Friday, April 15, 2016

Bleak age — 1983 (1983)

From the April 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

Answering questions recently in Parliament about Conservative intentions towards the Welfare State, the Prime Minister spoke of government determination to give individuals and their families more choice and freedom to exercise responsibility. According to the proposals drawn up by senior Cabinet Ministers, this means encouraging families to reassume responsibilities taken on by the state. The idea that the Welfare State takes care of all our needs is in stark contrast to the suffering of the growing numbers of people forced into dependence on social security, for at least part of their income. If a figure of 140 per cent of the supplementary benefit level is taken then around a quarter of the population is living in poverty or close to it. For those in doubt there is the evidence of the DHSS final report on deprivation.

In 1972 Sir Keith Joseph, then Secretary of State for Social Services, made a speech in which he expressed concern that, despite the growth of “affluence” since 1945 there was still widespread prevalence of personal and social problems. He suggested that a lack of appropriate parenting skills might be partially responsible. As a consequence of that speech the Social Science Research Council and the Department of Health and Social Security set up a Joint Working Party to carry out a programme of research into transmitted deprivation. The final report by Muriel Brown and Nicola Madge was published last July. Despite the Welfare State is the result of nearly ten years of enquiry involving 37 studies and including surveys of existing statistics and literature. (There are 17 pages of references.)

The original subject was problem families but the scope was widened to cover many aspects of deprivation and ways it might be transmitted across generations. Various “separate" states of deprivation affecting many families were studied including low income, bad housing, unemployment, poor health and family problems. People experiencing an overlap between these states are suffering multiple deprivation! One estimate gives over one million families in this condition. Not surprisingly “those individuals or families who are deprived in income or occupation are most likely to have other deprivations”. Inadequate living accommodation contributes to ill health, which in turn adds to the difficulties of coping with family relationships. People on low incomes have no alternative to seeking help from state social agencies. Studies failed to reveal a common identity for "problem” families.

The measurement of social deprivation is both inexact and controversial but “quite definitely substantial in amount”. The Report gives a conservative estimate of roughly ten million people suffering poverty, four million of those in families with children. About one-quarter of the workforce hold unskilled or semi-skilled jobs “with attendant deprivations of insecurity and poor work conditions”. 1.8 million households are living in physically unsatisfactory housing conditions in terms of overcrowding, shortage of amenities or general unfitness, and "a small minority” (about 50,000) are officially regarded as homeless in any one year.

For the families concerned poverty means an actual shortage of necessary goods, including food. Not starvation but limited diets, going hungry and missing meals. “Many surveys” indicate severe shortages of furniture, especially beds. A smaller proportion of those on low incomes own or have use of fridges and washing machines. Among poor people a drop in income level is a major cause of debt. Failure to pay fuel bills and keep up with hire purchase payments can mean the disconnection of electricity supply and the loss of goods. Rent arrears are a factor in homelessness. There is chronic anxiety and despair with the added fear, especially for single parents, that the consequence of debt or acute financial difficulties may mean children taken into care. Approximately seven out of ten families whose children were fostered, adopted or placed in residential homes "had been judged to have a precarious or very precarious financial situation at the time of reception into care”.

In summarising the studies made by the Joint Working Party Brown and Madge deal sympathetically with the deprivation and disadvantages suffered by several million people. They are unable to fully explain it. finding that there is no single form of deprivation and no single cure. They believe that “there will always be some worse off than others”.

Everyone on a low income is not considered to be suffering special hardship. All those in low-skill occupations, unemployed, in the “worst of housing”, with large families, single parents, do not have problems which make them turn to the social services for help. (Not being “problem families” they are really outside the areas considered by researchers.) This does not mean that they do not have problems or that the difficulties of “problem families" are not the result of poverty.

All forms of deprivation occur most frequently within the lowest “socio-economic groups” but similar problems are experienced by families not in low-skilled occupations. This does not invalidate the relationship between income and life-style opportunities and expectations. But looking at problems in relation to individual families and classifying people into separate socio-economic groups according to occupation and income level, ignores the common economic identity of these groups. People who need to work, no matter how their skills and payments differ, all belong to the same class.

The working class does all of the work of society, produces the social wealth, but does not own the means to produce that wealth. On the other hand the capitalist class which owns the means of production, and therefore what is produced, does not need to work — or to claim social security. The motive for production is sale and profit and for the working class access to what is produced is limited by the amount of their wages — or social security benefits. This fact restricts choice for the majority in all areas of life. It hardly needed a ten-year programme of enquiry to discover that people on the lowest incomes are likely to have most problems coping with life, and the greatest difficulty in improving the position for their children. Whether or not particular deprivations are transmitted across generations of individual families, poverty-based problems are certainly experienced by successive generations of working class families.

All the aspects of deprivation and disadvantage investigated by the DHSS Joint Working Party are related to the role of the working class, in a social system which lacks the motive to provide for human wealth, dignity and contentment. Capitalism needs a varied workforce, people to do all kinds of work, including menial unskilled work which requires little training. It is not necessary for everyone to be qualified to do the highest paid jobs. And while there is “a great shortage of trade" some 3½ million people are unemployed.

Members of the working class unable to work, whether through unemployment, sickness or old age, are dependent on the state social security system. The hardship which they may face is an aspect of the relative poverty of the whole class. Workers looking at the deductions on their own payslips, for income tax and national insurance contributions, are far from sympathetic to any increase in their contributions as a means to improve social security benefits for others. Myths about the generosity of state welfare provision, and its abuse, are widely accepted, together with the idea that the poor have only themselves to blame — or they are not poor at all. When David Donnison was Chairman of the Supplementary Benefits Commission, complaints about supporting layabouts and scroungers, which arrived by the hundred each month, were "rarely on headed notepaper from leafy suburbs" but were mostly from “ordinary voters and taxpayers" (The Politics of Poverty).

If the DHSS report is not enough the mass arrest of claimants, during the infamous Operation Major at Oxford, further revealed the opportunities for "getting rich" on social security: 175 people were accused of drawing £67.20 board and lodging allowances, by giving bed and breakfast addresses at which they were not staying. In March a judge dismissed the case against one man who had changed to cheap accommodation which did not include breakfast. According to the DHSS his money should have been reduced to £52.75! Who would turn to the DHSS, in the hope of getting meagre and qualified help, if they had another option?

Government exploration of possible changes in the welfare state is not concerned with remedying the failure to end poverty, but with finding cheaper ways of running welfare services. About £2 billion has been cut from benefits affecting pensioners. families, the sick, disabled and unemployed, but social security now accounts for 29 per cent of all government expenditure. During a debate in the House of Lords last November Lord Trefgarne (Under Secretary of State for Health and Social Security) said that the government was committed to protecting the needs of those who relied on social security benefits, but that the success of the economic strategy meant limiting the growth of social security as far as possible. (The Times, 25 November 1982.)

Piecemeal reform, within the existing social services, is seen by the authors of Despite the Welfare State to be the only realistic solution to deprivation. Even without a recession reforms cannot end working class poverty. But there is an alternative.
Pat Deutz

Editorial: Marxism lives (1983)

Editorial from the March 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

If Marx were alive today, what would he think of the "Marxists"? How would he assess the gathering each year on the podium in Red Square, saluting the long parade of tanks, missiles, nuclear warheads? Would he feel a common cause with the new risen leaders who, having fought to expel some foreign colonial power, themselves impose on the newly "free” country a savage repression? Would he greet as comrades in the struggle for socialism the guerrilla fighters who say they set their people free by shooting them and blowing them to pieces?

There is little doubt that he would condemn these as impostors and deny that their theories had any affinity with his. Of course, he may also have rejected the Socialist Party of Great Britain as a Marxist organisation, if he were rigid enough to insist that the term could be applied only to those who give a complete and uncritical acceptance to everything he wrote. Socialists have no use for dogma, from whatever pen it comes. We are aware that, probably because of the undeveloped time he lived and worked in. Marx held many ideas which now show up as wrong. His qualified support for one side in a capitalist war is one example: another is the misconception of the role of the state in the socialist revolution, as set out in the Communist Manifesto.

Nevertheless the SPGB asserts that we, with our companion parties abroad, are a Marxist party — the only organisations worth the description. We make this claim because we alone both agree with and consistently apply the basis of the Marxian analysis of society. We examine history as a response to material conditions, a succession of class struggles sprung from a clash between the prevailing social relationships and the pressure of a developing mode of wealth production. We alone see the mechanics of capitalism — the workings of its class structure, the accumulation of capital, the exploitation of the working majority through their employment — as essentially characteristic and not as accidental. avoidable ephemera. Only socialists assert the need for a revolutionary conclusion to the class struggle, to dispossess the capitalist class and to transform the means of life into the property of the community.

These are the strengths of Marx’s work; its weaknesses are seized on, and expanded. by our opponents in their ever more desperate attempts to justify their discredited theories and policies. Socialists are not political trendies; our ideas have never been fashioned as micro-wave responses to passing appetites. At our formation we laid down our Object and Declaration of Principles which, as a statement of basic Marxism, has endured since 1904 simply because it continues to explain, to analyse, to answer the necessary questions and to point the way forward for the revolutionary socialist.

This has provided the SPGB with a continuity in theory and action which has kept us in existence, and in strength, when other parties have been wrecked or reduced to theoretical feebleness. The present slump, for example, is typical in that it has reaped a harvest of the ignorant and left the air thick with the chaff of false theories about the origins, and the cure, of the recession. Marxists know that capitalism is an anarchy of boom and slump and that workers suffer impoverishment when they are in employment as well as when they are on the dole. We know too that the system will not fall into rubble under the pressure of some great final crisis — the dream of many a hopefully waiting elitist of the left.

No other organisation has consistently expounded the class struggle in capitalist society. Apart from the SPGB, every one has at some time asserted that there is an essential unity between capitalist and worker. In wartime, for example, we have seen what the professed internationalism of the self-proclaimed Marxists has been worth, as they have supported one or other of the world's ruling classes. Socialists have stood alone in an unbending opposition to capitalism's wars, on the grounds that no working class interests are involved and that workers all over the world should unite for socialism.

But socialists offer more than criticism. With our analysis of capitalism and the mental destruction of the anti-Marxists we have a complementary policy for action. Marxists aim at nothing less than the immediate overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a social order based on the social ownership of society's means of wealth production and distribution. The material conditions for that revolution exist now; the productive forces are capable of sustaining a society of abundance and, in the classic Marxist interpretation, they are in conflict with the restraints imposed on them by the existing social relationships. This can be resolved only by a revolution, to bring the social relationships into harmony with the productive forces. And for that revolution all that is needed is positive action by a politically conscious world working class.

In line with that need, the membership of a Marxist party must consist exclusively of workers who have the knowledge essential for the overthrow of capitalism, workers who will not compromise or settle for piecemeal reforms under the delusion that these will somehow chip away at capitalism until it has ceased to exist. Socialists are not to be found among the trendy demonstrators, catching the headlines with CND marches. Right to Work campaigns and peace camps, agonising over this week's crisis before next week’s dominates the news. Conscious socialists have no use for leaders, to interpret events for them, to lay down policy and to display their extra-special intellects before the TV cameras at the demonstrations.

Capitalism is rampant, its dominant class holding a monopoly over the means of life throughout the world. But Marxism, the intellectual energy which will end capitalism, lives in spite of all the efforts by its avowed enemies as well as by its professed friends to kill it off. It lives simply because it meets with reality. Its analysis of capitalism fits the facts; its policy for future action appeals because it follows in logic, a proper remedy from a sound diagnosis.

Marxism lives in the Socialist Party of Great Britain and our companion parties of socialism.

Will socialism be centralised? (1983)

From the February 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

Capitalist enterprises plan their production as far as possible in line with short- and long-term estimates of "effective” market demand for their products. Within the constraints of market limitations, decisions are taken “centrally” by small minorities appointed by the owners and controllers of capital. Socialist production decisions will differ from this in two major ways. First, in place of “market” demand, the limits of production will be set only by the total, freely expressed needs of people and by the absolute aggregate of available resources. Second, all decisions about production can be freely arrived at and implemented by the people whose lives they affect.

There are a number of reasons for centralisation in capitalism. As a system based on the competitive accumulation between separate units (companies, states), it has a tendency to produce increasingly large conglomerations of capital. With this profitable concentration goes a concentration of housing, employment, and power. Transport costs for getting workers to work and products onto the market are reduced by a dense concentration of population in urban centres such as London, Buenos Aires or Hong Kong. Three-quarters of the North American population inhabits less than two per cent of the land surface area.

The market system is often held up as a free, fluid and balanced arena of enterprise. The truth is the opposite. It is in the nature of the market system that there is an increasing amount of wealth in fewer and fewer companies, fewer and fewer shareholders. Companies or individual investors who fall behind slightly in the rat race go to the wall and fall out of the competition. The bigger, more successful units buy up the smaller units, or what is left of them, and grow larger still. This problem of uneven development operates on an international scale, as well as locally. The parts of the world where capitalism developed first, Europe and America, still contain greater concentrations of capitalist power than many other parts of the world. Several hundred billion dollars are now owed by "underdeveloped" capitalist countries to a handful of more powerful banks and states.

In the market system, the state tries centrally to regulate the competition between enterprises. There is intervention in the market by the state as a centralised expression of the interests of the capitalists as a whole, to try to regulate prices, profit, interest, wages (exchange rates internationally) and so on. The state is also used to exert political control over the working class of the world. Police forces, armies and courts necessarily involve a high degree of centralised power.

The state also often runs power supplies (gas, water, electricity) and transport services, with subsidies where necessary, in order to allow the capitalist class as a whole to control production profitably on a “sound” and safe foundation of reliable services. Again, class interests demand that the capitalist state be a highly centralised power, for the administration of property and accumulation.

There has been a certain amount of debate recently about the conflict between local autonomy and central control. This has included the attempts by some local councils to question the state control exerted by Michael Heseltine, and the London GLC “Fares Fair” policy being ruled illegal. What these developments demonstrate is how much the running of a world-wide profit system depends on the universal submission of social production to the profit-based dictates of the central power in each national state. This link between property and centralised (rather than diffused) control goes right back to the idea of the aristocrat on a landed estate. Sitting in the country manor-house, control emanates from the centre, across the expanse of the territory. The hierarchy of the power structure is reflected geographically. In the same way, ex-colonies which gain political independence such as India, Africa and Latin-America, have tended to remain economically weak in capitalist terms, relative to the old “metropolis” countries in Europe, for many years.

Democratic planning
None of the above factors of market competition, state power and uneven development can exist in socialist society. Democratically planned production in socialism cannot be "centralised". It will be global, conscious, controlled, and it can be described quite unequivocally as “planning” — but this need not imply centralisation. Local, regional and global councils, or other meeting points for the democratic discussion of ideas can be used to formulate and implement dynamic, flexible plans of production to meet needs. These resolutions can be initiated locally, passing through regional and global channels of liaison, and can then return to the local area for local implementation. World projects, such as space travel or the mass production of simple and essential goods such as paper or water, can also be initiated freely, locally, voluntarily, even if their implementation will require global co-ordination. The basis of socialist production is freely available, constantly modified information about what is being produced, where, how much and using what resources.

To avoid dismissing socialism as a distant future prospect, we must be prepared to think in terms of present institutions being immediately taken over for use by a socialist society. This includes present council and government offices and lines of communication, international bodies such as the United Nations, local community organisations such as housing co-operatives or even tenants' associations, and, perhaps most important of all, companies.

The means of wealth production so often referred to in socialist propaganda are organised at the moment into thousands of separate companies, each with its own head offices, distribution facilities, computers and so on. These networks of centralised power could be democratised for socialist use directly. Once the working class has taken over state power, the problem becomes purely an administrative one. At the moment, the forces of the state are used to defend property, in other words to step in and use violence if this process of democratisation were attempted now. Once the state has been taken over, however, it is a matter of using channels which are currently oneway, in two directions. For example, most companies have communications systems, from computers to notice boards, which allow workers to have handed down to them their wages and instructions. For a democratic control of production, all that is required is that each unit, whether it is a factory, a village, or a region, should comprise sophisticated networks which allow those involved in production to express their views. The desires of producers and consumers can be expressed individually, and collectively through votes in each unit, and these desires can be implemented in consultation with other units.

Clearly, we must consider in greater detail how the transition can be made from the present dictatorship of the boardroom, to the democratic control of society. For example, most companies today employ market analysts to estimate “effective” demand, and advise on production levels. In a socialist society, it may be necessary to elect people with the task of co-ordinating between units and regions, and matching “supply" to “demand". This task is less daunting than it may seem, since the modern computer systems allow inputs and outputs to be constantly monitored and displayed on a screen. Also, if too much of something is produced relative to what people decide they need, it can be stored or disposed of without too much trouble. In capitalism, on the other hand, the “surplus" production of commodities relative to market demand can lower prices, wreak havoc through the world market, and lead to crises and depression.
Clifford Slapper

Party News (1983)

Party News from the January 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

Something of an old tradition, the public debate, was revived at a well-attended meeting at Islington Central Library last year. On the day that President Brezhnev's death was announced. Monty Johnstone of Marxism Today and the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain opposed the view that Lenin had distorted the ideas of Karl Marx. Stephen Coleman for the Socialist Party of Great Britain put the case that Leninism and Marxism were contradictory political ideologies. The debate was chaired by Philip Watkins, the chairman of the Liberal Association in Islington. Johnstone described the Russian revolution of October 1917 as “a bold historical step" and said that "it had resulted in negative phenomena, but also in phenomena which have in their historical importance been enormously positive". Coleman opposed the anti-working class governments in such places as Russia and Poland and argued that Leninism was basically an "elitist political view". He supported Marx's view that "the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class themselves". This debate was the first in a series to be run by the Socialist Party in Islington against defenders of capitalism.
Gary Jay

Blogger's Note:
An audio recording of this debate is available at the following link.

The Russian Revolution (1983)

Book Review from the January 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Russian Revolution. Sheila Fitzpatrick (OUP, 1982).

This study may be confidently recommended as a competent account of the great Russian upheaval and a significant advance in American historicity, previously occasionally hysterical and even panic stricken when dealing with Russia. While there is not (nor can there be) anything essentially new in Fitzgerald's account of the cataclysmic course of Russian events from 1917 onwards, it is meticulously researched and documented and very easy, not to say absorbing, reading.

The dramatic stories of the Seizure of Power (1917), the New Economic Policy (1921), the Death of Lenin (1924), the Great Collectivisation (1929), the Exile of Trotsky (19.30), the Extermination of the Old Bolshevik Guard (1936). and the Industrialisation (1936) are graphically re-told. Fitzpatrick makes the interesting suggestion that Stalin, then Khrushchev, and finally Brezhnev, all based their power on the one-and-a-half million industrial workers promoted to “top-jobs", and the fact that the new "Soviet Man” was trained as a technical engineer rather than an old fashioned "political apparachnik".

For our regular readers her conclusions will come as no surprise. One other cause for congratulation: Fitzpatrick, without overloading her text with Marxist quotations, has obviously read and (unusually for an American sociologist) understood him.

The book, at almost ten pounds, is something of a luxury — especially when the same conclusions can be found in SPGB publications costing a few pence.

Will the real militants stand up? (1983)

From the January 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

Why all this fuss about Militant? The Labour Party, when it remembers, claims to be an organisation aiming at a basic change in society and that can hardly be achieved through moderate, compromising policies. What is the explanation?

In fact the Labour Party is not, and never has been, a revolutionary party: at best they have planned to reform capitalism, usually in ways which could not pretend to benefit the working class. Participation in capitalism's wars, the condoning of nuclear attacks on the two Japanese cities and the support of the Tories' task force to the Falklands cannot be said to benefit anybody but the ruling class.

It was of no advantage to the working class, to be locked in conflict with a Labour government over wages and to hear Labour ministers advising workers to break picket lines. No worker gained from Labour's racist immigration laws nor from their cuts in social and medical services. The list of Labour Party offences against working class interests is very, very long.

Militant profess to be able to change the Labour Party so that such things do not happen again. They claim that the problem lies with Labour having the "wrong" leaders, too "right wing” a programme, a defective constitution. On this reasoning. Labour's appalling record in office is something of an accident, which can be easily put right with a heavy dose of militancy.

This attitude ignores the basic nature of the Labour Party as a party of capitalism, appealing for support from workers who want the system to continue. It is as ineffective and as foolish as Labour's claim to be able to reform capitalism into a basically different social order.

So the fuss is between two equally irrelevant factions in an irrelevant, discredited political party which is in any case not worth salvaging. Like much hysteria, the disturbance stems from a sense of frustration. Militant may well be an electoral liability to the Labour Party but to amputate them will not make Labour a more effective party. It will leave them as before, trying to do the impossible, to run capitalism and call it socialism while confused workers condone it all. 

Letter From Europe: Enter the green reformists (1982)

The Letter From Europe column from the December 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

The recent change of government in West Germany has again focussed attention on the ecologists, die Grünen or the Greens as they are called, who are expected to replace the discredited Free Democratic Party (Liberals) as the third party in the German parliament after next March’s general elections, maybe even to the extent of holding the balance of power.

But the first country in which ecologists have been elected to a national Parliament is in fact Belgium, where since the general elections of November last year they have nine representatives (four deputies and five senators). They also scored a relative success in the Belgium local elections in October, winning 120 seats, and they now take part in running Liège, the largest city in the French-speaking part of the country.

Before going on to examine the programme of these ecologists, we must say something about the word ecology itself. This is a science, a branch of biology which studies the relationship between living organisms and their natural environment. Strictly speaking then an ecologist should be somebody who studies or practices this science, not the partisan of some political movement. It is true that humans are also living organisms and that their relationship to their natural environment is another legitimate field of study for the science of ecology. It is of course because such a study reveals that this relationship is unbalanced that, by extension, those who advocate political, social or economic changes with a view to trying to restore this balance are called, or call themselves, ecologists.

In this sense socialists could also legitimately call themselves ecologists, with much more justice in fact since the change we advocate — production solely for use on the basis of the common ownership of the world’s resources — is the only lasting and effective way of restoring a proper balance between Humanity and Nature. In contrast, as we shall see, those on the political field who call themselves ecologists advocate mere reforms which would either only scratch the surface while leaving the basic problem unchanged or which are quite unrealisable within the framework of capitalism.

For the 1981 general elections the French-speaking section of the Belgian ecologist movement, ECOLO, published a pamphlet called 90 Propositions des Ecologists. Apart from the usual proposals that you would expect to find in the programme of an ecologist party — anti-nuclear, anti-motorways, consumer protection, health food, protection of the environment, anti-blood sports — the pamphlet does also attempt to provide a more global programme, of change from existing “capitalist and productive society” to an “ecological society”.

Instead of a society oriented towards “growth” they want a society in which, among other things, goods would be made to last, materials would be systematically recycled and work shared so that the working day could be considerably reduced. Whether or not these are desirable objectives, reading through the pamphlet it soon becomes clear that ECOLO takes for granted the continuing existence of wages, prices, profits, taxes, banks and so on. In other words, they don’t envisage going outside the framework of capitalism.

But capitalism is precisely a society geared to “growth” or. more accurately, to the accumulation of capital. This is its logic, its dynamic, even if this growth is not in a straight line but in ups and downs (we are currently in the middle of a down period, a state of “zero growth" which the now discredited Club of Rome used to call for). Capitalism is a system of society in which production is oriented towards the accumulation of capital through profits realised on the market. So to want to stop the accumulation of capital (“growth”) and its side effects while preserving the wages-prices-profits system which is capitalism is quite unrealistic. The political ecologists, in Belgium. Germany and elsewhere, are therefore a species of reformist and so subject to the same criticism: that they deal with the effects, not the cause, and that they divert much-needed energies from the struggle to achieve socialism (the only real ecological society possible today).

Capitalism has solved the problem of production; it has built up a stock of means of production capable of eliminating hunger and poverty throughout the world and even of providing plenty for everyone. But what capitalism has not solved, and cannot solve, is the problem of distributing this potential abundance. It is constitutionally incapable of doing this as its economic laws decree that priority has to be given to accumulating capital, or growth, as against consumption. Production under capitalism is geared to making profits, and not to satisfying needs. The only way to solve this problem is to institute production solely for use, but this can only be done on the basis of the common ownership and democratic control of the earth’s resources, both those made by people and natural resources; in other words, by abolishing capitalism and replacing it by socialism.

Only on the basis of common ownership can the aims of the ecologists be achieved. Only in a society in which goods are no longer produced for profit can the problems of pollution and adulteration be eliminated. Only in a society where goods are no longer produced for sale can high-quality, long-lasting goods be produced. Only, finally, on the basis of the common ownership of the earth’s resources can humans restore the balance which capitalism has upset between them and nature and live in harmony with their natural environment, live ecologically if you like.
Adam Buick (Luxemburg)

The new technology (1979)

From the November 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

In 1968 the bread and butter version of tire ICL 1901 series central processor, with a 32K core store and peripherals consisting of a teletype, line printer and paper tape reader/punch, occupied the volume of three large wardrobes. It cost about £200,000. The current PET personal microprocessor, with a similar store, calculating facility and input/ output rates, occupies the volume of a small suitcase. It costs £700.

This reduction in the size of computer hardware has been achieved by the use of solid state and silicone chip components for the manufacture of microprocessors. The size reduction over eleven years has been 300 times, while the price reduction has been 285 times. Were the rate of development to remain the same for the next eleven years, the equivalent microprocessor would not be risible to the naked eye and there would not exist a currency unit small enough to enable you to buy one.

Semiconductor crystals
How is it done? A silicon chip bears comparison with a mainframe computer, in which rows of shelves are slotted to take a set of circuit boards with their snap-in connections. Similar microcircuitry allows many miniature boards to be stacked together like tiny playing cards and the whole to be bonded onto a connecting chassis which looks like a centipede.

The raw material for these tiny boards is the abundantly available raw silica, which is ground up and from which pure silica crystals are grown in conditions of controlled temperature and humidity. From these blocks of crystal the chip bases are sawn off about 10,000ths of an inch thick, lapped, polished and passed through a diffusion oven which dopes them with gaseous impurities, raising them from conductors to semiconductors of electricity. These bases are then chemically sensitised to light, the microphotographically reduced circuits are exposed upon them and a chemical bath then develops those circuits and simulated components in them. Many are stacked together, sealed onto a connecting chassis with ceramic or plastic and are ready for dropping into standard holes in processors, pocket calculators or TV ball games. The whole of this process is one continuous flow automatic system, with computer control of chip specification by programmed variation. It is very big business indeed.

Profit power
What effects might these microprocessors have on capitalist society? Well, the RAIR black box is the size of a trunk, has double the capacity of the ICL 1901. a 64K memory facility and 2 million word diskette storage. It can handle 3 programming languages and costs £2,300. So for less than the price of a car a medium sized capitalist can make his wages department redundant. Or, with the PET personal computer above a small capitalist, with a payroll package at a total of £800, can dispense with one clerk and employ a programmer/operator for half a day a week or do it himself.

The likely results of all this are an increase of profits in the small non-computer production industries, the encouraging of mergers between firms engaged in microprocessor production from chips bought in, and a concentration of capital in the chip production combines.

Silicon Euphoria
But beware of the many half-baked descriptions of predicted futures which are appearing in popular science journals and books; where workers’ homes are to have everything from vacuum cleaners and cookers to washing machines, controlled and executed by chip-based technology. Capitalism always sells its new technology this way. In the aftermath of the atom bomb strike on Japan blathering pundits assured everyone that in the nuclear age which had just dawned, electricity would be free for all and abundant leisure time our natural heritage. The North Sea gas strikes of the early sixties were thought by some to have begun an age of free energy, as the cost of the raw gas would fall below that which made it economic to meter. As an antidote to all this the director of one of the firms which covers the microprocessor domestic market pointed out recently that that market has levelled off at around 2 per cent of the total. This might well be its final position.

The rest of the microprocessor market is split up into educational hardware, in the form of teaching aids, videos and so on. This is likely to remain a cautious market as a result of the cuts in government spending. A peculiar group of users are those in large companies who cannot get time on the mainframe computer at their head office and so are having microprocessors installed on their desks. But the largest part of the market is made up of the small or medium sized business concern —anything from small factories and larger shops to freelance accountants and lawyers.

Silicon hysteria
Beware also of half-baked predicted futures which have the whole of capitalist production under automated microprocessor control. Interestingly, the current sale of chip-based equipment in the USA has a theoretical capacity to displace 40,000 workers a month—equivalent to half a million new unemployed each year. Twenty years ago, when the introduction of mechanical and hydraulic transfer automation was at its height, the potential displacement of workers in the engineering industry was also put at 40,000 a month. Experts theorised before a Congressional committee that capitalism would develop a 4-tier workforce focussed around the automation process:
  • 10 per cent would be performing menial tasks which it was uneconomic to mechanise;
  • 10 per cent would be technicians or mechanics servicing the auto equipment;
  • 15 per cent would be highly trained personnel occupied with the design and policy formation for the automatic processes;
  • 65 per cent would be unable to assimilate training or find menial jobs and would be unemployed permanently. (This last includes 7 per cent who are the capitalist class). The target date for the achievement of this stable mechanised state was 1975.

Technological fatalism
What are we to make of all this? The lock-out at The Times printing works has been about staffing, changed working conditions and subsequent redundancies following the introduction of chip-based processor controlled typesetting and correcting equipment. Historically we might welcome the new technology as another example of capitalism’s abundant productive potential. which could be used to make free access easier in a socialist world, while attributing to capitalism the social conflicts arising.

Extending a remark of Marx, we may say that the hand mill and hoe give you slavery: the water wheel and mill give you feudalism: the steam engine gives you capitalism: and the computer gives you socialism. But beware of technological determinism; the last phrase means that computers establish the abundant information potential of capitalism's technology, making free access more feasible. Neither computers nor automation determine the direction which capitalism must take; only profitability does that and technological complexity can act to reduce profitability. But microprocessors may make more workers want to realise the potential through a political solution.

Technological freedom
This attitude has come under a lot of fire of recent years. David Dickson’s book Alternative Technology (Fontana 1976) is one long argument against the technicists who see social developments arising spontaneously out of technical change. In opposition to this Dickson argues that technology is not neutral and will not carry over from one society to another.

To take an example: at the beginning of this century the design and dimensions of the capstan lathe were various. When the followers of F. W. Taylor — of scientific management fame—came to extend his work to the more complex engineering tasks, they still favoured the short, heavily built and docile workers who had been most ready in the past to obey detailed instructions without question. The application of the principles of time and motion study, with detailed breaking down of jobs into operations, brought increased output to capstan work. Yet further productive increases came when new capstans were designed with an eye to such studies. The turret spokes were extended to fall to the grasp of the ideal worker; the handwheels were clustered around his left grasp, with the resistance favourable for speedy setting. Likewise with the speed and gear levers. Such has remained the design of the capstan today. The result is that if you are tall, have sensitive hands and are not strong, the capstan is a trial to operate; to retain mastery of the wheels and levers you have to stand back from the machine, putting the workface and the tool just beyond observation. So you have to lean forward all of the time.

The general point aimed at by Dickson is that machines are progressively refined for the purpose of producing commodities and the generation of surplus value. This suggests that a total redesigning of the machinery of production, greater in its scope than the complete metrication of all dimensions, would be necessary before these machines could produce only use values. Especially is this so if the population in a socialist society must be happy in its work. Dickson, like any other leftie, wants to see this “socialisation" of the means of production before socialism—hence his call for alternative technologies now.

Technical squints
How do we relate this material to the new technology? Continuous through-flow production of chips in Taiwan requires that the dies which preform the dual in-line packages are periodically inspected. As there are thousands of these and they are used thousands of times a day, lines of girls using microscopes form the inspection department. The throughput of dies is nicely adjusted to the point where the average girl suffers from myopia after 3 years, which is the average working life of a Taiwan girl between school and marriage. The argument now goes that mixed up with the production and use of silicon chips are numerous such examples, all equally destructive of human ability.

These human abuses accrue to technical innovations because they serve the purpose of maximising surplus value. Without the capitalist system there would be no such driving necessity—something which may be illustrated by examples which are obviously candidates for the administration technology of a socialist society.

There is a hand-held computer terminal on the market which is the size of a pocket calculator and can be used for recording stock levels and inputting new orders. The data is collected when each terminal is plugged into the central processor. Variations upon this system are the use of light pens in the reading of bar codes printed on stock, with automatic reordering according to preprogrammed instructions. Both systems may soon be available with on-line radio transmission of data, from terminal to processor, by means of a set the size of a handbag. This would give a socialist world the facility of instant knowledge of the world stock of any item. However. as Dickson and his like would point out, this would involve many people in walking past rows of shelves making what were to them meaningless movements with light pens, and the programming requirements would force millions to learn Boolean algebra, symbolic logic and the programming languages, poring for days over elaborate print-out material de-bugging the new programmes. Much of this would be tedious work at best.

Academic nostrums
For Dickson and his kind the function of high technology is to promote the interest of the capitalist class. In more high-flown terminology — technology acts to support and propagate the legitimating ideology of capitalism. Or simply — technology and social relations reinforce each other. The ways and means are legion and this links up with another academic debate, that over the establishment of factory discipline during the industrial revolution. Marx observed that it is pointless to introduce labour-saving machinery unless the workforce can be controlled in a way which ensures that they will operate it at maximum efficiency. Such technical arrangements as bring this about will reflect the hierarchical organisation and control of capitalist society. The charge of Dickson now becomes that those who welcome the new technology are just reflecting the ideology of capitalism for which bigger, more and most are desirable irrespective of who controls the production flow.

Conflict into harmony
The answer of the socialist is still the only one. For no amount of soft technology would make the nuclear rockets less explosive. Nor could state and charity subsidised cottage industries for the unemployed be a substitute for those who will grapple for a solution to the social problems of the world. Such technological conflicts as there will be in a socialist world will serve to ensure that social policies are kept under constant review. For only in a total democracy, run by socialists whose successful attempt to change the world had established the social interest as the ruling idea of the time, could effect be given to the constant review of policies.

When the effects of capitalist designed technology seemed too brutalising as with the capstan; or when production seemed too much regulated by microprocessors and beyond the understanding of all, then would be the time to scrap the technology—old or new. How much of such brutalising work or bewilderment the population will tolerate before retooling is not a question which can be decided theoretically; it must await a trial. For that socialist society must be established.
B.K. McNeeney

Screening capitalism (1982)

From the November 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

This is the month when — if the ballyhoo is to be believed — our lives are about to take on a new dimension. A fourth television channel is to begin broadcasting in Britain.

But who believes the advertising? Let us make a little bet — a prophecy. By November 1983 we shall be able to look back on a year's broadcasting on Channel 4 and see that it has churned out much the same mixture as BBC1 and 2 and ITV1. How can we be so sure? Not because television isn't capable of much more interesting. attractive and relevant programmes; but because what is broadcast is ultimately decided not by the producers or programme controllers — but by the demands of British capitalism.

Capitalism’s demands fall into two broad areas — the economic and the political. Economic constraints dictate how much can be spent on programmes, where the money is to come from, and whether there will be advertising. Political constraints decide what things may or may not be shown and what points of view shall predominate. These were the capitalist realities faced by the Committee on the Future of Broadcasting set up by the Labour government in 1974 under the chairmanship of Lord Annan. Their job was to consider submissions from a wide range of interested groups and organisations who had very definite ideas about how television should be used, but not much appreciation of capitalism's imperatives. When the Committee finally presented its report in March 1977 (538 pages, and half as many again in appendices), it proposed the setting up of a new Open Broadcasting Authority which, it hoped, would give programme producers greater freedom from interference and more scope for initiative than existed in BBC and ITV. The Labour government dragged its feet in agreeing to implement the Report (Queen's Speech, November 1 1978); and when the Conservative Party was elected they scrapped it and announced (Queen's Speech, May 1979) that the fourth channel would be placed under IBA control with a modified arrangement for programme production. The £70 million estimated cost of the first year of operation was to be raised by subscription from the independent television companies who would be allowed to sell advertising time on Channel 4 and also to sell programmes to the IBA subsidiary set up to control programme provision.

A loss-making enterprise will not be tolerated unless the capitalist class, usually through the state, agrees to provide the money. And they do not do that unless it performs a function valuable to them. What has become clear in the development of British television is that the British capitalist class can eat their cake and have it. ITV has shown that it is not only quite “safe” politically, but that it is also a vast financial success. The BBC, funded directly by the state, but having its budget tied more and more explicitly to the licence fee, has found itself struggling to compete for audience ratings, and so becoming more and more like ITV in what it offers.

The sort of television this gives us is predictable and has strong similarities with television all over the world. Its main characteristic is that it is directed, almost exclusively, at the working class. Not simply those on low incomes, of course, or those whose work gets their hands dirty, but all of us who depend on a salary, a wage, or the dole for our living. Part of the reason for this is that the other class, the capitalist class for whom we all work, either in private industry or through the state, is such a small minority of the population. And television is a mass medium. Its advertisements have nothing in common with those in Queen, Country Life, or even The Times. Working class viewers provide a huge market for mass-produced commodities, and advertisers will pay hundreds of pounds for a few seconds’ access to that market if they are convinced that viewing figures are high.

The most expensive time for advertisers is in the middle of the evening, because that is when most workers turn to television. After a tiring, often frustrating and humiliating, day at work and a crowded. stressful journey home, thousands of workers in Britain eat a meal at roughly the same time and flop in front of the television set. What they see and hear must not disturb their recreation — this period of rest and recuperation which, together with a night's sleep, enables and encourages them to go to work tomorrow and tomorrow.

This is the other part of the reason that television is devoted to the working class: it has become part of the process of government. As the most powerful means of mass communication yet devised, it plays a crucial part in persuading the working class to leave the land, factories, mines, railways, shipping, airlines, and so on in the hands of the ten per cent who own them. It helps to ensure that we do not seriously object to continuing to manufacture and manage their wealth, building up their profits. It encourages us to acquiesce in policing one another, managing one another, and generally running their whole exploiting system for them. And in times of economic slump like the present, it prevents the working class from asking fundamental questions about the idiocy of a social system that throws millions of them out of work — not because people do not need the products and services but because there is no longer enough profit to be made in producing them.

Television performs its daily task of selling capitalism to the working class by methods that have been well tried in cinemas and newspapers, pulpits and classrooms for many years. Its cardinal rule is never to acknowledge for a moment that it is in fact talking to the working class. It cajoles us as consumers, flatters us as responsible citizens, stirs our pride as Britons, chats cosily to us as gardeners, appeals to our appetite for food, titillates our sexual feelings — but. as people who spend the main part of our lives working for a ruling class, it never addresses us at all. That is quite sensible. The one thing feared by the capitalist class (who are very class conscious) is that workers should realise their unity of interests as a class, because that will herald the end of their reign.

What comes out of the television screen is therefore of two broad types. On the one hand, there is a wide spread of entertainment meant to be amusing, diverting and inconsequential. Workers who have spent all day at housework, or a machine, or a desk, or a steering wheel have had about all they can take of capitalism’s realities. It is not therefore surprising that they will escape, without being very critical, into Crossroads, or the weak situation comedies about couples who are not quite living with one another, or the antics of athletes dressed up as buffoons in It’s A Knockout. They can work off some of their frustration and anger watching the increasingly vicious variants of the cops and robbers theme in series like The Professionals. They can travel, if only on film, to those interesting parts of the world that their wealthy employers visit in person. And occasionally they are allowed a film tour round one of the actual homes of the ruling class.

The other type of television offering is information, ranging from news at one end of the spectrum to popular science programmes at the other. The television companies, and especially the news departments, begin with the pretence that they are impartial. This is, of course, a lie; and occasionally they are caught out when conflicting reports from other countries turn out to be nearer the truth. But. by and large, news and current affairs programmes do their work by carefully selecting what they show, by emphasising some aspects at the expense of others, and by the attitude of the commentators and interviewers. Government ministers, industrialists or churchmen are nearly always treated respectfully. even reverentially, whereas workers on strike or trade unionists (usually out in the street, shouting above the noise of traffic, or on a secondary screen in some distant studio) always come across as slightly peculiar, disgruntled people who no sensible viewer would have anything to do with.

The assumption behind all information programmes is that the structure of society is basically sound, and that everything would really be quite all right if it weren't for this or that unreasonable person, or group, or party, or other nation. "Impartiality” on this understanding means keeping things fundamentally as they are. To a large extent the camera operatives, reporters, directors, producers and controllers work as they are compelled to. for fear of losing their jobs or missing promotion: but it is also an unfortunate fact that the glamour of working in television allows them to forget, all too often, their own position in the working class.

Unaware, for much of the time, of the political and economic strings from which they dangle, they are able to persuade themselves that their enthusiasm for the status quo is their own impulse. Channel Four will not make a dent in all this. Nor will it be able to avoid its share of the job of trying to prolong capitalism by distracting and deceiving the working class. Nevertheless, television is a medium only, not a message: and once the working class wake, up to who they are and what they really want, they will, begin to use television with a power and a purpose that dwarf today’s offerings into the popcorn they really are.
Ron Cook

Really Bad News (1982)

Book Review from the October 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

Glasgow University Media Group, Really Bad News, Writers and Readers. 1982.

Really Bad News is the latest publication of the Glasgow University Media Group and follows on from Bad News (1976) and More Bad News (1980). The report aims to prove that the BBC and IBA are politically biased in their presentation of news and profoundly committed to a distinct social and political order:
The preferential treatment accorded to some right-wing views is only part of this. A second critical feature is the closing off of possible alternatives. Information which contradicts the preferred view or which would give credibility to the alternatives, is either rewritten, downgraded or simply left out. (Pp. 88-89)
The media are said to relay an ideology appropriate to a passive population and to foster acquiescence by limiting access to different ideas. The Glasgow Group claim that by so doing the broadcasting institutions are in contravention of their legal and conventional obligations to be balanced and impartial. A powerful case is presented to justify the claim that the media support management at the expense of shop floor workers, and analyses are made of television coverage of the British Leyland dispute of 1975, the Glasgow Corporation dustcart drivers' strike of 1975, the treatment of inflation in 1975, and the Labour and Conservative Party conferences in October and November 1979. This is followed by an analysis of the media in a class society and suggestions for the reform of broadcasting.

The Glasgow Group argue that the broadcasting medium's assumption is that "production in our society is normal and satisfactory unless there are problems with the workforce" (p. 76). To prove this they analyse individual broadcasts of both ITN and the BBC and conclude that the news is organised in such a way that only one set of explanations and policies is endorsed. The logic built up in their presentation "dictates the flow of information, the range of accounts and the legitimacy that is given to these" (p. 59). As far as inflation is concerned, the media assume this to be caused by wage increases and therefore endorse wage restraint. Both the BBC and IBA argue that their reportage is accurate and trustworthy and deny that they either select or distort but the evidence presented contradicts this.

The Group argue that the existing range of views within society is not presented in a balanced way. Ideas are neglected if they are not consistent with the accepted ideology or are downgraded and made to look unrealistic or idealistic. They are especially critical of the treatment of Tony Benn and the greater part of a chapter is devoted to the media's attitude to treatment of him. There is more than a slight hint of the Group's own bias towards Benn in this section. This is extended into an analysis of the rejection of the "left" and is linked to the media's attitude towards the working class and trade union activity. One major aim of the report is to redress the balance on behalf of trade unions and the “left" and to pinpoint the faults of management and the organisational structure.

The Group also argue that the media are undemocratic in that only the views of people defined as “important" are taken seriously. These include senior civil servants, trade union leaders and leading politicians. They deny that they wish to replace a right-wing oligarchy with a left-wing one, and claim to want an equal opportunity for their views to be represented. At the same time they make a more profound criticism of the media when they claim that broadcasters:
may look at “isolated” abuses in the economy — it may investigate "pockets of poverty" or the effects of unemployment in a single area but not usually at the nature of the economy which produces these (p. 140).
The same is true of the Glasgow Group. They wish to reform the media but not to overthrow the system of society which has created the conflict of interests. They represent an alternative view of the economy — of capitalism — but like the media they see this as being the only valid form of society. They claim that broadcasting can be organised in such a way that there is a greater proliferation of views and policies. This will be accomplished by the "democratisation" of the media. Broadcasting is said to be too important to be left in the hands of broadcasters and must therefore be opened up to democratic participation. They propose that:
  1. the state should no longer control the BBC and IBA:
  2. "independent" broadcasting must no longer be under commercial domination;
  3. new structures be set up, representative of the plurality of British society in terms of class, sex, ethnic and other groups;
  4. all institutions be democratically organised and controlled at community, regional and national level.

It is important to recognise the bias of the media and in this sense the work of the Glasgow University Media Group has some value. Our criticism lies in the falsity of the hope that we would have a more equitable society if all views were represented within broadcasting. The work of the socialist movement is hampered by the media; had we access to it we would not put forward false hopes and dreams for capitalism but pinpoint the failings of the system itself
Philip Bentley

Revealing admission (1982)

From the September 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

In an interview published in Le Matin on 28 May, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, the French Minister of Research and Technology (since promoted Minister of Industry and Research) declared:
We must not make a mistake as to the period in which we are living or as to the nature of the objectives which are accessible. We are in a country which can and must go further towards a living democracy. The objective in the present historical period is not socialism, which presupposes a level of consciousness, a sense of civic duty, in short a change in attitudes from which we are still far away. (Our emphasis)
Now socialism does indeed presuppose a certain level of consciousness: before it can be established there must be a majority that wants and understands it. Such a socialist consciousness clearly does not exist today and that is why socialism can’t be established straight away. In fact this is the only reason why it can’t, since everything else is there: a world-wide productive system capable of providing abundance for all and trained and qualified workers able to operate it.

It might be thought that in these circumstances people who called themselves ‘socialist’ would devote all their efforts to helping a socialist understanding to develop. But not the French Parti Socialiste. In a later radio interview Chevènement, who drafted the 1972 PS Government Programme and the more recent Projet Socialiste (an article in the Guardian on 16 July even speaks of him as a future Prime Minister),stated:
François Mitterrand was not elected to achieve socialism; he was elected on the basis of 110 proposals which commit us to this perspective, but this is not the objective of the present period (Radio Luxemburg 20 June, our emphasis).
But if Mitterrand wasn’t elected to achieve socialism — which is true — he is clearly obliged to act within the framework of capitalism. Mitterrand, in other words, was elected to run capitalism while trying to make 110 reforms to it. Chevènement implicitly recognised this when he explained to Le Matin journalists what the government’s present aim was:
Well, it is to gradually build the modern Republic. In the present historical period, the French model is that of a mixed economy, largely open to the world market, dominated by capitalism. But it is a society where the weight of the public sector, of the democratic tradition, of left wing political and trade union forces, is such that can be built there a democracy — I don't know how to qualify it, I would have said ‘advanced’ if the word ‘advanced’ hadn't been compromised in recent times. So let us say a vanguard democracy (our emphasis).
So in this ‘vanguard democracy’, this ‘modern Republic’, capitalism is going to continue. In fact, as Chevènement admits, this is the pipe-dream which the French Communist Party has been peddling for years under the name of ‘advanced democracy’, of a State capitalism freed from the grip of the monopolies and made to work in the interests of the workers by a Left government. It is a pipe-dream because capitalism cannot work other than as a system where profits must come before human needs. The austerity measures adopted by the PS/PC government in July, which will severely hit the living standards of workers in France, are dramatic confirmation of this. This U-turn was no accident, but something imposed on the government by the logic of capitalism, a logic which any party taking on government responsibility is sooner or later forced to accept and apply.

If, for the French PS, socialism is not the objective in the present historical period it remains so for us. That is why we are doing all we can to help the development of the majority socialist understanding which is indispensable before socialism can be established: the ‘level of consciousness’ which Chevènement talked about but towards the growth of which he himself does nothing to help. On the contrary, the confusion over the word “socialism” created by the PS only makes our task more difficult. As, for example, does the following remark by Michel Rocard, PS Minister for the Plan (and an ex-leader of the small leftist PSU): “As a socialist, I have never reproached employers for making too many profits, but more frequently for not making enough” (Le Monde, 14 July)!
Adam Buick

Taboo (1982)

From the August 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

Sex, politics and religion are considered by many to be subjects of particular significance, but they are nevertheless often taboo. However, cleared of their fear and mystery, they provide an understanding of the way society functions.


Sexual relations have taken a great variety of forms in different times and places throughout history. Before the growth of scientific understanding, sexual intercourse was associated with religious ritual and the gods of fertility. Today, under capitalism, the whole world is enveloped in one social system characterised by the production of wealth by wage workers. Those who work for a wage or salary are not just producing commodities, however. Their ability to work is itself a commodity, bought by the employer to be used profitably. However private, intimate or “personal” sexual relations might seem, their development is, like everything else, subordinated to the capitalist considerations of profitable production. The nuclear family has developed in recent centuries as the vehicle for the reproduction of labour power. Today's workers have been produced, conditioned and prepared by our working-class parents for lives of wage-slavery. Whether a child inherits capital and is taught to shoot grouse and to rule, instead of to work and submit, will depend on which particular family produced it.

Last year, the Russian government announced that young, unmarried women need not feel ashamed to have children. This was because the abortion rate had been soaring, and the government was concerned about the future size of the army and labour force. Why is homosexuality illegal in Ireland? Enduring religious bigotries play their part of course, but generally the morality and legislation of these matters is based on the regulation, through the nuclear family, of the rapid reproduction of wage-labour.

In order to ensure that this should be carried out with all the enthusiasm that queen and country can inspire, and yet be controlled, two devices arise. First, the wage packet. Recent reports have shown that the effective cost of producing a child can be about £30,000 over the first few years. The wages we are paid are intended to be enough only to meet living expenses, without any accumulation which might rival the employer. It is understood as part of the wage-labour-capital relation that one living expense to be accounted for is the production of the next generation of workers. How many are produced, whether it is 2.5 or 5.2, depends to a large extent on the size of wages or salaries. Secondly, children are taught both directly and by example that the accepted norm of heterosexual monogamy must be rigidly adhered to at all costs. Through school, the media and advertising, ideal images of men and women are projected into the minds of young people, who are encouraged in this way to “live up to” these artificial ideals.


Most people consider "politics” boring, because what is generally thought of as politics is one set of professional politicians claiming to know how to make the lives of the majority even more profitable for the minority who employ us; another set quarrelling over how to do the same without it showing, and yet another set trying to do both. But politics is about power. At the moment we have the spectacle of struggle among those who now monopolise ownership and control of the production of wealth — debates over whether Labour is preferable to Conservative, or Reagan to Brezhnev, or Holmes à Court to Rupert Murdoch. For socialists, politics means the prospect of a majority of workers taking democratic action to end the domination of society by a minority capitalist class. The politics of Labour. Tory, Liberal and SDP, with its impossible promises, opportunist careerism and malicious backstabbing. reflects the unstable and chaotic nature of capitalism itself. The socialist movement, on the other hand, adheres to principles of class solidarity and democratic organisation which involve the rejection of all leaders. Politics is not profound or mysterious; it is the expression of class interests. The SPGB stands for the interests of the working class, and therefore has as its policy the abolition of world capitalism and the establishment of common ownership of all the forces of production in society.

Illustration by George Meddemmen.

Perhaps religion. the old myth offering “pie in the sky when you die”, is beginning to wear a little thin. Most people have looked and listened, sniffed and felt; and finding no evidence at all for the trickiest politician of them all, they have rejected the idea. But although institutionalised religion has long been on the decline, many people still cling to semi-religious ideas, as a final hope — a bit like doing the football pools. Invisible hands arc supposed to be busily doing “good” or “evil”. This false security holds us back from taking the action necessary to establish real security. Enough “miracles” have now been explained by science to show how things which we cannot understand today, we can learn to master tomorrow. There is no "supernatural”; it is something not yet known, not something "unknowable”.

The material environment gives rise to religious ideas in the same way as to hunger or thirst, and it is the hunger for knowledge, together with the fear of insecurity, which has led us up the crooked path of the garden of Eden. The feeling that, "no. it's more complicated than that, there are supernatural forces” echoes a prejudice which is thousands of years old and hundreds of years out of date. It is a rusty, weak argument for conservatism. Religion in various forms has generally discouraged people from behaving rationally and organising society in their own interests. The mysteries of the “soul”, the “afterlife” and “spiritual awareness” do not prevent hunger or war; but they do prevent the realisation of a system of society in which we can properly satisfy our need for both physical comfort and mental vitality.

We were introduced to these myths and mysteries at a young age, when we were most open to suggestion and ready to swallow whatever we were fed. Children are packed off to schools, placed in a hierarchy of classes, made to compete in examinations and thrown out in different uniforms to fight on the sports fields. They are given certain expectations about the “adult” world. Jobs are suggested, generally not including “multinational shareholder” or “financier”. Vicious competition, obedience and isolation are taught to children, they do not come "naturally”. “The world”, they are told, “is a cruel place". Not just working-class life under capitalism but "the world”, as if life has only ever been lived in one way anywhere by anyone. We arc taught to defend property we do not own. Morality to defend the status quo is presented and enforced by the fear: “thou shall not kill, unless the government want you to fight in a war; "thou shall not steal, even if you are starving, unless you are an employer living off the profits extracted from your workers”.

Young people go to football matches and shout the names of teams, letting off steam lined up in two opposing armies. In discos, human beings are herded together like cattle, dressed up by the fashion industry and looking for the sexual fantasies they lost somewhere between Jack and Jill and Last Tango in Paris. Pop groups like Abba sing about “Dancing, having fun. feeling like a number one". Do we really need this pathetic fantasy, dreaming of being the millionaires we work for? Is life on the dole, or nuclear war, really such "fun" that we want to dance about it? The only good thing about capitalism is ending it, and that can’t happen too soon.

We have been taught to organise co-operatively to produce wealth for a minority, and only the bare essentials for ourselves. There is nothing but our own fear and inhibition preventing us from organising co-operatively to establish socialism, to produce for the use of all. Socialists do not begrudge Abba having their "fun". But in changing society we must be prepared to look critically at every aspect of the prevailing norms of behaviour. The profit system would be hard to defend by rational argument, and so many different mysteries, from Butlins to Beethoven, are used as gloss for a system based on instability and violence. The struggle for a world of common ownership is the only struggle with a future, and involves the end of mystification and the beginning of history made consciously by people free from dogma. 
Clifford Slapper

Greasy Pole: Questions...? Answers...? (2016)

The Greasy Pole column from the April 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
In the form which we know today, Prime Minister’s Questions began as recently as 1961. What a brilliant idea; a time when the person at the very head of the government and the British state machine made themselves available to be probed, exposed, ridiculed by an assembly of self-publicists operating under the title of Representatives Of The People. Very democratic and progressive; how did we survive before it was invented? But it has not turned out quite as promised. To begin with, at the appropriate time the House of Commons is always tightly packed and disciplined – by the Whips if not by that gaggle of competing ambitions – as required by their party. The Prime Minister is in place on the Front Bench after the short journey from Downing Street where advice was taken from highly paid, intensively organised assistants most accurately known as Spin Doctors who have the job of anticipating the questions – or more accurately the grilling and the verbal missiles – with sneers or derision or curses. Much of the proceedings, despite the plentifully repeated promises that it is all uniquely informative, are often lost in the uproar of jeers or abuse from both sides. 
Nye Bevan
A recent example of this was in February when a debate which was centred on the number of week-end deaths in hospitals  descended into the customary Tory claim that, in defiance of so many obstacles, they are fashioning a bigger, happier, more curative National Health Service (no matter how the doctors and nurses and other workers see it). And in support of this David Cameron felt able to claim that his government would have had the support of the late Nye Bevan. Predictably, Jeremy Corbyn countered that such a claim was so audacious as to have that latter-day Labour hero squirming in his grave. It was also enough to have the Labour back bencher Carolyn Harris chipping in that Cameron should ‘ask your mother’ about it – a reference to some woman who recently signed a petition against some proposed spending cuts near where she lives. Which naturally provoked Angela Eagle, the Shadow Business Secretary crouching on the Front Bench, to advise all around her – including the TV cameras –  to ‘ask his mum’.
Cameron took the opportunity to use his mother’s vote-catching talents to do as he was advised from the other bench, saying that if he did ask for guidance from her he would expect her to  look across the despatch box and command Jeremy Corbyn ‘…put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem’  – which released a roar of laughter, applause and rapture, intrusive as  a jet taking off, from the Tory oafs and encouraged Cameron to adopt an expression of self-congratulation at his breathtaking wit. It was, in other words a typical episode in the life of Prime Ministers’ Questions. Corbyn, meanwhile, took confidence from his carefully dishevelled appearance – rumpled shirt, baggy trousers, loose tie – and his proper memory of his late mother Naomi, a peace campaigner who met his father when they were at a meeting in support of the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War. He steadfastly affirmed that she would have said ’” . . . stand up for the principle of a health service free at the point of use” because that is what she dedicated her life to, as did so many people of her generation’.  And later, as he prepared for a television appearance, ‘I gotta do my tie up because of the Prime Minister. He’s actually jealous of the jacket. You know what he’s jealous of? That I can go into the great shopping centre of the world — Holloway Road N7. And he’s stuck in Bond Street’.
Which is a fair comment about someone – even if they are Prime Minister – who selectively refers to a mother who comes from a succession of hereditary baronets, one of whom died in the saddle crossing  a field while out chasing foxes with a Hunt at Aldermaston.  Mrs Mary Cameron, who now lives in a comfortably rural cottage in Berkshire, is a retired magistrate who in her time disposed of, among others, demonstrators against nuclear weapons; Cameron himself said that ‘…one of the biggest challenges that she had, and one of the reasons she had to hand out so many short sentences, was badly behaved CND protesters outside Greenham Common’. So it was quite an event when she supported that petition, protesting against the Oxfordshire Council intention to save some £8 million by cutting back on the budget for the local children's’ services. Under threat are some 44 centres, described by protesters as ‘…a lifeline to new parents who rely on locally accessible advice and support when it is most needed. Cutting these essential services would leave families vulnerable and isolated, and fail an entire generation of children’. Another signature on the petition is of one Claire Currie, who condemns the proposed cuts as ‘…a great, great error…a very short-sighted decision’. But she has a history as a long-term activist, including protests against the Newbury by-pass and with the CND. She is also David Cameron’s aunt but she is doubtful if he will be so impressed by this relationship as to influence the Oxfordshire Tories: ‘Well let’s hope that it makes a difference but I doubt it will’.
Mary Cameron refused to discuss the matter of her signing that petition and did not give a reason. Perhaps she had developed some ideas from her son about where it would have led her. Faced by that stark example from Oxfordshire of the class-originating poverty of capitalist society and the misery it inflicts on human beings, what could she have said that would have been notable? Insightful? Original? Constructive? How would she have confronted the superficialities of capitalist politics and of the leaders who practise them day after day? There are countless examples of them floundering helplessly when confronted with the true measures of this society. Prime Minister’s Questions. It is time we gave the answers.