Monday, December 7, 2015

John Lennon (1981)

From the January 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

Newspapers have described the tragic death of John Lennon as the end of an era. We wish they were right. We wish it was the end of a period of human society in which rock singers could accumulate millions of pounds from the sale of records while millions starve for want of a bowl of rice; we wish we could write an obituary to the violent social system of capitalism in which men like Lennon's alleged murderer can easily obtain and use a gun; we wish we could report the end of the wars and malnutrition and the inequality which Lennon sang about so well. But the era of capitalism is still with us and there will be others to grow rich singing about the miseries it causes.

Lennon was a talented musician and lyricist who understood the world he lived in more than most of his musical colleagues. Some of his songs showed definite political perception and what is generally considered to be his greatest post-Beatles record, 'Imagine', showed an understanding of the meaning of socialism which is almost unmatched in the history of rock music. The song urges people to imagine a world without possessions, countries, wars, hunger or religion. When a meeting of our companion party, the Socialist Party of Canada, was shown on Canadian TV, 'Imagine' was selected by the producer as the most appropriate theme song to sum up our views.

Rock critics regarded Lennon's message with predictable hypocrisy. While claiming that Lennon was a great musician and that they were in tune with what he was trying to say, they have disparaged such songs as 'Imagine' as an "idealistic vision". (Robin Denselow, the Guardian, 12.12.80.) They prefer to stress Lennon's more easily categorised leftist lyrics, such as those on 'Some Time In New York City' in which he expressed his support for the divisive nationalism of the IRA. Like many people, John Lennon vaguely perceived important socialist ideas, but these became confused with the pragmatic radicalism for which he will be remembered by the trendy sloganisers of the Left. For genuine world socialists the vision of a society of which Lennon sings in 'Imagine' is worth more than any of the sterile aggression of modern punk rock. The man may be dead, but the vision of a world of peace, equality and freedom lives on within the socialist movement which neither Lennon nor his supporters have had the wisdom to join. At the risk of being labelled a Marxist-Lennonist, this writer echoes the words of 'Imagine'
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope one day you'll join me
And the world will live as one.

Vital Changes (2015)

Book Review from the December 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

'The Killing Fields of Inequality', by Göran Therborn. Polity £14.99.

Yet another book on inequality and its consequences? Yes, and one that contains a lot of statistics but that also has some new points to make about the types of inequality and their impacts on people’s lives.

Therborn distinguishes three kinds of inequality. The first is vital inequality, dealing with people’s life chances (life expectancy, likelihood of years without serious illness, etc). The second is existential inequality, referring to people’s autonomy, dignity and freedom (thus covering any discrimination on the grounds of gender, sexuality, ethnicity and so on). Lastly is resource inequality, primarily a person’s wealth and income but also including the support they receive from their parents.

As this suggests, one of the book’s strengths is its emphasis on inequalities other than those of income and wealth. Therborn argues that what should be aimed at is ‘equality of capability to function fully as a human being’ (taken from the writings of Amartya Sen) and ‘the rights of all children to a good enabling childhood’. As the book’s title suggests, vital inequality is an important aspect of this, and in Ukraine, for instance, life expectancy is three years less for men than it was in 1990. In London among many other places, your lifespan depends to a large extent on how well-off you are. In general, lack of control over your life is bad for your health: the poorer you are, you are not just likely to die younger but to suffer more years of ill health.

As for existential inequality, discrimination on the grounds of gender is decreasing but still exists and is sometimes quite extreme (in South Asia, for instance). Therborn argues that existential equalisation is a non-zero-sum game: if women or gay people are in general subject to less prejudice or oppression, it does not by itself affect the lifestyles of the privileged. In contrast, resource equalisation is zero-sum: if the share of the poorest in the world’s wealth increases, that of the elite will decrease. Hence the rise in resource inequality in recent years, with countries such as Brazil and South Africa being the most unequal. And it was recently reported that there are more billionaires in China than in the US.

But, as so often in books along these lines, it is in the last couple of chapters that the author disappoints. Therborn accepts that capitalism will be around ‘for the foreseeable future’, and he appeals to the middle class (vaguely characterised as the non-rich and non-poor) to align with the poor. This way they can combat both the suffering of the poorest and the exclusivism of the oligarchs, leading to ‘an egalitarian enlightened society’. But he gives no reason to believe that egalitarian capitalism is possible. 
Paul Bennett

Fracking – A Bridge Too Far? (2013)

The Pathfinders Column from the January 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard
Earthquakes in Blackpool, flaming faucets in New York State. The hot new single issue of this year is surely fracking. Barely anyone even understands what it is yet but already the Greens are against it, and after the Chancellor gave the provisional thumbs-up including tax breaks to the new ‘unconventional gas’ industry in his December budget speech, right-thinking citizens everywhere will know in their hearts that fracking is definitely a ‘very bad thing’.
Fracking, or methane gas extraction through shale rock fracturing, is a text-book example of how capitalism periodically gets itself out of a fix by finding new commodities or techniques to replace old or unprofitable ones. The technique of fracturing rock with explosives and high-pressure water is being billed as new, but it isn’t. Nor is horizontal drilling, which is necessary because shale deposits are spread wide but thinly. The thing that is new is that getting gas this way is now economically and politically viable. Economical because ‘conventional’ gas is unevenly distributed and getting harder to extract, while it looks like everyone apart from Poland has got oodles of this unconventional shale stuff. And politically? Well, we all remember what happened when Russia spitefully turned off Ukraine’s taps in the middle of winter, and we don’t want to go down that unlit alleyway.
Fracking seems almost to have come out of nowhere. As is common in capitalism, and especially the USA, the smart money was straight down the well-heads before anybody thought to ask any awkward questions about regulation. And of course, first thing you know, cows are dropping dead after drinking poisoned water, flames are coming out of kitchen taps, and earthquakes are spilling cups of tea in northern England. Panic duly set in. The UK imposed a moratorium. Sarkozy banned fracking in France. Quebec and Poland followed suit. The main performance may yet turn out to be a success but the overture was certainly a disaster.
There can’t be many people who don’t know that the world is hitting an energy crisis. Oil is peaking, and tar sand oil extraction is a filthy, polluting alternative. Gas reserves are limited, and coal though plentiful is the dirtiest carbon culprit of the lot. Now after Fukushima nobody wants nuclear. Along comes shale gas, like a rabbit out of a hat, and hey presto, the opposition lobby is immediately in business. Protesters in Balcombe, one UK fracking site, insist that it is ‘a very, very short term choice. We really should be putting money into renewables’. Caroline Lucas of the Greens complains of the government’s ‘irrational obsession with hard-to-reach shale and with keeping the UK addicted to fossil fuels’ (BBC Online, 6 December).
These people don’t know what they’re talking about. If the Greens think that this or any government is going to be able to turn renewables, currently just 3.8 percent of the national grid, into a major energy source right in the middle of a depression, they are up a tree. What’s needed is a practical solution to an existing energy problem, and fracking looks like being it.
It’s not clean, but it’s 50 percent less carbon-belching than coal. It’s not easy to get but it’s getting easier. The much publicised fire faucets and poisoned water were almost certainly preventable accidents and cowboy carelessness at the well-head, rather than leaks from the kilometres-deep seams.
Although it’s still early days and nobody’s really sure how big the deposits are, the current global estimate is of around 250 years worth of shale gas at current usage, with the likelihood of revision upward not downward. This changes the whole energy debate at a stroke. Now the talk is of a bridging fuel to a low-carbon future, ie renewables, that could be a more realistic century away. The Greens are aghast. Their whole strategy relied on states having no get-out clause, and this doable solution is the last thing they want. They believe, not without justification, that ‘realistic’ is politician-code for ‘never’, and that fracking will allow governments to ignore any investment in renewables for the foreseeable future. They are no doubt entirely correct in this appraisal, but that’s an argument against capitalist politicians, not an argument against fracking.
This being capitalism, one would hardly expect the development of fracking to be straightforward and problem-free. One must remember that it is not a matter of answering the call of global need, which is fairly steady and predictable, but rather the call of profit, which certainly is not. Thus the US fracking bonanza has already depressed local gas prices, causing a minor energy slump and shareholder panic, but worse, investment has also slumped in conventional drilling and liquefied natural gas (LNG) technology. Since there is a decade-long lead time in the energy business between investment and return, we get the ludicrous situation, which only capitalism could create, that 10 years from now there could be a global shortage of gas due to its very abundance deterring current investors. If you want an example of capitalist absurdity you could do worse than this one.
Beyond this, it’s not really for socialists to take a position on fracking, either pro or con. It’s not a class issue, after all. If regulated properly, which is a big ‘if’ in some countries, there doesn’t at present seem to be much of a case against it. It’s true that methane produces 25 times more global heating than carbon, and there is some early and tentative evidence that it might leak up through the soil (New Scientist, 24 November), but it’s not a long-stay gas so its effect is not likely to be as severe. If every new technology was abandoned directly there was a small accident, we would not have cars, planes, electricity or even steam power. Fracking is new, and the idea of blowing up the ground under our feet may seem intuitively alarming, but geologically speaking it’s fairly insignificant unless some fool drills into an existing fault, and besides, what other immediate alternative is there? If the world miraculously mined its invaluable seam of common sense and abolished the real disaster  of private capital accumulation through the market system, we’d still have an energy problem and fracking would still look like a good bridging solution. Only in that case the world’s people might take the question of renewables with rather more seriousness than short-term capitalist politicians will. If the Greens ever want their arguments to carry any force, they should get real and support workers to abolish capitalism first.