Monday, August 24, 2015

Dystopia (2012)

Book Review from the May 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

Intrusion by Ken MacLeod. (Orbit 2012)

The science-fiction author John Wyndham was known for his novels about the “comfy apocalypse”, where great catastrophes would wipe out all the “wrong” sort of people and lead to a renewed existence.  Ken MacLeod presents us with what could be called a comfy dystopia, where by intricate layers of pressure and compulsion a government forces people to do what it judges to be in their best interest - whether they want to or not.

The novel focuses on Hope, a woman who refuses to take “the fix” – a genetic medicine pill designed to correct any genetic defects in her unborn infant.  Everyone agrees it is in the best interest of the child and totally safe.  Yet, she still refuses, and refuses to give reasons for her refusal.  The “social and free” society cannot tolerate such a refusal in ways that are reminiscent of the totalitarian village of sixties TV show ‘The Prisoner’ (where Number Six refuses to say why he resigned from espionage).

The novel details the way in which people implement their own imprisonment (placing cameras throughout their own homes to protect them from accusations of abusing their children, for example) and how their compliance is used against them.  It is a skilful account of the ways in which surveillance technology and the erosion of civil liberties could be used to control people.  Grimly, it also shows how a sense of solidarity and of wanting to do well by our fellows can be used against us: time and again Hope is urged to comply for the sake of others, for her doctor’s insurance ratings, for the other kids at school and, ultimately, for the child in her womb.

What makes the story particularly chilling is that it is so mundane, the incidents so everyday.  There are no grand heroics or statements of high ideals, there are simply people trying to live under conditions of a claustrophobic paternalism.  It deploys a touch of SF magic, though, to suggest, ambivalently, that the outcome of such submission and control might be a form of civilisation-ending nihilism.  

The tale roots itself in contemporary preoccupations, sometimes taking a reductio ad absurdum, slippery-slope view to suggest, for example, a future fear of fourth-hand smoking.  It illustrates how, when the cheapening of the means of policing is coupled with populist demands for someone to ‘do something’ and for information to be used against people whether or not they are formally convicted, can lead to levels of control undreamt of by the old totalitarian states.  In this, it shows how technology is a dual-edged tool that can enslave as well as liberate.

Man's degradation (1963)

From the September 1963 issue of the Socialist Standard

"Degradation! What degradation?"

The neatly-dressed grey-haired woman at the edge of the lunch-time crowd at Tower Hill had seemed genuinely surprised at the use of such a word by our speaker to describe her  condition and that of the other office workers listening to him. Engrossed in his topic, he had not heard her interjection; she had not pressed her point; and so it had been lost.

The scene came back to my mind some weeks later, when I found myself with time to kill in a suburb of Nottingham. I had called in the morning at the house of a comrade—only to find that he was out. As it was a lengthy bus-ride back to the centre of the city and I had no other commitments, I had decided to await his return. The local branch of the Public Library was in a pleasant, spacious building, furnished with some imagination, and it was well stocked. An hour or two passed in browsing.

I had already had a cup of coffee and a sandwich at the only cafe in the district, and did not in any case feel like a hot meal on this warm summer day. I decided to buy some fruit and sit outside somewhere in the sunshine to eat it. I was soon looking for a small park or road side seat with perhaps a patch of grass around it. Half an hour later I was still looking, having walked up and down almost every street I could see.

I began to realise that I had been brought face to face with a fact which the everyday familiarity of the suburban scene normally causes one to overlook: that with rare exceptions, suburbs have nowhere for the passing stranger to sit. They have parks, commons, recreation grounds, yes—but these are usually some distance from the centre of the district, and are provided for specifically recreational purposes. The neighbourhood as such makes no provision for the stranger. If he is lucky he may find a Public Library in which to pass his time; otherwise he must pay for the space he occupies, by buying something to eat or drink.

That this is a fact I was able to confirm several times over in other parts of the country; and anyone can see it in most of the suburbs he knows. But it is more than a curious fact; and it is certainly no coincidence. We have all around us, the first kind of human community in history which makes no collective provision for the traveller. The village has its green, with a seat or two; the most primitive and the most transient of past human settlements considered it a general duty to greet a stranger (unless he were believed to be hostile) and offer him hospitality. How it is that this small but age-old community function has been able to disappear almost unnoticed from the typical dwelling-area of the affluent society?

The answer can only be that these areas are not communities at all, in any but a shadowy and nominal sense. The local-authority housing estate or the collection of private "desirable residences" is not built for human beings to live together in; it is an aggregation of living-boxes for the purveyors of labour-power—places to and from which they can be shuttled before or after making their energies available to the owners of capital.

So conditioned are workers to capitalism that they have come to accept this state of affairs as normal and natural, and can usually think of improvement in their mode of living only in terms of getting a bigger box with a bigger bit of land around it. The house-builders, concerned only with the profit to be obtained from their operations, find this all to their advantage: far more money is to be made from putting up mazes of indistinguishable dwelling-units for the Council, or from selling the featureless semi-detached to the socially isolated white-collar worker, than could possibly accrue from creating a well-planned community with adequate amenities. The social expense, in loneliness, neurosis and the sense of leading a meaningless, frustrating existence, does not hit the builder's pocket or affect the Councillor's political security.

The woman in the Tower Hill crowd probably lived in just such an area; yet she did not see that it involved her in a degradation of human existence. It is just possible that she had an enjoyable, useful, meaningful job; but if she did she was fortunate. The degradation of having to devote our talents and our powers of concentration to boring or ultimately futile activities was presumably no more to her than the inevitable daily round of everyone's life.

This is, perhaps, the ultimate degradation itself of the working class; that they are induced to believe that the kinds of lives they lead, the houses they live in, the clothes they wear, the work they do and the way they travel to and from it, represent the best that any reasonable person could hope for. Yet it is at best a pitiful, and at worst an insulting mockery of the potential of human nature and wealth and society, this life that we are condemned to live; we could sweep it all away if only we could see that it has ceased to be in any sense necessary.

So I mused, trudging up and down the streets with my bag of apples and oranges. Eventually I did find somewhere I could sit and eat them—on a stone in a graveyard. The moral was all too plain: only the dead occupy space they don't pay for. Only for them is there no degradation.
P. R. Collins  

The Left: Once more boring from within (1977)

From the January 1977 issue of the Socialist Standard

"Left" is pidgin-political for reformers babbling of green fields, syndicalists, and advocates of state capitalism. Socialists reject it as a label because we want none of those things, and there is one other conspicuous difference. No Socialist would touch the Labour Party with a barge-pole; the "left" fall over one another getting into it.

In the past two or three years there have been repeated alarms about the activities of allegedly Marxist (usually Trotskyist) groups in the Labour Party. On one hand they agitate for new programmes of reform; on another, they are said to plot within constituency parties to get rid of MPs who do not suit them. in November 1975 the Labour national agent presented a report called Entryist Activities to the party's national executive, defining "entryism" as "a decision by an outside organization ineligible for affiliation to the Labour Party that its members shall enter as individuals, to carry out activities as directed by the outside body". In the first week of December 1976 The Times had a series of articles on Trotskyists in the Labour Party, and Callaghan and Wilson made speeches denouncing "infiltrators who seek to take over local parties and unseat respected Labour MPs" (Sunday Times, 5th December).

These reactions are revealing in themselves. To the Labour leaders and their naïve supporters, the "left" are bent on socialist revolution; and that is the last thing the Labour Party wants. The Sunday Times report quoted Callaghan as saying "the most hateful slogans he had heard recently were: What do we want? Everything! When do we want it? Now!'" A party which lives on promises of a little jam tomorrow is bound to object to demands like that. Nevertheless, some vital questions are raised. Should democracy permit wreckers to have their way? What would happen of the "left" became the majority in the Parliamentary Labour Party? Is it likely?

Controlling Influence
From the time the "new left" began to form, about 1960, "entryism" was a widely talked-of tactic. The Labour Party has maintained a list of proscribed organizations, i.e. groups and parties which are refused affiliation with it. Technically, a member of one of them may be refused admission or expelled if his membership can be proved; however, some "left" groups  have no formal membership — the "Militant" group which is said to be specially active in provincial Labour Parties presents itself as a collection of devotees of a weekly paper.

Such a situation creates a problem in voluntary organizations. Each exists for a particular purpose which its constitution is framed to further. If a section with unacceptable ideas finds its way into membership it can make use of the procedures and rules to further its own purposes instead. As a parallel, the Socialist Party of Great Britain does not admit to membership people who hold religious beliefs, are interested in our anti-war case more than in Socialism, or think we should join forces with other parties. If such people joined, it would be possible for them eventually to out-vote the rest of the membership and alter the purpose of the SPGB. It is absurd to suppose that they should be admitted and permitted in the name of "democracy", democracy is related to a given framework.

But the prospects of "left" groups being able to take charge of the Labour Party are remote. That they have been successful so far in campaigns against MPs in two constituencies — Prentice in Newham North East and Sandelson in Hillingdon — chiefly reflects apathy and non-participation by other members. However, the fact is that constituency parties do not run the Labour Party. They are only a small fraction of the membership; though they provide half the representation at conferences they have about one-sixth of the votes (the remainder being in the hands of the trade unions). In 1930 Beatrice Webb recorded a conversation in which her husband, Sidney Webb, said
that the constituency parties were frequently unrepresentative groups of nonentities dominated by fanatics and cranks, and extremists, and that if the block votes of the trade unions were eliminated it would be impracticable to continue to vest the control of policy in Labour Party Conferences.
This is quoted in Robert McKenzie's British Political Parties (1964), and McKenzie adds: "there can be little doubt that he accurately reflects the conviction of the great majority of the parliamentary leaders then and now. The conference could not be accorded even nominal authority in determining the long-range goals of the party if it were subject to the overriding influence of the constituency party delegates. But the parliamentary leaders have little to fear from the party conference as long as they retain the confidence (and the block vote support) of the traditionally moderate and conservative leadership of the big trade unions." This contrasts with the claim made by a Labour Party organizer, quoted in The Times (2nd Dec. 1976) of an "immediate threat" in "Trotskyist-inspired resolutions" put forward by constituency parties at the annual conference.

Shapeless Fringe
Webb was a member of the second Labour Government, and he was referring mainly to the ILP which disaffiliated from the Labour Party in 1932. The ILP's militant slogans at that period have a familiar ring today — "Socialism in Our Time" and "The Living Wage Policy". In disaffiliating the ILP believed it would hold the bulk of its MPs and local members, particularly as the Labour Party was in disarray in 1932. However, only a handful of the 156 MPs who were nominally members of the ILP remained with it, and the great majority of constituency members rejected it for the Labour Party. A "left-wing" confrontation would produce the same result today. Indeed, it is plain that the infiltrators are in the Labour Party because they see no prospect of success standing on their own feet. The election results for International Socialists, International Marxist Group, Workers' Revolutionary Party etc, have not alarmed anyone except their wealthy supporters who provide the money.

What do they hope to achieve by infiltration? "Left" is a muddled, imprecise term covering many ideas and motives. The groups working inside the Labour Party are not at all united in their aims. IS and IMG have been called "middle class centrists" by the WRP, who want Labour on power so that Labour "will be exposed and will be driven out" (1974 Election Manifesto). Andy Bevan, the Trotskyist Labour Youth Officer, wants only a different policy — "a programme that can really show the way forward to the Labour Party" (TV interview reported in Sunday Times, 28th Nov. 1976). In May 1972 a "left" Labour agent debating with an SPGB representative at Canterbury asserted that "revolutionaries" would take over the Labour Party, then get it while in power to engineer an economic crisis of which they could take advantage. (He was a Labour candidate in the last general election, and the crisis took place without the Government even trying.)

The demands made by the "left" are sadly familiar: soaking the rich, nationalization, the right to this and that. A letter to The Times in 7th December from the editor of the Militant paper protested against a "scare campaign" and said:
What frightens you and the class you represent is that the Labour Party rank and file should have the temerity seriously to wish to implement Clause IV, part 4 of Labour's constitution, which calls for the nationalization of the commanding heights of the economy. Militant has concretized this part of Labour's programme with its demand for the taking over of the woo or so monopolies which control 80-85 per cent of the economy, with the compensation to the shareholders on the basis of proven need, under democratic workers' control and management.
Let The Times and some of its readers be frightened for the right reason, at any rate — not that these demands have anything to do with Socialism, but that they seek to run capitalism with a new degree of ineptitude.

"Left-wing" leaders with political power are in the same position as "right-wing" ones: they have to meet the realities of managing capitalism. On 16th November a group of Labour MPs who call themselves the Social Democratic Alliance pointed a finger at 33 other Labour MPs who, they allege, are under "Marxist" influence. In most of those cases the likelihood is that the MPs are no more than idiots who court popularity as bold radicals. Possibly others are secret members of Trotskyists groups. But what are the preoccupations of all of them now? Trying to cure unemployment by reviving those sections of industry which need it; looking for a formula to check inflation; improving the balance of trade — in short, doing the best they can for British capitalism.

Each generation of radicals believe there has been a sell-out by the previous generation. Most of the 1923 "wild men of the Clyde" became respectable establishment figures. Michael Foot, who in 1966 was reported in The Observer as saying he would teach his grandchildren to say "I am an anarchist", is now Labour's Deputy Leader and opposes "extremists" on the grounds that party unity is essential. What is not realized is that the let-down comes at the beginning, not the end. Early Labour leaders who were aware of the nature of Socialism put it aside in favour of getting mass support quickly. Some at least of the "left" today reject Socialism for the same reason, and because of the excitements offered by the militant scene. Yet, despite the professions made, the only alternative to Socialist politics is capitalist politics. If he makes that choice, the "extremist" of today is already the trimming statesman of tomorrow; if it comes to it, the possessing class will make terms with a Trotskyist state as with a Tory one.

The appearance of a fresh political faction enables the press and party leaders to try to impress on the working class that who runs capitalism is all-important. It is not. The one issue that matters is exchanging capitalism for Socialism; besides ending the problems of society as we know it, that will make democracy in the widest sense a reality.
Robert Barltrop

Ballot-Box or Baton? (1922)

From the April 1922 issue of the Socialist Standard

An "Unemployed Demonstration" is one of the most saddening spectacles that civilisation can provide. Most of the industrial towns have their daily débâcle in front of the Union, but the futility of their actions does not seem to strike the demonstrators; in fact, all that seems to strike them is the policeman's baton. The humanitarian must turn aside in pity at the sight of a few hundred, or maybe thousand, starving and physically weakened individuals parading their distress and wretchedness up and down the streets, to be eventually sent scampering down back streets and alleys at the word of command from a police inspector. If only it were an equal combat, one would not feel its injustice quite so much. But there you have it. The master class takes the best from amongst the working class, feeds them and clothes them, strengthens them physically, enslaves them mentally by exercise and military discipline, and uses them to protect its property against the turbulence of the dispossessed. Indeed, so imbued with Capitalist notions are these working-class protectors of their masters' property that the authorities do not even fear that they will shirk the task of clubbing their mates and fellow-townspeople into obedience. This was exemplified a little while back, when Scotch soldiers were detailed to quell disturbances in Glasgow! As for the demonstrators, they play into Master's hands in just the right fashion. They don't know anything about the Capitalist wirepullers but "Here's a policeman; let's heave a brick at him!" Thus we get the working class busy fighting each other and the Capitalist maintaining his hold on the wealth that he steals from them!

Yet the remedy is so simple, and the method more simple still. The cause of poverty is the ownership of the means and instruments of wealth production by the Capitalist Class. The remedy, therefore, is to dispossess that class of its ownership. It maintains its ownership by virtue of its political control. Its economic domination would cease the moment that the working class captured the political machinery that sends the police and the soldiers against them. Curiously enough, the working class never seem to discover that it is they who gratuitously give the Capitalist Class the power to enslave them every time they go to the ballot-box! It is obvious, then, that the method of recapturing political control is going back to the ballot-box and voting for Socialism! It doesn't hurt as much as a whack on the head from a baton, anyway!
Stanley H. Steele

Tales from Africa (1988)

From the October 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

Once upon a time (in August 1871 to be precise) the German Karl Mauch explored southern Africa and found what he thought were King Solomon's Mines and one of the homes of the Queen of Sheba. Having landed on the east coast in 1865, his original intention was to explore and map the territory. He did indeed produce the first complete map of the Transvaal and in 1866 was one of the first white men to discover gold. However he decided to forego prospecting to continute exploration "to add honour to the name of the German nation".

When, after many dangers and delays he reached the impressive walls and ruins of the ancient fort of Great Zimbabwe he was, based on old chronicles and knowledge at the time, entitled to think he had indeed found them. Later visitors to the site confirmed, admittedly with scant evidence to back them up, that although possibly not King Solomon's Mines or the home of the Queen of Sheba, the ruins had definitely not been been built by black people.

In 1902 R. M. Hall cleared the site of undergrowth and started digging. He found many items which, because, unlike previous explorers, he was a local resident, he recognised to be of African origin and similar to those still in regular use. Nevertheless he put the evidence aside also to claim non-African origins.

Shortly after Hall, David Randall-MacIver, a young archaeologist, one of the first to be properly so called, worked on the site. In the trenches he dug up he found many layers of artifacts of definite African origin and wrote: "It is impossible to resist the conclusion that the people who inhabited the 'Eliptical Temple' when it was being built belonged to tribes whose arts and manufactures were indistinguishable from those of the modern Makalanga (Shona) . . . These dwellings are unquestionably African in every detail". Digging in 1929, Gertrude Caton-Thompson found the layout and remains were so similar to those of still existing villages as to leave no doubt about the African origins of Great Zimbabwe.

These conclusions did not suit white settler politicians who had argued that the "proof" that white people had lived and traded there hundreds of years ago entitled them to their current superior colonial position. The myth continued to be taught as history in Rhodesian schools and Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines was required reading. Tourist posters featured the Queen of Sheba at Great Zimbabwe and films depicted white "superior" beings performing strange ceremonies in front of suitably prostrated blacks.

As late as the 1970s, shortly before a backward capitalist state changed from white to black rulers, broadcasts and television, while admitting that Great Zimbabwe had possibly not been built by whites, would not concede to the evidence that it had been built by indigenous blacks. It would not do to admit that supposedly inferior people had, so long ago, been able to build every bit as skilfully as those in "civilised" parts of the world.

Of course this is not an isolated example of the shading, if not total fabrication of history. Stories of Belgian babies impaled on German bayonets were concocted to encourage men to kill and be killed in the 1914-18 war; misinformation now admitted to have been given out daily in World War II; patriotic claptrap for the Falklands; biased history taught in almost every secondary school throughout Europe. Unemployment figures are massaged before being issued by the government. Those representing the ruling class will always try to bamboozle the rest of us into accepting conditions favourable to the rulers' minority interests. Forewarned is forearmed: it behoves us to regard with utmost scepticism information put about by those whose interest it is to maintain the status quo.
Eva Goodman