Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Are you a capitalist? (1986)

From the July 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

- Have you got a bank account?
- Yes.- Do you draw interest on it?
- Yes.- Then you must be a capitalist.
The above exchange is typical of the confusion arising from the complexities of modern capitalism, its highly sophisticated credit system of banks, building societies, unit trusts, charge-cards and mortgage brokers. The number of cheque book holders runs into many millions and if mere possession of one made its owner a capitalist, there would not be enough people left to be workers.

Nevertheless, the question of cheque books and bank interest does mislead lots of workers. In the "good old days" when wages were around one pound a week it was instantly obvious that unemployment, sickness or another baby were major disasters - except for wealthy people. Nowadays, the "Welfare State" ropes us all into compulsory insurance, PAYE, housing benefits. Family Income Supplement - covering us from the "womb to the tomb." The government spends 40 per cent of its budget on social welfare; in 1890 it spent just 7 per cent. This 40 per cent goes to keep the workers quiet - and still does not succeed.

As a result, many workers are desperately concerned about the fate of British Leyland. or British Rail or British Gas. They think these are "our" industries because they voted for the government which runs it. They squabble about high or low taxes. The reformist parties vie in promising tax reductions Many workers quite sincerely believe it is our country and our industry and are in favour of low wages to help British products compete abroad.

It is not the possession of a cheque book, which these days can be obtained by banking just a few pounds, but how much the cheque book represents which counts (literally). To be a capitalist, one must be able to live without working for someone else - be free from the necessity of paid employment

Dictionary definitions of a capitalist are fair enough:
OXFORD: A possessor of capital or funds used in production.
NUTTALL: One who possesses capital, one of large means.
ODHAMS: One who possesses capital on which he may live.
PENGUIN: One who has accumulated wealth and makes it available for business.

As always, nobody has put it better than Karl Marx, who defined capital as "Wealth used to create more wealth with a view to profit " Being a capitalist allows a life-style with all the appurtenances of wealth: a country house and an apartment in town, a couple of cars, a fashionable social life, children at public school, travel abroad.

The workers' money is income — the capitalists' is transferable wealth. This also applies to corporate funds. A member of SOGAT or the NUM cannot claim a personal share of the funds but only membership benefits under rule. Supposing SOGAT to have £10 million funds and 10,000 members. A member retiring or resigning cannot withdraw £1.000. A trade union is not a limited liability company or a bank The funds are vested in the organisation, not in individual members.

All trade union investments in shares, stocks, banks, building societies, unit trusts and the Co-op Bank have to be reported to the Inland Revenue and inspected by the Registrar. Interest and dividends paid into union funds and all accounts must be audited and passed by professional accountants. Legislation was introduced when it transpired that some union accounts were badly run.

Redundancy payments will not set many workers on the high road to capitalist opulence. It is possible, after a life time of employment, to receive something like £20,000. One of the highest safe interest rates available is 10 per cent in a building society, producing less than £40 a week not much compensation for the loss of a wage of say £150 a week.

While it is true that exceptionally talented or fortunate individual workers do sometimes manage to claw their way out of the working class the prospect of many doing so is non-existent. The notion that the problems of capitalism can be solved by the workers becoming capitalists, even "small" ones, through Thatcher’s "caring capitalism", is like telling mice to start chasing cats.

Chernobyl - an accident? (1986)

Editorial from the June 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Among the more obvious and immediate dangers of Chernobyl one which went unpublicised was the possibility that the disaster will be regarded as in some way exceptional and unique - the result of some human fallibility or secretiveness by the Russian authorities. In fact, there is more to be said about it.

The Green lobby, as might have been expected, seized on the disaster as ammunition for their attack on the policy of building nuclear power stations. This attack is extremely effective, backed up with impressive evidence, but it has one vital defect. It encourages the belief that nuclear power stations, like other threats to the environment, are peculiar acts of blind folly on the part of governments. The conclusion from this is that if we change the governments, or persuade them to change their policies, the problems will disappear. We will still be able to breathe the air. eat vegetables, drink milk, without going some of the way to committing suicide. So the Greens campaign to keep capitalism in being, while hoping to make it alter course in some respects.

The facts are not encouraging to their case. There is nothing exceptional or surprising about states acting in ways which are known to have perils for human life. Every state, for example, has its armed forces whose object is to destroy things and kill people. Every state is responsible for assaults of pollution on the environment killing off forests. lakes and seas, creating dust-bowls, wrecking scenic peace with dams, power stations, motorways and the like. Governments press on with these crimes in spite of the apparent cogency of the environmentalist case against them.

This is how it has been with nuclear power stations. These are not confined to the big industrial powers, there are nearly 400 of them in operation around the world, including Brazil, Argentina, South Korea and India, and more are planned. Their existence is justified by the governments concerned on the grounds that there is no real choice. France gets 65 per cent of its energy from nuclear power. Japan 26 per cent; in both cases the official line is that the lack of any other resources makes reliance on nuclear plants unavoidable. Russia draws 11 per cent of its power from atomic energy and plans another 34 nuclear stations as part of a drive to build up the economy into a stronger competitor - a policy spurred on because of doubts about the extent of Russian oil resources. So the questions are: why do governments argue that there is no alternative to nuclear power stations and what is nuclear power essential for?

Some answers to these questions are provided, in the case of Britain, by extracts from the diary of Tony Benn. published in the Guardian on 3 May. Benn was, of course, once Minister of Technology and then of Power in a Labour government, which made him not only a supporter of nuclear power plants but also gave him an insight into the motivation behind them. (On this, as on other issues, he has recently undergone a somewhat tardy change of mind). In December 1969, worried about the safety of the Magnox reactors, particularly the one at Bradwell in Essex where there had been some ominous problems. Benn called two officials from the Atomic Energy Authority and the Central Electricity Generating Board to his office. Both men were reassuring about the safety of the plant, where there had been corrosion of bolts holding the core restraint, caused by high operating temperatures. This was no minor problem for, according to Benn, it threatened an incident (it could hardly have been called an accident) which " . . . would kill many thousands of people in the area of Bradwell and would send a radioactive cloud that might kill people in London". That risk did not prevent Bradwell station raising its operating temperature, and so increasing the danger - a gamble which was taken "In view of the problem of the fuel situation this winter and the fear of a strike and cold weather . . . " But there was more to it than a concern to supply cheap power to British industry and forestall a strike: "The thing that worried them was the possibility that this might do damage to our nuclear exports . . . "

This concern for profits before people is perfectly acceptable, indeed necessary, under capitalism. That is why there was such a determined effort to suppress news of failures in British stations and to issue soothing reassurances about their safety. A letter in The Times of 5 May reveals:
In my 25 years at, first, Windscale (now Sellafield) as a research and development officer, then Harwell as a senior principal scientific officer. it was more than anyone's career was worth to talk to the Press or write a letter about what went on inside the nuclear establishments. Radioactive spills and leaks did happen at times, but they were hushed up. Every scientific paper declared for publication had to be submitted to a most rigorous declassification rigmarole.
That is why even now. with the mounting evidence from Chernobyl that nuclear reactors are desperately dangerous, things which no social system with any concern for human welfare would contemplate, the spokespeople for the industry and the government continue to insist that they are really good for us.

Nuclear power could be safe. It menaces our life now because we live in a society of class ownership of the means of production, in which wealth is turned out for sale and profit. In this system human interests have a very low priority; if something is profitable then it happens, whatever the risk to people. The Greens attack this as if it were a form of madness when by the standards of capitalism it has a deadly sanity and logic. If anyone should doubt this, they might ponder on a certain reaction to the speculation, soon after the explosion at Chernobyl, that a total meltdown was imminent. If that had happened, the consequences for the world would have been incalculably horrific. For everyone, it seemed, this was dreadful news. But not quite everyone. The prospect of the destruction of the Ukraine sent grain and livestock prices soaring in Chicago. When there is extra profit to be made, even out of human misery, the capitalist class are keen to do so.

If Chernobyl illuminated one thing it is that human society is at present organised in the interests of a small minority and that, short of dealing with that basic condition any efforts, however sincere or thoughtful, are futile. Anyone who has been frightened by nuclear "accidents" or who is concerned for what is happening to our environment can now have no reason for standing aside from the case for the abolition of capitalism and its replacement by a social system where people are the priority

Northern Ireland: The Gentle Art of Interrogation (1971)

From the December 1971 issue of the Socialist Standard

Anybody living in Northern Ireland today who doubts the assertion that the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary are waging a vicious war against that section of the working class who are Catholics or who question the allegation that part of the weaponry of that war are brutality and torture can carry out his own inquiry.

There are a number of approaches.

For example, one could go into a Catholic district almost any night and linger in the vicinity of a street corner until the inevitable military patrol comes along. When one has been called a “fucking Irish pig”, or a “fenian bastard” or when one has been put against a wall and had one’s ankles or knees kicked or, even, a baton deflected off one’s testicles, one can quote “the Law”—which, along with “Order", the military are defending for one’s protection—and the consequences will complete a definite stage of one’s inquiry! It is a simple test which we would urge on marble-mouthed gentry who speak down to us from Westminster or Stormont—though, if they were to get the full benefits of such a test, it would have to be carried out incognito!

If one has escaped the needs for hospitalisation at this stage of the test, it can be carried further by indulging in some simple and minimal act of self-defence. Irrespective of one’s age or sex this is guaranteed to provoke the “security forces” into a flurry of security excitement which will ensure that in future one will have no difficulty in appreciating why so many people who, a short time ago, laughed at the military posturings of the I.R.A. are now, tragically, finding their way into its ranks.

There are, of course, no gas chambers in Ulster. Unlike the ghetto Jews in Nazi Germany, Ulster’s ghetto Catholics are not herded into gas chambers and murdered. They may be gassed in their bedrooms or living rooms but then they have the satisfaction of knowing that a group of humane medical people, acting for the British government, have said that the gas used has no long-term effects—unless, that is, the concentration is heavy, in which case permanent brain damage may result. Again, maybe, they could be disturbed by other medical opinion that asserts that inhalation of the gas does produce permanent and damaging side-effects or they could be apprehensive about the fact that the power determining the concentration of the gas is the same power that shot an unarmed man outside his own door, further up the street, last night.

One can understand the brutal reaction to taunt and provocation. One can appreciate the anger of a member of a military machine, embracing the most awesome devices for killing, to the death of comrades at the hands of amateurs who must compensate for lack of numbers and weaponry with stealth. What continues to surprise is the fact that politically ignorant members of the working class, with normal emotional appetites, can be induced into the trade of killing at all; but worse, that there can be a process whereby such men can be brutalised into a condition that allows them to engage in acts of savagery against homes that look like their own homes, women who look like their own wives and mothers, and children who look like their own kids.

When we go up the scale to the professional torturers, the mind simply boggles. Here’s one person’s reaction:
. . .  I knew I was in a torture chamber. Yet my mind could not conceive that I was living in the twentieth century . . . Surely these men could never bring themselves to torture me in cold blood. Looking around at their faces I saw neither passion nor compassion in any one of them.
The writer in question details the ensuing physical and psychological torture to which he and his fellow-prisoners were subjected:
. . . Corporal Walters had been compelled to stand to attention for over forty hours before he collapsed. Fusilier Kinne had been kicked so savagely during a beating-up in jail that he sustained a double-rupture . . . Denis’s hands were secured so far up behind his back that he had to stand on tip-toe.
The quotations are from The Edge of the Sword a book written by Lieut-General Farrar-Hockley, who recently commanded British Land Forces in Northern Ireland. The writer is describing the experiences of himself and his comrades at the hands of the Chinese and Koreans when, as Captain Farrar-Hockley, he was taken prisoner in Korea in 1951 and he digresses at length on the mere beatings and kickings meted out by his captors as well as the foul system of psychological tortures devised to break them.

It was after Korea that the British Army began to develop its own techniques for the interrogation of prisoners and the specialisation in brutality and torture devolved on men whose personality and behaviour showed aptitude for the trade. Such men were seconded from their regiments and “elevated” to the Special Air Services (SAS) where the entire curricula of known brutality was imparted to them in “schools” such as that at Bradbury Line, near Hereford. The activities of these heroes is the subject of a permanent “D” notice imposed on the British press. Apart from their employment as torturers, killers, and specialists in counter-espionage activities these worthies are sometimes employed in the business of toughening-up and brutalising ordinary troops.

Despite denials by Lord Balniel, the British Minister of State for Defence, and the protests of Lord Carrington—sometimes known in Ireland as Himmler Carrington—of SAS presence in Ulster, some Irish newspapers have given quite detailed information about the activities of SAS Unit 22 in the province. It is possible, however, that Balniel’s honesty may be vindicated in the suggestion that the SAS unit concerned got around the dilemma of plying their foulness in the UK by seconding their Ulster contingent back to their old regiments. Certainly, if they are not in Northern Ireland, there is a lot of evidence to indicate that the brutality of the army and police dealing with political detainees makes the work of the SAS superfluous!
After being given the overall I was taken outside the room and along the corridor into another room and made to stand against the wall as one is made for frisking only I was made to stretch my legs and arms as far apart as I could get them. My feet also had to be as far from the wall as possible. I was to remain in this position for at least two, and at most four, days with the hood on. I lost all track of time, but there is no doubt that 1 remained in this position for days. If I did not keep my head straight I was hit with a fist in the small of the back, the genitals, the arms. As the duration of my stance against this wall grew longer, the collapsing and falling became more frequent, until I began falling every twenty or thirty minutes.
No, we are not back to Lieut-General Farrar-Hockley and his Edge of the Sword; this time we are with a Mr. Michael Donnelly who was arrested in Ulster by Crown Forces on 9 August 1971, “on suspicion”. The extract above is from his sworn statement made eleven days later.

There are many other statements that speak of beatings and kickings, the “disorientation treatment” which involves putting a hood over a prisoner’s head and putting him in a confined space where he is subjected to a constant high-pitched or throbbing noise for days on end, the discharging of firearms, using blank cartridges, at the prisoner’s head, sexual assault, electric shocks, and the use of injections. Many of these statements are attested to by medical evidence of the victim’s condition after “treatment”, by the corroboration of other prisoners (and it is noteworthy that prisoners who did not know one another and had no chance to devise corroboration after their experiences, relate the same details), by the “disappearance” of prisoners for periods up to eleven days after arrest (during which the police, the military, and the local Home Affairs Ministry pass the buck about the prisoner’s whereabouts until he subsequently turns up in a prison hospital).

Following on the adverse publicity which the Authorities have been subjected to as a result of the well-documented revelations of torture and brutality, the Westminster government yielded to pressure and set up the inevitable inquiry. That such serious allegations should be answered by an inquiry confining examination, by its terms of reference, to a mere fraction of the total complaints, that it should be presided over by a paid British government official, that it should have no powers to compel witnesses to attend or to order the production of any records relating to the complaints, gives rise to the suggestion that it is a mere whitewashing exercise.

By the time these lines are in print the official inquiry will be complete (the complainants, predictably, boycotted it) and will have published its report. It is safe to say that while it may make scapegoats out of some minor thugs for some slight overstepping of the mark—doubtless “as a result of the regrettable circumstances of the occasion”—it will not, and could not, find the political flunkeys of capitalism guilty of the charges levelled against them. If you reflect on the effects of such a decision on the British government and its Stormont rubber-stamp you will understand what we mean!

The “Security” Chiefs themselves are revealing. As part of the general propaganda drive against the IRA which includes finding “large caches” of arms conveniently deposited on vacant lots and empty houses and killing gunmen who are carted off by their comrades and, presumably, buried secretly—despite the fact that anyone conversant with IRA tradition knows that the denial of a patriot funeral to an IRA man killed in action would be an affront that his family and comrades would regard as blasphemous — the “Security” people are now justifying the internment of men without trial by claiming that it is bringing them the necessary intelligence to take the initiative against the IRA. The proposition is worth pondering; surely if a suspect’s arrest is justified in the first place the authorities must be well satisfied that he is an IRA activist and, indeed, the claim that they are getting information from those arrested would appear to bear this out. But if there is no brutality, no torture, why do these vicious enemies of the State who must be arbitrarily incarcerated in the public interest, suddenly decide to give helpful information to the Authorities?

There are those, of course, who will claim that whatever methods are being used are justified. It is a convenient stance when one is not included among the innocent—and the Authorities have released considerable numbers of people who claim they were victims of torture and brutality after relatively short periods, showing that even in their own recognition they had “made a mistake” and have even admitted that some of those detained were victims of mistaken identity.

One can be sickened by it all; can say impotently “I must do something”. But what to do? That is the question . . . the question that chokes on emotion. On pity, on sadness, on hatred, on a blind desire to strike wildly at the perpetrators of the foulness. By all means, we must strike back at the evil but not wildly, not emotionally, not stupidly. There is no solution in wanting to strike back at the leering face of the soldier or widow the wife of the cop. Certainly violence, riots, killings, bombings etc., could decide the issue against those who use the weapons of torture and brutality. Enough deaths and destruction of property and the British government may decide that the job is not worth the candle and, if one is a Republican, one may have the joys of victory and the pleasure of imposing one’s notions of freedom on those in Northern Ireland who don’t want a Republic.

It could happen then that those who presently support the British connection in Northern Ireland could become the rebels and one could become a member of the new Irish Republican “Security” Forces—it’s even possible, and it has happened before, that one could be seconded to a British SAS “school” to learn the techniques of brutality and torture in order to put one’s talents “in the service of Ireland”.

It could happen because the material conditions that now allow it to happen here would continue to exist in the Irish Republic of one’s ambition despite the vapourings of the IRA and similarly-confused pundits regarding the establishment of “a Workers’ Socialist Republic”. It did happen when the British withdrew from the south of Ireland in 1922 and left the Irish Free State Army to deal with the unfortunate idealists who thought that among other things, freedom meant more than changing flags. It continues to happen now in the various state-capitalist “Socialist Republics” throughout the world where freedom is mortgaged for the State organisation of poverty—“Socialist Republics” established by the efforts of IRA-like idealists who were strong on the poetry of freedom and weak on the economic and political conditions required to establish it. How often does theirs become the face that leers behind the riot vizor? Theirs the finger on the executioner’s gun? Theirs the macabre brain of the torturer: Cuba . . . Russia . . . China . . . Israel . . . Egypt . . Kenya . . .

Just think of a country, any country, where a minority—a group who identify their economic privation with some common ethnic or religious distinguishing feature —resist their condition by real or alleged extra-constitutional means and there you have the Northern Ireland situation. What is happening in Northern Ireland today is happening, somewhere in the world of capitalism, every day. It is yesterday’s news from Czechoslovakia, or Aden, or Vietnam; it is today’s news from East Pakistan and Ulster; it will be tomorrow’s news from somewhere else in the crazy world where trade and profit take precedence over human beings. The news deals only with the death, the shootings, the bombings and organised barbarities. The poverty, frustration, bad housing and utter social despair that causes the eruptions rarely breaks through the veneer of religious bigotry, racial prejudice or political hatreds they have created. For poverty and human privation is not news . . . they are too general ... too mundane ... too constant a feature of capitalism.

It is only in capitalism, with its market economy and its need to deceive the overwhelming majority of those who produce wealth that the wages and money systems are essentials of production and distribution, that the material conditions for friction and violence can continue to exist. It does not matter what political party presides over the system of wages exploitation, whether it calls itself “Socialist”, “Communist”, “Republican”, “Democratic” or any other name; the capitalist system, identified by its broad masses of wage workers, its production of wealth for sale and profit and the continuing existence of poverty and want on the one hand and privilege and power on the other hand is an anachronistic foulness that cannot exist without war, violence and brutality. It is a foulness that not only deprives the great majority of the material means of a full and happy life, but degrades and brutalises people to play the role of soldiers, “freedom fighters”, gaolers, torturers and murderers.

How can we then strike back at such a system? Not surely of degrading ourselves with the same foul weapons of murder and torture simply to drive out the present administrators of the system and the flag that identifies them in order to submit to the same system under a different gang of political administrators?

It is essential that we should understand that capitalism is a world system, a world problem to which a world solution is required. Wealth today is produced by social labour from the resources of the world and the abundant evidence of those countries that have attempted to counter the effects of world capitalism by tampering with the economy at national level has demonstrated the truth of the Socialist contention that only the total abolition of capitalism as a world system can end the problems of society in general and the working class in particular. Even more, perhaps, experiments in State-capitalism, as proposed by the IRA and other political groups in Ireland, and as practiced in many countries of the world today, have shown that not only do the old miseries of poverty, etc., remain but that, faced with the disillusion and frustration of a working class that believed State ownership could solve its problems, the new regime resorts to the worst excesses of capitalism and denies its subject class access to the very political avenues essential to its emancipation.
Richard Montague

Observations: Page 3 (1986)

The Observations Column from the May 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Page Three

Labour MP Clare Short recently attempted to introduce a Bill to ban Page Three nudes from the tabloid press, arguing that they contribute to a climate in which women are held in contempt. The arguments behind the Bill are not clear: is Clare Short suggesting that Page Three nudes cause women's ill-treatment by men, or are they merely a reflection of popularly held, if abhorrent, attitudes? If, as is more probable, it is the latter, then censorship is likely to create a black market for soft porn (in addition to that for the hard stuff) rather than eliminate it altogether.

However, the rights and wrongs of the Bill itself are perhaps less interesting than the way in which it was received by the predominantly male MPs in the House of Commons. There was almost no attempt to offer anything like a cogent argument against the Bill - indeed it would have been difficult to do so above the cacophony of puerile sniggers and titters. The best in the way of argument that was mustered was one Tory MP who opposed the Bill on the grounds that one of his pleasures in life was to sit on the Tube and watch the faces of people "reading" Page Three of the Sun. Well whatever turns you on, I suppose.

Unfortunately the attitudes of such MPs are part of the same problem that Clare Short was attempting to confront through her misguided attempt at censorship - double standards. On the one hand, titillating pictures of women that reinforce distorted ideas about sexuality on Page Three and on the other moral outrage at sexual attacks by "monsters" makes the headlines on the front page. Legislation can't change these kinds of attitudes - especially when they are held by the legislators themselves.

Con trick

In what is transparently a tasteless electioneering stunt the Conservative Party has selected (the initial consonant should be retained) its first black parliamentary candidate (Observer, 6 April 1986). His name is Uncle Tom - oops! sorry! - John David Taylor, a barrister, and he has been told off to get in there and fight Birmingham. Perry Bar. This constituency contains Handsworth, whose mutinous black and coloured inhabitants are presumably what the Tory worthies had in mind when deciding what sort of a victim to sacrifice. For the constituency hardly represents the most fertile soil for conservatism: Jeff Rooker, Labour's housing spokesman, currently holds the seat with a 7.000 majority. Clearly, the Tories don't run all that much risk of seeing their unlikely stalking-horse actually elected.

And what does the candidate think? His first, and most urgent, act is to distance himself from Bernie Grant, down in London and his observations concerning the racist policing of Tottenham's Broadwater Farm. Mind you, Taylor had better watch his back: he has apparently taken on the odd police prosecution brief. This has to qualify him for a Special Branch manila folder at the very least, if not for a yard or two of microfiche and the Police National Computer.

In one major respect, however, there is precious little to choose between the two candidates. They are neither of them even remotely contemplating the only answer to the massive and intractable problems of our class - the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system. So. should Bernie end up as Home Secretary and John as Lord Chancellor then no doubt they'll discover they have much in common after all as they collaborate over that vintage champers at the Lord Mayor's Banquet.

No choice

As a result of a ruling at the European Court of Justice in February, women in Britain are to have the legal right to stay at work until they are 65, the same age as men. 300.000 women reach 60 each year; how many will welcome this change? Ian Lang, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment said of the new rule:
This is a step towards the concept of a decade of retirement with greater individual choice, which has long been government policy.
But how many women will see this as a real choice? What is it a choice between? Most women workers, if they opt to retire at 60 despite the new ruling, will face the rest of their lives scratching an existence on a pension. supplementary benefit and whatever they may have managed to save during their years of wage labour. Given that grim prospect they may very well prefer to continue working for a further five years. But it is quite likely that at the age of 60 some at least will be finding work increasingly physically tiring and would prefer to have a rest by giving up altogether or reducing the number of hours they work. So the choice is constrained by economic necessity and a lack of flexibility towards working hours, and hardly represents a choice at all.

In a socialist society, work will be fitted to individual needs: elderly people will, like everyone else in society, be able to decide for themselves when to work and when not to work in accordance with their health, strength, and needs for companionship and fulfilling and creating activity.

Hattersley’s capitalism

"People's Capitalism" is a slogan that seems to be receiving endorsement from the Tories. Labour and Alliance alike. If the "property-owning democracy" was a ruse to persuade workers to "buy" their own houses, then "People's Capitalism" is intended to persuade us to buy shares in the companies that exploit us. The Alliance has consistently advocated workers buying shares but now Roy Hattersley is also jumping on the band-waggon. He said recently-.
The extension of employee share-holding .  .  . is wholly consistent with the aims of socialism . . . It is also in the interests of the economic success and social cohesion of this country.
(Observer, 16 March)
To say that workers buying shares is "wholly consistent with the aims of socialism" is tantamount to saying that capitalism is consistent with the aims of socialism - clearly nonsensical. However workers owning shares is consistent with the Labour Party's aspirations to political power. "Peoples Capitalism" is obviously thought to be a big vote-catcher - hence its endorsement by the three main political parties.

Persuading workers to part with their savings to buy shares in the companies which employ them is yet another capitalist con-trick designed to persuade us that, because we have a couple of hundred pounds' worth of shares, we have a stake in the present system which is worth defending, that it is worth our while to work for lower wages and not take industrial action to improve or maintain our conditions of work.

Owning a few shares in a company over which you have no control and to which you are still forced to sell your labour power does not make workers part of the capitalist class nor does it give us interests in common with the bosses. 

The simple life (1986)

Edward Carpenter 1844-1929
Book Review from the April 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Towards Democracy by Edward Carpenter. £5.95.

After nearly forty years of neglect, the works of Edward Carpenter have been re-issued, attracting considerable interest. Towards Democracy draws together all four parts of the series of Whitmanesque prose poems originally published between 1883 and 1902 and may reasonably be regarded as his manifesto.

Carpenter's work defies categorisation: a sincere and compassionate man, he was identified with nearly every Left Wing and reformist movement of his time from Christian Socialism to anarchism; from vegetarianism to women's suffrage; from penal reform to pollution control, with oriental mysticism thrown in for good measure.

But it is for his championing of homosexual rights at a time when it was both illegal and dangerous to do so that he is perhaps best remembered.

Carpenter deliberately adopted a simple open-air life and rejected conventional ways, preferring to live by manual work rather than use his university education and privileged connections to further a career. And it is this love of natural simplicity and rejection of pretentiousness and industrial ugliness which can be seen in his writings. Democracy, for Carpenter, was more of a personal than a political statement and, except that some of his poems are beautifully written, they will have limited appeal to socialists. But there are times when his indignation at the way in which capitalism impoverishes workers’ lives leads to an indictment of the factory system.
She lies whom Money has killed, and the greed of Money.
The thrice-driven slave, whom a man has calmly tortured.
And cast away in the dust - and calls it not murder.
Because he only looked on; while his trusted lieutenants
Supply and Demand pinned the victim down -
and her own mother Nature slew her!
The old story of the sewing machine - the treadle machine;
Ten hours a day and five shillings a week, a penny an hour or so - if the numbers were of importance.
Of course she fell ill. Indeed she had long been ailing, and the effort and the torture were slowly disorganising her frame; and already the grim question had been asked "Might she have rest?" (the doctor said must and for many a month, too).
And the answer came promptly as usual. "Have rest? - as much as she wanted! It was a pity, but of course if she could not work she could go. They would make no difficulty, as Supply would fill up her place as soon as vacant".
One more struggle then. And now she must go, for work is impossible, and Supply has filled her place, and there is no difficulty - or difference - except to her. (pp. 108-109)
In the poem Sheffield Carpenter draws a picture of the drabness of industry, contrasting it with the beauty of the nearby countryside:
. . . the file-cutter humped over his bench, with ceaseless skill of chisel and hammer cutting his hundred thousand file-teeth per day - lead poison and paralysis slowly creeping through his frame;
The gaunt woman in the lens grinding shop, preparing spectacle-glasses without end for the grindstone - in eager dumb mechanical haste, for her work is piecework
Barefoot skin-diseased children picking the ash- heaps over,
Sallow hollow-cheeked young men. prematurely aged ones,
The attic, the miserable garret under the defective roof.
The mattress on the floor, the few coals in the comer,
While jets of steam, long ribbons of black smoke. Furnaces glaring through the night, beams of lurid light thrown obliquely up through the smoke . . . (p.363)
Carpenter's radicalism sprang from his generous nature, he fought on the side of every reformist movement imaginable, trying to remove the symptoms of capitalism instead of the system itself. His confused ideas led him to support the Labour Party and syndicalism at the same time; to reject his early Christian beliefs but embrace oriental mysticism; to call himself an anarchist but have a seat on his local council. And yet the man who was a friend of William Morris and whose simple lifestyle influenced News from Nowhere cannot be dismissed lightly. But the final verdict must be one of regret that such a sincere and gifted man ended up in the blind alley of reformism instead of finding a road to socialism.
Carl Pinel

Lies, leaks and "authorised disclosures" (1986)

From the March 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Which is the most depressing spectacle - the pious penitence of Leon Brittan, forced to resign over a "genuine misunderstanding” about the correct way to leak a letter, the flamboyant exit from the cabinet of Michael Heseltine, the man who did the "honourable thing" because he couldn’t take the Prime Minister's autocratic manner any longer; the pathetic protestations of Margaret Thatcher that she didn’t know that any of these underhand events were going on; or the sanctimonious bleatings of the opposition?

Who do they think they're kidding? Anyone with an ounce of common sense realises that Leon Brittan resigned because he was caught in the act and his fellow Tories regarded him as a liability. He didn't resign voluntarily because of a breach of trust, but because he was forced to by his fellow Tories. Heseltine, the man who couldn't "remain with honour" in Thatcher's cabinet, took a bloody long time to make up his mind that he was such a principled politician. After all, it has not been only during the Westland business that the Prime Minister has run her cabinet like Attila the Hun; the sacked cabinet ministers who litter the Tory backbenches bear witness to the way she has usually dealt with dissidents. No, Heseltine probably thought he could get some political mileage out of his resignation, which might help in his bid to be the next Tory leader. And as for Thatcher s innocence - how stupid does she think we all are? Are we honestly to believe that members of her own office decide to leak a letter to discredit a member of the cabinet and then forget to tell her about it? Kinnock, Owen. Steel or any of the other politicians would never of course have engaged in such political machinations, would they? And, no, of course they're not really gloating at the possibility that they might, after all, be in with a chance at the next election.

The details of who said what, when and why, have been endlessly rehearsed and it seems unlikely, in the face of Cabinet minutes being tampered with, different versions of the same meeting being put about, and the government's reluctance to allow key civil servants to give evidence to the select committee, that the truth will ever be known. But what does it matter: the essentials of the Westland story are damning enough already.

So let's start at the beginning. A small company in Yeovil is unable to make sufficient profit from helicopter manufacture to continue its operations. Offers to buy into the company and prevent it from going to the wall are received from two rival groups of capitalists: Sikorsky-Fiat in the mainly American comer, and the European Consortium. Nothing unusual so far - all part of the normal process of big capital buying out little capital. The chairman of Westland, John Cuckney, and the board of directors prefer the American offer and decide to recommend it to the company's shareholders.

Meanwhile the two rival bids are championed in the Cabinet by Heseltine, the Defence Secretary who favours the European bid, and Brittan/Thatcher who favour the Americans. Heseltine tries to play the "national interest" card (usually a winner) - do we want to lose control of a vital part of our defence industry to the Americans? But he is trumped by Brittan/Thatcher who publicly play the non-partisan, market forces, leave-it-to-the shareholders card, while privately leaning very heavily on British Aerospace (part of the European consortium) to try to make them leave the field open for the Americans.

The motives behind this political partisanship are immaterial: maybe Heseltine does genuinely believe that the "national" interest will be best served if Westland is taken over by the European consortium. Maybe Thatcher and Brittan do have good reasons for wanting the American bid to succeed. Who knows; who cares? Squabbles between rival groups of capitalists trying to grab a bigger share of the cake go on all the time and given the close links between capital and politicians it's not surprising that their case should be taken up by rival groups in the cabinet, especially since Westland provides military hardware.

It's not surprising that politicians take sides in arguments between capitalists; what is unusual is that they should be seen to do so. Governments are not supposed to appear partisan. So the Thatcher/Brittan faction in the Cabinet tried to silence the renegade Heseltine by making him promise to abide by the doctrine of collective cabinet responsibility, which means that he should agree with the rest of them, in public at least. At this point Heseltine discovered that he was a "man of principle" and walked out of the Cabinet.

Meanwhile selected bits of a letter from Patrick Mayhew. the Solicitor-General, to Heseltine. complaining of "material inaccuracies" (lies) in a letter he had written to Lloyds, advisors to the European consortium, were leaked to the press. Mayhew complained. The Prime Minister set up a leak enquiry which told her that there hadn't been a leak but an "authorised disclosure" - authorised in fact by Brittan in consultation with the Prime Minister's own staff at Downing Street. So the finger was pointing at Brittan, not because he had authorised the leaking of a letter - authorised leaks occur all the time - but because he had bungled the job and got caught. The Tory back-benches immediately closed ranks and left poor Leon out in the cold - none of them wanted to be tainted by his failure. Thatcher has lived to fight another day although her reputation looks a bit battered. She's obviously still got a lot to hide, which is why she's against letting the civil servants directly responsible for the leak appear before the Select Committee. Trying to explain the increased unemployment figures (which, we were assured. were on the way down) no doubt now appears an easier task than trying to explain her own part in this saga of political dirty tricks.

So what conclusions should we draw from this sordid political episode?

Firstly, it doesn't really matter to us, the workers, who runs Westland. Whether it's Sikorsky, the European Consortium or Colonel Gaddaffi (who managed to get a look in, too, at one point): they would all run it according to the laws of capitalism, namely that if there's money in it, make it; if there's not, then don't. Secondly, the politicians involved have been lying, distorting the facts, using the media to put across mis-information, all for their own political ends. Thirdly, despite their attempts to appear whiter- than-white, the opposition politicians have gloried in the apparent demise of Thatcher and Co. because it serves their political ends. Finally, even if Thatcher had not demonstrated the most amazing ineptitude in her handling of the whole business - even if cabinet government had worked as it is supposed to, even if the letter hadn't been leaked but released to the Press Association through the "usual channels", what difference would it have made?

For cabinet government, a pillar of our own so-called democratic system, is anything but democratic. Democracy, if it is to have any real meaning, if it is to be anything more than a propaganda buzz word for politicians, must, at the very least, include the following:
  • equal opportunity for everyone to participate in decision-making;
  • equal access by all participants in that decision-making process to the relevant information. facts and resources;
  • review and scrutiny of decisions made, with those given responsibility being held accountable to the whole community.

What happens in Britain today? We elect "representatives" - MPs - from a limited choice of a few candidates whose parties can afford to sponsor them and who have a virtual monopoly of access to the media. They campaign on a broad platform of promises which they may or may not keep once elected. As MPs they vote on a legislative programme put forward by the party with the most seats in Parliament (although not necessarily the most votes in the country). They decide which way to vote, not on the basis of the wishes of the constituents who they claim to be representing, but in accordance with the wishes of their party as dictated by the party whips. If their party is the largest, and if they make a good impression on the leadership, then they are appointed by the Prime Minister to ministerial office and those with the top jobs form the Cabinet.

The theory behind cabinet government is that ministers collectively discuss issues, the Prime Minister takes their advice and eventually a policy is hammered out, or decisions are taken. Once arrived at, those decisions are publicly defended by the whole cabinet in a show of unanimity which disguises the fact that there were probably disagreements between them. However, not all decisions are taken by the Cabinet. In fact many of the most important of them are taken by the Prime Minister in consultation with a few chosen ministers, or in secret cabinet committees. So in many cases decisions are taken without even the full cabinet knowing about them, let alone "our" elected representatives. And the more important the decision is, the fewer people are likely to know about it. Senior civil servants are also important since they brief ministers, draw up agendas, minute meetings, listen to the views of important pressure groups and generally control the flow of information.

Decisions made by the government are, in theory, subject to scrutiny by the whole of Parliament through MPs' questions, the work of select committees and government inquiries. In practice the government is able to hide behind the Official Secrets act, "national security" and the fact that it will be at least thirty years before anyone will get access to government papers, which even then are weeded to remove items deemed to be injurious to the "national interest". MPs are often unable to question ministers effectively because they lack access to information on which to base their questions. How can you ask a minister why he or she made a particular decision if you don't even know a decision has been taken?

So, representatives sitting in Parliament, cabinet government (whether or not the Prime Minister listens to her ministers), and Parliamentary scrutiny, do not add up to democracy as socialists understand it. Government on behalf of the capitalist class means no representation of workers' interests and no control over the decision-making process.

It is significant that although unemployment is higher than ever before, although education, welfare and health provision are being cut and our limited civil "liberties" are being still further eroded, it was none of these factors which shook the government. No, it was a conflict between rival capitalists and members of the ruling class a conflict that has nothing whatsoever to do with workers' lives.
Janie Percy-Smith

Capitalism and aircraft (1986)

Cover cartoon by George Meddemmen.
From the February 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

When the history of capitalism comes to be written, there will be very little mention in it of Michael Heseltine or Leon Brittan. The dispute between these two ambitious politicians may be represented to us now as a momentous clash of the titans, vital to us all, and that may well be how they themselves like to think of it. Perhaps in the end one or the other will find himself in Number Ten. None of these things changes the fact that this whole affair is of no real concern to the vast majority of people - which is what the history of capitalism will be all about.

That is not to say, of course, that there are not a lot of people who are presently interested in the contest between these two. Spurred on by the assiduous efforts of the capitalist media, there can now be very few members of the working class who have not heard of them. Whatever difficulty they may have in following the serpentine proceedings of the Cabinet, the ministries and the civil service, has not prevented many workers taking sides. Some argue that Heseltine deserves support for his opposition to an American take-over bid for a British firm, for his exposure of some dirty tricks in the government and of Thatcher's overbearing style of leadership. Others may have sympathy for Brittan’s adoption of a lofty refusal (he has claimed) to use his position as a minister to influence the take-over and to insist that the matter be left to the Westland shareholders, who know best how to protect their dividends.

It is impossible to say how many rush-hour bus queues have been disrupted by violent arguments between workers who don't have shares in Westland, or in any other company, about how best to look after the dividends of those who do. This is not an entirely fanciful notion, for workers do persistently take sides in such matters, in which they have no interest. They do this every time they complain about cheap foreign imports competing "unfairly'' with "their" goods on the British market, or when they get worried about a fall in the exchange rate of the pound or when and this is probably the most tragic example of all - they join in militarily protecting the investments and other interests of their ruling class.

Those types of uninformed prejudice will have been warmed by Heseltine's stand against the American bid for Westland. British workers are inclined to be a touch paranoid about invading American capital. It is difficult to unravel the reason for this; after all, American capitalists are no different from any others, who all have the same function - to organise and apply the most intensive possible exploitation of the workers they employ. Perhaps it is not unconnected with that period of Labour government just after the war. when British working class poverty was abruptly renamed post-war austerity which was, we were told, partly caused by the economic, commercial and financial domination of American capitalism. But that particular propaganda was no more than a convenient, opportunistic explanation for that particular period of capitalism in crisis. There have been many such crises since then, each one with its one spurious explanation the gnomes of Zurich, inflation. Arab oil sheiks - to divert attention from the basic fact that crisis is endemic to capitalism and that the system can't operate efficiently or to the benefit of the majority.

At the time of that Labour government there was, of course, still a British aircraft industry with ambitions to outsell American products. For some years British aircraft were successful competitors (and some were disastrous flops the Britannia, the Princess flying boat) until the massive power and investment of the American industry made itself felt. The last significant clash was in the 1950s between the DeHaviland Comet and the Boeing 707. Patriotic British workers sneeringly contrasted the Comet's sleek lines with its rival's chunkiness and assumed that the aircraft's appearance would have some effect on its profitability. But, as time has shown, the American industry had in fact developed the most economic - which meant, for the airline owners, the most profitable - design and the matter was settled when the Comets began to break up in the air. with such calamitous results for the passengers as well as for the aircraft industry in this country.

There were other spasms of life after that, such as the shorter-haul Trident and the VC10 and desperate governmental intervention brought about mergers in an effort to build a more concentratedly competitive industry. None of this worked, against the remorseless power of the American companies. principally Boeing. In any world sense, the British aircraft industry no longer exists and what there is of it is a truncated, cobbled-up patchwork of mergers and joint design projects with foreign companies. Westland is the latest example of this; unable to live much longer through its own competitiveness, it had to merge or go down.

British workers may not enjoy this, bombarded as they are with persistent propaganda about the "national'' interest, the need to keep "our" exports outselling all others and so on. Those who are convinced that they have a stake in the enterprise which buys their labour power, who therefore feel a common loyalty with the owners of the enterprise which actually exploits them to produce surplus value, are prey to all manner of social delusions. But the story of the collapse of the British aircraft industry bears witness to the capitalist reality that wealth, whether it is food or clothes or helicopters, is produced with the motive of sale at a profit. If there is no prospect of that sale then the motive for production disappears; the factories shut down and workers are thrown out of employment. There is much woe in the land and much cursing of scapegoats like American investors or foreign currency speculators. All of which misses the point. Westland's problems have nothing to do with any lack of human need for helicopters which, although at present extensively used as weapons of war have many obvious values to human beings and will be used in these ways when we have a society operated on the basis of human interests. The problems reflect the limited capacity of the market, which is the overall scope for the profitable sale of the machines. It is the market which interests the shareholders; they have invested capital in Westland in order to realise profit, not to produce things which are useful to human beings. If profit comes more readily from making helicopters as killing machines, so much the better for the investors; at present the big market is the military one. which goes some way to explain the government's inevitable interest in any take-over plans.

Which brings us back to that odious pair Heseltine and Brittan. In representing their clash as of great moment to us all they have avoided all mention of the basic issues about why and how helicopters are made, about how this society operates, about the class division between the useful producers and the parasitic owners and about the role of politicians in keeping this whole sordid deception whirling round and round. No, they will not attract a lot of mention in the history of capitalism. That can be written only when we have a saner, more humane social system, which means when the world's people have seen through to the realities of capitalism and the cynical posturings of its leaders.

'Marxism and the Muslim World' (2016)

Book Review from the January 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
'Marxism and the Muslim World', by Maxime Rodinson, (foreword by Gilbert Achcar). Zed Books. 2015. ISBN 9781783603367
This book is a collection of essays by the French Marxist scholar of Islam and the Middle East, Maxim Rodinson. The essays originate from the 1950s, 60s and 70s, and so are showing their age, but have a certain value in demonstrating concerns and debates within the left at the time. They are also a demonstration of an independent Marxist thinker’s work who is worth reading, even to disagree with.
The central thrust of the essays is the course of de-colonisation in the Middle East from the 1940s onwards. One essay looks back at the twists and turns of the Communist Parties as they followed the instructions of Moscow in the 1930s, shifting and turning on their approach to nationalism and national independence in the Middle East – with an historically interesting note on how this lead to a generally anti-Israeli orientation that prevails among much of the left to this day.
As part of this, much of the work is about an analysis of ideology, which (refreshingly) Rodinson views in practical terms. Ideologies for him are about mobilising and motivating movements, and they include a mythological/utopian element as well as immediate programmatic implications. Significantly, he objects to the term ‘historical materialism’ seeing Marx and Engels’ works as, rather, a rejection of ‘historical idealism’, and this, perhaps, allows him to escape dogmatism and the schematism seen in the French academic Marxism of the period.
He sees in Marxism not so much an idea that will liberate humanity (indeed, he maintains that despite its ‘ideological’ proclamations, Marxist sociology shows us that there will never be a final liberation and a conflict-free harmonious society) but an opening to scientific sociology that will allow us to examine society and better weigh ideologies and their potential effects. ‘Every society and every group, every “class”, even any individual, needs to find an answer to the truly important questions: what is Man in the Universe?' It is the series of chosen answers to that question and the range of choices it throws up that, for Rodinson, defines an ideology.
Chiefly, he sees nationalism as the chief organising feature of society during the period he was writing, although he notes the inherent dangers of limited nationalism in an interconnected world. When he comes to prescriptions, however, as a leftist, he does suggest that Marxism needs to appropriate the mobilising idea of nationalism and development in the de-colonising world.
In assessing the similarities between Marxism as a mobilising idea, and Islam, he sees them both as movements to realise their own image of a just society. His premise is that ‘we can move away from the idealist conception of religion as a set of ideas floating above earthly realities and constantly animating the spirit and actions of all its followers. We can assume, on the contrary, that all religious ideologies, like all ideologies, have a concrete and real basis in the constantly competing human groups who share out the planet between themselves or form the different strata of society.’ It would be a useful idea for many contemporary politicians to absorb, as they continue to talk about ‘poisonous ideologies’ and seem to suggest they just fall from the sky on susceptible heads.
He notes that there is no constant Islamic culture, and the character of the Middle Eastern region comes from the persistence of human civilisation there, rather than from any Islamic doctrine, indeed, noting that things such as face veils were an accommodation of Islam to existing practices. He notes, ‘there is no such thing as Homo Islamicus. The history of the Muslim world is specific, it has its own style and colour, it is an incomparable part of human diversity.’ He demonstrates how, for examples, Islamic states have permitted lending and borrowing at interest, with barely a murmur from their populations. Indeed, he writes:
‘Hostility towards much-hated innovators, especially foreign ones, often appear in the guise of religious misoneism. I remember a case of a Muslim cemetery in Beirut during the French Mandate; the Beirut Muslims invoked religion in their fierce opposition to and redevelopment of the land. Once independence was achieved, however, the cemetery was soon disposed of and the plot used to build a cinema or some such other building.’
He notes, that although there is a consistent core to Islam, it has changed and adapted throughout the ages, and there is no reason to suppose that it could not cope with the state ownership of the means of production he supported. This core of Islamic values, includes precepts over charitable giving and inheritance that suggests that ultimately, as an idea, Islam must support the idea of private property, and be opposed to socialism as we understand it; but then, the resilience of ideas suggests that it and other religions could, in the end, mutate to accommodate some version of themselves surviving in a world with a socialist majority. Rodinson takes this anti-idealist viewpoint to the extent that he states ‘I have often said that, under present circumstances, purely religious ideology cannot stand in as a mobilizatory ideology.’
Given the rise of the religious Islamic parties in the Middle East, the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda and its offsprings, and of course, Islamic State, has his analysis been invalidated?
Of course, just as with the Muslim cemetery Rodinson described, these movements contain distinct elements of nationalism, and anti-colonialism. Al-Qaeda is directed against American hegemony, just as much as it is against the ruling elites of the region.
Rodinson has a refreshing approach to imperialism, rejecting any idea of it as an abstract self-motivating force, preferring to look instead to the direct interests and needs of states, classes and strata who benefit from military expansion, just as he rejects a similar role for any self-motivating abstract Islam. Behind all civilisations, ideologies and movements are people, living daily lives and creating their circumstances. The members of ISIS have brains that are practically identical to that of every other human being. It is their circumstances and the way their lives and minds are created and recreated that leads them to think that the expressed creed of ISIS and its brutality, torture, rape and atrocity is a good idea. Whilst, as Rodinson suggests, Islam (and religion) are not the purely mobilising factor in the Middle East, it’s clear that it has managed to take the role of being at the forefront of the nationalism that he envisaged some form of state capitalism taking.
The important thing that socialists can take from this book is that opening up movements and ideas to close analysis helps sweep away the distortions that led to both talk of ‘war of civilisations’ and its inverse of denying that ISIS have any connexion to a ‘true’ Islam. There is no ‘true’ Islam, there is just the endless variety of ways humans try to interpret their world in order to act in it.
The materialist understanding that changing the way we live will change the ideas is liberating, and it brings to the fore the very idea that the resolution to the conflicts of the Middle East lies in the humans behind the ideas finding a new way to live. Rodinson was incorrect to see some sort nationalism as the answer, instead we need to look to a genuine worldwide movement that offers the prospect of establishing a genuine global community through common ownership of the wealth of the world. He is right in that this will not end all disagreement and conflict. What it will do is enable us to turn any conflicts into democratic arguments among equals, instead of pawns in the service of the owners and shifters of mobile wealth.
Pik Smeet