Tuesday, March 13, 2018

These Foolish Things . . . : Big Bucks (1997)

The Scavenger column from the September 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Big bucks

The world’s top 500 companies, it seems, employ 0.05 percent of the world’s population but control a quarter of the world’s economic output. The combined assets of the 50 biggest companies is now 60 percent of the world’s $20 trillion of productive capital. In eight sectors, including cars, aerospace, electronics, steel, armaments and media, the top five corporations now control 50 percent of the global market. Increasingly the question is: who governs them? And for whom? . . . Ten corporations now control nearly every aspect of the world’s food chain. Four control 90 percent of the world’s exports of corn, wheat, tobacco, tea, pineapple, jute and forest products. (Guardian. 20 June.)

Labour is Right

Even as they elect their new leader, the Tories are in a quandary. They are faced with a government which seems determined to outdo them in all of the things they did best. If new Labour stands for free markets, sound money, prudent finances, a tough stance on criminals, higher school standards, and unravelling the welfare mess, why should anyone need the Tories? They have the difficult task of persuading the electorate that they will do even better, and will have the competence to fulfil that promise. Politics in Britain used to be a clash of ideologies: now it has become a competition in virtue. Dr Madsen Pirie, President of Adam Smith Institute. (Scotland on Sunday, 15 June.)

In proportion

It would take one Haitian worker producing Disney dolls and clothes 166 years to earn as much as Disney President Michael Eisner makes in one day. And Eisner isn’t even one of the seven richest men in the world . . . (Independent on Sunday, 22 June.)

Work is dangerous

Statistics show the work-place is the fastest growing location for violent crime. According to the Loss Prevention Council, between 1981 and 1991 assaults at work doubled to 350,000 a year . . . according to British Retail Consortium figures, retailers reported that more than 9,000 staff were subjected to physical violence, 47,000 to threats of violence and 120,000 to verbal abuse between 1995 and 1996. (Observer, 22 June.)

Market cares

Small charities have been warned to merge or risk going under in the face of fierce competition for declining funds. The Disabilities Trust said the market place for charities was already overcrowded with 188,000 bodies chasing the same money. In a report, it claims public donations are set to fall by 13 percent by 1999, blaming the National Lottery for siphoning off funds. (Evening Mail, 18 July.)

Conspiracy theory

Jonathan Aitken’s world is truly crumbling around him. After his resignation from the Privy Council, the former Tory cabinet minister, ruined by his collapsed libel case against the Guardian, will have to cede another honour—one that his friends say he values as much as being a Right Hon or PC. For the past few years Mr Aitken has been chairman of Le Cercle, right-wing think-tank set up at the height of the Cold War for senior politicians, diplomats and intelligence agents which is one of the most influential, secretive, and, it goes without saying, exclusive political clubs in the West. Now he is about to be relieved of this role . . . [Alan Clark] describes it as “a right-wing think-tank funded by the CIA, which churns Cold War concepts around". (Independent on Sunday, 29 June.)
The Scavenger

A Vivid Imagined Nation (1997)

TV Review from the September 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is always fascinating to attend an event later portrayed on television if only to make the obvious "compare and contrast" analysis afterwards. So it was on Sunday 10 August with BBC2's The National Eisteddfod of Wales, which comprised commentary, clips and observations of an event I had attended in the cause of wage slave duty on three occasions the previous week.

Given the strong links between the Welsh establishment and the media it was unlikely to be a highly critical piece—more so with BBC political correspondent Huw Edwards doing the commentary, a man whose father was a Bard. Focusing on the traditional portrayal of Wales as the land of harmonies and the harp, of poetry and prose, it successfully documented an event in many ways well worth attending, even by non-Welsh speakers. The impression given was that of a generally convivial atmosphere in the north Wales hills, sunshine beating down and fine music of most varieties all around. With much of this being true it might seem churlish to complain.

And yet in other respects it does well to cast a more cynical eye at events than the BBC is in the habit of doing. For instance, it is not necessarily a good idea to go to the Eisteddfod if you are poor. Entrance fees notwithstanding, food and drink prices on the site—dominated seemingly by a cartel of some sorts—were extortionate to a degree rarely found outside of Central London in peak season. And with the Eisteddfod site itself still being alcohol-free, a trip to the pubs in Bala which had also formed a cartel just for the week, was not an entirely sensible alternative.

You can of course go to Alton Towers or London Zoo and complain about the prices after they have got you in their ring-fenced compound, but in virtually all other respects the Eisteddfod has a clear edge. To illustrate this, it was a pity that the BBC didn't have its cameras at the ready for the hardly untypical scene when a Jordanian academic, who had spent over a decade learning fluent English, conversed with a Welsh boy while showing him how to use the internet. Whenever he spoke to the child, the boy's mother shouted at her son in Welsh not to answer him . . . and the naive among you thought language was all about effective communication. So did the pop band Gorky's Zygotic Munci, who were banned from playing their traditionally bilingual set in the Rock Tent because the language-fascists thought their occasional English singing would have corrupted the young and innocent. (Bands singing sexist or totally vacuous shit was fine so long as they did it all in Welsh.)

Narrow-minded nationalists
The prevalence of this type of stultifying, narrow-minded behaviour is a tragedy for a land which otherwise has so much to offer. But then again. Wales has been blighted by nationalism and bigotry for as long as anyone can remember. And the ultimate irony is that while all nations are imagined communities, few illustrate this better than the Land of My Fathers.

Wales and the type of traditions currently celebrated at the Eisteddfod are largely a product of the rise of a Welsh non-conformist commerce-based class in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This was a class initially desperate to throw off English domination and in some instances, at least, keen to pursue the same course eventually adopted by the southern Irish. The legacy of this mindset still persists today and pervades most Welsh culture and institutions.Wales has a fascinating culture and Welsh is a fine language but both have been devalued by the actions of capitalism's class of predators who would have been quite content to let Welsh culture in whatever its forms die if it had not served their interests to cynically mould it and debase it.

None of this is really a matter of dispute even among bourgeois historians, with Kenneth O. Morgan once famously stating that it was this economically-inspired cultural process, with the refoundation of the long-dead Eisteddfod, which led to the “rebirth of a nation", though admittedly the phrase "rebirth” was overstepping the mark a bit. In Wales: The Imagined Nation edited by Tony Curtis, another argues that the rise of the Welsh trading and capitalist class helped create "what was really a new national identity at a time when Wales was drawn inexorably into the maelstrom of British social, political and industrial life, and when many of the peculiarities of Welsh nationhood had either disappeared or become moribund".

The Welsh capitalist class—today more fully developed than hitherto and perhaps even more entwined in the workings of the state machine than its English counterpart—still trades on the nationalist myth and distortion it was largely responsible for in the first place, binding its wage slaves to a totally fake commonality of interests encouraged by a suspicion of outsiders.

The Labour Party, much in evidence at Bala '97 all the way from the Secretary of State downwards, panders to it all like they pander to their paymasters whoever they may be, from the City one day to the Farmers' Union of Wales and the "Taffia" the next. Meanwhile, the culture of the dispossessed class reflects the competing claims of the propertied, a global class forever encouraging the parochial touch for its subordinates, not out of a cultural celebration so much as an extension of the principles of divide and rule and each against all. To this end, in the grim terraced mining valleys, metropolitan Cardiff and the massive sink council housing estates of Wrexham and Newport the working class go about their daily business listening to Oasis, eating at McDonald's and occasionally taking night-classes in beginners’ Welsh. A cynical thought perhaps, but with more than a grain of truth attached to it and one unlikely to be given expression on the BBC.
Dave Perrin

Authoritarian (1997)

Pamphlet Review from the September 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Where There’s Brass There’s Muck: Ecology and Anarchism. Anarchist Communist Federation pamphlet.

An interesting short survey of anarchist thinking on ecology. It reveals that Murray Bookchin, founder of the Social Ecology movement, has become even more reformist in adopting "Confederal Municipalism":". . .  a belief in taking state power at a local level and using that power to transform society from the bottom up."

The ACF itself advocates using Direct Action to bring about a classless society in harmony with the environment. The anti-roads movement, they say, "has a fine record of sabotage". They admit that their road to social transformation will lead to violence, as indeed it must. It is also a dead end. Apart from the people involved, they have no way of establishing that they represent the majority view, nor is there any way of democratically assessing their argument. This is the paradox of anarchism: the method for bringing about the society they want is inherently authoritarian.
Lew Higgins

Greasy Pole: Paying For It (1997)

The Greasy Pole column from the September 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

How much would you pay to listen to a speech by John Major? Ten thousand pounds? A hundred? One? Fifty pence? Or would you rather pay not to have to listen to the spoken wisdom of our recently deposed Prime Minister? We ask these questions in response to the news that Major plans to spend some time, now that he is reduced to being a plain backbencher, lecturing in America and that he will be paid £32,000 for every one of his speeches.

Startling as this might be (because even the most ardent of Major's admirers could hardly describe him as £32,000-worth of charisma and gripping oratory) the fact is that he is not the highest-paid of the celebrities travelling the world on these jaunts, the irrelevance of which is matched by their lucrativeness. At the top of this particular pile—this will come as no surprise—is Margaret Thatcher, who gets £45,000 every time she holds forth on the world and its problems and how she almost solved the lot of them single- handedly.

At this point anyone who has the habit of asking naively penetrating questions will wonder why we suddenly have to pay to listen to Major and Thatcher when only a short time ago we endured their speeches for free. It was, after all, bad enough to hear Thatcher raving on about all those evil foreigners whose only ambition was to destroy the British Way Of Life without being charged for it. Listening to Major's oratorical blundering was never an uplifting experience but to be charged for it would have made it worse.

In any case what can these people say that is worth listening to? They could trot out the same weary nonsense— the delusions, the evasions, the empty platitudes—which was their daily diet when they were in power. Thatcher could tell us. again, how she had made this country “great” as a property- owning democracy—where tens of thousands struggled with a lifetime’s burden of a mortgage or, when the burden became too much to bear, were ejected from the homes which they regarded as a symbol of their security. She would tell us about the rampant jingoism she stimulated during the Falklands war, while hundreds of workers on both sides died. She would tell us about her government’s assault on the trade unions and how they ruthlessly cut back the meagre state benefits on which the poorest people tried to get by.

John Major could tell us, in that voice which so many of us have been trying to wipe out of our memory, about the repeated blunders, the knee-jerk reaction to capitalism’s crises and the dedicated sleaze which characterised his governments. He could remind us how, while surrounded by all this disarray, he persisted in assuring us that he had the situation under control, that we were all living at a high standard and things could only get better. He might also explain why, if his premiership had been such a huge success, he so rapidly deprived us of the chance of keeping him as prime-minister-in-waiting after the May election. For anyone paying to hear these speeches there will be no guarantee of their money back if they are not completely satisfied.

And how could anyone be satisfied? After almost two decades of Conservative rule the condition of the people of this country is such that the Labour Party are able to launch something described as an onslaught on the more extreme edges of poverty. Peter Mandelson who is Minister for Something or Other, hit the headlines in August with the announcement that a special cabinet unit would be set up to deal with the "scourge of social exclusion" which those in deeper poverty experience. Of course nobody should have got too excited by Mandelson’s words (how many times have we heard similar promises before?) and in any case the attack would have to wait until "circumstances and the reordering of public expenditure make this possible" (how many times have we heard that before?). Nor should we bother, right now, with the typical fragility of this typical Labour promise. The point, for the present, is that poverty still exists and shows no sign of going away or even of becoming a less onerous burden to its victims.

A recent report by the National Heart Forum—an alliance of 35 health and voluntary organisations working to prevent heart disease—stated that this is becoming a disease of poverty. In the 1970s its incidence was spread across society; now it is concentrating where people are poorer. The Institute of Fiscal Studies—not a body we would expect to call the masses to the barricades—has described capitalist society where, with income expressed in terms of body height, a handful of people reach almost twice as high as Nelson’s Column while nearly 60 percent of the population measure at or below 5ft 9in. A study by a geographer at Bristol University emphasises what this means in terms of health. Briefly, people who live in places like Glasgow, Oldham, Blackburn and Newcastle-on-Tyne have a much higher chance of dying younger than those who live in areas where poverty and the struggle to survive are not so acute.

Being silly
If politicians—retired or still, active— speak about these issues they always do so as if they are regrettable accidents— blips on capitalism’s ever-upward march towards universal prosperity. They assure us that they have the remedy to hand—an official enquiry perhaps or a special task-force of experts or, as Mandelson now tells us, a cabinet unit. Then, perhaps, a little tinkering about with rates of benefit or other footling adjustments.

Are we really expected to pay to hear such discredited drivel? It would be more worth it. if has-beens like Thatcher and Major would own up to their inability to control or change this social system and advise us to pay no heed to their words. They could tell us to take control of society ourselves and change it in our own interest. Or is this just being silly?

50 Years Ago: The Crisis - The Planners' Swansong (1997)

The 50 Years Ago column from the September 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Capitalism we know and have long endured. Socialism we could have and will have when a majority understands the need for it. But is there a half-way house, something that has ceased to be Capitalism but is not Socialism? Socialists know that there can be no such thing, but many people both in the Labour Party and outside thought that it was possible and desirable. Not that the Labour supporters of planned capitalism called it that. Indeed they said precisely the opposite—“there is no half-way house between a society based on private ownership in the means of production, with the profit of the few as the measure of success, and a society where public ownership of those means deliberately planned for attaining the maximum of general well-being.” (“For Socialism and Peace,” Labour Party). Yet that is just what the Labour Party has been trying to do and in the experiment it received the support of many who knew quite well what they were seeking was to keep capitalism but rid it of its chaotic features and subject it to planning and controls.
(From front page article, Socialist Standard, September 1947)

The Irish scene changes (1997)

From the September 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard
As we write, in August, Harold Wilson’s affirmation that a week is a long time in politics is particularly apposite to the political situation in Northern Ireland. The previous month most people here were anxiously scanning the daily news bulletins for some sign that would lend hope that the province’s Armageddon might not be at hand.
Everywhere the awful word "Drumcree” was spoken: cautiously, in anger and in whispers.The holy men of the Orange Order had to placate their god by marching down the "Catholic” Gervaghy Road and through other areas where their opponents would be put under police curfew so that they should not be offended when the Orangemen reminded them, with salutary intent, that they had beaten them in other places in the past.

Gervaghy Road was particularly sensitive for it was here two years ago that a flushed David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, had skipped a victory jig with the arch bigot Paisley when the police had forcefully cleared a path for the Orangemen. Now the word was out: there would be no Orange feet on the Gervagghy Road. But the echo said: stop us at your peril!

Mo Mowlam, the new Labour Secretary of State was the mainstay of the popular hope of deliverance. What she lacked in ability and aplomb was compensated for by tremendous energy as she visited Residents’ Groups, Orange Lodges, politicians, clergymen and the dogs in the street with the old, failed argument that we should all be reasonable.The Catholic nationalists were especially impressed, however; British Secretaries of State didn’t usually call around for tea and a chat and the anger of the Unionists at this newly-forged friendship seemed to clinch the Catholic belief that Mo would protect them.

In the event, Mowlam, in what the Catholics not unreasonably construed as an act of gross treachery, supported the Chief Constable of the RUC in sending in hundreds of armed police, expensively equipped for dealing with the violence which they initiated. With a viciousness equalling their violence of the previous year, they cleared the road for the Orangemen to go in triumph for the worship of their god. Ironically, the Catholic god had to do with a makeshift mass on the street because Mo and the RUC refused them permission to go to their church.

While sensible people with motor cars or the price of a boat or plane ticket were making their way across the Irish border or across the Channel, the fiery battalions of stone and petrol-bomb throwers were already retaliating. Within a few days the cost, in monetary terms, of the legacy of lunacy that motivated both the Orangemen and those opposing them was around £20 million which was within an ass’s whisper of the cost of the same religious outing in '95 and ’96.

Twenty million deducted from the shrunken educational budget or the grossly under-funded NHS was an obvious matter for concern. Last year the offensively arrogant Sir Patrick Mayhew decided that additional “security" costs should be defrayed from the health and educational budgets—on the apparent assumption that youthful petrol-bombers would stop and think about the effect of their actions on their education. The real fear, however, was what the aftermath of Drumcree would lead to.

Would the IRA up the ante? Would the loyalist paramilitaries officially return to the killing game? The newspapers said people were hoarding essential supplies: the empty streets told the general fear.

Sudden change
Suddenly the Orange Order announced that its members would avoid those areas where its marches carried the greatest threat to the peace and a week later the IRA announced a cease-fire. It would have been comforting to think that both these organisations, neither of which is renowned for putting peace and the concern for human life before the historical fictions on which each bases its absurd posturings, had suddenly moved into the twentieth century; unfortunately, their subsequent "explanations” undermined any such optimism.

Unlike the Tories, the response of the Blair government to the IRA cease-fire has been swift and positive. The last government squandered the opportunity created by the earlier cease-fire because Major’s slim majority in the House of Commons left him hostage to the power of the Unionist parties at Westminster—and the Unionists opposed the idea of all-inclusive peace negotiations. Now the Unionists have lost their veto in the Commons and the British and Irish governments have made it clear that, if the IRA cease-fire holds, not only can Sinn Fein join the peace talks when they resume in September, but that, if those talks fail to come up with an agreed settlement before May of next year, the two governments will put their own joint settlement proposals to the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum.

It appears like a no-win situation for the Unionists parties. Paisley, echoed by his understudy, Robinson, had already announced the intention of the so-called Democratic Unionist Party to pull out of the talks as has, also, the insignificant UK Unionist Party. The powerful Orange Order has asked the main Ulster Unionist Party to withdraw, too, but David Trimble, perhaps with a greater understanding of grassroots opinion, has indicated that the Ulster Unionists are likely to participate— though, as a public relations exercise they will probably insist that their public exchanges with Sinn Fein take the form of "proximity” talks.

The problem for the Unionists is the intention of both the British and the Irish governments to ensure that, one way or the other, there are peace proposals to put before the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum next year. With certainty it can be said that those proposals will not involve any constitutional, change in the status of Northern Ireland though it is likely that new cross-border bodies with considerable power will be included together with internal legislation to protect the rights of the nationalist minority under some form of "partnership” local assembly. Trimble can hardly be unaware that however numerous the opponents of such proposals may be, the majority of people want to seen an end to conflict and this is especially true of the loyalist fringe parties whose armed wings previously represented a serious threat to any solution opposed by the Unionist parties.

On the other hand, Trimble may be comforted by the fact that Adams and his political playmates in Sinn Fein must be equally aware of the desire among their supporters for a lasting resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict. Even more comfort might be derived from the realisation that Sinn Fein, in consenting to enter open-ended talks with the Unionist parties, the SDLP, the Alliance Party and the five smaller parties (all of whom accept as a negotiating principle that Northern Ireland should remain with the UK as long as a majority within the province wish so to remain) is compromising its traditional stand which has always been that only a majority on the island of Ireland can determine the constitutional fate of Northern Ireland.

Another grave problem for Sinn Fein and one that is likely to undermine the raison d’etre of the IRA’s justification of their historic right to use physical force is the intention of the Irish government to put any settlement agreed between the parties in Northern Ireland, or of the two governments, to the people of the Republic of Ireland in a referendum to be held the same day as the proposals are put in a referendum to the people of Northern Ireland. By indulging in a bit of political aerobatics Sinn Fein and the IRA were able to claim that the last all-Ireland election, in 1918 (before the British-imposed partition of the country) endorsed the right of Sinn Fein to employ the armed force of the IRA to wage war to establish an all-Ireland Republic.

This peculiar justification theory is important to the IRA/Sinn Fein for despite the fact that the opposition of the Catholic Church to their activities has bred a strong streak of anti-clericalism within the Republican movement, they do accept that there is a "moral" distinction between killing as the heirs of the “legitimate government” of the people and what they would see, and condemn, as mere political murder. The prospect of the removal of this eighty-year excuse must surely create a telling dilemma for ardent Catholics like Adams, McGuinness and many of their cohorts.

But, then, if the peace holds. Unionist, Nationalist and Republican politicians in Northern Ireland, whether or not they engage in the impending peace talks will be faced with dilemmas. Of course the consequences are relevant in that the killing may be ended or may start again but the issues behind the conflict are completely and utterly irrelevant to the real interests of the working class.
Richard Montague