Monday, December 4, 2017

White House bugged (1982)

From the January 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

Could President Reagan, the greatest supporter Big Business has ever had in the White House, be responsible for a cardinal sin against capitalism?

In the highly competitive world of exterminators, the answer is a gloomy yes. In short the President helped in the promotion of a perfect product that supermarkets won’t touch: a powder that rids homes of cockroaches permanently so needs to be bought only once.

‘Stores don’t want a once-and-for-ever sale,’ explained Alan Brite, president of the company that makes Roach-Prufe. ‘They like repeat business.'

‘Who would want to produce a tyre that never wears out, an everlasting battery or a car that lasts a lifetime?’

Mr Brite traces his problem back to the day Ronald and Nancy Reagan found cockroaches in the White House. They called in chemists and experts from the University of California and consulted the permanent staff who, like millions of Americans, had accepted that periodic infestations were as inevitable as the seasons.

The final solution the experts revealed was Roach-Prufe. The Reagans tried it and the dreaded cockroaches never returned. The word leaked out and, in a blaze of publicity that would have cost millions, the public clamoured for Mr Brite’s product. But it was rejected by a marketing system geared to a fast turnover of the imperfect.

So instead of despatching the powder in truck loads to thousands of outlets across the nation, Mr Brite has to use more expensive door-to-door salesmen.
Daily Mail, 18 November 1981

How the Land Lies (1982)

From the February 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

Modern society is sometimes praised as a “property-owning democracy” in which with one or two rare exceptions (like Our Royal Highnesses) everybody starts life on an equal footing and our acquisition of property will depend on what we desire, the extent of our drive and initiative, and generally on what we deserve. Under capitalism, it is argued, if we reduce state interference to a minimum, everybody will be free to acquire what he or she wants. How far is this notion of the democracy of private property borne out by the facts?

There are 41,879,000 acres of land in Britain but to know exactly who owns what is difficult. The most recent comprehensive investigation into land ownership was the New Domesday Survey of 1873 which was intended to demonstrate that land had become more fairly distributed since the first Domesday Survey in 1086; but the result was to prove the very opposite. Since then there has been a certain reluctance on the part of British landowners to disclose details of their holdings. For example, in 1976 the Country Landowners Association attributed their reticence to the “practical difficulties” involved in finding out what they own. But then members of the aristocracy never were able to cope with the "practical difficulties” of life.

However, the available information demonstrates that the ownership of land and property is in the hands of a very small minority. The reports of the Royal Commission on the Distribution of Income and Wealth (1975-80) show, for example, that the wealthiest 8 percent of the adult population own 91 per cent of the land. Some of these wealthy landowners are aristocrats—you may find the Duke of Buccleuch wandering about his modest 268,000 acres of green and pleasant land, or you might see the Countess of Sutherland on her motorised lawnmower gliding over her 150,000 acres. Such ownership, which cannot even pretend to be based on merit, is defended by the nobles and their sycophants as being the birthright of the golden caste. Much property is also owned by members of the ruling class who have made their fortunes from wealth created by the working class in industry. The late Charles Clore is an example. Among his knick-knacks were the British Shoe Corporation, William Hill the bookies, Selfridges, Mappin and Webb, Garrards the royal jewellers and countless properties. Clore’s main interest was in property development which he began in the 1930s and eventually went on to “build” the Hilton Hotel—although, strangely, neither bricklaying nor architectural design seem to have featured in his talents. Clore was a frank man, and when asked whether he liked art, replied “No, I like blocks of flats”.

Financial institutions—particularly insurance companies and pension funds—have also become major landowners during the last twenty-five years. Land is a sound investment, especially during periods of high inflation, and now nearly 20 per cent of the assets of these institutions are invested in property.

It is sometimes argued that the enormous wealth of pension funds, including a good deal of property, denotes a significant shift of riches to ordinary working people. Apart from the fact that what each worker contributes to the fund only really amounts to unpaid wages, it is not the case that the fortunes of the funds are the property of the workers to be enjoyed in the same way as a capitalist would benefit from his share portfolio. A miner, working hard and living in poverty does not have fewer daily difficulties because the National Coal Board owns, for instance, a 50 per cent interest in the Watergate building in Washington.

So, on the one hand there is a small minority who, between them, own most of the land. On the other hand there are those of us — the overwhelming majority — who own about as much of Britain as we can fit into our pockets. Margaret Thatcher is very fond of quoting the high proportion of residents in Britain who are “owner-occupiers”, and some people are always eager to tell you how secure their lives are, or how proud they are to be a “capitalist”, because they own their own homes. As a matter of fact, not only do most people not own their homes, but most believe they are owners are not. Most people who boast about their home ownership make lifelong regular payments to mortgage companies, building societies or banks to pay for their accommodation and are really in a very similar position to rent payers. According to the 1981 report Judicial Statistics (issued by the Lord Chancellor’s Office) 27,000 people lost their homes during that year when they fell behind with their mortgage payments and had their homes re-possessed through the courts.

Under the present social arrangements having a roof over your head depends not on need but on how much you can afford. So, to take one example, while more than twenty couples recently camped out in front of Waverley District Council’s offices in Surrey hoping to be “lucky” enough to buy cheap homes at bargain prices of £20,000 (Guardian, 7/12/81), the spacious and luxurious Heveningham Hall in Suffolk discreetly changed hands for £726,000 (Guardian, 8/1/82). Over the years there have been various suggestions about how to solve the housing problem, some less serious than others. Lady Spencer of Althorp, for instance, thinks that stately homes are an anachronism. “Of course they are. Who needs 100 rooms today? They are abnormal, and my husband and I have always thought the answer is to add a little normality”. This normality consists of throwing their place open for business occasions, conferences and to tourists. Perhaps we should all take another look at our living rooms, give them a once-over with a duster and telephone the CBI to see if they’ve already made arrangements for their next annual conference. Then there are the more serious reform proposals.

Given the chance to form the next government, would the Labour Party or the SDP-Liberal Connivance solve the housing problem? Local authorities estimated last year that there were 547,000 unfit homes in England alone, plus 1,035,000 homes lacking one or more of the basic amenities. Des Wilson, the first director of Shelter, the national campaign for the homeless, recently said:
The desperate truth now is that those of us who spoke out about the scandal of Britain’s housing problem in 1966, when Shelter was launched, find ourselves back at square one. All the signs are that this year fewer houses will be started than at any time during the last fifty years.
The well-intentioned people in Shelter are fighting a losing battle; for as long as houses are built not for people to live in but for sale or rent, then there will be a mismatch between what we want and what we get. Listening to the renewed pledges and promises from Labour politicians to “provide adequate housing for everyone” and deciding to give them one more chance will not solve anything. Under the last Labour government the rich got richer; the dole queues got longer; the high-rise hell-holes erected as Labour’s answer to inner-city slums in the 1960s began to crumble; the number of homeless grew and the number of houses being built fell.

Labour, like the SDP and the Liberals, asks for your trust in its ability to solve problems by making a good job of governing capitalism. What actually happens is that capitalism always makes a good job of governing whichever party is in “power”. The forces of the market, as the profit-system convulses its chaotic way through boom and slump, glut and dearth, are more powerful than a hot kitchen-full of politicians. The present social system entails the minority ownership (by individuals or states) of the land and the means of life, while the propertyless majority are exploited to create profits for the wealthy.

This system spreads across the world. In a television documentary last year it was estimated that from a world population of about 4,000,000,000, approximately 3 per cent own about 80 per cent of the planet (Global Report, 1981, BBC, 30/12/81). Private property society is not the only way that people can live and there is no reason to suppose that the social organisation into which we were born is the one which will endure indefinitely. In fact, the one thing of which we can be certain is that there will be change; but the kind of changed society which will exist tomorrow will depend on action today.
Gary Jay

Rape Prejudice (1982)

From the March 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

The rape-inspired panic arising from a series of recent incidents has, to put it mildly, served to distort the true picture, which is bad enough as it is. There was the televised questioning, by incredulous Thames Valley policemen, of a woman who complained that she had been raped. There was the decision by the Scottish law authorities not to prosecute three young men suspected of raping and slashing a young woman in Glasgow. And there was the rapist who was “only" fined £2,000, rather than being sent to prison, because the judge thought his victim had contributed to the offence by her negligence (she accepted a lift in his car when there was no other way to get home which she could afford).

These incidents have been interpreted as proving that there is a lot wrong with the way the offence of rape is dealt with. The police won't believe the victim, or if they do the authorities won't prosecute the offender, and should the case come to court some doddering male chauvinist judge will let the man off lightly. One result of this is a dramatic increase in the interest being taken in rape; Spare Rib (February 1982) claimed: “Every accessible Women's Liberation group has been flooded with telephone calls from women wanting to do something". The London Rape Crisis Centre said their switchboard was jammed with calls, with a 100 per cent increase in the number of women alleging that they had been raped.

Naturally the press has rushed to exploit this panic, confident that nothing sells newspapers like sex. Acres of newsprint have been turned by this particular plough. Here for example are some headlines from the same page of the Daily Telegraph of 30 January: 2 Years For Sex Assault “Too Little". “Horrifying” Sex Attack By Railman; Jail For Raping Prostitute; Sex Attackers Bound Husband. And all this, mark you, from a “quality” newspaper; the hysteria among the other levels of Fleet Street, where soft porn is habitually dressed up as moral indignation,was of historic intensity.

One spin off of the decision not to prosecute the three Glasgow men was the sacking of Nicholas Fairbairn from the job of Solicitor General of Scotland. Fairbairn’s defence of the decision in the Commons was itself panic stricken and so earned the contempt of the House, where they will readily applaud all manner of deceit but cannot abide an incompetent performance at the Dispatch Box. The Baron of Fordell (to give Fairbairn his other name) is an Old Etonian who lives in a castle in Dunfermline—a comfortable, ruling class world away from the sordid working class slum where the girl was raped and knifed. He once informed the Commons that: “It is part of the business of men and women that they hunt and are hunted and say ‘Yes' and ‘No' and mean the opposite”. Any sympathy for this boorish aristocrat should be tempered by the knowledge that he still hopes to get into the government. Immediately after being sacked by Thatcher he described her as “. . . probably the warmest and kindest human being that those who have met her have ever had the privilege of encountering”, and a few days later as ". . . very loving, very kind and very compassionate”.

The Glasgow case provoked a great swell of outrage on the opposition benches. Relentless penal reformer Robert Kilroy-Silk denounced the government's decision to stand firm against the panic and not to change the law on dealing with, rapists as “. . . totally unsatisfactory . . . a grave disappointment to all women and those who want law. order and justice maintained”. Kilroy-Silk, normally among the loudest of those demanding more leniency for criminals, has tabled an amendment to the pending Criminal Justice Bill providing for harsher treatment-mandatory gaol sentences for convicted rapists. There is nothing remarkable in Labour reformers, who endlessly and boringly trumpet their progressiveness, demanding that the clock be put back. Standing out against a popular panic can lose votes.

In this country rape is the third most serious criminal offence, after murder and treason (like discharging blanks from an imitation pistol when the queen is nearby on a horse). The panic is obscuring the fact that it is notoriously difficult to judge the frequency of rape and whether it falls or rises, or even to compose a satisfactory legal definition of it. The statistics depend on highly subjective elements—on whether a woman decides she has been raped, whether she then reports it to the police and whether they believe her; whether the final conviction is for rape rather than for a lesser charge. To begin with, only about two-thirds of reported rape is recorded as such by the police.

For what they are worth, then, the figures show an increase of 39 per cent in cases of rape recorded by the police in England and Wales between 1970 and 1980—from 884 to 1225. During the same period, all recorded sexual offences fell by 13 per cent. Nearly a quarter of recorded rape now happens in the area of the Metropolitan Police, which might say something about the delights of life in one of capitalism's great urban concentrations.

The last great outcry about rape arose from a particularly nasty case in 1973, which brought stiff gaol sentences for four men in the RAF. Their appeal eventually reached the House of Lords, where Lord Hailsham spoke from beneath his wig in words which raised a storm. No man, said Hailsham, could be convicted of rape if he genuinely believed, however unreasonably, that the woman was actually consenting. Tediously vociferous Labour MP Jack Ashley quickly composed attacks from his dictionary of cliches, describing Hailsham's ruling as a “Charter for Rapists” and fulminating in the Sunday Mirror (where better?) that “The Scales of Justice have swung heavily in favour of rapists. . . “Amid all the fuss it went almost unnoticed that the four men remained in gaol. The result was a new Act in 1976 which, among other things, attempted a redefinition of rape.

This law was the latest in a very long line; as might be expected, rape has preoccupied legislators for a very long time. Four thousand years ago the Babylonian code of Hammurabi decreed death for any man who raped a betrothed virgin (married victims were classed as adultresses, were bound and thrown into the river). More recently the Second Statute of Westminster (1285) chillingly proclaimed that any man who . . ravishes a wife, maiden or other woman . . . shall have judgement of life and member" . . .  Rape remained punishable by death until 1840, although it was likely that the severity of the sentence had long disuaded juries from convicting.

Early rape law was concerned with the protection of women as men’s property; it now claims to provide for the restraint of the offender as well as for revenge for the rest of society. With a few exceptions, the sentence is assumed to match the nastiness of the act and to express a widespread abhorrence of it. This apparent symmetry is dented when we remember that this is a social system which legalises and rewards a great deal of activity which goes directly against human interests—a society in which sexuality is too often a neurosis, liable to relieve itself in horrific excesses.

Sexual behaviour—including misbehaviour such as rape—does not spring from nowhere; it is socially conditioned. In her book The Mountain Arrapesh Margaret Mead told of a primitive people living in harsh, remote mountains in New Guinea. The Arrapesh’s living conditions persuaded them that they depended on peaceful co-operation for their lives and this was the basis for their morals. They were neither aggressive nor even competitive; they did not engage in warfare. These attitudes extended into their sexual relationships:
Of rape the Arrapesh know nothing beyond the fact that it is the unpleasant custom of the Nugum people to the southwest of them. Nor do the Arrapesh have any conception of male nature that might make rape understandable to them.
In contrast were the Gusii people, studied by Robert Levine, who lived in the Highlands of Kenya, in seven tribes which were further split into clans and sub-clans, all traditionally hostile to each other. But each group imported wives from another group, which carried over the tribal hostility into their sexual activity in the marriage. The husband’s role was to hurt and subordinate—to rape—the wife, who resisted to the limits of her powers. At a conservative estimate, during 1955/6 rapes happened in the Gusii at the rate of 47.2 for each 100.000 of the population, while the rate in England and Wales was about 4 in each 100,000 (See The Facts of Rape, Barbara Toner).

Capitalism, a technically more advanced society, also fashions sexual conduct through a basic antagonism. It exists, first of all, on the antagonism of the commodity—wealth which is socially produced but privately appropriated. For the majority, access to that wealth is through the antagonistic relationship of wage labour. Capitalism conditions antagonism in sexual relationships. On the one hand it idealises the monogamous, nuclear family where sexual contact is as predictable, contained and as unsatisfying as an intravenous drip. On the other hand it sells promiscuity, in its popular press and in the sexually loaded inducements to buy cars, cigarettes, clothes . . ,

Capitalism is preoccupied with productive efficiency, with keeping the exploitative process pouring profits into the balance sheet. It can spare very little resources for the misfit, who cannot measure up to its expectations in social or sexual terms. Capitalism is a society populated with rejects, where deviance is more isolating than crime. Little wonder that sometimes the despair of the deviant misfit may explode into an act of intolerable aggression, with all the humiliation and suffering which it brings.

The true horror of rape is its deprivation. Sexual activity is necessary to human beings but it is no mechanical business; it is improved by some mutual respect between the participants. Rape substitutes anger and despair for affection; it makes a torture of a human essential.

Capitalism could never concede that its people are its victims, and must behave as such. So rapists will continue to be punished and after they are sentenced will experience a living hell in prison, at the hands of convicts anxious to reassure themselves that there are others more wretched than they are. This sordid mess is just one measure of the struggle before us, before we have an abuse-free society, of liberated relationships in humanity.

Action Replay: 888online - Gambling’s BĂȘte Noire (2017)

The Action Replay column from the December 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

Recently the online gambling company 888 was fined £7.8 million by the Gambling Commission after it was discovered that thousands of its customers who had voluntarily banned themselves from gambling online were still able to make wagers due to a technical glitch in the system. The company reported the problem to the commission in February this year which prompted a review of its license.

Roughly £3.5m has been wagered over a year by ‘self-excluded’ customers. One gambler bet £1 million, £55k of it stolen from their employer. Sarah Harrison, CEO of the Gambling Commission said ‘safeguarding customers is not optional. The penalty package of just under £8m reflects the seriousness of 888's failings’ (i newspaper 1/9/2017).

The 888 site currently provides online casinogames in download and web-based instant play for PCs, tablets and mobiles,including classic table games such as blackjack, roulette and baccarat. A Random Number Generator is used to ensure that performance is truly random.

Statements from 888 proclaim their commitment to 'a proactive policy of corporate and social responsibility reflecting the high ethical standards it sets for itself' and emphasise that ‘self exclusion’ is a tool used by the gambling industry to enable customers to cease playing for at least six months. Should a customer cease gambling with a particular account after a ‘self exclusion’ period, 888 and other gambling firms are duty bound to close the account and return any residual money to the customer. However, despite all the procedures, in the case of 888 it didn't work.

We need to ask why advice offered by (a) the alcohol industry to ‘drink responsibly’ and (b) the gambling industries advice to bet responsibly i.e. to ‘stop (betting) when the fun stops’ is dubious. Gambling, like smoking and drinking alcohol is highly addictive and creates dependency and social problems. Online betting is the new ‘cash cow’ of gambling. The puerile advice offered by both industries is ineffective because it puts all the responsibility on the consumer and none on itself. Both gambling and alcohol are lucrative businesses and under capitalism wherever there is money is to be made profit will always be more important than people.

Pipes of peace? (1982)

From the April 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

Modern industry and transport and the daily lives of people are wholly dependent on sources of energy. It used to be coal and coal gas and their use for the generation of electricity; then oil took the lead and now it is a combination of many sources including nuclear energy, solar energy and natural gas. If the world operated on the basis of co-operation to meet human needs it would be a problem of selection, with due regard to suitability, local availability and safety. But capitalism, which at present dominates the whole world, is not like that at all.

The world is divided into some 150 nations, each with its armed forces, grouped in a number of alliances, each pursuing policies designed to further the interests of the dominant section which for the time being controls each government. And inside each nation there are rival capitalist groups. The result is that schemes to transport energy materials from places where they are abundant to places where they are needed become over-ridden by national rivalries and military considerations. But for capitalism, these would be simple economic and technical problems.

A case in point is the planned pipeline to take Siberian gas to Western Europe and Japan. Inter-governmental discussions of the pipe-lines are ranging over the dictatorship in Poland, Russia and Afghanistan ; American foreign policy towards Europe; disarmament and the continued existence of Nato.

The Russian government, which already supplies considerable natural gas to Europe, now plans to build a 3,600 mile pipe-line system from Western Siberia to European borders from which gas will be pumped to West Germany, France, Italy, Austria, Holland, Belgium and Switzerland. According to the Financial Times (18 December 1981) it is estimated to cost 15 billion dollars to build and “is the biggest East-West trade deal ever”. Big orders for the steel pipes and compressor stations are to go to German and French companies though, for these latter components, some companies were relying on General Electric of USA.

Critics of the scheme, among them the American government, argue that it will make Europe dangerously dependent on Russia, thus weakening Nato. The argument came to a head when Reagan announced his policy of putting pressure on Russia (over Poland) by banning “high technology” exports and calling on support from European governments. (This would include the compressor parts from American General Electric.) The German and French governments denied the danger of “too great reliance”, pointing out that Europe will also have access to gas supplies from Algeria (which already has a gas pipe line to Italy) and Nigeria. Both governments affirmed their intention to go ahead with the agreement with Russia. The Russian interest is said to be that, with declining oil production and exports, “hard currency” revenue from the gas exports is desperately needed to finance the huge imports of grain needed because of the deficiencies of Russian agriculture and a series of harvest failures.

Japan is also involved, through negotiations to help develop oil, gas and coal resources in Eastern Siberia, to be financed by Japan, with repayment in the form of Russian delivery of the energy materials. But, according to an article in the Observer (21 February) the continuation of this scheme is now in doubt because, among other difficulties, there is conflict inside Russia between supporters and opponents.
There is evidence of a battle of bureaucrats in Moscow, with Gosplan, the supreme planning authority, and some ministries doubting whether Siberian development is worth while . . . it is said that the rate of return on inputs in Siberia is not high and very long-term. These arguments are challenged by a Siberian lobby.
To add to the complications for Japan, “China insists that the development of Siberia threatens its security”. In the meantime Japanese companies are contracting to supply pipes and pipe-laying equipment for the other project, the pipeline from Western Siberia to Europe.

While NATO (The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) is under strain over conflict of interests about the Russia-Europe pipeline, it is also faced with the other possible aim of American policy, the withholding of food supplies to put pressure on Russia. The British, French, German and other governments have reaffirmed their support of NATO but some of them, particularly Germany, are complaining that the Reagan government pays too little regard to the interests of European capitalism. The British Labour Party, while supposedly committed to unilateral nuclear disarmament, also recently declared its continual support for NATO. It was of course the Attlee Labour Government which, with a complete U-turn of foreign policy, took British capitalism into NATO and embarked on massive re-armament, designed, as they said, to ward off a threatened Russian invasion of Western Europe.

The Times in a leading article “Food is Peace” (26 February) urged Reagan to disregard the lobbying of American farmers and his election pledge not to use a grain embargo against Russia, and to go all out to use food as a weapon to force the Russian government to change its policies. “Raw materials are vital strategical weapons. No raw material is as vital as food . . . The Soviet Union knows perfectly well that its dependence on our food production is a major and constant source of weakness. We should show them that we know that too”.

This is the way the capitalism of America, Europe, Russia and the rest of the powers bedevils the meeting of human needs and turns every issue into one of potential military conflict.
Edgar Hardcastle