Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Soft soap opera (1981)

From the April 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is a mark of the level at which political journalism is conducted when what seems to loom largest in the minds of some press commentators is the dress-sense, hairstyle, and love-life, of Shirley Williams. While all manner of things may be germane to our political and social condition, does the existence in William's one-time Oxford rooms, of seven photographs of Peter Parker, (Guardian, 10 February), have any possible bearing on that condition? What, one is entitled to ask, will these newspaper hacks cobble up for us next?

The reason for printing such irrelevant hogwash is a determination in Fleet Street and broadcasting to build up the Labour Party's latest defectors as the beautiful people of British politics (even if that means the inclusion of Roy Jenkins). We are to be persuaded that these dilettantes are more concerned with the "moderate" decencies of political life than with its intrigue and infighting. In fact, what primarily motivates the media is the perpetuation of privilege and patronage among an "in" group who are assured of a comfortable ride on one or other of the band-waggons operated in the interests of our masters (who can recognise a loyal servant when they see one.)

The "sacrifices" such as Shirley Williams and her friends are flaunting in our less-than-terstained faces are those of the true class -collaborator, who would be (Roy Jenkins and Lazards, for example) received into almost any boardroom in the country. Neither would such people have much difficulty in being accepted by their Fleet Street friends, or by the BBC or IBA. To these latter they are very much a commodity, produced for sale with a view (that of the media) to profit. So naturally they can afford to play ducks and drakes with the organisation which provided them with so very lucrative a platform from which to mislead, and betray, the class they purported to represent.

The point about the whole sorry mess is that the defection from the Labour Party of a handful of disaffected class collaborators must essentially be a matter of indifference to us of the working class. It is a true measure of the sort of organisation the Labour Party is (and always was) that it can contain so motley a crew of the misguided, the careerist, the opportunistic and the sycophantic. The real surprise is that Williams and Co. have decided that their political fortunes lie elsewhere. After all, as will become increasingly plain as the months pass by, the Labour Party will revert to type: a reformist hotch-potch; a "broad church", complete with its pocket-lining priesthood, offering the working class nothing more nourishing than the same old mixture of pious platitudes and shop-soiled placebos. Right up Shirley Williams' street, one would have thought: but no—she's off; even if she has to be seen standing an awful long time upon the order of her going. (But then she would no doubt wish to maximise both the damage to her erstwhile colleagues and the publicity to herself.)

It is certain, should the beautiful quartet represented by Williams, Owen, Rogers and Jenkins, manage to play in tune, we shall shortly discover that their music has a remarkably familiar ring. Before so very long the cynical rhetoric will begin to fly. No amount of thumbing through Roget's Thesaurus will disguise the old shibboleths: the inevitable "incomes policy", even should it be further euphemised as, say, "rational rewards", or "restructured reimbursements", will remain an attempt strictly to control wages. A Centre Party, or as they may prefer to call it, a "Social Democratic Alliance", will, willingly or unwillingly—wittingly or unwittingly—run capitalism in the interests of those who primarily benefit from it: the capitalists. And if this means—as it will—a continued toleration of all the inequalities, frustrations and miseries so familiar to those who collectively produce all wealth, then our "social democrats" may confidently be expected to remain dry-eyed as they toast each other in their Limehouse redoubt.

Rodgers, Jenkins, Williams and Owen.
For make no mistake about it, Williams and Co. are quite unable to do anything more effective than jerk on the ends of the strings the ruling class have strung them with. The nearest mention of Karl Marx's name would be enough to send our Shirl scurrying for her crucifix (or whatever equivalent she might prefer). These people have deliberately chosen not to arm themselves with the sharpest weapons available to us. Again this is natural enough, for there is no career to be carved out of the ripping away of the mask from the face of capitalistic exploitation. So they turn to the likes of John Maynard Keynes and, using his tool-kit, they tinker with what has manifestly become a clapped-out old banger. Oh, yes: it can be made to cough and stutter on almost indefinitely; but how many of us are to be asphyxiated along the way?

So, should a "Social Democratic" Party start to roll it must merely mean that the politics of capitalism will have been further fragmented. The divisions and sub-divisions; the shades of meaning already virtually numberless, and to be found both within the parties and outside them, will have been further increased. Understanding of our class position will have been even further confused. Workers, offered once again a multiplicity of predictably mendacious "solutions" to the inevitable crises of capitalism, may well be tempted to turn to a shiny new grouping; (well, dusted off and refurbished, anyway). They might as well resort to a chiropodist to cure a hopelessly gangrenous leg. For it is the capitalist system itself which is solely responsible for the contradictions and absurdities, the cruelty and waste we see all around us. Capitalism works on a cold and irrational cruelty which leads to a total disregard of the cost as measured in human lives; it is under a compulsion to behave in this way. And capitalists, while exploiting the working class, must also gobble up each other: it is their only way "forward".

Labour's Gang of Four (or however many they are by now) may be the beautiful people of British politics but they are trying to do the same ugly job as all the others.
Richard Cooper

Another question, Mr Morris (2006)

Book Review from the February 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Tony Pinkney, ed: We Met Morris: Interviews with William Morris, 1885-96. Spire Books £19.95.

In the 1880s the interview was a fairly new journalist technique, and a range of publications, from Justice to the Daily News and Bookselling, wanted to have William Morris’s views on a variety of topics. Most of the thirteen interviews gathered here took place in Kelmscott House, his residence in Hammersmith. The result is an interesting view of Morris as a person (generally dressed in a blue serge suit and smoking incessantly) as well as an insight into his opinions on political and other matters.

In 1885, Morris gave his reasons for leaving the Social Democratic Federation to help form the Socialist League. The SDF had been run ‘arbitrarily’, and it was heading towards ‘political opportunism tinctured with Jingoism’. The League, in contrast, would ‘uphold the purest doctrines of scientific Socialism, and + educate and organize towards the fundamental change in society’. In an interview from 1890, Marx is given credit for starting off the Socialist movement on scientific lines, and for showing that Socialism is ‘the natural outcome of the past’. There is a pleasant image of Socialism having ‘a public library at each street corner, where everybody should read all the best books, printed in the best and most beautiful type’. An 1894 criticism of anarchism is backed up by the argument that it is important to get control of parliament rather than attempting an insurrection (a contrast with his earlier opposition to parliamentary methods).

But this same interview acknowledges ‘the wisdom of the S.D.F. in drawing up that list of palliative measures’, i.e. a policy of reformism, something which Morris himself had previously rejected. In 1885 he also talked of the need for leaders, though it is not entirely clear what they are to do other than explain Socialist ideas, so this can hardly be taken as support for a Bolshevik-style vanguard. An interview with a woman journalist reveals some views which, to put it kindly, show that Morris was a man of his time: ‘I feel very strongly that a working man’s wife is needed in her home, and it is a pity when she has to leave it to compete in the labour market.’ (Shades of News from Nowhere, where it seems to be the women who do the housekeeping.)

It helps to have some previous acquaintance with Morris’ ideas and writings, but this is a well-produced volume which shows him in an unfamiliar and revealing light.
Paul Bennett

Sports Results (1949)

From the February 1949 issue of the Socialist Standard

1948 was a year that will remain long in the memories of English sports fans. The Olympic Games were held here, an Australian cricket team visited and toured the country and the usual football, cricket, horse racing, dog racing, speedway and other sporting features had their place. The relative merits of prominent footballers and first-class cricketers have been hotly discussed. The abilities of various race horses and jockeys have been the subject of much argument. The Olympic contestants from all over the world have been cheered and applauded. Evenings have been devoted to the weekly ritual of completing the football pool coupons.

Late in the year a controversy arose over the business of the transfer of football players from one club to another. Football clubs will pay thousands of pounds to other clubs to obtain the transfer of a top-line player. The players become tied to the clubs that buy them. If they leave the club with which they are registered, they are barred from earning a living as professional footballers by playing for any other club.

Capitalism has converted to its own ends the many institutions thrown up by society in the course of its development and the sporting institutions have certainly not escaped. Sports and games, once the care-free expression of the joy of living, have become, for most of us, an entertainment to relieve the monotony of living.

At one time, man's sport was centred in the struggle to wrest from nature the means of life. Exceptional prowess in the hunt, etc., was the pinnacle of achievement. But now, except for those whose livelihood is derived from it, sport is practically divorced from the business of producing life's necessities. In a few rare instances, men cling to the old forms of enjoyment connected with the tussle with nature, instance fishing. In the main, sports have taken on a new aspect with each change in the social structure. The games and pastimes of the medieval village differ greatly from the more vigorous pursuits of barbarians before them, and the pay-at-the-gate type of game that we get today.

For the majority of workers nowadays, life is a continual round of drudgery and toil and monotony. They have no control over their labour—no interest in their products. There is no "joy of workmanship" for them. Home comfort  for many is more of an ideal than a fact. They have but few opportunities and little inclination to leave the towns and cities to enjoy the countryside. Too tired after their toil to engage in active recreation, the majority of workers seek a little respite in the entertainments offered them.

This condition of affairs offers a fruitful field for investment to those with wealth to spare. The institution of sport is seized upon and corrupted in the interest of capital. It becomes an industry. We see the amateur displaced by the professional and gate receipts become the motive for organising games. Even the remaining amateurs must play to the gallery to ensure patronage—or just get squeezed out. The players are subject to exploitation and intensification just as are other workers. Players who are at the top of their class are a money-making attraction and the clubs that employ them bind them in a form of slavery.

In a drab and unromantic world people seek thrills and excitement. These are provided by profit seekers whose interest is not in "sport for sport's sake," but in balance sheets and dividends.

Here is an instance of an institution, drawing its vitality from a deep social need, being converted to an instrument for producing profit. That it is used as a means for retarding the spread of revolutionary ideas, we are well aware. Although it may not be a conscious intention to do so, yet the organised professional sports of today serve the same purpose as the gladiatorial contests of the days of the declining Roman Empire. Whilst the exploited populace is applauding the contestants, in either greaves or shin-guards battling with either trident or tennis racquet, they are giving no thought to their exploitation or the means to end it. In this way sport serves a dual purpose. It produces profit for a few and it keeps the minds of the workers filled with thoughts of league matches and cup ties, winners for the 2.30, featherweights and heavyweights, Oxford and Cambridge, greyhounds and hares, holes, goals, tries, l.b.w.'s and all the other jargon and paraphernalia of present-day sport. Not forgetting totalisators and permutations.

Socialism, by ending exploitation, will end drudgery; by abolishing poverty it will abolish sordidness. Men and women will find life more interesting, they will find that it can be an adventure in itself. They will not be driven to seek artificial excitement. Friendly rivalry will take the place of cut-throat competition, on the sports ground as elsewhere. Sport can then be the means of allowing men to exhibit their physical strength, their fleetness of foot, their keenness of eye, their powers of endurance and their agility. It can satisfy man's desire to play. That was its original function. Capitalism has degraded it. Socialism can amend it. Socialism can make life entertaining so that men can use sports as a means of recreation, so that they will not be so tired and bored that they need to make of it a form of "pass-time."
W. Waters