Thursday, July 16, 2015

A culture of violence (1987)

From the October 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

On a summer day in August, Michael Ryan took to the streets of Hungerford armed with an assortment of lethal weapons and embarked on an orgy of terror and violence leaving in his wake a trail of dead and injured before, finally, turning a gun on himself. The media had a field day—a sensational story in the middle of the "silly season". After the sickening accounts of Ryan's massacre, came the instant diagnoses, remedies and pop psychology: Ryan was a madman, under the influence of too much violent television and films, with too easy an access to firearms. The "solution": ban violence on television and stop madmen from getting hold guns.

But the "solution" proposed not only does nothing to deal with the problem of violence but also fosters a dangerous illusion — that this incident was an exception, something out of the ordinary, the product of a deranged mind. Michael Ryan may or may not have been schizophrenic, psychotic or paranoid; he may or may not have been over-protected by his mother; he may or may not have had sexual hang-ups (there is, in any case, something grotesque about engaging in posthumous psychoanalysis), but some of this explains why the particular form his disturbance took was so violent and anti-social.

It is, no doubt, very comforting to some people struggling to make sense of what happened, to simply label Ryan as "mad". To do so gives the impression that his violence was an individual, pathological problem and in no way connected to the society in which we live. But in fact although the scale of the violence in this case was perhaps exceptional, the violence itself was not. It is part of a continuum of violence with Saturday night pub brawls, child abuse and wife battering at one end and war and genocide at the other. Each and every day numerous acts of violence are committed: they are so routine as to go largely unnoticed. In a violent society it takes a massacre for violence to hit the headlines.

Ryan, we were told, was, at the time of his attack, dressed in Rambo-style combat gear complete with headband. Doesn't this, they argue, prove that he was acting out a fantasy inspired by the film? Shouldn't we then ban depictions of violence in films and on television? Although the causal connection between violent images and violent behaviour remains unproved, what is clear is that films like Rambo and Death Wish, and television programmes like Miami Vice and the A Team are tremendously popular. Why? Could it be that, rather than causing the violence that exists in society, they are a part of, and contribute to, a culture that allows violence to flourish? The same newspapers that screamed "shock, horror" from their headlines the day after the events in Hungerford, routinely encourage and romanticise xenophobia, militarism and war and glorify "heroes" of the Rambo ilk.

And then, to add to the hypocrisy, having dismissed Ryan as a madman, they then call for gun laws to be tightened up to stop other lunatics from getting their hands on sub-machine guns. But gun laws, however restrictive, necessarily presuppose guns and guns are, by their very nature, weapons of violence — despite what the gun lobby might say about their "sporting" uses. The same culture of violence that makes films like Rambo successful also creates a market for real live guns that are manufactured and sold for profit through gun shops, arms dealers and mail order magazines, who have little interest in the state of mind of the buyer, or the use to which they might be put. There is after all money to be made from violence, as the state which permits and encourages arms dealing knows only too well.

The massacre in Hungerford might, momentarily, have shattered any cosy illusions that people might hold that we live in the best of all possible worlds but the "instant" analysis and irrelevant "solutions" quickly papered over the cracks with reassuring pap about it being an isolated incident, the actions of a crazed man who should never have been permitted a firearms certificate, allowing people to fall back into the complacent belief that "something" is being done. Gun laws are to be reviewed, television schedules were altered. Well that's alright then, isn't it?
Janie Percy-Smith

Who Will Do the Dangerous Work? (1982)

From the February 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

This is a question often asked when we explain that in socialist society the principle "from each according to his/her abilities, to each according to his/her needs" will apply. In other words, that people will voluntarily contribute in terms of work what they can in order to produce the abundance of wealth to which they will then have free access according to their individual needs (of which they themselves will be the sole judge). 

The assumption behind the "dirty work" objection is that if work were voluntary nobody would choose to do the hard, the dangerous, the boring or the messy work because this would be "against human nature". We don't want to go here into all the scientific arguments which show that there is nothing in the nature of the animal homo sapiens that would prevent them living in a socialist society; quite the reverse in fact, human beings are animals which have evolved and survived only through their capacity to co-operate. All we will do is draw attention to the fact that the objection is not valid even for all work under capitalism. 

Work under capitalism mostly takes the form of employment—that is, work for an employer, under his control and for his profit, and it is therefore not surprising that most people consider "work" to be something unpleasant, to be avoided as much as possible. But when it comes to exercising their mental and physical energies—which is equally "working"—in their own time, as in digging their gardens, pursuing their hobbies and the like, it is a different matter. Because people enjoy this kind of work, many are not even prepared to consider such activities as work, to such an extent has capitalism associated work with work for an employer! Socialism, which will abolish employment, will also abolish this false distinction between "work " (unpleasant) and "play" (pleasant), People will be able to organise the necessary productive work in such away that everybody will be able to derive satisfaction from doing it. 

But what about the dirty work? Well, as the Penlee lifeboat disaster recently showed, even under capitalism people can be found to undertake work of the most dangerous kind voluntarily. These lifeboatmen were all volunteers to do a job they knew to be socially necessary. Despite the fuss they made of the disaster, the capitalist class were unable to understand this. "£3 for a start, then, £1 an hour—the price of lifeboat courage" headlined the Daily Telegraph (21/12/81) with the suggestion that lifeboatmen were not being paid enough. But, as any of the lifeboatmen could have told them, this was not the point; money (expenses) was not the motive. In fact, one RNLI official was quoted as saying "some do not bother to claim it". 

Then why do they do it, why do they voluntarily undertake such dangerous, dirty work? Why could more than enough volunteers be found from the same village to replace the eight men who died? Because, as we have said, they were aware that there was a socially necessary job to be done. If this can happen under capitalism where the cash nexus has corrupted nearly everything, how can it be imagined that in socialism there will be any problem to find people to undertake any "dirty" jobs that cannot be automated? 
Adam Buick

Little Brother is Watching You (1959)

From the February 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard

It has always been fashionable for the champions of so-called Western Democracy to describe in horrifying detail the horrors perpetrated by Big Brother Stalin, Big Brother Khruschev and the other dictators, in order that we might be comforted by the thought that circumstances here might be a lot worse. When one looks around, though, the differences aren't as great as they are made out to be. Everywhere one looks there are myriads of little brothers—the petty bureaucrats and officials that are apparently indispensable to modem society. So vast and impersonal has the State machine become, that the sum total of all the little brothers appears to make a very big brother indeed. 

One of the most disturbing features about this is the way in which little-brotherdom has been taken for granted, few now questioning the supervisory rights exercised by the multitudes of little brothers. 

Practically every moment of our waking life is spent under the observation and control of these watchdogs, who themselves are oblivious to the nature of their task, that is to be the ruling class's minions who ensure that every dot and comma of the laws of property society are observed. 

Let us take a look at our lives and see how far we are dominated by little-brotherdom. We open our eyes in the morning, lift our heads from the pillow (Purchase Tax (Domestic Pillowslips) Order 1947, S.R. & O., 1876); and gaze around our cosy Council flat ("Tenants shall not keep cats, dogs, chickens, livestock or any animal whatsoever"). We lower our feet gently to the floor, careful not to wake the baby downstairs ("No musical instruments, radio, record-player or noisy instrument whatsoever shall be played or used between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7.30 a.m."). We pull on our cotton socks (Customs and Excise (Import Licences for Foreign Cotton Goods) Order 1954. S.T. No. 6764). 

The carpet we tread on is subject to Purchase Tax, Hire Purchase restrictions, Customs and Excise duty if it is imported, Police investigation if it is stolen, and some thousands of officials in various Ministries and Departments are concerned with all these qualities of the carpet. The only quality that they are not interested in is the one that concerns the owner, that is, its usefulness. Similarly the tea that we pop into the teapot is haggled over by harassed merchants, discussed by diplomats, preserved by security police, checked by Customs officials, weighed by weights and measures men, and litigated over by lawyers, all without reference or relevance to the need that it satisfies. 

And so the morning goes on; everything we do, everything we use, and even our conversations are affected in some way or other by regulations, statutes, restrictions, official decrees, taxes, tithes, fines, penalties, and the rest. 

Perhaps the postman has brought us some mail? Ah, yes, a kind letter from our obedient servant, the Inspector of Taxes, requesting us to complete and return Form A.63 forthwith or have our code number reduced to zero (almost a fate worse than death). What else—perhaps a billet-doux from the Postmaster-General reminding us that our television licence expires on the 31st proximo? Or a figure-studded form from the Town Clerk telling us that each pound of rates was divided up into such fascinating items as 3¾d. for roads: 4¼d. for schools; 9d. for himself as watcher-in-chief and for his myrmidons; and so on. In fact, one could hazard the guess that three-quarters of the average man's mail comes from the little brothers. 

And so it goes on—one is always subject to the restrictions, petty tyranny and feeling of soul-destroying impotence produced by constant surveillance—"Good morning, madam; may I see your wireless and television licences?"; and the rest of it. 

Even the forms of little-brotherdom that we take completely for granted -"Fares, please"; "May I see your ticket?"; "One and nines at the far paybox" — all these are the product of an irrational society which substitutes profit for human needs, money for human feelings, and cash registers for human lives. 

A whole army of people exists, whose only purpose is to restrict us, regulate our lives, keep us submissive, and preserve the sanctity of private property. This is not a criticism of the watchdogs themselves—the clerk in the tax office or the bus conductor is only carrying out a job, although the job itself is one that stultifies and inhibits. Millions of able-bodied men and women carry out these socially useless tasks for the purpose of keeping capitalism running efficiently and keeping the others in order. 

Capitalism requires an army, navy, air force, police force and judiciary to defend the rights of employers to exploit their propertyless employees. In order to do this efficiently in the modern world, an immense and complicated State machine grows up, which irons out the differences between individual capitalists and combines all their interests in what is complacently described as the "national interest." To maintain this top-heavy institution, hundreds of thousands of workers are required to staff the end less Ministries and Departments. The Inland Revenue Department rakes in the State's share of the profits exacted from workers, and the various Ministries spend it in the ways deemed best by the ruling class's administrators.

And yet, a large proportion of the tasks performed by this vast army of people are, from a rational point of view, socially worthless. The Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance keeps infirm and aged workers alive at the minimum expense; the Customs and Excise Department preserves the State monopolies of tobacco and alcohol and keeps the rapacious foreign capitalist from the door; the Defence Ministry and Foreign Office ensure that the British capitalist can hang on to what he has captured; and so on. No doubt this is all very desirable from the ruling class's point of view, but has little to do with the interests of the majority of people.

People's acceptance of these social fungi implies an acceptance of capitalism, with all the evils that go with it. Conversely, once one has rejected capitalism, it can be seen that this implies the rejection of all of its stupid paraphernalia - of which little brothers are a part. Little brothers are only a facet of a harmful social system which has long outlived its purpose; a facet which itself emphasises and demonstrates the irrational and undesirable nature of capitalist society. 

A society which turns in on itself in this way, which dominates and regiments humans instead of serving their interests—this is a world which is unworthy of human beings. The fact that people find life unthinkable without the little brothers proves just how unthinkable it has become with them. 
Albert Ivimey

Who needs money? (1990)

From the November 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

We live in a society where almost everything is bought and sold. That which you need in order to live is a commodity; you must buy it from someone who will make a profit out of selling it to you. Our minds are dominated by money. It is our passport to existence. No money, no access to what we need. Too little money, no comfort. Money drives people crazy: contrary to the words of the song, money does not make the world go round—money makes the world go mad. 

It turns the white-coated scientist into the unprincipled servant of commerce. It converts the caring doctor into the grasping private practioner. Money makes pathetic liars out of salesmen and robotic paper counters out of bank clerks. Money leads young men to beat up old women. Money is the source of the poor man's scheme to have a fat wallet which ends too often in a cold prison cell. Money is the rich man's god. Children beg for money. Not a day passes when we do not think about it. Have I enough money for . . . If only this cost less . . . I must now pay my money for . . . Bills, tokens, threatening reminders, final demands, security locks, bank queues, exchange rates, newsreaders announcing that the pound has fallen, as if it is the sun which has fallen out of the sky. It is a vast, mentally corrupting, emotionally destructive money madness. 

Why Money? 
Money is the universally accepted means of exchange. It is a universal equivalent. Instead of me giving you three toasters for your armchair, I pay in an accepted, legal currency. Sounds sensible. Who wants to return to the awkward system of bartering goods? It seems sensible as long as we have a property-based system of society where wealth is owned by some and sold to others. 

The two main uses of money by most people are for food and housing. You need money to buy food from the corner store, or, more probably, the supermarket. In effect, you are paying the owners of food production for the right to have access to what they possess. These millionaire food manufacturers did not produce the food. But you must buy if from them so that they may profit. You pay money for housing to the landlord or the building society. They own the land that you live on and they own the means of producing the buildings in which you dwell. Directors of building societies are not to be found on building sites making houses. They are too busy getting drunk in their clubs or playing golf. 

Now, imagine that all these things that you need were owned and controlled in common. By everyone. All of us—you included. There is nobody to buy food from—it is common property. There are no rents or mortgages to pay because land and buildings belong to us all. There is no need to buy anything from any other person because society has done away with the absurd division between the owning minority (the capitalists) and the non-owning majority (the workers). You would not need money. In a society of common ownership money would have no role. It would be like the tramlines in a city which has done away with trams. No longer would money exist. 

The money test I 
"But we need money—couldn't live without it". That is what most well-conditioned readers will say. In our society people learn to turn money into a fetish. In primitive societies certain objects were invested with magical powers. For example, in Ancient Egypt cats were regarded as sacred animals which had to be treated with great respect or they would turn the world upside-down. Modern people are taught to believe that money contains intrinsic powers. Where would we be without it? Beware of dethroning the money-god. Let us put this to the test. 

Take a pile of money. Three fivers and a couple of pound coins. Leave them in a dark room and see what happens. Will they dig coal? Will factories be built or homes furnished? Well. at least they could cook you a good dinner: you can get good food for seventeen quid. Nothing will happen. Humans make money powerful. Left to itself it is just a pile of tokens of no worth. Even the picture of the Queen is ugly. 

The money test II 
But is money that important to you? Perhaps it is less intrusive in your daily life than has been suggested. Try one more test. 

Stop selling yourself for money for three months. That is what you do every time you go out to work in return for a wage or salary. You put yourself on the shelf along with the baked beans and the canned tuna fish and you say 'Buy me!'. The wages system, which turns the vast majority of people into exploited workers, is a process of selling your mental and physical energies in return for some money. For most of us, if we do not sell ourselves we will have little or no access to what we need in order to live. We devote most of our waking lives to trying to obtain money. Our work is devalued by money: if we enjoy working, the pleasure is diminished by the knowledge that we are only really engaging in a sordid transaction—and how many workers hate the miserable work that they are forced to do in order to get money? 

Give it a try: stop selling your labour power for money. You will give up on the test long before three months—or three weeks—or even three days. Most wage slaves are too petrified of losing their jobs—their chance to be bought for money—to even contemplate such an exercise. And rightly so, for under the wages system we are lost if we do not sell ourselves for money. 

Abolish money 
Socialists stand for a world without money. All wealth will be commonly owned, so there will be no body to buy what you need from. The right to live, and to be comfortable and happy, will not depend upon your pocket-book. Freedom will not be costed by accountants who will only give you liberty if you can pay for it. 

In a socialist society people will work according to their abilities and take according to their needs. Who will decide what their needs are? Not their bosses or the state or a cunning advertising industry—none of these will exist. People will decide for themselves. Who but humans ourselves are able to decide what we need? 

There will be no "socialist market". Contrary to the economic babble of certain "theorists" on the Left, it is quite obvious that the market, which is a mechanism for buying and selling commodities and realising a profit for the sellers, will have absolutely no function in a community where nobody is buying or seiling or making profits. In a society where production is solely for use people will have free and equal access to take what they need from the common store. 

Are people capable of living in a society of free access without making a mess of it? Will they take too much? Will they all refuse ever to work? Will they go to sleep for a thousand years and refuse to move a muscle? These are the fears about the nature of human beings that we in this money-mad society are urged to have. Socialists do not share such fears. We know just how co-operative and sharing and intelligent workers are capable of being. After all, we are a party of workers. 

Given a society of moneyless, free access men, women and children will co-operate together to make and to take what they commonly need and desire. They will do so democratically. And we could do so tomorrow if the vision of a moneyless society grabs hold of enough imaginations and penetrates the consciousness of enough of those millions of workers who are currently crying out, openly or quietly to themselves, under the strain of the enormous and often unbearable pressures of the money system. Without money, humans will be free to relate in ways which we have forgotten or only half-remember. The banks can close down, the cash machines put in museums and the children who cry because their parents have too little money to pay for them to grow up can stop. 
Steve Coleman

The Theory of State Capitalism (1992)

From the March 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard 
"The fact of the matter is that the credit for this particular form of state capitalism should go back to the Socialist Party of Great Britain, who taught Jock Haston his Marxism in the first place (cf Against the Stream, p. 251) and had promulgated the theory as far back as 1918. For it was Haston who first raised the question of state capitalism within the Revolutionary Communist Party, not only as a purely Russian phenomenon but in global terms, both in the group's internal bulletin (War and the International, pp. 182-5) and in a series of articles in Socialist Appeal (mid-August to mid-September 1947). In fact Cliff's remit from Mandel when he first came to Britain was specifically to argue against these 'state capitalist' heresies, and what happened was that in the course of the dispute the contestants changed sides. Anyone who wishes to make a serious investigation of the whole topic should consult the above sources, as well as the SPGB's position, which was reissued as a pamphlet in the same year as Cliff first published his own, though we have to admit that Cliff's logic is inferior to theirs, since they dated Russia's capitalist revolution back to 1917."
—from a review of Alex Callinicos's book Trotskyism in Revolutionary History, Autumn 1991.

Political Pathways (2015)

From the July 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard