Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Making the grade (1985)

From the August 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

In early summer notices appeared in schools, colleges, and universities reading: "Silence: Exams in Progress". Inside, rows of anxious students sat behind desks carefully arranged to prevent them "cheating". It was all part of the mysterious examination ritual, a competitive game which offers a bewildering assortment of GCEs, CSEs. BE-TECs and BAs to the "winners" and sweet FAs to the "losers". The belief that these certificates have some intrinsic educational value is of course a myth.

Capitalist education is dominated by exams, grades and assessment for two main reasons. Firstly, they are a mechanism for selecting and grading the future workforce — employers need an efficient and standardised method of finding the right person for the right job. Some people are trained as accountants and doctors, while others are required for the docks and cash registers. Schools are rather like factories which process both people and knowledge: children are fed in at one end and come out the other neatly packaged, assessed and labelled, ready for wage slavery. This is why money is spent each year on setting, marking and administering exams.

Sir Keith Joseph, the Education Secretary, plans to "improve" school standards and introduce yet another exam, the General Certificate of Secondary Education, to be taken at the age of sixteen. This shake-up is partly explained by the fact that only 25 per cent of school leavers achieve what many employers consider the bare minimum of five ‘O' levels. Presented as a new way of broadening children's education and helping the less academic pupil, the ideas have rather more to do with the interests of the British capitalist class and their need to compete internationally for profits. Keith Joseph could not be unaware of the 1983 report of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, which showed that West German school leavers achieve much higher standards than the British, especially in maths.

Secondly, exams create the illusion of equality of opportunity. According to popular myth, people generally get what they deserve in life. So if you work hard at school, keep out of trouble and pass your exams, the world is your oyster. Were this the case, you would expect someone like the Duke of Westminster, who owns 200,000 acres of land across the world, and has a reported income of £10,800 an hour, to have been very successful at school. In fact, he left Harrow with only two 'O' levels. Any feelings of anxiety he may have felt about his future were eased when he inherited 500 million pounds on his twenty-first birthday.

The sons and daughters of the capitalist class do not have to worry about poor exam results and career prospects as their future is comfortable and secure. These sorts of problems are reserved exclusively for the working class, who are forced by economic necessity to compete with each other in the humiliating examination race. Their prize—a college place, a dead end job. a place in the dole queue. This is something they do not teach you in school.
Brian Rubin

Questions from a reader (1986)

Letter to the Editors from the March 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Editors.

I have read the literature you sent me, after my response to your advert in the New Musical Express, and have a few questions to ask. It would be helpful if your answers were numbered as I have listed them.
        Thank you.
Nicky Wiy
Slough, Berks

If world socialism is to come about democratically, must you wait until every country allows the vote?

If you mean literally "every country", then the answer is "no". We certainly don't envisage waiting about for the very last person to catch up. Since the impetus towards socialism would already be having a tremendous impact on the world political stage and, in particular, in countries still without the necessary democratic processes (if any), we don't think there will be anything causing us to wait around. The rapid and widespread adoption of socialist ideas would alter fundamentally the nature and quality of world politics and impart the necessary impetus towards the transformation. The wheel of history would then rotate to the critical point-of-no-return. A socialist majority of the world's population would have sufficient confidence and political power to be able to announce the count down of the lift-off for socialist revolution.

The needs and inner dynamics of modem capitalism, whether the free enterprise or state capitalist kind, make unavoidable the eventual global extension of the limited forms of political democracy sufficient for our purpose. The real problem is here and now — how best to reach the point at which we who have access to the seats of power start exercising this enormous influence around the world. And that requires all of us to work unstintingly to achieve socialist majorities whenever we can — right now!

If there is no police force after socialism is established, who will enforce any laws that remain after those relating to property are repealed — e.g. those relating to assault, GBH, murder, etc?

There will be no laws remaining to deal with socially unacceptable acts of violence such as those to which you refer. All law and jurisprudence now arise from, and are geared to. the needs of the present acquisitive, aggressive, anxiety-ridden system; they are primarily protective of property. "Good public order" serves to keep the dispossessed in their place, their hands off the property of the owning class and their understandable outbursts of anger, violence and frustration under control by the state.

There may be anti-social acts of violence after the establishment of socialism; neither we nor future communities would want to shirk the issue. But each will have to be considered on its merits (or demerits) by each community — no longer motivated by concepts of retribution, revenge or fear of a break down of "law and order". There may well be cases where society's expressed revulsion may not be enough or appropriate — in which case the democratically arrived at decision to apply the ultimate sanction of the minimum necessary restraint, or enforced isolation from those thought to be at risk, may have to be made by that community.

Although the fundamental changes in relationships and attitudes and the quite different social milieu of free access and equality will remove the cause of most violent acts, the members of a community could not be expected to stand idly by on the rare occasions when a member of that community behaves irresponsibly. Socialist mores, common sense and self-discipline would determine what was acceptable and what was unacceptable, rather than invoking the concept of laws, crimes and punishments or commanding obedience by coercion.

When socialism is established, will those people who are in prison as a result of breaking property laws during capitalism be released?


On the back page of the August 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard, the article gives me the impression that examinations have no value. If doctors, medical students, etc. were not tested theoretically and practically, how would we know if they were competent enough to do operations or to carry out experiments which would yield meaningful results?

This article. "Making the grade", was not intended to give the impression that all examinations are valueless and would be dispensed with in socialism. But certainly the experience of most people would suggest that, though the possession of an educational or professional certificate may serve as an entree to some jobs, it alone is not necessarily an indicator of real ability or comprehension. Indeed the concentration of tunnel-visioned parents, pupils and teachers on "achievement" —memorising fragmented, unrelated facts to meet the challenge of the exam paper — can lead to bizarre, not to say horrifying results.

The author was also emphasising the nature of the examination rat-race (Japan provides a good example) and the need for schooling to be tailored to meet employers' demands for efficient, standardised workers, graded appropriately to ensure value for money.

Within socialism aptitudes, mental and physical dexterity, skills, courage, ingenuity and inventiveness will be encouraged and developed in all. Of course, if someone is called on to perform a complicated operation on a patient or on a computer. there will be experienced persons in attendance who will have been delegated to ensure that all goes well. Those individuals will be the contemporary beneficiaries of socially transmitted knowledge and experience — none of whom would think of themself as exalted, as some consultants do today. In socialism no one could be motivated by the prospect of status or material advantage.

In your yellow leaflet Questions and Answers about Socialism, you say that thousands of people in this country die each winter of hypothermia. I would like to know from what source you obtained these vague statistics. In the book Consuming Secrets (page 224) there is listed official Government figures on deaths from hypothermia. They are: for 1970 - 16 deaths; 1971 - 15; 1972 - 21; 1973 - 22; and for 1974 - 17. I admit these are old figures and give no indication of those who suffer from hypothermia but do not die. The number who so suffer is about 5 per 1.000 OAPs. However, I do not see how the number of deaths has risen by approximately 8,000 per cent in eleven years.

Government figures on the number of people dying of cold each year in Britain are not dependable. But even if their very low figures are accepted. that still leaves large numbers of people (hundreds) dying of cold every winter. That would be bad enough, but there are reasons for believing that the real figure is in thousands rather than hundreds.

Each year tens of thousands more people die in the winter than in the summer; 80 per cent of these are over 65. In the ten years before 1980 the death rate was 17 per cent higher in winter than in summer for those aged 60-69; 20 per cent higher for those aged in their 70s and 25 per cent higher for those over 80. On average, approximately 45,000 more old people died each winter than each summer. In 1982, when government figures put the number of deaths from the cold in the 600s. 42,500 more people aged over 65 died in the winter months than the summer ones. We accept that not all of them died of hypothermia (some died of other conditions made worse by the cold) but it is highly unlikely that of 40,000 plus extra deaths, less than 1.000 can be attributable to lack of protection against the cold. In Sweden, where the sharp contrasts between summer and winter temperatures do not affect some areas, there is no equivalent rise in winter deaths among the old.

Many old people are not found until some time after they die. As a result, doctors do not know their body temperatures near to the time of death and hypothermia can neither be proved nor disproved. Geriatric specialists do not give a figure, but suggest that large numbers of deaths caused by the cold are undiagnosed because of this delay in examining the body.

Many doctors are reluctant to write on a death certificate that a person has died of the cold because of the stigma attached to this way of dying. Pressure is put on doctors by families, anxious to hide the fact that they have neglected an elderly relative and by local authorities, whose Social Service Departments fear that a large number of deaths in their area caused by the cold will reflect on them. Doctors involved in the study of death resulting from the cold acknowledge the existence of these strong pressures.

A very important reason for the false picture given by the government figures is that the BMA has quite arbitrarily fixed a body temperature above which a person is said not to be suffering from hypothermia - 95°F. The official measurement of normal body temperature is 98.4°F. So, according to the BMA. a person in their 70s, 80s or 90s can be found dead with an internal body temperature which is 3.8°F lower than that considered healthy for an active, young person and a doctor is not permitted to state that they have died of the cold.

In a survey carried out by the Medical Research Council in 1972 (findings published in the British Medical Journal, January 1973) it was discovered that one in ten old people examined were suffering discomfort or illness as a result of their body temperatures being under 98.4°F. If that figure is applied to the 65+ population in 1986 we can say that 900,000 old people are now living in what the MRC defined as hypothermic conditions. Of course, not all of these will die of the cold, but it is probable that tens of thousands will and likely that hundreds of thousands will die earlier than they might due to the cold. Clearly, the energy exists to provide warmth for all of these people.

Malcolm Wicks, one of the researchers involved in the above-mentioned MRC survey and report, has stated that "We know that there are tens of thousands of deaths each winter caused by the cold". Most medical and geriatric specialists accept Wicks as the leading authority on this subject (see his book. Old and Cold). The question is,  do we believe Wicks and the medical profession or the government?

Please also see the January 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard for the article "Hypothermia in the old".

How seriously does the SPGB take conservation?

The Socialist Party has frequently expressed its anger at the waste and the despoliation which capitalism generates. We are fully aware that the profit system poses a serious threat to the environment and have been sounding the alarm about the state and future of the world's ecology for decades. We contend that it demonstrates the urgent need to establish world-wide socialism. Then, attention to need would take its proper place alongside unjaundiced consideration of the health of the world's population, biosphere and resources. The conservation lobby, though deserving credit for exposing the details of this threat, would do well to bear in mind that what enrages them are symptoms of a sick world economic system; a cure can only be obtained by removing the cause of the sickness.

I have only been eligible to vote since last March, but I have never seen any candidates for the SPGB. If socialism is to be brought about democratically, candidates should be in every constituency in the country. This does not seem to be happening and I wonder how high this issue is on the Party's list of priorities?

The Socialist Party gives electoral activity a high priority and seeks to put up candidates in every constituency, national and local, whenever it can. That we at present only manage to contest a few constituencies is simply a reflection of lack of financial and political support. Meanwhile, we work energetically in all avenues open to us to inform and persuade workers as to what is in their best interests.

Of every colour and country (1982)

From the July 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

Nine-tenths of the people in this and other industrialised countries are workers, in possession of less than half of the wealth we produce. The international capitalist class, on the other hand, own most of the land, factories and other resources. They receive an unearned income of rent, interest or profit and do not have to work for a living. The struggle between these two main classes, over ownership and control, carries on regardless of race or sex. In every country, including Russia and China, production takes place for the profit of a minority. Capitalists of every religion and nationality invest in whatever areas they find most profitable. Capitalism can only be run in their interest. They take the fruits of our labour and pay us wages and salaries to keep us in working order, fit for further use. This system of legalised robbery continues whether the government is Tory, Labour or Liberal-SDP. Workers are forced to compete over jobs and the limited housing and services available to us. This has led to racial hatred as well as prejudice about sex or age. Division between workers has so far prevented our class from taking political power to end capitalism. The British ruling class has been prepared to use racism to strengthen its position ever since slavery was justified by referring to the Africans as “subhuman”.

Racist theories
Capitalism is a system of competition rather than co-operation. The world is divided into rival nations. Through education and the media, those who own and control the capital persuade their workers to be loyal to “the nation” (its owners) in war and “peace”. Racist theories have supported this blind loyalty to our masters’ interests. But there is no “British race”. All humans belong to one species: we have the same blood, and we can interbreed to produce offspring. Those who have tried to divide the species into races, based on inherited physical features, have disagreed about how many races there are. But their scientific investigations have shown that there are no “pure” races and no inherently “superior” races. The advances made by humanity in organising society have depended on increased intermingling and co-operation rather than division and competition among people. Even if there were separate races it would not affect the case for socialism. Some racial theorists have spread the myth that workers are biologically inferior to their capitalist rulers and unable to work together, without leaders, to create a democratic society. But the special feature of humans compared to other animals is our great adaptability. If there is a need to cooperate to change society, we can do so. A United Nations statement on race drawn up in 1950 by professors from across the world, concludes that all humans “are capable of learning to share in a common life, to understand the nature of mutual service and reciprocity, and to respect social obligations and contracts”.

The roots of racism
Capitalism is based on profits made by exploiting the labour power of wage and salary-earners, realised by selling their produce on the market. Because the competition of the market place is anarchic and chaotic, the number of people who can be profitably employed fluctuates unpredictably. In the boom of the 1950s, there was a labour shortage in Britain and workers were recruited from India, Pakistan and the West Indies. When the recession set in, they were the first to lose their jobs, which were in any case the lowest paid. Black workers suffer discrimination in jobs and housing, and are then accused by racists of causing those problems. But areas like Northern Ireland, with the highest unemployment, have the lowest immigration rates. Capitalists are pleased to see the newspapers which they own blaming such problems on sections of the working class. The result is to divide workers against one another and hide the real cause of the problems. Racist organisations like the National Front and the British Movement (and racists in the Tory and Labour Parties) want “white Britons” to defend “their” nation. But the people in Britain do not share a common interest. One percent of the British people own four-fifths of the stocks and shares. An English-speaking carpenter, designer or doctor has more in common with a Russian or African accountant or engineer than with the Duke of Westminster or “Tiny” Rowland. Those without substantial property are forced to work for its owners, and suffer the insecurity this causes, regardless of the skin-colour of worker or capitalist.

The political response 
The parties which offer to run capitalism are all racist, including the Labour Party, which, despite its rhetoric about “brotherhood”, passed the racist Commonwealth Immigrants Act in 1968. The 1977 Labour Government Green Paper on Nationality competed with the overt racism of the Tories in its pleas for tighter control. Meanwhile, the so-called Communist Party has supported nationalist import controls, also supported by the National Front. And Roy Jenkins of the SDP has spoken of the need for “a strict limit on the amount and rate of inward immigration for settlement” (House of Commons, 5 July 1976), encouraging the spread of the myth of “overcrowding”. (From 1968 to 1977 over half a million more people left than entered Britain, according to the Office of Population Census and Surveys, and the United Nations has shown that the world could support several times its present population.)

The way to defeat racism and fascism is not to “fight the fascists on the streets”, as some on the Left have suggested. You cannot clear up confused ideas by fighting confused people. The divisive lies of racism must be constantly exposed. Old ideas must be challenged by new realities. The only way to get rid of racism is to get rid of the out-dated social system which keeps producing it. A socialist society, based on common ownership and democratic control of all productive resources, must be established by democratic political action. One of the first steps in that direction Is to recognise the class struggle as a fact of life under capitalism. Workers of every colour and country can unite to establish a society where production will be for the needs of all, not for the profit of a few. Racism divides the working class; socialism will unite the human race.
Clifford Slapper

Top, Middle and Bottom (2016)

Book Review from the February 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

'Social Class in the 21st Century', by Mike Savage et al. Penguin £8.99

This book is based on the findings of the Great British Class Survey (see www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22000973), previously discussed in the Socialist Standard in May 2013. This was launched on the BBC website in 2011, and the analysis here derives from an impressive first round of 161,000 responses, supplemented by further face-to-face interviews, as those who took part in the online survey were disproportionately higher up in the social scale and living in England.

The authors distinguish three kinds of capital (this term is not used in the Marxist sense of means of production used to employ wage labour for the sake of profit). Economic capital is a person’s income and wealth (savings and the value of their home). Cultural capital, a concept taken from the work of Pierre Bourdieu, is a matter of a person’s tastes and interests, and is divided into two kinds: highbrow (going to art galleries, eating in French restaurants, liking jazz, etc) or emerging (using the internet, going to the gym, spending time with friends and so on). Social capital relates to your social networks, the kinds of people you know and how well you know them (knowing ‘the right people’ may help you get a job with a law firm but won’t help with a job in IT).

Based on these criteria, no fewer than seven social classes are identified: elite, established middle class, technical middle class, new affluent workers, traditional working class, emerging service workers and precariat. A person’s place in this is determined by their income and savings, their ‘score’ for the range of people in different occupations they know (boosted by knowing those in higher status jobs), and their cultural capital. For instance, new affluent workers will have on average household income of £29,000 and little in savings (so ‘affluent’ is something of a misnomer), and be roughly in the middle in terms of the value of their house. But they score quite highly for their range of social contacts and they have rather more emerging than highbrow cultural capital. Though social class in the way used here is not directly linked to occupation, the authors have stated elsewhere that members of this class might well work as electricians, postal workers and catering assistants, among others.

The classes falling between the elite and the precariat do not form a simple hierarchy, but are clearly distinguished from those at the top and bottom. The precariat, forming about 15% of the population, have an average household income of just £8,000 and very little in savings, and get low scores for cultural and social capital. They are often stigmatised, and women in this class were well aware that they were at the bottom of the heap, while men were ‘more resistant’ to consideration of class.

In contrast, the elite had average household income of £89,000, with sizeable savings and valuable houses; they had extensive social contacts and scored particularly highly for highbrow cultural capital. They form about 6 percent of the population, so they are far more than just the top 1 percent (compare Thomas Piketty’s discussion of the ‘9 percent’, those in the top 10 percent but not in the top 1 percent, who they are clearly distinguished from). This income (which is for the household and so may include more than one wage) is well above the average but of course is very small when compared to the really top incomes, of millions a year, for those who may have billions in wealth and several large mansions. And assets accumulated from the past (whether savings or houses) are far more important than current income. There is relatively little mobility into this elite, and also little down from it. As the richest get even richer and pull away from the rest of the population, so those lower down have much farther to go to get to the top (a larger hill to climb, in the metaphor used here).

The volume contains a lot of other interesting points, some related to changes in society. Highbrow cultural capital is increasingly confined to an older age group, and there are links between class and age: new affluent workers and emerging service workers are much younger on average than those in the traditional working class. Attending a prestigious university such as Oxford, Cambridge or the LSE is still a real help in joining the elite and so amassing large savings. Most people have more wide-ranging social ties than fifty years ago. Less than a third of respondents thought of themselves as belonging to a social class, though when pressed 62 percent ‘gave themselves some kind of working class identity’.

But the classes identified here do not have shared interests as against the rest: nobody is ever going to say ‘New affluent workers of the world, unite!’, nor will they ever form a class for itself (Marx’s term for a class conscious of its status and interests, mentioned in the Introduction). And, when all is said and done, an approach which puts dentists in the elite alongside multi-millionaires is missing quite a lot. 
Paul Bennett