Thursday, February 26, 2015

What housing shortage? (1978)

From the March 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard

Listeners to the LBC 'phone-in on Sunday 23rd January (afternoon programme) were doubtless delighted to hear "Bill of Balham".

A lady rang in to complain that her daughter could not buy a flat in West Kensington because she had been priced out by "Arabs". "This neighbourhood is fast becoming 'Saudi Arabia'" she moaned.

Then it was "Bill's" turn. In a quiet, flat expressionless tone and in a Cockney accent you could cut with a knife, he proceeded to demolish Madame West Kensington. 'Housing shortage! What housing shortage?' quoth he. It is estimated, says he, that there are between 40 and 50,000 hotel bedrooms empty in London to-night; and there are thousands sleeping rough.

'It's not shortage of houses, but shortage of money' claims Bill. 'Now' says Bill (and this is what made his contribution) 'the great majority will never have the money because they work for wages'. 'Nothing but the abolition of the wages system can solve it'.

Actually, when asked by the interviewing broadcaster Bryn Jones, he added 'I completely support the position of The Socialist Party of Great Britain. I'm not a member, I've never been to any of their meetings, but they're absolutely right'.

'But, says the interviewer, 'you mean the abolition of capitalism'.

'That's right' says Bill, 'capitalism and the wages system are the same thing'.

Then he added 'These SPGB people never have a chance to put their point of view, I believe they did have an hour once on your programme? L.B.C., which is probably where I heard them.

'Now', says Bryn Jones (the interviewer) 'would it surprise if I say I entirely agree with you?'

'Not at all' says Bill, 'because it's right!'

However that may be, it certainly surprises us. Mr. Jones is so far removed from some of the boozy, incoherent oafs who have the impudence to pose as authorities on things they know nothing about, on radio phone-ins, as to be quite exceptional.

All in the mind (1977)

From the October 1977 issue of the Socialist Standard

People travelling on the Hammersmith Line can read the slogan on this month's cover of the Socialist Standard, painted on the side of the overhead motorway, every time their train passes between Ladbroke Grove and Westbourne Park stations. Very few of them even notice it as they worry about what the day at work will bring, try to relax from the tensions of that day on the way home, or try to "get away from it all" for a few minutes by turning to the sports pages of their papers.

To-day, although great advances have been made in eliminating or controlling illnesses like TB, one-third of all National Health Service beds are filled by people with mental illnesses. In addition, over 20,000 go to hospital for the whole day each day for treatment, plus nearly a quarter of a million who visit out-patient departments to see a psychiatrist. In fact, mental illness is the greatest single medical problem to-day. In publishing these figures, the National Association for Mental Health makes the point that they only represent identified (their italics) mental ill health which is being treated in some way.

The most usual reasons for mental illness are stated to be "the stress placed on us by an urban, competitive society. Stress is an integral part of our jobs, of growing up, of marriage, of being poor, of bereavement". The case-histories quoted vary as widely as the man who could not cope when he was "overpromoted", to the frustrated woman who became chronically "over houseproud"; from whose who resort to drink and drugs (in themselves an opting out of the "real" world) to the inadequate sexual partner.

The world of "Pop" has just mourned the death at the age of 42 of its idol, Elvis Presley. Before him, Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland died in similar circumstances. Nearer home, Tony Hancock, whose sad-faced comedy always had relevance to the day-to-day life of the "ordinary" man, could not bear the pressures of his own life. Their names were famous; their untimely end mourned by many, Their deaths have been attributed to the same basic reason as that of the man next door who could not face his problems any longer. Although by the money standards set by to-day's society they were at opposite ends of the scale, they had this in common—they succumbed because they could not deal, or come to terms, with the pressures if the system under which we live—capitalism.

There is a pleasant Jewish greeting "I wish you well", but we say to you, fellow members of the working class: while you have capitalism, it will remain a wish. When we have got rid of the world-wide system responsible—directly or indirectly—for almost all the mental illness to-day, there will no longer be any need for "Mental Health Week" or, indeed, for the National Association for Mental Health. Then, and only then, will that greeting have real meaning.
Eva Goodman 

No shortage of water - only a shortage of greedy people! (1976)

From the October 1976 issue of the Socialist Standard

There are three common myths advanced by opponents of our proposal for free access to all that is produced by society. These are:
  1. That there is a limited amount of wealth or 'cake' which can be divided up between society. As a result:
  2. Socialism means the division into equal shares of this cake, and
  3. since man is inherently greedy he will naturally want more than his "share."
These arguments can be shown to be fallacious by looking at them in the context of the current water "shortage". The word shortage is deliberately placed in inverted commas since, whilst there is a shortage of water compared to previous years, the present problem is merely one of collecting it. In a recent Guardian Special Report (30th July 1976) it was pointed out that an average six times the amount of water consumed, falls on the British Isles. And, as with everything under capitalism, the consideration is one of cost or profit. (A new reservoir scheme in Northumberland alone will cost £60 million.)

To return to myth number one. It is true that under capitalism the amount of wealth produced — be it water, houses or food — is restricted to what the market can afford. But in a Socialist society without money these things will be produced to meet the needs, not of a market, but of society. And since, contrary to myth number two, Socialism does not mean sharing the existing "cake" but taking according to one's needs, the needs of society will be determined by the needs of the people who make up society.

The third myth, that man is inherently greedy, can be exposed by looking at the results of the emergency water cuts in one of the worst affected areas, south Wales, where a daily 13 hour (7 p.m. to 8 a.m.) cut has been introduced. The Sunday Times (8th August 1976) reported that during the first two days of the cuts, " . . . consumption went up with a bang because people filled their baths and every tin they could put their hands on every night."

But: "On the third day demand dropped when people realised they were not using the stored water and began to syphon off a more realistic amount to see them through the night. After three weeks the saving has risen to 30 per cent." It would seem therefore that the only shortage is a shortage of greedy people!

In a world where enough wealth can and will be produced to satisfy everyone's needs people will take what they require as easily, freely and unconsciously as they (normally) take a glass of water.
Paul Moody

Disappearing Man (1975)

Book Review from the November 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Strange Case of Victor Grayson, by Reg Groves. Pluto Press, £2.

The tale of Victor Grayson's disappearance used to appear regularly in such series as "The World's Strangest Stories", flavoured by the possibility that somewhere he might still be alive. The idea can now be dismissed — it is ninety-four years since Grayson was born; this book assembles the facts of his life and political career.

Grayson was one of the figures thrown up by the pre-1914 Labour movement. Beginning in chapels and street-corner meetings in Manchester, he emerged as an outstanding young orator. The Colne Valley Labour League chose him as their candidate in the by-election of 1907; to everyone's astonishment Grayson was elected to Parliament, at twenty-five. The ILP and the Labour Party had refused to endorse his candidature, because it crossed their arrangements with the Liberals. Preaching a fiery radicalism which centred on demands for measures to deal with mass unemployment, he was continually at odds with the parliamentary Labour leaders.

After losing his seat, he joined with H. M. Hyndman and Robert Blatchford in forming the British Socialist Party — it was only a change of name by the Social Democratic Federation. However, personal failings had already taken hold of Grayson: in particular, drink. He still attracted large audiences, but it was never certain he would turn up. In 1915 he went to New Zealand, where eventually he joined the army and thus returned to England. His disappearance followed some dabbling in Irish politics and in the question of the sale of titles by Lloyd George; Reg Groves links it with a political agent named Maundy Gregory, who was in the latter affair.

One interesting aspect of the book is its account of the wheeling and dealing by Keir Hardie, Snowden and others to preserve their alliances or their ambitions, or both. It is a pity that Reg Groves has let his own political romanticism run away with the story in respects which are not essential to it, such as claiming that Grayson was "the first and last man ever to be elected to Parliament as a socialist". He was nothing of the kind: he was a brilliant and passionate demagogue, but a reformist who ended by supporting the 1914-18 war as did the men he condemned.

Likewise, Grayson's criticisms of the House of Commons are extended into a theory that he was destroyed by the "fraud" of parliamentary action and would have been saved by syndicalism. This is absurd, and the writer should think again about the implications of facts he himself gives. Nevertheless, the book is worth anyone's reading for its picture of a curious and tragic political figure, his contemporaries and times.
Robert Barltrop 

Short Cut to Nowhere (1974)

From the August 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard

"I do not expect to be still alive at Christmas!" This dramatic message was delivered to a crowd of Saturday afternoon shoppers. The speaker then urged her audience to write to their MPs, to Khrushchev and to Kennedy, imploring them to ban nuclear weapons. For this was Autumn 1961 and The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was flourishing.

Eagerly I approached a CND supporter and introduced myself as a Socialist. Warmly greeted, I was handed a leaflet, with the assurance that CND drew its support from all shades of political — and non political — opinion. I quickly expressed my opposition to all war and was introduced to a Pacifist. Then I pointed out that to campaign against particular weapons whilst supporting the social system that gave rise to wars  . . . But the Pacifist had turned away and my erstwhile friend of the leaflets had moved on!

They had no time to listen to Socialist ideas. The fear of nuclear war, the dangers involved even in testing the horrific weapons, made it imperative to "get something done now." However the road from Aldermaston proved not to be a short cut, even to arms limitation, but a blistering dead end.

More than a dozen years have passed since I stood rejected at the edge of that High Street meeting. The recent British underground Nuclear test underlines the fact that these weapons, and the threat of war (plus actual conflict) are still around. Still in fact a cause for urgent concern. But where is CND?

It is a familiar story. The Socialist case was turned down because of an overwhelming concern with a specific issue. Getting rid of the nuclear threat could not, as members of CND put it, wait for Socialism.

Is it too much to hope that the tragic irony of it all has not been lost on those energetic campaigners?

As Socialists we too are horrified and sickened by the countless problems which are inseparable from capitalism. It is in fact this understanding, that a social system based on the profit motive cannot also be geared to human interests, which gives the obvious answer. The only way to resolve the multiplicity of problems, including war, is through the achievement of Socialism; it necessarily follows that this is the quickest solution. Which is, of course, the reason why we have no time to engage in reformist struggles.

The need for Socialism is too urgent.
Pat Deutz

Violence and Everyday Life (1973)

From the November 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard

Did you know that "journal", a weekly or monthly publication, actually means a day-book? However, there is a sense in which its customary misuse can be justified. Journalism, even the weighty theoretical stuff, comes from what is seen and heard in day-to-day living. The prosaic experience and the passing remark present social questions which require analysis or should be more widely seen. Capitalism is not an abstract category but our daily existence.

So there was this lady at a dinner-party. We were talking about the world in the way you do at dinner-parties, i.e. keeping on the surface and remembering the expression of strong opinions is in bad taste. And she said she and her husband would not like to come back to England to live because of all the violence there is today, the mugging and the football hooliganism. Nice lady, how mistaken you are. Where were you all my life?

*     *     *

One morning in 1936 that shopkeeper never served me. There was a crowd down the road, and he dashed out to join it saying: "That's old Lil, she can't half fight"—watching the two aproned women flailing and clawing all over the pavement. You could see men fighting practically any day, but fights between women were less frequent. However, the Whatsaname brothers who were all boxers paid homage to their aunt Alice as the best fighter in the family. One Saturday night she knocked her husband through the front-room window. In the morning she hung a gaudy curtain over the hole, and that afternoon the priest heading the Corpus Christi procession blessed this apparent decoration whereupon Alice flew out and threatened him for taking the mickey.

Violence was endemic. There were streets in every town that respectable people dared not walk along at night. One evening a man sent me to fetch the local copper because of a fierce male fight outside the pub, I found him and told him. He said: "If I were you, son, I'd go and get a policeman" — and turned and went the other way. But apart from the continual street-corner violence, its use in the home was taken for granted. Men kept their wives in order that way. In a divorce case for cruelty just before the war, a judge refused the wife's plea on the ground that knocking-about was the marital norm in East London.

Children could be, and were, knocked about by practically any adult: that was part of childhood. At school, from the infants' upwards, you were thrashed and clouted automatically. At home it was the foundation of parents' rule — father's belt, or a strap kept behind the door, or one of the canes sold for a penny in oil-shops. For petty larcenies and pilferings, the policeman did not charge you but thrashed you. Friends, neighbours, strangers, if there of mature years were licensed to hit children for any reason at all.

But there was more than just fighting and beating. It was by no means unknown for a murder to be successfully concealed. I remember the hated foreman in an industrial yard of whom it was said that a crane-load would one day fall on him; and one day it did. We knew a house where thirty-two people lived upstairs, and when a new baby arrived they buried it in the backyard. The activities of gangs like the Krays and Richardsons are horrifying, but less so than those of the race-track and protection gangs of between the wars. "The Sabini boys" represented a reign of terror; and the Glasgow razor-gangs were the subject of a book called No Mean City.  

We have heard of "political violence" at demonstrations in recent years. Compared with the nineteen-thirties, it is urchins' stuff. Fascists and Communists carried home-made weapons to demonstrations, and you could be slashed by a razor without much difficulty. What is now called "police brutality" raised no protests at all; it was what working people expected. As an instance, in the 1933 novel Love on the Dole the hero, Larry Meath, dies after being beaten by policemen at an unemployed men's march. Published today, it would bring controversy and indignation that such a thing could be envisaged. Then, its validity was taken for granted.

                                                                           *     *     *

There is not the violence in everyday life that existed in the past. Why, then, do some people think there is? To an extent, it is because the poor as individuals did not exist then: only as a mass, in the eyes of the State and the well-to-do. Individually, many had no recorded existence — it was only the second world war with identity cards, and the transition from them to to the processed data of the Welfare State, that made their presence or absence and what happened to them official.

But, more than that, the essence of capitalist democracy is for rulers to tell people they are to blame. Every economic problem is, inevitably, the population's fault: too greedy, too lazy, irresponsible, perversely wrong in its choice of governments. Indeed, there is nothing else rulers can tell people — the only alternative would be the truth, that they and their system are incapable of running the world decently. And people are aggressive, full of desire to oust and hurt. The point was bitterly made by the cartoonist Low before the war, in a drawing of crocodile-headed rulers on the steps of their Peace Palace saying to blank-faced masses: "Friends, we have failed. We couldn't control your war-like instincts."

The violence of the past is not proof that aggression is always ready to burst out when it gets a chance. What it proves is the degrading effect of extreme poverty and squalor: two starving men will fight for a crust, or kill another who comes along. That is not their pleasure but their necessity — given enough to eat, they will all live in amity. The over-riding fact is that despite the necessities history has imposed, if man had not a fundamental tendency to co-operation and order we should not be here today.

The class division in society opposes that tendency, and by forcing appalling lives on huge numbers of people promotes ferocity. As soon as people's circumstances improve only a little, this is something they want to be without. (The decay of boxing as a sport is an interesting pointer. Its star performers have always come from specially victimized sections of society: in the past Jews and Irishmen, now black men.)  But while social violence declines, rulers will have none of that. Like hellfire preachers whose bread-and-butter is sin, they denounce our innate aggression and frame laws to check it.

*     *     *

Curiously enough, those who believe violence is rife never see the outstanding things about it. One is that while the classic cure for misbehaviour is Christian "love", the areas in Britain where violence remains strongest are those with large Catholic populations — simply because those are also the areas of poverty at its old-fashioned worst.

The other is that war preparation and the development of incredibly horrifying weapons are carried on all the time by awfully respectable people. This is violence which makes a mugger or fist-fighter look puny. Why do they never notice that?
Robert Barltrop

Who’s Afraid of Charlie Hebdo? (2015)

The Halo Halo! Column from the February 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
As this is being typed out the dust is just beginning to settle on the events following the slaughter of the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ staff, the killing of the Jewish supermarket hostages and their attackers. The newspaper and TV reporters covering the atrocity - carried out apparently to avenge a long dead ‘prophet’ who has become prone to the gags of mickey-takers and critics due to the absurdities of his followers - all emphasise the point that the right to free speech is not negotiable, and is the very essence of democracy.
And they are right of course. Ridiculous people and ridiculous ideas inevitably attract ridicule. And the most absurd idea still being bandied about in the 21st century as an answer to modern day capitalism and its problems is religion. Despite the claims from its various apologists of their moral superiority, and the insistence that they should be accepted, unchallenged and unquestioned, as examples of how we are to live our lives, they are, in fact, the socially useless remnants of a long-gone world, a world of ancient social conditions and ideas, mass ignorance and superstition. And far from providing answers to today’s problems they have nothing say, other than to tell us to put our faith in the imaginary gods and their magical powers, of an ancient era.
The fact that believers in such gods obviously consider their deities to be so weak and helpless, however, as to need their critics to be silenced by Kalashnikovs says as much about the god’s impotence as does any Charlie Hebdo cartoon.
And, while it seems clear that the intention of the attackers was to silence the critics, this has backfired. Already gatherings of outraged people protesting at the barbarity are taking place all over Europe. More moderate Muslims too, this time more than ever before, are expressing their outrage.   
‘Everyone should be offended three times a week’ someone once said, ‘and twice on Sundays’. And that seems about right. There’s nothing like a bit straight talking, and a bit of offence to remind us that not everyone shares the same views. And while believers in ancient myths have every right to feel offended that their ideas are sometimes ridiculed, the rest of us reserve the right to be equally offended at religious stupidity and barbarity.
Socialists, too, feel quite offended at the way in which the working class are recruited, hoodwinked and persuaded to fight the wars of others in which they have no personal interests. ‘We’ve been sent from al-Qaida in Yemen’ claimed the Charlie Hebdo killers (who were born and raised in a poor neighbourhood of Paris).
But while the killer’s intention to stifle criticism and free speech will come to nothing, there is a different threat to our freedom. On the day after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo’s office, despite the fact that the killers were already known to the French intelligence agencies, and the Woolwich killers were already known to MI5, Andrew Parker, the head of MI5 wasted no time in asking for more surveillance powers for the intelligence agencies. Because terrorists used the internet, email and social messaging, he said, so intelligence agencies ‘have to have the power to intercept, particularly, international communications’. George Osborne readily agreed saying MI5, MI6 and GCHQ would receive the resources they need. (Guardian 10 January 2015).
Let’s hope that makes you feel more secure.