Friday, September 11, 2015

Prepare to meet thy dome (1998)

From the March 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the world of nightmarish apparitions, there can be few to match the vision of the future festering away in the imagination of Peter Mandelson MP. He is the high-priest of New Labour's dream of a New Britain in which the sordid realities of capitalism evaporate into a mist of slick presentation. Acclaimed architect of the Blairite victory of imagery over experience, Mandelson has become a veritable personification of the descent of politics from ideas (however wrong they ever were) to ever-evaporating froth.

Coincidental with the messianic rise of Tony, Saviour of New Britain, and his communications conjuror, Mandelson, is a mere accident of the calendar. The century is coming to an end. This is a cyclical regularity of history which even some economists can see coming every hundred years. But this century's end is different, being the end not only of ten decades but ten whole centuries. The Millennium is coming.

It was Michael Heseltine, the Tory grandee whose vision of the future was an endless echo of the past, who was the Minister encharged with thinking up a stupid way to celebrate the coming of the new millennium. It was he, and assorted well-salaried timewasters, who came up with the idea of creating in Greenwich this vast temple to the passing of time: The Millennium Dome. That it would enable vast millions of pounds to pass into the bank accounts of building companies encharged with constructing the folly seemed like a fitting last act of a government long used to mastering the high art of the dodgy deal.

Beyond the sleazy pocket-lining involved in the creation of the Dodgy Dome, there is an even more tragic symbolism. Of what does this lousy system under which we live rob the vast majority of people? Time. It is our time itself—the living, breathing, labouring, surplus-value-producing time of the people who produce the wealth of the world—which is stolen from us so that capital can be accumulated. Time, which marks the transition between birth and death in nature, marks also the loss of freedom for the wage and salary slave. It is the time which we must surrender to those who exploit us for profit which makes us unfree. The cruel irony of telling workers to celebrate Time itself is like organising a brothel for eunuchs.

The best way we could conceivably celebrate the passing of time is to win it back as our own. We pass our time as a sacrifice to the privilege of a minority. That which is not stolen from us we call "free time" or Leisure, and this we treasure like slaves unleashed for some rare, precious moments. Most workers dare not think at length about the ways in which their time is not their own. To do so leads to feelings of depression and a need for drugged immunisation against this alienation from our freedom to live in our own way in our own time. Our time is not our own. The history not only of capitalism, but of all property society, is of time stolen from those who produce by those who possess. And when you retire, after decades of wasted time enriching a boss, they give you a watch to commemorate the endless hours that were never yours.

Mandelson goes to Disneyland
Peter Mandelson, who is Minister without Portfolio, had to be given something to do as he prowled the offices of Whitehall like a Stalinist high-apparachik, spying on his colleagues. Here is a man whose talent lies in making something out of nothing. Anyone who could sell New Labour should surely be credited with that. Here is a man for whom the empty, insubstantial froth of imagery is everything. Give him the Dome. If he can't convince people that they need it, who can? (Most of the other candidates were in open prisons or lunatic asylums.) So, the Minister without Portfolio has become the political magician entrusted with telling us to believe that the Dome is just what we always wanted.

Where does a man who specialises in froth turn for his inspiration? Karl Marx sat for years in the reading room of the British Museum, studying the detailed workings of capitalism. Charles Darwin sailed to exotic parts in search of evolutionary evidence. The Minister without Portfolio went to Disneyland, there to consort with the likes of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy. If they couldn't tell him the meaning of the last thousand years, who could? (The candidate from the lunatic asylum had suggested consulting the TellyTubbies, but Mandelson soon spotted that this was clearly a deranged proposal.) So, Mandelson took himself to the theme park created by the Disney Empire.

There is something apposite about Mandelson retreating to the shrine of Disney. Walt Disney, like the Minister without Portfolio, was a ruthless, ungenerous hater of the working class. When the Disney studio workers unionised Uncle Walt fired them and got scabs to run the outfit. Like Mandelson, Disney's recipe for selling the profit system consisted of large doses of well-produced imagery produced to persuade people that, despite the impoverished realities of their lives, they were having Fun. Ah, fun—that word which has been used to enwrap innumerable miseries of a heartless world. When once wage slaves went on Sundays to churches in search of illusory solace in a life of sighs, now they go to Alton Towers or for a week in Florida, California and these days France, where, after long queues and much parting with hard-earned cash, they buy the right to worship at the altar of Fun.

Mandelson became a convert. Like a drug addict stumbling into a Hare Krishna temple, the Minister for Time could see at an instant that these were people—or puppets, stuffed dummies and actors dressed up as cartoon characters—who spoke his language. When the biography of Mandelson comes to be written, "The Disney Revelation" will surely be a chapter comparable with Marx's discovery of surplus value and Galileo's recognition that the Earth moves.

(The trouble with this article, reflects the writer in a moment of troubled introspection, is that it could seem to be a rather badly invented joke. Readers in America and Africa may well conclude that there is no such person as Peter Mandelson; that he is a satirical parody created for the sake of comic attack. Surely, even in its desperate lack of self-meaning and alienated historical consciousness, capitalism's defenders do not really go to a Disney theme park to discover what life is all about. If only it were a bad joke. The tragedy lies in the veracity.)

Mandelson returned from his encounter with Micky Mouse as a man with a mission. The Millennium Dome was going to be the most impressive and appealing pointless exercise of the past thousand years. Speaking with the air of one of those vacuous French philosophers who finally turns out to be insane, Mandelson has recently been issuing some extraordinarily foolish press statements, even by his own standards. The Dome, he tells us, will be "like a doughnut". Er. Yes, Minister. A doughnut? The history of the last thousand years will be metaphorically symbolised by a doughnut. Apparently, this point is meant to indicate that the Dome will have layers. (Why not an onion? Doughnuts only have two layers. But this is to assume that one is involved for one tiny pre-millennial moment in a meaningful discussion.) The dome/doughnut will comprise three layers, the Minister has announced, each examining a different question: Who Are We? Where Do We Live? What Do We Do? The vast thousands of pounds spent in conceiving such profoundly creative questions are best left unconsidered for the moment. So, this is how we shall spend the millennium: wandering around a vast doughnut in outer London considering who we are, where we live and what we do. Of course, if we stay at home (if we have one) we could spare ourselves the second conundrum. And if we knew what we were doing, surely we would not be standing around in an vast architectural folly at all.

Perhaps there are plans to build two Millennium Domes: one for each class. There could be a Capitalist Dome (with real jam in the doughnut and fresh cream on top) where the answers to Mandelson's questions could be answered pretty swiftly. Who Are We? A class of people who are entitled to live without working because we possess enough property to make others work for us. Where do we live? In the very best homes that money can pay to have built. What do we do? We enjoy ourselves at the expense of the time stolen from the vast majority who have spent the last century accepting a system where we do what we like while they do as they're told.

Then there will be the jam-tomorrow doughnut for the proles. Who are we? A class that exists to be exploited so that a minority may be enriched? Where do we live? On the whole, in places where we would not choose to live, can just about afford to rent or mortgage, and the Queen Mother wouldn't see fit to keep her horses.

What do we do?
Well, that's the question, isn't it? Do we really allow ourselves to be taken in by such unadulterated garbage as Mandelson's millennial festival? Do we allow ourselves to be taken in by his party and the system it seeks to continue? Do we really envisage another century of this madness of class division and production for profit rather than need? Do we accept this spectre which is haunting the coming millennium—the spectre of endless capitalism? Or do we peak through the crack in the dome and see the chance of a world developed in the image of humanity?
Steve Coleman

Healey v. Benn: they won, you lost (1981)

From the October 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

By the time you read this the battle will be over. The mud-slinging will have subsided and victory will have gone to the 'right' (Healey) or to the 'left' (Benn). But whichever side has won, the battle they fought will not have been over basic differences of principles as to how we should live but over personal ambitions and minor details of political administration. In fact what divided the two candidates for Labour's deputy leadership was nothing like as important as what united them.

What united them—and what will continue to unite them—is their common commitment to a political party that exists to defend and manage the system by which a small minority of the population owns a large majority of the wealth. What divides them is not the question of whether this system is the best way of organising human affairs—both are convinced that it is—but the details of how this system (capitalism) is to be organised.

Making the best of it
So neither Healey nor Benn argue that they can get rid of capitalism, but rather that they know how to make the best of it. They promise they have ways of solving some of its major problems—unemployment, inflation, poverty, threat of war. Healey says he can improve things by cutting interest rates, cutting VAT, cutting the National Insurance surcharge, increasing state spending and negotiating for world disarmament. Benn favours getting out of the Common Market, extending nationalisation, bringing in import controls and disarming Britain unilaterally. Both men pledged that as deputy leader these were the policies they would work for.

Both men also—and this is another thing that unites them—talked as though they were unaware of the extent to which any party in government is forced to adopt not the policies it might like to but those dictated by the conditions it finds. Yet Healey and Benn should know this, for they were both ministers in the last Labour government, which, like others before it, made extravagant promises about social reform and wealth sharing then very quickly found that capitalism would not allow these promises to be carried out. In 1973 the Labour Party publication Labour's Programme for Britain, with which both Healey and Benn were closely associated, promised 'a massive and irreversible shift in the distribution of both wealth and power in favour of working people and their families'. The following February Benn said: 'The crisis that we inherit when we come to power will be the occasion for fundamental change and not the occasion for postponing it.' And when Labour got to power later that year, Healey made his famous pledge to 'squeeze the rich until the pips squeak'.

Dismal failure
A measure of what actually happened in the five years of Labour rule that followed was given on the 30th of January 1979 when Robert Sheldon, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, stated in the House of Commons that an average family of four were £2.65 per week worse off in real terms than in 1974. Then in July 1979 the Royal Commission on the Distribution of Wealth and Income reported that in 1974-76 (the first two years of Labour rule) the richest one per cent of the population increased its share of the national wealth from 22.5 per cent to 24.9 per cent and the richest 10 per cent increased theirs from 57.5 per cent to 60,6 per cent. (The gap between rich and poor had actually shrunk a little during the previous Heath administration — further evidence of how capitalism has a mind of its own regardless of which party is in power.)

Neither Healey nor Benn resigned their Cabinet posts during that dismal failure of a government, and Healey now even denies that Labour failed at all. In his deputy leadership manifesto (Socialism with a Human Face, September 1981), he is not ashamed to call the 1974-79 government 'quite a remarkable success'—which, if it was, makes one wonder what actual failure would be like for a Labour government!

False morality
That Healey lacks modesty and the capacity to admit failure is further illustrated by the form of his manifesto, a 'put-up' interview with a political friend, and by the breathtaking statement (p. 14): "The only reason why I'm a politician rather than the things I'd like to have done (such as being a film director or writing a book on the theory of beauty or about art) is that I do want to change the world" (our emphasis). Benn is not so far behind either. In an interview in the Sunday Times (6 September 1981) he did not shrink from volunteering the information that 'When I was ill I had 5000 letters' and that he aimed to be Prime Minister.

In professional politicians none of this should perhaps be surprising. But what does make you sit up is the high-sounding moral formula they use to dress up their meanness and self-concern. Healey's manifesto for example is littered with pious appeals to such things as 'human brotherhood', 'the moral objective' and 'the tradition of humanity and common sense'. Yet it fails to explain what happened to these high ideals when, during Labour's last term of office, 45,000 old people died from hypothermia each year, seven million people were living at or below the official poverty line, thousands of hospital beds were cut, prices and unemployment doubled and council house building was reduced to its lowest rate since the war.

The unspoken answer is that the world market and the property-protecting laws of capitalism made nonsense of 'human brotherhood', 'the moral objective' and 'humanity and common sense'. They showed as always that you cannot have capitalism and escape its consequences. You cannot administer a system based on the principle of 'no production no profit' and hope that people will not suffer from the application of this principle. You can't do it, as Benn would like, by nationalising things. Nationalised concerns—like private ones—as we are constantly being told, must be 'viable'. Their function anyway is not to abolish or attenuate the effects of the profit system but to get it to work better as a whole.

Giving the game away
Yet, despite their lofty morality, if you listen to the Healeys and the Benns long enough, in the end they give the game away. Benn did it when, after the first flush of the last Labour government's enthusiasm had died down, he said: 'The government does not dictate the pace of industrial change. It interacts with reality" (Guardian 21/5/75). Healey did it last month in his manifesto: "I don't believe that socialism is compatible with a fixed body of doctrine. Society changes from year to year, from country to country; the essential thing in politics is the moral objective. The means by which you seek to achieve it are bound to be different in different countries at different times". What they were both saying here was "give us carte blanche to do what we like when we get to power and we'll call it socialism.

Middle class or working class? (2001)

From the August 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

If you are a member of the so-called “middle class”, is your life better than a member of the “working class”? Well, your income may be higher, and this may enable you to obtain a better home, a better car, better food, better electronic goods, a better pension, better child education, better holidays . . . But then again, let's take a closer look at those “better” benefits.

Keeping hold of that better home may depend on you not losing your better income. But with globalised free markets, there comes unavoidable pressure on employers to minimise wages and maximise savings in order to stay in business and increase profits. This results in job losses from mergers and takeovers as firms seek efficiencies of scale, greater market share and more financial clout and protection from becoming bigger players. There is also further pressure to keep up with more competitive rivals who sack employees here as new technology permits switching over to cheaper workers in large call centres and other remote business service facilities in counties like India. Previously “safe” occupations like banking and insurance have already seen such transferences of many jobs, and this trend will inevitably continue with many more lower-paid employees in other countries taking over from the middle class in additional occupations as the technology and business opportunities make this more attainable and appealing.

That better car will often get snarled-up in traffic with all the others wasting your precious time. The police will set up increasing numbers of speed cameras to raise revenue as you rush about to, from and during work, causing you further aggravation. Privatised traffic wardens, too, will want to keep their jobs by taking some of the pay from yours if they can. Your insurance will keep rising as growing inequality causes poorer motorists to choose inferior cheaper policies, or avoid paying altogether. Eventually, the carcinogenic chemicals and particulates from exhaust fumes inhaled during all those years of driving may exact their toll on your health – perhaps just after you retire to enjoy your last work-free years.

That better food you bought – organic of course – may in fact turn out to be nothing of the sort. When it's so easy to use deceptive labels or sell ordinary food as organic and thereby pocket far bigger profits, and there are no, or very few, expensive checks on quality, your hopes of avoiding pesticides, fungicides and other nasties will be defeated by others ruthlessly pursuing that same capitalist necessity called money that you yourself are also chasing, day in, day out.

The better video cameras, TVs, computers and other electronic gizmos are being manufactured to become obsolete in ever shorter periods of time as businesses ever desperate for more profit want you to buy another new replacement. And another. And another. And as you do so, the landfill sites grow ever bigger with dangerous poisons that will leech into the water we drink, and rubbish incinerators will pump ever more quantities of cancer-causing PCBs, dioxins and other chemicals into our lungs.

The better pension you expected to enjoy after you retire turns out to have not been as successfully invested as you thought, and will only provide a half or even a third of what you had expected, leaving you with the prospect of either making do with a much worse standard of living in your old age, or continuing to work into your 60s or even your 70s, assuming you are able to, and can find an employer wanting someone who may then be far less efficient than a blindly enthusiastic younger employee.

The better educated children will no doubt “benefit” from their schooling and parental encouragement to become middle class workers themselves, doomed to carry on the same crass competition for bigger pieces of cheese in the endless rat race.

And when you go on your better holiday – assuming you haven't been affected by “presenteeism”, and avoided taking it for fear of being seen as lacking commitment – do you honestly think that a couple of weeks in the sun will make up for all those months of pressure and stress?

Worst of all there's your failure to see that you never did belong to a superior middle class, since your exploitation to produce profits for employers meant you were in fact a member of the working class, with problems and suffering just as bad as experienced by those stacking supermarket shelves, selling McFood or sewing clothes in sweat shops. And by failing to see that you were all collectively exploited by capitalism – instead believing yourself to have been above others – you helped maintain the divisive system that unnecessarily cheated, manipulated and punished you all. An overwhelming majority of people who had always possessed the opportunity to come together and get rid of all their problems for good, but never had the sense to do it.

Do you agree that all workers who produce profit for others, by being denied full payment for their work – the only way profit can be made – are in the same capitalist boat? You do? Then why not row with us towards a money-less, stress-free, socialist future of free access to whatever we need, rather than keep going round in inescapable circles by constantly competing with one another? Wouldn't that be “better” for us all?
Max Hess