Friday, January 8, 2016

The first casuality (1991)

From the February 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard

Shouting has turned into shooting and war fever is being whipped up into a national delirium. The producers of the poisonous propaganda are out to infect the minds of the millions with the required hatred. War thrives on hatred: it does not just kill young men and tear off their skins with ever more disgusting weapons; war attacks the minds of those who remain alive and the warmongers seek to convert us into murder-loving monsters.
    The propaganda of war calls upon humans to sacrifice that which is at the centre of our humanity: our ability to think critically and intelligently, to co-operate, to be social. In war the sight of a dead enemy must inspire pleasure; the ruins of a devastated Dresden or an annihilated Nagasaki are propaganda coups. We hear pathetic little men in dirty raincoats talking about “nuking Baghdad" and office boys in suits munching their sandwiches and speaking of “taking out Saddam". What has happened to them?

It was Churchill who said that in war truth is the first casualty. And so the deadly deceits are blasted from the BBC, oozing out of every obscene headline of the tabloids. Remember the story of the six Iraqi helicopter crews who defected just before 15 January? Front-page headlines, first item on the news—a complete fabrication invented by Saudi propaganda agents and now admitted. The weekend before the UN “deadline" (handy term that, dead-line) the British press, radio and TV signed a censorship agreement to suppress war news when so required by the government. Days before that the government issued its first D-Notice of the war (later exposed by the Irish Times) to suppress news about the computer with military secrets which had been stolen. In wartime we will be told what they want us to hear, and told again and again what they want us to repeat.

On Christmas day the Queen came on to disrupt whatever retreat from hard times we might have enjoyed. After the mince pies it was time for some warmongering, so she droned on about the awfulness of big nations invading small ones. So now we knew: imperial conquest is a bad thing and that, unlike Ceaucescu, there will be no knighthood for Saddam Hussein. But— well, excuse me your Royal Highness— how exactly was it that the British Empire came about?

With a straight face the leaders of Western imperial conquest shed crocodile tears in response to a leader who has had the temerity to ape them. When East Timor was invaded and annexed by Indonesia there was not a murmur of disapproval from the US government because, as its former UN ambassador, Daniel Moynihan, explains in his memoirs “the United States wished things to turn out as they did and worked to bring this about”.

The Hitleresque proportions of Saddam Hussein have been built up to the point where his name makes workers spit. To be sure, Saddam is a lout and those who armed him (including Britain) have created a super thug in the Middle East. But Hitler caricatures are facile—that is why they make good propaganda. What is the difference between Saddam of Iraq and Assad of Syria? Answer: the latter is now a Western ally and so must be courted, even to the extent of dropping the claim that Syrian-backed killers brought down the plane at Lockerbie—the new culprit is Iraq-backing Libya.

Saddam is presented as the personification of evil, and now that evil has a face and voice it can be shown in the media as the personal enemy of each and every worker. Reds under the beds? No. no. Gorby is “our ally” (even if he does preside over his very own Saddam Hussein game in Lithuania); these days you must watch out for Ba’aths in the bathroom. And if Saddam is Evil made flesh, those who even talk to him are devil-worshippers. So, when Heath went there the London Evening Standard joined the screams of abuse against him with a cartoon in which he carried a placard with a picture of Saddam.

For legalised murder to be supported every card must be played, including the religious joker. God has expressed his support for the West. On 11 January the Archbishop of Canterbury told the BBC that in Christian terms a war to free Kuwait from Iraqi control was justifiable. Asked whether god favoured “our boys” going into Iraq and finishing the job, the man of cant was less certain. God afraid to take a stand? He must have joined the Labour Party. As the mad Christian bishops bless Western bombs, the mad mullahs bless the lethal killing devices of the other side. At a Muslim Congress a lunatic jumped up and told Saddam that he was the new prophet. In the Pentagon there is much talk of profits too, as they look at the map of the oil wells for which men will die to ensure supplies of cheap oil.

Over a third of the US forces in the Gulf are black. They are drawn from the poorest American wage slaves. They have no profits to look forward to if they come home with a limb missing. They are being fed with a sickly diet of propaganda about how they are defending what is morally good. If they were asked to die to make oil billionaires safer in their class affluence and privilege how many of them would fight? Iraqi radio is aiming a propaganda service at the Western troops, telling them that their wives at home are being screwed by film stars. In Aldershot there are several army wives who wish you could believe what you hear on the wireless. A Western propaganda effort against Iraq is also under way. The workers are being urged to overthrow Saddam. Overthrow the tyrant they should, but not in order to install a Western puppet dictator in Iraq of the sort they have in Saudi Arabia and had in Kuwait.

Propaganda of hate
The good news is that it is getting tougher for the con-men. The workers are not so easily duped. In 1914 workers were demonstrating in the streets calling for war. In 1939 the myth that Churchill was a defender of world democracy—later aided by the “democrat” Stalin—was all too easily believed. In 1991 the poison is swallowed less willingly. Even on the eve of war a poll showed that less than half of the British people favoured a war after the UN deadline expired and 43 percent were positively against war. In the USA a population exhausted by post-Vietnam angst are not the same suckers who rallied behind the invasion of Vietnam in the belief that war is an extension of a John Wayne movie. Vast numbers of Americans are opposed to dying for oil and profits.

The propaganda of division and hate is only as loud as the case for working-class solidarity and the unity of the human family is unheard. In the USA there were 23,000 murders last year—more people than have been killed in Ireland over the last twenty years. In the first day of 1991 there were eight murders in New York City alone. The poverty of material conditions and lifestyle which give rise to this are the real enemy for American workers to fight rather than conscripted Iraqi kids who do not know what they are doing. The British wage slaves in uniform should think of their grandparents living on the pittance of a pension, think of the slum-like council estates on which their families are forced to dwell, think of the one in four British people living below the poverty line, amongst which are probably some of their friends, and ask themselves who their real enemies are: a selected foreign dictator or the capitalists who live well by trampling on their needs?

Beyond the sound of desert battles and the deranged screeching of a trigger-happy media there is a bigger war to be fought—a war which begins in mental realisation and develops into mass, democratic organisation. It is a war between Profit and Need in which the only victory can be for the freedom of humankind to live in peace and dignity and the first casualty must be the lies that make weak men strong and the many weak.
Steve Coleman

Caught in the Act: Two Of A Kind (1991)

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

Two Of A Kind

John Major had to move swiftly to correct any impression that he meant, or even intended, what he had said when he announced that he would spearhead a drive to a classless society. He did this in a way which was intended to please as many people as possible - which is perhaps how he will try to do the job of prime minister. Denis Thatcher was elevated from one of the common herd to a baronet which, for those who are unfamiliar with the ridiculous mummery and protocol of class society, is a hereditary title created in 1611 by James I. At that time the royal idea was to raise some money to pay for the upkeep of an army in Ulster, almost anyone whose income from land ownership was large enough and who could prove that his family had been warring for the past two generations could offer to buy one of the titles. Then they could put the word “Sir" before their name and the word "Bart" after it. Which was nice for them; Denis is said to be very pleased that he is now allowed to do this and so are all the snobs and toadies who don't object to being social doormats as long as the shoes which are wiped on them contain aristocratic feet.

Bone headed
Although Denis has not actually paid for any troops to be sent to Northern Ireland he has in many other ways rendered faithful service to British capitalism. This is only natural because he is a very rich member of the ruling class; his patient support and reassurance for his wife when she was under criticism for the way her government was operating was not entirely selfless. There is no reason to believe that he had to be economical with any personal principles to do this because, to the delight of Private Eye, he personifies a mass of the crasser prejudices of capitalism. Perhaps that is why he never made - or should that be he was never allowed to make - public statements and confined himself to shadowing his wife a step or two behind her. One typically bone-headed utterance of his which was leaked into the news some years ago was made in private, at the annual dinner of the London Society of Rugby Union Referees. At the time there was a strong campaign in protest at a proposed English rugby tour to South Africa - a country much admired by Denis - who informed his audience, to enthusiastic after-dinner applause, that rugby players should be free to play anywhere and against anyone they chose. He did not actually mean that - the protests were in favour of freedom in sport and against racist restrictions imposed on it by the South African government. What Denis did mean was that a while English rugby team (no one thought that any black players, however good, would be selected) should be free to support apartheid by going to South Africa and ignoring what the racism there did to the Africans and the Coloureds.

This blind tolerance of the intolerable is typical of what Denis represented - the plain, no nonsense regular in the saloon bar of some Home Counties pub who knows that the British people devoted centuries to a selfless mission to civilise an ungrateful world (which is why James I thought up the idea of selling baronetcies) and nothing has been the same since a bunch of subversive do-gooders began to dismantle the British Empire. This sort of theory can be kindly described as innocence; certainly there is no evidence to support it - just as there is none in favour of the idea that to give someone a high-flown title makes them superior - but Denis was never one to be confused by facts if he didn't want to be.

In any case capitalism has been good to him. He inherited some substantial property which blossomed in a succession of takeovers so that his wife could study for the Bar and then go full time into politics without worrying about the children, who were cared for by a nanny and later at boarding school (their son at Harrow). Denis's view on trade unions and the motives for production can be gauged by his reputation for being clever at reading a balance sheet - a talent which would not be much use if he were cast up on a desert island but which impresses the shareholders. When his wife was ejected from Number Ten they could offer to pay £6.5 million for a house in Chelsea with a further large sum for the contents. Contrast this with just one souvenir of his wife's government - the tragic increase in the homeless, in beggars on the city streets and in people sleeping rough. One of her parting comments was that she had " . . . done pretty well out of being Mrs Thatcher".

Well, yes.

An Unstable Baronet 

A baronet of rather different stamp was Richard Acland, who died last month after a life time of political activity which was barren of any apparent insight into its futility.

Acland's title was rather older than Thatcher's; it orginated in the Civil War. his family were well accustomed to their ruling class status and by the lime he came into the title in 1935 he was a Liberal MP. Like a lot of others with a deficient understanding of capitalism he was converted to Keynesianism and later joined the Popular Front. He decided that the war would signal the end of private capitalism and to prepare for this he founded the Common Wealth Party, which won three parliamentary by-elections during the wartime truce between the Labour. Conservative and Liberal parties but was wiped out in the 1945 general election.

Although Common Wealth staggered on. Acland knew that it was yet another movement which had failed to change history and he joined the Labour Party. In 1947 he won a famous victory at Gravesend but then, having fought to become a Labour MP after the party had supported the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities and then set up the British atomic bomb programme, Acland objected to the proposal to make a British H bomb. In 1955 he resigned from parliament with the intention of fighting a dramatic, denunciatory by-election on the issue. But again his ambitions were swamped in a general election - on this occasion the big issue was to confirm Anthony Eden as Churchill's successor and not the malformed confusions of a fringe idealist.

After that Acland sank into his home on the family estate, living off the memories of a voyage around politics which ended nowhere. In 1983, when what was left of Common Wealth wanted to celebrate its 40th anniversary he refused to have anything to do with the party on the grounds that he had no sympathy for their aspirations. It did not seem to occur to him that an apology might be in order, for the turmoil he had stimulated by his empty promises that capitalism could be reformed out of its character and that he had formed a movement which could be trusted to do it.

Two different types? 
Capitalism's politics seethes with organisations like Common Wealth, who trade on working class dissatisfaction with the system. Politics has plenty of people like Acland, who attract brief attention with their baseless theories, write a book or two, pour out their anguished consciences in compelling speeches. Then reality strikes, they disintegrate into a historical footnote and the workers who were misled by them are left to still endure capitalism.

Acland and Thatcher are superficially two different types of baronet. The one gaunt, angular and agonised, the other well fleshed and heartily smug. They would regard each other as mortal enemies but in their work to persuade the working class to keep capitalism in being they were in close alliance.

As for the classless society . . .

What is a Capitalist? (1984)

From the December 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

A capitalist is a man or woman who can afford to live without needing to sell his or her labour power for a wage or salary. By possessing a sufficient share of the means of wealth production and distribution, the capitalist can invest in the mental and physical energies of others, who are not capitalists, and who are paid less than the value of what they produce. The surplus value which is accumulated by the capitalist is that part of the product of labour which is over and above the cost of production. For example, if a capitalist employs ten workers at a cost of £1.000 a week, and if his non-labour production costs amount to £500 (for raw materials, overheads) then he is investing £l.500 in capital: the human capital is known in Marxist terms as variable capital and the other is constant capital. During the process of wealth production variable capital and constant capital must reproduce themselves, that is, £1.500 worth of value must be created. But. for the capitalist's investment to be worthwhile, the variable capital must not only reproduce itself but produce a value greater than its own worth: surplus value.

Capitalists do not invest in wealth production to give jobs to workers or to produce goods and services for needy people or to do any favours for anyone but themselves. To urge them to do so, as does the reformist Left, is like asking the Mafia to operate their criminal activities for the welfare of the public. In fact, a capitalist who ignored the aim of accumulating surplus value would soon go broke; this is true whether the role of the capitalist is played by an individual millionaire, a board of directors or the state.

It is often assumed that the capitalists are in control of capitalism. This is untrue. They are out to realise a profit by selling commodities on the market and. despite pretensions to be able to control trade on the part of governments and economic experts, the buying and selling system is not susceptible to control by the competing capitalists. If capitalists could force their system to obey their laws, there would not be hundreds of capitalists going bankrupt due to bad trade conditions. Unfortunately for them, the capitalists are the victims of their own system, in the sense that their much-cherished freedom of individuality must be surrendered on all occasions in response to the imposing demands of realising surplus value.

No capitalist would last long if he or she spent all the surplus value obtained from the exploitation of wage labour (variable capital) on their own personal luxury. Most of the surplus value which is accumulated is converted into new capital. There is a constant drive within capitalism for capital to be reproduced, thus forcing the capitalist to relegate even personal material interests to the hungry appetite of the system for the unceasing recreation of capital. Competition compels capitalists to limit their consumption of surplus value, because if they used it all up they would not be able to reinvest in the exploitation of that which will create more surplus value for them. If the workers are the geese who lay the golden eggs, the geese-keepers of the capitalist class must remember their need to keep the geese alive.

In pointing out that the inherent economic laws of capitalism give the accumulation of capital a higher priority than the creation of surplus value for personal consumption, we are not for a moment understating the extent to which the capitalists do live in affluence and privilege on the proceeds of surplus value. In fact, the capitalists need only a small part of the surplus value which is produced to allow them to live infinitely more comfortable and secure lives than workers can afford to lead. In general we can state that the extent of the capitalists' affluence is proportionate to that of the workers' deprivation. Or, to put it in a nutshell, their luxury is constructed out of our poverty.

Being a capitalist has nothing necessarily to do with speaking, dressing or acting in a particular way. There are capitalists who drop their aitches. capitalists who wear donkey jackets and capitalists who are quite pleasant people. Generally speaking, capitalists are conditioned by their class needs and therefore tend to behave in accordance with the anti-social ethics of commerce. But most capitalists do not understand the system in which they are participating and are as ignorant of the process of capital accumulation, as an historical process, as are the workers who are exploited by it. It is certainly not the case that capitalists reach their class position as a result of superior intelligence or greater initiative than members of the working class who run society from top to bottom. Indeed, many of them are as daft as they are rich, dependent entirely on the hired brains of wage slaves to administer their affairs for them.

The supporter of the aim of socialism is a socialist, but the supporter of capitalism need not be a capitalist — in fact, pathetically. the most ardent defenders of the profit system are usually members of the class which is milked for profit. Socialists are not out to convince capitalists of the need for socialism. As far as we are concerned, the historical role of the capitalist is over and it is now up to the workers to unite for a classless society. In a socialist society there will be no capital or capitalists, just human beings and resources to be used to satisfy human needs. The capitalists will have the option of either mucking in and sharing the world or remaining in splendid isolation as would-be exploiters who have no class left to rob.
Steve Coleman

Wash-day blues (1984)

From the November 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

Like most students who don’t have Prince Edward’s connections, I was forced to seek employment during the summer vacation and was eventually “lucky” enough to secure the position of machine operator in a hospital laundry. The rate I was to be paid was the same as for full-time employees — £66.89 basic for a forty-hour week (all thoughts of becoming a tax exile in the near future quickly vanished). For those, like myself, who are less mathematically inclined this works out at £1.67 PSH (per slave hour) but like the majority of labour power sellers I was confronted with an offer I could not refuse.

This particular laundry served five hospitals. one of them psychiatric and another dealing with infectious diseases. The process begins at the dirty end — items are sorted by hand into barrows on the basis of type and how badly soiled. For this necessary but particularly unpleasant job, as for the operators who load the machines, what is euphemistically called Foul Linen money is paid at the rate of 50 pence a day. This extra is paid to compensate for the risk of contracting scabies, infectious hepatitis and other sundry ills.

The atmosphere, as can be imagined, can get very warm and smelly and on warm days it was common to be wet from head to foot with perspiration for the whole of the working day. Staff are periodically moved on a rota to different tasks within the laundry, possibly in a futile attempt to lessen their boredom. Futile since each task is as boring and debilitating as any other, whether standing all day folding pieces of clothing or feeding bed linen into the drying and folding machine. After a few hours on any of these monotonous, repetitive tasks, the brain begins to numb and actions become almost automatic. The only consolation for me and others like me was that we were there for a limited period only for the wages certainly offered no solace.

How do the full-time workers stand it? One said. "You know there’s nothing else, you resign yourself to it". Many of them sought escape through the pages of the Sun, Daily Star and Mills and Boon; they also showed a keen interest in the lives of their masters, having pictures of the royal family pinned on the laundry walls.

Students pay no income tax. so with six hours overtime I could take home £74.00, which means that full-time staff would take home less than £70.00 or less than £60.00 without overtime. While I was there a paltry rise of around £3.14 had come through for laundry workers. As if this wasn’t enough it is believed that this particular laundry will go private in the near future, in line with government policy, which brought rumours of staff lay-offs, replacement with cheaper labour or wage cuts for those kept on, all in the cause of profitability.

Hospital ancillary workers, like other NHS workers, do a very important job but as always are among the poorest paid. The laundry workers’ unions — the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) and the Confederation of Health Service Employees (COHSE) — are. like all unions, useful only up to a point. Unions can never eradicate the root of the workers' problems; they fight battles but will never win the war. Under capitalism all production is for profit and the minority capitalist class appropriate the wealth created by the majority. The capitalists' goal is to maximise profits by making the working class work harder for less.
John Neill

Civil Liberties (1984)

Book Review from the October 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

Civil Liberties 1984 Ed. Peter Wallington (Martin Robertson 1984)

Civil Liberties 1984 is a compilation of articles by different authors which taken together form a review of the work of the National Council of Civil Liberties (NCCL) in its 50th anniversary year and provide an assessment of the current state of civil liberties in the UK. The articles could in many ways be reviewed separately as the subjects range from gay rights to the threats to liberty in government decisions on weapons and economic energy systems. It is also perhaps not a book to be read from cover to cover but to select short, well written articles from and to use as a handy reference book, particularly on test cases, although the index is occasionally dubious.

As is stressed in Patricia Hewitt's chapter on the NCCL and its history, the council was founded to advocate the defence of civil and political rights rather than economic and social rights; it is here that its problem lies. The NCCL is continuously beset by a lack of funds and is often unable to defeat vested interests; for example national newspaper magnates considerably restrict the information and opinions available to the public.

The chapter by Polly Pattullo on women's rights well illustrates the limitations of reforming organisations like the NCCL. She criticises, for example, the way in which the Sex Discrimination Act fails to go far enough to protect a woman's ‘‘right" to work for a wage but she fails to realise that even if women did have equal pay for equivalent jobs they would still not be at liberty since both working men and women, and those they support, would experience inequality in access to goods and alienating work would still be compulsory for survival. It is a hollow freedom to fight for the right of everyone to dine at the Ritz without realising that few people are wealthy enough to be able to afford this.

Many articles provide information on the limited extent of our “freedom". As one would expect the book is punctured with Orwellian references to the uses of surveillance and the secrecy of state operations ostensibly for and in the name of the people. As James Michael points out. although not knowing exactly what surveillance is carried out on individuals, people can be inhibited from protesting about society and without the knowledge of information on government decisions and technology the democratic process is seriously fettered. John Griffith in his chapter on The Democratic Process summarises the position well:
This society is pluralist in that power is distributed among many institutions . . . but, at the highest levels of the state, power becomes concentrated in the hands of a few. The oligarchy then spreads its influence widely and deeply over subordinate institutions. private as well as public. Being based on class, it is able to engage the self interest also of that great number who depend on the preservation and continuance of its considerable power. It becomes highly manipulative and can rely not only on persuasion and propaganda but also on that self interest. Its hegemony is all the easier to manipulate because its dependants cannot see any alternative structure that will obviously give them more of the better things in life, (p.85)
In Peter Wallington’s chapter on Freedom of Speech he argues that
We have significantly less freedom of expression either in law or in practice than is generally believed. that on balance freedom is declining and that threats to its preservation are real and imminent. (p.55)
Wallington points to the possibilities opened up by new communication technology but at the same time warns of the dangers of government censorship and control; for example, the government's indirect control on the BBC and IBA and the emergency powers that the government has for a complete takeover of broadcasting if the need arises, (a move considered during the Suez crisis). Wallington also makes the distinction between impartiality in reporting information and news from a so-called middle position which favours the existing consensus and which fails to report and consider the diversity of opinions outside the centre of political thought.

The same criticism could, in fact, to a certain extent be levied at Civil Liberties 1984. The chapters on the police and criminal processes deal with the situation which one would expect under the present system where wealth and consequently power are concentrated in the hands of a few; and so the police and censorship are necessary to keep the majority in subordination. The authors as a whole consider more humane methods of policing while ignoring the reasons policing is a necessity in the present society. They fail to give due consideration to an alternative where people as a whole will own the means of production and distribution; thus privilege and its corollary, money would be rendered archaic. As John Alderson says:
In an ideal world there would be no need for the police . . . But human experience indicates that noble sentiments alone are too weak to control those whose ambitions, greed and anger, give way to threatening and damaging activity on either a small or a grand scale. From rebellion to simple theft there are requirements for laws and for some form of enforcement of those laws. (pp. 170-171)
In a socialist world there will be no need for the police since theft and greed will be unknown in a society which produces in abundance and no one's access to goods is restricted. Freedom of discussion and new ideas for the improvement of living conditions will be welcomed. Alderson reminds us, however, noble sentiments alone are not enough — even for the NCCL. A system designed to preserve a privileged minority is not going to allow reforms to usurp its position. A democratic revolution by the world's people is necessary to produce a society in which all people, regardless of race or sex, can fulfil themselves.
Fiona Douglas

Under the Sun (1984)

From the September 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is not easy to reconcile today's Sun newspaper (for such it purports to be) with its origins as a strike-sheet — a straight trade union print-out. intended to promote the immediate aims of organised labour within the capitalist system. It was later to mature into the Daily Herald. although not without considerable help from the TUC and the encouragement of that doughty pillar of the British establishment, Ernest Bevin. Even so, the Herald experienced a somewhat bumpy ride and in 1929 it was taken over by Odham’s. Employing a gallery of illustrious names (H.G. Wells and Edgar Wallace among them) it flourished for a time, but this success was not to survive long after the War. The editorial and other material, controlled by the dead hand of the TUC, was manifestly driving readers away. Even when the TUC agreed to stand aside, sales and advertising revenue continued to fall.

Enter Cecil King and Hugh Cudlipp of the Daily Mirror empire; the year, 1961. King at first attempted to resuscitate the Herald in its old form and under its old masthead. He soon realised that something more radical was indicated, hence the emergence of the Sun — not yet the Sun of today but nonetheless a cheap and nasty tabloid. In September 1964, then, there appeared on the news-stands “a newspaper born of the age we live in". Simon Jenkins, in his book Newspapers: The Power and the Money asserts that the idea was to attract "O" and “A” level school leavers, together with the “young, wealthier, more dynamic, more female”.

But the dynamic, young, wealthy females, no doubt clutching their “O” and "A” level certificates, evidently decided to spend elsewhere, for it rapidly became clear that the newspaper born of the age we live in was fast heading for an earlier one — that of the Styx. Within three years it was losing £175,000 a year. Capitalist operators such as Cecil King are not normally noted for losing sight of their true interests, so when the Mirror group put their ailing offspring on the market the prime bidder, a grasping and implacably ruthless millionaire, Rupert Murdoch, must have cracked a flagon or two of vintage champers by way of self-congratulation. For he had spotted what King and Cudlipp had missed — a large, undereducated readership which could be poached from the Daily Mirror.

So it was that in 1969 Rupert Murdoch set about promoting the Sun as an unashamedly vulgar, politically shrill gossip-sheet openly appealing to all that is least attractive. Is it not the humorist H.L. Mencken who is credited with the remark “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people”? Murdoch had already enjoyed a sound apprenticeship in the Antipodes where his predatory exploits in the tangled thickets of the Australian press and TV had become legendary. His first toehold in Fleet Street was to be his acquisition of the News of the World. The Sun followed, but not without a struggle with Robert Maxwell of Pergamon Press, who had made promises of constitutional support for Labour, continuation of title, and insistence that he would run the paper on a non-profitmaking basis. The board of IPC were unimpressed.

Murdoch moved the Sun onto his Bouverie Street presses and, as indicated, set about reducing an already cheap and nasty product to what has to be an all-time journalistic low. As Simon Jenkins (op. cit.) has observed, the Sun was translated into a “lurid tabloid making a special feature of naked ladies on page three”. To put it a little less delicately. Murdoch was pitching for the bum and tits brigade. And of course his ideas proved profitably sound. The Sun's sales rocketed, threatening even the paramountcy of its erstwhile stable-mate, the Mirror. In fact, the Mirror shortly followed Murdoch's example, at least on page three, but not before that paper’s management had conducted something of a soul-search over whether or not to display nipples. But then, something had to be done to defend a paper which had enjoyed a seemingly unassailable daily sales record of five million. The fact remained, however, that Murdoch revealed a completely new and richly rewarding corner of the market. He has been busily exploiting it ever since.

It is interesting and instructive to speculate as to why these fairly recent innovations materialised. The Sun's readership had not, after all, been simply spirited up by Murdoch. The truth is that it is necessary to take account of wide-ranging structural changes which had taken place in the field of media communication as a whole, chief among them television. Jenkins sees a steady but remorseless decline in what he terms the “middle ground tabloid readership” spread over the last twenty-five years, and he places the responsibility squarely on television. In doing so he recognises that cheesecake remains the monopoly of the tabloids ("but should TV enter this particular field, would the tabloids go for porn?” he asks).

Anyway, a turgid mix of "racy stories, naked girls and punch sports presentation" saw the Sun's sales climb from one million copies daily to over three in four years. The Daily Sketch had been forced into closure and the Mirror was obliged to re-think its position. As we have seen, Murdoch had already secured a firm foothold in Fleet Street with his acquisition of the News of the World. In retrospect this can have been no mere purchase of the first newspaper that offered itself. Murdoch must have sensed the weaknesses in the British tabloid press like a shark scenting a wounded swimmer. The News of the World, despite its tradition of squalid, cheque-book journalism, provided him not so much with experience of low-grade journalism — Murdoch had little to learn in that quarter — but with premises and, crucially, presses. The failing Sun having virtually dropped into his lap. Murdoch also inherited a tamed labour-force which, having stared disaster in the face under the old management, proved only too ready to negotiate with him. Murdoch secured manning reductions of up to 25 per cent. Even in the usually militant machine rooms he had no difficulty in obtaining all he needed from NATSOPA and the NGA.

The result has been that the News of the World and the Sun have been producing substantial profits ever since. Not that there haven’t been a few darker clouds. Murdoch has experienced trouble in the machine room over increasing print-runs, a problem which affected the delicate production balance among other print-workers in Fleet Street. In 1973 Murdoch was paid out for his own competitive greed when other newspaper proprietors refused to stand by him in a joint effort to defeat militant print-workers. Characteristically, Murdoch later (1978) did a unilateral deal with his own workers, this time in New York.

In the meantime, with the aid of his utterly obliging and sycophantically dependent editor Larry Lamb (who, despite everything, may still be heard proclaiming himself a "socialist”), Murdoch drove the Sun ever further rightward. It became even more strident, vulgar and unprincipled, matching the equally strident and unprincipled trumpetings of Thatcher, whose loyal servant it had evidently become. (Remember the Sun's Falklands war-cry: "The paper that supports our boys"?)

In other respects the paper became quite simply a megaphone for its proprietor and the wealthy establishment of which he is a member. It quickly became apparent that the Sun would stop at nothing. It made — and makes — a special point of traducing left-wing politicians and the more articulate and militant trade union figures. Indeed, any working class political activity is fair game.

So how. then, do we sum up the Sun? In essence it is no different from any other newspaper in that it exists primarily in order to make a profit for the capitalist who owns and controls it. It also serves as a medium through which that capitalist can try to sell his political line to millions of otherwise un- or underinformed workers and their families. He does this, not honestly and openly, but by dangling before his readers a superficially juicy yet essentially nauseating bait of all that is cheap, nasty, salacious, trivial and spuriously sensational. Hugh Cudlipp has described Murdoch's Sun as "a Woolworth edition of the Marks and Spencer Daily Mirror", (Walking on the Water). Perhaps we can leave the last word with George Crabbe (1784) and his poem The Newspaper (as quoted by the Royal Commission on the Press, 1977):
So moral essays in his front appear
But all is carnal business in the rear.
Richard Cooper

Dog-eat-Doig (1984)

Book Review from the August 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

Alan Doig: Corruption and Misconduct in Contemporary British Politics. Penguin, 1984. £4.95

It is not part of the socialist ease against capitalism that it is objectionable because [it is] corrupt. Capitalism without corruption would be just as oppressive. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the present social system, with its emphasis on competition, profit and material wealth, provides a framework within which corruption and other misconduct can flourish. In fact, we can go further and say that bribery and corruption are completely in keeping with capitalist “morality”. In a dog-eat-dog business world, there can be no complaint if some members of the pack try to bend the rules in their favour. In any case, it would be difficult to see any true difference between what capitalism regards as corrupt and what it regards as normal business practice.

In the light of this, remarks by the powers that be in defence of integrity and propriety can be seen as so much sanctimonious nonsense. For instance. Doig quotes the then Attorney-General saying in 1948 of standards in public life:
on the maintenance of those standards, those rightly very high standards, depend in a very large measure both the respect and the confidence which people place in the Parliamentary system of Government, and also perhaps the general standards of conduct and honesty in the country as a whole.
But if our “betters" are meant to set the general tone of behaviour, they do so rather poorly. Doig chronicles many instances of corruption in government circles, from Reginald Maudling to John Poulson, bent policemen to local councils where redevelopment schemes were sought-after prizes in the corruption stakes. One point he makes is that the domination of a local council for years by a single party — usually the Labour Party — could breed the kind of apathy and lack of opposition which permitted corruption to thrive.

At the 1976 trial of a property company and the South Wales councillor bribed by it, the judge remarked:
Greedy and avaricious men cause more damage to the community than 100 or more thieves with whom we pack our prisons.
Of course, greed and avarice are acceptable to the judge and his ilk when they are the motives behind "honest" profit-making, which means, after all, taking from the workers the fruits of their unpaid labour. The thieves who rob by means of exploitation — the “respectable" capitalist class — are lauded and ennobled, not imprisoned.

Doig's book may be of interest to those concerned with the symptoms of a sick society rather than the disease itself. But socialists will find it a tedious yawn.
Paul Bennett

The Mondragón co-operatives (1984)

From the July 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

In face of the popular belief that co-operatives are ineffective and mostly doomed to failure, the workers’ co-operatives founded in Mondragón in the Basque region of Spain have been held up as an example of how successful workers’ control of industry can be. Only one of these co-ops apparently ever failed.

In 1982 there were 85 industrial cooperatives with around 20,000 members. The first one, ULGOR, was founded in 1956 under the guidance and inspiration of a Catholic Priest, Father Arrizmendi, by five of the first pupils to go to the technical training school he started with the help of local townspeople. Here Father Arrizmendi taught his ideas of “dignifying the role of labour” and “democratising the workplace”. ULGOR is today the leading Spanish producer of electrical goods like fridges, washing machines, cookers and dishwashers.

Several claims are being made about these types of co-operatives. David P. Ellerman in his papers The Socialisation of Entrepreneurship and What is a Worker cooperative? defines a co-operative as a firm “controlled and operated by the people who work in it”, and says that it is “neither privately nor publicly owned . . . . It is not owned at all; it is a democratic social institution”. There are, it is claimed, no “wages” and no “profits” in a worker cooperative, only “labour income”. Another claim made is that in a workers co-operative, “labour hires capital” instead of the other way round.

The structure of the Mondragón workers’ co-ops is different from other types of co-operatives. First of all, any new member wishing to join has to pay a membership fee of between £2,000/£2,500. This is more than most workers can afford so they put about 25 per cent down and the remainder is deducted from their pay over a two-year period.

Having paid the membership fee, the new member is automatically allocated one share in the firm on a one share/one vote basis. The members, through the General Assembly, elect the Board of Directors who in turn appoint the management. The shares are just membership certificates and do not carry the net worth of the company’s assets plus the accumulated retained profits; these are allocated to the so-called Internal Capital Accounts (or Internal Accounts)—a system invented by the Mondragón co-operatives. Seventy per cent of the co-operative’s profit is credited to the members’ Internal Accounts according to the formula “equally per hour worked or equally per dollar pay”; similarly, if the company makes a loss, this is deducted from the Internal Accounts. The difference between the allocation to the highest and lowest remunerated member is 3-1. Should members wish to realise their capital, they normally have to wait until retirement when the firm pays it out over a period of years. If they have to leave the co-op earlier “for reasons beyond their control”, their capital will be cashed but if they leave to work for a competitor, 30 per cent of the value of their Internal Accounts will be deducted.

It is claimed that the “members” of a co-operative are not paid wages as such. Ellerman describes it as follows:
The net value accruing to the workers is the value of their product less the non-labour costs. Some of that value is paid out during the year (the closest analogy to “wages”), some is paid out at the year’s end (bonuses), and some is retained in the co-operative. Since the net amount is not known until the end of the fiscal year, the amount paid out during the year is an advance or an anticipation (anticipos) of the workers’ income.
The group headquarters of the Mondragón co-operative movement is the Caja Laboral Popular (Bank of the People’s Labour) whose main role is to be a credit institution for the associated co-operatives. Apart from the Banking Division it also has an Empresarial Division which concerns itself with the launching of new co-ops, performs feasibility studies into new market possibilities and keeps these on file for the use and further exploration of people planning to start new co-ops. The Caja Laboral Popular assigns a “godfather”, usually an experienced manager from within the group, to keep an eye on and advise the fledgeling co-ops. The Empresarial Division stays in close contact with the research and development institute, Ikerlan. which is an offshoot of the Polytechnical College of the Mondragón group.

What are the reasons behind the apparent "success" of these co-operatives? One factor is the economic upturn in Spain in the 1960s which resulted in heavy demand for household electrical goods. Another could be the tightly woven net comprising the co-ops; the double function of the Caja Laboral Popular: Ikerlan and the Polytechnical College. Perhaps most importantly, the willingness of workers (or "members") in co-ops to accept smaller wage rises and more spartan working conditions, as they believe they are working in their own firms and therefore have to keep an eye on costs. A further strengthening of worker solidarity in this region could be Basque nationalism.

So where does control, and thereby ownership, lie in the Mondragón co-operatives? The key question is whether the workers can actually directly gain access to their capital and decide what to do with it. They cannot; in fact the whole system seems to operate like a pension scheme, as the members have to wait until retirement to realise their earnings and even then they do not get it paid out in one lump sum. Most effective control and decision making is carried out by management, who in this case would be the de facto owners of the co-operatives.

It must also be remembered that cooperatives are integrated into the market system and subjected to the same economic laws as other firms. Should Spain eventually join the Common Market and the high protective import duties imposed to protect Spanish produced goods be removed, the Mondragón co-ops might face very strong competition from foreign produced goods. The claim that "labour hires capital” does not hold up as there must be something in the kitty to pay new members their wages (or "anticipos").

The argument is often put that it is possible to establish "little islands of socialism—workers co-operatives — within the framework of capitalism, thus making a revolutionary, world-wide change from capitalism to socialism unnecessary. But socialism means common ownership and free access to everything that is produced. Such a social system does not exist in the Mondragón co-operatives or anywhere else in the world. The rigorous economic law of profitability at all costs imposed by the market must be supported by defenders of co-operatives; if. under capitalism, you don’t observe this law you very quickly go out of business.
Torgun Bullen

A dose of realism (1984)

Editorial from the June 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

Len Murray, who did not exactly huff and puff as general secretary of the TUC, has now decided to retire from the job before his time because he has run out of steam. This raises the question of Murray's expectations of the job and of his views on modern—that is, capitalist—society. Why has he lost his enthusiasm for being the leader (if only in name) of Britain's millions of trade unionists? Does he feel that he has been badly used—worse than his predecessors like Woodcock and Feather? How closely has he, the champion of a “new realism" in the unions, been in touch with reality himself?

There was, of course, nothing exceptional about the conflicts between the TUC and the government during Murray’s time. In those dealings there is a procedure to be followed which is as established, and as pointless, as any tradition. In the case of a Labour government, before coming to power they hammer out with the unions a comprehensive agreement in which the unions will do something to restrain pay claims in return for a measure more influence in forming government policies. These agreements are then packaged, for the voters' consumption, under varying deceptive brand names; the most recent, which helped Labour back to power in 1974. was the Social Contract, once hyperbolised by Harold Wilson as “the boldest experiment in civilised government that Britain has ever seen".

What actually happened—and what always happens—was that the TUC was compelled to join battle with the Labour government over the attempts to lower workers' standards by, among other policies, keeping wage rises below price increases. Sometimes, such as when Barbara Castle produced the infamous White Paper In Place of Strife, the TUC had openly to split with Labour. And if the unions did not actually fight a Labour government, then the members often showed what they thought of things by staging "unofficial" strikes and "illegal" picketing to try to enforce a pay claim. The Callaghan government's defeat in 1979 was widely and sullenly blamed on the events of the Winter of Discontent, when sections of low-paid workers vented the frustrations of their impoverishment in a series of determined strikes and other actions. If it is true that that winter finished off the Callaghan government, then that must stand as the measure of whose interests that government represented — and of the TUC's attitude to it all.

Union battles with the Tories are, of course, less embarrassing. Conservative governments impose anti-working class policies which are often almost identical to those of a Labour government but they are usually written up as the results of a hard faced resolve to protect the rich and privileged against the poor and disadvantaged. To some extent the Thatcher government has not concerned itself with denying this image; they have not gone out of their way, like former Tory administrations, to placate or even negotiate with the unions. They brushed aside, for example, the TUC offer to try to mediate in the dispute over union membership at the GCHO. The Tories won power in 1979 partly through their promises—which were perhaps popular after that Winter of Discontent—to curb the power of the unions. That is one pledge which they have gone some way to keep and there is now an open breach between them and the unions, with the TUC refusing to join in the sort of planning of workers’ exploitation which is the business of bodies like the National Economic Development Council.

Under these pressures, Len Murray has grown visibly more care-worn and impotent. His response was to offer an unpopular policy called “The New Realism", which involved doing a deal with Thatcher, getting the TUC back into the NEDC and generally making the best of a bad job. It was predictable that this policy would meet opposition, especially from the left wing, for it recognised that this is a time of slump, that the Thatcher government's policies spring from the depressed state of British capitalism rather than from any personal malevolence on the part of the Cabinet and that at such times the unions are at their weakest and most pliable. Of course it is possible to ignore such facts but this would probably have to be at the cost of unnecessary and unproductive suffering by the workers, as the miners suffered when they hung on after the General Strike until they were starved back to work. Such are too often the results of left wing theorising.

But if Murray really is concerned to prescribe for the unions a stiff dose of realism then his analysis needs to be a lot deeper than an armistice with the Tories. Realism appreciates that trade unionists, like all workers, have to sell their working abilities in order to live. Their labour power is a commodity, which means that, like all other produce in a capitalist society, it needs a profitable market. If that market does not exist, labour power will not be bought by the class who own the means of production and distribution. Commodity society works on a simple law: no profit, no production. Sometimes this means an international recession with factories, mines, docks and building sites closed down all over the world and millions of workers thrown onto the scrap heaps. This is the situation at present and it is not especially perceptive or insightful of Murray to recognise it.

For this present recession is a typical episode in the boom/slump/boom cycle of capitalism. The best response for the unions in this society is to cash in on the workers’ strengths during a boom and to defend their weaknesses during a slump. To recognise this function (which does not, in fact, invariably apply to the unions) is to assess the limitations on trade union activity and to grasp that they are confined to working within the confines of capitalism. It is then but a small step to see that the only real and permanent solution to working class problems is something beyond capitalism — in fact a social revolution to establish a system in which the means of life will be commonly owned.

While capitalism endures, the working class will need to be united in organisations to protect their commodity labour power. This means that the unions can exist only on the assumption that the class society of capitalism will continue; they are purely defensive organisations. Socialism will be the abolition of class society — and of the working class — and its replacement by a united human race. If, in 1984, anyone is looking for a realism, that is it.

Obituary: Jim Flowers (1984)

Obituary from the May 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is with great sorrow that we report the death on 10 March of Bristol comrade Jim Flowers following a stroke.

Jim was politically active right up until his death, attending meetings and following up his well known correspondence with the local press. He joined The Socialist Party in 1936 and for several decades was a well known figure on Durdham Downs, where he struggled to keep alive the ideas of socialism.

Jim had a secular upbringing from which he never strayed. His father, who refused a CBE, was a co-founder of the TGWU along with Ernest Bevin. He was a trade unionist the whole of his working life and, when a local newspaper report referred to Jim as the draughtsmen’s leader in a DATA strike at the British Aircraft Corporation, he promptly wrote in to point out that he was merely their representative. Of his early experience in the Labour Party Jim said he always thought there was something wrong because there were so many parsons in it.

A final misrepresentation appeared in an obituary in the Bristol Evening Post, under the heading “Jim Flowers the idealist is dead”. At this, one of our comrades promptly wrote in to correct the “idealist” label—we have to carry on where Jim left off.

Cuba under Castro (1984)

From the April 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is just over a quarter of a century since the July 26 Movement, led by Fidel Castro, toppled the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista and took over the government of the country. From a policy of mild agricultural reformism, the new regime gradually shifted to one of full-scale state capitalism and close trading and other ties with Russia. In view of Cuba's geographical position—less than a hundred miles off the American coast— this has resulted in major reverberations in the international power struggle.

Pre-1959 Cuba was dependent to an extraordinary degree on a single crop, sugar, and a single trading partner, the United States. Sugar comprised about a quarter of the gross national product, and amounted to four-fifths of all exports. Not only was most trade with the United States, but American companies also had massive investments in Cuba (around 850 million dollars in 1959). One consequence of all this was a high degree of sensitivity to the international sugar market; another was heavy unemployment and underemployment, with the half million sugar workers working for only the four months harvest period in the year.

Politically, too, Cuba was under the American thumb. In 1898, as Cuban nationalists fought for “independence” from Spain, American troops had invaded and remained for four years. Even after their departure, the US retained the right to station troops on the island and intervene in Cuban politics. A succession of sordid and corrupt dictatorships followed. Many fortunes were made, some by unusual means— in the late fifties, for instance, the income from Havana’s parking meters went to the family of the city's mayor.

The Cuban peasants and workers, most of them utterly destitute, were subject to torture and repression of the kind that deterred any significant resistance. Nor was the Cuban “Communist" Party able to offer any effective opposition: in 1938, after all, it had openly supported Batista! It was essentially as a nationalist anti-Batista movement that Castro was able to organise his guerrillas in the late fifties and eventually take Havana. Support for Batista was minimal and confined to a tiny section of society, so that there was nothing to stop the only other organised political force in Cuba from taking over the government.

In the light of later developments, it is important to appreciate that in 1959 Castro did not pretend to be a socialist and neither did he carry out wholesale nationalisation. It was American hostility, plus Cuba’s dependence on sugar exports, that led to Cuba’s taking a state-capitalist road and becoming an ally of Russia. The American government demanded compensation for land seized in the 1959 land reform, and refused financial aid. The following year, Cuba arranged to exchange sugar for Russian crude oil. but the multinational oil companies (Texaco, Shell, Esso) refused to process it in their Cuban refineries. Castro seized the oil refineries. Eisenhower stopped all sugar imports from Cuba, all American property was nationalised, a total American embargo on trade with Cuba began. Thus Cuba became totally isolated from its largest trading and investment partner. Forced to rely heavily on its own resources, there was no choice but to turn to state capitalism as a means of development.

Initially, emphasis was placed on agricultural diversification, that is, giving greater importance to crops other than sugar, especially beans, rice and corn. Industrialisation was not at first a priority: by 1962, only ten new factories had been constructed. But this policy did not break the dependence on imports, and failure of the sugar harvest in 1962 and 1963 led to an enormous balance of payments deficit. So the decision was made by Cuba's new rulers to opt for agricultural specialisation, with an expansion in sugar exports. The ambitious target of a ten-million ton sugar harvest was set for 1970: in the event, this was not reached and the emphasis on sugar led to a fall in industrial output that year. Cuba remains essentially a one-crop economy.

As we have seen, Cuba was once closely tied to the economic apron strings of the United States. Though the links may not be quite so close, there are now similar relations with Russia. Cuba is almost entirely reliant on imports for energy, especially oil and coal. Russian economic policies to Cuba are certainly not based on charity, but on economic benefit. For climatic reasons, Russia cannot be a low-cost producer of sugar, which Cuba certainly is. But Russia can produce fairly cheaply many of the things needed by Cuba, especially oil, machinery and means of transport. So Russian-Cuban trade and aid is based on simple profit considerations.

The continuing reliance on sugar exports means that Cuba is still subject to the ups and downs in the international sugar market. Between 1975 and 1976, for instance, the price of sugar fell from 60 to 14 cents a pound. Another major hard currency earner has been nickel; but a slump in the international steel industry in the early seventies meant a reduced demand for nickel and hence less of it was exported from Cuba. Thus Cuba is not, and cannot be, isolated from the economy of the rest of the capitalist world.

And how have the ordinary people of Cuba fared under Castro’s rule? There is no denying some of the achievements; infant mortality, for example, has fallen by about a half since 1959, and the 1961 literacy campaign reduced the rate of illiteracy from a quarter of the population to under four per cent (the average rate in Latin America is about a third). But combatting illiteracy is part and parcel of producing a modern working class, equipped to handle advanced methods of production. State capitalism is clearly an efficient (from the capitalist point of view) way of developing the means of production and creating a workforce to operate them.

Workers’ living conditions have no doubt improved since 1959, but major problems remain. In 1965, Castro admitted that the regime had not even begun to deal seriously with the housing problem. In 1971, a system was inaugurated whereby workers effectively built their own houses, in labour additional to their ordinary work. Even so, Castro in 1975 had still to concede that in housing, “we have not been able to do very much". Unpaid “voluntary” labour has been widely used as the rulers try to obtain as much surplus labour as possible from the workers. Women may have a working week of up to ninety hours: such “advantages” as extended shopping hours mean that they can do both a paid job and domestic labour.

Every so often, Cuba’s gaols are emptied and potential “trouble-makers” shipped off to Miami. In 1971, a law against “vagrancy” was passed, but even before it came into effect 100,000 unemployed had been induced to register for productive work. Reports in the late seventies estimated 50,000 unemployed in Cuba. Agricultural workers remain underemployed, and absenteeism is rife. The trade unions have been deployed as a means of disciplining workers, with identity cards and demerit points: valuable labour power cannot be allowed to go to waste.

Nor is Cuba by any means an egalitarian society. Some workers are singled out as “Advanced Workers”, which gives them access to special bonuses which can enable them to earn twice the average wage. But above the working class is the Cuban ruling class—managers, bureaucrats and the like, who enjoy bloated “salaries" and privileged access to goods which they do not need to own individually. At the top of the pyramid, supreme power lies with the Politburo and the Council of State, a self-perpetuating elite. The system of worker assemblies is not democracy in action: what the workers choose is not who is to represent them but who is to transmit government policies and directives to them.

Cuba, then, is no socialist paradise. It is a state-capitalist country subject to the anarchy of the world market, where a tiny minority of rulers live off the surplus value produced by the working class. The “left" once found Cuba mystifying—was 1959 a revolution without a Leninist party, they asked. But there is no mystery about Cuba: state capitalism may enable a backward country to speed its development, but it retains the brutality and oppression characteristic of all shades of capitalism.
Paul Bennett