Thursday, May 28, 2015

Riot! (2011)

From the November 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
We take another look at the August riots.
Moral outrage ran riot across the pages of the tabloid press for six days in August this year while looting, arson and battles with the police spilled across the streets of London and other English cities. Angry condemnation of the rioters and promises of legal revenge emerged from the mouths of Westminster politicians, while the nightly television newscasts drip-fed the nation with a steady message of shocked disapproval.
‘These are sickening scenes. This is criminality pure and simple, and it has to be confronted and defeated’ said an apparently affronted David Cameron (PM and former member of the Bullingdon Club).
In the first days and nights of rioting, David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, put the establishment case. The riots were: ‘an attack on Tottenham, on people, ordinary people, shopkeepers, women, children , who are now standing on the street homeless as a consequence’. It was a politician’s oily speech, carefully tailored to achieve maximum media effect, but it expressed a view which many of Lammy’s constituents might well have shared: the main damage inflicted by the rioters was on their own communities. The looting and arson attacks had been indiscriminate, directed at small local shops as well as banks, larger businesses and chain stores; people’s homes had been destroyed and members of the community were left traumatised and angry. Eventually, the rioting would also lead to the deaths of five innocent people. What Lammy’s comment also implied, though, was that the rioters were somehow not ‘ordinary people.’ By marginalising them in this way he was showing a desire to sidestep any need to understand what was happening.   
Unreported by the corporate media, another very different political commentary was also taking place. Its tone was not condemnatory but enthusiastic: ‘We are in a revolutionary moment’, proclaimed one blogger, ‘Prepare yourself…’ Several of the more excitable anarchist and leftist groups were in animated discussion about whether the long awaited ‘revolutionary moment’ had arrived; or, if it hadn’t, whether the rioting was, at least, an important step towards it; or, if it wasn’t, whether this was, anyhow, how revolution might begin?  Of the more ponderous political groups out on capitalism’s left-wing, the Trotskyist ‘Socialist’ Party of England and Wales (SPEW) preferred to censor the disorderly way young workers on the streets were expressing their frustration at the system. In its view, this was clearly incorrect. (The rioters, evidently, had not asked SPEW to stage manage the week’s events.)

Capitalism and the limits of tolerance
So, what did actually happen during those six August days and nights? Was it simply a sudden and inexplicable upsurge in criminality and ‘disgusting behaviour’ by urban youth? Or was it an inarticulate cry of the working-class stumbling blindly towards a revolutionary overthrow of the established order? Perhaps, of course, it was neither of these things.  Perhaps it was something else entirely.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that the rioting, wherever it occurred, had several obvious and consistent features: it took place almost exclusively in the poorer districts of cities; it had no obvious racial basis; the participants were young, sometimes very young; and where their voices were recorded in the dozens of published web videos, they delivered the same angry and unambiguous message: “it’s payback time.”

But payback for what? The answer which the rioters gave most frequently themselves was payback for years of indignity suffered at the hands of the police. And it was apparent that at the Pembury Estate in Hackney and at various other locations, many of those out on the streets were spoiling for a fight. ‘Kill the police’, they shouted. One man summed up the general mood this way: ‘[The police] are not all bad but most of them are; no-one around here has got any liking for the police’.   I’ve been wanting to do this to the Fedz for years, said another. Although the killing of Mark Duggan by police officers on 4 August and the insulting treatment meted out to his family was a powerful trigger for the riots, it was the longer-standing resentment felt towards the police in London and elsewhere that lit the powder keg.

For unemployed teenagers and young people in urban areas, regular harassment by police and the use of stop-and-search tactics has long been the source of that resentment. For black communities who feel themselves singled out for this kind of treatment, it is a double insult. But, black or white, the rioters universally expressed the view that the police “took the piss” on the streets.
There was, though, another aspect to ‘payback.’ It was about claiming what many felt society had denied them: the right to be treated equally and the right to a decent standard of living. They were not shy about it: it was about ‘the money’. Stafford Scott, in a Guardian comment piece made this connection: “looting comes from the belief that if you cannot get equality and cannot expect justice, then you better make sure that you get paid.” Though he was speaking of attitudes within the black community, his remarks chimed very closely with what all the rioters were saying.  For some, the collective nature of ‘riot’ was enough to legitimise the looting of shops and businesses. It was a moment of ‘freedom’ one teenager claimed.  And though not all spoke openly in these terms, the attitude is nevertheless implicit in the widespread notion of payback.  
Class war
So, were the rioters simply criminals, as Cameron, and others claimed? Certainly they were criminals. The law defines all attacks upon capitalism’s system of property relationships as criminal, whoever carries them out.  But the question that Cameron, as a defender of capitalist property could not raise, however, let alone answer, was what kind of challenge the rioters were making.

The significance of the August riots becomes clear only when they are set against the background of the conflicts of interest that are built into the social relationships of capitalism. Those conflicts are never far from the surface and are liable to break out at any time, visibly and destructively. That’s especially the case when the capitalist system, which is always unstable and unpredictable, puts large groups of people or even whole classes under pressure. And the rioters who came from Hackney, Tottenham and Peckham, and from dozens of other socially deprived urban areas around the country were certainly feeling the pressure. Many of these areas have for a long time been dependent on services funded by government and, as a result, are now being disproportionately hit by cuts in public spending. As the UK Coalition government continues its policy of making the working-class pay for the chaos and shrinkage in the economy, many families on low incomes now face not just the prospect of increasing unemployment but benefit cuts, higher prices, and the withdrawal of public services. All this is happening - and seen to be happening – in a society where the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen, and conspicuous consumption by the rich continues unabated.  It is hardly to be wondered at, under these circumstances, that frustration is going to spill over into action on the streets.
The rioting was not an example of class conflict. There was no direct confrontation between workers and their employers, for example.  The indiscriminate acts of violence, and arson seen on the streets last August were purely destructive.  The looting was for individual gratification or to meet individual need.   And there was certainly no sign that any of this would lead to a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist order.  But as damaging to their own working-class communities as the riots showed themselves to be, they were a response to the specific class conditions that the rioters fond themselves facing under capitalism.  The targets they chose to loot were the everyday embodiments of capitalist property relations, high-street shops and businesses that hand over their consumer goods only to those with the money to pay for them. Also targeted were the defenders of those property relations, the police. Looting in these circumstances is a way of breaking through the barriers that capitalism imposes. It’s a way of challenging capitalism’s institutionalised entitlement system (money) and asserting your own sense of entitlement to a share of what society has produced.  To that extent, rioting is a political statement.

What is striking, though, is how little sense of identification the rioters had with their own communities or with other members of their own class.  From a socialist perspective, they betrayed no real understanding of why they lacked jobs and had little prospect of getting them – or why they needed jobs at all.  They showed no understanding of why they led impoverished, disempowered lives in a world full of rich folk, expenses-grabbing politicians, greedy bankers and glitzy consumer goods. They were seeking payback and a means, individually, to survive.  They were not fomenting revolution.  But at the same time, they understood enough to know that their interests were not being served by the world in which they lived, and felt strongly that they were entitled to something more.

Obituary: Tony Turner (1992)

Turner speaking at Hyde Park.
Obituary from the April 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

News of the death of A. W. L. (Tony) Turner in a Cape Town hospital in February at the age of 83 will awaken memories in many older readers. He joined the Party in 1931 and resigned in 1955 after a series of acrimonious disputes.

Tony was accused of an anarchism that was incompatible with Marx. He had taken up a completely pacifist view together with Tolstoyan ideas about the socialist future—small-scale, a vastly simple society, that anticipated subsequent thinking amongst people like Ivan Illich, Fritz Schumacher and Edward Goldsmith.

Many members felt the difference should have been containable in a party seeking world revoution. If market society was replaced with production for need it was inconceivable that the result would take the same form everywhere.

Tony Turner began life before World War I in the slums of Walworth, the child of an Irish-cockney woman and a Maori father whom he never saw. He enlisted in the Navy as a boy sailor and saw service in the Far East. He took up boxing because, he told me, he was being constantly teased for persistent bedwetting, an affliction which eventually got him discharged from the Service, Before this happened he won the Combined Services Championship in one of the light divisions.

He returned to Walworth in time for the Slump. With other unemployed men in a similar position he developed stratagems of survival, including taking the long view by joining the Party. The Walworth—Elephant & Castle contingent in the Party formed an axis with Jewish lads from Bethnal Green and the whole lot must have looked as if they had looted a theatrical costumiers. These were the days of reach-me-downs. This was none of your middle-class shopping for accessories in Oxfam. Turner, according to contemporaries, sported patent leather dancing pumps and a Magyar blouse.

When this band of Bisto kids didn't have money for a cup of tea at the caff they hung around the Public Library which was warm and dry. Many became bookish and took elocution lessons. They went and sat in the gods at the Old Vic when they could raise fourpence or knew the doorman, and used their leisure like gentlemen, learning dancing, fencing, chess, bridge—anything that was free to the unemployed, and taught each other poker and other disreputable activities.

During his time in the Party Turner was a remarkably active and successful advocate of the SPGB point of view, so much so that the Party was sometimes referred to as Tony Turner's Party, to the irritation of older, less ebullient members. For people who heard him on the platform in Hyde Park or debating public figures in the years during and after the war, his performances were hypnotising in the first arena and devastating in the second—as many politicians found to their cost and chagrin.

He appeared at the Fulham Conscientious Objectors Tribunal during conscription as an amicus curiae to plead the case of many members before Justice Hargreaves. The Judge very early on became satisfied simply with an assurance from Tony that the person was a bona fide member for their exemption to be granted. The Services didn't really want socialists upsetting the rest of the lads.

He joined the Hampstead Labour Party after leaving the SPGB but left after three weeks. He emigrated to Kenya where he built up a substantial book business but continued to visit Britain frequently. In recent years he renewed acquaintance with the Party, visiting branches and taking part in discussions. He clearly enjoyed the greater spirit of tolerance that he found.
Ken Smith

Editorial: Women and socialism (1979)

Editorial from the December 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

Socialists argue from the basic fact that capitalism's private property relationships and class division are the cause of the oppression of both men and women. Women's Liberation movements put forward immediate demands such as equal pay, equal educational opportunities, 24-hour nurseries, free contraception and abortion on demand. Some of these demands may well be achieved, but now more than ever there is a need for a revolutionary change in society. It must be recognised that the subjugation of women does not exist independently but is related to economic structures in society. Men and women are oppressed together in an institutional framework that makes inhuman demands upon the, and inculcates destructive beliefs about themselves. They must be liberated together by changing society.

The choicest fruits of human society are denied to the working class, although they produce the wealth and operate and organise society's productive and distributive machinery. Once the majority of the world working class recognise that they can possess these themselves. they will establish socialism. It is not possible to have "little bits" of socialism or socialist "policies" and socialism does not exist anywhere in the world at this time.

The prerequisite for this new society is understanding and desire to co-operate.

Being world-wide, there will be no national barriers. There will be debates on the common aim, followed by organisation and action. Goods will be produced for use, so there will be no monetary system. This fundamental change in the basis of society will alter all social relationships and structures in our way of life. Police, lawyers and armed forces will give way to men and women doing useful work. Money, taxation and cheap goods will be replaced by production to meet human needs. With free access to wealth, there will be no starving millions, no poverty or degradation. Men and women and children will have complete equality in that they will have that free access to all goods produced. There will be freedom from want and fear. For the first time humanity will be controlling their environment.

New social relationships will form when socialism is established. There will be no husbands and wives because marriage derives from private property relationships. Men will no longer dominate women conditioned to be subservient. Today men and women stay together, often unhappily, because of economic necessity. The myth that child bearing and rearing is the fulfillment of a woman's destiny will be rejected. Men and women will shape and create their own lives. The alienating nature of work will disappear. The exploitation of women as sexual objects, which seems so normal to many men today will be swept aside. Equally important, the sort of spite and resentment that men as well as women show towards each other today, expressed in emotional blackmail, will pass away. People will relate to each other purely as human beings.

The problems of capitalism are not to be solved within the social and economic relationships basic to this system. Capitalism is unable to satisfy the needs and desires of the people of the world. Socialism is technically possible now. All we need is action by a conscious socialist majority of men and women to free us all, without distinction of sex.

We are all oppressed by capitalism and only by its abolition can humanity truly become emancipated. Only with the establishment of socialism can we become free—free to control our own lives, free to have or not to have children without regard to any financial considerations, free to work at any job we choose or to do as many different jobs as we wish in the course of a lifetime. The aim of the women's movement can only lead them into illogical impasses if they continue to pursue their goals within the framework of capitalism. Women should be aware that the Socialist Party of Great Britain has, since its inception 75 years ago, worked for the emancipation of the working class "without distinction of race or sex"—a rare phrase indeed in 1904, however much lip service may be paid to these ideas in 1979.

A quiet drink at the local (1966)

A Short Story from the November 1966 issue of the Socialist Standard

"I'd emigrate myself if I was a younger man. There's no initiative left in this country." He sipped at his half-pint of bitter, put it back carefully on the bar and stared straight ahead at the row of upside-down spirit bottles.

Maurice always start like this. He pretends he is not speaking to you, really, just in case you don't answer him. And I didn't. There is no point in arguing with him. His mind is as set as one of the pickled eggs in the jar at his elbow.

"After all, let's face it, we're all mollycoddled by the Welfare State." He half turned to the youth with the bad complexion who was standing behind him and beginning to look uncomfortable. "I admit it," Maurice insisted with a magnanimous smile, "I'm just the same. I'm soft! Why should I save for a rainy day? The state will take care of me if I'm ill. If I get myself the sack from work I can get nearly as much from the dole and National Assistance as I can for working. Why should I bother to work?"

"Have you tried it?" The young man had a Glasgow accent which made his question sound curt.

Maurice's eyes widened and he really turned round to look at him now. "Tried what?"

"Getting the 'labour' money and National Assistance instead of working? Two chappies in the paper last week were fined £90 apiece for it. Able-bodied y'see. They should have been in a job." The cigarette in his hand trembled.

"No, well of course most of us don't try it, do we?" Maurice laughed implying that he had only been joking. He turned back to his glass, including me in his laugh. "We are the mugs that keep so-and-so's like them in idle comfort." He switched off his laugh as abruptly as he had switched it on and was beginning to bristle with enough indignation to warn anybody that he did not like being taken up on what he said. "Sixteen and a penny a week you pay, National Health." He glared at me.

"Well," I said, trying to produce a jovial smile like his, "they want to make sure you don't waste it on beer." The sarcasm missed him completely. He never drinks more than three half pints. He almost choked on the last drop in his glass, and his neck went red. "Look here!" he said, "If everybody spent as much as I do on beer, they'd be all right, let me tell you." The barman had a faint smile at the corners of his mouth as he filled Maurice's glass again. "I know how to save my money, which is more than a lot of 'em do these days." He kept pressing down the short bristles of his moustache with his fingertips. "They've got no right to make you pay out—what is it?—about £40 a year just in case you need a doctor. I'll decide whether I need a doctor, thank you very much. When I need my doctor's advice, I pay, privately. I want proper attention and a bit of respect, and that's the only way to get it."

The youth scowled behind him and said, "It's your sort that keeps it one treatment for the rich and one for the poor."

Maurice turned round on him, almost crouching. "That's the way it always will be, my lad, and the sooner you get it into your head the better. If you'd got money, would you queue up with that crowd of coughing bronchitics and snivelling kids just to get a five-minute once-over and a chit for the chemist's shop?"

"You're lucky you can afford it."

"Look! I'm not rich, you know. That's just the trouble—I can't afford it—now. Since this bloody health service came in, it costs the earth to be a private patient. Now it really is lone law for the rich and one for the poor."

"You can't win, can you, Maurice." I think he knew I was digging at him, because he didn't even look at me.

"At least everybody gets some treatment now," the youngster insisted, "even if it's not the best."

"You shouldn't have picked a Sunday to say that," I said. I shook out the newspaper I had been trying to read and showed him the Personal column. "Here you are: 'R.S.V.P. You are invited to help 3,000 children whose only help is the National Children's home . . . ' Here's another: 'The British Heart Foundation . . . urgent research needs your generous support . . .' Look, they are all down this column. Royal London Society for the Blind, the Army Benevolent Fund, British Empire Cancer Campaign For Research, The Royal Association in Aid of the Deaf and Dumb, the British Epilepsy Association, the Arthritis and Rheumatism Council, the Chest and Heart Foundation, Muscular Dystrophy, Multiple Sclerosis. They're all appealing urgently for charity. All this is supposed to have been taken care of by the Welfare State."

"Oh, no! That's not fair! Give them time. They've got to deal with the main things first . . . "

Maurice wouldn't let him finish. "Give 'em time!" he said in a loud sneering voice. "They've been at it for 20 years now, and it's a damned sight worse than when they started. The surgeries got fuller, the hospitals get more out of date and understaffed. The whole thing's running down like an old car."

The young Glaswegian just lowered his heat and waited for it to pass. I don't think he really heard what Maurice said. "Look, you say it's one law for the rich and one for the poor, but what you forget is that poor people never had proper medical treatment before. When they had the 'flu or bronchitis or lumbago they couldn't afford to call in the doctor. They just had to stay in bed and wait for it to get better—if they were lucky."

He asked for another pint of mild, and I said to him, "Staying in bed is about the best sort of treatment for ailments like that. That's all we need sometimes—a few days in bed."

"Maybe, but there's not the time for that these days."

"Worse luck."

He looked at me with a trace of contempt in his expression. "Do you realise how many thousands of man-hours are lost through common ailments like that?"

"Well, I have some idea, yes."

"All right! You can't run a modern country by letting people sleep off their illnesses in bed. You need modern drugs—antibiotics, pain killers, tranquilisers—so that they can be back at work in a couple of days, maybe not have to stop work at all."

"This is what you call dealing with the main things first?"

"Certainly. What you must remember is that this is a country with a steadily increasing number of old people and a high density of population. The only way to increase production is to get more efficiency out of the labour force we've got. Take children, for example. Poverty and slums and lack of medical attention used to produce weak or disabled children. But these days it's being planned. The state can't afford thousands of invalids. So the mothers get free ante-natal treatment, maternity allowance, hospital care. If they produce more than one child they get children's allowances. The children get free milk and subsidised meals."

Maurice looked over his shoulder and said, "It's all done on the cheap. Hospitals, drugs, false teeth, spectacles—all cheap and nasty."

"At least it's something—and that's better than nothing."

"It is if you're useful," I said.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, look here at today's paper again—this advert signed by Margaret Herbison, the Minister of Social Security. They've at last acknowledged that old age pensions are inadequate. So pensioners can now have a supplementary pension—if they apply for it—and if they've not got a part-time job earning more than two pound a week, and so on. They can have their income brought up to a guaranteed level. And look at it! £7 2s. plus rent and rates for a married couple; £4 10s. for a single householder; and £3 18s. plus 10s. rent for a single person. Who can live on that at today;s prices? And it's being brought up to that."

"But it's an improvement, isn't it?"

"Certainly! And it needs to be, because it still isn't keeping pace with rising prices. Look here at this bit in Michael Frayn's column: 'Some 7,500,000 people in this country live below what the National Assistance Board regard as subsistence level . . . ' One in seven of the population, as he says. What state of welfare is that?"

"It's bad, I admit, but you've got to agree that they're a dead weight on the state. Old age pensioners will never produce any more  . . ."

It was my turn to choke on my beer. "What! They've had the energy sucked out of them for 50 years of their lives, with nothing at the end to show for it, and you're complaining that they can't be worked until they drop dead! Whose side are you on?"

"They should save up for their old age, like I do," Maurice said. "There's too much state control, now—too many regulations and forms to fill in, too much interference. There's no freedom left. That's the price we've paid for all this. If you want a Welfare State, you can't complain when the state gives you a credit squeeze and a wage freeze as well. It's all part of the same thing. I mean, your life's not your own these days."

"As far as I can see," the youngster said, "the working man's life never was his own. Now, I think the ideals behind the Welfare State were good. For the first time, the worker had the chance of a new deal, the chance to live a respectable life. It's true enough that conditions—inflation and all that—have made a mockery out of most of it, but that doesn't make it a bad idea.

Bit by bit, we had all edged closer together, and the barman was leaning his chin in his hands, listening to us. Maurice glanced round to see who he had for an audience before he spoke. "Listen, my lad, I'm older than you. You don't remember the thirties. If you think this is a bad time for your Welfare State, just you wait until there's another depression and see how it works then. You're all right now as long as you've got enough stamps on your card, but you wait till you can't get any stamps because you haven't got a job even. I'm telling you this: what they give you they can also take away. And they will when it suits them. I've told you. I'd get out of this country if I was younger."

"Do you really think it's much different anywhere else?" I said. "You'd be in just the same trap."

"You two depress me," said the young man. "Don't they you?" he asked, turning to the barman.

"I haven't heard all of it, of course, but I must say, I think all this Welfare State business is a load of codswallop. You're no better off and no worse off, are you? I mean to say, you've still got to turn up at work tomorrow morning, haven't you? And you've got to take stingy-paid part-time jobs like this at the weekend to keep going. It doesn't alter that, does it?"

"That's the trap."

"Yeah, well, tell me some way to get out of that and I'll be interested."

"You can't alter that," said the Glaswegian contemptuously.

"That's the way it always will be, lad," Maurice said.
S. Stafford

Action Replay: What Price the 2022 Football World Cup in Qatar? (2015)

The Action Replay Column from the May 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
Qatar will host the 2022 World Cup, the first Arab nation to do so. Sepp Blatter, the FIFA president has already endorsed the bid and said ‘The Arabic world deserves to hold a world cup competition’. Qatar enjoys the support of the Arab league and the event is intended to bridge the gap between the Arab World and the West.
The first five proposed stadiums were unveiled in March 2010. The stadiums will employ cooling technology capable of reducing temperatures within the stadium by up to 20C. All of the five stadium projects launched have been designed by German architect Albert Speer and Partners. The air conditioning in the stadiums for the players and the spectators will be solar powered, carbon neutral and provided by Arup of England. The technology employed is remarkable but the labour required for its installation and the building of the stadiums has caused many deaths to migrant workers. Most of the workers are living in labour camps, enduring squalid conditions.
A Guardian article (25 September 2013) reported that a number of Nepalese migrant workers have faced poor conditions, as companies handling construction work for the 2022 World Cup infrastructure forced them to stay by denying them promised salaries and withholding necessary worker ID permits, making them illegal aliens. The precarious situation the various employers have created have forced the migrant workers to beg for food. Thousands of Nepalese labourers in Qatar face exploitation and abuses that amount to modern-day slavery as defined by the ILO.
During a building binge to pave the way for the Football competition in 2022, Nepalese workers in Qatar have been dying at a rate of one per day. A report released in March 2014 by the International Trade Union Confederation estimated that 4,000 more workers could die as preparations for the World Cup continue.
The barbaric conditions that migrant workers endure, brings sharply into focus, that under capitalism, capital is considered more important than labour. The profits that will flow to the companies involved in the Qatar World Cup, when the games commence, are considered more important than ensuring that proper safety conditions prevail to protect the migrant workers.