Tuesday, March 7, 2017

What a Spectacle (1995)

From the August 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

Despite the media’s pathetic attempts at convincing us all that the Tory leadership tussle was of world-historical importance it had all the attraction of a bad Punch & Judy show

Some years ago (1967, to be precise) Guy Debord wrote a book entitled The Society of the Spectacle which was fascinating in almost every respect except one: its virtual unreadability (a rather major failing in a book, it must be conceded.) The thesis of the book, which made it so compelling to try to read, was that society was becoming increasingly a spectacular performance, with most people merely onlookers upon everything from urban life to political conflicts.

Rarely has this notion of the spectacle been more apparent than in the recent third-rate theatricalities of British politics. The resignation of John Major in order to make way for himself as successor had to be one of the all-time low-points of sham political duelling.

No sooner had Major resigned than we, as spectators, were treated to endless stories, presented as news, about who might replace him. Major, we were led to believe, was a dull and rather hopeless chap, but personally quite nice. His opponent, who did little to enhance the image of extraterrestrial life-forms, was shown to us as bright but personally brutal. Then, after Act One which was to be dominated by The Two Johns, we were being prepared for the (ultimately unperformed, but well rehearsed) Act Two starring The Two Michaels: one an ambitiously rich brat and the other a man about whom it is impossible to say anything personal which will not be libellous.

But who knows anything about these people personally? And who wants to? What difference does it make if Major does eat his peas with his knife and Portillo is a smarmy backstabber? Even if these things are true (and they may not be: Major may well be as vicious personally as his policies are and Portillo might weep at bullfights), what possible relationship has this to political power? It is simply bad theatre.

As if to rub in our role as spectators, the election to determine who would be Prime Minister was one in which votes were only given to Tory MPs. So, as millions watched on, instructed by Dimbleby and his pathetic crew to recognise Punch from Judy and to favour one against the other, none of the hapless spectators even had a vote.

As for the barmy SWP, ever eager to chant for Major to be Out Out Out so that their lip for the top, Tony Blair, can be In In In, they were in quite some difficulty. Believing as they do (and as all Leninists must) that workers should be encouraged to support the lesser evil (thus leading them to support Iran against Iraq, Prescott against Blair and now Blair against Major), ought not political logic have persuaded them to support Major against Redwood? “The Central Committee calls upon the proletariat to support Major without illusions... “ But then, given that their real reason for telling workers to vote for Blair is to teach the suckers how bad life will be under a Labour government, why not support Redwood to teach workers just what it would be like to live under a right-winger from Outer Space?

At 5 p.m. on The Big Day millions were glued to their sets, hoping that something unpredictable might happen. In the event the highly predictable happened and the Tories did what they are good at doing: uniting behind anyone who looks like he will do them the least damage.

In the months approaching most elections the spectators are whipped into a sense of futile expectation, as if by electing a new government, which itself will be governed by the capitalist system, something might change. The run-up to the next election must be the dullest and most predictable in decades, with apparent certainty as to who will win and indifference as to the outcome on the grounds that the nearer Labour comes to victory the further it goes out of its way to convince Tory spectators that the victory' will be theirs.

To be a spectator upon history is to become dehumanised, for it is the historical consciousness of humans which makes us unique. Appealing to lemmings to avoid cliffs is a pointless exercise, and the most intelligent dog can only sit back and watch Crufts without any knowledge that it has ever been staged before. But for us, with minds which reflect and make history, to sit on the sidelines and observe the passing show of capitalist political foolery, is to abandon the weapons which could free us from the Redwoods and Deadwoods and Blairs and Blurs and fancy-dress Lenins who preside over our stunted lives as wage slaves.

We are makers of history, not spectators. When the change from capitalist insanity to production for need comes about we will not be watching it on the box. We will not be following leaders or waiting for the revolution to be announced from a podium. The socialist revolution will be the activation of human consciousness, transforming us from viewers of the spectacle to makers of the future. When will socialism rule? When the majority decide that they will no longer be ruled by others.
Steve Coleman

Material World: Migration - Internal and External (2017)

The Material World column from the March 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
It is hard not to take notice of the building of fences and walls to keep out unwelcome foreigners, like Trump's Mexican Wall to stop Hispanics and Fortress Europe's barriers to repel those who seek a better life. The media thrives on feeding the fear of invading and swarming hordes of fellow human beings, who maybe are part of our common humanity but for the xenophobes and nationalists, not deserving of a humanitarian reception or a compassionate welcome.
It is easy to forget that throughout history peoples have always been on the move and the most prolific migration has not always been cross-border migration but within nations. Brexit was fuelled not by Syrian refugee arrivals but by the arrival of Polish plumbers and Portuguese crop-pickers, citizens from other EU regions. The first dismantling of migrant camps and deportations because of an 'alien' identity were not those fleeing from the current Middle East conflagrations but the Roma who had travelled westwards across Europe in search of prosperity rather than poverty, seeking safety and security from discrimination.
It is all too convenient to forget that some of the biggest movements of peoples have been the migration of those living in destitute rural regions to the urban centres and cities. In the United States, millions of African-Americans departed the Deep South countryside and found homes and work in the cities, even if it meant the hardship of being cheap labour and living in the inner-city ghettoes yet bringing us the music of the Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis blues.
With the threat of climate-change refugees looming larger, the events of the 1930s Dust-Bowl years which inspired Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath should be remembered when the Okies faced Californian 'border patrol' blockades turning them back.
The Enclosures may now be only text in British history books but for African and Asian small farmers, land-grabs continue and the teeming shanty-towns of mega-cities are the only survival route for the displaced.
Globally, the biggest migration of people is taking place in China. Millions of rural workers have left their villages in search of work in the booming sea-board regions where most of the factories are situated. Research by Kam Wing Chan of the University of Washington suggests the volume of rural-urban migration in such a short period is likely the largest in human history. Much of China’s countryside is now villages populated primarily by elderly people and children. With more and more young men leaving to work in the cities, farming is facing a huge threat.
In 2015 a total of 277.5 million migrant workers (36 percent of the total workforce of 770 million) existed in China and with the prospect of another 243 million migrants by 2025, which will take the urban population up to nearly 1 billion people. This population of migrants would represent almost 40 percent of the total urban population, almost three times the current level. A 2002 survey showed that over 80 percent of migrants worked seven days per week, and only 7 percent of workers’ working time was in accordance with what the law regulated. In terms of wages, although labour law regulates a minimum wage, many employers either ignore the regulation or consider it to be the maximum wage. Migrant workers make up 80 percent of the deaths in mining, construction, and chemical factories. And about 90 percent of those suffering from work-related diseases are migrant workers.
The hukou system, a kind of internal passport structure limiting access to public services, is based on the birthplace of the holder and restricts the mobility of the population. It was designed to tie farmers to land in order to secure agricultural supply after famine caused at least 30 million deaths, but is now undergoing much needed reform. According to hukou, Chinese workers are divided into either rural or urban registrations. Even though they may work in the cities, rural residents have rural household registration, which is the same for farmers or other agricultural workers. In addition, hukou is not determined according to where a worker lives, but rather on a hereditary basis. That is, for rural residents, even though they work and live in the cities, they will have a rural household registration. This is like saying a person born and raised in Lancashire who then moves to London is an immigrant. Migrant workers are generally excluded from the basic provisions for housing, social security and education for their children that their local neighbours enjoy. Now, many wish to abolish the system in its entirety. The Charter 08 manifesto calls for change which 'gives every citizen the same constitutional rights and the same freedom to choose where to live'.
In 2014, announcements regarding hukou reform were made, coinciding with a new urbanisation plan, which focuses on moving more rural residents into towns and cities. In all of these efforts, reforms are in small and mid-size cities, many of which in the past were newly built and previously described as ghost cities for lack of inhabitants. Shanghai and Guangzhou have adopted points-based criteria on education, home ownership, etc. However, according to one report, only 26,000 of 300,000 qualified migrants obtained a local hukou in Shanghai by the end of 2015.
There will be no prescription where people should live or move to in a socialist world. It will be entirely up to them as free individuals in a free society, for in a socialist society, dire poverty that drives migration will disappear and most people will not wish to migrate. Of course, people will still travel and visit other parts of the world and this is a good thing. Cultural diversity is something that needs to be nurtured, fostered and above all experienced.