Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Heyday, Mayday (2017)

Book Review from the September 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

'Heyday: the 1850s and the Dawn of the Global Age', by Ben Wilson. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson £8.99)

This history covers the period from 1851 to 1862, from the Great Exhibition in London to the early part of the American Civil War. Britain was at the height of its power at this time, producing 70 percent of the world’s steel in 1851, for instance, and the book’s original hardback edition was subtitled ‘Britain and the making of the modern world’. But there were challenges to this pre-eminence, mainly from Germany and the USA.

One of the themes is technological progress, from the development of the telegraph to the growth of railways, and how this related to the expansion of production, the emergence of a global market and the rapid dissemination of news and other information. The discovery of gold, in California and Australia, resulted in massive population movements, appalling consequences for native peoples and enormous riches (though usually not for those who dug the gold). The gold rush also led to the development of faster ships and an international market for grain and other goods, as there was little agriculture in the areas where the gold was to be found.

Behind all this, however, was slavery, and the dependence of much of the industrialised world on cotton grown in the American south. Over a billion pounds of raw cotton was shipped from ports such as New Orleans to the mills of Lancashire, and arguments over the future of slavery and the possible secession of the slave states resulted in much uncertainty. When the Civil War cut off supplies, the production of cotton on a mass scale spread to countries such as Egypt and India, where the price of cotton rose so much that local manufacturers could no longer afford to purchase it as a raw material.

The other commodity that exerted a global influence was opium, which Wilson claims ‘dictated geopolitics’. Britain had already gone to war with China to enforce its own terms on the opium trade, and this continued with the shelling of Guangzhou in 1856 and the military occupation of Beijing in 1860. Hong Kong had become ‘one of the key hubs of global trade and finance’. Lord Palmerston won a big parliamentary majority in the so-called Chinese Election of 1857, as British electors backed his bellicose policies in the Far East. ‘Free’trade was one of the rallying cries of nineteenth-century capitalism, but it was generally imposed and maintained at the point of a gun.

The 1840s had been a period of economic depression and food shortages, but the 1850s were seen as a decade of boom. Yet in 1857 there was a global financial crash, with bumper grain harvests leading to a big drop in prices, and a realisation that plenty of bank loans would not be repaid. A New York-based bank failed, and many businesses collapsed.

Wilson gives a vivid picture of all these developments and more, including the Crimean War, Russian expansion in the Far East, the Indian Rebellion, and events in Japan. Capitalism expanded on the way to becoming a truly global system, but hundreds of millions of people suffered from poverty and war while this was happening.  
Paul Bennett

Every Form of Refuge Has Its Price (2017)

Book Review from the August 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

'A Place of Refuge: an Experiment in Communal Living'. By Tobias Jones, (riverrun £9.99)

This is an account of a ‘woodland sanctuary’near Shepton Mallet in Somerset, set up by Jones and his wife Francesca ‘with the sole purpose of offering refuge to people going through a period of crisis in their lives’(see also It was inhabited by them, their two (later three) children and usually up to five other people. In the first two and a half years, over fifty people stayed there for varying lengths of time. The other residents had various kinds of problem, such as addiction to alcohol or drugs, or a past history of abuse, or were ex-soldiers who had endured terrible experiences in Afghanistan and were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The book is an honest (sometimes painfully honest) report of the trials and tribulations involved, the effect on Jones himself of listening to so much trauma, and what was achieved.

The set-up had a religious inspiration, though not much is in fact made of this. It was supported financially by Jones’own income (from journalism and other writing), equal contributions from the other residents, donations from supporters and the sale of various goods produced on the site. A natural question to ask is whether the experience has any lessons for Socialists, though it should be borne in mind that the other residents, with their problematic backgrounds, were by no means a cross-section of the population.

Partly because of residents’histories, no alcohol or drugs were allowed on-site, nor was any violence permitted. It was mainly the Jones adults who decided what was allowed (it was their home, after all), and in the second year a management committee of outsiders was set up to offer advice. The result was not a harmonious paradise where everyone chipped in as they could and took what they needed, but nor was it a place where people did the minimum they could get away with and just enjoyed themselves. Volunteers from outside came one day a week to look around and help out. Most exchanges with the local community were non-monetary, such as providing a cup of tea and a slice of cake in exchange for an oil drum. Internally there was no concept of a wage.

Some quotes will give an idea of how it all worked out in practice: a few people ‘took everything they could without any idea of where it was coming from’, while others ‘were here for what they could get, not what they could give’. Yet most residents ‘don’t want to be helped; they want to help out’ and ‘Far more of our guests work too hard than not enough’ and in many ways ‘everyone benefited from communal life’. The wood ‘has, in fact, usually been a cheerful and harmonious place’.

Windsor Hill Wood is not a little piece of socialism in Somerset, but Jones’ book provides a refreshing insight into both the difficulties and benefits of one form of communal life.  
Paul Bennett

Popularising Marx (2017)

Book Review from the July 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

'The  People's Marx. Abridged Popular Edition of the Three Volumes of Capital'.  By Julian Borchardt. (Print-on-demand edition, Relnk Books, India, 2017)

Marx was the first to analyse scientifically the operation of capitalism as an economic system or 'the capitalist mode of production' as he called it. He analysed it as being a system of the production and accumulation of capital as a sum of money invested in the producing commodities (items of wealth produced for sale, as opposed to for direct use) by workers selling their labour power; the price they got for this (their wages) did represent the value of what they were selling but was less than the value of what they produced; the difference was 'surplus value' which was the source of the new capital accumulated by being invested in production.

Marx planned to write six volumes on this but only got round to writing the first. After his death Engels worked Marx's manuscripts into two further volumes. The other planned volumes, as on world trade and on wage-labour, were never even written.

The three volumes amount to over 2000 pages in both the Moscow Foreign Languages Publishing House and the Penguin editions. Only a minority of socialists will have read all three. Not that you need to read them all, of course, to be a socialist, but it helps to have some idea of how Marx analysed the operation of capitalism since its basic to the socialist case that in can never worked in the interest of the producers as it is based on their exploitation. So there has always been a place for works popularising Marxian economics. Julian Borchardt's People's Marx has been one. Written in German in 1919 it was translated and published in English in 1921. Borchardt was one of the minority of German Social Democrat who had opposed the war. He had collaborated in translating Volumes II and III of Capital into French. Relnk Books have now made his selection of Marx's writings available as a print-on-demand book.

Marx himself felt that the best way to introduce the concepts he would be using to analyse capitalism was to begin by analysing its basic unit, the 'commodity' as an item of wealth produced with a view to be exchanged with some other item of items of wealth produced for the same purpose. The opening chapters of Volume I of Capital do not in fact analyse the 'capitalist mode of production' but a model of an economy where commodities are produced by independent artisans owning their own instruments of production, for direct exchange with other commodities, i.e. by barter. Marx later introduces money (as a commodity that can be exchanged with all other commodities) but even this is still not capitalism. It is only when he drops the assumption that the commodity-producers are independent artisans and has the commodities produced by landless, propertyless people working for a wage for a capitalist who has invested money-capital in commodity-production that he comes to capitalism. So, it is only from the fourth chapter that he begins to analyse the capitalist mode of production.

Marx evidently thought that this step-by-step, assumption-by-assumption approach was the best way to introduce concepts such as 'abstract labour', 'value', 'exchange value', 'socially necessary labour' that he was going to use in his actual analysis of capitalism. Some of his popularisers have taken the view that it is better to begin with capitalism as wage workers experience it. Borchardt was among these. He opens with a passage from Volume III about profit and the various theories as to its origin where Marx concludes that it originates not in circulation as it appears to but in production.

To attempt to summarise the three volumes of Capital in less than 300 pages is a bold venture but Borchardt does introduce readers, in Marx's own words, not just to capitalism's origin and development and its effect on the working class (Volume I) but also on how it works in practice (Volume II and III).

The original edition attributes quite a number of passages from Volume I to Volume II. As this is a facsimile edition unfortunately this is repeated.
Adam Buick

The Recovery Position (2017)

Book Review from the June 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

'Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist'. By Paul Kingsnorth, (Faber & Faber £14.99)

This consists of a series of essays written between 2009 and 2016, most previously published in newspapers and magazines or online, which trace the author’s disenchantment with environmental activism. He originally wanted to save nature from people, but he gradually came to see the problems inherent in what he was doing. For one thing, the movements he was involved in were increasingly unsuccessful: every environmental problem identified at the 1992 Earth Summit had got worse in the years since. Ineffective action, he concludes, leads only to despair, and false hope is worse than no hope.

In addition, the green movement had changed. It was once eco-centric but shifted to become more about people, about social justice and equality for humans, having been taken over by the left: ‘green politics was fast becoming a refuge for disillusioned socialists, Trots, Marxists and a ragbag of fellow travellers’. Unfortunately this kind of vague and unsupported generalising is typical of much of the book. This is a pity, as there are some interesting claims here, for instance that many greens still see a motorway across a downland as bad but would be quite keen on a wind farm in the same location.

Moreover, his depiction of green politics is at best a half-truth. The Green Party do speak of ‘a political system that puts the public first’ but also of ‘a planet protected from the threat of climate change’. Friends of the Earth talk about protecting the bee population (partly because humans need them, admittedly) and also about preserving nature, advocating approaches such as agroecology and permaculture. Greenpeace oppose deadly air pollution, but also aim to defend the oceans and protect forests.

Kingsnorth is particularly scathing about sustainability, which he views as meaning ‘sustaining human civilisation at the comfort level that the world’s rich people – us – feel is their right’. Clearly he has no idea who the world’s truly rich people are. He also objects to the alleged single-minded obsession with climate change, and to seeing it as a challenge to be overcome by technological solutions. Capitalism, he claims, ‘has absorbed the greens’, but there is in fact no reason to think they were ever anti-capitalist. He never seems to ask why green movements have failed, let alone raise the possibility that their lack of success might be due to capitalism and its emphasis on profit.

The book closes with a couple of pieces on ‘uncivilisation’, a supposed alternative described only in very general terms as rejecting theories and ideologies and political or social ‘solutions’. Don’t come up with big plans for a better world, Kingsnorth says, but take responsibility for a specific something: he currently lives with his family on a two-and-a-half acre site in Ireland in an attempt to escape from ‘the urban consumer machine’. Rather than becoming involved in environmental or political causes, he proposes withdrawal and contemplation. He accepts that he does not have useful answers but it is not clear that he even has any worthwhile questions.  
Paul Bennett

The Transformation Problem (2017)

Book Review from the May 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

'Money and Totality'. By Fred Moseley. (Haymarket Books, 2017. 400 pages)

The subtitle sums up what the book is about: A Macro-Monetary Interpretation of Marx's Logic in Capital and the End of the 'Transformation Problem'.

We sometimes say that universities neglect Marx on economics. This is not strictly true as there is a sub-section which does look at Marx's views here, from an academic point of view. One of their fields of study is the so-called 'transformation problem'.

In Volume I of Capital Marx assumes, for explanatory purposes, that 'commodities', as items of wealth produced for sale, exchange at their 'value', determined by the amount of necessary labour expended to produce them from start to finish. In Volume III, published after Marx's death by Engels in 1894, he has commodities selling at their 'price of production', defined as their monetary cost + the average rate of monetary profit; which is what tends to happen in practice.

Marx-critics immediately cried 'contradiction' and one of the more mathematically-minded of them used algebra to try to demonstrate that it was impossible to 'transform' values into prices of production without dropping the assumption that total profit = total surplus value; in which case, the labour theory of value was wrong, or at least useless and irrelevant. This became what Moseley calls the 'standard' interpretation and criticism of Marx. Over the years it has provided academics, both those who consider themselves Marxists and those who don't, with plenty to argue about.

Moseley's argument is that, if you understand properly what Marx meant by 'capital', there is no such problem. Marx, he says, meant 'money capital' as 'money that becomes more money', i.e., as Moseley puts it, 'money advanced into circulation in order to extract more money from circulation'.

Capital is not something physical, not 'capital goods' (machinery, buildings, raw materials) but also not labour time. In both Volumes I and III, argues Moseley, capital is assumed to be the same given sum (any sum) of money used to buy physical goods and labour power, whose use leads to the creation of a given amount of surplus value. Volume I explains where this comes from (the unpaid labour of the working class). Volume III explains how this same amount is distributed amongst the various competing capitals (in proportion to size). There is no period of time during which values need to be 'transformed' into prices of production. The basic assumptions in both volumes are the same. There is no 'transformation problem.'

Moseley identifies the false problem as having arisen from a misunderstanding of what Marx meant by 'value' and 'capital'. Capital is a sum of values but value (the amount of necessary labour embodied in a commodity) cannot be measured directly but only via the market as price, i.e. only as money. So capital is in practice a sum of money, one that seeks to grow larger. Like value, capital is a social relation rather than a thing. Contradictions only arise if you assume that it is something physical.

Another valid point made by Moseley (Andrew Kliman disagrees) is that by 'price of production' Marx meant the same as Adam Smith and David Ricardo meant by 'natural price', ie a long-run price around which market prices oscillate (Moseley calls it the 'long-run centre of gravity price') consisting of cost + a mark-up for profit.  Smith and Ricardo just accepted the mark-up as a fact of life. Marx provided an explanation of where it came from and that it wasn't just an arbitrary addition to costs.

Moseley's book, although clearly written, is rather technical, but it does provide a comprehensive guide to all the arguments, for and against, the so-called 'transformation problem'
Adam Buick

The Road Much Taken (2017)

Book Review from the April 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

'The Silk Roads: a New History of the World'. By Peter Frankopan. (Bloomsbury £10.99)

The name of the Silk Road dates only from the late nineteenth century, but a connection between the Mediterranean and parts of south and east Asia began over two millennia ago. In this substantial volume, Peter Frankopan traces the history of this vast region and its influence on the wider world, emphasising its role in global movements of people, goods, ideas and armies. We cannot summarise the book here, just pick out some of its main themes.

One of the earliest commodities traded was indeed silk from China: it was a luxury product popular among wealthy Romans, but also an international currency. As Frankopan points out, globalisation was ‘a fact of life’ two thousand years ago (though perhaps the use of ‘globalisation’ here is a bit of a stretch). The Greek language, for instance, was spoken and written in central and much of south Asia around 200 BCE.  Pottery and spices, among many other goods, were traded along these routes covering Europe, China and points in between, while western Europe was pretty much a backwater. Furs and slaves were transported in later centuries.

The crusades of the eleventh century CE onwards had a religious guise, but considerations of wealth and power were the real motivation, with access to ‘exotic’ goods for trade being at stake. The Italian city-states benefited from the capture of Jerusalem in 1099: Venice emerged as the most successful, as it was nearer to the Silk Road regions than its rivals. In the thirteenth century, both Venice and Genoa established new colonies, in Crimea for instance. Textiles were transported to the west, after being manufactured in Baghdad and cities in what is now Iran and Afghanistan.

The discoveries of the late fifteenth century changed the balance of power, as Europe became far wealthier and more important, and gold, silver, and other goods were carried across the Atlantic. Frankopan minces no words about what lay behind this: ‘The age of empire and the rise of the west were built on the capacity to inflict violence on a major scale.’ With reference to Thomas Hobbes, he argues that only a European author could have suggested that the natural condition of humans was a constant state of violence.

The founding of the British Empire, especially control of India, led to a decline in the overland trade routes. One thing the Empire lacked, however, was meaningful oil deposits. Massive oil finds in Persia in 1908 gave new life to the Silk Road, and oil came to be seen as an essential fuel for the Royal Navy. Shortly before the First World War began, the British government bought a controlling stake in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (nowadays BP). A network of oilfields and pipelines was built up, and in the 1920s Iraq was cobbled together by Britain as an artificial country that could be pretty much run as the British ruling class wished.

All these shenanigans continued well into the second half of the last century. The US took Britain’s place as overlord of the Silk Road region, and MI6 and the CIA were instrumental in the 1953 coup that deposed Prime Minister Mossadegh of Iran. Oil-rich countries became wealthy enough to make massive purchases of weapons and nuclear technology from the US. Wars against Saddam and Gaddafi were all part of the move to control the oil and gas fields in the interest of US national security.

In the present century the Silk Road has re-emerged as a central area of great power rivalry, with the US being threatened by Russia and China, among others. Enormous supplies of coal, oil and gas still await exploitation, and gold and rare earths are available in large amounts. The wheat fields of southern Russia and Ukraine are extremely fertile too.  As might be said, watch that space.

Peter Frankopan’s book can be hard going, especially in the early chapters, because of the amount of detail it contains. But it gives an excellent overview of how one part of the world has affected global history, and of what the real motives of conquerors and armies are. 
Paul Bennett

No More Work? (2017)

Book Review from the March 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

'Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work'. By Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. (Verso £9.99)

This is in some ways similar to Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism, reviewed in the September 2015 Socialist Standard. Indeed Mason is quoted on the front cover as describing this as ‘a must-read’. Like Mason, Srnicek and Williams discuss the possibility of overcoming scarcity and eliminating boring work; unlike him, they give relatively little attention to the information economy, though they do refer to the importance of technological developments and automation, and say that any vision of the future must be based on current tendencies. They also emphasise the  likelihood of ‘surplus population’, with capitalism needing less labour to produce the same output, so large numbers of people will have trouble getting ‘decent’ jobs.

They begin by criticising ‘folk politics’, a common-sense kind of local political activism that is prevalent on the left. This, they say, is not wrong but it is not enough by itself: it is fine for movements such as Occupy, but is problematic for attempts to overcome capitalism and climate change, as it is too small-scale. Small interventions are unlikely to change the socio-economic system, and acts of resistance are defensive rather than active. To the extent that folk politics can be seen as similar to the policy of pursuing reforms to capitalism, these remarks are unexceptionable. Some other good points are made in passing, for instance that consensus decision-making can lead to the adoption of lowest-common-denominator demands.

The alternative to folk politics is to be more ambitious and aim for a post-work world, by means of ‘non-reformist reforms’ (compare Mason’s ‘revolutionary reformism’). The four minimal demands of this are: full automation, reduction of the working week (possibly via a three-day weekend), provision of a basic income and diminution of the work ethic. As part of this, ‘the demand for a post-work world revels in the liberation of desire, abundance and freedom.’ The authors also refer to ‘the possibility of production based on flexibility, decentralisation and post-scarcity for some goods.’

It is accepted that there are various ways of realising such a post-work future. One  would be ecologically unsustainable, while another would be misogynist, with women still bound to household work. Srnicek and Williams opt for the leftist version, which among other things involves open borders, a reduction of both waged and unwaged work, an improved welfare state and a global basic income. It is acknowledged that this would still have commodity production and private property, so would not be post-capitalist, but ‘would be an immensely better world than the one we have now’.

But, just as with Mason’s book, the reader is forced to ask, why just advocate this, why not abolish commodities and wage labour? The authors do refer at one point to the aim ‘to build an economy in which people are no longer dependent upon wage labour for survival’, and they also talk about full unemployment (which is not clear, but might mean an end to the employment relation). Moreover, despite the sub-title, their vision of future society is not really post-work either, as the aim is just to reduce necessary labour as much as possible.  So they are pretty inconsistent as to what they want, and moreover they see their proposed reforms as taking decades to achieve, so it is hardly a matter of ‘something now’.

The book makes some interesting points, but, while Srnicek and Williams criticise folk politics as too timid, their own demands are essentially reformist and so are themselves not ambitious enough.  
Paul Bennett

Sorting it Out? (2017)

Book Review from the February 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

'Against Elections: The Case for Democracy', by David Van Reybrouck. (Bodley Head. 2016. £9.99)

Genuinely fascinating and thought-provoking new books seem hard to find, though Van Reybrouck seems to have produced one. In the current climate of political cynicism and apathy, the main title of ‘Against Elections’ could be interpreted as something beyond populism and even a call for fascism, but this is very far from being the case. His main argument is that it is not democracy itself that is the problem, but the way it is practised – almost exclusively through the form of competitive elections that produce self-reinforcing political elites.

Van Reybrouck diagnoses the malaise at the heart of the crisis engulfing representative democracies across many parts of the globe and voter dissatisfaction with elected politicians and parties. He points out that political parties in most Western democracies are now regarded as being the most corrupt organizations legally existing and that contempt for conventional party politicians appears to be at an all-time high too. He also discusses some of the alternatives mentioned to systems of representative democracy, such as direct democracy, which has influenced movements like Occupy and the Indignados. The Five Star movement in Italy, despite its populist flavour, has also grappled with these issues and argued strongly for other forms of democratic consultation and for limits on political terms served by elected representatives.

But few have questioned the usefulness of elections themselves as a ubiquitous part of the democratic process. One of the most fascinating parts of the book is where Van Reybrouck traces the way in which ‘democracy’ and ‘elections’ have now become synonymous. In reality, throughout the history of the last 3,000 years or so, elections have just been one way in which democratic will has been expressed. Another method has largely fallen by the wayside – democracy through sortition, or the drawing of lots. In most countries this is regarded as acceptable for choosing juries making decisions about legal cases, but isn’t typically used otherwise. Van Reybrouck discusses how this situation came about, as the democracy practiced in ancient city states like Athens, or even many of the Renaissance city states such as Venice and Aragon, included very pronounced elements of sortition alongside elements of elections.

Furthermore, it is clear that many of the philosophers of the Enlightenment were strong advocates of sortition too. Montesquieu, one of the most significant influences on modern constitutional theory and nation states claimed that ‘Voting by lot is in the nature of democracy; voting by choice is in the nature of aristocracy . . . the casting of lots is a way of election that distresses no one; it leaves to each citizen a reasonable expectation of serving his country’. Similar views were advanced by Rousseau in his Social Contract.

However, to ruling elites (both aristocratic and in the rising capitalist class) sortition was dangerous and random and could not guarantee that those entrusted with power and responsibility would be suitable for the role. Hence the emphasis on elections, initially with very limited electorates of those who could be ‘trusted’ – most typically men of property. But of course the granting and widening of democratic rights was a protracted process that was not merely something handed down by the ruling elites free and gratis – in most instances it had to be struggled for, eventually by the majority class of wage and salary earners, and it would be interesting research to see how and why sortition (as opposed to election) was relegated in importance by workers’ movements struggling for democracy.

Van Reybrouck contends that the reintroduction of sortition within Western democracies currently in poor health would be a way of reinvigorating the democratic process and, in doing so, also potentially undermine the anti-democratic movements currently coming out of the shadows. He may have a limited point here, but the hierarchical and competitive nature of capitalist society mitigates against this working in all but a few selected areas – recently sortition has been used as part of consultative processes on constitutional issues in Ireland, Iceland and the Netherlands, though with mixed success.

As in ancient Athens, sortition works best when combined with forms of elections that can produce a range of competent candidates for given roles, with sortition and fixed terms of office providing the genuinely wide representation (and randomness) that stifles the emergence of elites. The Socialist Party of Great Britain already uses sortition in a limited way as part of its internal democratic practice and it seems likely that socialist society would be the most obvious type of democratic social system that would enable sortition and elections to work hand-in-hand effectively. This is because socialism – as a system of common ownership and democratic control – would be a society without classes and elites, without leaders and the led. More work is no doubt needed on this element of socialist democracy, and that can be developed and refined by the wider socialist movement as it grows over time.

Van Reybrouck has produced an important work, but not one that will necessarily save capitalism’s rather limited and somewhat spurious democracy from itself. It is, however, of clear use and interest to socialists as principled believers in the most scrupulous of democratic practices as the cornerstone of a genuinely egalitarian society.
Dave Perrin

Moneyless (2017)

Book Review from the January 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

'Into The Open Economy'. By Colin R. Turner. (Applied Image. 80 pages)

In 2011 Colin Turner put a short video Free World Charter on the internet making the case for a moneyless world of free access and making the same point  (but not in the language) that we do: that, while the world is capable of providing enough to feed everyone and allow them a decent life, most people’s access to what they need is rationed by the amount of money they earn from working for a wage or salary. The video didn’t suggest doing anything other than signing an online charter to show you supported the idea of ‘a world without money’.

By comparison, this short book is a disappointment. Turner’s approach is to show that what he calls an ‘open economy’ is possible by pointing to the many examples today where people cooperate to do things without money and where they are motivated to act by other aims than the pursuit of money. This is true of course but Turner goes further and argues that the way to an eventually money-free society is through encouraging and extending these examples.

This is to underestimate what is involved in ‘abolishing money’. Money is a feature of a society where goods and services are produced to be bought and sold because they are privately owned. Capitalism is the highest form of such a society, one where the means of production are monopolised by a few who own and control them via companies or the state and who pay people to operate them with a view to making a profit.

To get to a society where people can have free access to what they need instead of having to pay for it, capitalist ownership of the means of production has to be ended and control over their use transferred to the community as a whole,. Dispossessing the privileged owning class requires political action on the part of the excluded majority. But not the kind of political action within the system that Turner rightly criticises in the section headed ‘The Limitations of Governance’:
‘Being itself part of the economy, the government is limited by what it can do … Government – and its individual members – are all very much subject to the economy, and therefore have only very limited control over it … State spending and interest rates do not control the economy – they are merely reactions to it. When the economy is good, the government spends, when the economy is bad, the government cuts back. Instead of shaping the economy, all the government is really doing is 'housekeeping' the best it can with the fruits of the wider economy on its doorstep.’
But this is not a case for throwing the baby out with the bathwater and rejecting political action altogether in favour of the small-scale local activities Turner mentions (growing your own food, tool libraries, car-pooling, using open source software, building your own home, etc). It’s a case for rejecting reformist political action within the system in favour of political action aimed exclusively at revolutionising the basis of society from minority class ownership to democratic common ownership (thereby making money redundant).
Adam Buick

Standing Orders (2017)

Book Review from the December 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

'The Corruption of Capitalism: Why Renters Thrive and Work Does Not Pay'. By Guy Standing. (Biteback £9.99)

There is a lot of useful information here, on the ways in which present-day capitalism does not run on the basis of a ‘free market’. For one thing, there are massive subsidies to companies, such as the £21m recently given by the government to Toyota to help it modernise one of its UK car plants. The World Bank loaned $900m to Lidl to help it expand in Eastern Europe. Farming subsidies in both the UK and US go overwhelmingly to a small number of very rich farmers, and the fossil fuel industry has received enormous subsidies to enable it to keep down prices to consumers.

The tremendous rise in the number of patents issued has led to ‘intellectual property’ becoming a prime source of income for a powerful few, just like copyright rules. Debt, including for housing or student loans, has become big business and, again, a major source of income. The enclosure of the ‘commons’ has proceeded apace: this covers everything from shrinking numbers of allotments and public parks to the closing of libraries and museums.

Standing sees all this as not just part and parcel of capitalism but as indicative of the rise of a new variety, rentier capitalism. A rentier, he says, ‘is someone who gains income from possession of assets, rather than from labour’, while a rentier corporation ‘is a firm that gains much of its revenue from rental income rather than from production of goods and services, notably from financial assets or intellectual property’. In the US between 1980 and 2000, the share of income going to profits in non-financial sectors fell, while rentiers flourished. Eighty years ago, Keynes referred to the forthcoming ‘euthanasia of the rentier’, but this has emphatically not happened.

Furthermore, a new class structure has arisen, including a plutocracy and elite, a salariat in relatively secure jobs, freelance professionals, a core working class and a precariat, who are mostly working as taskers in the gig economy. There is no united working class, Standing claims, and any movement against rentier capitalism must be led by the precariat. He states that Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership election was based largely on his appeal to the precariat, though no evidence for this is offered.

His proposal for what should be done involves ending much of the special features of rentier capitalism, such as subsidies and tax breaks for the rentiers. The labour market should be made into a free market, with employers and workers having roughly equal bargaining positions (which is a real pipe-dream). He is associated with the Basic Income Earth Network (, and suggests paying a ‘modest monthly sum’ to everyone.

But all this really would leave the real class nature of capitalism unchallenged. There is very little here about non-financial capitalists who, after all, also derive their income from ownership of assets rather than their own work. The companies they control provide goods and services, but the wealth of their owners is still based on profits and exploitation.

One last point: it is an old observation that at least the capitalists cannot charge us for the air we breathe. According to one passage here, however, this appears no longer to be the case: the air in parts of China is so polluted that a Canadian company is selling bottled mountain air from the Rockies to Chinese city-dwellers at $10 a bottle.
Paul Bennett