Thursday, December 17, 2015

Having a rotten Christmas (1983)

A Short Story from the December 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

"I suppose", said Tomlinson, waving his hand-rolled Old Holborn as if it were a large, expensive cigar, "you'll be spending it at home with the family?" I looked at him with a wary surprise; for three years in that office I had been working under, or perhaps I should say had been terrified by, him — by the huge temper which sparkled behind his pebble glasses, by the rage which he regularly turned on me when he knew he had made a mistake. if I could find the courage, I would hand in my notice. Now, on this Christmas Eve, I was unnerved by his unaccustomed affability, with its hint that he saw me as a human being who might after all live in a home with a family.

Without warning he lunged to grip my shoulder, bared orange teeth and coaxed across his face, now very close to mine, an expression I had not seen there before. This was it, I thought — the physical attack I had feared for so long, and with wing-like gyrations of my elbow I tried to dislodge his hand. But his grip was strong (he had once been an Olympic gymnast) and for some seconds we writhed wordlessly at his desk until, as he panted "Merry Christmas", it dawned on me that he was smiling.

Tomlinson was shipping manager to a small firm which had begun its life in an office and warehouse in the City of London, importing and selling chemicals. There was, to put it mildly, a resistance to change there; the management was entrenched in a traditional formality which, among other things, ensured that you had to work there for years before you could earn the prefix "Mister" to your name. Nobody, of course, ever used their first name and if one of the secretaries got married the rest of the staff simply continued to call her by her maiden name.

The post-war property boom had blasted the firm out of the high rents of the City into a modern, bleak building in a west-suburban industrial estate. Quite a few of the employees lived in the East End and beyond; before the move they had had a simple journey to work but now each day they had to travel from one end of the Central Line to the other, reading their Daily Express and telling each other jokes using their surnames/ Whatever the reason for such loyalty, it could not have been that the firm were paying high wages. I know that I was paid well below the going rate and, after one fearfully sneaked look at his pay packet, I knew that Tomlinson, for all his airs, was treated no better. Twice a year we got a bonus which was handed out, after weeks of coy reminders from Tomlinson, as if the firm was swamping us in generosity.

It was in this mood that Tomlinson approached me that day. We had just received the Christmas bonus and I suppose he expected my usual enmity would have been disarmed by gratitude. It was, he may have reasoned, the season of good will (although there was never any celebration in that firm); time to repair some of the damage he had done during the rest of the year, perhaps to catch me off guard with an admission that the firm was a relaxed, friendly, caring bunch and that Tomlinson was an impulsively warm and festive personality.

In my gloomier, more penetrative moments I could see that what might be called right was on their side. Far beyond the passages and courts of the City, beyond the gimcrack suburbs, the popular christian festival of Christmas is offered to us just as Tomlinson was offering his hand to me. In the midst of a war, with thousands dying each day in unimaginable fear and pain, Christmas is the time for monarchs and statesmen to place special emphasis on their obscenities about peace and human dignity. A social system in which an abundantly rich minority live off a grindingly poor majority is justified, when Christmas comes, in soothing words about the good times which will come when we have had a change of heart. As millions die each year in famine, Christmas feeds us with its special brand of hypocrisy. Its festivity is a time to try to escape an inexorable, horrible reality, for workers to disguise their impoverished homes in tinsel and coloured paper and to anaesthetise their tensions at the prospect of the exploitation process waiting to swallow them again, when the holiday is over and the decorations are a dusty heap in a corner.

Christmas exists on the delusion that capitalism need be as it is — indeed, at times that it is not as it is. But this society is not a matter of human defects. Poverty exists, not because the working class, who suffer from it, are morally deficient and their masters morally perfect. War lays waste to life, not through human aggression or acquisitiveness. Society is blighted by repression, not because its people ignore moral instruction.

It cannot be said too often, or too emphatically, that the effects of capitalism are unavoidable as long as the system endures. Capitalism inexorably produces war, poverty and human degradation and these problems will not be abolished by seeking a change in hearts but through a revolutionary upheaval. Anything — like the Christmas interlude — which attempts to persuade us otherwise is an episode in hypocrisy and delusion.

All of this was apparent, as it always was with me, as I faced Tomlinson that Christmas Eve. I would like to be able to say that I shook off his hand and told him what I thought of him, of the company he adored, of the country he gave his loyalty to, of the social system he regarded as the ultimate in human rationality. But I wasn't up to it so I muttered and shuffled my feet. reached out for the bill of lading file and immersed myself thankfully in what Tomlinson called work.

And yes, I did spend it at home with my family, where all good wage slaves go at Christmas. But there was no escape there; for the family is not, as the queen so often tells us, a haven of warm security. It may not be too obvious, around the Christmas fireside, but the family has a role in capitalism — to socialise us from childhood into an acceptance of capitalism's privilege-based morality. There was no escape there nor anywhere; the Tories were not long back in power and Suez lay in the not-too-distant future. It was still possible before reality set in, for the media bandits to talk about a new Elizabethan age. I gloomily contemplated capitalism's future and the immediate fact that after Boxing Day everyone would stop being talkative and replete and go back to the deprived and furtive personalities of wage-slaves.

I had a rotten Christmas.

‘Surplus Theory’ versus Marxian Theory (2013)

From the April 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard
The work of Richard Wolff and Stephen Resnick contains some insights for socialists but it is not Marxian economics and is not socialist.
The late twentieth-century saw the demise of many governments that viewed themselves as heirs of the ideas of Karl Marx. The failure of these regimes was seen by their opponents as the triumph of capitalism and the death of socialism. With the rise of neoliberal economics in advanced industrial countries the future of the left did indeed seem bleak. The legacy of Karl Marx and Marxian socialism, however, was far from dead. As the current global recession shook the confidence of neoliberal prescriptions Marx’s economic ideas received renewed attention. We examine here the theories of Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff in relation to class, surplus value, their definition of communism and how to achieve it. Richard Wolff in particular has gained much attention in light of the recession through his video When Capitalism Hits the Fan.
Reformist road to nowhere
The Socialist Party rejects the minority seizure of power or governing with a programme of reforms with the aim of achieving socialism at some point in the future. We argue that pursuing an objective of seizing power in the name of the working class or of a programme of reforms that aim at removing the worst excesses of capitalism do not move society any further towards socialism. Replacing the immediate objective of socialism with more immediate aims in effect removes the socialist objective altogether. Others, most others in fact, who have called themselves socialist or communist in the last century and today have rejected this approach. They have argued for the necessity of the seizure of state power by minority parties or, more often, have seen in the reform programmes of labour parties the hope of gradual socialist transformation. The experience of the twentieth century saw the failure of these approaches to transform society on socialist lines. What ensued was the collapse of confidence in the possibility of socialism and indeed in the belief that there was any alternative to capitalism.
If it was assumed that various governments had been or were in fact variants of socialism or communism then it is quite understandable that confidence in that political outlook would either diminish or that a reworking of assumptions would occur, given that the populations of these ‘socialist’ countries appeared to prefer capitalism. Marxism or ‘socialism’ could either be discarded or the understanding of them reassessed. Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff are in the latter category and have reworked Marxian economics into ‘surplus theory’, which attempts to reinterpret Marxian economics in the light of the failure of so-called ‘socialist’ and ‘communist’ governments to arrive at their declared communist objective.
To their credit they do not define the former USSR, China, Cuba, etc. as socialist but as state-capitalist. Likewise they acknowledge that the various attempts to regulate or reform capitalism in the name of socialism resulted in merely more regulated capitalism rather than something different to capitalism. In fact, Wolff and Resnick describe quite nicely the swings, often in response to economic crises, between relatively less or relatively more regulated capitalism in the last century or so. They reject the idea of socialism as it is commonly misunderstood – as state ownership and planned production as against capitalist private ownership and production for the market. At the root of their argument is the understanding that private or state capitalism merely changes the exploiter and does not remove the exploitation. However, their understanding of the root of the exploitation of the working class is at odds with the arguments developed by most Marxian socialists who regard the former USSR and other such regimes as state capitalist.
Russian state capitalism
For us in the Socialist Party capitalism remained intact in the USSR because buying and selling, commodities, value, prices and profit continued. The employers, ceased to be private individuals owning capital and became instead the state, which owned and controlled the large scale means of production and received the surplus value produced. In place of a narrow elite of private owners of the means of production emerged a narrow social elite who controlled the state. The fundamentally exploitative relationship between capital and labour remained intact with the continued existence of money, wages, commodities, exchange, prices and the growth of a bureaucratic and brutal state. We argue that the disappearance of all of these facets of capitalist society would in fact be necessary before a socialist society could be argued to exist.
For Resnick and Wolff on the other hand capitalism remained intact because the mere legal transfer of private to state property and the shift of power from private capitalists to the state did not produce change at the enterprise level. The workers, the producers of surplus value, they argue, must also become the appropriators of surplus value. Their definition of communism is a society where those who produce the surplus in a given enterprise are the same people who own it and control its distribution. Their argument is the result of the application of their ‘surplus theory’, which condenses the three volumes of Capital into saying that Marx was essentially analysing past and present societies according to who appropriates and distributes the surplus produced in a given society. In this way their ‘surplus theory’ can be applied to areas like the family, where it is argued that men have historically extracted surplus labour from women in the home.
Conflict over surplus
Whilst Resnick and Wolff promote their analysis as Marxian, it is in fact a simplified departure from classical Marxian ideas that would have Marx turning in his grave. Marx and Engels and many subsequent socialists considered socialism to be a society which transcends wage-labour and money. ‘Surplus theory’, by contrast, sees no problem with the continuance of money, wages, commodities, exchange, prices and the state. From its perspective, as long as the productive workers obtain the surplus-value of their work and control its distribution then society is communist.
There is a thorny issue for ‘surplus theory’ to deal with in the relationship between ‘productive’ and ‘unproductive’ workers. This is a distinction between those workers in capitalist societies who produce surplus value (e.g. factory workers) and those workers who do not (civil servants, sales staff, security guards, etc.). Of course the one cannot exist without the other and in socialism, according to our definition, there would no longer be such a distinction as there would be no surplus value (although there would be a surplus of goods, of use-values). However, in a socialist society as defined by Resnick and Wolff there would be a tension between those who produced the surplus value and those that drew from it without contributing to it. They get around this by suggesting job-rotation and other practicable but pointless solutions.
The whole concept of ‘surplus theory’ is simplistic and misleading. Wolff and Resnick describe a process within capitalism where capitalists appropriate surplus value and then redistribute portions of it in order to reproduce the process. These payments are termed ‘subsumed class payments’ and include such things as taxes, wages to ‘unproductive’ employees, rent, interest, advertising, etc. In practice capitalists do not immediately appropriate surplus value but rather the products of the labour of their employees which they hope to sell on the market as commodities at a price that will provide them with a profit (the realisation of surplus value as money). It is not possible to distinguish the appropriation of surplus from the distribution of it as ‘subsumed class payments’ since the process is simultaneous and mostly determined behind the backs of those involved as market transactions (although boards do deliberate on how to distribute accumulated surplus value as cash reserves). Capitalism is an anarchic system of social production in which the capitalist class as a whole appropriates surplus value from the working class as a whole and cannot be understood adequately at the level of the individual enterprise.
What is class?
The use of ‘surplus theory’ can be confusing because it is written in terms familiar to Marxian socialists but with a quite different meaning. When they discuss class, for example, they define it by relationship to surplus value and reject definitions based on power, property or consciousness. For them, your place in capitalism is defined by whether you produce surplus value, derive your wages from surplus value (both working class according to our definition) or whether you appropriate the surplus value and control its distribution (the capitalist class). All processes which do not relate to the direct production of ‘surplus value’ are classified as ‘non-class processes’, such as education, culture and even politics. Their philosophical concept of over-determination (see ) comes into play again because class is also argued to be no more important than non-class aspects of society – it is argued that that would be reductionism. By this reasoning if you change the class relationship, if you change the ownership and control of surplus value, other changes (at this point unknowable) will follow as class relates dialectically to all other areas of life.
This is a deliberate attempt to try to keep ‘surplus theory’ clear of issues of ownership or power. Socialism has failed to date, Resnick and Wolff argue, because socialism has been defined according to who owns the means of production and/or who controls them. This has led to various governments being called socialist because some of the means of production have passed into state ownership and, if enough of the means of production have been transferred, a large measure of social and political power is likewise conferred. This leads to their abstruse and obfuscating ‘surplus theory’ in which ‘communism’ according to their definition can exist in an economy with state ownership or private ownership and with state planning or markets or a blend of all of these features.
However, capitalism is a system of social production in which private property and the state developed to enable and maintain the expropriation of surplus value via wage-labour. Class (in the classical Marxian sense of the relation of the individual to the means of production) is, of course, not the only or necessarily the most important relation in a given identity or event – it does not determine our lives in any mechanical way. It does, though, suffuse our social experience and shapes and limits our individual and social possibilities. The position of the Socialist Party is at odds with Resnick and Wolff‘s ‘surplus theory.’ Socialism, for us, entails a working-class consciousness of the basis of our exploitation and the necessity of political action to gain control of the state as part of a revolutionary process in which common ownership and democratic control of the means of production would replace capitalism, the private or state ownership of the means of production. Our understanding of class involves awareness of the importance not just of the appropriation of surplus value but its mutual dependence on property relations and the state as well as, crucially, the developed political consciousness of the capitalist class and the currently limited political consciousness of the working class.
Worker co-operatives
So, after all their work developing the theories of over-determination and ‘surplus theory’ what are the practical solutions offered up by Wolff and Resnick. How are the working class to advance towards a world in which they appropriate and distribute their own surplus? Wolff in particular promotes a strategy to achieve social change around the concept of Workers Self Directed Enterprises (WSDEs). These are, despite Wolff’s efforts to argue that they are something new, essentially worker’s co-operatives. These, it is argued, combined with activism to promote democracy and gain political support could be the basis for achieving social transformation. Here we are on familiar and not new ground. Wolff’s argument is similar to that of Eduard Bernstein who argued over a century ago that worker’s co-operatives were transforming capitalism from within, obviating the need for social revolution. Rosa Luxemburg countered then, as we do now, that workers forming a co-operative “are obliged to take toward themselves the role of capitalist entrepreneur – a contradiction that accounts for the usual failure of production co-operatives which either become pure capitalist enterprises or, if the workers’ interests continue to predominate, end by dissolving.” To achieve meaningful change through WSDEs would require massive social and political struggle with the end being a form of capitalism in which workers collectively exploit themselves.
Colin Skelly

"An Epitaph for George Dillon" — A Study in Failure (1958)

A Theatre Review from the June 1958 issue of the Socialist Standard

"Look Back in Anger," "The Entertainer" and now "An Epitaph for George Dillon": John Osborne's trilogy of failure. Jimmy Porter is a failure, Archie Rice is a failure, and George Dillon is a failure. This cannot be without significance, the question is—why? The remarkable success if these plays is largely due to a strong sense of identification that many people have with them. They unconsciously or otherwise see something of themselves in the problem children John Osborne has set before them on his stage.

Each of these three plays represents in one way or another the frustrations and disillusionment of youth in post-war Capitalism their sense of personal failure on the one side and the failure if Britain to remain a front-rank Power on the other, expressed in a soured romanticism the famous "anger," which paradoxically is aimed at those very elements they most desire. Romanticism is essentially the reaction of people to a society which fails to provide them with a satisfactory function. The inability of Capitalism to deal with this basic need thus creates a strong romantic craving for the nebulous "lost cause," for the ideal beyond the drab reality which, unlike in its formative years, the chromium-plated Capitalism of the mid-twentieth century is unable to satisfy. Society has no need of them. Consequently they contract out of the problems of Society, rejected, resentful and rebellious, seeking something, somewhere, that will claim them as its own. Cheated of their purpose and their identity, they seek instead a mythical past, looking backward in anger and also nostalgia, to an age which they imagine had a place in the sun for them as well as the country they pretend in their jilted patriotism to despise.

"An Epitaph of George Dillon," which John Osborne wrote in collaboration with Anthony Creighton, now running at the Comedy Theatre, presents us with the tragedy of such a failure. The artist in Capitalism—a tune without an instrument, unbidden and unwanted, a flower that has somehow strayed amongst the more practical vegetation—unlike his fellow workers in industry and commerce who at least have a point of contact, a specific function, however unsatisfactory and creatively barren.

George Dillon is an actor and playwright, guiltily ashamed of his social impotence. (The alienation of the artist from Society and also the stultifying of the artist in each one of us, making work more often than not a penance, is one of the most vicious aspects of Capitalism.) His failure to be a complete human being induces in him contemptuousness of his class through his inability to communicate with them on his own terms. Dillon's contempt and cynicism towards the working class family, on whom he lives is sickening. (Sickening also is the way some members of the audience find this funny.) The narrowness and meanness of their existence symbolises to Dillon his own predicament as an artist and their attitude to him, that of Society to all artists; betimes hostile, patronising, or merely uncomprehending. To the dire necessity of earning a living Dillon eventually succumbs: to suffer a fate worse in reality than complete negation as an artist. Our Society, with its hollow values—as the play shows—which makes even its own vapid morality bow before snobbery and cheap personal success, turns Dillon, the rebellious profligate outsider and erstwhile idealist, into a soggy hack-writer of "prolefeed." Now capitulated to Capitalism's suffocating conformity, it has a place for him at least—but not in the sun.
Ian Jones

Jack and the Beanstalk (1952)

From the March 1952 issue of the Socialist Standard

At this time of the year the pantomime season is drawing to a close and these Xmas plays are being taken off.

One of the plays regularly performed is "Jack and the Beanstalk." The story is of Teutonic origin and was written during feudal times. It tells of a peasant woman who is forced by poverty to send her son Jack to market to sell their cow. He exchanges it for a bag of beans. On his return home the woman throws the beans out of the window. They grow to a tremendous height during the night and Jack climbs to the top, to find himself in the realm of a giant. By subterfuge he steals the giant's money bags and when this money is spent and gone he goes back and steals the giant's magic hen. The second acquisition has the advantage that the possessor is able to live in permanent luxury as the hen lays golden eggs. The giant's harp warns its master, but Jack succeeds in making his getaway with the hen. The hen's supply of golden eggs enables Jack and his family to live happily ever after.

The audience not only enjoy the usual pleasures associated with attending a play, but, with this pantomime, as with some others, the additional pleasure of merging their own individual identities with some of characters in the play. To merge their identity with Jack and his mother is a very pleasant experience for many workers.

It makes a pleasing even if fantastic dream to leave their world of anxiety, toll, strife, working-class houses and working-class food through the ownership of a hen that lays golden eggs producing such wealth that the fortunate owner can satisfy all his wants. Quite an impossibility to so many workers' minds, much too good to be even though about—except in a pantomime.

Back at the process of making a living next day all thoughts of the pantomime are forgotten. There is no time for such dreams—the workers is far too busy producing wealth for his employer. And what wealth!! The golden eggs of Jack's hen appear quite insignificant against the profits the workers produce for those who own capital.

Just Take a Look at This:—
The profits of companies, public and private, in 1950, according to the Treasury White Paper amounted to £1,692 millions after deducting depreciation. The profits of 3,787 companies, which reported in 1951, as totalled by the Financial Times came to £1,873 millions. This total is an increase of 30 per cent. over the Financial Times 1950 figure of £1,431 millions. After depreciation the figures were £1,636 millions and £1,225 millions respectively.

Aspirations that now seem to many workers to be just wishful thinking can become reality just as soon as they realise that it is the ownership of the land, factories, transport systems, and the means of life generally by society that will enable these dreams to be realised by them. Then there will be no need to waste labour on armaments, advertisements, passports and the host of officials and clerks necessary for the present system of wealth production.

This will come about when the workers understand the exploitation basis of this system of society.

Socialist propaganda will help them. The task is urgent—will you join with us and help to make those dreams come true!
Frank Offord 

From Political Economy to Vulgar Economics (2015)

From the December 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

The history of economic research came up as an independent science in the seventeenth century. However, that didn’t happen all of a sudden. Long ago since ancient times, the process of rudimentary conceptualization and formation of political economic ideas had begun cropping up. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Hindus and other peoples were already acquainted with such economic categories as commodity, exchange, money, price, loan interest, commercial profit, and others. There are very interesting ideas and data in ancient Egyptian papyri; the code of Hammurabi, the ruler of Babylonia; the Vedas of Ancient India; Homer’s Odyssey and other works of the ancient Greek poet; the writings of Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle and other philosophers of Greek antiquity, and so on. However, what the ancients knew about economic categories was just embryonic.

The history of economic thought begins with the works of Xenophon, Plato and especially Aristotle, who made the first step towards a theoretical understanding of the economy of the ancient Greek society (which was at the stage of demise of the primitive-communal system and the rise of slavery), and articulated some remarkable ideas on value, commodity exchange, and the earliest forms of capital: trading (merchant’s) and usury capital.

Capitalist structures first took shape not in production, but in trade and monetary operations in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Eventually this evolutionary process of the upcoming capital came to be known as Mercantilism that expressed the interests of merchant’s capital in England, Italy and France. Its principal spokesmen were William Stafford (and Thomas Mun in England, Antonio Serra in Italy and Antoine de Montchrestien in France).

The term 'Political Economy' was first coined by the French mercantilist Antoine de Montchrestien in his Treatise of Political Economy (1615), which contained recommendations on how to run the state economy and multiply the country’s wealth. The term was derived from three Greek words: 'politikos' – state, social; 'òikos'- household or its management; and 'nomos' – rule of law, and so meant 'the laws of state management'.

Later on, in the eighteenth century, bourgeois political economy was developed by the Physiocrats: Francois Quesnay, Turgot, and others. François Quesnay was a French economist of the Physiocratic school. He is known for publishing Tableau économique (Economic Table) in 1758, which provided the foundations of the ideas of the Physiocrats. Turgot, Baron de l'Aulne, commonly known as Turgot, was a French statesman (and economist in his own right) heavily influenced by Quesnay.

In contrast to the mercantilists, they switched the emphasis in economic research from the sphere of circulation to the sphere of production.

Bourgeois political economy in that period [from the 17th century to the 1830s] was advanced by William Petty (1623 – 1687) in England and Pierre Boisguillebert (1646 – 1714) in France. They were the pioneers in formulating the labour theory of value. They were in effect the founders of classical political economy, which reached its peak in the works of the Scottish economist Adam Smith in the eighteenth century and the English economist David Ricardo in the early nineteenth century.

Karl Marx observed in 1859 in the section 'Historical Notes on the Analysis of Commodities' in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: 'The decisive outcome of the research carried on for over a century and a half by classical political economy, beginning with William Petty in Britain and Boisguillebert in France, and ending with Ricardo in Britain and Sismondi in France, is an analysis of the aspects of the commodity into two forms of labour – use-value is reduced to concrete labour or purposive productive activity, exchange-value to labour-time or homogeneous social labour.' In Capital (1867) he defined political economy: '… by political economy I understand the economy which since the time of W. Petty has investigated the real relations of production in bourgeois society'.

Marx made a distinction between such men as Petty, Smith and Ricardo and their successors. He wrote of the former that they devoted their efforts 'to the study of the real interrelations of bourgeois production', while the latter were 'content to elucidate the semblance of the interrelations' and to act in effect as apologists for the capitalist class. He called them 'vulgar economists'.

Engels had already warned, and shown great foresight, in 1843 when he wrote in his Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy: 'The nearer to our time the economists whom we have to judge, the more severe must our judgment become. For while Smith and Malthus found only scattered fragments, the modern economists had the whole system complete before them: the consequences had all been drawn; the contradictions came clearly enough to light, yet they did not come to examine the premises and still accepted the responsibility for the whole system. The nearer the economists come to the present time, the further they depart from honesty'.
Binay Sarkar