Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Flintstones (1967)

From the March 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard

Often during the evening the main, even only, TV programme of interest to the work-wearied are animated cartoons. And of these, the Flintstones series were sure fire entertainers, wherein we come face to face (cartoon wise), with our past as interpreted by the prevailing outlook. Here too we saw vindicated our own secret, rebellious thoughts when young. We heard high placed dignitaries spoken of as "the big poobas"; we saw the nasty boss man getting a poke on the nose. And we rejoiced in the boisterous debunking of all authority.

These cartoon characters, happily, are indestructable (rather like those metaphysical phantasies or theological hobgoblins of Good and Evil), for they are continuously taking one hell of a beating and instantly returning undamaged and looking for more punishment.

So after a day of hard yakka (work) at our place of employment we turned on TV and watched the antics of the Flintstones. Who was there who did not feel an instant affinity with Fred Flintstone when he, with unrestrained ringing exultation, yelled out, "Yabba-Dabber-Do" upon hearing the exquisite sound of the knocking-off whistle? Who has not secretly wished for the audacity to reveal their own overwhelming relief upon hearing the same sweet, intoxicating sound? Instead we carefully smother a sigh of relief, then meekly and in conformity we tread our way out of our pen and wearily wend our way homewards, or to temporary forgetfullness in other ways.

Even granting all these fleeting moments of delights and simple pleasures with the one-eyed square the cartoons, alas, contain the nauseous worm of corruption. The Flintstones depicted Stone Age society, in its economic foundation, as being identical with modern society; ideologically a similar identity was also claimed for it. It was assumed that commodity production—and therefore capitalism—was the economic system of the Stone Age. Aside from the obvious overlaying of modern techniques (TV, motor cars, telephones, etc), upon the Stone Age methods of labour, tools and social life (which all aids the humour of these cartoons situation), there went the subtler propaganda of the apparent timelessness of the money economy. Everything was depicted as bought and sold.

Labour power, it would appear, naturally was as much a commodity to be bought and sold during the Stone Age as it is today. Fred Flintstone was depicted as a stone quarry labourer working for a "Company". Long before human society had developed labour productivity sufficient to support a parasite class, Fred Flintstone was portrayed as being dependent upon the personal whims of his boss for his continued employment and livelihood; and his mythical boss was likewise portrayed, in his turn, as dependent upon local and world markets for the sale of his commodities and profits.

Cartoons must of course be allowed their share of what is pompously known as artistic licence. The Flintstones used it to poke fun at modern working class conditions. How many workers, as they laughed, took time out to realise who was on the end of the joke?
Peter Furey
Melbourne, Australia

The Socialist Ideal (1923)

From the July 1923 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Socialist is accustomed to being accused, alternately, of being an "impractical idealist" and a "gross and sordid materialist," often by the same person in almost the same breath. What truth is there in these contradictory charges? Let us see!

The Socialist proposes a fundamental change in the social order. He desires to realise a state of affairs at present existing only as a general idea in his mind. He denies that Capitalism is the final achievement of the human race. Undoubtedly, then, he possesses an ideal, a hope to strive for. But does this make him an idealist, and an impractical one at that?

When a man, feeling hungry, conceives a desire for his dinner, no one thinks of him as a hero, although men have, from time to time, performed deeds of valour, and even given up life in the quest of that same dinner. Similarly, when a group of men set about building a house, or a battleship, they interfere with "nature," upset the existing state of affairs in the particular sphere in which they are engaged in order to change "the actual," and realise an idea. Yet, time was when houses and battleships were beyond the range of human thought. Are they then miracles? By no means: Men, in the struggle for life, have increased their knowledge of their material environment and, consequently, their capacity to change it.

The realisation of the Socialist ideal does not demand the operation of any unknown or supernatural force. On the one hand, we have the workers capable of producing all the desirable objects of human existence; on the other, the means whereby they can do so, the land and the machines, the latter the products of labour. The Socialist proposes that these two indispensable factors of social life, the workers and the instruments of labour, shall become united legally, as they are industrially. That is to say, that just as the workers operate the instruments in question, so they shall also own them, in common for the common good.

In this proposal there is no suggestion that material things should be forgotten. On the contrary, they are held to be of supreme importance. The Socialist trusts to no divine illumination, nor miraculous "change of heart." He sees the wants of his fellow-workers, and he sees abundant means for their satisfaction. What is there superhuman about bringing them together?

Let us consider the obstacles. To commence with, the land and the machines are at present the property of a small class of people. By reason of this fact, this class is on a position to enjoy the fruits of social labour without taking part in the process. A natural desire to continue the habits of congenital laziness so fostered is sufficient to induce this class to resist any change in the distribution of property in the means whereby they live. For the purpose of making as effective a resistance as possible,  this class has developed and entrenched itself behind the machine known as the State, which directs and controls certain unanswerable arguments in favour of things as they are in the shape of guns, ammunition, etc., plus the human and mechanical means of using the same. This is the principal active obstacle.

In addition, there exists the passivity of the workers, their failure to grasp the cause, nay, even the fact, of their enslavement. This second obstacle, negative though it may appear, is even more important that the first. Were it not for the acquiescence of the workers the master class would be destitute of slaves to do their bidding in the fields and factories, at the ballot-box, or behind the guns. The initial task of the Socialist, therefore, is to arouse the workers, to inspire them with revolutionary discontent, and to provide them with a clear understanding of the facts of their position. Herein is recognised the real and practical importance of the idea.

The capitalist objector to Socialism sees in this the degradation of the idea. Nothing suits him better than to keep matter and mind, fact and thought, in water-tight compartments. Let the workers keep their minds on a God who is intangible, or on boxers or horses, whom they rarely, if ever see, on anything, in fact, but the "gross and sordid" economic world which matters so much. Let the, fill their heads with notions of brotherly love for their masters, and of hatred for imaginary enemies beyond the seas. Let them put their feet in the clouds and stand on their heads. That is the capitalist idea of "practical idealism!"

The Socialist does not shrink from the charge of materialism; but to him there is no necessity to separate mind from matter. He recognises no metaphysical distinctions and antagonisms between the subjective and objective aspects of reality. He regards mental processes as essentially part of the general process of human life, inextricably bound up with its environment and sharing the same material composition. There is one world only, not two.

The Socialist, therefore, applies his mind to the solution of the material problems around him, viz., want in the midst of plenty, wealth for the idlers, and misery for the toilers. The terms "gross and sordid" apply, not to the man who appreciates and revolts against the existing, but to the system itself. The idealist seeks to give us "beautiful ideas." The ugly facts are left to take care of themselves. The Socialist, however, proclaims the necessity, not merely for thought, but action. The sytem must be changed, and we the workers must change it!

How? By the removal of the obstacles. By removing the capitalist class from control: first, of the political machine, the State; secondly, of the means of wealth production.

And the outcome of the change? Just imagine, fellow-workers, if you can, yourselves in possession of the earth and the giant instruments of labour, which you and the rest of your class have produced! Would you toil till you had exhausted your energy in order that the few might run riot in luxury; while you pinched and scraped and made shift with insufficient food, shoddy clothes, ugly and cramped houses, and no leisure to speak of in which to enjoy the fruits of your toil? Would you rest content in ignorance of the universe around you chock-full as it is of interest and fascination for the human mind? Would you support the lackeys of oppression and superstition, the lawyer-politicians and the parsons? Would you, free men and women, leave it to them to legalise and sanctify your loves, or to punish and condemn you for your hates? Nay! would you not rather rise at last to some approach to human dignity? Would you not lay claim to the heritage to which you now in vain aspire—health, enlightenment and happiness?

Fellow-workers, the road is clear if you would but open your eyes and look! If you would but use the same energy and intelligence in your own interest that you waste in the service of those who abuse, exhaust and poison your bodies, and starve and ridicule your minds. Can you not display the same enthusiasm for your own needs and desires as you do for those of the class which despises and humiliates you?

These masters! these "educated people!" what have they done for you? You, who plough and sow, quarry and mine, build and lay tracks, spin and weave! What have they done, these your "superiors", with the wealth and power which you in your ignorance have placed and left in their hands? The rude vigour of your ancestors is gone; disease, insidious and relentless, stalks unchecked among you. The machine "saves labour" by taking the bread from your mouths.

Is there a family among you that escaped paying some toll in the four years' carnage so readily forgotten and forgiven?

Yet, it only needs good food, fresh air and rational enjoyment to cure disease! It only needs organisation to apportion the world's work equitably, and abolish simultaneously, drudgery and idleness! Mutual understanding on the part of the workers of the world is all that is necessary to banish war and the fear of war!

But the task has been too much for your masters. These "captains of industry," self-styled, have failed to wring life from nature for you. Is it too much, fellow-workers, to do it for yourselves?
Eric Boden 

Revisiting Marx (1998)

Book Review from the April 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

Reflections on Marx's Critique of Political Economy. Collectivities, Faridabad, India, 1997

This 48-page A4 pamphlet produced by a "council communist" group in India focuses on five elements of Marxian economics although the authors prefer to use the term "Marx's critique of political economy". This is specifically what Marx wrote as the subtitle of Capital and is in large part what he set out to provide. However, in elaborating this critique he went beyond a mere criticism of bourgeois economics and developed his own analysis of how the capitalist system actually works--or, as he put it--of "the laws of motion of the capitalist system of production". The five elements discussed here--each with its own chapter--are Marx's basic characterisation of capital; the extent of the domination of the capitalist mode of production; the significance of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall; the problem of extended reproduction; and monopoly capitalism and imperialism.

The coherence of the analysis offered in each chapter varies. The best is the last one where the position of revolutionaries is taken up unequivocally against the Leninists who have attached themselves to the Marxian framework this century while in reality abandoning the working class viewpoint and supporting "anti-imperialist" states against imperialist powers and proclaiming the so-called "right of nations to self-determination".

Unfortunately some of the specifically economic analysis in the other four chapters is less good. There is an odd chapter denying that there is any tendency at all for the average rate of profit to fall in capitalism, argued principally on the strength of a misreading of a passage in Volume Three of Capital about the effect of the growth of joint-stock companies on the rate of profit. This is a point answered comprehensively enough by another council communist type group called Internationalist Perspectives in the latest edition of their journal.

The main problem though with this pamphlet is its seeming insistence that the cause of capitalist crises is the inability of the working class and capitalist class combined to buy back the entire product of industry. This is a dangerous theory to hold, on two grounds. One is that it explicitly leads to the view that capitalism is somehow going to collapse as a mode of production, thus encouraging crude determinism and a fatalism within the working class movement. The other is that it is simply, and demonstrably, incorrect.

In essence the view Collectivities put forward here appears to be the one elaborated by Rosa Luxemburg in her work The Accumulation of Capital, published in 1914. In this theory, the growth (and survival) of "pure" capitalism is impossible as it is unable to realise on its markets all the value that has been added in the sphere of production; hence capitalist growth is only possible when a non-capitalist periphery exists for the system to use as a source of additional markets. This is an argument based on a complete misreading of Marx's reproduction schemas for both "simple" and "extended" reproduction. Indeed, Marx himself furnished the theoretical disproof of this view that growth in "pure" capitalism would be impossible, in Chapter 49 of Volume Three of Capital.

However, fundamentally the disproof of this theory is practical rather than just theoretical, based on the actuality of capitalist development this century. If growth in "pure" capitalism or at least something near to "pure" capitalism is impossible, the system just wouldn't have been able to expand the forces of production in the way that it has been doing. If capitalism has been in a state of market saturation for decades (and according to Luxemburg as far back as 1914) its long-term growth in the years since would have been impossible. And, although its rate of expansion has slowed in recent years, it has still continued to enjoy considerable long-term growth ever since Luxemburg wrote--and without selling sizeable quantities of commodities to undeveloped non-capitalist areas of the planet (if anything the opposite has been the case--it has attempted to plunder the small remaining non-capitalist periphery, rather than attempt to sell products to people with no money to buy them anyway).

Frankly, the idea that a serious revolutionary organisation locating itself in the Marxian tradition can still hold this view is more than faintly ridiculous. But it does illustrate another key problem with this pamphlet. Though there is much to commend it, from its definition of capitalism as a world system based on the exploitation of wage labour through to its largely excellent analysis of imperialism, it tends to lack a grounding in some of the realities of contemporary capitalist production. There are, for instance, in several thousand words of text, very few statistics or references to back-up what are sometimes rather grandiose and sometimes over-confidently stated claims. Interestingly, Collectivities claim that "obsession with the significance of the rate of profit and its tendency to fall in the present results in very sad and shabby attempts in force-fitting data to outdated concepts". Unfortunately, this equally applies to Collectivities own "market saturation" view of capitalist crises, for which--conveniently--they do not bother to provide any data at all.

The Postmodern Marx? (1999)

Book Review from the April 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Postmodern Marx by Terrell Carver, Manchester University Press, 1998.

Carver, Professor of Political Theory at the University of Bristol, wants us to take seriously the techniques of textual and narrative analysis within what he calls "a mild form of postmodernism". By treating Marx's work as an open text, with "multiple Marxes" and no authoritative version of Marx or Marxism, this is said to encourage further critical engagement between the reader and Marx. Above all, the chief concern is to avoid dogmatic "closure" in terms of what to think about Marx.

We in the Socialist Party have some disagreements with Marx, but more often than not, just very different interpretations of Marx than the usual academic interpretations and total opposition to the regimes around the world which claim to be Marxist. To our critics (on the left especially) this position is sometimes portrayed as idiosyncratic. Yet Carver and our critics oversimplify: between Carver's almost anything goes and the dogma of the leader-fixated Left the Socialist Party has to work for consensus in a democratic, leaderless organisation with a shared socialist objective. In the Socialist Party each member has to come to terms with what Marx said, but any implementation depends on democratic agreement being reached. 

The Postmodern Marx?
Controversially, Carver argues that Marx was a philosophical idealist (the view that concepts construct or determine reality) and subscribed to methodological individualism (the analysis and explanation of the actions of socially constructed individuals). He is factually incorrect in saying socialism is a stage between capitalism and communism; Marx simply did not make that distinction. However, Carter is quite clear that the former "Marxist" dictatorships of Eastern Europe had no claim on Marx "because they never abolished money nor even attempted to secure any genuine break, voluntary or otherwise, with the history of commodification" and if the advocates of "market socialism [sic] intend to accept the monetary economy, however cooperativised and democratised, then they had better come clean as social democrats and welfare liberals" and not as socialists. Because: "if we have money, we have to deal with the characteristic dynamics of capitalist or so-called market societies, and socialist ideals are necessarily incompatible with this." This is so very true, but it does rather contradict the whole point of this book.

Incidentally, Carver recounts an acquaintance between Andrew Johnson, a translator of art books, and Marx. In October 1852 Marx wrote to Engels: "If you have to write to me on important matters, do it under the address: A. Johnson, Esq., Bullion Office, Bank of England." What a wonderful (postmodernist?) irony that Marx should want to use the Bank of England as a postal drop.
Lew Higgins

Before Adam (2002)

Book Review from the July 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

'Before Adam' by Jack London, University of Nebraska Press. $12

Jack London's tale of prehistoric men (sic) has recently been reissued after many years of out-of-printness. Like most of his books it is a “good yarn” in Boys Own style. However it is also of interest since London has been claimed as a socialist.

Much of the commentary accompanying the novel revolves around the ways in which London got it wrong or right about the behaviour of prehistoric people. But conformity to the facts has never been a requirement for a novel about prehistory. As William Golding of The Inheritors discovered half a century later, the prehistoric tale is an open field for a bit of agit-prop about human nature. We know what Golding was up to but we might view London in a different light due to his ostensible Left sympathies.

However, in essence London practises the old Flinstones technique: his Folk, roughly equivalent to what we would call Australopithecines, are modern men (but stupider) in pre-modern conditions; they are monogamous, patriarchal, blood-thirsty, murderous and genocidal. By relating these qualities in a Hobbesian state of nature setting, London makes them become innate rather than a product of particular economic and social circumstances. The “naturalness” of the genocide which they practise must have had particular resonance in early 20th century America vis-à-vis the extermination of the native “Red Indians” which London himself always thought was the natural outcome of a competition between a ”superior” race and an “inferior” one.

For Golding human nature could only be mitigated by religion. London however reveals his preference: the state. In explaining the Folk's inaction in dealing with a murderer he explains that they “had not yet developed any government to speak of” whereas, in fact, existing stateless societies have a good record of dealing with anti-social behaviour such as murder.

This book, despite its seeming irrelevance, gives a good insight into London's real political views and explains why he can be viewed as an early proto-fascist rather than as a socialist.