Monday, September 19, 2016

Running Commentary: Grimethorpe again (1984)

The Running Commentary column from the December 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

Grimethorpe again

The Yorkshire village of Grimethorpe, scene of one of the fiercest clashes between police and striking miners, is no stranger to class war. It was here, in 1947, that the miners were forced to use the strike weapon in defence of their living standards in an incident which revealed the true nature of the recently nationalised coal mines.

At that time the industry generally was still congratulating itself on having got rid of the greedy, complacent and inefficient private coal owners; there was a Labour government presiding over "socialist” Britain. with their propaganda that workers should work harder and restrain their wage demands so as to help rebuild the export trade of the British capitalist class.

It was in that cause that the National Coal Board tried to tighten the exploitative screw on the miners of Grimethorpe by requiring them to produce more coal during each shift — by increasing their "stint". But unfortunately for the NCB and the Labour government the miners would not agree to this lowering of their standards and they came out on strike, in which they were soon the victors.

Unfortunately too for the NUM, whose general secretary was prominent in his denunciation of the strike. This remarkable fact is made even more so — in view of recent events in the coalfields — because the secretary was a member of the Communist Party, Arthur Horner. The Communist Party were then following the tactic of supporting the Attlee government’s attempts to get British capitalism back on its feet. It was consistent with this that the CP opposed strikes, even those like Grimethorpe where the workers were up against an antagonistic government, as they are today. This attitude was soon to be reversed when, as the Labour government’s foreign policy became more settled in opposition to that of the Russian ruling class, the CP turned to opposing them and so to supporting strikes.

Workers have every reason to remember Grimethorpe 1947. They should remember it for the lesson it carried about the nature of capitalist society and about the futility and motivation of reforms like nationalisation. They should remember it when "communists” like Scargill and McGahey vow that they will never betray working class interests.

The lesson is clear: as long as capitalism lasts the working class must always struggle to protect their interests, without compromise, and they must make this their own, conscious struggle instead of trusting leaders.

Plus ├ža change . . .

At least Margaret Thatcher has never made any secret of the fact that she and her government stand without hesitation for the interest of the British capitalist class. When they support a programme like cutting back the coal industry and sacking thousands of miners they do not pretend that this has anything to do with socialism.

What then of France, where there is of course a “socialist” President whose election was greeted with such enthusiasm as the dawn of a new age of equality and freedom for the workers? In 1981 Mitterrand was promising, in an election speech, that his government would "end years of neglect” of the coal mines there and increase production from 19 million tons to 30 million. No wonder the French workers were so enthusiastic; it is usually attractive, to someone dependent on employment for a living, to assure them that their exploitation is secure for the foreseeable future.

But as it has turned out that has been yet another of Mitterrand's pledges to have been dishonoured. The future for the French miners is, if anything, blacker than that for the British. For example in the case of the coal field of the Nord-Pas dc Calais region, the French equivalent of the National Coal Board would like to shut down production completely by 1990 — and this in what was once the heart of French coal mining. The famous target of 30 million tons has been gently dropped, and even the present target of 18.5 million tons is being reduced to 12 million by 1988, which means that about 28,000 miners will be lopped off the industry’s workforce.

The reason for this drive, which must be the envy of Ian McGregor, is that the French industry operates at a deficit of over £730 million a year. Like the British mines, this is a burden which the capitalist class as a whole are not prepared to carry indefinitely.

One difference between the two countries, however, is that the French miners are not struggling against these demands.

What protest there is is desultory and disjointed. Perhaps their reaction to this latest exposure of left wing political heroes makes them cynical and apathetic. In fact it should persuade them of the futility of all leaders and of all promises to make capitalism work against its nature. The failure of Mitterrand was inevitable; a careless response to it by the workers is not.

Blow-up at Dunlop

Michael Edwardes got his knighthood because of the sterling work he has done in rescuing several large industrial concerns which, before he took over, were apparently due to go out of business. The list of these firms is impressive in its length and in the prestige involved; it includes names like British Leyland and ICL. When Edwardes had finished his work with them, they were usually a lot more profitable than when he began (which is what he means by “rescue") and quite a few productive units had been shut down with a lot of workers thrown out of work.

There was simple justification for this. If something didn’t pay Edwardes did his best to make sure it didn't operate any more. He also took on the unions, most famously at British Leyland, so that they ceased to present so large an obstacle in his drive for the maximum of exploitation, the maximum of profitability.

So it was not surprising that when the great Dunlop tyre company also dropped into danger the 46 banks who are owed something like £385 million by the firm cast wistful eyes in Edwardes’ direction. Any money they had sunk in keeping this ailing giant on its feet, the banks reasoned, would be that much more secure under the control of the diminutive, ruthless, profit-preoccupied supremo. So one of those commercial assassinations was arranged, in which Edwardes took over at Dunlop, bringing some of his henchmen from ICL and firmly removing eight of the existing directors.

The outgoing chairman left with a barely coded warning of Edwardes’ “. . .methodology, his way of dealing with people, which in this way removes the continuity of the business". But of course Edwardes “deals with" people in exactly the correct way for this social system. Capitalism’s basis of private ownership of the means of life puts people on the same level as everything else which goes into the productive process. If they make money they will be employed; if not they will be discarded.

Of course people are a bit different from machines; for one thing they have feelings, which can sometimes be inconvenient to 24 hours a day, seven days a week exploitation. Such considerations may convince Edwardes that this is a less than perfect world. What it tells the workers, to judge from their reactions, is anyone’s guess.

Running Commentary: Forgotten heroes (1984)

The Running Commentary column from the October 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

Forgotten heroes

The propaganda advantage which the Tories undoubtedly gained from the Falklands war was partly derived from the notion that war can be a glorious, cleansing experience and that British workers are better at going through it than the Argentinians. Naturally this has to be put across with some subtlety and care; for example photographs of British troops had always to show them as tough, confident and, whatever the difficulties, in control. Pictures of Argentinian troops had to show them as ragged, starving and demoralised.

Even the wounds suffered by British soldiers were used in this exercise, as they have been in previous wars. Some can be made to appear positively romantic — a bandaged head, a crutched foot — and always there is the reassurance that soon it will all be better. So we were treated to lots of photographs of men in that condition, bravely smiling their way back to the strains of Rule Britannia.

But behind the propaganda the reality was a lot less attractive, for there were some fearsome incidents, like the bombing of the landing crafts, in which men sustained terrible burns and other injuries. These were not so enthusiastically publicised as the dashingly bandaged heroes from less frightening occasions.

One example of this was recently given some belated publicity in the Guardian. Lieutenant Robert Lawrence was shot in the back of the head by a sniper on Tumbledown Mountain. The bullet tore through his brain, leaving him paralysed down one side, sometimes incontinent and subject to bouts of intense pain. He has lost nearly half of his brain and has a skull made partly of plastic.

When Robert Lawrence came back to Britain he was not. unlike those other wounded men, treated like a hero but more like an embarrassment. The aircraft he travelled in was full of similarly damaged people; the press were kept away from it at the airport and when it landed it was hidden by a large tent. The men were driven away from this by ambulances which were loaded with their pathetic cargoes inside the tent. Later, they were kept out of the remembrance service at St. Pauls and, of course, the victory parade. In that welter of patriotic hysteria, the sight of what war really means would not have been welcome. It might also have caused some onlookers to question whether it had been worthwhile.

War is not glorious nor is it productive except of human misery. It is useful only to the ruling classes of the world, in whose interests wars are fought. The interests of the working class — who do all the fighting — are in refusing to take part in their masters’ wars and it is precisely to discourage such social insight that people like Robert Lawrence are treated in so ruthless and cynical a manner.

Faulty line

Ordinary working class folk are not accustomed to getting messages from a plush merchant bank like Kleinwort Benson, so their recent campaign of full page ads in the dailies has been a bit of a shocker to us. What’s this, we asked:
  Soon you will have the chance to be an owner of a company that plays a large part in our everyday lives.
  An Act of Parliament has made it possible for each one of us to buy British Telecom shares.
 For everyone it is an historic opportunity to share in the fortunes of one of Britain's leading companies . . .
  You may invest thousands, or even millions. The minimum, however, is about £250. . .
Naturally enough this got a lot of people very excited, at any rate they seemed to be in the ads because they were all smiling broadly, well satisfied with their investment. But quite a few must have been puzzled as well.

It is not so long ago that what is now called British Telecom was part of the Post Office and that, as we all know, was one of the first nationalised industries with a minister called the Postmaster General responsible for it in the government. Now we are always being told by all sorts of politicians that a nationalised industry is owned by the people — the sort who have been grinning out at us from those ads. So how can we buy something which we already own? What’s this about this Act of Parliament? Did someone take the company away from us without our knowing about it?

It is possible, but not helpful, to evade the answers to these questions by putting the Labour Party case, that the Thatcher government has filched British Telecom from the people of this country who once owned it in common. That argument should not appeal to anyone who has had their telephone cut off because they have not paid their bill — which would hardly happen if they owned the telephone company.

The straightforward way out of this seemingly complicated matter is in the realisation that we do not, and never did, own the Post Office or any part of it like that which is now British Telecom. Nationalisation is not ownership of an industry by the people but ownership on behalf of the capitalist class as a whole, in their overall interests. That is why the state usually takes over only vital industries like coal and steed or those which interlink industry such as communication concerns — the airlines, railways, the Post Office.

Nationalisation does not change the basic relationships between employee and employer nor does it change the essential nature of wealth under capitalism, that it is produced as commodities for profitable sale. As the steelworkers, the railwaymen and the miners know, if production cannot be carried on with the prospect of a profit. it will cease.

Ownership by the people of one industry can only happen when there is social ownership, world wide, of all the means of production and distribution. When that happens we shall not need any big advertisements to tell us about it.

Long odds

Fleet Street will not be surprised to learn that the Socialist Standard does not intend to intervene in its circulation battle, which has now developed into a search for Britain’s greatest bingo player, or perhaps it should be Britain’s most gullible worker.

These undemanding games, and the huge prizes which are promised to result from them, are designed to boost the sales figures of papers whose interest in the news, let alone putting that news into some sort of perspective, takes second place to their obsession with sensation. This was the explanation for the cheap and exceptionally nasty campaign in the Sun during the Falklands war. It also explains the acres of mush devoted to such inconsequential events as the death, funeral, commemoration and mourning of someone like the ex-Mr. Elizabeth Taylor.

The popular press has long absorbed the lesson that under capitalism it’s what sells that counts, never mind the quality. Anyone who has any doubts on this score need only look around at the mountain of trash which is turned out everywhere, day in, day out. to feed the market rather than to satisfy human needs.

Big, expensive, well publicised games like newspaper bingo thrive on the enticing theory of instant riches, on the miniscule hope that by some simple action — putting crosses on a pools coupon, filling squares on a numbered card — a worker can wash away every aspect of poverty and enter into the graceful state of lifelong abundance. It says a lot about the miseries of working class existence, which is relentlessly praised by those same newspapers, that so many of their readers should be so anxious to escape from it.

For a few, of course, the theory works. Their pools selection luckily comes out right, they complete all the spaces on their bingo card. They can stop being dependent on selling their working abilities to an employer and can instead use what is left of their life in finding out what they can really do, what they really enjoy. They leave behind the rest, a vast mass of human suffering and discontent.

No worker could be criticised for trying to win such a way out of poverty, even though the chances against it happening to any one of them are so cosmically high. The tragedy is that the gamble monopolises the workers’ horizons; they see it as the only way out. So misled are they, that they prefer to take their chance on a game before they will consider, and work for, a real and permanent escape from all the problems of capitalist society — one which is a dead cert and in which everyone is a winner.

Running Commentary: Foul play (1984)

The Running Commentary column from the September 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

Foul play

This month there will be a vast sigh of relief throughout the land. It will affect thousands of small boys ruining their shoes kicking a ball about school playgrounds. It will come to thousands of people whose working week has stretched like a desert before them with no oasis at the end of it. It will be heard by not a few journalists who will be searching their dictionary for cliches to describe goals, fouls, deficient referees . . .

The sigh of relief will mean that the football season has come round again.

In remoter places it may still be possible to find people who think that professional football is a game and who therefore expect it to be conducted on the basis of something called “sportsmanship”. Sportsmanship entails not throwing the ball away from your opponent after you have put it into touch, it means refusing to kick members of the other team when they approach (whether they have the ball or not), it means suppressing the urge to fist away a certain goal if you are on the goal line in the hope that the other side may miss the inevitable penalty . . .

But professional football can have little time for such niceties for there is a lot of money in the . . . we were going to say game but perhaps business is more accurate. Not that many clubs make a profit on the books — it is more often a matter of wealthy capitalists disbursing some of the proceeds of workers' exploitation in prestige ventures and so helping their other enterprises to be more profitable.

The keen competition in football has led to the enormous transfer fees, now commonly at the £1 million mark, and to the unimaginable pressures which this exerts on the footballer who carries the tag of the price they paid for him onto the field before the expectant thousands, each Saturday.

Little wonder that football stadia are now places of such tension, where it is fairly easy to get involved in a fight, where opposing tribes gather to match their chants and their physical prowess and where myths about all these things abound. There is now, as we all know, a thing called football hooliganism — an offence against popular order which has a special flavour, its own presumptions and battlefields, its own vocabulary of combat. It is also an opportunity for frustrated youth to give vent, by adopting certain uniforms like a shaven head and seeking consolation and security as part of the hooligan tribe.

It is all a part of this, that the National Front should find fertile ground on the terraces. For some years now this odious bunch have confessedly carried their propaganda to the young football “fans”, so that racist abuse against coloured players is now a commonplace and racist slogans share walls in some football-devoted areas with those which support the local team.

This is not a pleasant picture but it is real. Capitalism's priority is the making of profit and in that cause, directly and indirectly, all other things are repressed and distorted. Beside the needs of the balance sheet, what we are encouraged to regard as the better elements of human behaviour must take a back seat. “Sportsmanship” (if there is such a thing and if it is anyway valid or desirable) implies a readiness to concede to an opponent, to play by agreed rules even when it would be easy to break them, above all to keep things in perspective. It would be laughable, to suggest to any top soccer club that they treat such things as their first concern.

Capitalism is a competitive system which distorts all it comes into contact with. The noble aspirations of “sport” have no chance in this situation. A society based on majority interests, in which competition will be unknown and even not understood, will take a very different view of such things; what we call sport may not exist in a co-operating humane system.

Meanwhile, the cruel reality of September 1984 sighs its welcome to the new football season and the distractions it offers, like an opiate, to the suffering, frustrated, aimless people.

Order, order!

His unrelenting left-wingery has been responsible for Dennis Skinner’s reputation as the Beast of. rather than the Honourable Member of Parliament for, Bolsover in the County of Derbyshire. Skinner is an undiscriminating enthusiast for almost every protest movement to cross his path; he is quite capable of attending a rally, on some issue or other, uninvited and then to steal the show with a hyperbolically rousing speech. He views Parliament as a place remotely populated by beings unaware of the reality culture of working class poverty (in which he may have a point). No wonder he entertains, or outrages, regular listeners to the broadcast proceedings of Parliament with his ceaseless barrage of quips and jeers. No wonder he managed recently to get himself suspended from the Commons for suggesting that Margaret Thatcher would try to bribe judges into doing as she wants. This was of course a slur on the judges who, when it suits them, insist that they can operate without any interference or protection from MPs. But even worse it was an attack on the integrity of another Member, and while the Commons will stomach all sorts of things — declarations of war, laws to intensify working class exploitation, archaic rituals to celebrate the dominance of the ruling class — they will not endure any suggestion that they are not all unwaveringly honest and dependable.

Skinner's suspension was quickly followed by that of Martin Flannery, another left winger, for making a similar comment. Any excitement at these outrages was muted by the expectation that left wing MPs are bound to get impatient with the established niceties of Parliament — after all they are there to hustle in the revolution — and so will sometimes get themselves thrown out of the place for a while. There are many precedents for this, for example the much-feared Clydesiders who came roaring down to Parliament in the twenties promising to tear capitalism down with their bare order papers: “When we come back," one of them assured the ecstatic crowd seeing them off at St. Enoch's Station, “this station, this railway, will belong to the people".

That kind of verbal excess was all very well; it was another thing entirely when another of the Clydesiders, James Maxton, accused the Conservatives of being murderers. Maxton complained, in a debate in June 1923, that cutting grants to child welfare centres in Scotland would lead to an increase in the death rates among children: "I call it murder ... a cold, callous, deliberate crime in order to save money . . .” As a notably crusty Tory defended the cuts, Maxton and three other Clydesiders were suspended. There was prolonged uproar in the House; Honourable Members, after all, did not expect their complacency to be disturbed so abruptly. Macdonald, the Labour leader, sat pale with anger at the outrage — not at the suspensions nor the protest nor even the cuts which were depriving the needy children but at the misbehaviour of the Clydesiders who were his supporters and who needed to learn how to behave among their betters.

Well, that was over 60 years ago and almost all the Clydesiders are dead now, with little to remember them by apart from their protests. Capitalism has weathered their disruptions, their impatience, their demands. The railways and the stations, like the rest of the means of wealth production and distribution, do not belong to the people.

None of this may impress Skinner or Flannery but it should have an effect on the workers who give them support. There is no point in going to Parliament with a mandate to administer capitalism and then using the place to protest about the effects of the system. Throughout the modern world parliament is the seat of power, where the coercive state machine is controlled. If workers are to bring about the revolution for socialism they must organise democratically for the capture of such places, to change them from agents of their suppression to those of their emancipation.

Running Commentary: The laws of nature? (1984)

The Running Commentary column from the August 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

The laws of nature?

An established part of what is sometimes called the charm of an English summer is the series of social and sporting events at which the ruling class both disport themselves and demonstrate their privileged standing in capitalist society.

Summer is the time for top hats and elaborate dresses — and elaborate and nonsensical regulations about them — at Royal Ascot. It is the time when a few youths under elaborately hyphenated surnames play out, as if it were some epochal battle, the Eton and Harrow cricket match at Lords. It is the time for royal garden parties, when practised toadies make their way, in rented clothes, to Buckingham Palace to consume a little food and to profess a huge delight should they so much as see, let alone touch or talk to, a royal personage.

These rituals, and the others, are often the subject of both admiration and gentle derision, as if they were no more than harmless eccentricities. We are all assumed to accept them without discomfort as if class divided society, in which a small minority wallow in boundless riches while the useful, working majority grapple endlessly with the pressures and degradations of poverty, exists and operates under some eternal law of nature.

Implied in this expectation is also a warning, for it is a perilous business to go against the laws of nature. Class society must, therefore, be allowed to go on its way unmolested by any talk of a revolution to put the majority into ownership of the world.

For the ruling class this is of course a very comfortable argument for this law of nature sanctions their enjoyment of innumerable costly meals and clothes, of opulent homes and expensive schools for their children. It grants them an enormous consumption of wealth in the production of which, as a class, they have no part. Those who do produce all the wealth — the other class — are also subject to the same law of nature, which allots to them the role of enduring poverty.

Except that it may be described as a stage in human history, there is nothing natural about capitalism. Neither is it eccentric and it is certainly not harmless. It is a malignant society, responsible for an enormous burden of human suffering, all of it unnecessary and which could be abolished in the immediate future. This is the reality behind the season, this annual opportunity for the capitalist class to flaunt their riches before the world and. in that way, to defy the working class to do anything about it.

Directions to Greenham

The embattled women of Greenham were recently visited by Pensioners for Peace, an organisation whose members think like this: “We have seen that two world wars and dozens of localised lesser wars solve nothing"; and "I have six grandchildren and I want a future life for them". Perhaps they were drawn by the popular assumption that the anti-nuclear movement stands for peace; it is common to see car stickers with the CND symbol, against a rainbow background, with the slogan "Give Peace A Chance".

But anyone who wants to give peace a chance should be thinking a long way beyond CND, which has the limited object of persuading the British government to abandon, on its own, its nuclear weapons. CND has no policy for the abandonment of what are called conventional arms, nor for the disbanding of the armed forces or any part of the coercive state machine; indeed it is safe to say that the majority of CND members support the continuance of the state. CND is not a pacifist organisation; its members do not declare that they will oppose all wars and refuse to take part in them on moral grounds. How could it make such a claim, when it is chock-full of members of political parties which always stand up for the interests of the British ruling class when there is a war?

CND does not attempt any analysis of the cause of modern war, which would enable it to pronounce a solution. It opposes the socialist argument that to end war we must undertake a social revolution to bring about a fundamental change in relationships in society. Instead, CND thinks the human race can continue to scratch its way through this social system, with its fear, its destruction, its deprivation. The best it can offer is an effort at humanising some aspects of capitalism—a pious hope that the system will act out of character and begin to fight its wars in a more gentlemanly way.

Pacifists, or anyone who in interested in setting up a world without war, should ponder these facts before they commit themselves to membership of CND. It is true that one of the world's most urgent needs at present is the abolition of nuclear weapons. But this will not be achieved by any methods which allow that capitalism will carry on—by methods which aim at reforming capitalism. These weapons grew up directly as a response to this social system’s needs and its priorities, which are immune to any appeal on the grounds of human interest. They are as typical of the system as buying and selling, rich and poor, privilege and deprivation. Only the abolition of capitalism will end war and all its weapons. Workers everywhere have a united interest on that score and there is an urgent need that they assert it.

Release into slavery

In the first days of July hundreds of prisoners were released before their time, many of them to exchange the rude security of prison life for the state of being homeless, jobless and aimless. Their abrupt transition into freedom resulted from Home Secretary Leon Brittan using his powers to widen the scope of releasing prisoners on parole by reducing the qualifying period for it.

There need be no concern that this came about through any softness on the part of Brittan, than whom a less sentimental man would be difficult to imagine. There are other reasons; importantly a long-standing concern at the chronic overcrowding in prisons, as the numbers behind bars have stayed obstinately above the level described by Roy Jenkins, when he was Home Secretary in the sixties, as “intolerable”.

At the same time the evidence has been piling up to show that, while prison has little effect on crime rates, it is also the most expensive way of dealing with the criminal. The sacred phrase “cost effectiveness” has been heard in the august, secretive chambers of the Home Office. Reforms have been tried — the suspended sentence, the deferred sentence, community service — but the prison population has remained high. This has brought the advocates of cost-effectiveness to their latest solution — to let the prisoners out early, a reform which will of course last as long as the courts don’t fill the prisons up again.

This may not be pleasing to those who regard anyone who has been in prison as a sort of wild animal, unsafe to walk the streets with innocent children and frail pensioners. Neither does it please those who are expected to work within the confines of cost effectiveness — the probation officers and social workers who now have the role of controlling the released prisoners — when all along they have kidded themselves that their job was. inviolably, to put people before the balance sheet.

All such delusions are unhelpful, because they evade the fact that a society based on property rights defines crime in such a way as to protect the privileges of the ruling class, which must always mean against the interests of the majority. In the name of the ruling class a massive historical offence is committed — the offence of exploitation, with all the misery and destruction which it legally entails. Of course this social system puts human welfare very low in its priorities; it could not function in any other way.

No one should be under any misapprehension; those prisoners, happy as they may be at their unexpected change of fortune, have not been released into freedom but into wage slavery.

Woman’s touch

At the end of the spasm of ballyhoo called the primary elections. Walter Mondale went to the Democratic convention with his party’s nomination apparently in his pocket. Of course there might have been some last minute hitch for him; there have been shock nominations in the past and conventions, ungentle occasions where arms are agonisingly twisted and political debts ruthlessly gathered in, are not always predictable.

As Mondale assumed he would be the Democrats’ man against Reagan in November he turned his attention to the matter of who should be his running mate, the Democrat candidate for Vice-President. This is always a complicated, tricky business, more a matter of tightrope walking than arm twisting which Mondale. with his background, should know more about than most people.

The usual object in selecting a running mate is to arrive at a balanced ticket — a pair of candidates who between them appeal to almost every accessible prejudice among the voters. That was why Kennedy, wealthy and sophisticated New England Irish with a reputation as a “liberal", swallowed his antipathy for Lyndon Johnson and asked the coarse, rich, folksy Texan to run with him in 1960. With what results we know.

But if the polls are correct, Mondale has an especially tough job ahead of him. which means that his tightrope walk had to be particularly slick and delicate. Apart from anything else he needs to expunge the workers memory of those ghastly years as Jimmy Carter’s Vice President, when capitalism in America and outside would do hardly anything right for them.

When Mondale let it be known that he was considering selecting a woman he got a plentiful press coverage with admiring profiles of the women concerned, implying that they were something special among the administrators of capitalism. It might be a smart move for the Democrats to put a woman into the field — a touch of excitement and evidence that they are liberal, tolerant and progressive to set against the image of Reagan’s ageing, conventional attitudes.

Any American worker who feels like puking at the sight of Nancy Reagan simpering adoringly at her Ron might have found the thought of the Democrats’ Geraldine Ferraro irresistibly attractive. It is quite common for workers to mistakenly believe that the personality of a candidate is significant.

Now that the Democrats have chosen Ferraro we shall probably hear a lot about the merits of having a woman trying to run capitalism — except that in the time of Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher there is no need to labour the point that this is no happier nor more fulfilling a society under female leadership than under males.

The selection of the candidates, like the campaign itself, is a matter of cynical deception, as the Democrats and the Republicans try to persuade the American working class that it is worth choosing between two slightly differing styles of running American capitalism. Mondale and Ferraro are intended to present as a seductively handsome couple but if there is any hope in the election it lies with those few who are aware enough to look beneath the facade to the cruel reality.

Madness or sanity

Are there still any fossilised members of the Communist Party who greeted, as a move to safeguard peace, the recent announcement by the Russian “Defence" Minister Ustinov that Russia has increased its missile carrying submarine fleet off the American coast and can now hit American targets within ten minutes?

Ustinov was responding to the siting of American cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe and he warned that any increase in these missiles will lead to a step up in their Russian counterparts. So if World War Three breaks out the missiles from each side will be passing each other on their way to 
their targets and within minutes a large part of the world will be devastated.

Any alarm at this prospect should be tempered by the realisation that this is the deterrent theory in practice — the theory which is supposed to have protected us from war since 1945 and. unless some meddling disarmers take over, will continue to keep us safe. The less gullible will realise that the deterrent theory is really another name for the arms race. And who can guess how this one will end — what unimaginably frightful weapons will yet be developed, what will be left of life if they are used?

The supporters of the deterrent theory respond that its whole point is that the weapons will not be used. If the theory is correct, there will be a lot of hardware left to rust in its siloes; a lot of intricate knowledge will have been devoted to something which will, in effect, be thrown away. And all of this will have happened through a concern, in Moscow and Washington and London, to protect human lives and happiness.

So far, however, capitalism has not worked like that and there is no reason to expect it to. The conflicts which are endemic to this social system are still in existence; the world remains divided into powers in rivalry over markets, material resources, trade routes. This rivalry is the immediate cause of modern war; to understand that is to understand why capitalism expends so much of its resources in the production of such devastating armaments.

In this horrific situation, the best that capitalism's protagonists can offer is a sham debate between the advocates of deterrence and disarmament in which both are in basic agreement that capitalism can somehow be run in the interests of its people. Both, in other words, deny the system's essential character.

The truth is that capitalism cannot operate without war. The function of any state is to foster the interests of its ruling class, which means that governments manufacture — and if need be use — the most destructive weapons available to them. We are now at a point where people all over the world accept, almost without question, the fact that a modern civilisation will produce things which can destroy it within a few minutes. It is tempting to call this madness. except that from capitalism’s viewpoint it has an awful sanity.

Running Commentary: People of the opiate (1984)

The Running Commentary column from the June 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

People of the opiate
Something akin to panic is present over the apparent rise in the number of heroin users, particularly among young people. This drug, once so useful to the medical profession and so comforting to some members of the upper class, is now regarded with horror and loathing, as the road to ruin following inexorably from the first tentative puff of cannabis. (For some reason, neither tobacco nor alcohol is supposed to lead to heroin addiction, although plenty of addicts use all three drugs.)

The method of taking heroin which is now becoming popular—inhaling the fumes from heating the substance on a piece of tin foil—eliminates many of the dangers associated with injecting it. But that does nothing to ease the panic for there does now seem to be an awful lot of heroin coming into the country (although as it must always have been smuggled in there can be no accurate assessment of this) so that, in proper accord with Tory marketing principles, the price of a fix has dropped dramatically. One thing which is clear is that the official figures of addicts, which number them in thousands, are a wild underestimate.

Since so many of the heroin addicts are young and unemployed there is a handy explanation for their problem, popular with anyone who thinks the dole queues are the result of a deliberate Thatcher policy. But the first great surge in drug abuse came at a time when there was negligible unemployment, when youngsters left school wondering which job to choose rather than how they were to survive on the dole. In those days the cynicism and depression among young workers was ascribed to events like the war in Vietnam and the threat of nuclear devastation.

The truth is that such problems are a continuous, typical feature of capitalism; under this social system the future is always bleak and threatening and the present so painful that for some people survival depends on blotting it out.

There has always been a ready supply of drugs to help workers do this. The most common are alcohol and tobacco; both legal, of course, but both medically harmful and. in the case of alcohol, liable to stimulate disruptive and violent behaviour. People under strain try to calm their nerves with a cigarette; those with persistent, grinding worries may forget them for a few hours in the pub. Unemployed kids on council estates can try for the same effect by chasing the dragon.

The common, explanatory thread in all this is that we live under a social system which constantly subjects us to experiences which can only be faced with a large measure of fortitude. The tougher of us, for a while at any rate, can manage this; the less durable take refuge in tranquilisers, booze, heroin . . . anything rather than face the reality of capitalism. But the tragedy is that a realistic facing of the problems must bring us to the realistic remedy. Opiates are not enough.

Beyond Ken
The question is, would the Labour Party be so keen to save the GLC and its elections if that body was still led by foolish, unreal Horace Cutler instead of by foolish, unreal Ken Livingston?

Nobody should be deceived by the propaganda from either side in this dispute. for neither have a consistent record on the issue. Just after the war it was Conservative policy that local affairs were— well, local—and were not a fit matter for party politics, which would make them too susceptible to influence from the bureaucrats of Whitehall. In those days, Tory candidates at local elections carried labels like Independent or Ratepayer and their manifestoes dealt with stirring issues like allotments and broken paving stones.

At the same time, when the Labour Party were in government they argued that local councils were an appropriate party political issue because those under Labour control would be in harmony with—in other words, be dictated to by—central government. So Labour candidates had no qualms about standing under their party label and their election addresses were about the need for local authorities to work in with the new National Health Service, the move towards state control of industry and so on.

The argument now is not about democracy. nor the efficient running of society, nor human welfare. The Tories want to hog-tie the local authorities because many of them are resisting the cut backs being ordered from Westminster. In particular the government are aiming at councils which are big and powerful, which means those which administer the great urban concentrations, which means those which grapple with some of capitalism’s most severe problems and desperate deficiencies. And, as we all know, at the top of that particular hit list is Livingston’s GLC.

So this is just another sham battle between Tory and Labour over some detail in the running of capitalism. Workers have no interests in these matters; all our attention should focus on taking over the powers of government, national and local—in other words, taking over society so that it can be run in the interests of the majority.

Until that happens, revolutionary socialists do not stand aside from elections where political power is at stake. We don’t have to vote for capitalism under the Tories or Labour or SDP. We can, and we do, assert our socialist independence and awareness by writing across our ballot papers the word SOCIALISM.

Running Commentary: Hart Attack (1984)

The Running Commentary from the April 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

Hart Attack
Senator Gary Hart's primary campaign is looking rather like an old Mickey Rooney movie, with its message that money doesn't matter and that what does matter is being young, honest, humane . . .

Hart claims to bring the very stuff of youth—freshness, vitality, courage—to the election and he is not too abashed to admit that, compared to the overflowing coffers of Walter Mondale, his is an impecunious campaign. If the early primary results are any guide, workers all over America may be about to fall for this, and perhaps in November make a choice between Hart and the wrinkled, somnolent Reagan.

Of course we have seen this all before, many times and in many countries. It is very often a profitable political tactic, to promote a candidate on personal characteristics which mark them out from the person they are to challenge and to assert that these characteristics are a virtue in themselves. Thus the ageing, aristocratic land owner Douglas-Home was challenged by young, ex-grammar schoolboy Wilson. After Eisenhower, Kennedy was able to make his promise to "get America moving again" sound like a battle hymn of American youth. And what myths have been fashioned, and have lived on, about Kennedy's time in office.

It is to be expected that Hart should be compared with Kennedy; he is not the first American politician to try to gain from those myths. But workers who are seduced by such propaganda might take pause to recall what happened to Kennedy, and to Wilson, when the realities of capitalism overcame their posturing. They might remember how the ambitions turned sour, the promises were forgotten, the wizard was exposed as a tawdry trickster.

There is no reason to believe that if Hart makes it to the White House he will succeed where Kennedy, Johnson and Carter failed. He can offer nothing new; he must deal in the same outworn policies which have time and again been discredited, even if they are offered with his own gloss of striving youth.

No politician, whatever their age or other attributes, has ever been able to control capitalism. None has been able to cajole, or charm, the system's problems into abolishing themselves. That can come about only through a social revolution, for which society will need a working class invulnerable to all political seduction.

Ring down the curtain, not just on Hart but on everything he represents.

On the Move
One of the most revered names in the Labour Party is that of Noel-Baker. The patriarch of this clan was Philip, a frail embodiment of pacifist humbug, a spectral figure whose performance at party conferences often went some way to reassure unhappy delegates that Labour's heart was in the right place, and so reconcile them to accept the most bellicose of policies.

So it was predictable that Philip’s son, Francis, should also join the Labour Party and carry the honoured name into the Commons in the bright young intake of 1945, who outraged parliamentary customs by singing The Red Flag in the House and who were sure that they would set Britain's feet on the road to the new Jerusalem.

The rest, as they say, is history — the disillusionment with Attlee and his crew as they steered British capitalism through the early post-war years; then the long wilderness of opposition: then the heady euphoria of Wilson, which ended miserably as Callaghan was beaten by Thatcher. Labour was not just defeated, they were also in despair.

So at some point Francis decided that he, and his dad, had got it wrong. He took himself off to the Ecology Party, a well-meaning bunch who survive through an ability to observe the problems of capitalism as if through the wrong end of a telescope. Then he moved again, to the Liberals and the SDP, who survive through a stubborn refusal to admit that the problems exist to be observed. This, it seemed, might be a natural resting place for a Noel-Baker, exhausted by the demands of a heritage of self-delusion.

But the clan is made of sterner stuff and Francis is on the move again. Fed up now with the Alliance because it has no joint policy on nuclear weapons, he has switched to the Conservatives who he says, he finds "more credible". It is tempting to speculate on the "credibility" of a government which presides over three million unemployed, which has launched a harsh assault on workers' living standards and which proudly puts its name to the jingoistic blood-letting in the Falklands. Tempting too to wonder about Noel-Baker's “credibility”; by easy stages he has moved from Labour Party to Tory and there is, as they say. no place much for him to go now.

Many colourful metaphors have been used to depict the process in which a government fails to master the problems of the social system which they all claim to be able to control.

Like being caught, in the thirties, in an economic blizzard. Or, in the sixties, being blown off course. These are prime examples of the art of deception through language, in which metaphors can be especially effective. For in these cases they gave the impression that the problems were temporary and surmountable; like the weather they will eventually clear up and meanwhile there is the strong, clever political leader at the helm able to provide shelter for us all.

The art of the metaphor composer has never been better displayed than in the current fondness for describing the Thatcher government’s difficulties as a tendency to slip on banana skins. What could be more temporary than that? It needs only a new political broom, to clear away the carelessly discarded debris, and all is well . . .

Unemployed workers—many of them being told that never again in their lifetime will capitalism find a profitable use for their abilities—will have some feelings about being compared to a banana skin—slimy, undermining and discarded. Those whose discomfort is being accentuated by cuts in hospitals or social services may also have some questions to ask about the usefulness of the phrase, as well as its sensitivity.

In fact it is never useful to regard the problems of capitalism, and the difficulties which governments experience in trying to control and reform the system, as temporary, easily remediable matters. This social system inexorably produces poverty, war and a vast range of other social ills, none of which can be eliminated unless there is a fundamental social change—a revolution to replace capitalism with socialism.

The political metaphor-maker exists to obscure that fact and to divert attention from that reality to fantasy. Governments do not slip up; even if at times they become accident-prone that is beside the point. What matters is that as long as the working class are prepared to accept the fantasies and the obscuring they will remain, metaphorically speaking, flat on their backs.

Running Commentary: On their bikes (1984)

The Running Commentary column from the February 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

On their bikes
The Norman Tebbit theory of unemployment, that people who are out of work are really too lazy to get on their bikes and ride out looking for a job, is by no means unpopular with the working class. There was. after all, little sign at the last election that any substantial numbers of voters thought that Tebbit is wholly mad or bad.

There was a similar feeling in the thirties, when the government refused to pay unemployment benefit to anyone who was not immediately available for work. Hunger marchers, who were tramping the long road because they were desperate for employment, were caught out by this; while on the road they lost their dole because they were not available for the jobs which did not exist. The government got away electorally with this outrageous turn of the screw, perhaps because so many workers thought that if anyone was out of a job it must be through choice.

Of course no one could explain why laziness should so abruptly grip millions of people simultaneously all over the world and why it should decline in the same way and why the ups and downs in sloth should coincide with slumps and booms in capitalism's economy. Neither could they explain why people should choose to slowly starve themselves in preference to working, when they could have brought about their end quickly and neatly by jumping out of a window or under a train.

A strange exception to the present pattern of international laziness is to be found in the West Midlands, where clearly they have not heard of Norman Tebbit and his dad. Unemployment in the area is nearly 17 per cent, with almost half the unemployed males having been out of work for a year or more.

Recently, a rumour spread that the Austin Rover factory at Longbridge had some vacancies. The plant was swamped with work-hungry applicants; at the local Job Centre dozens queued in the snow and rain before the building was open; by early afternoon over 400 enquiries had been received. The manageress reported that some people travelled almost 30 miles: “It shows how eager people are to get work” she commented.

Workers need to be eager for — or at least resigned to — employment because that is the only way to get a living. Unless they are able to sell their working abilities to an employer they descend from the customary level of poverty into destitution. Their desire to avoid that is natural.

The theories that unemployed workers are lazy is a customarily convenient explanation for the fact that, in this as in all other ways, capitalism cannot meet the needs of the majority. That fact should be pondered by all workers, whether in work or out of it, whether in the factory or on their bikes.

The other Dockers
What memories were summoned up by the news, last December, that Lady Nora Docker was dead!

In the 1950s she and her husband, Bernard Docker, who died in 1978. were hardly ever out of the gossip columns. They travelled in a gold-plated car, they disported themselves at Monte Carlo in the fabulous yacht Shemara. She was famous for her clothes and her addiction to the high life.

Bernard Docker was chairman of the Birmingham Small Arms Company which manufactured bicycles and was especially famous for its motor cycles. In the boom of the immediate post-war years BSA prospered along with the rest, but as foreign competition began to bite the company was first exposed as very vulnerable and then finished off. The motor cycle market is now dominated by imported models, notably from Japan, and any BSAs still on the road are merely vintage models for the connoisseur of the outdated.

Bernard Docker was sacked in 1956, after a boardroom upheaval largely masterminded by the big institutional shareholders who thought that under his management BSA was not as profitable as it might be. When he fought back against his dismissal the new board spelled out the charges against him, making play on the Dockers' well publicised, vulgar and costly life style, implying that without this the company would have been more prosperous. It was all rather unfair, since high living is what is expected of — and applauded in — the ruling class. The morals of capitalism are clear that riches are not a cause for shame; they are a badge of a privileged social standing. The Dockers’ populist attitude to their riches made good advertising copy for capitalism, for it encouraged workers to believe that the system of class conflict and exploitation was really a bit of rollicking fun.

In the event. Docker’s dismissal did not save BSA. In the early 1950s the company, as any capitalist concern would, was preoccupied with making the most of the boom. The new management brought little change and was particularly at risk when conditions altered and life in the capitalist jungle became a lot harsher and less certain. BSA was among the first of the big, famous firms to go under.

The boom-slump cycle is endemic to capitalism. Its effects may be delayed, or perhaps quickened or accentuated, by a particular style of management but they cannot be avoided. The Dockers epitomised the heady delusions of the capitalism of the fifties, when industrialists and politicians and economists assured us that they had solved capitalism's problems for all time. There was some irony in the fact that of all people the Dockers should pay the price for this; when they died they were no longer glamorous trend-setters but social clowns, both comic and tragic.

Well meant
The Marriage Guidance Council is one of many well-meaning organisations which exist in the unreal world of attempting the impossible. Its counsellors are usually well- preserved people who enjoy a little emotional rag-pulling with married couples whom they describe as motivated, which means that they are articulate as well as confused anti unhappy. Analysis is the name of this game and a gruelling, futile game it can be, played out in ignorance of the fact that human relationships are at present distorted by the demands of a social system which discourages us from cooperative. tolerant behaviour.

Aside from that, the monogamous family of capitalism is not in tune with any human needs or drives. That is why something like a third of marriages collapse into divorce, while a lot of those which hang together do so through shame or inertia or fear or financial necessity.

An inkling of that particular reality may be getting through to the MGC, who have suddenly awoken to the fact that, as unemployment persists, marriages are being put under increasing strain. Last year 38,000 new cases came onto the pretty selective books of the MGC.

Their response to this has been disappointing. if predictable. They have not commenced any analysis of the social system which makes human relationships so difficult but have increased the therapy. Backed up by a grant from the Manpower Services Commission, the MGC has launched a campaign to recruit voluntary counsellors among the unemployed.

The plan is that the voluntary counsellors will free the permanent workers to run extra group therapy sessions in which clients will be encouraged to express their frustrations, perhaps by screaming and shouting, on the group rather than at home. Of course when this first aid is finished and the cracks in the marriage have been papered over the couples can go back to being unhappy, frustrated, perhaps unemployed and penniless — but quietly.

Capitalism, which causes the problems of modern society, is by no means threatened by such analgesic exercises, which leave the seat of social pain undisturbed. Better by far to turn such efforts towards analysing this social system which, when we need to act like human beings, presses us to behave like beasts.

Running Commentary: Like no tomorrow (1984)

The Running Commentary column from the January 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

Like no tomorrow

For some reason it was offered as a criticism of The Day After that it told us something we already knew — that a nuclear war would bring unprecedented destruction and suffering. In fact, as many commentators pointed out, the reality will be far worse. One estimate is that in a 220 megaton attack on Britain 80 per cent of the population will die. Everywhere it will become frighteningly cold and dark, as the nuclear dust blots out the sun and brings a new Ice Age in which people in the mass will starve or freeze to death.

Perhaps the most chilling part of the Film was in the build up to the holocaust — the palpably heightening tension, the strained faces listening to the news, the first announcement of the use of “tactical" nuclear weapons, the missiles blasting out of the silos, trailing smoke across the sky behind a washing line, released when servicemen opened a red box marked “Gently”. It was too close to experience for our comfort — too close to Berlin 'in 1948, Korea in 1951, Cuba in 1962 and to the numerous other international crises when the world might have been under threat of having no tomorrow.

Was The Day After an argument for unilateral nuclear disarmament or for the Heseltine policy of eventual disarmament through eventual agreement while the powers meanwhile build up their nuclear arsenals? Of course, CND claimed that the film made their case for them, forgetting that it portrayed the culmination of the international rivalry which is endemic to the capitalist system. CND have no concept of what is needed to end that system, although to end it is the only way in which the world will be rid of war and all weapons of war.

Heseltine is a different case. He and his party make no bones about their support for the social system of division and conflict, the system which makes a priority of killing and destruction. No nonsense from the Defence Minister about the urgency to avoid the ultimate, overwhelming catastrophe; he stands unashamedly for capitalism and for the interests of the British ruling class, at whatever the cost to the rest of us.

But beneath their superficial differences, at their core CND and Heseltine stand for the same thing. They all support capitalism although in varying degrees they may seek to evade some of the effects of the system. By confusing the issue, by pretending that capitalism can be controlled and reformed into benignity, they each in their own way aggravate problems such as war.

If The Day After told us anything it was of the desperate urgency of the work to overthrow capitalism and to replace it with a society which will not know war. That is not one of the facts which can be devalued as something everyone knows already. If it were more widely accepted, the future of the world would be more secure and tomorrow would be a matter of happy anticipation instead of fear.

One for the rich . . . 

In court seven teenagers admitted that over fifteen months they made 28 raids on local restaurants, breaking in to steal drinks, food and cigarettes; they also asked for 30 other offences to be taken into consideration. The value of their hauls totalled £1,435; they were ordered to pay £1,527 in fines, compensation and costs (Guardian, 30 November 1983).

The culprits were pupils at the exclusive Darlington School in Devon, where parents pay £8.000 a year each for their keep and “education”. The payments ordered by the court must have made quite a dent in the pocket money of the accused. No doubt this will be made up by doting parents who, not long ago, howled for the dismissal of the then headmaster of the school who had warned them of under-age sex, burglary, vandalism and drug taking among the pupils, and they had objectcd to some “unsuitable” pictures of his wife which had appeared some years ago in a magazine.

No prize is offered to the first reader sending in the most likely punishment which the court would have doled out if, rather than being the pampered offspring of the rich, the offenders had come from the streets of Brixton.

Glasses and classes

How is a member of the working class to be recognised? Lord Curzon, the archetypal High Tory of his day, thought that it was by the colour of our bodies; he had no idea, he remarked as he watched some soldiers bathing in an Indian river, that the lower orders had such white skins.

Ridiculous Labour MP Frank Dobson has recently suggested another method. He fears that it might be possible to spy out a worker — or at least one of the more impoverished among us — by the style of their glasses. In the House of Commons debate last November on the government proposals to end the opticians' monopoly on the sale of glasses (which Labour MPs might have been expected to welcome) Dobson expressed the reservation that making glasses available outside the National Health Service might mark out anyone who is unable to afford other than the NHS article.

This is gradualism gone made. Will Labour MPs now fight to eliminate variety in spectacle styles, arguing that this new equality would be a step on the road to the revolution? More to the point, are there not other ways in which a worker can be distinguished?

There are. first, the places where we live. None of them is ever likely to be featured in those advertisements by the posher estate agents in Country Life. Then there are the clothes we wear; mass produced articles such as would chill the blood of the discreet tailors patronised by our masters. What about the food we eat? Whatever Robert Carrier is paid to say on TV, there are more than subtle differences between the fare on sale in Tesco and what can be ordered, by those who can afford to. from Harrods.

But above all there is the way we get our living. The fundamental, ineradicable distinguishing mark of the workers is the fact that they live through selling their abilities to an employer for a wage. The size of that wage does not vary significantly from the point of being enough to reproduce the worker in terms of renewing mental and physical energies and in the sense of bearing future wage slaves. This is the root of our poverty, the hall-mark which identifies a member of the working class and which is expressed in sub-standards in what we can afford to consume.

This hall-mark cannot effectively be obscured or concealed, no matter how some workers may try by pretending to a life style which is not actually available to them. Indeed it is futile and reactionary to make such efforts, for if workers faced the reality of their poverty they would thereby be taking one of the first steps to its abolition.

And then there would be another way in which a worker could be recognised — by their class-consciousness and their activity in the struggle to establish a classless, povertyless society.

Keep off the beach

When the bombs went off over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and tens of thousands of people died, we were consoled that there was a positive side to this unprecedented event. Nuclear power is a source of energy which could be used to produce electricity, endless and safe and cheap. It could be an age of new prosperity. Nuclear power, said the authorities, was good for us.

There were some doubters who muttered inconveniently about the dangers, that there was such a thing as radioactivity which could leak and that an accident at a nuclear power station could lead to frightful consequences. The authorities were reassuring. There would be no accidents; the designers would see to that. Radioactivity was easily controllable. Nuclear power was good for us.

Well, since those innocent days there have been incidents like the Three Mile Island melt-down and the leaks at Windscale, which have blighted the surrounding land. Now the sea too is under threat, as the nuclear waste discharged from Windscale comes ashore as a menacing oily slick, polluting the fish and the seaweed and the beach itself. Nuclear power, the authorities still tell us. is good for us. Meanwhile we must stay off the beaches while they try to expunge the memory of the incidents by renaming the power station which will henceforth be known as Sellafield.

The history of nuclear power is one of the search for a source of cheap energy. This search did not happen in the interests of human beings but for the sole reason that the owning class are concerned that commodities should be produced as cheaply and reliably as possible. Cheap, reliable production means more competitive goods; it means a better chance of capturing markets, of more assured profits for the owners of the means of life.

In this process the welfare of human beings is of lesser consequence. The search for profit and capital accumulation has a sordid history of pollution, to the point of killing people and destroying elements of the environment. Nuclear power stations are a typical phase in that history. In a sane society, based on human interests, nuclear power would be of vast benefit to the world; free of the restraints of production for profit, it would be safe in its method and its design. It is capitalism which makes of it a polluter and destroyer, so that at places it is unsafe to walk on the beach, to pick up a pebble, to touch the seaweed.

Nuclear power may well be good for us. It is capitalism which is bad for us.

Running Commentary: Strike Lessons (1984)

The Running Commentary column from the May 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

Strike lessons

In the tactics they have followed in the clashes with the flying pickets, the police have shown a willingness and an ability to learn from experience. Can this also be said for the miners? There are in fact some very important things which have been overlooked by the men speeding from one coalfield to another.

The first is that the police will not unfailingly do their best to ensure that everyone who wants to work will be free to do so. They are fighting the pickets for reasons other than to protect a “right to work". Redundant workers who don’t want to be sacked will not find any sympathetic boys in blue to case their way through the entrance of their old workplace.

The second is that a police force cannot by nature be a tolerant or credulous organisation. Policemen have the function of being suspicious — they often get commended for it — and they must cast a wide net in their suspicions. So if they suspect a car load of men looking like anything but bank clerks or insurance salesmen of being flying pickets they are bound to harass them with impertinent questions about their political opinions and private lives. It may not be quite the Dixon of Dock Green image but in real life it is all part of a day’s unpleasant work for them.

The third is that the police concept of public order, which they apply to the pickets, is not invariable in its principles. Some types of public disorder are permissible and get their protection — for example the parading of cruise missiles along country lanes.

The link between all these points, the matter which is overlooked by the people who fall foul of the police, is the fact that the police have a role in capitalist society. They are in being to protect an order and to assert a law which is based on the rights of private property. That means the police protect the privilege of a tiny minority of social parasites against the interests of the majority who are useful, productive people like miners. To put it another way. the police are part of a coercive state force which props up the dominance of the capitalist class and so helps to ensure the exploitation of the workers.

And workers, of course, is what the flying pickets are. So what do they do about this coercive, privilege-protecting machinery when they have the chance? What happens in the coalfields of Britain, when the miners can choose between coercion and freedom? At every election they vote for one or other of the parties of capitalism — Labour. Tory, Alliance, Communist . . . They spurn the case for a different society of common ownership and freedom preferring, on the most specious of arguments, to fasten the chains about themselves anew.

If the pickets are angry and bewildered by the police tactics, they should remember that the remedy to it is in their own hands — and the failure to apply it rests on their own heads.

Panic in the streets

Florid, well-fed Roy Jenkins had made a name for himself as a liberal before he became Wilson’s Home Secretary. This meant that he was associated with a few minor reforms which went well with the clink of sherry glasses in Hampstead but which, compared to the real problems of capitalism and the vast burden of human suffering which the system inflicts, are of absolutely no consequence.

But even at that there were plenty of flaws in that urbane image. This reforming, liberal Home Secretary was responsible for rushing through parliament the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which gave the police some disturbingly wide powers of arrest, detention and questioning. Labour MPs who indignantly demand that the Act not be renewed always seem to forget that the odious thing originated under their own party.

It was in Jenkins’ time too that the Special Patrol Group was formed. The stormtrooping tactics of the SPG were so successful and spectacular that the force was imitated in many other areas. Police operations are especially suited to the technique of ruthless and decisive intervention; only those on the receiving end — as was Blair Peach — are expected to have any serious doubts on the score.

Now we have learned that, in another triumph of liberal reformism, it was Jenkins who authorised the equipment of the Metropolitan Police with sub-machine guns. He did this in response to the London sieges at the Spaghetti House and Balcombe Street, although in each case these incidents were brought to a casualty-free end through tactics the very opposite of spraying the streets with machine-gun bill lets. Perhaps, behind that comfortable exterior, Jenkins was really a panicky liberal?

He would not be the only politician to have his pretensions reduced to scale by the exigencies of office. The Labour Party has always campaigned for power over capitalism to run the system in the only way possible in the interests of the owning capitalist class. This means taking action which is all too clearly against the interests of the people who elected them. A truly reforming Home Secretary might consider abolishing the police, or at least reducing their status to that of lollipop ladies, rather than widening their powers and arming them more ferociously.

But that of course would be nonsense. Capitalism needs its coercive forces to guard the position of the ruling class and to assert its property-protecting law and order. Whatever his reputation — and whatever his reality — Jenkins went along with that requirement. Experience of him emphasises the fact that workers who put their trust in leaders to improve things for them had better think again — before another liberal in Whitehall decides that the police could coerce us more effectively with tanks, artillery, nuclear weapons . . .

Tackling apartheid

An English Rugby Union team will after all be playing in South Africa this summer — always supposing that, after their disjointed and lack-lustre performance in this season’s internationals, anyone will still want to go to watch them play.

The announcement was greeted with predictable outrage by anti-apartheid campaigners, who have long argued that severing sporting links with South Africa would be an effective way of persuading them to drop their racist policies. In fact the campaigners have a point, for sport is popular enough in South Africa to make a loss of contact at the highest level of competition a powerful pressure for reform.

The South African government claim to have responded to the boycott which has so far operated in games like cricket and to have made formal gestures towards integration. These are obviously more cosmetic than basic; some rugby players who have toured South Africa, in the belief that they were "bridge building", have been sickened by the discrimination which they saw still to operate there.

By a remarkable, if typical, twist of logic the supporters of the tour have criticised its opponents for the deadly sin of “bringing politics into sport". The argument, once stated by the execrable Denis Thatcher at a rugby referees’ dinner, is that sportspeople should be free to play whoever they want, without interference. Thatcher, and those who agree with him, conveniently overlook the fact that it is the South African government, by forcing apartheid onto sportspeople, who breach their sacred principle and it is the protesters who campaign for the freedom to play against or with anyone.

Whatever pleasure and well-being may be derived from sport (which is in any case not free of the demands and the distortions of capitalism — it will be very different when we have a socialist society) they should not be inflated into an obsession. Compared to this society’s mountain of repression, suffering and fear, the matter of which side wins a game of football or cricket is of no account.

There are larger, more enduring issues at stake. One thing the demonstrators might ponder is that sport is about the only boycott which is being clamped onto South Africa. Trade, travel, military support, diplomacy — the very stuff of capitalist existence — merrily continue regardless of apartheid. And that is what the protesters are up against. Racism is illogical, unscientific and divisive of the world working class. But there is a remedy for it which is fundamental and permanent, in contrast to the ephemera of an integrated sporting tour.

Running Commentary: Poverty today (1984)

The Running Commentary column from the November 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

Poverty today

When members of the Thatcher government are questioned about their policies their programmed response is to trot out some esoteric statistics which are supposed to prove that success is imminent and that it would, therefore, be foolish for them to change course now. They have been arguing like this almost since they came to power in 1979, ignoring the other, strikingly non-esoteric, statistics which undermine their case.

In September a report produced for the government's Office of Population Censuses and Surveys showed death rates among unemployed men to be at least 21 per cent higher than might be expected and of women in their families to be 20 per cent higher. A few days later two doctors at the Ruchill Hospital in Glasgow stated that children in the more deprived parts of the city are up to 100 times more likely to suffer illnesses severe enough to need hospital treatment than those in the less deprived areas. And a few days after that a campaign launched to improve conditions for people whose only home is a bedsitter claimed that about half a million people are living in squalid and dangerous accommodation and that some 600 of them have been killed in fires in bedsitter houses between 1978 and 1982.

Poverty is a matter of stress and stigma; it is a degrading, repressive, distorting pressure on the lives of millions of people, making them emotionally crippled for life. But it is also a direct, physical threat; it makes us bodily sick, it kills us through what coroners call accidents and through avoidable diseases.
No capitalist party has the answer to poverty; it is the badge of capitalism and its cure is a matter beyond any debate about the trivial differences between Labour and Tory.

Nationalisation failure

Roy Hattersley is the half of Labour’s dream ticket to Westminster who has recently been falling down on his job of trying to please all of the people all of the time. In fact he has cast doubt, as others have been doing for some time now, on the once-sacred policy of nationalisation. This upset the lefties in the party and it made others ask why. if Hattersley thinks like this, he should be in a party which was once responsible for so much state control.

One response to Hattersley’s unoriginal and panicky musings came, as might be expected, from Ian Mikardo, who is one of those eternal guardians of the Labour Party’s conscience, which means that he still believes state-run coal mines, railways and steel works don’t shut down "uneconomic" units and do not sack "redundant” workers.

Scornfully rejecting Hattersley’s advocacy of private industry, Mikardo said: “Eighty per cent of productive capital is privately owned . . . Most of the productive capacity has its organisation decided by 200 or 300 people whose principal incentive is to the dividend they pay themselves or their shareholders and not the dividend they pay the community”. (The Times, 1 October 1984.)

This situation, which Mikardo complains about, exists after 17 years of Labour government during the past 40 years — a period long enough for them to have redeemed their original promise to abolish capitalism and to so transform social relationships that production would be carried on in the interests of the community.

The Labour Party did not carry this through because it was not their policy; instead they stood for tinkering with the capitalist system. Their failure to establish socialism has nothing to do with the betrayal of original principles. They kept faith with their nature as a party of capitalism and they left power with the system as firmly entrenched as ever.

Hands down

By the standards which count — meaning by the number of votes they attract or repel - the 1984 conference contest was a hands-down win for the Tories. The Labour Party were in their customary disarray and did nothing to dispel the popular image of them as subverting the gallant police effort to stand against savage pickets and to protect the freedom of the British workers to be exploited only when it pays the employers. The Liberals' votes on the issue of nuclear weapons gave them the appearance of a bunch of disorderly, if innocent. dupes of the Kremlin.

In contrast the Tories were on the offensive as the party who will defend to the last drop of our blood the freedom of the British ruling class to impose the capitalist rationale — no profit, no production. The bomb attack on Thatcher’s hotel served only to heighten the Tories’ heroic image. As the representatives flexed their knees and their wrists in the endless standing ovations, an important fact was ecstatically obscured. With 3½ million unemployed and an intensifying burden of misery for the workers, the Thatcher government is proving to be no more successful at running British capitalism than were their discredited opponents.

But of course the conferences are not meant to be much more than propaganda exercises. No one in their senses really expects a government to take any notice of what party activists get up to in their annual seaside beano. Capitalist political parties cannot operate in a properly democratic way: the demands of the system cannot allow open, full and informed participation in decisions. The conferences are all part of an elaborate, sordid game, in which the one effective rule is that the majority of the people are losers.