Friday, July 17, 2015

Confessions of a Baby Boomer (2015)

From the July 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

I couldn’t give a monkey’s about the inheritance tax proposal.  Not to say I have anything against Mr & Mrs Concerned – with tuition fees, housing costs, insecure employment, and poor social services (among other things). It’s a rough world out there and I can see why you’d want to do the best for your kids. I love my kids too, and I don’t want them exposed to the chill winds coming from the future. However I think the best way of future-proofing them doesn’t revolve around petty reforms like this. Unfortunately it is big picture time … or else.

As a baby boomer I’m one of the lucky ones. I and my peers grew up in a world where we were still carried on the tide of the post-war settlement which gave us a reasonably secure place to grow up in. Put aside the cold war (and the proxy third  world war being waged in Vietnam, Angola, etc) and the so-called industrial strife and there was a society which had plenty of jobs with often life-long security giving enough money to meet your needs and a little bit more; there was plenty of council housing; school places for all the children; cheap widespread public transport; predominantly free health service and not too much of a wait for treatment; free higher education with grants (remember those?). We weren’t bombarded with adverts reminding us of our inadequacies, to be solved by material acquisition or bodily adjustments.

I grew up in London where most of my friends were like me – in rented accommodation and none too affluent – and before you ask, about 50 percent  non-white UK. Learning in my first year of secondary school about pollution came as a bit of a shock to me: everything seemed fine so what a shame there was this issue. But despite the fact that it was known about in the late 60s, as we all know nothing of any significant value has been done about it; reckoning was still a long way off. The 60s and 70s, despite what the Tory rewrites of history tell you, were by comparison to today, fairly optimistic times: things did not get really dark until the 80s and Thatcher. Remember, prior to the Falklands and her magnificent PR exercise, hers was the most unpopular government that century, more unpopular than anyone else in the 70s.

Whilst I do think my parents’ generation have things to answer for, I think we possibly have more. What has happened since the 70s? An orgy of consumption, largely fuelled by debt. Surprise surprise, the wheels came off with the banking crisis. Which was then used as an excuse for a rightwing agenda that the Tories had all along: shrink the state and transfer more from the poor to the rich. But I get ahead of myself. What happened in those intervening years? I think we need to go back again, and the question is what happened since the 1945 Attlee government. The massive state welfare edifice they created came about for a number of temporally unique conditions. These include a memory of the 30s and the rise of fascism, both amongst the workers and the rich; a very powerful state able to enact massive change; a disposition of states to spend money; in England at least a cabinet-in-waiting who were able to plan everything in advance of office. Here’s the chance to create a ‘capitalism with an acceptable face’, and whilst I would argue that in fact they did not, nonetheless they created a society which gave us an attenuated version of it: some of the harsh corners had been blunted. Allied to this fact was the existence of the USSR which plainly offered an alternative view of the world; our society couldn’t be that rough as otherwise it might encourage the serfs to go over to the other side.

Reforming capitalism doesn’t work because you haven’t changed the power base. Sooner or later the power of money will reassert itself and this gradually happened over the next 35 years, although it was disguised by the economic growth associated with peacetime expansion and record defence spending. But even in the 70s differentials were not that great. I even recall the Tories arguing that the top rate of tax should be cut because high top rates meant that senior staff asked for greater pay rises as they saw less of it… (as history shows us, cutting the top rate in fact led to the explosion of top pay – greed once allowed knows no bounds, eh?). Labour’s ‘In Place of Strife’, and Heath’s Industrial Relations Act started to erode labour power, i.e. reassert the power of business. Then the Barber boom, leading to the start of the property market boom, and the IMF bail-out, slashing public sector spending – as ever with the IMF –, together with the nationalised industries withering on the vine of bad management and planning, and the clock is going backwards.

Enter Mrs Thatcher with her crusade of sweeping away the ‘nanny state’ and any vestiges of ‘socialism’ – the markets were let off the leash – and how many millions unemployed? The unemployed paid the price; the start of the increasing transfer of wealth from poor to rich and the creation of a large sub-working class. More importantly perhaps was the PR-isation of everything: selling the message that great wealth was nothing to be ashamed of, and poverty was to be sneered at – recall Lord Young: the homeless were something you trod on when you came out of the opera? A return to the Victorian values you can read about in Jayne Eyre and Hard Times.

And just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, the fall of the USSR. Don’t get me wrong I was not a fan: Leninism is a blind alley, as elites breed elites. However it was an alternative of sorts. When it was deservedly placed on the ash heap of history we get Fukuyama and the End of History; the triumph of capitalism… and then all restraint went. Hello debt-fuelled consumer-driven turbo capitalism replete with uber-rich movers and shakers at Davos and Bilderberg and their agents at WTO and GATT and IMF. Well there was never any such thing as society anyway, eh? Everyone for themselves. Spend, spend, spend and get, get, get: that’s the societal mores – the more you get the more you are. (Funny how I have never seen written on an epitaph ‘he had lots of stuff’ or ‘she was soooo wealthy’).

I quite liked the world I grew up in; I felt a kinship with most people I knew. Somehow that seems to have gone. People now seem to come together despite rather than because of the system, often in opposition to it. Game shows, celebs and loads of stuff; junk food and booze and legal highs; porn and more porn and endless pap on the multi-channel TV – 57 channels and nothing on, Springsteen said correctly. Zero hours contracts; poverty wages; housing crisis; student debts; most expensive rail fares in Europe; 4hrs+ waits in A&E; mis-selling PPI, worthless private pensions, and selling your own house to pay for your elderly care. And then there’s the environment.

This is the inheritance that matters; a dysfunctional world which is heading for an environmental disaster; where because of the power of big corporation PR, despite the overwhelming majority of those in the know agreeing about climate change, many of the public – perhaps even a majority – think it’s a con. The sea is become too acidic, our soil denuded of vital nutrients, our world in all senses becoming all used up and wrecked. Also we’re running out of clean water. The thing that tells you all you need to know is that when the North Pole melts due to climate change, instead of that being the alarm bell getting us to stop, business wants to dig it up for oil. Big business will only worry about things when it impacts on profits: the movers and shakers are so ideologically blinkered that they would rather the whole thing came down than they surrendered their power or changed courses - if they think about it at all. Probably too busy enjoying the fruits of enormous wealth.

So let’s stop for a moment and reflect (not popular I know). If you are really worried about your legacy to your children, a bit less tax here or there is tangible and looks nice but you are being sold a pup. With the magnitude of the storm coming their way, it is going to be of slight comfort. If however you reject this entire social structure – if you look to a socialist alternative – you might be bequeathing something of real value to your children and future generations.
Howard Pilott

Obituary: Toby Beasley (1973)

Obituary from the August 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard

"CEASED MEMBERSHIP" in the E.C. reports can stir the memory and bring back times that once were. Last month it was S. Beasley, Hackney, deceased: Toby!

I first met him at Bloom's Corner, bomb-site near teeming Petticoat Lane where we held Sunday-morning meetings. I was down as speaker, this bony little man arrived carrying the platform. Cloth cap, bright eyes, shrill Cockney voice announcing "I'm the chairman". When the meeting flagged he cleared off, came back, said "I'm the heckler now!" and launched a furious knockabout dialogue to bring the crowd back.

Everyone who set eyes on Toby thought they had seen him before. There was a reason for that" his living was selling newspapers in front of Liverpool Street Station. In conversation one always wanted to know more about his background. Once in a lecture I mentioned the Victorian poetess Eliza Cook as having doled out opiate philosophy, and at the end Toby bawled cheerfully: "You've insulted my great-aunt!"

Until age and ill-health got the better of him, Toby was a dedicated regular at the old Hackney Branch. He was, of course, a "character"; he was also a knowledgeable and kindly man, full of fortitude and humour, and many of us will remember him affectionately — his Socialist lifetime enriched our own.
Robert Barltrop 

Left Foot, Right Foot (1990)

From the January 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

Many a premature obituary was provoked by Michael Foot's announcement that he will not be standing for Parliament again. There was no dissension from the opinion that he is a learned, courteous and sincere man. Another thing provoked by the news would be a massive flutter in the ambitious hearts of all who hope to become a Labour MP in the near future, for down in his Blaenau Gwent constituency Tories are like a threatened species and Foot sits on a majority of nearly 28,000. As the late Richard Crossman pointed out in his Backbench Diaries, the comfort of an unassailable majority works wonders for an MP's morale and has a perceptive influence on how the lucky Member views the topics and crises of the day. Whoever gets the Blaenau Gwent nomination will be one of the most comfortable and morale-full in the Commons. 

But back to those obituaries, which said so many nice things about Foot, among them that he will be sadly missed in Westminister not just for his sincerity and courtesy but also because he is something called a "great parliamentarian". It is clear that "great parliamentarians" are pretty rare in all sorts of ways, for example a left-winger like Foot can be one and so can a right-winger like Enoch Powell. In fact between these two, who in theory should be sworn enemies until the end of time, there has long existed a state of mutual admiration. "He speaks beautiful English", said Powell of Foot. "The greatest master of clear exposition of British post-1945 politics", wrote Foot of Powell. Perhaps on the principle that it is not what you say that counts but how elegantly you say it, Great Parliamentarians stick together, offering the kind of speeches which bring MPs flocking from the tea-room and the bar. They know a lot about parliament's history and its arcane procedural devices. They deeply respect its power to uphold the private property system on the basis of popular votes from the working class. The question is, whose advantage does this serve and what is its relevance in the case of the soon-to-be-ex-Member for Blaneau Gwent?  

Accustomed pose 
Except for those who are aware of how capitalist politics tames its rebels—in the case of the Labour Party, moving them smoothly from left to right—it is strange to recall the revulsion which Foot once provoked, in his own party as well as among its opponents. Only Aneurin Bevan was considered to be wilder and more threatening among the bogey-men who would nationalise everything in sight and so undermine the nation's morals that not a single Knightsbridge nanny would be safe. Foot was among the most restless and damaging of the critics of the Attlee government after the war, a moving influence in the operations of the Tribune Group which was named after the gadfly journal of which he became editor in 1948. 

From the time when he was first elected to parliament in 1945 until he became a Cabinet minister in the 1974 Labour government Foot could be relied on, whenever the Labour Party were under pressure to accept some inconvenient reality of capitalism, to strike his accustomed pose as the incorruptible guardian of Labour's virtue. He usually did this with some passion. which impressed those who agreed with him. At the 1959 Labour Conference, for example, when the party were being forced by their third successive defeat at a general election to consider how many of their supposedly eternal and cherished principles they should abandon if they were not to suffer yet another mauling at the polls. Foot came to the rostrum to defend nationalisation to, according to the Guardian, "a tremendous roar of applause". At their 1960 Conference, in the debate on nuclear disarmament when Gaitskell promised to fight and fight and fight again, Foot "was given a clapping, stamping, cheering ovation as he took the microphone". When the Labour whip was withdrawn from him, over the same issue of unilateralism, in 1961 it served only to reinforce the adoration in which he was held by Labour's tireless left-wingers. Here, they drooled, was a man who could always be trusted, a steadfast martyr in the defence of what they imagined were the principles of socialism.  

In fact from the beginning Foot showed evidence that he was a lot more selective and flexible in his principles and his concern for working class interests. During his first spell as editor of Tribune (1948-52) the journal was critical of the Attlee government but as long as Bevan was a member of that government Tribune gave it general support. This stance caused it to support a number of obviously anti-working class measures, among them the NATO pact (the formal recognition of a nuclear-armed, European power bloc, dominated by American capitalism and aimed at Russian expansionism), the Berlin airlift (in response to an attempt by Russian capitalism to strengthen its position in Eastern Europe), and Britain joining the Korean War (a defence of the interests of western capitalism, in particular of America and Britain, against a threatened incursion by a developing capitalism in China). Anyone professing to be concerned with working class interests and with the international unity of the workers—especially anyone editing an influential journal like Tribune—had no argument for taking the side of any of the capitalist powers. They should have pointed out the nature of the conflicts and their underlying cause. They should have urged workers everywhere, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, to stay out of the disputes of their ruling classes and instead work for world-wide working class solidarity for socialism.  

Of course, Foot joined CND and was one of the few bigwigs to actually to complete the Easter march, as distinct from joining it briefly at a place chosen for its photo opportunity. His rebellious stand against those bits of Labour policy which he found it inconvenient to support landed him in frequent trouble with the whips. According to Castle, in June 1966 he was complaining that the Wilson government should have applied a "soak the rich" budget policy and that people like judges and doctors should have had a pay cut while the seamen (who were in dispute with the Labour government over their wages) had a good cause. In February 1968 he was willing to risk a defeat for the government rather than support their proposed expenditure cuts which, among other things, abolished free milk in secondary schools. As a result there was a general assumption that Foot would never be a member of any government, that he would never sell his principles in exchange for office. 

Minister of Unemployment 
However in the 1970s it became apparent that Foot was not, after all, entirely lacking in ambition. He stood three times for the Deputy Leadership before, in 1974, he became a minister. By that time he was re-established as an MP, after inheriting the old seat at Ebbw Vaie of his hero Bevan. To bring Foot into the Cabinet was a typically Wilsonian masterstroke. After the three-day-week chaos of Heath's battle with the miners, who better to put in charge of the Department of Employment with the clear and simple brief of buying the miners' return to work? Wilson was trading on Foot's reputation with the grass-roots and, whether Foot was aware of it or not, the ruse worked. 

Two years later Wilson's successor as Prime Minister, Callaghan, pulled yet another stroke when he made Foot leader of the House of Commons. At other times this would have seemed the unlikeliest of alliances; Foot had once called his new boss PC Callaghan and Callaghan had been in favour of Foot's expulsion from the party. Those were difficult days for the Labour government as they struggled to weather some typical economic storms and to hold down wages, without the security of a reliable majority. It then became clear that Foot was not only a "great parliamentarian" but also a master of Commons procedure and of bending the rules in order to push through unpopular legislation. One trick he used to get approval for some cuts in expenditure was to make them the subject of a vote on the adjournment, the idea being that a defeat would have been interpreted as a rejection of the adjournment and not of the cuts. In 1978 Foot traded an extension of homosexual law reform—a concept which should have been dear to his libertarian heart—for the votes of the Ulster Unionists.

The difficulties of that government were largely those of holding back the wage claims which came in a flood after the years of restraint under Heath. Labour's restraint had a different name; it was called a Pay Code and there were guidelines (that is, before the attempts at imposing the policy by law). The most active proponent of the government in its battles with the workers was Callaghan's Leader of the Commons, described by Castle as "more rigid than Jim Callaghan was in his Chancellor days". Obsessed with the need to keep in power a government which was industriously attacking working class living standards, Foot applied his ability to defuse and divert criticism. Castle recorded, whether in wonder or outrage is not clear, that at the 1975 Tribune rally Foot "even managed to make the pay policy sound like a socialist crusade". He did not manage to work the sane trick over unemployment, to make being out of work sound like a crusade; which was just as well because during his time as Secretary of State for Employment unemployment doubled. 

The Voters' Judgement 
When it came time for the voters to pass judgement on that Labour government it was clear that they did not have the same order of priorities as Foot. But was there really any need for the Labour Party to become so unhinged by their defeat as to elect Foot as their leader—as they hoped—for next Prime Minister? Was this what all those years of passionate rebellion had been for? Looked at in terms of the ugly game of capitalist politics this was arguably one of the most unwise decisions ever made, for whatever qualities Foot had they did not match up to what is considered necessary in a political leader. But Foot could not be accused of not trying; the aptitude for manoeuvring he showed in trying to keep his party In power was just as evident when he was trying to get them back in again. At the 1981 Labour Conference he assured cheering delegates that "nothing that I've seen persuades me that CND was wrong". But any hopes among Labour's unilateralists that at last they had a leader who would see to it that the British forces scrapped their nuclear weapons were soon dashed. Fifteen months later Foot was telling the Guardian (6 December 1982) that CND's policy of immediate unilateral nuclear disarmament was, if not wrong, then only something for a vague future: "We want to move towards a non-nuclear defence programrne". 

At the 1981 Conference, in a typical splurge of rhetoric, he described himself as "a peacemonger, an inveterate incurable peacemonger" but by the outbreak of the Falklands War in the following April his peacemongering had been cured enough for him to swallow the specious Tory propaganda about the war being in resistance to brutal Argentinian aggression and their repression of the islanders, assuring Thatcher in the Commons: 
"It is because I subscribe to that principle (sic) that I support the despatch of the task force". 
The militancy of his peacemongering was also measured by the revelation from the odious Robin Day that Foot had approved the sinking of the Belgrano which, as it cost the lives of a few hundred Argentinian rather than British workers, was not classified in this country as an act of brutal aggression. 

Foot's cynical groping for power came to its peak in the 1983 election when he enjoyed himself stumping the country, making fiery speeches to packed halls but not meeting with the approval of the image-conscious pros of his party. His legendary scruffiness had always been tolerated, for example by Callaghan who thought "that it springs from his unspoken assumption that these are but the trappings and that a man should be judged by the sincerity and passion of his convictions". How then should we judge Foot's submission to the image-makers who strove to create a more acceptable, a more voter-friendly appearance for him, barbering his hair, dressing him in smart suits and even replacing his famous spectacles with their blinkers with a more telegenic pair? It was, politically speaking, not a pretty sight and of course did not win the votes because Labour's defeat at that election was their heaviest since 1931. 

Squalid scene 
And what of Foot since he relinquished the leadership for the more easeful life of a back-bencher with a solidly comforting majority? Has he been reborn as a fanatical lefty, a looming threat to the tea-rooms of Bournemouth and Tunbridge Wells? Since he was succeeded by Neil Kinnock (who in his younger days as a left-wing rebel was a protégé of Foot's) the Labour Party has been trying, as much to Foot's dismay it had done in 1959 to look as much like the Tories as it can. Once again they are debasing what the membership are supposed to cherish as immutable principles without which there is no reason to be in politics. In 1983 the party at least professed to have a timescale, however loose, for running down British nuclear weapons; now there is no such thing. They have abandoned the policy of "squeezing the rich" through taxation and replaced it with vague discussion of "fair" taxation (as if it matters either way). To the trade unions they offer no commitment to scrap all the restrictive Tory legislation but float the idea of a "balanced package" which is another name for the Social Contract, Pay Code and all other such attempts to restrain pay claims. Whatever opposition to these changes there has been in the Labour Party it has not been warmed by any incendiary words from Foot. He has sat mute and compliant and when the time comes he will undoubtedly give the whole disreputable exercise his active support, in speeches which will convince the disappointed Labour supporters that anti-working class policies are steps towards the Promised Land when all people will be free and equal. 

Michael Foot is not unique, for there have been many other Labour leaders who have first established their credentials as heroes of the grass-roots and then exploited their popularity to justify policies which were clearly opposed to what they claimed to stand for. This is part of the continuing process in which the working class are deceived that this social system, and its political parties, do not have to be as they are but could be better under a different government, under more humane leaders. This is among the most dangerous of illusions, for it conceals the urgency of abolishing capitalism, at once and entirely. Foot is soon to leave this squalid scene and he has no cause to be proud of his contribution to it. 

The end of Fukuyama (1990)

From the December 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

A wise and confident-looking face gazes at us from beneath an article in the Guardian (7 September). The face is that of Francis Fukuyama, a consultant to the US State Department and the Rand Corporation. The article is his defence of his own essay 'The End of History', published last December. 

Fukuyama starts by complaining that he has been misunderstood. Critics have pointed to such events as the fall of the Berlin Wall and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait as evidence that he is wrong and history is not over. He explains that what he thinks is over is not "history" but merely "the history of ideas" and that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the overthrow of "communism" in Eastern Europe only back up his main argument that "liberal democracy is the only legitimate ideology left in the world". 

This type of thinking is not new. During the 1930s fascist and communist parties were convinced that "decadent democracy" was finished and would be replaced by their own creed. Fukuyama is as wrong now as they were then, but at least Hitler only gave the Third Reich a thousand years while he sees liberal democracy lasting for ever.

Ideology and war
We are also informed that the triumph of liberal democracy has been accompanied by "the victory of market principles, of market organisation" and that these two factors will lead to the creation of more and more liberal democracies practising free-market and free-trade economies and all living in harmony. The proof is that 
in the 200 or so years that modem liberal democracies have existed there is not one single instance of one liberal democracy lighting another.
According to Fukuyama the conflict between nations during most of this century 
was due to existence of serious ideological cleavages among the great powers, between liberalism on the one hand and fascism and communism on the other.
If Fukuyama's article in the Guardian had appeared on April 1st then it would have been taken for a joke, but he is serious. He actually believes that different political ideas are what produced World War Two, the Cold War, Korea, and so on. That these events were connected with the disputes between national ruling groups over such matters as control of markets, spheres of influence and vital raw materials has completely eluded him. 

For example, would America and Japan have gone to war if Japan hadn't threatened American interests in the Pacific? Of course not, their different political systems didn't matter one bit. Liberal democracies and dictatorships can co-exist very well so long as their interests do not seriously clash. Look at how Britain could for decades happily describe fascist Portugal as "our oldest ally". 

But even if the liberal democracies haven't fought one another this is only because they didn't need to, having agreed to carve up the world among themselves. Britain, France and the USA industrialised early and needed markets and raw materials for their mighty industries. The first two between them grabbed most of Africa and large parts of Asia while Central and South America were left to the USA. 

This carve-up, and not ideological squabbles, also explains why from 1939 to 1945 the big liberal democracies engaged in war with dictatorships, or to be more accurate, those which felt strong enough to muscle in on them. Italy and Japan were late to industrialise and thus to colonise, while Germany had lost its colonies and markets through defeat in World War One, so each of them had considerable ground to make up. The only way open to them, once diplomacy and threats had failed, was by military means. 

Is liberal democracy secure? 
What has also eluded Fukuyama is the glaring evidence that many nations cannot simply become, or even remain, liberal democracies just because they wish to. This depends on whether or not it is acceptable to the powerful liberal democracies, especially the USA. Remember the fate of Chile, Latin America's oldest liberal democracy, in 1973 when it offended US capitalism. True the US Marines were not sent in to crush it but the local military were. 

Nor are free-trade policies open to all, as Fukuyama supposes. These same powerful liberal democracies often ensure that the exports of under-developed countries are faced with the very trade barriers which they claim to oppose. Chile's Minister of Finance has welcomed George Bush's plan for a free-trade zone covering the entire Western Hemisphere but added
Unfortunately, many countries of the world—including the US—do not always reflect in their actions the free-trade gospel they preach. (The Wall Street Journal 14 September). 
So Fukuyama's vision of the future is of liberal democracies, including the great powers, settling down to "peaceful" competition. Yes, they may well fight with undemocratic countries but will make only economic war on one another. Great power status will depend, he says, not on the ability to move armed forces around the world but on remaining competitive by growing and innovating. The main threat a united, liberal democratic Germany will pose
will take the form of precision machine tools and high-quality Mercedes rather than Panzers.
Isn't that reassuring! But wait, what will be the response of the USA or some other great power if, say, Germany and/or Japan become too competitive? Will they simply accept a disastrous loss of markets and power with a philosophic shrug? History shows that free-trade is something nations support only when it is to their advantage. And what will be the response of the populace in those great powers should mass unemployment and falling living standards come in the wake of economic defeat? Dictatorships can certainly become liberal democracies but the reverse can just as easily happen in a situation such as this. 

Fukuyama's view of the world is a naive and simplistic one as it ignores the Marxist view that capitalism, because of its never ending need for expansion and capitaI accumulation, is rooted in conflict. In the last resort the way for nations to settle their irreconcilable differences must be through armed force or at least the threat of it. This applies no matter what form of government or economics happens to be in vogue. 

The history of ideas has not ended but is, and must be, a continuing process. Ideologies will persist and the old ideas which Fukuyama thinks are dead will probably come round again just as, incidentally, long-discarded free-market economics have done. Indeed only three days after his own article appeared there were two others in the Guardian arguing for more regulation in banking and more government spending! 

In whatever way future events unfold we can be sure that Francis Fukuyama's wise and confident expression will be replaced by one of pained bewilderment as his unsound theory is exposed. We are even surer that far from Marx's socialist idea having been ended, its day has still to come. 
Vic Vanni