Friday, March 11, 2016

Aid fatigue? (1988)

From the January 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

It seems that the prospect of over five million people being threatened with death by starvation, in one area in a fairly short space of time, is no longer headline news unless attached to a famous name. That is a very real possibility in parts of Ethiopia now, after the latest droughts and further harvest failures. And yet this time the first headlines to appear were “Geldof flies to Ethiopia as starvation threatens” (Guardian, 30 November/1 December 1987).

Whatever his good intentions, Bob Geldof must know that the recurrence of the problem itself proves the utter futility of charity as even a partial solution to the obscene contradictions of present-day society. Indeed, he said he found it distressing that over the past three years “nothing serious has been done”. Perhaps he thinks we’re not trying hard enough to redistribute our poverty. In fact, some commentators this time have invented the phrase “aid fatigue”, to suggest that workers scraping by in countries like Britain and Ireland may have genuine compassion for those who are even worse off than we are, but can only take so much sermonising and scolding from public figures who preach to us that if only we were a bit more caring, we really could humanise the global slaughter-house we live in . . .

In fact, the anger of Saint Bob has now found a new object. On flying out from Heathrow on a “fact-finding” mission to Ethiopia, he said that he laid the blame for the famine at the door of the “Marxist” government, and that he would be requesting a meeting with the Ethiopian leader, Colonel Mengistu, to ask him about his arms purchasing policy. He failed to say whether he would be popping in to the Pope on his way, to sort out a few problems there, or perhaps a few of the other heads of governments who could tell him a thing or two about arms purchases. After all, the governments of the world as a whole spend, between them, over one million dollars on weapons every minute of the day and night. They do not do this because they are evil (however suitable that description may be); they do it as a necessary aspect of the world capitalist system which a majority have been persuaded to accept or support. Rather than confusing the issue by isolating one leader or government in particular to “blame”, it might in fact prove far more “compassionate” in the long run for Geldof to focus publicity on the practical answer. Only a global overthrow of property relationships across the world will rescue the world’s dispossessed from the trap of poverty and hunger. It might make better publicity to demand chats with the Colonel about what arms he buys, but if Geldof is going to join the fools’ chorus which scoffs at the possibility of the socialist solution, then he should have stuck to singing songs.

We are now told, however, that the colonel is a marxist revolutionary. Of course, Ethiopia has no more relation to Marx’s ideas of human liberation that do Russia, China, America or Britain. Socialists have good reason to be bitterly opposed to every one of these regimes. In fact Marx and his collaborator Engels understood very well how capitalism (whether state-controlled or “private”) starves people. In 1865, Engels wrote to Marx:
Too little is produced . . . But why is too little produced? Not because the limits of production are exhausted. No, but because the limits of production are determined not by the number of hungry bellies, but by the number of purses able to buy and pay.
The military conflict in Ethiopia between separatist guerrillas and government forces, which has made the situation even worse, is itself a product of the international power struggles of the capitalist world order, based ultimately on the pursuit of profit and power by a minority. Neither can nature be held responsible: it is poverty which has made people increasingly vulnerable to any problems of rainfall and harvests, and the poor condition of the soil in much of Africa is also largely caused by social and economic factors. The world as a whole is crying out for social transformation, and if you start talking about the change to a system of production of use, wherever you may be, then you are part of that process of change, rather than remaining one of those who would put it off forever, with a collection of leaky sticking plasters.
Clifford Slapper

A visit to eastern Europe (1970)

From the November 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard

When socialists visit so-called socialist countries it can be a particularly nauseating experience, because socialists proceed with their eyes open and with a background of understanding. What they sec is a variety of capitalism, which more correctly might be designated as fascism. One should not forget that the Nazis called themselves socialists (National Socialist German Workers Party) The label on the bottle does not always denote the medicine inside.

I have several times been to the so-called “Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia”, but have never seen anything remotely resembling socialism there.

The workers of Yugoslavia arc paid wages, and there is at present much unemployment— just as in other capitalist countries. Money is used as a means of exchange because there is buying and selling — a fundamental of capitalism. This may be new to non-socialists, but indicates to us the true nature of the economy.

Outside the trade union hall in Belgrade, I watched hundreds of workers trying to get into the hall to see an important chess match. At that moment, an enormous car came along — a veritable palace on wheels, and a sort of combination of a Rolls-Royce and a Cadillac. One should appreciate that the average car in Yugoslavia is well below the standard here. I concluded that this car must be that of President Tito. When it pulled up I noticed the Soviet flag flying on the bonnet, and out stepped the Russian chess team, immaculately clad just like film stars. The Yugoslavs beamed at them as if they were from Mars.

When the chess tournament started there was the usual speeches from the platform by the local mayor and other dignitaries, who proudly welcomed the Russians (and others) to the “Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia”, and one speech after the other kept referring to the “Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia”.

I once asked a railway official (who was both interpreter and guide) where 1 could see any signs of socialism in Yugoslavia. “Yes”, he said, as if pleased with my simple question. “Just come with me”. He took me to the square outside the station which was decorated with Russian and Yugoslav flags, following some agreement between those countries at that time. “There”, he said proudly, “that’s positive signs of socialism”. When I told him that flag waving (as socialists saw it) was a sign of jingoism or patriotism, he failed to appreciate my standpoint.

The German Democratic Republic
The crossing of the East German territory when travelling to Berlin by plane presents no difficulties, for one flies straight in. But when going by train, one has to traverse the Eastern zone, known by the false name of “German Democratic Republic”, for no democracy exists there.

In 1946 when the G.D.R. was formed, the Communist Party received only 20 per cent of the vote which gave them power; and in 1953 Russian tanks faced and butchered a mass of hostile workers during an uprising. There can scarcely be anything democratic after that affair.

When the train stops at the West German frontier, the passport authorities quickly walked through the corridors, and their work was finished in a few minutes. Then the train goes on through two or three miles of no-man’s land to the Eastern frontier. The passport inspection is quite another thing here. 1 counted no less than twenty-four officials who swarmed into the train or played a part in the inspection. Two soldiers with rifles were standing at each end of the train, and I noticed a policeman with a large Alsatian dog standing on the line near the end of the train. Then he let the dog off the lease, and the dog went under the train from end to end, for obvious reasons.

Four other officials climbed on top of the train and opened the vents and covers where the water for the toilets is taken in, walking the whole length of the train to perform this task.

The delay caused by this thorough search took up about an hour, and the train was nearly empty. Reports have it that three or four hours delay are not unusual.

From West Berlin foreigners (but not West Berliners) can visit East Berlin by special coach. Passport details, and the amount of money one has, are all checked and entered on a large form which has to be signed before one is allowed to board the coach.

Check Point Charlie” is a special entry point on the Berlin wall. The wall itself is about ten feet high, with concrete blocks and barbed wire to decorate it realistically. There are notices of mines, and soldiers arc patrolling it on the Eastern side; while on the Western side is an electrified wire fence in case one has managed to beat the other obstacles. The atmosphere of the concentration camp dominates everything ; and I began to wonder, as a socialist, what 1 had let myself in for.

At “Check Point Charlie” everybody had to descend from the coach and line up with “permit disc” bearing a letter and number (and in numerical order — like in army or prison), while the East German guards checked every detail of passports, visas, and the form which had been signed in the Western zone. This took about an hour, and frequently visitors are sent back because their passports are not in order for the East section. When one has scaled all these hurdles, you re-board the coach and are permitted to go through from “Capitalist Berlin to Socialist Berlin”.

East Berlin, which remained far behind West in re-building, has now surged forwards and there is a mass of buildings completed, and many still being built. The Russians pillaged all they could lay their hands upon, and Fast Germany suffered as a result. While the West was receiving Marshall Aid, East Berlin was being ransacked and made to pay for the war. No wonder the East Germans wanted to escape to the West.

The coach stopped only once during its three hours in East Berlin, and that was in the middle of a park where there was no possibility of contacting anybody. The real purpose of this stop was for toilet requirements, although the official guide made it appear that the purpose was to visit an enormous war memorial, guarded by Russian soldiers. The Russians evidently knew that if they did not guard their monuments in Hast Berlin, the workers would soon demolish them.

We were several times warned that cameras and newspapers must not be taken into East Berlin — so democratic is their regime.

With all the propaganda and security of this police state, there was absolutely nothing remotely resembling socialism— only a nauseating hypocrisy.
Horace Jarvis

Pathfinders: (Pr x Media) = Funding2 (2016)

The Pathfinders Column from the March 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
Last month the world woke up to the strange headline that a) gravitational waves had almost certainly probably been detected and that therefore… b) wait for it… c) Einstein was a bit clever and… d) his theory of relativity was almost certainly probably right.
Of course the scientists were ecstatic. They had been trying to find these waves for years, and now that they had, they also potentially had a new way of looking at the universe. Maybe.
So, good job and pats on the back all round, but front-page splash material, really? It was like the Higgs all over again, with journalists and readers alike gamely talking it all up while trying not to look too baffled.
On the face of it, not much had really changed. Einstein's theory of relativity had already been corroborated as far back as 1919, and every scrap of observational data since had only served to confirm it, making it one of the most successful theories in the history of science.
In a sense, this was the least desirable outcome, from the point of view of new physics. And new physics is sorely needed, because at the moment the Standard model doesn't make sense. Relativity and quantum mechanics are like the unstoppable force and the immovable object, and the Standard model has them worryingly in collision. The new discovery does nothing to change that.
Still, it is pretty clever to be able to detect a movement just a thousandth of the width of a proton (though some newspapers mistakenly printed 'atom' instead, which is like confusing a football with a football stadium). And, to add spice, it was one of those cases of serendipitous luck that make science a lot more fun to read about.
But how interested are the public by all this? It's not as if relativity is a subject you often hear discussed down the boozer, although maybe it depends on the boozer. And the booze (how can nothing be made of something, how can you bend time, how can you pack 30 suns into a space the size of a city, how do they even know any of this, why am I seeing two of you...?).
To many people, physics is just an advanced form of trainspotting (they might say the same about radical politics). Why should anyone care about it, when surviving in capitalism is already a full-time job? Trouble is, people feel that they ought to care because the media is making a big song and dance about it (unlike radical politics). And likewise, the media make a fuss because the scientists are making a fuss.
It comes down to a simple equation: PR x Media = Funding. Gone are the days when science was done by balding boffins in potting sheds. Instead it's 'Big Science' using 'Big Data' collected by Big Tools with Bloody Big Budgets. Detectors like the LIGO gravity wave sensors are hooked up in a patchwork process known as interferometry, across continents and sometimes across the world or even across space. That's not cheap. Then there are large colliders like the LHC at CERN, or the International Space Station (the most expensive tool ever built by anybody) or the ITER fusion reactor at Cadarache in France. In these cases the budgets are so big that only governments can afford them, and even then, only if they club together. And governments, as everyone knows, are peculiarly sensitive to the prevailing climate of popularity, not only among the voting populace who think they're paying for all this but also, and more importantly, among the capitalist class who are actually footing the bill.
So science, to get its funding, has become something of a beauty contest, which is why savvy scientists now engage PR firms after, and sometimes before, getting their research peer-reviewed, and why the pressure is on to announce results even before there are any results to announce. Physics, in particular that ethereal branch known as cosmology, scores surprisingly well in this beauty contest, not because it's in any way relevant or accessible to most of us, but because it's full of famous and charismatic stars (no pun intended), it sports some preposterously untestable ideas, and it's swathed in an aura of mysticism that, in the post-religion era, seems satisfyingly profound. Geneticists and chemists just don't have that kind of glamour. Though they tend to produce far more useful science, they are the unlovely infantry grunts doing essentially icky and sticky things with test tubes. Physicists are the dashing flyboys, the Brylcreem theorists who will make the human race race faster and faster, and maybe loop the loop. It's still based in fact, but quasi-fetishised, made to mean more than it seems, and to seem more than it means - science goes to Hollywood.
Still, and as a quid pro quo, new Hollywood sci-fi movies are increasingly expected to be 'scientifically correct'.  Nobody ever expected Flash Gordon to flash a PhD, but the product of a more scientifically-engaged public is a more scientifically-critical audience, so now film-makers simply can't get away with putting sound effects into space battles because everybody knows (yawn) that sound doesn't travel in space. Instead, and in a development few would have predicted, recent films like GravityInterstellar or The Martian are promoted, despite the varying silliness of their plots, precisely on the grounds of their devotion to the laws of physics, and criticised precisely where that devotion falls short.
And why not indeed? If only film-makers would apply the same rigorous standards to their history films, perhaps today's voting public would be a bit better informed about the world they live in, how it got that way, and what they should really be angry about. We've had politically correct, and now we've got scientifically correct. Maybe next cinema-goers should be demanding historically correct. And who knows? Unlike the detection of gravitational waves, that could well be a development that ends up rocking everybody's boat.

The Class Issue in the American Revolution (1976)

From the July 1976 issue of the Socialist Standard

What, if anything, does the Declaration of Independence mean? The approach of its 200th anniversary has produced a small deluge of reviews of the saga of American history and the "truths” adopted on 4th July 1776. There must be many who, having read and listened, still wonder why a nation claiming to be founded on “inalienable rights” of equality, freedom of speech and thought and "the pursuit of happiness” manifestly does not have them. The answer is that the Declaration of Independence was framed as the expression of one class’s economic interests.

The colonization of America resulted from European countries’ quest for trade. Its labour-force came in part from the same source as theirs, the dispossession of peasants to make them “free labourers”; also from refugees from the religious wars and persecutions which were part of the break-up of feudalism, victims of rack-renting and famine in Ireland, unemployed artisans, etc. About half the white colonists before 1730 sold themselves as slaves or "indentured servants” in exchange for a passage to the New World, and about 200,000 black slaves were taken from Africa.

The various American colonies were practically all self-supporting from agriculture and the forests and their products (the highly lucrative fur trade created policies towards Indians, and also the first millionaires). In the non-slave states the labouring class was a mixture of indentured servants and wageworkers. The colonies were driven closer together by conflicts with Indians and by the English wars with France and Spain which both had colonies in America and fought for trade there.

The rĂ´le of the British government in controlling America was to preserve Britain’s position as the manufacturing centre, to which other countries sent raw materials and from which they had to buy manufactured goods. Under the Navigation Laws, the colonies had to use English ships for trade and all goods had to be "laid on the shores of England”, where duty was collected. The French war had left the British government with a heavy debt, and it sought to raise revenue in America; whereas the New England merchants were chiefly smugglers evading payment of duties.

The political conflicts leading up to the War of Independence — the Boston Tea Party, the Currency Act, legislation restricting the manufacture of finished goods and restraining movement westward — were all manifestations of this situation. But the term "American Revolution” is a misnomer insofar as it conveys a separate, unique upheaval or “a noble experiment”, as The Times called it in a recent article. It was part of the eruption as the capitalist class took political power, the American phase of the English revolution.

The greater part of the Declaration of Independence consists of political attacks on George III. In Britain the Georges were supported by the Tory representatives of the landowning aristocracy while the Whigs, standing for the interests of developing capitalism and freedom of trade, were still struggling. In America, still in its early stages, the class issues were confused but the dominant interests were those from which the capitalist class originated: the smuggling merchants, land speculators, and would-be manufacturers. The Tories comprised large landholders, "respectable” merchants, officials and dependants of the British regime, and the Church of England faction.

These ties were exchanged across the Atlantic. The revolutionists were in fact a minority, but they were more active, perceptive and coherent — in a word, conscious — than any other section. They drew the support of the small business men and the labouring class through local legislative assemblies and over such issues as the Currency Act.

The War of Independence ended in 1782, one month before the Tory government fell and the Americans’ Whig allies came to power in Britain. This was the beginning of capitalism’s rise to maturity. How much the Declaration of Independence meant, and whom it stood for, can be seen in the fact that in the mid-1780s out of an American population of 3½ million (excluding Indians) only 400,000 were “free” men. Its principles, and the ideas of democracy it embodied, were cast aside almost immediately.

That, again, was not special to America. In France the cry was “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, and in England freedom was demanded everywhere. Freedom for whom and what? Freedom for the inrushing capitalist class to exploit without restraint, without the shackles of monarchy and divine right: equality at the start of a race in which the self-elected winner had the hides and carcasses of the rest. In America, the ownership and control of the means of living were vested in the class whose lineal descendants still hold it.

The history books show Independence to have been essential to the emergence of a great modern nation: the creation of a strong central government controlled by the manufacturing and commercial class. The capitalists were a revolutionary class, advancing the capacities of mankind immeasurably. What the Declaration of Independence shows is their inability to fulfil those capacities after two hundred years. Like the aristocracy from whose grip they broke, from a dynamic social force they have long since become an obstruction to mankind. It is time for the next move, to Socialism.
Robert Barltrop

Gashouse or powerhouse? (1985)

Editorial from the June 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

Every few years, when the working class in most parts of the capitalist world are invited to elect another government, they go to the polls unmindful of the real significance of the occasion. For some time they will have been bombarded by the claims of the competing parties to have the most effective and humane programme for organising capitalism. They will have read many assertions of an ability to eliminate poverty, ill health, war. . . With this information — it would be too kind, and inaccurate, to describe it as knowledge — in their heads the workers can go to the polls and weightily decide between one party and another — which means between one style of capitalism and another. Having elected a government, the workers then expect it to get on with the job, which they assume to be arranging the affairs of society so that they run more happily and efficiently, in the interests of the voters. For that is how they regard the function of the legislative bodies to which they elect the people they call their representatives.

But the truth is rather different, for very little of the work of those bodies has any connection with the interests of the mass of the people. Of course, at times it does have some effect on their lives (although usually not in the manner promised) and for that reason it may be the subject of impassioned debate among the working class. But this effect is rarely, if ever, in any sense permanent or significant. For the rest, the legislatures are concerned with the day-to-day organisation of capitalism which has no relevance to working-class lives.

In some cases this takes the form of organisational, managerial reforms, for example the present policy of the Thatcher government to end state control over some industries such as telecommunications and to open these up to private investment. Workers get very excited about these measures, in some cases because they think that "they" (the Tory government) are thereby taking away some of "our" property. Others get equally worked up because they are allowed to buy a few shares in the newly organised concern and so, in their own estimation, become "investors". They might even think of themselves as tycoons, manipulators of the world's stock markets. But whatever the fantasies, the reality is that the fundamental of the class ownership of the industries remains undisturbed. Any worker who has doubts on that score can test the matter out by trying to get free telephone calls. We should also remember that there was equal excitement when the industries which the Thatcher government are now "privatising" were taken into state control. Nationalisation was regarded then as the public (which meant by all of us) ownership of a concern so that it was to be operated in the interests of everyone. Workers who held that theory could have tested it out by trying to keep for themselves some of the produce of "their" industry. In fact, many of them have been forced to assess the theory, by resisting the efforts of nationalised industries to close down unprofitable plant and to sack "redundant" workers or to try to hold back wage rises and intensify exploitation. As the steel workers and the coal miners have found out, the notion that state control is common ownership is a cruel deception.

Another overriding concern of the legislatures is the juggling with the financial superstructure of capitalism, to create the illusion that in this they are making fundamental social changes. This takes place under the popular assumption that there is no problem of capitalism which can't be solved by an injection of money into the appropriate. sensitive spot. The more extreme expressions of workers' poverty, such as slum housing and malnutrition, are widely supposed to be curable by simply increasing the amount of state benefits and investments applied to the area of concern. But this is not an original idea; governments have long tried, or claimed to be able, to deal with such problems in that way but whatever grants they make, and however skilfully and frenziedly they juggle with the finances, the problems will not go away. The reason for their impotence is that the problems are endemic to capitalism; poverty, for example, is an inevitable feature of class society and an accompaniment of wage slavery. As long as capitalism lasts — as long as there is a working class —there will be poverty and with it there will be extremes of poverty, just as there will be riches and excessive riches. So when a legislature sets itself to a session of financial juggling it is engaged in something which has no relevance to the abolition of capitalism's problems and none, therefore, to the interests of the working class who elected them.

In the end, the proof of where the efforts of a legislative body are directed lies in experience. After ages of laws being laid down, and repealed, are the working class any nearer to a solution of their problems? Has poverty been abolished? Is war no longer a threat to society? Is everyone as healthy, happy and secure as they can possibly be? The answer to all these questions is clearly a negative, which is not to be cynical or despairing but realistic.

This fact may be taken as giving credence to those who argue that legislative bodies are themselves irrelevancies, to be ignored by the working-class movement for the socialist revolution to take over society in the interests of the world's people. In fact that attitude misses the essential point. An elected legislature is the seat of power in capitalism, however its function may be misconceived and misused. The miners had this rammed home to them during their recent strike and it is time the workers as a whole grasped it. At present the voters send people to legislatures with a clear mandate to continue the capitalist system, which means to absorb themselves with measures which have no bearing on workers' lives.

But a socialist working class will use the occasion of an election in a completely different way. They will know that, as the legislatures are the seat of power, it is an act of futile waste to run up against them; they must be controlled before they can be used to bring about working class emancipation. This will be the function — strictly imposed, monitored and controlled which will be applied by the working class on their elected delegates in the establishment of socialism.

The revolution will bring a society of communal ownership and democratic control — a world of abundance and free access to wealth. Worldwide, legislatures will have their part to play in the revolution — it will be an act of historic significance.

Wadya Know (1949)

A Short Story from the July 1949 issue of the Socialist Standard

Apologies to Damon Runyon

At eleven-o-clock last Friday evening I am sitting in Fifty’s snack bar on Piccadilly Circus and we are consuming coffee. It is very bad coffee in Fifty’s bar and we are only consuming this coffee because we have nothing much else on. “We” I say, because I have company—Flutter. Flutter is feeling sociable and offers gaspers to a dame across the counter, speaking to her as follows:

"Say, when this joint closes up. maybe we can help wash-up. eh?"

Well the dame looks very surprised at this and says that in this Fifty place they have special geezers for washing up. “What’s more," she says. “these washing-up geezers is dirt cheap and what's Flutter want to lower himself for anyway?”

Flutter is very incensed at this and I am rubbering in to save any argument. I say “How is Charlie.” I says.

“Charlie!" shrills this dame. “Oos ee?" “Why” I says, “Charlie Fifty who owns this joint and maybe a million. You mean you never see him?” She signifies that she never clapped eyes on this Fifty fellow ever.

Well this is the second shock we are receiving that evening. First these special geezers who spend their natural washing-up dishes. And then the guy who is owning the joint never shows up to run the business—selling lousy coffee to me and Flutter and the other city guys who can’t go any place else.

By now Flutter is speaking bitter things on the subject of guys who have nothing to do but own milk bars and watch their blood pressure. I am thinking that there's millions who does jobs for Charlie Fifty and maybe he has special geezers to watch his blood pressure and doesn’t do that himself either on account of he is too busy owning his milk bars. I am grumbling about all this to Flutter maybe 100 per cent, and he speaks loudly as follows:

“Yeah—we gets lousy coffee and no-good grub, these geezers she speaks about washes-up all their naturals and this Sixty-man he’s no benefit to anybody anyway.”

At this point we are being pushed off our stools by an Admiral or maybe a Commodore who is saying.

“Cumom—dosin hup!” This makes me wonder if he does this all his life too.

The worst jolt comes when I am trying to board the last street-car to Horrorway. The attendant is elbowing me and some other citizens off this car into the gutter. He is accompanying his actions with suitable words like this: “This ’ere vehicle’s run for the Company’s benefit! Not yours!” So we are left quite mortified at our nerve. How are we to know the car is full of shareholders? Then we think maybe this attendant guy only shoots us a line. Who ever sees a bus-full of shareholders and they wouldn’t live in Horrorway nohow. As I only says to Flutter, I says this is a very perplexing world . . .
D. R. Onion.