Monday, December 12, 2016

Ghost of Christmas past (1981)

A Short Story from the December 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

During an ambitious interlude, brief but puzzling, in my dreamy mid-twenties I got a job at the famous factory on the arterial road which ran out through the industrial estates of the western suburbs. The architect, now long forgotten, had designed the place with reference to an Aztec temple but I presumed any irony in this was unintentional. A job at the factory was a matter for some envy locally for pay and conditions there were better than average; cheap and efficient canteens, overalls for the factory workers, lavatories of gleaming white tiles with endlessly dispensing Initial towel cabinets.

For a long time the company was consistently successful — consistently profitable — and in no small measure was this due to their skill in persuading everyone who entered the temple that they were part of a big, happy, cooperative family. The work force was divided into several layers, each distinguished by the scope of its privileges. Lowest of all were the hourly paid, who sulked around the place dredging swarf from the oily sumps of machines, trundling grimy trolleys of scrap metal to unknown destinations or renewing exhausted Initial towels. Above them — but not by much — were the weekly paid staff who watched over the screeching machines protected by fantasies about their gardens, car, or next holiday; or who in the office typed invoices or went through lowly clerical jobs like checking credit ratings.

And then there were - at the summit of ambition for most of the employees - the monthly staff who were usually supervisors in administration. They had several privileges, one of them being to eat in a separate dining-room with linen-covered tables and pert waitresses instead of queueing up at the works canteen where the same food was sold at a lower price. Another privilege was the annual invitation to the Christmas Dinner.

This great event, two or three days before Christmas, started early in the evening with the gathering in the factory bar of suited men and sateencd women at a table as long as a cricket pitch, laid out in a parade ground of glasses brimming with sherry, gin and cocktails. Although exuberance was not exactly discouraged, in the monthly staff it was expected to be muted. But there were a few who had decided that their career would prosper better through a reputation for loud candour and they were often quite drunk by the time the assembly was ushered into the company ballroom for dinner.

There they sat down to a menu which never varied. Grapefruit segments. Prawn cocktail. Turkey. Christmas pudding. Mince pies. Cheese. Coffee. Champagne. Port wine. At each table a self-appointed parent beckoned a wine waiter and, with a surreptitious pressure of crackling paper into palm, urged that the diners at that table be “looked after”, under the impression that they alone were capable of such cunning bribery. The waiter pocketed the tip and if he was seen again that evening it was only faintly, in the dim shadows on the far side of the room.

As the last fragment of cheese was finger-dabbed from plate to mouth the catering manager called for silence and the Managing Director rose to speak. It was part of the company’s family Christmas tradition that the MD would now give everyone a present like announcing an improvement in the pension scheme or a shorter working week - although on the occasion I heard him tell the monthly staff about a worsening of their conditions there was no diminution in the fervour of their applause. The MD always sat down amid some tension because it was now time to reveal the identity of the person selected to make the reply and then to propose a toast to the company.

This was a closely kept secret; even the chosen person knew nothing of it until that very morning, which allowed little time to prepare a speech and have it approved by the directors. Not that anyone ever complained, since it was more or less a promise of eventual promotion to the higher ranks of management. The more ambitious monthly staff all considered themselves best qualified to receive this mark of preferment and they went through agonies of suspense on the day waiting for the telephone summons, eventually crumpling their speech into the waste paper basket and composing instead some nasty jokes about their rivals.

After the reply it was all over. Last goblets were drained, disappointments plastered over, hands pressed, backs slapped then out into the night glowing in the lights of the huge tree set up at the temple entrance. For a short time loud banter and seasonal greetings rang out in the frosty air, then there was the revving of sulphurous engines and the Anglias and Morris 1 10s shuddered onto the arterial road, carrying sour cargoes back to the wall to wall neuroses of suburbia.

All that was a long time ago and it will not happen again. The company recently announced that the factory is to be closed. They blamed the world-wide recession, foreign imports, high interest rates. All those monthly staff will be transferring their frustrations to the dole queue where, they once insisted over lunch in their chic dining-room, only the idle or feckless are to be found. “I am incensed” bellowed the local MP when he heard about the closure. “It throws a shadow over this Christmas and next Christmas could be even bleaker” said one of the redundant workers. For him, and for the others, the company is no longer a big, happy family; now it means fear and misery amid the bright lights and the tinsel of the -what was it again — Festive Season.

The realities of capitalist society are harsh and insistent and there is no gentle way in which to face them.

So Merry Christmas folks OK?

And, uh, Happy, er, New Year.

The Catholic Church, Capitalism and Socialism (2016)

From the December 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum,or ‘Rights and Duties of Capital and Labour’ of 15 May 1891 can be seen as the social manifesto of the Roman Catholic Church. Its popularity as a social document has diminished probably even more than the atrophying authority of the Church itself, but while, effectively, other Papal pronouncements remain as Church policy only because their renunciation would bring into serious question the authority of their Papal authors, Rerum Novarum still reflects the acknowledged social doctrine of the Church.
Leo begins by denouncing on moral grounds the chasm between rich and poor – which, paradoxically, is an inevitable feature of the class society which he steadfastly supports, capitalism wherein originates the 'enormous fortunes of some individuals and the abject poverty of the masses.'
The Pope spells out his vision of what would be morally and economically correct for the working class in a society where the Church’s moral guidance would underpin capitalism: The wages of the working man – 'a woman by nature is fitted for home-work' – should not be regulated by free contract only and 'ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-conducted wage earner… if a workman’s wages is sufficient to comfortably support himself, his wife and his children, he will find it easy, if he be a sensible man, to practice thrift; and he will not fail, by reducing expenses, to put by some little savings and thus secure a modest source of income… The Law should support ownership.' This in various ways is repeated and emphasised not only in this Encyclical but in succeeding Encyclicals by later Popes. Wealth, property. ownership, these are all ‘natural rights’ enthusiastically endorsed by the Church.
The Church, in the person of Leo and his successors, affirms that society should not be classless: 'It is impossible to reduce human society to one dead level… It is a great mistake to take up with the notion that class is naturally hostile to class and that the wealthy and the working-men are intended by nature to live in mutual conflict… Capital cannot do without Labour nor Labour without Capital.' The Pope here is obviously taking a swipe at socialism but does not say why he thinks socialists would want to either reduce or elevate human beings to one 'dead level' nor does he tell us how Capital could dig a field.
In his On the Reconstruction of the Social Order (May 1931, Pope Pius XI re-affirms and endorses the attitude to the social question put forward by Leo XIII. Especially does Pius leave no doubt as to the attitude of the Church in relation to socialism/communism. He again encourages Catholic workers to organise in Catholic trade unions and finds it unfortunate that these sectarian organisations have not attracted the numbers that what he calls the Socialist and Communist unions – by which he means non-sectarian – attract.
Pius trenchantly defends the right of private property; by this he does not mean one’s habitation or items of personal value. He means capital, effectively the minority ownership of the entire means of life of the whole of society. Still, the Pope laments 'There are those who falsely and unjustly accuse the Supreme Pontiff [himself] and the Church of upholding the wealthier classes against the proletariat.'
Pius on behalf of the Catholic Church answers those who think they can reconcile religion with the concept of a society based on common ownership and the production of goods and services solely for use. Indeed, the one truth we could find in all this Papal nonsense is Pius’s assertion that ‘No one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a Socialist properly so- called.’