Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Halo Halo!: Answers from Genesis (and the Koran) (2016)

The Halo Halo! Column from the April 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
The difference between philosophy and religion, as someone once pointed out, is that philosophy is questions which may never be answered, and religion is answers which may never be questioned. And the answers we get from some religionists are staggering.
Ken Ham, for example, an ex-science teacher (thank goodness for the ‘ex’) and now the president of Answers in Genesis, a fundamentalist Christian outfit, teaches that the Book of Genesis should be taken as historical fact, that the universe is no more than about 6,000 years old, and that dinosaurs once co-existed with genetically modern humans. His smart-arse answer to anyone who disagrees with his views on evolution and the origin of life is ‘were you there?’(He, presumably, was there when God was creating the universe, Eve was in the Garden of Eden sharing an apple with the serpent and Adam was riding around, Fred Flintstone style, on his dinosaur).
He recently ruffled a few feathers on the Richard Dawkins Foundation website (where they don’t suffer religious fools gladly) with a Facebook post describing the teaching of science to children as a form of child abuse. Teaching children that they are sinners, and liable to an eternity of pain and hellfire unless they live their lives in accordance with Mr Ham’s fantasies is, apparently, not abusive.
It is not only Christians whose lives need to be governed by ancient books of nightmares of course. The Newsweek website recently reported that a powerful Pakistani religious body that advises the government on the compatibility of laws with Islam (yes, you read that correctly – they have a council of mullahs to make sure their laws meet Allah’s requirements) declared a new law that criminalises violence against women to be ‘un-Islamic’.
The new act passed by the Province of Punjab, where in 2013 more than 5,800 cases of violence against women were reported, gives legal protection to women from domestic, psychological and sexual violence and calls for the creation of an abuse reporting hot-line.
In the past this religious council has ruled that DNA cannot be used as primary evidence in rape cases, supported a law which required women alleging rape to get four male witnesses to testify in court, and blocked a bill to impose harsher penalties for marrying off 8 or 9 year-old girls, so Allah’s hardly going to like this one is he?
‘This whole law is wrong’ argued one confused old cleric, spouting passages from the Koran to back up his point. And another complained, bitterly ‘This law makes a man insecure’. It’s political correctness gone mad, obviously, a total lack of common sense. But no doubt they’ll be able to live with it. They’ve still got that passage in the Koran that allows a man to beat his wife when necessary.

A Fabian speaks (1987)

From the May 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

Speaking at a recent Fabian Society meeting, Alan Whitehead, the Labour leader of Southampton City Council, ably demonstrated the confusion that exists in the minds of those who place their trust in "the broad church”. Coming less than twenty-four hours after the Greenwich by-election the first ten minutes of the meeting were taken up with the defeat of the Labour candidate Deirdre Wood. Naturally the blame was laid at the door of the wicked capitalist press. Smears and nasty personal attacks had misled the voters to such a degree that they had elected a Social Democrat as their MP. Heads nodded in agreement and the meeting commenced.

Organised as morale booster for the faithful, the talk concentrated on how Labour won and held Southampton City Council. Although it was a public meeting the speaker doubtlessly thought he was addressing fellow Labourites only. In his speech Alan Whitehead freely used the words socialist and socialism. It was as if he had written the speech, like some enthusiastic cook spicing up an unappetising meal, by liberally shaking “socialist" and "socialism" all over his creation. From "socialist governments" to "socialist schools" to "socialist councillors" and "socialist" holes in the road. Carried away by the excitement of it all Alan Whitehead even claimed there are "many forms of socialism". It was this revolutionary spirit that had led to the Town Hall lights being changed from blue to red on the first day in office.

Moving on to the council's finances, the words "deceit" and "deception" were used. These methods were necessary to keep the money out of the hands of those devious Tories — "What we like to call creative accountancy". We were also told that a deal had been done with merchant bankers Morgan Grenfell — which exposed the double standards of capitalist banking. What it told us about Southampton City Council was left unsaid. To retain power it was necessary to use "Stalinistic Discipline". All members are told how to vote before meetings. Such undemocratic phrases were part and parcel of Alan Whitehead's speech. This dangerous, elitist nonsense was openly put forward as socialism. In stating "that there are many forms of socialism" this hotchpotch of ignorance was offered as one of them.

Coming to the question and answer session, the usual display of confused ideas and half baked theories were paraded. One Labour member complained that present parliamentary candidates "spent too much time on the ethics". Others asked about socialist buses, socialist houses and even a socialist arts festival. On being asked to clarify his position by giving a definition of socialism. Alan Whitehead tried to evade the question. After shuffling his papers like a demented newsreader anxious to get off home he spent a further five minutes ho-ho-hoing like a trainee Father Christmas.

The Chairman joined in on the joke, saying it would take all night to define socialism. Told he was being evasive, Alan Whitehead made a half-hearted attempt to relate what had "influenced his socialist ideals". Drawing from his vast knowledge (he has a PhD) he managed to mutter something about Gramsci. Sidney Webb and Austro-Marxists. Like a drunk trying to stagger home he bumped into something solid. Lenin! Feeling on safe ground he warned us about Leninism, Marxists-Leninists and fellow travellers. And that was it. Marvellous! A speaker that spends nearly an hour talking about something that he cannot or will not define. Is it any wonder that workers are confused? To give a pot of muddled thinking another stir the chairman added that socialism could be interpreted in different ways by different people.

Perhaps both of these "leaders" had forgotten (or not read) a manifesto signed by Sidney Webb. Hyndman, G. B. Shaw. William Morris and others which said:
On this point all Socialists agree. Our aim, one and all, is to obtain for the whole community complete ownership and control of the means of transport, the means of manufacture, the mines and the land. Thus we look to put an end forever to the wages system, to sweep away all distinction of class, and eventually to establish national and international communism on a sound basis.
(Manifesto of English Socialists 1893) 
Since those early days what was to be a means has become an end in itself. Any trick or con to gain power and hold it is permissible. This duplicity is made possible by the electorate giving support to the Labour Party, in the belief that it can manage capitalism on their behalf by tacking a phoney socialist sticker to it.

But as more and more people come to understand capitalism and how it operates less and less people will be fooled by this bunch of opportunists, who can then go back to what they are suited to best —changing the lights on Southampton Town Hall.
Chris McColl

Botha's last stand? (1987)

From the February 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

The last few months have seen South Africa take several steps nearer to becoming a police state. Under the state of emergency the director-general of the Department of Education and Training has issued new instructions banning the display of any slogans on T-shirts, school bags and so on that express opposition to the apartheid regime. In addition the director-general can ban any course, class or syllabus that is not approved of by the Education Act or is. in other words, considered subversive. These new powers supplement other decrees issued under the state of emergency which compel pupils to enrol in school.

At the same time there have been new, draconian restrictions placed on the media: nothing can be published about militant, black organisations, consumer boycotts, strikes, campaigns of civil disobedience or detentions of political prisoners. Neither are newspapers allowed to print white spaces to indicate that material has been removed to meet the requirements of state censorship. In a feeble attempt to justify the new measures President Botha claimed that the media was promoting the cause of "radicals", especially the African National Congress, rather than that of the "moderates". In an advertisement published in December last year he said:
There can . . . be no doubt that there are individuals within the established media and organs of the alternative media who strongly believe that the media should be overtly and covertly used to promote the objectives of the radical revolution.
Meanwhile the coercion by the security forces continues: since the beginning of the state of emergency it is estimated that 22,000 people have been detained without trial or charge and it is thought that 8,200 of these detainees have been children under the age of 18. 4,000 of whom are still in prison. Those who have been released tell of appalling torture and brutality by their guards and their statements are backed up by a growing dossier of medical evidence from doctors who have examined the children on their release. The Detainees Parents Support Group, an independent monitoring group which has collected the statistics, claim that:
The security forces are attempting to instill fear of involvement among the children . . . the picture that emerges is one of seemingly random detentions.
The overtly coercive tactics of mass detentions, new restrictions on the media and education are part of an increasingly desperate attempt by the South African government to retain control in the face of not only unrest among blacks in the townships but also of what can only be described as a situation of dual power.

In the townships over the past two years an alternative structure of community action groups, student associations, tenants' groups and street committees have grown up. At the same time the state-sponsored community councils have seen their authority reduced and their members labelled as collaborators. The community councils, elected in polls that were heavily boycotted, have from the start lacked legitimacy in the eyes of township residents because of their close association with apartheid. Over the last two years many councillors have resigned and others have been brutally punished for their "collaboration". Increasingly militant black community organisations have taken over the administration of their own communities. Education has been a particular focus for discontent, leading to the schools' boycott of 1985 and 1986 and the closing of some schools by the Education Department as a result. But while formal education has virtually ceased in many areas, an alternative system of "people's education" has developed with the pupils themselves determining its content and direction. It is fear of this self-education that has led to the new emergency decrees forcing children to return to the kind of schooling that the state deems acceptable.

The restrictions on the media also represent an important part of the attempt by the state to regain control in the townships since they mean that local organisations are no longer able to communicate with people through local newspapers and it has become more difficult to organise or publicise campaigns.

But more sinister perhaps is the way in which the state has established a covert system of local security councils which have a dual function of, on the one hand, undermining militant black groups and on the other, trying to restore legitimacy to township groups acceptable to the government. The National Security Management System (NSMS) was established seven years ago but over the last two years it was established a network of over 500 regional and local Joint Management Committees (JMCs) throughout the country. Their function is to undermine the black opposition by exploiting factional rivalries between different groups and by running propaganda campaigns designed to discredit the "alternative" township committees. By gathering intelligence locally which is relayed back to the NSMS they also enable the police and security forces to arrest local activists and political leaders. At the same time JMCs are trying to restore legitimate authority to the state-sponsored community councils by dealing with some of the grievances of township residents such as poor housing. Clearly there is a recognition that heavy-handed repressive tactics are costly and, in the long run, less effective than more subtle means of undermining opposition.

At the same time as the white ruling class in South Africa pursues this twin track strategy towards the blacks, it is also trying to restore its image in the eyes of its traditional Afrikaner supporters. In the month before the ANC celebrated its 75th anniversary. Botha stated that he would root out ANC members both within South Africa itself and also in the surrounding countries. To show he meant business he launched a series of raids into neighbouring Swaziland. With the possibility of an early election being called this year he is likely to make a patriotic appeal to whites in South Africa to close ranks against what is portrayed as the threat of Russian-backed black insurgents inside South Africa. But as multi-national after multi-national pulls out of the country because of the threat to their profitability posed by continuing instability and the failure of the Botha regime to provide a framework in which capitalist enterprise can flourish, white workers in South Africa are likely to start asking themselves questions, if not about the morality of apartheid then surely about a system that can no longer guarantee their jobs and privileged standard of living.
Janie Percy-Smith

About Robert Owen (1971)

Book Review from the May 1971 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Life and Ideas of Robert Owen, by A. L. Morton, Lawrence and Wishart. 12s.6d.

Report to the County of Lanark. A New View of Society by Robert Owen introduced by V.A.C. Gattrell. Pelican. 7s.

The co-operative movement in Britain looks to Robert Owen as its founding father. Readers of Marx and Engels have met him as a “utopian socialist”. Gattrell thinks he was more of a Tory philanthropist.

In any event Owen was a remarkable man. Born in Newtown in Wales in 1771 he became a successful millowner first in Manchester and then in New Lanark. At New Lanark he pursued what today would be called an “enlightened labour management policy”, providing welfare services and better working and living conditions for his workers. As a result productivity and profits increased. But what struck Owen as the lesson of New Lanark was that “man is the creature of circumstances” and that “human nature . . .  is without exception universally plastic”. People’s characters could, in other words, be moulded for them. From this premise followed quite logically his attack on all existing religions and on individualism as well as his views on crime and punishment, education, sex, marriage and divorce. It led him, whatever Gattrell says, towards socialist conclusions.

It is quite true that Owen was opposed to working class industrial and political struggle and appealed rather to the powers-that-be. But this was quite consistent with his crude materialism for he was asking the kings, governments, churches and Tory philanthropists to become those who would remould the environment. His model communist communities were also, from his point of view, a way of educating the educators, training grounds for those who would change other people’s environment for the better.

The absurdity of Gattrell's suggestion can be seen merely by reading the works he introduces. From them Owen appears as a rationalist and supporter of science and industry who was concerned about the effects of capitalist individualism on human behaviour and happiness. Morton’s selections include passages from Owen on religion and the family (as well as on spiritualism and phrenology which he fell for in his old age) which can leave no one in any doubt that Owen was no Tory sympathiser.
Adam Buick

Buddha puts the clock back (1955)

From the September 1955 issue of the Socialist Standard

In quite a number of homes a little statue smiles down at us from his place on the mantelpiece. There he sits cross-legged, displaying a broad belly with a prominent navel. His ageless face wears an enigmatic smile as he placidly contemplates the best room in the home. Carved in ivory, jade or soapstone, the charming statue of Buddha never palls on us or to judge from his expression, we on him. 

In some Asiatic countries Buddhism is the national religion. It may come as a shock to think that but for an accident of geography, whereby we were born in Europe instead of in Asia that this statuette might not have been an ornament in an English sitting-room but an idol of worship.

Buddha, born in 563 0.C., the son of a reigning Prince in North India, was so surfeited with the idle luxury of palace life that at the age of 30 he set forth alone to seek deliverance for all mankind from the unhappiness and suffering which he found to permeate existence in whatever form. He taught that existence is impermanent and filled with suffering and that there is no immortal soul which separates one man from another but that all men are part of the universe and that in nature the Brotherhood of man is an accomplished fact and so therefore war is foolishness.

Buddha pointed out “Four Noble Truths.” Firstly, that the world is filled with suffering, discontent, disease and unhappiness. The second deduces its cause to be wrong desire or craving. The third “Truth” is that by annihilating wrong desire we remove the cause of suffering. As we think, so we become, or in the words of a Buddhist Scripture "all that we are is the result of what we have thought.” The fourth. “Truth” points out what he thinks to be the nature of the cure; by treading the Path of the Middle Way between extremes. But the Buddhist then goes on to make a point: Nature has taken millions of years to evolve the humble flower, shall man be perfected in 70? He then enunciates the theory of rebirth: man is reincarnated in another life perhaps in the body of an insect or animal or any living creature. Promotion to Nirvana partly depends upon the extent to which the aspirant annihilates desires.

Buddhism is not only a religion, it is also a way of life. For over 2,000 years it has held sway over nearly one-third of mankind. In some countries, such as in Thailand, it is customary for all men to become Buddhist monks at some time in their lives, though with an eye to realism this is confined to three months in a man's life for this is about the maximum time that it is considered practical to abstain from sex and the other pleasures of life.

As a corollary to civilization it is necessary to renounce many individual liberties of action and personal desires, and man co-operates with society instead of acting anarchically. For instance, industry, for obvious reasons, demands that workers keep to pre-arranged hours irrespective of personal convenience. In most walks of life civilization demands repression of personal desires for the general benefit of those living together in society.

The emphasis on the equality of the spiritual potentiality of mankind is a form of democracy not essentially political but in the humanistic man-to-man sense that all men are merely part of a one universal whole. In Confucianist China, where in the past women have held an inferior position the advent of Buddhism which does not differentiate between the sexes (unlike Confucianism) gave them hope and drew strength from their support Kuan Yin, the good-looking Chinese goddess of mercy, is the patron saint of Chinese women and has held an unassailable position of honour in the women's quarters in many Chinese homes. This Buddisatva (a Buddhist saint) previously a male has conveniently changed sex as a sop to the modesty of Chinese women. It can be observed that in Buddhist countries there is not the same sort of snobbishness that frequently pervades society in the West because of this feeling that all men are one with the universe.

Again the emphasis that man is merely part of nature together with speculation on the infinite which is part of Buddhist philosophy enhances the imagination, and this in turn leads to a development of the artistic faculties. The importance of Buddhism in the development of art in the East is universally recognised.

But Buddhism has other effects on its adherents. The belief in the transitoriness of an existence that passes from one form of animal life to another gives a sense of essential impermanence and unimportance of human life to the Buddhist. This has the effect of diminishing the importance of the material conditions of environment and of the events of daily life. This makes the Buddhist fatalistic, for example to the effects which arise from the capitalist-worker antagonism in society. Wages, hours of working, living conditions—what does it matter when one believes one has a constant succession of lives to live. He who is too poor to be able to afford to keep a wife or to sample sexual pleasure does not bother to think out the cause of his poverty—perhaps in the next reincarnation he may be a ram and can then make up for lost time. Besides to receive more money means that more desires can be indulged in and this is against the tenets of Buddhism.

What a useful religion this is to a ruling-class. When they are surfeited with luxury or debauchery how pleasant to lead a frugal life for a change and work the toxic matter out of the system. And for the underprivileged it enables them to bear the hardships that arise from their class position and thus they can carry the master-class on their backs with barely a groan.

Even the pacific side of Buddhism, which one might think could be a drawback in an acquisitive society where wealth, markets and trade routes have to be defended by the workers for their masters with force of arms, can be overcome. Japanese Capitalism has obviously found the answer to this.

By posing the belief in the reincarnation of the soul Buddhism has put a brake upon rational thinking and obscures the economic motives in society. This helps to prevent man from logically considering the reasons why riches and poverty exist side by side and such other contradictions in society which should be self evident. This in turn discourages the Buddhist from organizing in Trade Unions and in the political field to end the system of exploitation.

Belief in Buddhism robs the material events of life of their reality and of the interdependence of their cause and effect. Only the tenets of Buddhism count, and the believer has to try to build up as large a stock as possible of individual good deeds letting the stream of life flow by. It is of no use bothering to change society because it is thought that a lifetime is but an inconsiderable part of the long journey to the goal of Nirvana. The Buddhist is not concerned with organising the working-class to end exploitation but with his mind clogged with religious claptrap has acted as a brake on the development of ideas leading to a materialist conception of history. Thus Buddhism by its opposition to the Socialist movement is playing its part in preventing the establishment of Socialism and is in effect helping to hold back the clock of social change.
Frank Offord

Down Mexico Way (2016)

From the April 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
Billionaire presidential hopeful, Donald Trump, has pledged that, if he becomes President of the United States, he will build a 3,145 kilometres-long wall or fence between the US and Mexico, to keep out all Mexicans and other Latin-Americans.
Between 1965 and 2015 more than 16 million Mexicans migrated, legally or illegally, to the US. Between 2009 and 2014 870,000 came, according to the Pew Research Center. About 5.7 million are currently living in the country illegally, but they do not come, or attempt to come, just from Mexico. They are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. They attempt to reach America via Mexico. ‘It is like a fever. People are desperate,’ says one Honduran by telephone to the Toronto Star (30 January).
From 1 October, 2014 to 30 September, 2015 134,000 central Americans, many of them unaccompanied children, fled north, only to be arrested by the American authorities. Many of them don’t get that far. They are apprehended, or even killed before they reach the United States border, either by the police or by narco-gangs. Approximately 153,000 Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans were deported back south in 2015 alone. A few attempt to return north again almost immediately despite the risks.
As in Europe and the Middle East, there are always smuggler gangs offering up to three attempts to get would-be migrants into the US. The costs range from between $5,000 and $10,000. More and more of the migrants, even they succeed in getting into the United States, are being caught and deported.
Why do they try? Why are they so desperate?
Most are peasants, owning little or no land or propertyless workers, often unemployed and desperately poor. Then there is the gang, drug-related violence. San Pedro Sula in Honduras is said to be the world’s second-most violent, non-warzone city, followed by San Salvador. Many murders are gang-related; few are prosecuted. Parents are afraid to let their children play in the streets. And in the US?
Migration to America, however, is not all one way. Between 2009 and 2014 more Mexicans left the US than migrated into the country – probably up to one million. The grass in America, it would seem, was no greener than it was south of the border. Capitalism is everywhere.
Peter E. Newell

The dope pedlars (1966)

Book Review from the January 1966 of the Socialist Standard

“Planned Obsolescence"—the interesting sounding couplet that covers a multitude of sins, something which has hit the post war capitalist world like a bombshell. Briefly, it means deliberately producing poor quality goods with a severely limited lifespan, so that the market is kept going. For the market is the all important god to be worshipped at all cost, never mind who gets harmed in the process.

Nevertheless, you might perhaps have thought that there were some fields into which planned obsolescence would find it difficult to push its ugly snout —like medicine for example? Well, you would have been wrong, very wrong, and Brian Inglis in Drugs, Doctors and Disease (Deutsch 25s.) would tell you just why. This book is an excellently written survey of the pharmaceutical industry, or rather of that industry's dirty record in the promotion and sale of drugs over the past few years and after you have read it, it will not be so difficult to understand just why such tragedies as the Thalidomide affair happened. Indeed, the wonder is that there have not been many others.

Mr. Inglis points out that it has been the policy of some leading drug manufacturers to push new products onto the market at an alarmingly rapid rate, in many cases well before any adequate tests had been completed—even on animals. In fact, such a profitable market has this become that often a new drug is superseded by another before the bewildered doctor has a chance to carry out any kind of worthwhile clinical tests. The result of all this has been generally to ignore the possibilities of side effects and for the drug companies to get their project before they are discovered. And by then, anyway, they will have put a new drug on the market. 

The cynical disregard for human welfare which this involves, the incessant pressure exerted on doctors by the drug salesmen (often posing as patients), the lying claims in the publicity blurbs, all these and more are dealt with by the author in over 200 pages of searching criticism, liberally sprinkled with the most damaging quotes from the industry's apologists. For instance, John T. Connor, president of the U.S. Company Merck:—
"As in other industries, our driving force is profits. But unlike other industries, the single most effective way to earn those profits is by making existing products obsolete, including our own".
Mr. Inglis draws attention also to another harmful trend in that the general practitioner is less and less able to use his own judgement when prescribing treatment and has to rely more and more on what the drug houses choose to tell him about their products. That they mislead and often lie outright is quite clear, but the doctor has no immediate way of knowing this and by the lime the lies have been nailed and the drug withdrawn, some unfortunate has suffered side effects, some of them serious. Thalidomide (trade name “Distaval") was one of the more glaring and tragic examples, and was strongly suspected of causing peripheral neuritis long before its effects on unborn children were fully appreciated. Yet only a few days before the scandal broke, the manufacturers were still claiming its complete safety in use.

That all medical treatment must run an element of risk, we do not deny—there is no such thing as the perfect remedy after all. But having said that, it is still true to claim that the hazards have been multiplied many times as a direct result of the profit motive. Mr. Inglis makes this point very forcefully, but he is not a Socialist and he does not draw the obvious conclusion from his researches. Instead he plays around with the idea of nationalisation of the pharmaceutical industry—or parts of it despite the black record of nationalisation in other spheres.