Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Levellers (2010)

From the December 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

After his visits to Iceland in the 1870s, William Morris concluded that ‘the most grinding poverty is a trifling evil compared with the inequality of classes’. Where life was hard, there was little alternative to all being poor, but where some people were far richer and more powerful than others, that was far worse, since it was so unnecessary and deleterious. The consequences of inequality have recently been set out at length in The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (published by Penguin, and reviewed in the Socialist Standard for June 2009). The authors have established a website (The Equality Trust), which is aimed at ‘the widest public and political understanding of the harm caused by inequality’.

The book’s subtitle, Why Equality is Better for Everyone, suggests the main thrust of its argument. The authors begin by discussing the relation between economic growth and standard of living on the one hand, and life expectancy and happiness on the other. As might be predicted, a low standard of living in a country means low life expectancy (fifty years or less), and an increase in per capita income means people living longer (to over seventy years). But there comes a point at which the relationship disappears, and the wealthiest countries (such as the USA and Norway) do not have greater life expectancy than the rather less rich (like Greece and Germany). A similar point holds for the proportion of people who describe themselves as ‘quite happy’ or ‘very happy’: the first stages of economic growth lead to people being happier but those in the richest countries are no happier than those in the slightly less rich.

But things are different when comparisons are made within one country. In the US, for instance, those living in better-off areas do live longer than those in poorer areas. And for a whole set of health and social problems, Wilkinson and Pickett use a very wide range of data to argue that the more unequal countries have more of the problems. The rates for mental illness, to take one example, are far higher in the US and UK than in less unequal countries such as Germany and Japan.

In addition to mental illness, the problems covered are: levels of trust, life expectancy and infant mortality, obesity, children’s educational performance, teenage births, homicides, imprisonment rates and social mobility. For thirty ‘advanced’ capitalist countries, the level of inequality is measured by the ratio of the income of the top to the bottom 20 percent (so the top includes many slightly better-off workers). To compare inequality across US states, they use a more complex measure called the Gini coefficient. In each case, they do not just record the correlation between inequality and the extent of the problem, but also discuss why such a correlation should hold. And countries tend to perform badly on all the measures if they do badly on one:
“If…a country does badly on health, you can predict with some confidence that it will also imprison a large proportion of its population, have more teenage pregnancies, lower literacy scores, more obesity, worse mental health, and so on.”
Let’s look more closely at some of the problems. The level of trust is measured by how many people agreed with the statement ‘most people can be trusted’. In Portugal only 10 percent agreed (!), in Sweden 66 percent. The proportion in the US who agree has fallen from 60 percent in 1960 to under 40 percent in 2004. It is quite a commentary on the nature of capitalism that so many people do not trust others. As Wilkinson and Pickett say, ‘High levels of trust mean that people feel secure, they have less to worry about, they see others as co-operative rather than competitive.’ And inequality causes lack of trust, rather than vice versa.

As for obesity, a greater proportion of adults and children are overweight in more unequal countries, and this correlation is stronger for women than for men. Lack of exercise and reliance on fast food are the main causes here, and unemployment also tends to lead to weight gain. A more tentative argument is that people suffering from stress respond to food by accumulating fat around their middle as well as by comfort eating. It had not previously occurred to me that Socialism would drastically reduce the extent of obesity, but maybe it will.

In the case of violence, the general argument is that it is in most cases triggered by humiliation and loss of face when people feel they are disrespected or looked down on. Shame and lack of social status (in terms of education, income, housing, etc) can make us all resentful, even if relatively few will react with violence. And ‘increased inequality ups the stakes in the competition for status: status matters even more’. Many research studies have shown that violent crime (especially homicides and assaults) is positively linked with inequality. In the US, 72 percent of juvenile murderers grew up in homes without fathers, as family breakdown leads to inter-generational cycles of violence.

In the book’s final part, Wilkinson and Pickett set out their ideas for ‘a better society’. Some of the general points here are perfectly fine, such as recognition of the importance of friendship and mutual help: ‘human beings have a unique potential to be each other’s best source of co-operation, learning, love and assistance of every kind’. From a long-term historical point of view, the current highly unequal societies are exceptional, since the vast majority of humans have lived in extremely egalitarian societies.

What they argue for, of course, is a more equal kind of social system, in the belief that this will improve the quality of life for all. However, they stand not for Socialism, but for a less unequal form of capitalism. There are different roads to greater equality, say the authors, but they all need to address the basic cause of inequality, the institutions that employ us. So the solution they advocate is for employees to own and control the companies that employ them. Workers might then vote for the chief executive to earn ten times the average wage (thus reducing but not eliminating inequality).

Yet this leaves the wages-prices-profit system of capitalism untouched. Most people will still have to work for wages, companies will still have to make a profit, workers will lose their jobs when the company can no longer make a profit from their labour power, the environment will still be desecrated in the search for cheap raw materials and higher profits. The waste of capitalism, with its banks and credit cards and accountants and ticket-collectors, will remain, as will the causes of wars.

It is clear that slightly less unequal versions of capitalism are possible, but also that they do not put an end to social problems, as even the more egalitarian versions still have them. It will take a socialist society to do away with the grotesque inequalities of capitalism and its inherent problems.
Paul Bennett

Who needs leaders? (1992)

From the September 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

In July several members of the local Camden branch attended the SWP annual "Marxism" event which brings together thousands of workers for a series of lectures and debates. We felt this would be a good opportunity to discuss the Socialist Party's politics and opposition to the SWP.
During the day we had a literature stall and distributed copies of the Socialist Standard and other Socialist Party literature. We also handed out 400 copies of a leaflet detailing our criticism of the SWP.
Before distributing the leaflet we wondered if its content and tone might elicit a hostile response from SWP members. However, when challenged as to the truth of the statements they were not denied and were even endorsed by one or two SWP members who fully approved of the authoritarian nature of their party, with its central committee meetings in private, issuing orders to its followers in the branches.
Other workers we spoke to were less happy with this dictatorial arrogance and gave a favourable response to our ideas on democratic organization with its emphasis on total accountability and absence of leaders.
As a propaganda exercise we felt the day was successful and we were encouraged by the positive response from many workers to the Socialist Party's case. The next step will be to convince them of the need to join with socialists to organise democratically for socialism. We can then tell the central committees with their self-appointed leaders that they are not required. 
Below is the text of our leaflet.

Nearly everyone attending this event agrees that capitalism stinks. The world needs to be changed and that won't be done by the Labour Party. What we want is a world for the workers.

To get a decent world we need to organise for it. The organisers of this event say that they are revolutionary socialists. But there are some questions you should ask them:
What is socialist about joining a party which has a minority who are leaders and a majority who are merely the rank and file followers?
What is revolutionary about supporting the Labour Party everytime there is an election?
Why do these so-called socialists accept Lenin's view that workers are too stupid to bring about socialism themselves and must be led to revolution by reform-advocating intellectual leaders?
Why are meetings of the SWP's leaders closed to the public—and to members who aren't leaders?
Why should you join a party which orders its members about like a religious sect, even forbidding them to speak to certain opponents?
What is the point of rejecting authoritarian Tory liars and then jumping into bed with authoritarian Leninist manipulators?
We in the Socialist Party are hostile to the politics of the SWP. We reject its vanguardism, its worshipping of dead Russian rulers, its dogmatic Trotskyist religion and, above all, its contempt for democratic debate. Our opposition is not just another sectarian squabble whereby one leftist group claims to be a better leader than the other. We are not leaders. We are not looking for followers. Unless workers understand, want and organise for socialism it is not going to happen.

We urge you to ask the questions listed above to the organisers of this event. Ask and keep on asking until they give you satisfactory answers.

We invite you to find out more about the Socialist Party by writing to us an requesting some free socialist literature which is not Leninist or reformist, but is Marxist and revolutionary. You have nothing to lose by seeing what we have to say. Unless, of course, you are ready to be fitted with political blinkers—in which case, have a good time this week.

Capital as power (2015)

Book Review from the May 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

'The 1% and the Rest of Us - A Political Economy of Dominant Ownership', by Tim Di Muzio. Zed Books.
This is a curate’s egg.  The historical parts are good as is the definition of ‘the 1%’ as the dominant owners of income-yielding assets. Even ‘capital as power’, as an alternative to the concepts of capital as physical instruments of production (orthodox economics) and of capital as accumulated surplus value (Marx), has some descriptive merit.  Capitalist firms can be seen as trying ‘to redistribute more money to themselves than their counterparts, who are trying to do the same thing.’  Which means that all capitalist firms are in effect competing against each other for profits not against just those in the same branch of activity.
But the bad part is really bad. Di Muzio has swallowed hook, line and sinker the view that banks literally create money ‘out of thin air’, a phrase he repeatedly uses.  We are asked to believe that, when banks make a loan it is not out of money they have or can acquire, they just create it out of nothing and then charge interest on it. He offers this as an explanation as to why prices keep rising since, according to him, when a business has taken out a loan from a bank it has to increase the price of what it is selling to cover the interest it has to pay the bank. He also thinks that because ‘there is not enough money in the economy for workers to purchase goods and services they produce, there is a constant demand for interest-bearing credit’. But, as we always point out when confronted with such ‘underconsumptionist’ views, what the workers can’t buy the capitalists can or could.
This is the purest currency crankism in its crudest form, which not even Positive Money (who he mentions favourably) subscribes to. He even proudly boasts that this is what he teaches his students at the University of Wollongong in Australia who start their course thinking (correctly, in fact) that banks can’t lend more than they have or can acquire. His only saving grace on this is a passage in which he writes that ‘it is unclear whether Marx understood’ that banks create money out of thin air. Well, for the record, Marx did not make that mistake.
Logically with his views, Di Muzio lists as the most important demand that ‘the party of the 99%’ he envisages (not a bad idea in itself) is ‘monetary reform’ to replace ‘money as debt’ by a government bank simply printing money as ‘democratically decided’ is needed.  An unnecessary and worthless reform as well as a harmful diversion from what such a party should really aim at: the expropriation of the 1% and the rest of the owning class by making the Earth’s resources the common heritage of all humanity.
Adam Buick

Are We Practical? (1932)

From the March 1932 issue of the Socialist Standard

Certain critics have asked why we do not organise a mass resistance of the workers against the wage-cuts of the National Government. Socialist propaganda is all very well, they say, but what are we doing in the meantime whilst workers' standard of living is being mercilessly attacked?

The question is a curious one. Which workers are we to organise? The workers who voted the National Government into power, or the workers who supported the equally non-Socialistic Labour Party? And how are we to organise politically uninstructed workers who can easily be stampeded into a panic by the capitalist press?

In the first place, we are a political party with a definite political object. As workers and members of trade unions we must be opposed to all wage-cuts, but as Socialists and members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain we go further. We are opposed to the biggest cut of all—the profit cut—which robs the workers all the time of the bulk of the wealth they produce. This meantime question sounds quite sensible till you look at it closely. It depends entirely upon the workers whether there shall be a meantime and how long that meantime will be. In the meantime the capitalist class hold political power and they are therefore masters of the situation. Moreover, if it is possible to reform the present system of society in the interests of the working class, there is no need for Socialism. But experience has proven that to be impossible. In spite of all the reforms of the three biggest parties, the conditions of the workers steadily worsen.

Thirty years ago we were told the same story by the Labour Party, the I.L.P., S.D.P., and other bodies. Our method of achieving Socialism by educating the workers in Socialist principles would, they said, take centuries. They had a better and quicker way. They would give the workers reforms and higher wages, and win their support in that way. Socialism would be with us in no time. Perhaps! The Labour Party can now number its adherents by the million, but is it truly a menace to the existing order of society? Are the workers beginning to take an intelligent interest in Socialism as a result of all these years of the Labour Party's political activity? No. They are still struggling blindly and vainly. They are still being led like sheep down the blind alley of social reform and "direct action," by the "intelligent minorities" who pose as their saviours. One can understand from the following the reasons for the Labour Party collapse.

In a letter to the New Leader (October 12th, 1928), Dr. Alfred Salter, Labour M.P. and member of the I.L.P., frankly admitted that there is not a single constituency in the country where there a majority of convinced Socialist electors. He said :-
We have plenty of districts, such as Bermondsey, where there is an overwhelming Labour majority, but it is a sheer delusion to think that the greater number of these people understand what we mean by Socialism. They neither understand it nor want it. (Our Italics.)
Labour majorities are not so "overwhelming" now, and the electors in these constituencies who return Labour candidates to Parliament are not, and cannot be, Socialists, for the self-evident reason that the Labour Party has never advocated Socialism. MacDonald, Henderson and Co. have in practice served the interest of the Master Class by confusing the minds of the workers. They have made them believe that Socialism is State charity, more doles, more pensions, better prisons, health insurance and family allowances, Lansbury Lidos, and, of course, we must not forget to mention Mr. Lansbury's proposed tarpaulin doss-houses in the parks. These things are not Socialism. Socialism is a system of society in which the means of life are owned in common. Socialism implies the social ownership of all the things necessary to maintain life, the land, railways, factories, etc., to be democratically controlled and used in the interest of the whole of society. Now, you workers who voted for the Labour Party and imagined you were voting for Socialism, what have you to say? You are disillusioned and bewildered, but remember that all the time you were voting for the retention of capitalism—and your poverty. The Labour Government failed, but the Object and Declaration of Principles on the back page of The Socialist Standard still hold good. The Labour Government failed because it tried to solve working-class problems within the existing framework of society. They quickly discovered that it was not possible to administer capitalism in the interests of the working class. They boasted before taking office that they had in hand schemes of development which would provide work for tens of thousands of workers. These schemes were put into operation, but at the same time capitalism was displacing hundreds of thousands of workers, due to worsening trade depression and wage-saving machinery. During the life of the last Labour Government unemployment mounted to a record figure.

Yet the solution to the "problem" of unemployment is really quite simple. After all, what is unemployment? It is the inability of the worker to sell the only thing he possesses—his working energies, his labour-power. Unemployment is, therefore, the outcome of wage-slavery. Wage-slavery can only exist in a society where there are two classes, employers and employed; an owning class that produces nothing, and a propertyless class that produces wealth. Once the necessity to seek an employer is abolished, this so-called problem vanishes into thin air. In order to achieve this, we must first abolish the private property basis of society, and there will no longer be any classes; no capitalist class and no working class, no employers and no employed, no profits and no wages; hence, no unemployment, because there will be no employment.

This private ownership of the means of life is the cause not merely of unemployment, but of the general poverty condition of the workers, whether in work or out of work, and the fruits of poverty, disease, prostitution and crime.

Neither the Labour Party nor any other reform party can protect you against the evils of the capitalist system, because they do not understand and are not prepared to remove the fundamental cause of these evils—capitalism. They will promise you the sun, the moon and the stars, but they do not give you the only remedy for your poverty—Socialism. Their reforms are useless to solve the main poverty problem, because you cannot have capitalism without its effects. You cannot have a commercial system without the laws of commerce. You cannot have capitalism without the inevitable concentration of wealth into a few hands and the formation of huge international trusts and combines. You cannot have capitalism without a propertyless class of wealth-producers and the accumulation of misery and degradation for them. No reform can prevent the present system from developing according to the laws governing its existence.

At this point, fellow-workers, you will perhaps ask if we consider all reforms to be bad in their effects. Is there no room for improvement in working-class conditions within the present system? The answer is that the capitalists have power, and it is they who decide to give or to withhold reforms, not in your interest, but in their own. We are opposed to the policy of devoting energies to the struggle for reforms, instead of devoting them to the struggle for Socialism. In any event the growth of a strong Socialist movement would do more to make the capitalists yield concessions than all the efforts of the reformers.

When the workers become Socialists and have won political power from the hands of their masters, they will not use it merely to modify a few of the effects of their slavery, but to end it. Questions such as Free Trade or Protection are of no concern to the workers. They are faced with exactly the same problems all over the capitalist world. Their misery and poverty are international. Protection does not safeguard their jobs or their wages. Whether it is in tariff countries like Germany and the United States, or Free Trade countries such as England has been, the same features of capitalism exist. Increased power to make goods alongside unemployment. Side by side with the developing power to produce wealth there is more intense poverty. The application of science to industry is not used to make the lives of the workers more comfortable, but to increase the profits of the capitalist owners. Every new machine is a weapon against the workers. So long as the worker's labour-power is an article of merchandise like cheese or tin—that is, so long as he remains a wage-earner—no reform can give him security and comfort. So long as the means of life are in private hands and the motive for production is profit, the more wealth the workers are able to produce, the less will be their portion, and the harder they work, the sooner they will be out of work.

If all the time, money and trouble spent on the advocacy of reforms had been devoted to Socialist propaganda, the workers would now occupy a much stronger position. Capitalism cannot be reformed without at the same time being strengthened. The reform parties are but deluding the workers with the foolish and futile hope that their problems can be solved inside the present system of society. They serve the interest of the capitalist class by hiding from the workers the cause of their poverty. Every reform in the programmes of these parties that is likely to be put into operation would not materially alter the condition of the workers or endanger the capitalists. Not one of them touches the fundamental cause of working-class poverty. They can be safely supported by non-Socialists and anti-Socialists. The support won by these parties is not support for Socialism, and must be essentially limited by the limited nature of their programmes.

Study Socialism, organise in the Socialist Party to abolish the system that enslaves you, and establish a new system of society in which the men and women who produce and distribute wealth shall have free and equal access to the means of life.

Past praying for (1988)

Film Review from the July 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Prayer For the Dying has been disowned by both the film's director, Mike Hodges, and actor, Mickey Rourke. They have demanded that their names be removed from the credits and have embarked on a counter-publicity campaign. If this had been on the grounds that it is a lousy film, then I would have been in total sympathy with them and even have suggested that they be joined by the other two "stars" in the film - Alan Bates and Bob Hoskins. In fact they were protesting about cuts made to the film on the instructions of the producers which, they argue, had resulted in all the politics being taken out.

The film was originally intended to be a thriller scripted by Jack Higgins. Mickey Rourke was to play the part of a repentant IRA gunman on the run in England. But, while in Ireland researching his role, Rourke became enamoured of the republican cause. As a result, with the co-operation of the director, the film became a more overtly political thriller with several long monologues in favour of the IRA being written into the script. The producers objected. They removed the political speeches and cut out all the Irish scenes except the opening one - in which a bomb intended for the army blows up a school bus and leads to Rourke's subsequent soul-searching.

The result is a pig's ear of a film. It is badly acted - Alan Bates as the London funeral director-cum-gangster would have been hilarious if this was supposed to be a comedy. And who can have possibly believed that Bob Hoskins could ever be convincing as a Roman Catholic priest (albeit one who learned some useful things to do to would-be assailants while in the SAS)? The plot is totally unconvincing. The repentant Rourke in hiding in London agrees to commit just one more murder in return for a passport and passage to America. This times it's on behalf of gangster, Alan Bates. The shooting is witnessed by the priest (Hoskins) and, as a result, Rourke becomes a regular visitor to his church. Here he meets that stereotype "innocent young girl who can soften the hardest of hearts". In this case she is the blind organ-playing niece of the priest. From this point on the film degenerates from poor, if unintentional, comedy to utter farce. Not only that, it is mawkishly sentimental. It's true that there is not a lot of politics in this film, but then there's not a lot of anything else either.
Janie Percy-Smith