Sunday, August 30, 2015

New Labour: forward to the past (2000)

From the February 2000 of the Socialist Standard 

Blair has claimed that this century the battle will not be between capitalism and socialism but between the forces of progress and conservatism. But his concept of a non-socialist party of progress is a throw-back to the 19th century.

At the Labour Conference last October Tony Blair delivered a messianic oration. He spoke with great fervour about the fact that he and his party are on the side of progress, identifying the progressives as a vast political movement of high-minded and fair people, who believe in the future, and against the dread-hooded minions of conservatism. Or, as Peter Sellers, put it, that we must go onward in a forwards direction to the future, because time waits for no man, and onwards is the way forward to the place in which we will one day arrive. Or some such.

Blair declared that the Labour Party had thrown aside Ideology, but would stay true to its values. Quite how he thinks values and ideology are dissociable is anyone's guess, specifically since he uses ideology in its meaning as a system of ideas or creed, which is exactly what one should have thought values would mean. Then again, political speeches are not about logical intellectual rigour, nor about clarity or sense. Blair was pulling the biggest ideological dodge in the book (one much beloved by pre-Thatcher Tories) that he is being pragmatic and free from ideology doing what is "objectively" right for the national interest, while his opponents are blinded by their ideological commitments. What matters is not the substance of what is being said, but the appearance. No-one wants to think of themselves as an unreasoning fanatic, which is what ideologue is code for, nor would they wish to vote for one.

Tony Blair also deployed other, simple, logical fallacies in order to try to bolster his political position. Most notably, he baldly deployed the logical fallacy of bifurcation: the presentation of a false set of options, an exclusive either/or option when that isn't necessarily the case. In this instance he has been trying to portray the choice as being solely between a Labour government (of nice sensible progressive types) and a Tory government (full of evil lunatics who drink babies' blood, etc), insisting that the only choice for people who dislike Tory rule is to vote Labour and join his movement of lukewarm progressives.

Lukewarm progressives
Progress does have a warm, fuzzy feel to it, though. The feel of things becoming better, of rational people making sensible decisions, without being shackled by tradition or history. Progress, also, is indissolubly linked to the mindset of the industrial revolution, and the ideas that it spawned about an ever-upward increase in wealth and quality of life. Such ideas were closely linked with the Radical movement of the 19th century; and Blair and his cohorts have repeatedly linked themselves in with that 19th century Radicalism. Gordon Brown styled the labourites as "Credible Radicals", and Blair repeated the word in his speech unto inanity. Indeed, Blair stated that the 20th century had been dominated by the Tories, precisely because the Labour Party had split the moderate-progressive bloc that existed in the Liberal Party of the 19th century.

Blair seems to feel a great affinity for the 19th century radicals. A curious attitude for a moderniser to be trying to resurrect a political movement that died over 100 years ago. For much of the 19th century, Radicalism was closely linked with "middle-class" political agitation, and took place very much in the shadow of the French Revolution. Within the Liberal Party, formed officially in 1859, the Radicals were drawn from the commercial classes, with Richard Cobden and John Bright, of the famous Anti-Corn Law League, among its free-trade luminaries. At certain points of the century Radicalism had some popular support, but there was always a distinct split between its necessarily well-heeled parliamentary leaders (MPs, being unpaid, needed to have substantial private incomes) and its supporters on the ground. By the late 19th century, the Radical formed a distinct camp within the broader movement of Liberalism, and early socialists held out hopes of those Radicals coming over to their side.

The maximum programme of the Radicals was one of political reform: enlargement of the franchise, abolition of the House of Lords, the rule of law and contract, and the abolition of trade protection. The Radicals were largely committed to the market, and laissez-faire capitalism, and their programme was largely about freeing up the power of capital to exploit labour without the old social-restrictions imposed by feudal power and, as with Tony Blair, they deployed a bifurcating argument of the middle and working classes uniting against the aristocracy. Indeed, the Liberals under Gladstone (the idol of Roy Jenkins, the ideological soul-mate of Tony Blair)—who was the political leader most instrumental in bringing about the nearest thing to laissez-faire to Britain—were a disparate group, often only united in their opposition to Toryism.

What is noticeable about their programme is that it bears more than a little resemblance to that of Thatcherism—as do the values and programme set forth by Gordon Brown fighting monopolies (what greater monopoly than a nationalised industry?), fighting fraud and rip-offs, protecting people from unscrupulous bankers; in effect: trying to make the market work properly. Blair is, then right that this is entirely in keeping with the history of the Labour Party.

Branding of identical products
The clear reason for Blair's risible sophistry is that the Labour Party has become concerned that people do not feel an attachment to it. Labour are worried about the next election. The false choice of Tories or Labour is a way to try to fool voters into trooping into the ballot booths to give assent to spinach over cabbage. When there is little discernible difference over policy, then the politicians have to appeal to feeling, and attitude: we cut welfare out of "tough love", they cut welfare to be mean and spiteful. It's like the differences in branding between two almost identical soft-drinks.

The Labour politicians are worried that they may have to work hard to win the next election despite the contemptible and patronising sophistry applied by spin doctors; as the Labour Party has been stung by the low turn-out in recent elections. Their pretence that the voters are just too satisfied with them to vote holds no water—satisfied voters turned out in the 70s percent range in the fifties and sixties at by-elections.

It's clear that the reason voters are not turning out is because they think it's pointless. This is an inherent flaw of representative democracy: voters are infrequently called upon to cast a vote, which seems to be far removed from any action or result; there is no immediate reward for the vote. The voters thus feel, correctly, that their influence is slight. Traditionally this was overcome by political parties being closely attached to identifiable social groups, with the members of these groups being able to feel a part of the ongoing political process. The party represented, in one way or another, the aspirations of that group; thus they would turn out to vote with a strong feeling of involvement.

Once the political structure is unable, as now, to accommodate any semblance of reforms so as to be able to give any vent to the aspirations of more dispossessed sections of society, then politicians can no longer rely on that sort of support. They have to resort to trying to scare the electorate into supporting them, into fooling them into voting for them. They know that to keep the system functioning, they have to persuade people to turn up, and give their support for it. That is the politicians' job; since they cannot actually make or change events, they have to work hard to pretend that they can. Their function is to win and maintain public confidence. At the end of the day they are merely actors, and our modern media-driven politics could be easily called a thespocracy, rule by actors.

This is also the reasoning behind Labour's new-found devotion to local mayors: a single person contest, wherein the personality of the candidate will be all important, and which will be more of a media event. It's about trying to return public interest to a system where there are no significant policy differences.

Moderate party of obstruction
We need only look across the Atlantic to Canada or America, where the Liberals (or Democrats) did not suffer the same collapse in the 20th century as their counterparts in Britain, where they have held power for proportionately more of the century than Labour has managed, to see that no real gain is to be made by building the grand-movement of progress. Rather, such a force would be solely a pretty bulwark by which the current corrupt system is defended, a Great Moderate Party of Obstruction, to appeal to rational people who want to see change, and direct them off into the hopeless quagmire of personality politics.

So long as the press continue to look into whether Tony wants to block Ken, or how Gordon and Tony might be having a tiff, or whether Peter Mandelson has been brought back too soon, they continue to ignore the desperation of poverty, the wanton and authoritarian cruelty of the government, and ignore the unspoken iron-rule of the dogma of capital.

There is, though, hope to be drawn from Blair modernising the country back to the 1890s. It shows the real face of the Labour Party, how it is still, how it has always been: how many Labour governments have called for partnership from the unions, or have seen making the market work as the way to improve people's lives? All of them, only now this one is dropping the fa├žade of socialism—leftists no longer have any justification whatsoever for asking us to follow these insulating sophists. Labourites who think themselves to be socialists have had their illusions thrown back in their faces with a rude wake-up call. 
                                                                                                                                                  Pik Smeet                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

Horror story (1986)

Book Review from the May 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Postman of Nagasaki by Peter Townsend (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1985).

Some forty years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki it is easier to objectively assess the circumstances in which those actions took place. Townsend reminds the reader of the individual caught up in such circumstances and provides a vivid account of the life of Sumiteru Taniguchi who was a sixteen-year-old postman delivering letters in Nagasaki at the time the bomb was dropped. Townsend's intention in writing this biography is to suggest that "if the deterrent is ever used, it will be the end of us and our planet". It represents a moral plea on behalf of one man as a symbol of the many who suffered. At the same time it provides a useful, brief history of Japan's involvement in the Second World War and catalogues the atrocities perpetrated by that nation in the course of its attempted expansion in Asia.

Townsend's work is a reminder of the contempt with which working people are treated and how this is epitomised during a war. His analysis of the circumstances leading up to the two nuclear attacks is one in which the majority of the population are pawns in a game played by detached leaders:
such were the men who debated the vital issue, war or peace — the elect and the all-powerful in whose hands lay the fate of the ordinary people, young Sumiteru among them, boys and girls and all the rest as innocent as he. The trouble with the top men was that they saw the people whose destiny they sought to shape as an anonymous mass or a bunch of statistics.
Sumiteru is a victim of the propaganda of the education system, of a government which refused to acknowledge the inevitable defeat to which it was being subjected and, for Townsend particularly, the callous indifference to the Japanese people exhibited by President Truman. Even before the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki it ought to be remembered that Japan had been subjected to horrendous aerial bombardment. Nagoya was bombed after an earthquake. General Curtis Le May had initiated a programme of napalm attacks because of the dispersed private workshops that marked the nature of Japan's industry:
Le May despatched, on the night of 9 March, over 300 B29s. Their orders were to set fire to the heart of Tokyo, where, in houses made of wood and paper, there lived, until that awful night, a quarter of a million low-paid workers. By dawn, 130,000 of them with their families lay strewn about the city in heaps of charred, unrecognisable corpses.
Similar attacks were also carried out on Kobe and Osaka. Japan was a defeated nation. Its steel and chemical industries were on the verge of collapse and it was running desperately short of oil and food. Truman's advisors had misgivings about the atomic bomb and that included Secretary for war, Harold Stimson, and General Eisenhower, Commander-in-Chief of the allied forces in Europe, but according to Townsend "Truman made the dropping of the atomic bomb a certainty—as indeed he had always intended".

The second part of this work concentrates on the plight of Sumiteru. It is not for the squeamish, as Townsend spares no detail including for instance Sumiteru "lying in a sea of pus" as a result of the hatching of maggots from the eggs laid by flies in the raw flesh of his back. He also catalogues the prejudices exhibited against the atomic bomb victims by the Japanese, who feared the consequences of the radiation to which the victims had been subjected as well as being appalled by their physical injuries. Similarly the US occupation authorities imposed heavy censorship as regards the death and destruction wrought by the new weapon, although references to the weapon as being of unprecedented power were welcomed. There was also suppression of details concerning the medical treatment of the victims. This was particularly applicable to Japanese doctors and scientists. Since then a fuller picture has emerged. Those exposed to radiation were found to have a greater susceptibility to leukemia, cancer of the thyroid was five times more common, lung cancer was twice as common, breast cancer four times higher than the national average and the young were vulnerable to cancer of the salivary glands. Added to this were such effects as an increase in eye cataracts among victims and an increase in still births and birth deformities among those pregnant at the time of the explosions.

Townsend argues that "the magnitude of destruction amounted, as no other weapon has ever achieved, to genocide as well as sociocide, ecocide and biocide—in brief, the negation of life" and that may well be correct. But it is the circumstances that gave rise to the use of that weapon that must be examined. The atomic bomb represents an atrocious addition to capitalism's panoply of weapons. The willingness to use that weapon, and the way in which it was used, highlights the total indifference with which human beings are treated during war and that only highlights the way in which the vast majority of people are treated in capitalism generally. There is a tendency to simplify and Townsend quotes Sumeritu as seeing the world as being "divided by political ideologies and the lust of a few men — and women — for power". It is the conflict arising out of the competitive nature of capitalism that legitimises the activities of world leaders who act out the logical consequences of that system. We can be horrified and disgusted by those actions and even morally repelled but nonetheless they must be seen as an outcome of capitalism. In that respect our outrage ought not to be directed solely at the weapons or the leaders but against the system of society which would contemplate, let alone use, such weapons. Sumiteru is the victim of a society in which he is expendable in the conflicting interests within the capitalist system. He is a witness to the extent to which the system us prepared to defend itself.
Philip Bentley 

Imperialism (1981)

Book Review from the March 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

Imperialism, Pioneer of Capitalism by Bill Warren, Verso, £3.95

It is not difficult to see why this book has been the subject of a virtual conspiracy of silence in left wing circles since it challenges one of their deep-rooted prejudices: anti-imperialism. Warren argues that, far from keeping the underdeveloped countries underdeveloped imperialism, in paving the way for the development of capitalism, has precisely provided the framework for their modernisation and development.

Warren confuses "socialism" with state capitalism and claims to be a Marxist; in fact his argument with his left wing colleagues is merely about which form of capitalism—private or state—is best for the underdeveloped countries. Clearly not an argument in which we are called upon to take sides.

We must take issue, however, with Warren on one key point and, perhaps surprisingly, come to the defence of Lenin. Warren criticises Lenin's pamphlet Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism not only for its faulty economic analysis (which we do too) but also for arguing that capitalism had become, by about the end of the 19th century, "reactionary" in the sense of having fulfilled its historical role of developing the means of production.

Warren argues in effect that capitalism still had, and still has a progressive role to play. Hence his defence of imperialism as the "pioneer of capitalism". He is here taking up the same position as Marx, who considered that in his day capitalism had a progressive economic and political role to play; he even accepted that colonialism (he never used the word "imperialism") in spreading capitalism beyond Europe had a progressive aspect.

But within a generation of Marx's death in 1883 capitalism can be said to have fulfilled its progressive role in the sense of having become the dominant world system and of having built up, in the world-wide productive system capable of turning out abundance for all, the materialist basis for a socialist world. This was what Social Democratic thinkers like Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin were trying, however confusedly, to convey when they talk of "imperialism". This is not a word we generally use ourselves since it can suggest that what is bad is not capitalism itself but only its "imperialist" excesses, but the basic idea that, by around the turn of the century, capitalism had become reactionary is one we accept. Lenin, incidentally, was not consistent here: while accepting that capitalism had become reactionary in the developed capitalist countries, he still claimed that it had a progressive role to play in Asia, Latin America and Africa. But capitalism is a world system and when it became reactionary it became so for the whole world.

In trying to argue that capitalism/imperialism still has a progressive role to play Warren is quite wrong. Certainly, as he shows, capitalism is still developing the means of production but this development is in the form of the accumulation of capital, and the attendant problems and miseries this form brings. It is no longer necessary since socialism, the next stage in social evolution, has ling been materially and technically possible.
Adam Buick