production as an urgent priority of action. There is no shortage of potential productive land, though the necessary work of preparing this land for cultivation may take some time. Irrigation schemes, for example, would require the FAO to cooperate with other world specialist bodies as world wide cooperation was swung behind the concerted effort to deal with hunger and malnourishment. A great deal could be accomplished in the short term with improvement of storage facilities and safe control of pests and disease.

With a more equal distribution of inherited scarce supplies of food, together with a more efficient use of these supplies in terms of nutritional values, socialism could stop people dying from hunger immediately. This would be the immediate measure that world wide socialist cooperation would implement.

Alongside this more equal and efficient use of scarcity, local initiatives would be of crucial importance. Local democratic action could be concentrated on increased local production with more people using existing land resources for more intensive production. This would be the most immediate way of increasing production, and the main thrust of socialist action could centre on these local initiatives, and upon the results of this would depend how far socialism would progress towards sufficient supply. However there can be no doubt that within a period of up to 5 years these local initiatives would transform the position.

Together with these measures at the local level, the FAO as a world agency could organise aid and assistance for those areas of the world where the means of agricultural production are underdeveloped. The work of bringing more productive resources into cultivation presents itself mainly as the irrigation of semi-arid soils. With world cooperation and concentration of action on this priority, socialism could reduce the time usually taken to complete irrigation schemes, when they are undertaken under world capitalism within the constraints of the market system. Socialism could count on bringing in extra land for cultivation, even for the most elaborate of irrigation schemes in something like ten years.

At the present time of world depression, the economic signals sent to production units within the world market system are substantially those which indicate stoppage of production. This applies to world cereal production. Using information put out by the International Wheat Council, the United States government in 1983 agreed with farmers that they should take 82 million acres out of food production, which is approximately 100 million tonnes of grains forgone, as a result of the operation of the market. Self evidently this is in reverse of the direction that we need to go to provide for human needs.

With production for use the indications to production are those of need, not market capacity and profit. Production for use will operate as a sequence of productive activities, arising as a response to need in local communities and extending to different scales of production in accordance with necessity and practicality. Needs will be communicated as quantities of things in line with social priorities, and will pass through as applications of different labour to all the necessary sequences of productive activity in the local, regional and world spheres. In the first instance needs are an indication to produce, but they also define the limits to necessary production.

Socialism will take over from capitalism an existing structure of production and this will be the material basis from which the development of socialism will begin. Initially this will take the form of the adaptation and expansion of the useful elements of existing production. To begin with, the socialist community will impose its priorities of need on this existing structure.

This will be an essentially self-regulating system whereby the usefulness and therefore the continued part played by any element of production will be determined by the factor of need, expressed as quantities of things, and passing through all the interdependent parts of production as a whole. Each particular part of production will be responding to the particular demands placed upon it. It is a system which is self-adjusting over time on the basis of experience. Each part of production will know what its position is in relation to this demand of need. If stocks accumulate, then this will require the adjustment of reduced production and if there is a time delay in supply, then this, self evidently, will require increased production.

In respect of so-called overproduction there is one difference between production for the market and production for use, which has an important bearing on organisation. If a part of capitalist production overproduces for its particular market this generally results in crisis which can lead to depression. There is overproduction of world grains in relation to the market and this has resulted in 82 million acres being taken out of production in America. The farmers who would otherwise have been producing on these millions of acres, would also otherwise have been in the market themselves for their own particular supplies. They would have stopped buying these supplies and in this way the chain of stopped production spirals down to other parts of production.

Whereas overproduction for the market is a problem for world capitalism, overproduction for human need in socialism would be a positive advantage. In respect of the world availability of basic materials, production for use could aim to stockpile supplies of these in excess of immediate demands. Whilst there would be no point in going on and on stockpiling greater reserve supplies, nevertheless current production could aim to top up the reserves of basic materials, as they were distributed for consumption to every region and local community throughout the world.

With a well developed world storage system socialism would stockpile a reserve supply of grains in excess of the needs of current consumption. Given such storage facilities, grains are durable, and easily transported in bulk without damage.

Production for use and democratic control is adaptable. Different productive activities can be organised in different ways according to practicality and according to the importance of the activity as it affects the whole community. All sorts of spontaneous activities could arise in different local communities between enthusiastic individuals. At the same time it will be necessary to take a world view of cereal production, the use of finite materials such as oil, and metals, and also a world energy system.

For these reasons, the organisation of production for use must be adaptable within a world which is integrated, with the basic unit of social organisation being the local community.

Within this integrated system we have the facility of organisation for any need or purpose. It can provide for the spontaneous initiatives of individuals or small groups, and at the same time it can deal with the important problems where society as a whole needs to take a larger scale and more long term view. The anarchy of current world food production shows the urgency of a new system now.
Pieter Lawrence (Britain)

TV in Modern Life (1956)

From the November 1956 issue of the Socialist Standard
Lambasting television is easy. The only difficult thing, indeed, must be for the critics to produce fresh variants on the bitter, derisive comments which seem all that can be found to describe the offerings of man's latest marvel. The same things were said about the films thirty years ago (those same films, by the way, now being hailed by the U-mob as aesthetic masterpieces); and, as with films, one fact brushes aside all the invective. In America families look at television for an average of five and a half hours a day, and in Britain for over half that time. Television, whatever they say about it, has become established as part of modern social life.
Obviously that does not justify its banality. It is quite true that most television programmes are stupid, noisy, mediocre and pointless, and they have become more so since "commercial" television began in this country. But why single out television? Are not most radio programmes stupid, clamorous, mediocre and pointless, too? And most films, novels, papers and plays? Bad as television may be, it has only followed the illuminated trails blazed by every other form of mass entertainment.
In fact, much of the sneering and jeering at television is not really aimed at television at all, but at the working class. Mr Maurice Richardson, commenting on the Backward Child's - i.e., commercial television's - Birthday in the Observer a few weeks ago made merry with phrases like "slobbering cretin" and "the Ad-mass". Smart, easy stuff this; it would be equally easy, if less smart, for Mr Richardson to observe the U-mob lapping up stuff just as poor and twice as nasty as television in practically any West End theatre or cabaret.
Television is the passive entertainment par excellence. Indeed, if there is anything it emphasises about present-day society, it is this: the second-handedness of almost everything. The football spectator is often condemned as a passive watcher, getting satisfaction by proxy from the deeds of others, but he appears an active participant against the television-watcher - at least wrapping-up, going out of doors, meeting other men, arguing and letting off steam, while the viewer is as wholly non-participant as is possible to be.
That is only the least part of it, however. The awful, meretricious mimicry which a universal visual medium breeds has to be seen to be believed: unending imitations of imitations, until imitation is an end in itself. It applies to the artistes of course, but they are only the focal point of the pattern. See the amateur talent contests - Find the Singer, Opportunity Knocks, and so on. The dreadful thing is not that the competitors can't sing. They aren't trying to. They compete only in effectively copying the looks, gestures and antics of the stereotyped professionals.
It is this, the standardization, the depreciating of originality, and the acceptance of prototypes for practically everything, that makes television set the seal on the trends of the last quarter-century's popular entertainment. The man in the armchair is the least noxious of its end-products. What matters much more is the man wearing other people's looks, copying other people's tricks, living by other people's judgements, and thinking other people's thoughts.
The differences between BBC television and "commercial" resolve themselves into the latter's flamboyance - like comparing the Telegraph with the Daily Mirror. Thus ATV's news-readers are engaging and breezy, the BBC's staid; the BBC children's hour is carefully "improving", while ATV gives them gunplay and thunder. There is one other vital distinction, however. On ATV they give things away; on BBC they don't. The give-away programmes are on every evening. The prizes (modest in comparison with the American ones) include £2 a week for a year, two jackpots which rise to £1000, and television sets ad lib.
The give-away programme is a reiteration of one of capitalism's oldest myths: that if you can't climb the tree, there are always windfalls. The excitement of the thought is heaped on for the viewers. "How does it feel to win £1000? Viewers may be able to tell tonight, if the Treasure Trail reaches its thrilling climax", says the TV Times advertisement of Double Your MoneyThe 64,000 Question, in which the eventual prize is £3000, is positively ghoulish - the contestant in a glass box, macabre music, close-ups of the audience in dramatic lighting to squeeze out the last vicarious thrill.
What are the social effects of all this? The most obvious one is a loss of sociability: people go out less and welcome callers less. A few years ago there was a good deal of inviting-in to watch the television, but that has fallen off as television ownership has spread. Other forms of entertainment and recreation have lost accordingly. More beer-drinking is done at home and less in the pubs; cinemas, which kept their end up until last year, are now reporting a serious decline. And round this writer's way the local vicar circularized houses last Christmas, to apologize if his carol-singers disturbed the viewers.
With this increased insularity, more attention has probably been paid to homes themselves, in the way of decorating, furnishing, and so on. At first glance that may seem a good thing, but in fact it means acceptance of the individualizing and atomizing of society that has been going on for the last hundred years - the division of labour carried to the point where each man hardly knows his neighbour. Indeed, going back to the television programmes, one of their most remarkable features is the almost hypnotic appeal of seeing other people revealed: in their occupations, in loss of dignity, or, most incredible of all, in the guise of the Man Who Eats Razor Blades, or the Woman Who Got Stuck in the Bath.
The ownership of a television set means far more than mere entertainment, however. It holds implications of prestige, of status shown by conspicuous consumption. Seven or eight years ago the mere fact of owning one was enough; the man who said:  "I watched a good play last night" was saying unmistakably: "I've got a television". That has passed, and nowadays it isn't worth having an outdoor aerial. Prestige today involves having a better, brighter and (above all) bigger set: one with a seventeen- or twenty-inch screen, where you can get both programmes and don't have to turn out the light.
It is funny - and sad - this business of "living standards". One would imagine that having a good standard of living could mean only one thing: having plenty of good food, being adequately housed and clothed, having no debts to worry about, and being able to please one's self. Well, it doesn't. It connotes, in fact, not living at all, but possessing. The standard is seen as the rung one has reached on the acquisitive ladder. The lowest rung, below which there isn't a standard at all, is the radio-set. Above it, roughly in ascending order, come the nine-inch television, the washing machine, the refrigerator, holidays abroad, the mortgage-bought house, the big television set, and, indisputably top, the motor-car.
There are endless other things, of course - clothing,  children's schooling, the sounds which come out of the radiogram; they have to be endless or the game might stop, and it can't. The common conception is that for people to be getting any or all of these things means more and more money is, by the grace of industrial civilization, being pumped into working-class homes.
That can be tested. According to the London and Cambridge Economic Service wages currently are 176 per cent above their 1938 level. Prices are given as 154 per cent above 1938. In other words, wages in relation to prices (and that is the only way wages can be assessed) are just 8 per cent more than what they were in 1938. In concrete terms, at today's prices a man with £7 10s a week is eleven shillings better off than he was before the war.
Where does the money for the television sets come from, then? Most are bought on hire-purchase or credit sale. The instalments can be anything from fifteen shillings a week upwards; in the case of a credit sale, when payment must be completed in nine months, they can be as high as three pounds a week. There are two answers. The first is earnings over and above wages - overtime and production bonuses; the second, that more wives go to work than ever before. Cauter and Downham's investigation in Derby found that:
"The explanation of the ability of the lower-paid worker to buy a television set is suggested by the family size analysis. In fact, two-thirds of the owner-families where the chief wage-earner received £7 10s a week or less had more than one wage-earner in the family." (The Communication of Ideas, 1954).
The truth, then, is that television sets, like the other working-class "luxuries" are paid for by men working longer hours, their wives going to work, and both of them going without other things. It may be a pity that sacrifices are made in such a cause, but that is a different matter. Perhaps a final word may be said about the economic aspect of it. It is a mistake to think that all this - expensive means of amusement coming into ordinary homes - is a modern wonder. Before television or radio, literally every working-class home had a piano. The price of a piano thirty-five years ago was anything between thirty and seventy pounds; it was, in fact, a far greater luxury.
Don't write off television as another machine-age monstrosity. Potentially, it can do a lot for man; as an instrument of communication, information and amusement. Its failings are not inherent in the cathode-ray tube, but are in reality the failings of social life displayed in three dimensions on a small screen. An American critic described television as a device by which a man may sit in one room and observe the nonsense going on in another. As was said at the beginning, that sort of lambasting is easy and it misses the point - which is that the real nonsense is going on in the room where the man is sitting.
Robert Barltrop

Friday, January 30, 2015

No Man's Land. (1917)

From the May 1917 issue of the Socialist Standard

Grey, desolate, and bare of shrub or tree,
Deep-holed and scarred by many a giant blow;
A grave yard breath of rank mortality
Hovers around in restless ebb and flow;
Dim shapes the colour of the earth they cumber
Lie motionless and silent, writhe and moan;
Dismembered limbs, mixed with war's other lumber,
Weirdly entwined, across the waste are strewn.
Such is this "No Man's Land." The light of day
Brings in its train horrors no tongue can tell,
Sights, scents and sounds that all the senses stun;
And when night falls the will to rend and slay
Creeps from its lair the hideous list to swell
Of bodies rotting in the morrow's sun.
F. J. Webb

Theatre Review: 'England Arise' (2015)

Theatre Review from the January 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

England Arise!

Written by Mick Martin. Directed by Jude Wright. Performed by “Bent Architect.”

CAST, Doncaster. 

One of the delights of the Art Scene in a town well away from a city is that you can appreciate a play without any of the distractions of celebrity culture on or off the stage.  The play is what you get – pure and unvarnished.

This visit is the anniversary of the opening of Doncaster’s new theatre CAST.  Something significant is happening in this part of South Yorkshire and the theatre is beginning to grow audiences in a town where Art and Drama is often thought to be ’Not for people like us’.  This is due in no small measure to CAST’s Kully Thiarai’s varied and imaginative programming. This is coupled, as in this production, with a mission to challenge the audiences.

This magnificent production, was challengingly programmed in Armistice week, a time of conflicting emotions, even for socialists. 

The play immediately avoids the trap of most agit-prop theatre, that of being strident with a developed hectoring tone directed at the audience.  The cast, like in a Peter Brook play, have limited scenery and props.  They use their acting skills which includes movement and musical ability.

The political and emotional lessons evolve through a well balanced script. The story is set in the run up to the Great War, and features two young men and two young women of the Clarion Socialist Sunday School in Huddersfield.  The play illustrates their artistic and revolutionary activities. The play is inspired by the book. Comrades in Conscience by Cyril Pearce.  It also draws on Jill Liddington’s  Rebel Girls.  Set in Huddersfield, it uses first hand source material.

We are introduced to the Players by the Company.  This draws us immediately into the drama. The emergence of the key element of Conscientious Objection emerges slowly and powerfully through the story line. This comprises the programme of plays, love affairs and all those elements that make up young people’s lives everywhere. This gives greater potency to the inherent political messages that are conveyed. They flow from the story and do not develop into a harangue.

The sheer joy of living is disrupted and perverted by changing attitudes to the war by the establishment .Volunteerism is no longer sufficient to fulfil the growing demands of this costly and brutal conflict. This impacts on all the four young people featured in this drama, the men being tortured in solitary confinement.

The following is also part of this tableau and impacts on the cast: the suffragette movement with its contradictions and splits,  the compromises that political life demands of marriage, parental criticism, and, disappointingly the solace former revolutionaries find within bourgeois political parties.

No easy answers are provided by the play.  However we as the audience are left to examine the dilemmas faced by these brave young revolutionaries.  As we leave the theatre we need to examine what the lessons are for us to learn and influence our lives and the socialist future.

The important thing is to see this play – this is real theatre and not Shaftesbury Avenue shenanigans.
John Wheeler

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Was Marx a Monetarist? (1983)

From the January 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard
Margaret Thatcher, and other supporters of the Monetarist doctrine of Professor Milton Friedman, must have been surprised and even alarmed to hear that Marx was a fellow Monetarist. In a recent interview, Friedman said: “Let me inform you that among my fellow Monetarists were Karl Marx and leaders of Communist China” (Observer, 26 September). Thatcher need have no fear. There is not a word of truth in the Professor’s statement as it affects Marx.
Friedman’s reason for his belief about Marx was given in his definition of Monetarism:
“Monetarism, he explained, was a new name for the Quantity Theory of Money which dealt with the relationships between the quantity of money and economic variables such as price level, interest rates and unemployment.”
Friedman is saying that Marx’s money theory was the same as the quantity theory of money, and that Monetarism is merely a new name for it. Friedman is wrong on all counts. Marx’s money theory was an application of his labour theory of value, which the quantity theorists and the Monetarists both reject. Marx did not share the belief of the Monetarists that unemployment and its rise to peak levels in depressions arises out of an inflationary monetary policy and could be avoided by a different policy.
And Friedman’s Monetarism is not a new name for Marx’s money theory, or for the quantity theory, but a new name for a quite different theory, the “Bank-deposit Theory of Prices”, which holds that the price level is determined by the rise and fall of bank deposits. Both Marx and the quantity theorists were completely opposed to it. The principal thing that Marx and the quantity theorists had in common, and which differentiates them from the Monetarists, is that by “money” they meant only the notes and coins in circulation, the currency.
For Friedman and other Monetarists, as for the bank-deposit theorists, “money” includes, along with the relatively small amount of currency, the much larger amount of bank deposits. Professor Edwin Cannan, in his book Modern Currency and the Regulation of its Value, published in 1931, had a chapter entitled “The Bank-deposit Theory of Prices”. Cannan’s description of that theory showed it to be exactly the same as the theory now advanced by Friedman under the name Monetarism. Cannan was of course opposed to it.
Marx and the quantity theorists made it quite clear that by “money”, in connection with prices, they meant only the currency. In Capital vol. 1 (Kerr edition, p.143), Marx dealt with inflation in terms of the “‘bits of paper”, put into circulation by the state, “on which their various denominations, say £1, £2, £5 etc. are printed”. Nothing about bank deposits being the factor determining the price level.
The economist, Professor Alfred Marshall, in his Money, Credit & Commerce (Macmillan, 1904) stated the quantity theory as “the relation between the volume of currency and the level of prices”. Professor Cannan did the same. Cannan is of special interest because not only did he show the fallacy of the bank-deposit theory now advocated by Friedman, but also put in a plea for the retention of the distinctive word “currency” and not allow it to be displaced by the word “money”. He warned of the confusion that would be created if his plea went unheeded. Friedman’s mistaken belief that Marx was a Monetarist illustrates Cannan’s point.
What the Monetarists mean by “money” or “money supply” they obtain from the figures published each month in the official journal Financial Statistics, which, however, adds to the confusion by compiling not one figure, but six different figures, ranging at present from £36,124m up to £143,154m. They all consist predominantly of bank deposits except that the top one also includes “shares and deposits with Building Societies”. The figures differ because they include different categories of bank deposits. Fifty years ago Cannan foretold what would happen. Once they had started by including bank “sight deposits”, withdrawable on demand, they would, he said, be unable to find good reason for excluding the “time deposits” (withdrawable only on giving notice, usually seven days), of the commercial banks and savings banks, and would probably end up by throwing in the Building Societies. too which is what they have done. 
The Monetarists disagreed among themselves about which of the six sets of “money” figures is the appropriate one. The only thing the Monetarists are agreed about is a rejection, as the relevant factor, of the currency figures used by Marx and the quantity theorists. (The present currency circulation is £10,741m.) Friedman is not the only one to get into a muddle by confusing “currency” with bank deposits.
The editor of the Times (23 September 1976) quoted the economist Jevons as having defined the quantity theory in terms of “an expansion of the currency”. Returning to the subject later on (7 April 1977) he again quoted Jevons, but this time he altered the word “currency” to “money supply”, by which he, the editor, meant predominantly bank deposits. It was not what Jevons said or intended.
The confusion of the Monetarists extends to giving a new meaning to the simple phrase “printing money”. To Marx, Marshall and Cannan it meant “printing notes”; as no doubt it still does to most people. But when Denis Healey, as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Callaghan Labour Government, said that the government “are not printing money now”, and was asked to reconcile it with the fact that the Bank of England was busily engaged in printing and putting into circulation hundreds of millions of pounds of additional notes, the Treasury, on his behalf, explained that “printing money does not mean printing notes . . . but issuing Treasury Bills to the banks” (that is, government borrowing from the banks).
This had its farcical aspect. Two years after Healey made his speech, the Prime Minister, James Callaghan, talking on the same topic, said that the government were not going “to get more bank notes printed”. Apparently Callaghan could not believe that “printing money” meant something different from what most people thought it meant. Nobody had told him that his Monetarist advisers had given it a new meaning.
The question has to be considered whether the Monetarist bank-deposit theory is valid. Does the price level rise and fall with the total of bank deposits? Many examples could be given to show that it is not valid. Between 1878 (the first year for which figures of total bank deposits are available) and 1914, bank deposits increased by 119 per cent. Prices did not rise at all, but fell by seven per cent. And in 1931, Cannan in his book Modern Currency pointed out that at that time  “prices continued to wax and wane with currencies and to exhibit towards the variation of bank deposits complete indifference” (p.95).
Another question concerns the relationship between the total currency in circulation and the total of bank deposits. If the two kept in line, rising and falling together and by the same percentage, it might be argued that it does not matter whether guidance is looked for in changes in the volume of currency or in changes in the amount of bank deposits. But there is not such co-relationship. Between 1970 and 1975 Sterling deposits in the banks in- creased by 120 per cent but the currency in circulation increased by only 80 per cent. (If bank deposits in currencies other than Sterling are included the discrepancy was wider still).
Since the Callaghan government, six years ago, adopted the Monetarist policy continued by Thatcher they have operated in the belief that “by controlling the money supply”, that is bank deposits, they could control the rise of prices. But which of the several different sets of figures should they use? If all the six moved together, and by the same percentage, any one would be as good as any other. But they do not keep in line with each other. They change by different percentages and at times some are rising while others are falling. The one generally favoured by British governments has been Sterling M3 which consists predominantly of bank deposits in Sterling (excluding deposits in British banks in other currencies). But in practice the governments found that they could not control it. Repeatedly they would announce the limits within which they planned to keep the “money supply”, only to find their planned limits exceeded. The American government had the same experience.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Geoffrey Howe, admitted this at the Lord Mayor’s dinner. He spoke of the Government’s anxiety “when it focused on Sterling M3 which promptly nearly went out of control” (Financial Times, 22 October). So he said he had favoured not concentrating on only one of the six but looking at all of them. But he also admitted that “occasionally all the money measures together did not give a clear message of what was happening” (Times 22 October).
The truth is that the monetarists cannot make up their minds what exactly they mean by “money supply”, and they cannot control it. And even if they could, that would not give them control of the price level. Underlying Monetarist doctrine there is still another fundamental conflict between Monetarism and Marx’s money theory and Cannan’s quantity theory. For Marx and Cannan bank deposits are sums of money lent to banks by depositors. They held the same view as that of the banker Walter Leaf in his book Banking (1926,  p.102):
“The banks can lend no more than they can borrow—in fact not nearly so much. If anyone in the deposit banking system can be called a ‘creator of credit’ it is the depositor: for the banks are strictly limited in their lending operations by the amount which the depositor thinks fit to leave with them.”
Opposed to this is a theory described by Cannon as “the mystical school of banking theorists”, which holds that the bulk of bank deposits are “created” by the banks themselves. One of the believers in the “mystical” theory was Major Douglas, founder of the Social Credit Movement, with his statement that the banks can “create unfold wealth by the stroke of a pen”.
Another “mystic” is Professor Friedman. In the book Free to Choose, written jointly with his wife, dealing with inflation, they considered who are and who are not “the culprits”.
“None of the alleged culprits possess a printing press on which it can turn out those piece of paper we carry in our pockets; none can legally authorise a book-keeper to make entries in ledgers that are the equivalent of those pieces of paper.”
In view of the belief of the Keynesians and the Monetarists that they are in opposite camps it is relevant to recall that Keynes also was a “mystic”. Like the Monetarists he urged abandonment of the policy of directly controlling the amount of money, and was responsible for drafting the statement in the 1931 Report of the Committee on Finance and Industry that “the bulk of deposits arise out of the action of the banks themselves.”
The Monetarist policy of the governments in the past six years has been based on the idea that, through money market operations, the government can control the amount of bank deposits alleged to be “created” by making “entries in ledgers”. If this is a fallacy, as it is, how is it that the Thatcher government can claim some success in reducing the rate at which prices are rising?
In the first place comparison should be made with the performance of the Lloyd George government in the twenties. They not only halted inflation but, within months, there was an actual fall of prices. The government’s advisers at the time were not Monetarists, and the government halted inflation by curtailing the note issue. The present government, like the Callaghan government, has maintained an excess note issue, vainly hoping to reduce inflation by the impossible idea of “controlling” bank deposits.
That prices are now rising less rapidly is due to the depression. As Marx showed, prices rise in a boom and fall in a depression quite apart from the currency factor. The difference between the twenties and now is that, at that time, two factors (curtailment of the note issue, and the depression) were both affecting the price level in the same direction, downwards. This time they are working in opposite directions. Government policy is pushing prices up while the depression is operating to make the rise of prices less than it would otherwise be.
One last word. Marx, unlike the Monetarists and unlike at least some of the quantity theorists, never supposed that getting rid of inflation would solve workers’ problems.
Edgar Hardcastle

Letter From Europe: France: from failure to fiasco (1983)

The Letter From Europe Column from the June 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

When Edmond Maire, Secretary of the CFDT trade union federation, emerged from a meeting with President Mitterand on 31 January he announced that a further round of austerity was inevitable. The government was horrified as this was not the sort of information it wanted publicising in the run-up to the local council elections in March. The Prime Minister, Pierre Mauroy, came on television to deny that any such austerity plan existed; the worst of the crisis was over, he assured viewers, and in any event he had no intention of going down in history as the Prime Minister who devalued the franc three times.

Subsequent events proved him to be either a fool or a liar, or both. On Monday 21 March, a week after the local elections (in which the government parties in the end did not do as badly as had been expected) the French franc was devalued for the third time since May 1981. Mauroy duly resigned . . . only to accept renomination as Prime Minister the next day. On the Wednesday Mitterand himself appeared on television, waving his arms about like General De Gaulle and amidst strains of the Marseillaise, to shout, "Buy French" and "Vive la Patrie!" On the Friday the supposedly non-existent austerity package was unveiled: an increase in taxes and public charges (telephone, gas, electricity, railways), a forced loan, tough exchange controls, with the declared aim of cutting internal consumption as a way of reducing France's balance of payments deficit.

The four-month wage freeze imposed after the second devaluation of the French franc in June last year already represented a failure of the PS/PCV government's policy of trying to spend its way out of the crisis. Marx once remarked that, although a government could not end a period of stagnation by the monetary policy it pursued, it could make matters worse. The question must now be posed as to whether the French government's obstinacy in not cutting its spending financed by the printing press has not in fact done this.

At the beginning of the year the government had been feeling satisfied with itself: the unemployment figures had been stable for a few months at "only" 2 million and the target of an "inflation rate" of "only" 10 per cent in 1982 had been achieved. The trouble was that although the "inflation rate" had fallen in France—reflecting the deepening of the world economic crisis rather than anything the government itself had done—it had fallen even further among France's economic competitors in Germany, Britain and other Common Market countries.

The lower fall in France reflected the fact that the government there had been having more recourse to the printing press to finance its spending than had the other countries. Part of this newly-printed money had gone to disguise the real level of unemployment by financing bogus training schemes, early retirement and above all by paying firms, especially the nationalised industries, not to sack workers whose continued employment was no longer justified in profit-making terms.

The economic forces of capitalism have now demanded an end to this policy and that the priorities of profit-making be respected. Unless it wishes to be confronted with a fourth devaluation the PS/PC government is going to have to obey this injunction. Unemployment, which had been kept down artificially by government subsidies, can now be expected to rise in the course of 1983 to its real level.

When this happens the inability of reformist policies to end, or even reduce or slow down, unemployment in a slump will be evident for all to see including, we would hope, those who might be tempted by the Labour Party's recent promise to reduce unemployment in Britain by over 2 million in five years. The French PS was making similar promises before it came to power.

The new government formed by the liar-fool Mauroy after the devaluation of 21 March contained a number of changes. Two ministers (one of them J. P. Chevènement, leader of "leftwing" of the PS) resigned, but those of the French Communist Party who also favour protectionism remained and the leader of the Parti Socialiste Unifié, Hugette Bouchardeau, came into the government as a junior Minister in charge of the environment.

The PSU—a sort of French ILP—was formed in 1960 with the aim of creating "a new socialist force different from communism and social-democracy". Claiming to be a "revolutionary party" it declared its aim to be "to liberate the working class from capitalist exploitation". After the events of May 1968 in France the PSU, under its then leader Michel Rocard (who jumped over to the PS bandwagon in 1974 and is now French Minister of Agriculture after having been Minister of Planning in the previous Mauroy government), earned a certain notoriety with its campaign for autogestion (translated into English as "workers control") and its criticism of the PCF as not being "revolutionary" enough or as being no longer "revolutionary" at all. Needless to say this provided an ideal hunting ground for Trotskyist and Maoist elements who regularly bored their way in and out of the PSU.

Rocard was the PSU's candidate in the 1969 Presidential elections and got 816,471 votes (3.61 per cent), the highest score that has ever been obtained by a candidate of the "extreme left" (as the PSU was then classified). The fame of the PSU and Rocard even spread to Britain where the trendy lefties of the "Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation" published a lengthy interview with him as a pamphlet Michel Rocard Speaks (Spokesman Offprints No. 13). In this interview, dating from 1971, Rocard kept on talking about being a "revolutionary" committed to "workers control:. But in fact he never understood the first thing about socialism.

In a book published in France in 1972 Questions à L'Etat Socialiste (whose title already betrayed his ignorance of socialism since a "socialist state" is a contradiction in terms) Rocard attacked as a "tenacious myth" the view that money would disappear in socialism. In this he was typical of the other members of the PSU who were committed not to socialism but to some impossible "workers control" of the wages-prices-profits system.

The PSU today is only a shadow of what it was in the immediate post-1968 period. The Trotskyists and Maoists have left. Rocard and the other careerists have joined the PS. All that remains is a confused bunch of feminists, regionalists, ecologists and ban-the-bombers. Now their leader too has joined the PS/PC government, with the approval of the party it must be added. The PSU too will now be playing, alongside the two other false "socialist" parties in France, a direct part in imposing austerity on the working class they once professed to free from capitalist exploitation.

Actually, the PSU itself summed up rather neatly what it will now be doing, in a leaflet issued to support Hugette Bouchardeau when she was a candidate (against Mitterand) in the 1981 presidential elections (where she finished last of the ten candidates, with 312,391 votes, a miserable 1.1 per cent:
For us socialism must involve real social changes and not be limited to a "more democratic" management of the crisis: with regard to the type of growth, energy, foreign policy, defence, institutions, the PS only proposes adjustments and small changes to the policies pursued by Giscard.
We have added the italics, not that we can see how the anti-working class policy pursued by the present PS/PC/PSU government is any more "democratic" than that pursued formerly by Giscard.
Adam Buick

Are You a Wage Slave? (2010)

From the May 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Surely having to work for a wage or a salary is a modern form of slavery?

We socialists like to refer to wage labour as “wage slavery” and call workers “wage-slaves”. Non-socialists may assume that we use these expressions as figures of speech, for rhetorical effect. No, we use them literally. They reflect our view of capitalist society.

Socialists use the word “slavery” in a broad sense, to encompass both chattel slavery and wage slavery as alternative ways of exploiting labour. We are aware of the differences between them, but we also want to draw attention to their common purpose. Capitalist language conceals this common purpose by equating chattel slavery with slavery as such and by conflating wage labour with free labour. Socialists regard labour as free only where the labourers themselves individually or collectively own and control the means by which they labour (land, tools, machinery, etc.).

Why chattel slavery was abandoned
The connection between chattel slavery and wage slavery as alternative modes of exploitation is visible in the debates within the British and American ruling class that led up to the abolition of chattel slavery. While religious abolitionists condemned slave-holding as a moral sin, the clinching argument against chattel slavery was that it was no longer the most effective way of exploiting the labouring population. It was abandoned because it was impeding economic and especially industrial development – that is, the accumulation of capital.

The legal, social and political status of wage-slaves is superior to that of chattel slaves. However, when we compare their position in the labour process itself, we see that here the difference between them is not a fundamental one. They are all compelled to obey the orders of the “boss” who owns the instruments of production with which they work or who represents those who own them. In a small enterprise the boss may convey his orders directly, while in a large enterprise orders are passed down through a managerial hierarchy. But in all cases it is ultimately the boss who decides what to produce and how to produce it. The products of the labour of the (chattel or wage) slaves do not belong to them. Nor, indeed, does their own activity.    
The secret abode
An obvious difference between chattel slavery and wage slavery is that as a chattel slave you are enslaved – totally subjected to another’s will – at every moment from birth to death, in every aspect of your life. As a wage-slave, you are enslaved only at those times when your labour power is at the disposal of your employer. At other times, in other aspects of your life – as a consumer, a voter, a family member, a gardener perhaps – you enjoy a certain measure of freedom, respect and social equality.  

Thus, the wage-slave has some scope for self-development and self-realisation that is denied the chattel slave. Limited scope, to be sure, for the wage-slave must regularly return to the cramped world of wage labour, which spread its influence over the rest of life like a pestilential mist.   

As a result of this split, capital confronts the worker in schizophrenic style, like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The same person whom capital sedulously flatters and courts as a consumer and voter is helplessly exposed to harassment, bullying, yells and insults at the place of employment.

Capitalist ideologists focus on the “public” spheres of life in which people are relative social equals and do their best to ignore what happens inside the “private” sphere of wage slavery. Thus, economists analyse the exchange of resources among “market actors”, while political scientists talk about relations between the state and an imaginary classless community of citizens that they call “civil society”. Even children’s television programmes display the same bias. For instance, most of the human characters in Sesame Street earn their living through small individual and family businesses (a corner store, a fix-it shop, a dance studio, a veterinarian clinic, etc.).

So there is a wide gap between superficial appearances and deep reality. The servitude of the wage worker is not visible on the surface of capitalist society; to witness it the investigator must enter “the secret abode of production, on the threshold of which stands: ‘no admittance except on business’” (Marx, Capital).

Who is the master?
It may be objected that wage workers are not slaves because they have the legal right to leave a particular employer, even if in practice they may be reluctant to use that right out of fear of not finding another job.

All that this proves, however, is that the wage worker is not the slave of any particular employer. According to Marx, the owner of the wage-slave is not the individual capitalist but the capitalist class – “capital as a whole”. Yes, you can leave one employer, but only in order to look for a new one. What you cannot do, lacking as you do all other access to the means of life, is escape from the thrall of employers as a class – that is, cease to be a wage-slave.

Is wage slavery worse?
Some have argued that – at least in the absence of an effective social security “safety net” – wage slavery is even worse than chattel slavery. As the chattel slave is valuable property his master has an interest in preserving his life and strength, while the wage-slave is always at risk of being thrown out of employment and left to starve.

Actually, the severity with which the chattel slave is treated depends on just how valuable he is. Where chattel slaves were in abundant supply and therefore quite cheap – as in San Domingo, where a slave rebellion in 1791 led to the abolition of chattel slavery and the establishment of the state of Haiti (C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins) – they were commonly worked, whipped, or otherwise tortured to death. How the wage-slave is treated similarly depends on the availability of replacements. For instance, capitalists in China see no reason why they should protect young peasant workers in shoe factories from exposure to toxic chemicals in the glue, because plenty of teenage girls are constantly arriving from the countryside to replace those who fall too sick to work (Anita Chan, China’s Workers Under Assault: The Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy, M.E. Sharpe 2001).
Intermediate forms
As alternative modes of exploitation, chattel slavery and wage slavery are not separated by a Chinese Wall. Under conditions unfavourable for the working class, wage slavery can easily degenerate into an intermediate form that more closely resembles chattel slavery.

It is common for desperately poor people in underdeveloped countries to be induced to sign a labour contract (which, being illiterate, they cannot read) by lies about the atrocious conditions that await them. By the time they discover the truth it is too late: they are forcibly prevented from running away. Such, for example, is the plight of the half million or more Haitian migrants who toil on plantations in the Dominican Republic (see

Comparable but more formalized was the system of indentured labour that prevailed in colonial America in the 17th and 18th centuries and was gradually displaced by black chattel slavery. In exchange for passage across the Atlantic, poor Europeans undertook to serve a master for a set number of years (typically seven). Some survived their temporary servitude, others did not.

Slavery and violence
The word “slavery” conjures up the image of the cruel overseer on a plantation in the Caribbean or the old American South, wielding a whip over the heads of his helpless victims. The lash is rightly regarded as a symbol of chattel slavery.

Yet here again no Chinese Wall separates one mode of exploitation from another. The lash has also been widely used against indentured labourers and certain categories of wage-slaves. Only in 1915, for instance, was a law passed in the United States (the La Follette Act) to prohibit the whipping of seamen. Even after that a sailor could still be placed in irons or put on reduced rations for disobeying orders.

Children in the textile mills of 19th-century Britain were hit with leather straps for not working hard enough. In China, abolition of corporal punishment was one of the demands made by Anyuan coal miners in the strike of 1923. As Anita Chan shows in her book, it is in widespread use again today in factories owned by Taiwanese and Korean capitalists.

Even in the developed countries, many people are bullied and tormented at work, usually by a person standing above them in the hierarchy. Some are driven to suicide. Many suffer serious physical or sexual assault. On one of many websites devoted to this problem ( we find the story of a bookkeeper at a power tool company whom a manager kicked in the buttocks with such force that she was lifted off her heels, causing severe back injury as well as shock. While I was at Brown University, a laboratory assistant was raped in the lab by her supervisor.

Such acts of violence against employees are no longer sanctioned by law, but they happen all the time. The victim is sometimes able to win some compensation, but criminal charges are rarely made against the perpetrator.

It doesn’t apply to me
If you are fortunately situated, you may feel that my argument doesn’t apply to you. Your boss or manager treats you well, you do not suffer insult or assault, you are satisfied with your working conditions, and the work itself may even give you satisfaction. You at least are not a wage-slave.

Or so you imagine. Some chattel slaves – in particular, the personal servants of kind masters and mistresses – also had the good fortune to be treated well. But they had no guarantee that their good fortune would continue. They might be sold to or inherited by a cruel new master following the old master’s death, departure or bankruptcy. You too may suddenly find yourself with a nasty new boss or manager. The matter is out of your hands, precisely because you are only a wage-slave.

If you are a technical specialist, a scientist or analyst of some kind, you may even say: “What sort of slave can I be? I am not ordered about all the time. On the contrary. I was hired for my expertise and I am expected to think for myself, solve problems and offer suggestions. True, I can’t make important decisions by myself, but my bosses are always willing to listen to me. And they are always polite to me.”

You are deluding yourself. I know because I have been in a similar situation and deluded myself. Your bosses listen to you before they come to a decision. Once they make a decision, they expect you to accept it. But suppose you once forget yourself (which means – forget your place) and continue to argue against a decision that has already been made. Then you are in for a rude shock!

What makes your delusion possible is that you have grown accustomed to analyse problems from your employer’s point of view. You are every bit as alienated from your own thinking as the assembly line worker is from his or her physical movements. And if a process that you think up is patented, do you imagine that the patent will belong to you?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Man and the Natural World (1987)

Book Review from the October 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

Keith Thomas: Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 (Penguin, 1984)

In his book Keith Thomas surveys the changing view of nature in England between 1500 and 1800. He uses a wide variety of contemporary sources to show what people thought about the landscape and its flora and fauna. He makes the point that whereas:
Nowadays one cannot open a newspaper without encountering some impassioned debate about culling grey seals or cutting down trees in Hampton Court or saving an endangered species of wild animal.
Only a few hundred years ago the idea that human cultivation was something to be resisted rather than encouraged would have been unintelligible.

What was it that altered the way people view the natural world? The author's answer is that although the intellectual potential for concern for the natural world had always existed, the attitude only flourished with changes in the way society organised its production. Talking about the emergence of the animal rights movement, Thomas says:
the triumph of the new attitude was closely linked to the growth of towns and the emergence of an industrial order in which animals became increasingly marginal to the processes of production.
Similarly, the growth of towns led to a new longing for the countryside and the progress of cultivation fostered a taste for weeds, mountains and unsubdued nature. Even then, the concern did not extend to the point where actual human well-being was threatened (for example, butchers whose livelihood depended on slaughtering animals did not share the new compassion) which goes a long way towards explaining why even today when many people are concerned about animal welfare, river pollution and rainforest depletion and so, the problems still persist.

The world's resources are not owned by everybody. They are owned by a small minority who use nature to produce goods to be sold in order to make profits. Production for profit means that costs must be kept as low as possible. In this atmosphere the cheapest methods of production must be used and the cheapest methods are rarely those which have a minimal impact on nature. (Take battery farming for instance, which is a direct outcome of the search for higher profits).

As long as production is carried on for making profits and not for needs the same problems of pollution, resource depletion and species extinction will remain. But the message of Keith Thomas' book is that peoples' ideas and outlooks can and do change and the fact that more and more people are becoming concerned about the way the environment is abused is encouraging. But campaigning for new laws and more conservation areas is not the answer. We need to get rid of a society where a small minority can manipulate nature for their own ends and replace it with one where we all have a real say in how nature is used.
John Morgan

The beauty myth (1993)

From the July 1993 issue of the Socialist Standard

"Stay young and beautiful/If you want to be loved" runs the old song. Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth is, among other things, a book about the way women and men are manipulated by a system based on property and profit. She covers in depth the various manifestations of an imposed and unpredictable beauty ideal for women—at work, in the media, in health and most importantly as a hugely inappropriate low self-esteem felt by, probably, a majority of women.

Women have traditionally been seen to be vain, that is, overly concerned with their appearance. What has not been recognized is the extent to which this "vanity" is in fact a manifestation of a feeling of personal inadequacy. Women feel inadequate to the task of matching the latest fashionable ideal of "beauty", the achievement of which, alone, can make them feel acceptable—to their lovers, the world at large and to themselves.

This ideal has varied from the voluptuous Rubenesque-type figure to the anorexic "Twiggy" of the '60s and '70s. Whatever it is at any one time it can never be achieved by most women, since all women vary in size, shape and appearance.

Naomi Wolf puts the problem down to two phenomena—one is the power relation between men and women and the other is the demand of commerce. Women's lack of self-esteem serves any desire men may have to control women's lives, since someone with low self-esteem is more manipulable than someone who is confident. It also serves the demands of commerce, since the sale of beauty products and plastic surgery is dependent upon women feeling they are nor beautiful enough as they are.

Property relationship
Any desire on the part of men to control women's lives needs to be regarded seriously as it is a threat to the possibility of democracy and equality between all people and hence represents a serious obstacle to the achievement of socialism. From a young age, males are taught that in order to be "masculine", that is, in order to feel adequate, they must dominate women, or at the very least, appear to.

Keeping someone's self-esteem low is the one way of maintaining dominance and the impossible demands of the beauty myth serve this purpose well. The wish to dominate women is very much tied up with property. It is likely that, with the emergence of property society, women came to be regarded as men's property alongside land, animals, slaves and so on. One of the main features of a piece of property is that it (she) is under the owner's (his) control.

The property basis of relations between men and women is constantly under threat, since women are on the whole strong and intelligent human beings whom men often feel inclined to genuinely love and respect. The lengths to which societies have gone to keep women under control, are quite extraordinary—clitoradectomy, foot-binding, malnutrition, enforced childbearing, institutionalized wife-beating, death by stoning . . . the list is endless. The demands of "beauty" represent just one, primarily psychological, means of control.

The other thread of the problem is peculiar to late 20th century capitalism; the requirement of business to make money has led to the development of highly advanced psychological manipulative techniques. The beauty ideal is being thoroughly exploited in this respect.

Naomi Wolf has this to say on the subject of ageing in women:
When grey and white reflect in her hair  . . . you could call it silver or moonlight  . . . she is darker, stronger, looser, tougher, sexier. The maturing of a woman who has continued to grow is a beautiful thing to behold.
The point of this passage is to show the extent to which we are usually manipulated into seeing the ageing process in a negative way. Men and women alike are conditioned to see "beauty" and hence "loveability" in a woman within the framework of an ideal which involves looking "young" and "slim". The extent to which women will go, and in some cases are expected to go, to try and fit this ideal, is frightening.

Commercial pressures
Cosmetic surgery in the USA is commonplace and is being commercially pushed in Europe. Cosmetic surgery involves a good deal of pain and actual damage to the human body. It has occasionally been fatal. It affects the physical health of the person undergoing it adversely. "If your ad revenue or your seven figure salary or your privileged sexual status depend on it, it [ageing in women] is an operable condition".

One of women's main enemies in this respect is ironically also one of women's best friends—the women's magazine. These days filled with articles and comment on interesting contemporary topics, the women's magazine unfortunately also reinforces that impossible, undermining expectation of beauty so thoroughly described by Naomi Wolf.

The main reason for this is 20th century capitalist commercial practice.

The magazines are dependent for revenue upon advertizing and the editorial content of the magazines must reflect this. A magazine which does not push "beauty" is threatened with loss of revenue from advertizing. Cosmetic surgery is the latest ghastly trend in this scenario.

This exemplifies capitalism's ultimate double bind—that, in order to meet people's needs, it must first be ruthless to them, since a business, or "going concern", must put money-making before all else in order to ensure its continued existence. And without its continued existence it cannot meet any human needs at all.

Naomi Wolf's proposed solution is another wave of feminism. Like the trades union movement, the feminist movements of this century have been useful in fighting for improved conditions within the framework of capitalism. However, as with trade unionism, feminism's successes are always under threat of sabotage or outright reversal. The real solution to women's oppression lies within a framework of a completely different economic system, one not based on property and the pursuit of profit.
Nicky Snell