Sunday, February 7, 2016

'The reign of images and Spectacles' (1997)

Book Review from the April 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Beyond Resistance—A Revolutionary Manifesto for the Millennium by the Anarchist Communist Federation. £2

Socialists can agree with the first half of this pamphlet in which capitalism is criticised and the alternative society to it outlined. On the other hand, we can't agree with the second half where the ACF sets out how they think the alternative society will come about and what they think revolutionaries should be doing today.

The crisis of capitalism is correctly analysed not just as an economic and an ecological crisis, but also as a crisis of civilization whose features are a “collapse of community spirit and solidarity; the false cult of individualism as opposed to individuality; law of the jungle as the rule of life; poverty of real thought; the reign of images and of the Spectacle (e.g. consumerism, wars and famines as televised 'entertainment', the whole of life as a commercialised show); crisis of artistic creation and recycling of old recipes in the market of culture and entertainment; disenchantment and melancholy; cynicism".

The alternative to capitalism is seen as a society in which "all forms of exchange and money will be abolished and all land and property will be taken into the control of the community".

So far, so good. But how to get to such a society which we call "socialist" but they call "anarcho-communist"? The ACF see violence as the only way and we are offered a nightmare vision of the revolution as a re-run of the Spanish Civil War on a world scale but in which, this time, the good guys win.

There is nothing appealing or inspiring about this. Just the opposite in fact. The prospect of the next century being one in which a world civil war will break out, with all the death and destruction this would involve, is positively off-putting.

Fortunately, this is not the way to socialism. Certainly, the ruling class in all countries will have to be forced to give up their power and privileges but by mass popular pressure, including voting out their political representatives.

As to their strategy for today, the ACF want to build up a "Culture of Resistance" amongst the working class, but their conception of the working class seems to be restricted to young male workers who live on council estates or in inner-city areas. At least, it is to this section of the working class that their appeal is directed, with its emphasis on resistance to "police presence on our streets” and on dealing with "anti-social elements in our communities” (for whom the ACF proposes punishment beatings).

But what about the rest of the working class: those (most of us) who have a fairly steady job and are buying our homes from some building society? Ignoring the more representative majority of workers means that the ACF’s particular strategy for building a "culture of resistance" differs little in practice from "lifestyle anarchism" which sees anarchism not as an alternative society but as an alternative way of surviving under capitalism.
Adam Buick

For the Anarchist Communist Federation's reply, see here.

Nothing new here (1997)

Book Review from the March 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Future of Capitalism by Lester Thurow (William Morrow, New York, 1996)

As a defence of capitalism and an attack on socialism, this is not a particularly unusual or original book. Dozens of similar texts have been published over the years, though the details get updated. We would not have paid much attention to it. except that from time to time it is a good idea to remind ourselves and others of the techniques by which support for capitalism and opposition to socialism is constructed and taught.

Lester Thurow isn’t anything special, either. An American professor of economics, he is described in his book's blurb as "an eminent commentator on the global economy and a shaping voice of US economic policy". (Remember that publishers routinely ask authors to draft their own blurb.)

Imagine that you are one of Thurow’s students. You have listened to him patiently while he expounded the ideas in his latest book. He invites questions. confident that they won’t be too difficult or disrespectful. You surprise him as follows.

In your book, you tell him. you write a lot about capitalism and socialism. For you. "Capitalism postulates only one goal— an individual interest in maximizing personal interests" (p.27l). Wrong on both counts! Capitalism is the system of minority private ownership of the means of wealth production and distribution, the majority having only their labour power to sell to earn a living—only the profit of the privileged class is maximized. Socialism is the system of society, never yet established anywhere because it requires a majority of convinced socialists. based on common ownership and democratic control, and production solely to meet human need. What you call socialism (government ownership) is state capitalism.

You write, you go on, about the Soviet rĂ©gime and claim that "In the contest between individual values and social values, individual values won" (p.5). Actually both capitalism and socialism require a combination of individual and social values. The difference is that capitalism means capitalists compete for markets and workers have to compete for jobs, whereas socialism means that all individuals (including former capitalists) have free and equal access to the wealth the world is capable of producing. You repeatedly describe socialism as a threat, as something to fear. Even when you refer to it as a challenge (p. 116) you link it with the military threat from "communism”. You should understand that, as names for the system that will replace capitalism, socialism and communism are interchangeable but that what you call “communism wasn’t really communism or socialism but state capitalism. Why should anyone fear a system that means abolishing war, poverty, privilege and exploitation of the majority by the minority?

Finally, you tell Professor Thurow, there’s a strong clement in much of what you write that can best be described as bullshit. What are we to make of this: "Given our new understanding of the tectonic forces altering the economic surface of the earth and the period of punctuated equilibrium that they have created, let’s return to the problem of constructing a capitalistic ship that will safely take us into an era" (p.326). You may wish to be all at sea on such a craft, but socialists have a much more worthwhile destination.

After this, Professor Thurow will, no doubt, be highly motivated to ensure that you don’t attend any more of his lectures.
Stan Parker

These Foolish Things . . . (1997)

The Scavenger column from the February 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard


The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that there are 250 million children working, many of them in the sex trade and in industrial jobs which threaten their lives . . .  But, as it points out, ending all child labour will be a long and complicated business and some of the remedies proposed by Westerners have been counter-productive. The Harkin Bill introduced in the IJS Congress aiming to prohibit the import of products made by children under 15 is a case in point. Although the bill never reached the statute books, the threat of it caused panic in the clothes industry in Bangladesh and dozens of child workers were dismissed. The children, mostly girls, were traced and found to have moved on to more dangerous and exploitative workshops, or to have become prostitutes. The report emphasises that child labour is mainly a product of poverty and many surveys have shown that children’s work is often essential to keeping the family just self-sufficient. Guardian, 12 December.

Middle class?

The news that British Airways is to move accountancy jobs to India has more radical implications for people in the developed world than possible any other story this year. About 200 jobs are being transferred to Bombay to take advantage of wages as low as £4,000 a year against the £20,000 for their British counterparts. This is part of a rising trend for job exporting to hit white-collar workers, as education and living standards rise in emerging countries. Financial Mail on Sunday, 10 November.


James Ferman, director of the British Board of Film Classification, said screen violence was a global problem. “The solution is beyond the reach of British law. The real solution is for Hollywood to wake up with a conscience. But I have my doubts—there is too much money at stake . . . Censorship can cut gratuitous acts of violence. But we cannot change the culture of violence which permeates much mainstream film-making.” Guardian, 12 December.

Can capital care?

Investment with a conscience is a scarce luxury in a hard-nosed world . . . Research by the Ethical Consumer magazine shows that, of the big banks, only the Co-operative and NatWest take environmental issues seriously when lending to companies. Most also fail adequately to consider concerns such as animal testing, factory fanning, oppressive regimes, armaments and workers’ rights. NatWest’s ethical lending policy is typical of the big banks: “We strongly believe that it is not the responsibility of lenders to police or try to manager their customers’ businesses.” Financial Mail on Sunday, 3 November.

Capitalism flourishes?

More than a third of the 3.4 million companies set up in eastern Europe with European Union help appear to have failed . . .  The EU channelled more than £7 billion of investment into eastern Europe between 1992 and 1994, the last two years for which figures are available. The survey, compiled by the EU’s statistical unit in Luxembourg, shows about 30 percent of the new companies were in Poland, 20 percent in the Czech Republic and 15 percent in Hungary . . . Two thirds have no salaried employees (the average company employs seven staff) and more than half were located in the home of the person setting up the company. Guardian, 31 October.
The Scavenger

Spiv Culture (1997)

The A Word In Your Ear column from the January 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Britain has become a nation of spivs and the new national hero is Arthur Daley. Only fools, horses and used-car salesman would find reason to celebrate this victory of commerce over common decency as something to be amused by. There is a foul smell of dirty money in the air and the polluters are more often than not would-be entrepreneurs with one foot in the capitalist class and the other on a banana skin. Wanna buy a fake Rolex, gov? Anyone for shares in a company that doesn’t exist? Or timesharcs? Or a chance to rob old ladies without doing time?

I happened to find myself seated in yet another Indian restaurant (“Does this man do anything else with his life?” readers may ask) and at the next table were two oafish drunks who slurred their way through several brandies and some nosh talking about how they were going to get stinking rich. One of them was involved in selling in-flight confectionery to a well-known airline. They both looked like men who had suddenly discovered that there are legal ways to get rich. “As long as we stick together... [belch]... yeah, stick together, see, and keep the product quality high ... [fart]... we’ll be able to corner the market. Trust me . . . [glug] . . . there's money in these chocolates, mate.” They ended up by shouting abuse at the waiter who had apparently been too slow with their last brandy and by handing round complimentary' chocolates to people at other tables. So, these were the crooks responsible for making money out of what loosely passes as airline food. These were the cutting edge of the enterprise culture.

These spivs were the boys who loved Maggie because she understood and delighted in the power of money. They liked Major better than Kinnock (who looked like the kind of bloke who would make a loss running a jumble sale), but they prefer Blair to Major because he talks their language. Just as the mud is the natural home of the slug, so the market is the social home of the spiv. Mind you, not the deep end. That is reserved for the multinationals. The 1990s loadasmoncy market-louts are happy to be poking around in the swamp for enough room to make a few grand and buy themselves a villa on the Costa Brava.

There is even a whole area of academia now reserved for training people to become spivs. They call it Business Studies. In fact, the study involved is how to make yourself appear as a respectable spiv. It is the most disreputable area of contemporary education. usually taught by failed bank managers and salary' slaves with earnest commitment to their slavery. It is probably one of the most useful degrees or diplomas to get in the 1990s. “History? English literature? Theoretical physics? Who needs 'em when there’s a world out there waiting to buy damaged goods?”

The myth that spivs went out of fashion after rationing was abolished and there was no black market for wide-boys to exploit is to miss the point: the true spiv never was the guy with dirty fingernails flogging rationed goods to people with money; the true spiv wears the best of second-class suits and flogs rubbish to people who can’t really afford them. The great business skill of modern capitalism is the sale of useless items by fast-talking crap merchants.
Cartoon by Peter Rigg

There is an indignity, not to mention an invidious inequality, about living in a society which rewards worshippers of the fast buck. A society which treats nurses like dirt and which allows some people to buy houses in the country, with money made from jerry-building and the sale of the cheap and shoddy, is rotten at its roots. Actually, Arthur Daley was at best pathetic and at worst a rather nasty trickster whose trickery was protected by his ability to buy a minder to keep the innocent away from him. What kind of a society acclaims such entrepreneurs? And yet look around the benches of the House of Lords and you will see more than a few of them sitting there, honoured as thieves of repute. (Remember Harold Wilson's Honours List?)

Wandering around the streets of Minsk a few' months ago it was impossible to avoid the constant pull by fast-talking street traders who were determined to flog you a souvenir tablecloth or a pair of old shoes. Their sales talk was incessant, made all the more irritating by the broken American accents and phrases they had picked up from ads on MTV. They will be tomorrow's graduates of the new business schools being set up to train a new generation of spivs in a country where the ruling crooks used to call themselves communists. No, of course it’s not just Britain which has become a nation of spivs. World capitalism is a system of international spivvery. To hell with it! 
Steve Coleman

Music and history (1979)

From the February 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

The key to the understanding of social change is the materialist conception of history. Applied to music we find that the changes that have come about in this form of art reflect conditions of different social systems.

Ideas about music being the flower of Western culture have long since faded. Today it is generally accepted that music originated among primitive people, that it is linked to the cultivation of the earth, and that its basis is rhythm. We get the same evidence from China, Africa. India, and all parts of the world. The Hamites of the Nile Valley, for instance, used two joined sticks to chase away pests from their crops. Later these clappers were used to accompany dances to ensure the fertility of the crops and to aid work on the land.

About a thousand years later civilizations entered the valley. A class of priest-kings ruled over a multitude of subjects. Trained musicians in the courts and temples chanted praises to agricultural deities. Isis and Osiris. There were slight changes. New music was brought in when the Hyksos came with their drums and castanets. Other Semitic nomads introduced a form of the lyre.

Similar trends are apparent in the histories of all peoples. Beginning with fertility rites, music undergoes various changes as private property societies develop. It becomes religiously chant-like, a music designed to inspire awe and the acceptance of servitude to a ruling class. In China the starting point of musical theory is the “foundation tone”. It is a sacred, eternal principle, the basis of the state. A note of definite pitch (fa) supposed to give protection against public disorder.

When the Greeks came to the Mediterranean Isles they evolved a system of partially developed maritime commerce based on chattel-slavery. They established a reputation for knowledge and culture. But this was possible only because the vast wealth of the patricians enabled them to lead leisured lives. Beneath all the elegance festered the horrors of slavery. In the proud villas privileged musicians sang to aristocratic families. The teachers of music formulated their doctrine of the “ethos”, their belief in the ethical power of music, its ability to affect character for good or ill. So important did this doctrine become that performances of music were regulated by law.

When Greece became a province of Rome the conquerors adopted Grecian music, but did little to improve on it. The Empire was spread far and wide and there were few periods without war. Consequently the character of music was more martial. Military bands accompanied the army playing brazen wind instruments; the trumpet or clarion for the cavalry, the tuba for the infantry. Massive victory celebrations and gladiatorial combats were orchestrated with suitable sounds.

A few centuries later the Empire began to disintegrate. Rome was torn by class war and many saw salvation in the new religion. Constantine’s Edict of Milan gave Christianity state countenance, but many centuries passed before the new church was firmly established on a new social basis. This was the feudal system, with its hierarchy of power and privilege. The Frankish conquerors— tribal chiefs and petty kings—had castles built; they guaranteed protection (against raiding Vandals) to the freed slaves and others who had acquired a little land. The “protectors” eventually became warrior barons, who often fought one another and even found control by the king irksome. The king himself was continuously at odds with the church.

The earliest forms of western music are closely bound up with the church of Rome. The first forms were taken from ancient Greek songs and the chants of the Hebrew synagogues. Gregorian chant was derived from such sources, and an important factor in the prevalence of this music was the organ. This instrument, a development through various stages of the syrinx, the flute and the bagpipes was put together in Alexandria in the third century. Thus it may be said to have fallen into the lap of the church, and there is nothing surprising in the discovery that the first religious chants reached Rome through the Byzantine church. They were solemn chants in syllables—each syllable having one note. The choirs were not supposed to sing for the sheer love of singing. The expressed ideal was the glory of god.

Whatever this may have meant to the singers there is no doubt about its meaning to the priests. During the middle ages clerical possessions were enormous; churchmen owned at least one quarter of the land.

Towards the end of the middle ages music was still primarily a concern of the musicians employed by the church. However, by the turn of the 14th century composers had the technical means at their disposal to enable them to compose their own works. For a century French and Flemish composers led the way in Europe, and this raises the question why at different periods do some nations appear more musical than others? The answer, so far as the middle ages are concerned, is that the great cities of Flanders enjoyed a prosperity unparalleled in those times. They were great commercial and financial centres. This period in England was a time of disillusionment and disgrace for the established church. The corruption of religious orders was rife. At the same time wealthy merchants endowed large musical establishments, there came a development of instrumental music and practical instructions for the amateurs of the rising middle class. Music was losing its mystery.

At the end of the middle ages we see the more profound effects of the Renaissance on music. Printing had bloomed into established publishing houses, and this increased the chances of musicians. Their works were less anonymous and more correctly performed, and they felt free to borrow from predecessors. New manufactures included the clavichord and the harpsichord. The period is full of such changes. The bourgeoisie had not yet attained political power, but their commerce and wealth grew rapidly and they gained the interested patronage of the king, who soon commanded greater wealth than the merchants. One result of this was the royal patronage of the arts and sciences; another was the Civil War. In the not so distant future lay the Industrial Revolution. But the struggle between religious and secular ideas lasted at least for another century.

The distinction between religious and secular music settled for a period in the baroque, the balancing of contrasting forms. The church leaders saw the propaganda value of the new style. Its most successful form was the fugue. Three or four melodic lines were commonly used, and the main melody subjected to all the tricks of innovation known to the old composers. The king of this style was J. S. Bach. He invented no new forms himself, but used the method of imitative counterpoint. or taking a theme and changing it by adding or subtracting notes . . . He permitted himself almost anything. It was the most inventive form of musical imitation devised. His output was enormous. Handel wras another master of this style.

But it was the 17th and 18th centuries that saw the rise and culmination of the revolution in social and cultural thinking in Europe. The “Enlightenment” was the outgrowth of the continued rise of the bourgeoisie, an attack on established religion, feudal forms of political power, etc.

In music the demand was for ‘naturalness' and a more direct appeal to the emotions. This was the Romantic challenge to Classical music, which had ruled the roost from about 1750 to the first decades of the nineteenth century. Broadly, the Classical stood for political absolutism. the rule of order, nobility and sophistication. The feted composers worked in the employ of kings and wealthy aristocrats, who desired a style that would reflect the grace and beauty of their lives and the permanence of their rule. Haydn's and Mozart’s works were examples of the classical ideals of balance and beauty. Beethoven inherited the forms from them, but he expanded and developed them with skill and energy.

The Romantic movement swelled up in the turmoil of the French Revolution, and the wars that followed. It expressed the ideals of the middle class in the final days of feudalism; of “liberty, individualism, and nationalism”. The rising class took over the power of the aristocracy, became the ruling class. Among other acts they set up their own establishments, including new schools of music and concert halls.

The flow of romantic music had various national flavours as the bourgeois of Europe sought to follow in the footsteps of France. Strangely enough England seems to have been largely unaffected by this movement. But the explanation is quite natural. The England capitalists, having won power a century earlier, were currently enjoying economic growth and prosperity. They were in no need or mood for revolution.

Music has been called an international language. Yet the links with Nationalism still survive, because the national state is a bourgeois structure. It is constructive to read how such a ‘musical heritage' was built up in the United States. Very large sums of money were outlayed on musical colleges, institutes and orchestras, which are now in full bloom. A vast library of American folksongs was collected, mainly Anglo-Celtic in origin. Even Negro spirituals, with words and tunes adapted from Scottish and Irish melodies, were included. The claim is made that it all has an American flavour. The idea is to establish a separate musical identity, something they can make the public believe “this is ours”.

Nationalism as a cultural force certainly fell in influence after the Second World War. Some say this was due to the bourgeois sense of guilt. Enthusiasm for Wagner seemed to have dimmed among the intellectuals. And traditional concepts came under strong attack. Especially is this so in Latin America where musical nationalism has been pushed into the background. On the other hand Russian composers have had to toe the nationalist line. Shostakovich, for example, being bullied into the linking his works with the “achievements” of the USSR.

Of the future of music a fear has been floated that atonality, electronic sound and computerization will destroy the art of music. Will it matter? The pioneers in these fields have expressed the view that all sounds should be at the disposal of all who would like to compose. Such freedom would not be at variance with a socialist society.
Charles Kincaid

Obituary: Vladimir Sirotin (2016)

Obituary from the February 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

We were shocked to hear that our comrade Vladimir Sirotin has died in Moscow at the age of 50.

Vladimir was born in Kharkov (Eastern Ukraine). His lecturer parents encouraged him to think critically. In a sketch of his life he wrote: ‘I was very interested in the question of the nature of Soviet society. I realized early on that it was not socialism of any kind. At first I thought that the USSR [was] a special formation, a new class society. . . Later, during my student years, I came to the conclusion that it was state capitalism.’

Vladimir graduated from the Institute of Culture. For a brief period in the late 1980s and early 1990s he was able to publish his work openly in Moscow News and other periodicals. Then the door to official publication was again closed to him and he was able to obtain only irregular employment.

Besides the analysis of Soviet society, Sirotin had two special areas of interest – the rights of children and adolescents and (in recent years) the struggle against Russian nationalism and fascism.  Some of his translated writings on the first theme can be found at (see ‘Research & Analytical Supplement to JRL, Special Issue No. 45’ under ‘Archives’).

Vladimir reached the conclusion that his views coincided with those of the World Socialist Movement. He contributed two guest articles to The Socialist Standard: ‘The Myth of Soviet “Socialism”’ (November 2009) and ‘Xenophobia in Russia’ (January 2010). He joined the SPGB in 2013.