Monday, January 19, 2015

A Ballad Against Work (1997)

Book Review from the December 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Ballad Against Work. Collectivities. Majdoor Library, Autopin Jhuggi. NIT Faridabad, India.

It is difficult to get one's head round the facts of this publication (62 double-column A4 pages). The physical facts, that is, It is free, coming from a country where the great mass of people are not overpaid. Faridabad is an industrial suburb of Delhi, population around 300,000, most of them overworked, living in overcrowded conditions, reminiscent of Engels' Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. But this is not a lumpenproletariat. Many are overqualified, overeducated for the jobs they do. Bhupender and Ranbjan, the pamphlet reveals, have difficulty keeping body and soul together despite their PhDs.

The pamphlet's basic argument is that the key problem facing those presiding over the accumulation of capital is to get as much work out of their labour forces as they can. This is a problem for them since workers, as humans, have a natural inclination to spontaneously resist the imposition of such an alien work burden. Collectivities see this spontaneous resistance as the potential beginning of a movement that will lead to a non-hierarchical, wageless, moneyless world community.

They have been taken to task by one group in Britain who have accused them of neglecting the revolution. The Communist Workers Organisation in true Leninist style have urged them not to oppose leadership by :exceptionally talented or skilled individuals in particular fields (who) will always be recognised and admired by their fellow creatures, albeit that in a communist world different talents will be appreciated". All will be equal but some will be more equal than others.

How hierarchical organisation could survive in a society where there is free access to all our needs is difficult to see. Those who did not want to co-operate could not be forced to; they could simply walk away. And we could easily accommodate that. If Collectivities' estimate that about two percent of the labour force in the developed countries could supply all needs is correct, the problem in a rationally organised world would lie in finding something to do for those people who wanted to be active, i.e. all those who were sane and healthy. Creative work as opposed to present useless toil.

This is where the Faridabad "Collectivities" group show that they have passed the reform-of-capitalism thought barrier and reject bogus follow-my-leader alternatives to that of complete autonomy. Only free people can organise a free society, something the majority in the "developed" world have yet to learn. And this Indian group take the whole world for their oyster.
Ken Smith

Europe and Mrs Thatcher (1991)

Editorial from the August 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard

Edward Heath was perhaps being a little cruel in describing Thatcher's mind as "minute". But she asked for it. She has never displayed any sign of even wanting to escape from her narrow small-town shopkeeper background. Heath could have been an example for her. After all he used to be known as Grocer and now he describes Bush's New World Order as the "new imperialism". She, by contrast, has remained Alderman Roberts' daughter - but this has not prevented a Foundation to perpetuate her stupid prejudices being set up.

It was largely because these prejudices were beginning to affect her management of the affairs of British capitalism that her own Tory colleagues got together to remove her from office. They knew, even if she didn't, that the globalised nature of present-day capitalism obliged Britain to take a more positive attitude towards the Common Market.

The EEC is essentially a trading arrangement between a number of European capitalist states who have joined together to face their competitors on the world market. It was inevitable that this trading arrangement would have wider implications. A common trading policy would be made easier by a common economic policy; a common economic policy by a common currency; a common currency by a common central bank; a common central bank would imply common political control and, by this stage, Europe would be well on the way to the vision of a federal  United States of Europe that inspired many of those who set up the Treaty of Rome.

Mrs Thatcher's vision, if vision it can be called, is rather narrower. She wants Britain to remain a fully independent sovereign state, with its own currency and with Westminster not Strasburg as the supreme law-making body. It is the narrow view of the nationalist, in this case of the British nationalist. It is a view shared by Tony Benn and some others in the Labour Party. It is not a view shared by the Socialist Party.

We are, of course, neither British nationalists nor European Federalists but World Socialists. But we can see the special fallacy of the nationalist argument. In the world as it is today, it is neither possible nor desirable for the people of one part to stand apart from the rest.

Satellites and other means of telecommunications mean that we are already living in a global village where what happens in one part of the world can be known almost instantaneously in the other parts. In terms of the production of wealth one world already exists. The goods we consume and the machines and materials used to produce them are all joint products of workers from many parts of the world - something for British nationalists to ponder over at breakfast as they munch their muesli, sprinkle their sugar and drink their tea.

There is nothing wrong with this. A growing consciousness that we are all inhabitants of a single world, that we share the globe in common despite our different languages and cultures, is something to be encouraged. Indeed it is essential if we are to tackle ecological problems such as global warming, the hole in the ozone layer and tropical deforestation.

The European Federalists, for all their faults, at least realise that the people living on this island off the north-west coast of the Eurasian land-mass need to be closely associated with those on the mainland. Where they go wrong is in imagining that this can be fruitful within the context of capitalism. A federation of European capitalist states will no more provide a framework for the resolution of working-class problems than the so-called independent so-called nation-state.

What is required is association with the other peoples of Europe, and beyond that with those of the rest of the world, on the basis of socialism. What is required is not a European Common Market, nor a single European currency, nor a European Super-State but World Socialism where the Earth's resources will be owned in common and democratically controlled through various inter-linked administrative and decision-making bodies at world, regional and local levels.

We appreciate that this vision of a united world represents a nightmare scenario for Mrs Thatcher but that's her problem not ours.

Work and play under capitalism (1988)

From the November 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

There are a lot of good reasons for being a socialist. Poverty, pollution, nuclear weapons are enough to make anyone want to change the world. Even if you try to ignore unemployment, homelessness and urban decay, it's clear that capitalism is not all it's cracked up to be. Even in the so called affluent countries the system makes our lives needless, petty and unpleasant.

For example, we're always being told that now we live in a "leisure society" where our free time can be more and more filled with fun and enjoyment. Affluence is supposed to bring us satisfaction through more videos, take-away food, hi-fi systems, shopping centres and bingo. Now although socialists are not kill joys—we all like a few consumer goods and services—it;s important to see the human costs at which these things are produced.

What do we mean by this? Well, for one thing, our freedom to enjoy all these goodies (providing we've got enough money to buy them) contrasts dramatically with our lack of freedom when we're in work. As we wander round the shopping mall on Saturday morning we're certainly free to ask ourselves "what shall I buy, wear or eat?" On the other hand, when it comes to Monday morning at nine o'clock, very few of us are free to ask "How shall I run this company", "what shall I do to solve the problem of mass starvation?". or even "when shall I go home?" In work the message is normally "do as you're told", or "no profit, no jobs!" The alternative of being without work is often a lot worse.

Under capitalism our well-being in the workplace is sacrificed to the great good "Profit" because our work satisfaction doesn't figure in the balance sheets. We don't normally get to choose what we produce, how it's produced, or who gets what we produce. It's only when we get home that we're supposed to have choice again, and it's here that the TV ads tell us to treat ourselves, and "Relax in a warm Radox bath". And though this freedom as a consumer is certainly overrated in the media, our alienation in work is barely even mentioned. The customer may always be right when firms are trying to sell us things, but if you believe the popular press, workers are only ever right when they toe the management line.

The tabloid newspapers know that work is a four letter word for most people so they tend not to depress us all by writing about it. Instead, their pages are packed with suntanned models, unspoilt beaches, gossip about pop stars, bingo and saucy vicars - preferably all in the same story! In fact compensation for the lack of colour in our profit-dominated working lives. Fortunes and dream holidays won in banal competitions capture our imagination because they are things that most of could never have even if we saved for the rest of our lives. Free money and endless holidays seem magical in comparison with the way that every penny is normally earned through wage slavery.

But it's not just the problem of the days spent in boring work to afford goods. There is an awful lot of boring work that goes into making goods for our recreation. Holidays, meals out, stereos, and newspapers don't come from heaven. They're certainly not the result of the magical power of money, profit or Robert Maxwell. They are the product of workers just like us.

In the main, capitalism is not too anxious to publicise the human cost of all this production for profit. This is especially true of the poorest countries; not many adverts say "children worked round the clock on tread mills to make this carpet". Although the Socialist Party would not agree with Nigel Harris' conclusions, he sums up clearly how capitalist production works:
The spoonful of tea that you pop in the pot does not cry out because the Tamil fingers that plucked the leaf in Sri Lanka were weak with malnutrition. Fortunately commodities are mute.
(Of Bread and Guns, p. 10)
So when adverts tell us to relax with a cup of tea they certainly don't shout about the poor work conditions of tea pickers. Instead they tell us that "we could do with a D" or "It's to do with the little perforations" or "chimpanzees drink this tea".

And equally, these same workers who make leisure goods are going to look to their free time to make up for lost time in work, and will in turn want more leisure services and goods to escape from their work. And as stressed earlier, these goods in turn are advertised as having nothing to do with the miserable conditions in which they may have been produced. So the system makes us carry on looking to leisure to make up for what's missing in work, but in doing this, we inadvertently buy consumer goods and services made by other people in the very work conditions from which we're trying to escape!

Now even when it's acknowledged that the present system causes profound problems, the solution is always more of the same. The answer to the chaos and misery brought about by production for profit is always seen to be more production for profit. Stress through work is dealt with by tranquilizers or biofeedback, the unemployed are told that they must learn to train and sell themselves better, and people fed for years on fatty, additive-filled food are sold expensive diet programmes. Capitalism is very good at finding money-making answers that don't get to the root of most of our problems—capitalism itself.

Health foods, mediation and nature holidays are taken up by the very system that creates our longing for them in the first place. Nuclear shelters and medical insurance become sources of profit in a society that cannot even offer us security and health. Even peace of mind itself becomes something to be bought over the counter. For example, here's Luke Rhinehart talking about the value for money of the psychotherapy, EST:
When one considers other programmes that people seek to revitalize their lives . . . one can only conclude that for most consumers, both before and after trying EST training it is a good buy
He goes on to make the bizarre statement:
more aliveness is achieved at less cost than by other seemingly related offerings.
(The Book of EST, p.215)

One has to question the sanity of ay society that creates a need for people to search for "aliveness: as if it could be bought from a shelf like a packet of soup.

So we can see how the present system's need to produce a profit makes work mostly a chore and means that our leisure becomes an escape from and a compensation for this misery. It also spends a lot of time and effort persuading us to buy things produced by other workers under similar misery.  Finally it sells us more goods and services for profit as palliatives to problems caused by this very system of production for profit.

In the long run it's important that we see how under capitalism, neither work nor leisure offers us the chance of real fulfillment. The mad see-sawing between arduous work and passive leisure needs to be replaced by something altogether different. Only when all goods and services are produced for need and not profit will things change. And under this new system—socialism, if leisure goods were awful to produce we might not make them at all, we might make less and share them in common, or more excitingly, we might make them in a totally different way. We certainly wouldn't waste resources persuading people to consume things they didn't want. In a socialist world our leisure might become more active and creative, and work itself might even become a form of leisure!
Keith Aubrey

Unseen and Unprotected (2015)

Book Review from the January 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

Hsiao-Hung Pai: Invisible: Britain’s Migrant Sex Workers. Westbourne £10.99

In Chinese Whispers (reviewed in the August 2010 Socialist Standard) Pai examined the living and working conditions of undocumented Chinese migrant workers in Britain. Now she looks specifically at migrant sex workers, herself courageously working underground as a ‘housekeeper’ in several brothels.

About a quarter of the eighty thousand sex workers in Britain are immigrants, mostly from China or eastern and south-eastern Europe. There has been much economic disruption in these areas; women workers have been particularly badly hit by the closure of state-owned businesses in China, for instance. One solution, which is especially appealing for those with young children to bring up and educate, is to emigrate and then send remittances home. One Polish woman who Pai spoke to could earn as much in a day in a brothel in London as she could earn in a month in Katowice.

Not that most come intending to work in the sex industry. It’s just that badly-paid and insecure work in agriculture, food-processing factories or restaurants is not enough to support a family back home or to pay off the debts of those who were smuggled here illegally. As one madam tells Pai, ‘No one would do this job if they weren’t desperate.’ They may be able to earn £300 a night, after paying part of their takings to the brothel-owner. One woman was returning to China, having earned £20,000 in four months.

But you would indeed need to be desperate to work up to fourteen hours a day, having sex with a dozen or more men, six or seven days a week. There is an ever-present fear of violence from customers or of being robbed. Whether prostitute, housekeeper or madam, there is no prospect of negotiating working hours or conditions. Illegal immigrants have great difficulty in accessing health care, including sexual health, and their poor English and social isolation often handicap them in this regard.

Further, many women are trafficked into Britain specifically for sex work. This seems to be particularly common among Romanian women and Pai mentions one woman smuggled here and then sold from one pimp to another for £2000.

The government’s crackdown on undocumented migrants has led to sex workers from outside the European Union being driven further underground in order to avoid immigration controls and make themselves, in the book’s title, invisible to the authorities. 
Paul Bennett