Tuesday, September 8, 2015

On Moscow's hit-list (1985)

From The Place Where I Live Series in the January 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

The village of Tatsfield is set high on the North Downs on the Kent/Surrey border; elevation 800 feet. The area is on of gentle landscapes and is always a delight as these change with the seasons.

The community has a long history and during its earliest times had to deal with a problem of water supply. With the high elevation, rain sweeps away and disappears rapidly through the chalk on which the village sits. With the water table hundreds of feet down, wells were impossible. Yet for the early neolithic community, whose implements can still be found, the area had its advantages. The higher ground was more clear that the densely forested lower surrounds and this gave space and freedom of movement. The ability to move and communicate made for the area's long history.

The Romans were based here and the site of their road passes through local farms. At nearby Titsey lies the ruin of a Roman villa. The Normans also based themselves here and it was they who first built the local church, six years after the conquest. Again, communications were important in feudal times as evidenced by the Pilgrims' Way which still passes through the village. This was the link between Canterbury, London and places west.

A local anachronism is that Tatsfield still has a squire with rights including that of appointing the local vicar. Now, this remnant of feudalism exists side by side with the ubiquitous commuter who has taken over the village in recent times. Tatsfield is now a dormitory village and every morning commuters stream out to Croydon and the City. In the recent past most of the villagers were local farmworkers. Now, hardly anyone works locally and very few do a socially useful job of work. Seeing the morning exodus one might think that a good proportion of the millions in commerce, insurance, finance and banking sleep in Tatsfield.

The congenial landscapes belie the fact that the military have often had a presence here. Walking through local woods one becomes aware of platforms of concrete, each now under a layer of leaf mould. These are not archaeological mysteries but emplacements which were sited on the high ground during World War II as part of the South East defences of London. These also ringed the Battle of Britain airfield at Biggin Hill, three miles away.

The advantages of elevation now provide for a more sinister and lethal form of communications. With the development of wireless in the 1930s the BBC constructed a radio communications centre in Tatsfield. This became a world-wide listening station and it was from Tatsfield that the first Sputnik was detected in space in 1957. This installation now forms part of an American run electronic guidance system for targeting missiles on Russia and Eastern Europe.

A recent Socialist Standard made the point that the preoccupation of CND with the siting of cruise missiles is irrelevant. A more important reason why Britain would be a target us the siting of these guidance systems. This American base in Tatsfield means that the villagers go to their beds at night in the knowledge that they are very high on the Moscow hit-list. Somewhere in Eastern Europe is a missile aimed at Tatsfield.

Provided we win over a majority workers to socialism and avert the pressing of those lethal buttons, east or west, what would be the part played by the village in socialism? The old facility for communications would come into its own directly for needs. The existing base, now used for the military, could be adapted with satellite links as part of a world communication system, bringing the world's people together, especially as part of co-operation in dealing with problems.

The only important productive resource in Tatsfield is land and with the enactment of common ownership the squire's estate and local farms would become the common possession of the whole community. As the Tatsfield community would then become part of urgent worldwide action to increase food production, how could this best be achieved?

Ironically, when walking over the fields and noting the existing use of land one realises what can be learned from what happened during World War II. The land in Tatsfield is second grade agricultural land and what it grows best is grass and cereals. At the present time it is mainly down to pasture for beef and dairy products. Nevertheless, with effort, much higher calorie values can be extracted from the soil with cereal and vegetable production. In the second world war, as elsewhere, the policy was applied in Tatsfield of converting a lot of grassland into arable food production with such crops as wheat, barley, potatoes and a wide range of other vegetables.

This required more workers and one local farm was worked by over fifty people; it is now run by only two, the farmer and his son, with some seasonal work put out to sub-contract. As a result of the war policy of converting grassland to arable with more workers, food production in Britain was increased by 70 per cent. The fifty people working one farm in Tatsfield contributed to that increase.

Initially, in socialism, the community in Tatsfield might fight a very different kind of war — on world hunger. The means for increasing food production could be similar. Where would the people come from? There are plenty in the village already. There would be no insurance, banking and finance so some of the people now doing this could provide for real needs by looking after crops. In this way, the present commuters could enjoy the fresh experience of seeing what their own village is like during daylight hours on a weekday. Transport and energy could be used, not to send people out of the village making futile daily journeys to the city, but to send food to people who need it.

Any visitor to Tatsfield could see the possibilities for increased food production, especially with horticulture. With the people running glass production sending glass, the Tatsfield community could provide a range of fruit, vegetable and salad crops almost all the year round. There is also a fish farm in the village so the expertise required for expanding this form of food production is already here.

How could this increase in food production be co-ordinated with that of other communities? Again we learn from the war years. In 1939, the Ministry of Agriculture set up co-ordinating committees in each of the 61 counties of England and Wales. These in turn divided the work between district council committees. The same arrangement could provide for decentralised democratic control of productive resources in socialism. Tatsfield is part of Tandridge District Council which is one of eleven district councils in Surrey. We could therefore have local representatives on co-ordinating committees at these various levels so as to ensure that the overall pattern of food production was kept in reasonable balance, making appropriate use of various soils and growing conditions.

In socialism the term "our village" would for the first time take on some meaning. We would create a genuine community, not in any insular or parochial way but simply as the immediate means of working with each other as part of our wider responsibilities within the world community. We would even repair and maintain the church. It has a lot of history but capitalism can't even look after that properly.
Pieter Lawrence

The Stricken Labour Party (1960)

Editorial from the November 1960 issue of the Socialist Standard

The same gale that paralyzed the Trade Union Congress in the Isle of Man in September struck the Labour Party at Scarborough a month later.

The delegates went through the usual form of pledging their unity and fraternity at the end of thr proceedings but it never had a more hollow ring. And the end is not yet. In the months to come the factions will wrangle bitterly about the leadership, the victors at Scarborough will try to press home their advantage and the defeated will fight back and try to reverse this conference's decisions.

Seen in perspective the British Labour Party, and like-minded parties in many parts of the world, had three main claims to working class support; the home policy of social reforms and full employment to lessen the evils of capitalism, the policy of wholesale nationalisation of industry, and the policy of seeking international harmony, avoiding war and promoting disarmament. In the course of years and during three periods of Labour Government first one and then the other of these aims has run into disaster. In 1931 it was the "economic blizzard" and record unemployment that ended MacDonald's Labour Government and split the party. In two world conflagrations they found themselves helping Tories and Liberals to impose conscription and wage war, and in 1951 it was the Labour Government that launched the great cold-war rearmament programme. Even in 1924 the Labour Government ran into trouble, at the time over its armament building directed against France. On the home front nationlisation has turned into an election loser and the Tories have shown themselves adept at taking over social reforms from the Opposition—the latest example being the new pension scheme, invented and popularised by the Labour Party before being enacted by the present government. And the Tory government, luckier than Labour was in 1929-1931, has had years of low years of low unemployment and thus robbed its opponents of a useful weapon.

What distinguishes the Labour Party's present troubles from earlier ones is that ever since 1951 they have been under attack and internally divided over home and foreign policy together.

But what was it that hit them ? What has happened to bring so many good intentions to such an impasse? The answer given by Socialists when the Labour Party was founded is still true and should by now be glaringly evident. World wide capitalism is a social system of class division, owning class and working class, and the exploitation of the latter by the former. Internationally it is a ceaseless struggle of the national ruling group for dominance of resources, trade routes, strategic ports and markets. Everywhere the driving force is profit and everywhere strife and violence are the marks of the system. Labour Party policies of trying to secure smooth running and harmony at home, through reforms and nationalisation, are as irrelevant to the real task of creating a new classless social system as are its hopes of international peace through United Nations.

It is the violent impact of capitalism impact of capitalism, not abstract theorising about policies, that is shattering the Labour Party.

The Labour Party's near disintegration is nit the failure of the movement for Socialism. Their extremity should be our opportunity. The tide of disillusionment that threatens to overwhelm millions of Labour supporters gives Socialists a greater chance of gaining support for our affirmation that only by the overthrow of world capitalism and its replacement by Socialism can there be a happy future for human society.

We cannot refrain from pointing out to Labour supporters who are now discovering that their Party has been on the wrong lines all these years that the S.P.G.B. said at the beginning that it could not happen otherwise. It was foredoomed from the start. 

The Hillsborough disaster (1989)

From the June 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

In treating such events as the Hillsborough disaster, a degree of circumspection is called for. Even the Labour Party has been reticent about scoring political points despite the fact that Dennis Howell can quite correctly claim to have warned of the danger of perimeter fencing ever since its introduction. It is equally valid to point out that forgetting or ignoring what happened on that Saturday is not an option for concerned, thinking humans.

Collecting the Cash
The tragedy (for in its inevitability it was a tragedy in the dramatic as well as the popular sense) has united far more than the people of one city as it involved Liverpool, the most successful British club of recent times. So among the dead and injured were workers from many parts of the country. Those still alive know where they stand in the list of priorities, as every line. of enquiry into the causes of the catastrophe shows that the comfort and safety of the ordinary spectator came plumb last. Among the fans there may be many who understand why comfort is low on the list of priorities; a rudimentary grasp of profit maximisation would tell them that providing high quality facilities for those who pay what they can afford, regardless of the facilities available, makes bad business sense. What many didn't realise was that the same principle applies to safety. It may seem facile to point it out, but the fact that it is a commonplace should not detract from the relevance of the commercial priority of collecting the cash. The huge gates which were fatally opened at the thirteenth hour contrast starkly with the turnstiles which represent the most cost-effective way of making sure everyone coughs up.

Other priorities were less obvious: the allocation of tickets in open disregard of requirements was done not for the benefit of Nottingham Forest supporters but for that of the police, who did not want the bother of directing groups of people around the stadium. The perimeter fencing had emergency access not for desperate people to get out but primarily for the police and stewards to get in. The medical facilities were more suited to a studio theatre than a massive open-air stadium.

In this disaster, as at Bradford, the authorities are in the uncomfortable position of having no hooligans to blame. Although The Sun in its egregious fashion was pretty quick to make unsubstantiated and irrelevant accusations, the general observation was that crowd violence was not a factor. In fact the hooligan problem and the attempts to deal with it have always been red herrings as far as stadium facilities are concerned. Leaving aside the fact that most "football" violence occurs outside the ground, the idea that it is contained by creating conditions inimical to all but those who are handy in a ruck has always been more absurd than paradoxical. Similarly nobody has explained why they think people who are prepared to indulge in flagrant anti-social behaviour in full view of the police will baulk at using a forged, stolen or borrowed identity card if that scheme comes into operation.

Naked Incompetence
As usual on these occasions the experts and leaders stand naked in their incompetence, highlighted in the aftermath by the contrast with the improvisation of ordinary people. As those in the stand were pulling desperate fellow spectators from the chaos of the terrace the police were driving others back into it. As the authorities were wondering why there weren't enough stretchers the fans were commandeering the advertising hoardings. As the mourning of those who had every right to be very angry went ahead in a touchingly dignified manner, the press were publishing pictures of people in their death agony with scant concern for any offence which might be caused.

Never fear, though, the prima donnas were not slow to get in on the act and show their "concern". Thatcher turned up in Sheffield on Sunday, which was probably a wise move because had she turned up in Liverpool one doubts even the formidable Merseyside Police could have guaranteed her safety. Charles and Di popped into the hospital for want of something better to do. Liverpool FC donated £100,000 immediately to the relief fund, that sum being approximately one twentieth of what it paid for the exclusive right to make a profit from the footballing skills of Ian Rush. And, of course, Religion PLC. was there: socialists do not doubt the sincerity of the priests' sympathy, but it is plain that some explanation has to be given as to why the all-loving god let this happen to people who fill the collection plates.

Sane Society
Many socialists would argue that there is no place for competitive sport in a sane society. The present writer does not subscribe to that view, but it is clear that no sane society would in any imaginable circumstances put 50,000 people one by one through what amount to rat traps in order to verify their right to access to an area from which there is no escape in time of crisis, and all for the benefit of a tiny minority with whom they have next to nothing in common.

The late Bill Shankly is reputed to have said "Some people say I regard football as a matter of life and death. That's nonsense—it's far more important than that". Shankly's obsession with sport is legendary but we must now wonder if, had he witnessed the Hillsborough disaster, he would have rephrased that particular witticism.

Cooking the Books: Who Pays the Working Poor? (2015)

The Cooking the Books Column from the September 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
‘Better Than Raising the Minimum Wage. Help Americans who need it with a major, carefully crafted expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit’, was the title and subtitle of an article in the Wall Street Journal (21 May) by Warren Buffett, one of the world’s richest capitalists.
His argument was that the modern economy requires more and more skilled jobs and fewer and fewer simple, unskilled ones and that, as a result, there are now fewer jobs for those capable only of doing unskilled work. As he put it, this
‘is simply a consequence of an economic engine that constantly requires more high-order talents while reducing the need for commodity-like tasks. The remedy usually proposed for this mismatch is education … But even with the finest educational system in the world, a significant portion of the population will continue, in a nation of great abundance, to earn no more than a bare subsistence.’
According to him, raising the minimum wage other than marginally won’t solve this problem but would in fact make it worse because it would drive out of business small employers who could not afford to pay it. He’s got a point. No employer will take on someone whose labour can’t produce them an adequate profit, in some cases which doesn’t even reproduce the value of the labour power they purchase.
He proposes instead to use the tax system to pay a tax credit to workers incapable of commanding a wage above the poverty line. This exists in the US under the self-explanatory name of ‘Earned Income Tax Credit’. It is in effect a subsidy to employers as it allows them to pay below-poverty-line wages knowing that the state will top up their employee’s income to this level.
A similar scheme exists in Britain, introduced by Gordon Brown in 2003 when he was Chancellor. But while Buffett wants to increase payments in the US George Osborne announced in the July budget that they are going to be cut. The arguments used were revealing, openly admitting that tax credits are a subsidy to employers.  Rachel Sylvester, in her column in the Times (23 June) quoted an ally of Ian Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, as saying:
‘You’ve got some big businesses that are making huge profits but paying their workers poverty wages. They get away with it because workers are supplemented by the tax credit system but why should ordinary taxpayers subsidise these companies?’
Unlike Buffett, the government here wants to increase the minimum wage (renamed in Orwellian a ‘Living Wage’), so shifting the burden of paying for the working poor from the state to employers.
Clearly, then, there is a dispute within pro-capitalist circles as to how to deal with the problem of workers unable to sell their low quality, ‘commodity-like’ ability to work for a so-called ‘living wage’. Does the state try to make employers pay them a living wage? Or does it top up the low wages which are only what employers are prepared to pay? Or again, does it simply pay them ‘welfare’ for not working?
In the end, as with many political issues, it comes down to which section of the capitalist class should bear ‘the burden’. The last two options involve taxing the capitalist class as a whole, one of them to subsidise some employers. In practice, the first does too in the end as a higher minimum wage increases the number who are ‘unemployable’ and so dependent on a handout from the state.