Sunday, December 27, 2015

Caught in the Act: Goodbye To All That (1991)

The Caught in the Act Column from the March 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard

Tory hopefuls will have felt their pulse quicken at the news that many of the parliamentary storm troopers of the Thatcher revolution will not be storming after the next general election. The list of ex-ministers who will not be standing again reads like a Thatcher cabinet - Geoffrey Howe, Nigel Lawson, Norman Tebbit, Cecil Parkinson, John Moore, Nicholas Ridley. It is even rumoured that Thatcher herself will soon announce her retreat from the battle for the triumph of market forces over soggy concepts such as social welfare. A tot of plum seats, with fat Tory majorities, will be looking for candidates.

This situation is given extra piquancy by the fact that many of the retiring ex-ministers were themselves once considered as future prime ministers. Howe’s claim to fame was that he spear-headed the drive to cut back government spending and establish the policy that any business which couldn't make a profit was thereby not worth saving with state money. Lawson was the yuppies' favourite Chancellor and in his heyday encouraged the illusion that through his budgets the British people were reaping the harvest of prosperity from the seed sown by the unglamourous, dogged Howe. Sadly for Lawson, he did not time his resignation so that his reputation remained intact. The chaos of capitalism was too much for even a smarty like him, reducing him to taking a few part time jobs in the City bringing in the odd £30,000 or so a year.

As recently as last November Tebbit was threatening to contest the premiership (and it would have taken some very brave men in grey suits to deter him) but in the end he deferred to Major. Perhaps he was hoping for a return to prime ministerial favour; in the event he showed what he thought of Major’s declared intention to fashion a more "caring" government by deciding that he needed to spend more time with his wife.

Cecil Parkinson paid the penalty for being one of Thatcher’s blue-eyed - at one time, indeed, the bluest of eyed-boys. Tory aspirants to the leadership must have watched, in impotent despair, Parkinson’s apparent inability to do anything wrong in Thatcher's eyes. He had, however, done wrong in the eyes of Sara Keays and no patronage could save him from the repercussions of this exposure of how Tory gentlemen behave when it suits them. After all, Tory moralists like to tell us that morals are, like Major's Britain, classless; they did not thank Parkinson for showing that they are supposed to apply only to the working class. When he eventually came back to office Parkinson seemed to have lost his touch; the past master of deception made a series of public relations blunders which were intended as shrewd, voter-attractive ruses - which did not amuse his anxious colleagues.

Another Thatcher favourite to plummet to obscurity was John Moore, who was once the subject of an enormous publicity exercise to convince us that he was an unusually capable administrator of capitalism's affairs. Moore basked happily in this praise and in Thatcher's admiration for his talents for assaulting working class living standards. It did not seem to occur to him, that so blatant a campaign carried its own menace. When events exposed him as a very ordinary sort of political blunderer there were no men in grey suits to save him from an especially humiliating demotion. He did make one last effort to claw his way back into favour by issuing what was supposed to be a serious analysis of the deeper levels of poverty in such a way as to suggest that it was all a product of over-excited imaginations. This latest blunder met with the contempt and derision it deserved and to no one’s regret - certainly not that of the very poor - Moore disappeared from the ministerial scene.

Nicholas Ridley for prime minister was a prospect supported by only a few of the stranger fanatics. Ridley has always conducted himself with all the arrogance and contempt of someone who has inherited a lot of money. As much of the wealth of this old Etonian’s family came from the exploitation of coal miners he was well qualified to help formulate the government's strategy against the miners during the early 1980s, which reached its ultimate triumph in the defeat of the 1984/5 strike and the subsequent run-down of the industry. On all this Ridley looked with a pitiless eye; this is, after all, capitalism under which wealth is produced, not so that people can hold jobs but for sale at a profit. He had a similar attitude to anyone who objected to what are politely called developments - factories, motorways, runways and the like which threaten to blight their living conditions - sneering at them as NIMBYS - one of those fashionable acronyms, for Not In My Back Yard.

It is not clear whether Ridley regarded himself as a NIMBY when he used his influence to obstruct the building of some houses which would have affected the view from his elegant, costly country home. The incident confirmed what was already known - that Ridley has an uncomplicated view of the world: capitalism is a class divided society in which he is in the right - the superior - class and he will take good care to assert his privileges and to defend them at whatever cost to others. It was a typical indiscretion about European unity which forced his reluctant resignation from the government; events had overtaken someone who did his best to live in the past.

So now we have a new set of politicians in charge, who claim they are inspired by fresh principles, new priorities and more humane ambitions. This change is personified by the greyer, lower-key manner of John Major. Perhaps there will be some minor and insignificant changes: Thatcher's stridency and obstinacy, and the sycophnacy of her cronies, were becoming so laughable that they were losing votes. And that is what it was - and is - all about.

Art racket (1985)

From the May 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

In 1974 the Tate Gallery exhibited some works by the Italian experimental artist, Piero Manzoni (1933-63). They included sealed tins of the artist's excrement and balloons containing his breath. In December 1970, an American artist, Tom Wesselmann, in an exhibition at the now extinct Mayfair Gallery. London, showed a work entitled Bedroom Titbox. This remarkable assemblage took the form of a still-life comprising an assortment of artificial objects decorously arranged in a glazed box. through a hole in the roof of which protruded—or rather, was suspended—an ample live breast. The remainder of the presumably impecunious young lady whose task it was to reveal this highly personal portion of her anatomy lay otherwise concealed across the top of the contraption. This she was apparently obliged to do from ten o'clock in the morning until six o'clock in the afternoon on Saturdays, presumably with breaks. (Had a little wasp, out of understandable curiosity, crept into our box. doubtless an animated scene would have ensued. In the current climate of crazy opportunism in the art world this could profitably have been passed off as a particularly fine example of performance art, all the more effective for its spontaneous vitality.)

It is interesting to note that Manzoni's aim. at least, was to satirise the art-market's main preoccupation—to crank up and exploit the reputations of a handful of the more sensational avant-garde in the interests of their wealthy, if artistically cretinous patrons. In this context, it has been observed that the contents of Pablo Picasso's waste-paper basket were worth a fortune to the speculative scavenger. This is almost certainly true: your average Bond Street gallery-owner would have had them mounted, framed and flogged off to the nearest Texan oil millionaire before you could say "Marcel Duchamp”. (Ironically enough, Manzoni's own fortunes improved markedly as a result of his satirical tomfoolery—a fact which no doubt caused him much anguish.)

Where, then does all this leave serious art? It would be absurd to assert that, since works of art can be so profitable, they have necessarily to be intrinsically worthless. A glass of unpolluted water is of the essence despite our having to pay for it. And where art is not side-tracked, as it all too often is under capitalism, it can constitute, at its most expert and sensitive, a repository of aesthetic truths which owe nothing to the conditional requirements of the sale-room. Take, for example, the French painter. Paul Cézanne (1839-1906). If. today, you should happen to stumble across a few square inches of canvas and succeed in verifying that the brush-strokes on it are from the hand of this artist, then your financial worries are over. Cézanne, however, was a genius who, if we except a small group of his more discerning peers, went unrecognised in his own lifetime. However, he could afford to ignore the art-market: his father, a wealthy banker of Aix-en-Provence, had bequeathed him a lifetime's competence. Cézanne was thus able to paint as he wished without regard to prevailing fashion or wheeler-dealing. He was. if we are to believe what evidence is available to us, a misanthropic and impatient man. His work, not always easy to understand, is expressive of certain qualities which are better seen than discussed—tonality: colour and form; contour; composition; paint-handling; space, both on the surface and behind it; even a prophetic recognition of certain optical phenomena: all these qualities come together in Cézanne's canvases to form an uncanny unity which nevertheless is entirely and essentially material. The capitalists neither understood the work nor could they sell it. Cézanne, derided and ostracised, became “a prophet . . . not without honour, save in his own country . . .". Despite this ostracism. however, since his death his slightest works have become blue-chip items whose current wildly inflated values would have given the irascible old man a stroke.

So, on the one hand art-dealers are only too eager to parade their greedy philistinism by promoting "art" which they know to have been devised in order to lampoon the system, but which they also know will sell because of the signature (there are dupes aplenty with money to bum). On the other hand the hitherto unsaleable works of the serious, genuinely pioneering artist of independent means must eventually fall prey to one of those same dealers.

The artist must, then, unless lucky enough to be financially independent, be placed at the mercy of the capitalists, who of necessity are only interested in what yields a profit. Profits accrue from the fashionable (the denim jeans ramp—on the wane now, apparently—is a useful analogy here) so should you hope to "succeed" as a painter you had better be trendy. Once you've made it, however, you will find yourself the recipient of VIP treatment at the hands of some West End gallery owner: you will join his stable and, as long as his customers go on buying your—or, rather, his—work, he will henceforth exercise a virtual monopoly on everything you produce. What, you may ask, has all this to do with art? Why, it might just as well be a couple of cans of beer— which, as it happens, is exactly what Jasper Johns, the American painter, asserted it was with his Painted Bronze 1960, a cast of two beer cans, which was knocked down for ninety thousand dollars at Sotheby-Parke Burnet, New York, in October 1973.

The wayward idiocies of the hunt for the fashionable in art is obvious enough. What may not be quite so self-evident is the crooked nature of what passes for "honest dealing" in the sale-rooms and auction-marts, and in the studios of the forgers and fakers. The fact is that under capitalism objects of art have taken on many of the characteristics of real-estate, or gold. The finest and rarest art-works tend to retain, or even increase, their real cash value, and consequently are eagerly snapped up in the auction-rooms, to be offset against tax or as a hedge against inflation. In such a climate, and particularly in circumstances—technical and pictorial—in which forgery is relatively simple (the work of Vincent Van Gogh, for example) the temptation to cash in on the evidently insatiable demand is irresistible. What is interesting, however, is that the forgeries thus marketed are as often as not the most sorry apologies for the real thing, mere pastiches which, had dealer or purchaser taken the trouble to compare with the genuine article (in. say, the Tate Gallery, or the Courtauld Institute) would have been instantly recognisable for what they were. In fact, the late Tom Keating, mass producer of what he termed his "Sexton Blakes", professed astonishment that his faking of the work of Samuel Palmer (180S-81) escaped detection for so long. Keating understood perfectly that, where the grasping activities of the fine-art market are concerned, money always takes priority over aesthetics: if fools are prepared to throw their money away on freshly minted Turners or sticky Constables, who are the fakers or the dealers to complain? (Keating himself, it has to be stated, insisted that he never passed anything off as other than from his own brush.)

Nothing has been written so far about the auction ring, in which a group of dealers agree among themselves to force down the bidding, thereby denying the owner the true market price of the property. The work is later put up at another auction and permitted to achieve its proper price. Later on, in some quiet bar-parlour comes the share-out. Even the auctioneer is sometimes party to this skulduggery.

Clearly, then, art racketeering is a fertile field of study, only the surface of which has been touched on here. Art has anyway become merely a form of share certification, its original, pre-capitalist, significances having vanished to be replaced by speculation and greed. Since the days of the Post-Impressionists at the end of the nineteenth century art has ceased to be popularly understood and appreciated and has drifted into an almost irredeemable insularity. Indeed, we have seen that it can be outlandishly esoteric. Its more tangible and acceptable products end up in the entrance foyers and board-rooms of city banks and business houses, or on the walls of the jet-setters and wealthy socialites of Mayfair and Belgravia — where, that is, it isn't stored speculatively in the vaults of the big dealers. So, what the public at large have come to perceive as an almost totally incomprehensible enigma is at the same time a source of increasingly rich pickings in the sale-rooms. But, who knows? One day perhaps. Carl Andre can have his pile of bricks in the Tate and the homeless can have their pile of bricks in the form of a house, and neither will cost, or command, a penny or a cent in a world in which capitalism—and consequently the criminal meanness and stupidity which stem from it—will have vanished for ever.
Richard Cooper

Fighting the wrong class war (1979)

From the March 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

It has been the proud boast of the Labour Party that they are better at governing because of their "special relationship” with the trade unions. This means, in effect, that they claim to run capitalism better than the Tories by keeping the greedy working class in its place. Now, as the Callaghan government staggers to the end of its term, we witness one of the most remarkable wave of strikes that anyone remembers. Railwaymen, lorry drivers, dustmen, hospital porters, school caretakers, are all getting in on the act — and at the time of writing the miners haven't even come on the stage yet.

What has happened has been that a government has imposed wage restraint which, with greater or less reluctance, the workers, led by their stooge union bosses, have swallowed for a year or two. But. like trying to restrain the tide, it really can't be done. Wages are the price of the workers’ energies and skills and when, thanks to government-primed inflation, all other prices shoot up. then wages/prices will assuredly follow (though of course less assuredly in places like Warsaw or Cairo where the prices go up and the workers themselves go down — under a hail of bullets). And if the tide has been dammed for a period, then it breaks forth with even greater violence when the dam bursts. It is ironic that just at the time when the government of Labourite twisters needs the help of their fellow twisters of the TUC, the latter have to let them down by ending the so-called social contract. They realise that their sheeplike followers are rather displeased at their lowered standard of living and might well start biting their shepherds.

Unfortunately, the term "sheeplike” is all too apt. A lot of members of the working class have the ludicrous idea that whereas they themselves ought to have a “decent” wage and might even have to strike to get it, other workers and other unions are greedy and aggressive and in general are letting ‘‘our" grand old country go to the dogs in a welter of strife.

Meanwhile, the class solidarity of the workers, even at a time like this, is shown to be rather a sick joke. The letter columns of the papers have been stiff with complaints from workers who make it clear that other workers have got a damned cheek to try to grab higher wages. So the lorry drivers think they have a tough job and are entitled to a basic of £65, do they? Well, what about us ambulance drivers? Our basic is nearer £45 than £65. Ambulance drivers don’t know how well off they are. How would they like to manage on the wages that we hospital cleaners get? And it is worth spending a moment here to look at some of the figures detailed in an article in the Guardian of Jan 17 headed: How Do They Get By On £40 a Week? The short answer is that Mrs Penny Hibbins (her parents knew what they were about when they christened her), a domestic worker at a hospital in Devon, a divorcee with four young kids, has £5 left after rent, rates and what they call food.

Does the mind boggle? Well, let it boggle a bit more. "Indeed, Mrs Hibbins agrees that she is one of those doing comparatively well”! We hear all the time that things are nothing like as bad as they used to be. Times change all right. But the more they change, the more they stay the same. And another point is worth stressing here. In the old days, the Labour Party used to say it was all the fault of greedy private capitalists. Let‘s nationalise things and the benevolent state will make all wage slaves happy.

In the bad old day the Labour Party would rant and rave against mean bosses. Now that they are in power, they rant and rave against "rogue elephants” — bosses who have the unpatriotic cheek to pay their workers too much! Callaghan threatened to punish Ford's for the crime of paying their strikers more than the 5 per cent which he had decreed was good enough for slaves of the conveyor belt. Absolute cruelty to bosses. They honestly didn’t want to pay their workers more than the 5 per cent. If the workers could get by without eating, they would be quite prepared to pay them nothing at all — and even Callaghan couldn't ask for greater patriotism than that. Ford’s only paid the 17 per cent (or whatever) because their awful workers went on strike. It’s sheer injustice to punish the bosses for paying over the odds.

And of course the nationalised concerns, National Health Service, miners. British Rail, will all have to breach the ludicrous 5 per cent with an inflation rate of twice that much. So will Callaghan impose sanctions on himself for breaking his own rules? (No Tory MP or media pundit caught him out on that one. How lucky to have opponents who are as thick as yourself).

Mention of British Rail makes it clear that the workers who think that all the problems are caused by other workers wanting too much are not just housewives in the supermarkets or teachers writing in the press. The class war in British Rail is of the kind to make old Karl tear his beard off. Abolition of the wages system? Someone must be joking. The guards on some trains were given the job of issuing the tickets. So they wanted a bonus for it. So BR said well, we’re saving on ticket offices so we’ll give them a bit of the loot. But these were NUR men. This was, of course, noticed by the ASLEF men, a smaller union but, being composed of people like the drivers, rather important. And, come what may, no engine driver can stand idly by while guards and porters get wages which creep nearer to their own princely salaries. So all drivers out; all workers who had to crawl to work in traffic jams in the blizzards (trust god to add a freeze-up to all your other miseries) cursed the selfish drivers.

Did anyone see any sign of any body of workers, or union leaders, or newspapers (and for this purpose let’s call the Morning Star a newspaper) suggesting that the workers should take a little time off from worrying how much more the other workers are getting and asking why it is that they are all exploited for the benefit of the capitalist class and their toadies like Callaghan? In the first place, only by such things as strikes and the threat of strikes can workers defend their living standards under capitalism. If the workers were docile, the capitalists (including the State) would see to it that Mrs Hibbins had even less than her fiver.

Papers like the Guardian publish learned articles by useless academics working out that after a strike, the workers usually take years to catch up with the wages they lost in the struggle. These fools don't begin to notice that without strikes their standards would be more like the life in Russia, where strikes are criminal and workers are ground down accordingly. But what is true is that all this strife and struggle is just one endless treadmill. And the truth is that workers can actually decide to get off the treadmill.

Let Gentleman Jim have the last word. Looking at the chaos all around he bleats: "What kind of society do we want in this country?" What kind of question is that from our "socialist" Premier? It almost makes you think he's not a socialist, doesn't it? If "we" means the electorate, then we must want the society we vote for; where we are exploited while Callaghan and his ilk live in places like his magnificent farm in Sussex.
L. E. Weidberg

Vietnam and the anti-war movement (1966)

From the September 1966 issue of the Socialist Standard

Vietnam will one day take its place beside Hiroshima and Auschwitz as an example of a time when the sickness of capitalism exploded into a kind of psychotic nightmare. It is no mere piece of sensationalism, either, to compare Vietnam with Hiroshima and Auschwitz, for there is a direct parallel between the causes, method, and results of all three events. Their causes can be traced to capitalist society. The method in each case amounts to genocide: the slaughter of as great a number of a population in as short a time as possible. The results thus far have been to create a world that looks like something out of a nightmare. For how else are we to regard a country that invests a quarter of a million dollars in the death of every “communist’  guerrilla, when close to one- third of its population lives in poverty?* How else are we to describe a system where announcements of the latest Viet Cong body count come over the radio and TV networks in the U.S. almost as regularly as the weather report?

But if we call this behaviour insane, it is not therefore purposeless. The United States is turning Vietnam into a virtual death camp for a purpose—a purpose which results directly from the way in which modern capitalist society is organised. And it is only when we understand this purpose and this society that we can see the insanity of the Vietnam war and its cause for what it is.

Capitalism generates wars because it is organised in such a way that its wealth can only be produced and distributed by a process of competition. The industries of capitalism are the private property of a small class of persons, and wealth is produced primarily for sale with a view to profit. A capitalist enterprise requires markets, trade routes, supplies of wage labour, raw materials, places to invest capital, and the power of a state to protect these interests. The foreign policy of a capitalist state attempts to acquire these needs in its relations with other countries. The rub is that there are several capitalist states in the world competing intensively for the same needs, and the size of the planet is limited. They must necessarily come into conflict with one another; and if the conflict cannot be settled or negotiated to the satisfaction of all parties concerned, they go to war.

In competing for their essential business needs, capitalist countries seek control over territories in which they can sell goods, and from which they can extract profit and raw materials. The United States, for example, has over $10,000 million worth of direct capital investments in South and Central America, which return enormous rates of profit, varying from 15 to 50 per cent a year. In addition, Latin America supplies the United States with oil, iron ore, copper, tin, nitrates, coffee, cocoa, beef, and bananas at cheap costs, and Latin America is a lucrative market for U.S. commodities. France, Britain, Germany, and Russia all have similar relations with territories in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. If another power were to seek control over Latin America (as did Russia in 1962, for example) or if the United States were to seek control of the European Common Market, antagonisms would erupt between these nations which could easily lead to war.

It is this kind of economic control which the United States has tried to secure in Asia ever since the arrival of Commodore Perry in Japan in 1853; the U.S. interest in the South-east portion rapidly accelerated with the withdrawal of the French after their defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. In supporting the South Vietnamese dictators Ngo Dinh and Marshal Ky, the United States has only followed the pattern of control that it has followed for decades in Latin America, with its support of various civilian dictators and military juntas.

Capitalism generates more than one type of war: for example a war between an imperialist power and a rebellious subject territory, and a war between developed capitalist countries for sources of profit, markets, and territories. The armed conflicts between France and Algerian rebels, and the United States and Dominican rebels, are examples of the former type. World Wars I and II were both examples of the latter. The war between United States troops and Viet Cong guerrillas was at first primarily an example of the former type, but with the forced entrance of the more industrial North Vietnam and threatened hostilities with China, the war has been steadily escalating into the latter as well. The reasons the United States is in Vietnam are all directly contingent on its requirements as a capitalist power. United States capitalism does not wish to give up control of this potentially lucrative area; and the United States fears threatened rebellions in Latin America should the Viet Cong rebellion set a successful example.

The working class, of course, has not one shred of interest to justify their participation in any of capitalism’s wars. They will not invest capital in Vietnam when and if it is cleared of Viet Cong. They will make no profit by employing the Vietnamese at low wages, selling commodities in a Southeast Asian consumer market, and extracting cheap raw materials from the area. They stand to lose no property if Latin American countries rebel. The only task they will be called upon for is to leave their mangled bodies in the jungle slaughterhouse. And the interesting thing about the Vietnam War, to the socialist, is that so many American workers are beginning to realise it. Perhaps not since 1898 has the war propaganda of the United States been so completely cynical or so completely transparent to so many people. The mental contortions required to believe it would tax the citizens of 1984: a war to protect the “freedom  of the U.S. which supports an avowed Hitlerite dictator (Ky), bars the Viet Cong from representation in elections, and spreads its happy gospel of democracy among Vietnamese villagers with napalm, rice poison B-52s. and razor-blade bombs. It is no wonder that so many draft-age Americans take to the picket line. The wonder is that there are not more.

The Philadelphia based Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, in fact, reports a growing list of those who prefer prison sentences to military service. The courage of many of those in the American peace movement cannot fail to impress the socialist. But however stirring its appeal, the movement has an equally disheartening and perhaps tragic weakness that is slowly emasculating it. Most of its participants do not understand that capitalism generates wars. It is capitalism which must be attacked, not the foreign policy of the United States, which is simply asserting its vital interests as a capitalist power. Even more depressing, perhaps, is the conduct of many of those who claim to represent the “socialist" base in the movement: Students For A Democratic Society; Young Socialists Advance; Socialist Workers Party; the Du Bois Clubs, and the American “new left". A genuine socialist would point out that the war is part of a whole related pattern of social problems generated by capitalism; and because it is part of a related pattern, the war cannot be attacked in isolation from the rest of the pattern or from its roots in the needs of capitalist society; the only way this problem, and others like it, can be permanently solved is to establish a system of society in which the means of production are owned and democratically controlled by the whole people, and goods are produced for use and not for competitive exchange and profit.

The solutions of the “new left”, however, are the old, reformist, and futile solutions which have failed to stop any war since 1914: “negotiation", “disarmament". Support a League of Nations or a United Nations Repeal Conscription. Or, at their most imaginative, withdraw the troops, fight anti-communism, and institute a type of Soviet-style state-capitalism in the United States. Solutions which involve joining the other side, of course, are not even seriously intended to be peaceful.

The American peace movement, in short, is contradicting itself into impotence by opposing a war and then supporting the system of society which has generated it. It is not a socialist movement, and because of this fact it is already beginning to wither into crowds of confused and frightened students and quarreling splinter-groups. Whether it ever becomes anything more will depend upon whether it ever develops a socialist consciousness. For until it does, the body counts will only grow higher, and the nightmare of capitalism will continue—business as usual.
Stan Blake (World Socialist Party of U.S.A.) 

* For verification of this figure, see Gabriel Kolko, Wealth & Power in America (Praeger, 1962) p. 101.