Monday, July 24, 2017

Food, Hunger and Politics (1990)

From the August 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the present way of organising society cannot ensure that everyone has enough to eat. Millions go hungry in what the Times (10 June 1985) admitted is “a world which is awash with food surpluses”.

High-powered conferences of experts have failed to solve the problem. Reports and resolutions provide empty words for empty bellies. The objective proclaimed in 1974 by Nobel Peace Prize winner Henry Kissinger that “within a decade no child will go to bed hungry, that no family will fear for its next days bread" (London Evening Standard, 5 November 1974) has been a mockery. There are now. both in absolute and relative terms, a greater number of hungry people in the world than there were then.

The efforts of voluntary relief agencies have fared no better. They face what they have called "donation fatigue' and openly admit that they have to rely on the actions of governments—of those in charge of the system that produces the problem in the first place.

Hiroshima every three days
People are dying in their millions from entirely preventable causes. The side-effects of hunger and malnutrition kill 15 million children a year. Fifteen million completely unnecessary deaths. Poverty killing more than war ever did. And yet the means of ending hunger are to hand. Susan George, Associate Director of the Transnational Institute and writer and broadcaster on world poverty, claims that providing for the needs of 15 million could be done by 3.6 millions tons of grain. World harvests of grain in 1980 were 1.556 million tons. To feed the 450 million estimated by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation to be malnourished would only take 128 million tons of cereals—8 percent of world harvests, less than the United States feeds to its livestock (world-wide, half the grain crop is fed to animals). In 1984 the FAO estimated global cereal carry-over stocks as 294 million tons (State of Food and Agriculture, 1984. p. 47).

That people are hungry because they are poor is a theme which runs through a series of essays written in the 1980s by Susan George and now published in a revised form as Ill Fares the Land (Penguin Books. £5.99). The book is written with a deep concern for the victims of a world where "the toll of hunger on human life is equal to a Hiroshima explosion every three days" (p. 223).

She catalogues in detail some of the seemingly endless contradictions of a world where profit is the driving force behind the production of the means of life. “Higher productivity—and higher profits— actually mean more hungry people . . . " Even a so-called success such as the "green revolution" brings in its wake a loss of land and employment for millions because it was "a means of increasing food production without upsetting entrenched interests (as well as a means of providing increased revenues to the Western firms supplying industrial inputs)" (p.184).

This has resulted in a situation where poor peasants now die of exposure in the Indian province of Bihar. Straw was formerly free for bedding, but the new breeds of cereals have shorter straws which now command a price as a raw material used in paper-making (to replace wood which is in short supply due to deforestation). At the same time, "substantial grain reserves exist partly because half the population is too poor to buy them" (p. 184).

However, while the descriptions of the scale and effect of the profit system are written with a humanitarian concern for the poor and the destitute. George's prescriptions for actions are deeply flawed. Having recognised that the economic power of the more industrially and economically advanced nations is used for the furtherance of profit, and that to this end the privileged elites of the "Third World" are willingly enlisted as allies, she fails to draw the obvious conclusion: if ensuring that all have enough to eat is not a technical problem but a political one, then the techniques and means of life must cease to be the property of a tiny privileged minority. They must be made the common property of the whole of humanity. Production must be directly for use and not for sale on a market where “the poor cannot express their needs in terms of money, the only language the market economy understands" (P. 6).

Third world elites
What George is doing is to decry the effects without removing the causes of those effects. Having, consciously or unconsciously, rejected a complete change in society she is forced back into attempts at reforming the present system. This results in her appealing to the self-interest of nationalists in less developed countries, to the economic self-interest of European capitalists (she has given up on the USA and Russia), and, most futile of all, for "justice".

She appeals to those elites in the Third World (short-hand for those areas of the world where capitalism is still in the process of being developed at the expense of the increasingly landless peasants) who are perceived to be "working for the betterment of their countries". These she calls "true nationalists". But, if as she argues, the system that dominates the world is increasingly global then the solutions to the problems it creates must also be global.

Capital must of its nature expand at the expense of other capitals. To advocate the implementation of schemes that are deliberately labour intensive (so as to provide work for the jobless peasant/worker in the making) is to invite disappointment when the system follows its own immutable laws. She is not unaware of these laws, describing the “trans national corporations" (TNCs) as operating as follows:
In a world of rising costs and diminishing profits, it becomes more important than ever for the industrialised countries and the TNCs to maintain and to reinforce their hegemony over the global economy. They must, from their point of view, increase their control over world production, and world markets . . . Those who believe that these companies have any object besides the enhancement of their own profits are making a serious mistake. (pp. 93-4).
If banks and international lenders see these firms as more reliable and more profitable than local Third World ones, and so give them better credit terms and loan facilities, it is unrealistic to expect them to act otherwise—they exist, after all, in the same profit-seeking economic environment. If in acting this way they "thereby indirectly prevent the creation and expansion of national firms which are short of working capital" (p. 102), nothing can be done about it; this is the way the capitalist system works.

What should be noted here is that we are being asked to take sides with the emergent capitalists in the less developed world—with the very group who control the state and have no compunction in using the military and police to "control" the desperate and hungry when they revolt (as Kaunda recently did in Zambia). Nationalists everywhere have always acted this way when they come to power and are strong enough to implement the rule of the class they represent, using the state "to extract as much wealth as possible from the countryside" (p. 215) (actually, from the labour-power of the people living there).

Giving this parasitic class in the making a sympathetic leg-up to join the first division of robbers will not solve the problems of the poor. George's dream of an improvement in the lot of the Third World poor through economic developmemt "independent" of the more developed capitalist countries is a non-starter. Not that the full development of a successful and prosperous capitalist system is a guarantee against hunger, as the existence of 20 million hungry Americans testifies (Scientific American, February 1987)

Who’s aiding who?
If her appeals for "independent" development in the Third world are unrealistic, her appeals to the power structures of the European Community are unnecessary. She tempts them with the following;
By espousing the cause of three-quarters of humanity. Europe would also, in the fullness of time, reap the more traditional commercial and financial benefits. (p. 68. emphasis added).
She need not worry. This kind of self-interested approach to aid has already been eagerly adopted by both the major British political parties. In a debate a few years ago on famine and debt in developing countries, Timothy Raison, Tory Minister for Overseas Development, told the House of Commons:
I believe that our approach to debt is sound. We have to work constructively in the world that exists. . . .  At the same time of course, we are concerned with British interests. We want to develop good relations and see stability increase and see potential markets grow . . . The aid trade provision enables us to respond flexibly to commercial opportunities . . . Over the last few years some £350 million of aid trade provision has resulted in British firms winning contracts overseas valued at more than £1,400 million. (Hansard. 11 June 1985. Vol 80. colls 779-780).
While in power the Labour Party also embrace "the world that exists" and the "commercial approach". Aid to the Third World is regarded as being in line with "British interests". Judith Hart. Labour Minister for Overseas Development, claimed an even better return than Raison's. This indirect subsidy to British capitalists cost £400m but resulted in £2,400 million's worth of exports—"growth for them means imports from us" (Times. 14 July. 1976).

The other main remedy Susan George relies on is a case for "justice"—an appeal to give the rapidly disappearing peasants a “fair" chance to help themselves. This amounts to trying to make the market system, which is driving them out of existence, work other than the way it must. To complain that TNCs "underpay" for Third World commodities is to ignore the fact that in any market buyers press for the lowest price while sellers press for the highest. Crying foul when the powerful exploit their advantage is no cure. The establishment of an "independent" enclave which would somehow circumvent the weak position of Third World producers is a chimera. The food producers of the EC and the USA, for example, can always as part of a potential trade war dump food on the world markets at prices which Third World peasants cannot compete with.

The only real hope for the hungry and exploited of the Third World lies in their realisation of the potential power they collectively have and organising consciously and politically with their fellow workers in the developed capitalist countries to democratically abolish capitalism and establish socialism. This entails the pursuit not of "justice" but of interest. Free men and women have no need of justice.
Gwynn Thomas

Green Scenario (1990)

Book Review from the September 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

Getting There. Steps to a Green Society. By Derek Wall. Green Print. £4.99

During the Euro-elections last year Derek Wall was one of the Green Party's three national spokespersons. He wasn't heard of much as the media ignored him in favour of Sara Parkin. This probably pleased some Green Party strategists who feared his leftwing views might put off the muddle-in-the-middle voters they were targetting.

For example, while one platform speaker at the Green Party Conference last September proclaimed “we come not to bury the market economy, but to use it” (Independent, 22 September). Wall writes that "ecology is incompatible with the market".

He is undoubtedly right here. Where wealth is produced by separate firms competing to make profits out of supplying a market, it is considerations of cost-saving and profit-making that will determine the materials and methods of production used: the short term will prevail over the long term and the cheaper over the ecologically appropriate.

Wall sees the solution as lying in the establishment of a decentralized society where much less would be produced and consumed than today and where these reduced needs would be mainly met locally. Money would not disappear completely but its role and influence would diminish drastically since peoples needs would be met directly (growing their own food, making their own clothes, etc) or on a barter, mutual aid or gift basis.

This might not be capitalism but it wouldn't be socialism either. In any event Wall doesn't call it socialism but a "Green society" and sees it as coming into being in embryo within capitalism (indeed as already having come into being in the form of "picnics and parties, collective allotments. co-operative buying, shared meals, local community news sheets, learning exchanges, tithing, ecological transport") and eventually growing to be strong enough to dissolve capitalism into a network of “local economies". This, according to him. is the way to "smash capitalism gently".

It couldn’t work of course. People can't just opt out of capitalism and begin satisfying their needs on a non-market basis. To launch and sustain this, money would be required (to hire or purchase land, premises and machinery, for instance) and, as long as capitalism exists, there is essentially only one way most people can obtain this: by going out and working for an employer for a wage or a salary. It is true that another possible source of income does exist in payments from the state. However, these are never generous and are in fact deliberately kept as low as practicable so as to offer a very miserable existence to those unable or unwilling to work for an employer.

Nor is the capitalist state going to allow state payments to be used to try to undermine capitalism in the way Wall suggests. But replies Wall, this time echoing official Green Party policy, a Green government would introduce a Basic Income Scheme under which everybody would receive a payment from the state, as of right and without means-testing, of an amount sufficient to satisfy at least their basic needs without having to go and work for an employer. The theory is that people could use this income to finance an "alternative economy".

It's a nice theory, but where's the state going to get the money from? It could only come from taxing the profits of capitalist firms, but any attempt to raise the massive amount that would be required to finance such a scheme would provoke an immediate and widespread economic slump. Wall, however, believes that "bankers create money out of thin air" and seems to be advocating that the state should do the same and simply create the money it needs, just printing pound notes and handing them out! Unlike banks, the state could do this but as the amount of real wealth in existence would remain unchanged this would result in a massive inflation that would rival that in Germany after the first world war.

Actually. Wall is not quite that naive. He does realise what would happen should a Green government committed to such a programme ever come into office:
A Green government will be controlled by the economy rather than being in control. On coming to office through coalition or more absolute electoral success, it would be met by an instant collapse of sterling as ‘hot money' and entrepreneurial capital went elsewhere. The exchange rate would fall and industrialists would move their factories to countries with more relaxed environmental controls and workplace regulation. Sources of finance would dry up as unemployment rocketed, slashing the revenue from taxation and pushing up the social security bills. The money for ecological reconstruction—the building of railways, the closing of motorways and construction of a proper sewage system—would run out.
But if this is the case, as it would be, a Green government would clearly be unable to help an embryonic green economy to develop by introducing a Basic Income scheme to allow people to escape from the wages system. In admitting this Wall is also admitting the non-viability of his scheme to “smash capitalism gently".
Adam Buick

Obituary: Walter Kobus (1990)

Obituary from the October 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

We regret to have to report the death earlier this year of our Comrade Walter J. Kobus of the World Socialist Party of the United States. He lived in Detroit, the centre of the American car industry, and until his retirement had been an active member of the United Autoworkers Union. For a short while the headquarters of the WSPUS, before it was moved to Boston, was in Detroit and comrade Kobus was active in the party local there. Some members will recall his visit to Britain a fair number of years ago. His generous bequests to us and the other Companion Parties will be used as he would wish: the furtherance of our common aim to foster knowledge of and the desire for the establishment of world socialism.

Morris and Socialism (1990)

1907 SPGB Pamphlet.
From the November 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

Morris was an unlikely recruit to Socialism. A wealthy romantic poet—"the idle singer of an empty day”—whose love of art and architecture led him to become an interior designer, his friends were poets and Pre-Raphaelite artists, not economists or politicians.

Morris who was born in 1834 became involved in politics in his forties through his opposition to British support for Turkey in the Balkans. From then on, he spoke in public regularly, his lectures had as their central theme work and art, with titles such as 'Art, Wealth and Riches', 'Useful Work versus Useless Toil’ and 'How We Live and How We Might Live'.

In 1883 he joined the new (Social) Democratic Federation, where he came in contact with Marxism. In opposition to H.M.Hyndman's 'absolutism", jingoism and opportunism, he resigned from the SDF with the Avelings, Bax and others, and, in 1884. founded the Socialist League. He was as active in this as humanly possible: editing and writing for Commonweal, selling the paper on the streets, speaking at open-air meetings, and travelling the length and breadth of the country for public lectures. He also wrote A Dream of John Ball (1886) and News from Nowhere (1890).

But anarchist influence on the League developed till in 1890 Morris was ousted from the editorship of Commonweal and left. Illness led him to be less active politically, though no less committed to socialism as a member of the Hammersmith Socialist Society.

What is Socialism?
In 1893 he was promoting socialist unity and succeeded in getting the SDF and the Fabians to endorse the Manifesto of English Socialists, with its uncompromising statement of what socialism meant to the socialists of that period.
On this point all Socialists agree. Our aim, one and all, is to obtain for the whole community complete ownership and control of the means of transport, the means of manufacture, the mines, and the land. Thus we look to put an end for ever to the wage-system, to sweep away all distinctions of class, and eventually to establish national and international communism.
Morris argued for the establishment of a socialist party "with tactics as clear as their aims”, whose test of membership should be “explicitly declared agreement." Ten years later, the Socialist Party of Great Britain was formed, emphasizing from the start that agreement on its aims and clearly stated principles was the sole test of membership. By contrast, the SDF, the ILP and others have all been swallowed up by the omnivorous, reformist Labour Party.

Only the Socialist Party has worked to achieve the sort of socialism described in that 1893 Manifesto as the united aim of all Socialists. It is also a measure of Morris’s influence that the larger part of one of his lectures 'Art under Plutocracy' was published among the Socialist Party's earliest pamphlets, under the title Art, Labour and Socialism (1907, with a new edition in 1962).

The Right to Enjoy Work
Central to Morris's argument was his claim that art matters to everyone: art is the expression of pleasure in work. He claimed that work cannot be a source of pleasure under capitalism's conditions. We need variety in our work, the chance to exercise skill and dexterity, working in pleasant surroundings, with the knowledge that our work is of real usefulness.

Morris spoke forcibly of the horror of factory monotony:
for a man to be the whole of his life hopelessly engaged in performing one repulsive and never-ending task is an arrangement fit enough for the hell imagined by theologians, but scarcely fit for any other form of society. ( 'Useful Work versus Useless Toil ').
The result of the use of machinery for mass production, and the division of labour, meant as Marx and Engels wrote, that:
the work of the proletarian has lost all individual character, and consequently all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous and most easily acquired knack that is required of him (Communist Manifesto).
Morris, like Marx, pointed out that 'labour-saving” machinery had never lived up to its name. In Marx's view, "machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labour, we behold starving and overworking it”. Morris has been thought, mistakenly, to be hostile to the use of machinery. Actually, he welcomed its potential: “in a true society these miracles of ingenuity would be for the first time used for minimizing the amount of time spent in unattractive labour". (’Useful Work versus Useless Toil'). Given the choice, he thought people would prefer to do many things by hand, where they could get more enjoyment from this than from machine work.

1962 SPGB Pamphlet.
“In a true society". Morris's words were carefully chosen. Modern Capitalism is not a society in the true sense: "I hold that the condition of competition between man and man is bestial only, and that of association human". He loathed "the system of unlimited competition where the best campaigning luggage a man can carry is a hard heart and no scruples". He described capitalism as "a state of perpetual war”, characterised by appalling waste.

Waste is obvious enough in war and preparations for war. To Morris waste was also blatantly obvious in the everyday competition between capitalists for markets, leading to overproduction when markets become glutted "and all that fury of manufacture has to sink into cold ashes . . . Can't you see the waste of it—waste of labour, skill, cunning, waste of life in short?" ('How We Live and How We Might Live').

Morris contrasted this with the advantages of a socialist system. A socialist society would be free from the need to produce armaments, to maintain a class of parasites, to compete. The burden of this waste of labour gone, people could enjoy the pleasure of working at an unhurried pace, not chasing the clock the way we do to-day.

Where there’s muck
Morns had strong objections to the filth and ugliness created by Victorian capitalism. In an early lecture, before he became a socialist, he protested:
Is money to be gathered? Cut down the pleasant trees among the houses, pull down ancient and venerable buildings for the money that a few square yards of London dirt will fetch: blacken rivers, hide the sun and poison the air with smoke and worse. ('The Lesser Arts').
But there was more to be said, later, by Morris as a socialist:
It is profit which draws men into enormous unmanageable aggregations called towns . . .  profit which won't take the most ordinary precautions against wrapping a whole district in a cloud of sulphurous smoke: which turns beautiful rivers into filthy sewers: which condemns all but the rich to live in houses idiotically cramped and confined, at the best, and at the worst in houses for whose wretchedness there is no name. ('How We Live and How We Might Live').
Unfortunately, the environmental lobby do not recognize this simple and obvious fact. They do not attack the system of production for profit as the cause of pollution: they believe it is enough merely to regulate the system so as to curb its worst excesses.

Morris had contempt for this view. In his article ‘How I Became a Socialist' he wrote of his ‘‘hatred of modern civilisation"; it was intolerable to someone "with a deep love of the earth, and the life on it, and a passion for the history of the past of mankind". What alternatives were there suggested by Liberals, Fabians, “gas and water socialists"?
Think of it! Was it all to end in a counting house on the top of a cinder-heap, with Podsnap's drawing-room in the offing, and a Whig committee dealing out champagne to the rich and margarine to the poor in such convenient proportions as would make all men content together?
To those who argued for piecemeal reforms, he insisted that this would still be a system of slavery and misery. Reforming it would not bring freedom and happiness:
It is to stir you up not to be contented with a little that I am here tonight: you will not get the little if you are contented with it: you must be either slaves or free: you are slaves at present: bear that always in mmd. think of what it means: try to think of the life you might live and would naturally live if you were not forced into misery by your masters, and then I do not think that you can help combining together to tell the world that you must be free and happy . . .(‘Misery and the Way Out')
Charmian Skelton

Nation or class? (1990)

From the December 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. But, as is so often the case, this famous saying is usually taken out of context. Dr. Johnson was not opposed to patriotism. On the contrary, for him the problem was opportunist politicians who drape themselves in the flag of the nation. For socialists, however, patriotism is the problem. Being the zealous support for what one believes to be one’s own nation, patriotism is a snare and a delusion for the working class. Across the world, from Lithuania to Scotland, from Ireland to Israel, workers are embroiled in nationalist struggles which are none of their concern.

A nation has been defined as a collection of people with their own culture in a specific territory. A nationalist then is someone who emphasises the distinctiveness of a nation, and usually strives for it to become a nation-state. The trouble with this, as Rosa Luxemburg pointed out, is that it presupposes a community of interests with the nation:
In a class society, the nation' as a homogeneous socio-political entity does not exist. Rather, there exist within each nation, classes with antagonistic interests.
Moreover, since the nation is not necessarily the same thing as the state and its machinery of government, and since there are few (if any) genuine examples in the world of the nation and state exactly coinciding to form a nation-state, there has been plenty of scope and motivation for struggles for “national self-determination"

Nationalist myth-making
Accept the premise about the nation and you have an excuse for armed conflict. Nationalists, of course, will offer the defence that the nation is a set of cultural traditions worth preserving; it is said that there is a shared history, with a common language and institutions. The nation, in some versions, is the spirit of the people embodied in the church, monarch and empire. There interpretations of the past, however, are an exercise in myth-making. Many people would be surprised at how many of the "immemorial" national traditions go no further back then the nineteenth century. The "traditional’’ Scottish kilt, for example, was invented by an Englishman (see The Invention of Tradition. 1983, edited by E.J.Hobsbawm and T.Ranger).

Our rulers take great care and go to some expense to try and imbue us with a sense of “our" nation, even though the geographical limits of the nation have changed and will change as international capitalism re-aligns itself. Meanwhile, no matter what the colour of the rag at the top of the mast-head, poverty remains a working class issue. An affection for where we live is understandable, but nevertheless, when we do not possess the means of livelihood we will always be a tenant with an opposing interest to that of the landlord

The medieval aristocracy tried to inculcate a sense of obligation to the land in the lower orders, as part of the master and serf relationship. In some places this outlook still persists, and capitalists have used it to their own advantage. But nationalist movements arose with the development of capitalism and the state. In the 19th century, Karl Marx supported some nationalist movements on the grounds that they were historically progressive because they served the class interests of the rising bourgeoisie in its opposition to the traditional aristocracy. Marx had made demands, in 1848 and 1880, for Polish independence from Tsarist Russia. Rosa Luxemburg, at one time a member of the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPL), described Marx's demands as ‘‘obsolete and mistaken". Obsolete because no longer relevant, mistaken because the demands were never relevant to the working class.

The name of the party, SDKPL, was deliberate since the "Kingdom of Poland" was the official name of Russian Poland; the party's name therefore proclaimed that it was a party operating only in that part of Poland; because states are organised on a territorial basis each Social Democratic party had the task of getting political power in the country where it operated. Luxemburg was aware that this was an organisational convenience, and that working class interests transcend national boundaries. For this reason, at the turn of the century, the SDKPL was the section in Russian Poland of the Russian Social Democratic Party. Luxemburg argued that the demand for an independent Poland was a demand for the establishment of another capitalist— and inevitably expansionist and oppressive—state. Experience of national liberation struggles in the twentieth century fully confirm the accuracy of this theory.

No meaningful democracy
Poland has been in and out of the Russian empire a number of times. The SDKPL at the turn of the century included Lithuania in its name and organisation, which was also then part of Russia. Lithuania had been part of Poland since 1361 and part of Russia since 1801. Along with the other Baltic republics of Estonia and Latvia. Lithuania was independent only from 1919 to 1940. Ironically, they were given independence by Gorbachevs hero, Lenin, though Gorbachev seems reluctant to emulate him in this respect. Lenin declared that socialists should support "the right of nations to self-determination", arguing that nationalist struggles were simultaneously struggles for democracy. (The SWP, being a true Leninist organisation, supported Lithuania in its recent battles with Gorbachev for much this reason).

The theory of national self-determination, however, failed to show how antagonistic classes have a common "national interest", and there is not a single example of a meaningful democracy being established anywhere in the world. Now that workers in eastern Europe have some limited political democracy they will find, as workers in the West have found, just how limited that democracy is (in effect, electing governments). How can capitalism, both East and West, be compatible with real democracy? When was there ever a vote as to who shall live in poverty? Who elected the rich? Where has there been a referendum on instituting homelessness? Who was consulted over the numbers to be unemployed? How often has there been a ballot on whether to declare war? Merely to pose these questions is to show the futility of nationalist struggles for democracy. The profit system has its own priorities and these are not susceptible to democratic control.

To-day nationalism rears its ugly head in eastern Europe and elsewhere. It is an ideology which conceals and distorts the exploitative social relationships of capitalism. As such, socialists are hostile to it and oppose it with the class interests of workers everywhere. It is as workers we are oppressed, not as a national grouping. It will be as workers we get our emancipation, not in national liberation. And as capitalism is the predominant world system, so the social revolution must be a world revolution.
Lew Higgins

Socialist and trade unionist (2015)

Book Review from the May 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

'A Rebel’s Guide to Eleanor Marx', by Siobhan Brown. Bookmarks. 2015

Although marred by the littering of ‘fightbacks’ and ‘downturns’ characteristic of SWP publications, this is not fundamentally a bad booklet. The contribution of Eleanor Marx to the class struggle is satisfactorily documented, both intellectually through her work on women – identifying  socialism as the way to ‘woman’s emancipation’ solution – and practically through her role as a firebrand activist in the New Unionism of the 1880s. Eleanor was not just the daughter of her father but a player in her own right – indeed her union interventions put his own ineffective fumblings in the First International to shame. The boring intricacies of her personal life are, in the main, sensibly avoided.

Little potted biographies of this nature have a valuable educative function regardless of the dubious politics of the issuing organisation. It is a little jarring, however, to be lectured on the undoubted usefulness of trade union organisation, the inefficacy of reformism and the patronising leadership attitude (of Hyndman) by a party characterised by non-industrial, primarily student, recruitment, hugely reformist sensibilities and a thoroughly authoritarian constitution. In the wake of the Comrade Delta scandal, perhaps the most notable thing about the ‘Rebel’s Guide’ series is the attention paid to ‘The Woman Question’. Four of the six in the range have female authors and half are about famous women or women’s issues. Whether there really was any truth behind the allegations or no, there is nothing like putting up a smoke screen.

Scarcity and Infinite Wants: The Founding Myths of Economics (2016)

From the June 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

If you open any textbook on economics you will find the definition at the beginning as to what economics is will include the concept of ‘scarcity’. On the one side, it is taught, there are scarce resources and, on the other side, unlimited wants, and that economics is the study of the choices people make (as individuals and societies) to deal with this.

However, the concept of ‘scarcity’ used in these definitions is an abnormal and circular one and human wants are not unlimited. The relationship between scarce resources and unlimited wants is not what economics actually studies. The definition above is an ideological construct to justify one particular way of organising the production and distribution of goods and services – the capitalist system of production for profit, involving markets, money, prices, profits, wages, interest, banks, etc. That’s what economics really studies.

What is scarcity?
When someone says that something is scarce what comes to your mind? Probably you think that there’s not enough of it, that it’s in short supply. That’s the normal usage, but for modern academic economics it’s something rather different. In his widely used textbook Economics Paul Samuelson writes of ‘the law of scarcity’. Actually, it’s not a law but a definition. In setting it down Samuelson contrasts scarcity to a situation where ‘an infinite amount of every good could be produced’. The opening chapter of another American textbook, with the same title, by Ralph T. Byrns and Gerard W. Stone is entitled ‘Economics: The Study of Scarcity and Choice’. One paragraph, headed ‘Scarcity’, starts: ‘A world in which all human wants are instantly fulfilled is hard to imagine.’ Yes, it is. In fact it’s preposterous.

But that’s what’s behind what economics means by ‘scarcity’ – it’s the absence of an infinite amount of every resource and every good, the absence of a state of affairs in which everything would be provided free by nature, in which, as in the mediaeval legend of the Land of Cockayne, geese would fly around ready-cooked saying ‘eat me!’ And we’re supposed to take their definition seriously.

It’s the same with what economics means by what is normally regarded as the opposite of scarcity – abundance. The normal definition of this is, to quote a few dictionaries, ‘plenty’, ‘more than enough’, and even ‘ample sufficiency’. It does not mean everything being what economics calls ‘free goods’. ‘Free goods’, in fact, is the last trace in economics of the Labour Theory of Value, which was embraced by Adam Smith and David Ricardo as well as by Karl Marx, since they are goods that are available without having to be the product of human labour. They are ‘free’ because no labour has to be expended to produce them.

So, economics is defining ‘scarcity’ is such a way that it exists by definition and irrespective of human needs; that it’s part of the human condition. In a way it is, though this is a strange way of putting it. A much more straightforward way would be to say that humans have to produce by their own work what they need. But that of course leads back to the dreaded Labour Theory of Value as it would bring out that the only sort of goods that economics is interested in are those that are the products of human labour, past and present.

But this definition of scarcity is still not adequate for the ideological aim of justifying a system where people’s consumption is rationed by money. The imagined killer argument here is that productive resources, however abundant (in the normal sense), will never be enough to satisfy human needs and wants as these are ‘unlimited’. So there will always be a need to ration what people can consume.

This view is stated very clearly in the Byrns and Stone textbook in its definition of economics:
‘Economics is the study of how individuals and societies allocate limited resources to try to satisfy their unlimited wants.’
On the same page there’s ‘Figure 1: The Origins of Scarcity’ which aims to illustrate this. On the left side there’s ‘Limited Resources and Time’ and on the right side there’s a list of ‘Virtually Unlimited Human Wants’. This is introduced by a statement which already begs the question of the existence of a system with monetary incomes and spending:
‘Scarcity occurs because our limited resources and time can only yield limited production and income, but people’s needs are virtually unlimited. Output is produced by using knowledge (technology) to apply energy to a blend of resources. Production, in turn, generates the income people spend on the limited goods and services available.’
What are human needs?
Philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists. sociologists, nutritionists and others have argued over the definition of both ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ but clearly there is, to coin a phrase, a ‘hierarchy of needs’ based on, first of all, physiological/biological needs, primarily food. But ‘Man does not live by bread alone’ as humans are social animals and have other needs beyond this level, basically to be members of a community and to have social recognition and esteem within it. This is not purely social but has a material aspect to it as what a person consumes affects how they are socially regarded, how they regard themselves, and what their aspirations are. In other words, ‘wants’ are socially-determined, not just a matter of individual whim. They are determined by society, not by biology in the way that basic human needs are (though even how these too are met is socially-determined).

So we’ve got: (1) Basic, physiological needs; (2) Non-material, social/psychological needs; and (3) Material needs and wants arising out of both of these. These categories can be applied to the textbook’s list of ‘Virtually Unlimited Human Wants’.

The list contains what can be regarded as basic needs: food, clothing, housing, etc.

It also contains some goods to meet people’s survival needs over and above the minimum to stay alive, e.g: transportation, comfort, good health but also useful objects such as microwaves, telephones, washing machines, computers, CDs, CD players, VCRs. But there is no problem in producing enough of these for everyone. In fact most people have already got them now. (It’s not certain, though, that people still want CD players and video recorders but the book came out in 1992 – another example of how wants are socially determined and depend on what’s available).

And then there’s non-material, social needs: recognition, sense of personal worth, peace of mind, success in life.

And finally, and this is where it becomes revealing, the material goods to satisfy these non-material needs: jewellery, three-car garage, golf lessons, plastic surgery, swimming pool, Hawaiian vacations, fancy automobiles, ski boats, yachts, designer wardrobes, country estate.

Non-material needs (such as the listed recognition, sense of personal worth, and success in life) can be met in a number of ways depending on what kind of society people have been brought up in and live in. The textbook’s list of ways to meet them today clearly reflects a society divided into rich and non-rich where to be rich is a measure of success in life and a way of gaining recognition.

The dogma of unlimited human wants which economics preaches assumes such a society and that wants are infinite because the non-rich aspire to be rich and the rich want to be richer. This latter itself is an internalisation by the rich of the fact that capitalism is a system of endless capital accumulation.

The ‘wants’ that capitalist society generates may well be ‘virtually unlimited’ but capitalism is not the only way of producing and distributing wealth nor of satisfying people’s need for recognition, sense of personal worth, and success in life. These needs can be met in other ways in a different society and have been in past and would be in a socialist society of social equals producing to satisfy people’s needs rather than for sale with a view to profits and their accumulation as capital.
Adam Buick

Not Half (2017)

Book Review from the July 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

'Why the Dalai Lama Is a Socialist: Buddhism and the Compassionate Society'. By Terry Gibbs, (Zed Books £12.99)

He isn’t, of course, but that does not mean this book is without value. The eye-catching title aside, there is relatively little here about the Dalai Lama, and the book is really about how some forms of Buddhism (which is often described as a philosophy rather than a religion) make similar-seeming claims to Marxism.

The Dalai Lama has in fact described himself as ‘half-Marxist, half-Buddhist’, but all the ‘Marxist’ part of this seems to mean is being concerned with equality and the condition of the majority. Some Buddhist views, it is claimed, deal with topics such as alienation and ideology that are important topics within Marxism too. Buddhism argues that people experience themselves as alienated and see nature and other people as things to be manipulated. Alienation, Gibbs suggests, is an inevitable result of living in a class society and, among other things, it motivates people’s consumption habits, such as always wanting the best and latest version of some gadget. Workers are deluded, in Buddhist terms, and have a false consciousness in Marxist terms (though Gibbs seems unaware that Marx never used the term ‘false consciousness’). But it is not clear that the Buddhist perspective adds anything, or that Marxism and Buddhism are really that similar, other than superficially.

There is a brief acknowledgement that Buddhist movements have contributed to suffering, but no reference to, for instance, the slaughter of muslim Rohingyas in Burma. A useful discussion deals with coltan, a mineral found in smartphones, which is produced in appalling conditions in Central Africa.

As for the kind of society that should replace capitalism, Gibbs is not at all clear, though a reference to ‘socialist Cuba’ is hardly reassuring. She also advocates a sustainable social system: ‘Such a global society would be marked by democratic processes that affirm mutuality, horizontality and respect as well as recognize our interdependence as the various cultures, races, religions, species and ecosystems sharing this planet.’ A guiding principle of this system would be ‘big C compassion’, which seems to mean being engaged with other humans, non-human animals and the rest of nature; perhaps this is what described also as a ‘sense of universal responsibility’.

As this last point suggests, this book is all a bit vague, and it is clear that Buddhism involves a number of different versions, many of them extremely mystical. Moreover, there is more to creating a truly democratic and sustainable society than showing compassion, whether with a big or little ‘c’.     
Paul Bennett