Monday, September 19, 2016

Running Commentary: The laws of nature? (1984)

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

The laws of nature?

An established part of what is sometimes called the charm of an English summer is the series of social and sporting events at which the ruling class both disport themselves and demonstrate their privileged standing in capitalist society.

Summer is the time for top hats and elaborate dresses — and elaborate and nonsensical regulations about them — at Royal Ascot. It is the time when a few youths under elaborately hyphenated surnames play out, as if it were some epochal battle, the Eton and Harrow cricket match at Lords. It is the time for royal garden parties, when practised toadies make their way, in rented clothes, to Buckingham Palace to consume a little food and to profess a huge delight should they so much as see, let alone touch or talk to, a royal personage.

These rituals, and the others, are often the subject of both admiration and gentle derision, as if they were no more than harmless eccentricities. We are all assumed to accept them without discomfort as if class divided society, in which a small minority wallow in boundless riches while the useful, working majority grapple endlessly with the pressures and degradations of poverty, exists and operates under some eternal law of nature.

Implied in this expectation is also a warning, for it is a perilous business to go against the laws of nature. Class society must, therefore, be allowed to go on its way unmolested by any talk of a revolution to put the majority into ownership of the world.

For the ruling class this is of course a very comfortable argument for this law of nature sanctions their enjoyment of innumerable costly meals and clothes, of opulent homes and expensive schools for their children. It grants them an enormous consumption of wealth in the production of which, as a class, they have no part. Those who do produce all the wealth — the other class — are also subject to the same law of nature, which allots to them the role of enduring poverty.

Except that it may be described as a stage in human history, there is nothing natural about capitalism. Neither is it eccentric and it is certainly not harmless. It is a malignant society, responsible for an enormous burden of human suffering, all of it unnecessary and which could be abolished in the immediate future. This is the reality behind the season, this annual opportunity for the capitalist class to flaunt their riches before the world and. in that way, to defy the working class to do anything about it.

Directions to Greenham

The embattled women of Greenham were recently visited by Pensioners for Peace, an organisation whose members think like this: “We have seen that two world wars and dozens of localised lesser wars solve nothing"; and "I have six grandchildren and I want a future life for them". Perhaps they were drawn by the popular assumption that the anti-nuclear movement stands for peace; it is common to see car stickers with the CND symbol, against a rainbow background, with the slogan "Give Peace A Chance".

But anyone who wants to give peace a chance should be thinking a long way beyond CND, which has the limited object of persuading the British government to abandon, on its own, its nuclear weapons. CND has no policy for the abandonment of what are called conventional arms, nor for the disbanding of the armed forces or any part of the coercive state machine; indeed it is safe to say that the majority of CND members support the continuance of the state. CND is not a pacifist organisation; its members do not declare that they will oppose all wars and refuse to take part in them on moral grounds. How could it make such a claim, when it is chock-full of members of political parties which always stand up for the interests of the British ruling class when there is a war?

CND does not attempt any analysis of the cause of modern war, which would enable it to pronounce a solution. It opposes the socialist argument that to end war we must undertake a social revolution to bring about a fundamental change in relationships in society. Instead, CND thinks the human race can continue to scratch its way through this social system, with its fear, its destruction, its deprivation. The best it can offer is an effort at humanising some aspects of capitalism—a pious hope that the system will act out of character and begin to fight its wars in a more gentlemanly way.

Pacifists, or anyone who in interested in setting up a world without war, should ponder these facts before they commit themselves to membership of CND. It is true that one of the world's most urgent needs at present is the abolition of nuclear weapons. But this will not be achieved by any methods which allow that capitalism will carry on—by methods which aim at reforming capitalism. These weapons grew up directly as a response to this social system’s needs and its priorities, which are immune to any appeal on the grounds of human interest. They are as typical of the system as buying and selling, rich and poor, privilege and deprivation. Only the abolition of capitalism will end war and all its weapons. Workers everywhere have a united interest on that score and there is an urgent need that they assert it.

Release into slavery

In the first days of July hundreds of prisoners were released before their time, many of them to exchange the rude security of prison life for the state of being homeless, jobless and aimless. Their abrupt transition into freedom resulted from Home Secretary Leon Brittan using his powers to widen the scope of releasing prisoners on parole by reducing the qualifying period for it.

There need be no concern that this came about through any softness on the part of Brittan, than whom a less sentimental man would be difficult to imagine. There are other reasons; importantly a long-standing concern at the chronic overcrowding in prisons, as the numbers behind bars have stayed obstinately above the level described by Roy Jenkins, when he was Home Secretary in the sixties, as “intolerable”.

At the same time the evidence has been piling up to show that, while prison has little effect on crime rates, it is also the most expensive way of dealing with the criminal. The sacred phrase “cost effectiveness” has been heard in the august, secretive chambers of the Home Office. Reforms have been tried — the suspended sentence, the deferred sentence, community service — but the prison population has remained high. This has brought the advocates of cost-effectiveness to their latest solution — to let the prisoners out early, a reform which will of course last as long as the courts don’t fill the prisons up again.

This may not be pleasing to those who regard anyone who has been in prison as a sort of wild animal, unsafe to walk the streets with innocent children and frail pensioners. Neither does it please those who are expected to work within the confines of cost effectiveness — the probation officers and social workers who now have the role of controlling the released prisoners — when all along they have kidded themselves that their job was. inviolably, to put people before the balance sheet.

All such delusions are unhelpful, because they evade the fact that a society based on property rights defines crime in such a way as to protect the privileges of the ruling class, which must always mean against the interests of the majority. In the name of the ruling class a massive historical offence is committed — the offence of exploitation, with all the misery and destruction which it legally entails. Of course this social system puts human welfare very low in its priorities; it could not function in any other way.

No one should be under any misapprehension; those prisoners, happy as they may be at their unexpected change of fortune, have not been released into freedom but into wage slavery.

Woman’s touch

At the end of the spasm of ballyhoo called the primary elections. Walter Mondale went to the Democratic convention with his party’s nomination apparently in his pocket. Of course there might have been some last minute hitch for him; there have been shock nominations in the past and conventions, ungentle occasions where arms are agonisingly twisted and political debts ruthlessly gathered in, are not always predictable.

As Mondale assumed he would be the Democrats’ man against Reagan in November he turned his attention to the matter of who should be his running mate, the Democrat candidate for Vice-President. This is always a complicated, tricky business, more a matter of tightrope walking than arm twisting which Mondale. with his background, should know more about than most people.

The usual object in selecting a running mate is to arrive at a balanced ticket — a pair of candidates who between them appeal to almost every accessible prejudice among the voters. That was why Kennedy, wealthy and sophisticated New England Irish with a reputation as a “liberal", swallowed his antipathy for Lyndon Johnson and asked the coarse, rich, folksy Texan to run with him in 1960. With what results we know.

But if the polls are correct, Mondale has an especially tough job ahead of him. which means that his tightrope walk had to be particularly slick and delicate. Apart from anything else he needs to expunge the workers memory of those ghastly years as Jimmy Carter’s Vice President, when capitalism in America and outside would do hardly anything right for them.

When Mondale let it be known that he was considering selecting a woman he got a plentiful press coverage with admiring profiles of the women concerned, implying that they were something special among the administrators of capitalism. It might be a smart move for the Democrats to put a woman into the field — a touch of excitement and evidence that they are liberal, tolerant and progressive to set against the image of Reagan’s ageing, conventional attitudes.

Any American worker who feels like puking at the sight of Nancy Reagan simpering adoringly at her Ron might have found the thought of the Democrats’ Geraldine Ferraro irresistibly attractive. It is quite common for workers to mistakenly believe that the personality of a candidate is significant.

Now that the Democrats have chosen Ferraro we shall probably hear a lot about the merits of having a woman trying to run capitalism — except that in the time of Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher there is no need to labour the point that this is no happier nor more fulfilling a society under female leadership than under males.

The selection of the candidates, like the campaign itself, is a matter of cynical deception, as the Democrats and the Republicans try to persuade the American working class that it is worth choosing between two slightly differing styles of running American capitalism. Mondale and Ferraro are intended to present as a seductively handsome couple but if there is any hope in the election it lies with those few who are aware enough to look beneath the facade to the cruel reality.

Madness or sanity

Are there still any fossilised members of the Communist Party who greeted, as a move to safeguard peace, the recent announcement by the Russian “Defence" Minister Ustinov that Russia has increased its missile carrying submarine fleet off the American coast and can now hit American targets within ten minutes?

Ustinov was responding to the siting of American cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe and he warned that any increase in these missiles will lead to a step up in their Russian counterparts. So if World War Three breaks out the missiles from each side will be passing each other on their way to 
their targets and within minutes a large part of the world will be devastated.

Any alarm at this prospect should be tempered by the realisation that this is the deterrent theory in practice — the theory which is supposed to have protected us from war since 1945 and. unless some meddling disarmers take over, will continue to keep us safe. The less gullible will realise that the deterrent theory is really another name for the arms race. And who can guess how this one will end — what unimaginably frightful weapons will yet be developed, what will be left of life if they are used?

The supporters of the deterrent theory respond that its whole point is that the weapons will not be used. If the theory is correct, there will be a lot of hardware left to rust in its siloes; a lot of intricate knowledge will have been devoted to something which will, in effect, be thrown away. And all of this will have happened through a concern, in Moscow and Washington and London, to protect human lives and happiness.

So far, however, capitalism has not worked like that and there is no reason to expect it to. The conflicts which are endemic to this social system are still in existence; the world remains divided into powers in rivalry over markets, material resources, trade routes. This rivalry is the immediate cause of modern war; to understand that is to understand why capitalism expends so much of its resources in the production of such devastating armaments.

In this horrific situation, the best that capitalism's protagonists can offer is a sham debate between the advocates of deterrence and disarmament in which both are in basic agreement that capitalism can somehow be run in the interests of its people. Both, in other words, deny the system's essential character.

The truth is that capitalism cannot operate without war. The function of any state is to foster the interests of its ruling class, which means that governments manufacture — and if need be use — the most destructive weapons available to them. We are now at a point where people all over the world accept, almost without question, the fact that a modern civilisation will produce things which can destroy it within a few minutes. It is tempting to call this madness. except that from capitalism’s viewpoint it has an awful sanity.

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