Monday, September 19, 2016

Running Commentary: Forgotten heroes (1984)

The Running Commentary column from the October 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

Forgotten heroes
The propaganda advantage which the Tories undoubtedly gained from the Falklands war was partly derived from the notion that war can be a glorious, cleansing experience and that British workers are better at going through it than the Argentinians. Naturally this has to be put across with some subtlety and care; for example photographs of British troops had always to show them as tough, confident and, whatever the difficulties, in control. Pictures of Argentinian troops had to show them as ragged, starving and demoralised.

Even the wounds suffered by British soldiers were used in this exercise, as they have been in previous wars. Some can be made to appear positively romantic — a bandaged head, a crutched foot — and always there is the reassurance that soon it will all be better. So we were treated to lots of photographs of men in that condition, bravely smiling their way back to the strains of Rule Britannia.

But behind the propaganda the reality was a lot less attractive, for there were some fearsome incidents, like the bombing of the landing crafts, in which men sustained terrible burns and other injuries. These were not so enthusiastically publicised as the dashingly bandaged heroes from less frightening occasions.

One example of this was recently given some belated publicity in the Guardian. Lieutenant Robert Lawrence was shot in the back of the head by a sniper on Tumbledown Mountain. The bullet tore through his brain, leaving him paralysed down one side, sometimes incontinent and subject to bouts of intense pain. He has lost nearly half of his brain and has a skull made partly of plastic.

When Robert Lawrence came back to Britain he was not. unlike those other wounded men, treated like a hero but more like an embarrassment. The aircraft he travelled in was full of similarly damaged people; the press were kept away from it at the airport and when it landed it was hidden by a large tent. The men were driven away from this by ambulances which were loaded with their pathetic cargoes inside the tent. Later, they were kept out of the remembrance service at St. Pauls and, of course, the victory parade. In that welter of patriotic hysteria, the sight of what war really means would not have been welcome. It might also have caused some onlookers to question whether it had been worthwhile.

War is not glorious nor is it productive except of human misery. It is useful only to the ruling classes of the world, in whose interests wars are fought. The interests of the working class — who do all the fighting — are in refusing to take part in their masters’ wars and it is precisely to discourage such social insight that people like Robert Lawrence are treated in so ruthless and cynical a manner.

Faulty line
Ordinary working class folk are not accustomed to getting messages from a plush merchant bank like Kleinwort Benson, so their recent campaign of full page ads in the dailies has been a bit of a shocker to us. What’s this, we asked:
  Soon you will have the chance to be an owner of a company that plays a large part in our everyday lives.
  An Act of Parliament has made it possible for each one of us to buy British Telecom shares.
 For everyone it is an historic opportunity to share in the fortunes of one of Britain's leading companies . . .
  You may invest thousands, or even millions. The minimum, however, is about £250. . .
Naturally enough this got a lot of people very excited, at any rate they seemed to be in the ads because they were all smiling broadly, well satisfied with their investment. But quite a few must have been puzzled as well.

It is not so long ago that what is now called British Telecom was part of the Post Office and that, as we all know, was one of the first nationalised industries with a minister called the Postmaster General responsible for it in the government. Now we are always being told by all sorts of politicians that a nationalised industry is owned by the people — the sort who have been grinning out at us from those ads. So how can we buy something which we already own? What’s this about this Act of Parliament? Did someone take the company away from us without our knowing about it?

It is possible, but not helpful, to evade the answers to these questions by putting the Labour Party case, that the Thatcher government has filched British Telecom from the people of this country who once owned it in common. That argument should not appeal to anyone who has had their telephone cut off because they have not paid their bill — which would hardly happen if they owned the telephone company.

The straightforward way out of this seemingly complicated matter is in the realisation that we do not, and never did, own the Post Office or any part of it like that which is now British Telecom. Nationalisation is not ownership of an industry by the people but ownership on behalf of the capitalist class as a whole, in their overall interests. That is why the state usually takes over only vital industries like coal and steed or those which interlink industry such as communication concerns — the airlines, railways, the Post Office.

Nationalisation does not change the basic relationships between employee and employer nor does it change the essential nature of wealth under capitalism, that it is produced as commodities for profitable sale. As the steelworkers, the railwaymen and the miners know, if production cannot be carried on with the prospect of a profit. it will cease.

Ownership by the people of one industry can only happen when there is social ownership, world wide, of all the means of production and distribution. When that happens we shall not need any big advertisements to tell us about it.

Long odds
Fleet Street will not be surprised to learn that the Socialist Standard does not intend to intervene in its circulation battle, which has now developed into a search for Britain’s greatest bingo player, or perhaps it should be Britain’s most gullible worker.

These undemanding games, and the huge prizes which are promised to result from them, are designed to boost the sales figures of papers whose interest in the news, let alone putting that news into some sort of perspective, takes second place to their obsession with sensation. This was the explanation for the cheap and exceptionally nasty campaign in the Sun during the Falklands war. It also explains the acres of mush devoted to such inconsequential events as the death, funeral, commemoration and mourning of someone like the ex-Mr. Elizabeth Taylor.

The popular press has long absorbed the lesson that under capitalism it’s what sells that counts, never mind the quality. Anyone who has any doubts on this score need only look around at the mountain of trash which is turned out everywhere, day in, day out. to feed the market rather than to satisfy human needs.

Big, expensive, well publicised games like newspaper bingo thrive on the enticing theory of instant riches, on the miniscule hope that by some simple action — putting crosses on a pools coupon, filling squares on a numbered card — a worker can wash away every aspect of poverty and enter into the graceful state of lifelong abundance. It says a lot about the miseries of working class existence, which is relentlessly praised by those same newspapers, that so many of their readers should be so anxious to escape from it.

For a few, of course, the theory works. Their pools selection luckily comes out right, they complete all the spaces on their bingo card. They can stop being dependent on selling their working abilities to an employer and can instead use what is left of their life in finding out what they can really do, what they really enjoy. They leave behind the rest, a vast mass of human suffering and discontent.

No worker could be criticised for trying to win such a way out of poverty, even though the chances against it happening to any one of them are so cosmically high. The tragedy is that the gamble monopolises the workers’ horizons; they see it as the only way out. So misled are they, that they prefer to take their chance on a game before they will consider, and work for, a real and permanent escape from all the problems of capitalist society — one which is a dead cert and in which everyone is a winner.

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