Sunday, March 25, 2018

Greasy Pole: Video Nasty (1997)

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

Anyone who enjoyed gloating over what happened to the Conservative Party on 1 May will want to get their hands on the BBC video Election 97, which describes itself as “the most memorable highlights of one of the most dramatic election nights ever."

Memorable indeed. Jeremy Paxman savaging Cecil Parkinson who, before he was able to compose himself to the reality of his party’s plight, looked as if—in John Major’s phrase—he was a sandwich short of a picnic. David Dimbleby brutally interrupting a glowering Michael Heseltine. to ask what he meant by “regrouping’’. David Mellor and James Goldsmith behaving, at the count at Putney, like children squabbling in the playground. Michael Portillo, as the voting figures were read out, trying desperately to smile. And at Tatton the odious Hamiltons. their anger held in check except in their eyes, where you could read an uncomprehending contempt for it all.

Tony Blair was not—of course— supposed to be odious. He was on a platform assuring us how moved he was by the trust placed in him by all those votes and how he would not let us down. And just to show how sincere and trustworthy he is he had beside him his father, who was once a Tory but changed sides in time for his son to become a Labour prime minister. And Tony made a speech saying with a catch in his voice how much he wishes his mother could have been there that night, and all over the country thousands of people went "Ahhhhh ..." or at least were meant to.

The Morning After
Come the morning there were the comings and goings at the Palace with John Major being shown in by some uniformed flunky as Prime Minister and shown out as a man heading as fast as he could to obscurity. Then Blair accompanying the uniform through the door to kiss hands and walk out backwards and do all the things which are so necessary to let the Queen know that there had been this glorious revolution to give power and prosperity to all the people.

And the people showed what they thought of this by jamming the pavements around Downing Street to cheer themselves hoarse and sing Labour’s election anthem that Things Can Only Get Better. Except that there was something distinctly odd about those apparently ecstatic crowds-until it dawned that they were really Labour supporters who had made the long and perilous journey from party headquarters in Millbank to Whitehall, stopping on the way to equip themselves with thousands of conveniently available Union Jacks. Labour stage-managed things to the end.

In the City they were not quite so ecstatic because that is not how they do these things but neither was there a steady stream of fearful financiers taking the lift up to the 26th floor to throw themselves [out] of the window. At one stockbrokers the Labour victory was greeted nonchalantly:". . . Blair has come across quite well in the campaign. He seems sincere . . ." A trader at a German-owned investment house put it: "They have a massive majority, but they do not appear to have any radical motives.” The FTSE 100 index, which offers some kind of guide to the level of optimism or pessimism among investors, ended the day at an all-time closing high.

Well it’s nice to see honest endeavour rewarded and endeavour is that the Labour Party have put into recruiting the support and co-operation of some of the stars of the business world and to reassuring them that a Labour government is not going to do anything nasty like dispossess the owning class or even try a little redistribution of wealth. It is not so long ago that Labour prime ministers were accustomed to sort out British industry's problems with union leaders over beer and sandwiches at Number Ten. It would be difficult now for the trade unionists of get through the door for the crush of tycoons quaffing champagne and smoked salmon.

David Simon, the million-pound-a-year chairman of BP. was invited to become Minister for Trade and Competitiveness in Europe and a life peer into the bargain. Martin Taylor, chief executive of Barclays Bank, was put in charge of a task force which will advise on reforming the tax and benefits system. There is no evidence that Taylor has any experience of trying to live on benefit, or has any idea of the stress of doing so. In any case nobody in their right mind expects his Task Force to recommend an easier life for all those scroungers who could easily get a job but choose to undermine the fortunes of firms like BP and Barclays Bank by living in the lap of luxury on the Job Seekers Allowance or whatever.

It will be useful if all those people who gloated over Election 97 keep it and view it again in a year's time, when the cheering has finally died and Labour’s honeymoon is over and the businessmen are really making themselves felt in Downing Street.

What will it be like then? What was it like, the last time the Labour Party lost power? What effect had they had, on the problems of the working class which they had pledged themselves to ease or even eliminate? After five years of power the best they could claim for themselves, in their 1979 election manifesto was that “in an uncertain world, suffering the worst economic trouble for forty years, we have pointed the way forward . . . Our purpose is to overcome the evils of inequality, poverty, racial bigotry, and to make Britain truly one nation.”

There might then have been people who had voted Labour in 1974 to ask why Labour had not used their time in power to "overcome" those "evils” and why all they could offer was to point the way forward. Perhaps in the near future, if those ecstatic, flag-waving people are not too far gone in their delusions, we shall be hearing the same kinds of questions. And if we do hear them this time we shall not have, to use in reply, a boring manifesto but a real, live Technicolor, all-singing and cheering video to show how it was and how it was supposed to be—to match against how it really is.

These Foolish Things: New Colonialism (1997)

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

New colonialism

Since 1982, the level of debt in sub-Saharan Africa has doubled to more than 100 percent of GDP. The economic injustice represented by the debt mountain is a subject to which the Archbishop of Capetown, The Most Reverend Njongonkulu Ndungane, will refer with particular force today. He will berate the countries of the First World for saddling poorer regions with crippling debt, punitive tariffs against exports and a restrictive macroeconomic stance. As a result, he will argue, that those bearing the debt burden are swamped by malnourishment. famine and disease and. in some cases, war. (Guardian, 24 April.)

Wasting brain power

Many banks have sophisticated operations in derivatives products, which were pioneered in the early Eighties. Derivatives are so called because they are contracts relating to underlying assets such as commodities, currencies or interest rates—they derive from those assets, such as dollars for delivery in three months’ time, or an option to buy or sell gilt-edged stock. As these contracts can often be combined with one another to create complex structures designed to meet the needs of client companies, they attract computer-literate people, preferably with mathematics-based degrees. (Financial Mail on Sunday. 15 June.)

The capitalist view

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Expediency rules

The prime minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, will be visiting South Africa next month. Nelson Mandela is familiar with the system of government in Malaysia . . .  its detention without trial, censorship and hostility towards trade unions. But, although the South African president has dedicated his life to freedom, he will reportedly be bestowing on Dr Mahathir one of the highest civilian awards in his gift, the Order of Good Hope. The explanation is not difficult to find. There were the contributions to the African National Congress’s war chest in the 1994 elections—estimated to be 33 million rand (£4.6 million); a recent RI.9 billion investment by the Malaysian state oil company; and Malaysian involvement in a $4 billion scheme to rejuvenate Johannesburg. Malaysia’s expected purchase of Rooivalk helicopters could boost the struggling South African arms industry. Malaysia wants these ’’attack" craft only for "defence”. Mr Mandela assured critics recently. (Guardian, 24 April.)

Feelbad factor

Poverty is rising faster in Britain than in any other major industrialised country, an authoritative new United Nations report reveals. The report also shows that the poor are poorer here than in any other western country for which figures have been collected and that a higher proportion of old people live in poverty than anywhere else in the West. Britain’s child poverty rate, moreover, is second only to the United States. This devastating indictment—which Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development, describes as “worrying”—contrasts sharply with progress in the fight against poverty in much of the rest of the world. (Independent on Sunday, 16 June.)

Vested interest

Last year the Government scooped £610.2 million from the Lottery in taxes; 12 percent of every pound spent by the public. (Mail on Sunday, 1 June.)
The Scavenger

Gilded Socialism (2005)

Book Review from the November 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Beyond Hegemony by Darrow Schechter (Manchester University Press. £55.)

This turns out to be an attempt to work out a philosophical and sometimes nearly incomprehensible (at least outside the little world of academia) basis for an alternative to liberal democracy (free-market capitalism), social-democracy (regulated capitalism) and what Schechter calls “state socialism” (state capitalism).

Schechter identifies that what is wrong with these is that all three of them involve commodity production and consumption (“production for exchange and the generation of money and capital rather than direct use”), and that the alternative has to be a system where there is production directly for use. Unfortunately, he sees the answer in the Utopian scheme devised in the 1920s by the Labour historian (and Labour Party activist) G.D.H. Cole, which he called “Guild Socialism”. Although Cole’s blueprint did provide for close links between consumers and producers which could be interpreted as “production directly for use”, it still envisaged the continuation of finance, prices and incomes. And it was to come into being through the guilds eventually outcompeting capitalist industries in the marketplace (though, to be fair to Schechter, he doesn’t explicitly endorse this and may well not support it).

But if Schechter stands for “Guild Socialism” why doesn’t he just campaign for it? Does it really need the elaborate philosophical basis he has constructed for it? Perhaps it’s just that university lecturers have to publish to justify their jobs.
Adam Buick

Pathfinders: Space Oddity (2018)

The Pathfinders Column from the March 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard
A dummy dressed as an astronaut rides a red Tesla Roadster into space (with Bowie’s Space Oddity playing on a loop on the in-car stereo), courtesy of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, and leaves a smoke-trail of divided opinion behind it. It was a publicity stunt worthy of the Marvel character Tony Stark, and indeed SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has been credited as the inspiration behind Robert Downey Jr’s portrayal in the films (Musk even had a cameo part in Iron Man 2). Fans of SpaceX enthuse on the ability of private capital to do what NASA and its Russian equivalent Rocosmos never did and build a cheap reusable rocket, although this isn’t strictly fair as SpaceX is NASA-funded. Still, it is undoubtedly impressive to see two of the booster rockets make perfect synchronised landings. Ideally it should have been three but the other one crashed. As Musk only gave the initial launch a 50:50 chance of not blowing up on the launch pad, this nevertheless has to be counted a resounding success.
In the interests of balance someone had to gainsay this billionaire-boy-and-his-toys story though, and Van Badham no doubt spoke for many with the observation that ‘space exploration should be an initiative of nations, not just some rich guy’ (Guardian, 9 February). Socialists would quarrel with the word ‘nations’ of course, since nations don’t represent the people as liberal journalists carelessly assume, but are run in the interest of rich guys. But this is the whole problem with the capitalist entrepreneur / visionary / philanthropist thing – it’s always the agenda set by the rich guy, never as a result of collective or democratic debate. Even when they’re trying to do good things, like Bill Gates and his malaria programmes, it’s still essentially a vanity project by a rich guy, not a consensual project by a world community. You wouldn’t run a local club like that, but for some reason it’s ok to run the world that way.
Opinions remain divided between those who think Musk is a modern-day Edison, and those who think he’s a workaholic wacko with an amazing ability to solicit huge amounts of investment and then lose it. His Tesla Roadster may have ridden triumphantly into the heavens, but his Tesla company has been riding in the opposite direction after posting a $2bn loss for 2017. Whether ultimately he hits paydirt or the skids, the very fact that he has the power to launch junk into space without public involvement, debate or oversight is an indictment of capitalism’s glorification of the rich and its perverse tendency to let the super-elite tail wag the social dog.
The next big thing? You must have blinked...
Science is only separated from science fiction by time, luck and lab work, but the predicted Singularity – that epoch-making culmination of exponential tech growth first mentioned in this column in January, 2006 – has so far failed to appear.  While futurologists continue to throw darts at calendars to produce arrive-by dates for this supposed big-tech-bang, detractors have instead dared to suggest that the pace of tech growth, far from being exponential, is stalling and even slowing down (Link). They point to a tech-driven economic revolution between 1870 and 1970 that changed workers’ lives so fundamentally that any subsequent change has been comparatively cosmetic. Though the internet and social media have been a huge cultural change, their economic effect has been ‘disruptive’ within existing markets rather than productive in new ones, while real wages have gone down in some places since 1972. Still it would be a curmudgeonly capitalist who reduced the benefits of technology to a dry profit and loss balance sheet. Artificial Intelligence – the usual suspect in singularity theories – is today all around us, and while its ability to beat the world’s top chess and Go players may have only limited real-world application, it works pretty well for Amazon and Google searches.
Wired Magazinet hinks that 2018’s next big thing might go unnoticed because people won’t recognise it for what it is (Link). But maybe we’ve already missed it. What if we’re already inside the Singularity, and just don’t realize it? After all and contrary to prediction, it doesn’t have to be an AI-led event, nor does it have to be just one thing, or happen all at once. The printing press took around seven decades to spread across Western Europe. Few people in the 1450s would have realised that a technological revolution was taking place. Perhaps we are equally oblivious, or perhaps we’re simply good at taking things in our stride. Three quarters of the UK population now possess a low-cost pocket tool into which hundreds of other tools have been folded in a way that just a generation ago would have been inconceivable. Like a Swiss Army knife with an infinite number of extensions, today’s smart phone is a recorder, video camera, GPS navigator, alarm clock, egg timer, diary, juke box, book library, games hub, TV, mini-cinema and radio player, payment card, banking service, translator and world encyclopaedia. You can tune your guitar with it, check how late your train is and whether it’s raining at your destination, you can use it as a spirit level or a torch, and point it at speakers so it’ll tell you what song is playing. And of course you can phone or text people or join conferences via Skype. Older readers who remember slide rules might be amused to learn that if today’s 256gb iPhone X had been built in 1957 it would have been the size of a 3-kilometer-wide hundred-storey building, cost one and a half times the world’s GDP, and required 30 times the world’s total energy capacity (Link).
The singularity, however it is defined, represents an event beyond which human civilisation will change in unfathomable ways. In this sense, socialism is a political singularity. Currently all the intellectual and creative power of the world’s population is stunted by being forced through the bottleneck of property relations and the market, yet the pressure against this bottleneck is growing along with the individual’s access to communications. Once this bottleneck breaks and the gigantic potential of human capability is released, we may then consider that the singularity began much earlier than we ever realised, when we got that first phone contract.
Paddy Shannon

50 Years Ago: Why Can't We All Get Together (1997)

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

Our object is Socialism, defined as a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interests of the whole community. Our definition is not a mere insistence on a formula. We work for Socialism and oppose Capitalism—including nationalisation or State Capitalism—because only Socialism will solve the problem facing the working class. The Labour Party miscalls State Capitalism “Socialism”, as also do the Communists. The I.L.P. used to do so although at the moment it places more emphasis on the equally false proposition that State Capitalism is a useful stepping stone on the way to Socialism. When therefore the unity-seeker asks why cannot the S.P.G.B. get together with others who want “Socialism” he is letting the misuse of a word deceive him. We do not want State Capitalism and therefore have no interest in associating with those who do. The fact that they call it “Socialism” only makes their activities more dangerous to the workers.

(From front page article by 'H', Socialist Standard, August 1947.)

No such thing as a free bus? (1997)

From the August 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard
Since the beginning of July the people of Hasselt, a town in Northern Belgium with a population of 60,000, have been able to travel free on the buses.
No, socialism has not been established there. This is just one of a number of such experiments that have been carried out in various places over the years. In this case the aim is to encourage people to use public transport rather than their cars when they come to work or shop in the town centre so that the costs of renovating a ring road can be avoided. The free transport experiment, which will run for two years, will cost the town 38 million Belgian francs (£6.6 million), but renovating the ring road would cost hundreds of millions of francs. So, on the principle that “free is cheaper”, the mayor opted for free buses.

Socialists don't advocate free transport under capitalism—we only advocate it as part of the general free access that will apply in socialism—but the same arguments are put against free transport as are against general free access.

When socialists say that in socialism people will be able to give, in terms of work, according to their abilities and then take from the common store of wealth according to their needs as they decide them, the supporter of capitalism's typical reaction is: people are greedy so they would grab more than they need and shortages would soon develop again.

But why? Greed is not a built-in part of human nature but a behaviour pattern under certain specific social conditions.When a ship was wrecked in the Seilly Isles recently people rushed to grab what they could.They did this because they knew that the supply of free goods was a one-off and was not going to last.

Where people know that the free supply is going to last they adjust their behaviour accordingly. They no longer frantically seek to grab what they can. Instead, they wait till their current supply runs out and then they go and get some more or, in the case of a service, they wait till they need it and then they go and use it.

All the experience of free goods and services even under capitalism confirms this. Of course it is true that "there is no such thing as a free lunch" under capitalism: everything has to be paid for in the end, in one way or another. Water supply is paid for in Britain through water rates: free local phone calls in some US and Canadian cities through high telephone rental charges: and free transport through local or national taxes.

But this is not the relevant point here. The water, the local phone calls and the buses or trains are free at the time of use: people pay nothing when they use them and they can use them as much as they like. According to the "greedy person" theory, under these circumstances people should be hoarding water, making as many phone calls as they can. and travelling round and round on the buses just to get in as many free rides as possible. But of course this doesn't happen. People adjust their behaviour to the permanent situation of free use and only use these services when they need them.

Supporters of capitalism don't want to accept this because they don't want to believe that it is possible for humans to behave in this sensible way. This prejudice came out in the debate in Belgium over free transport that the mayor of Hasselt's decision provoked.

The Brussels Region Communications Minister, Hervé Husquin. a Liberal (but Liberals on the Continent are still living in the 19th century), was quoted as saying:
  "People don't respect what they can get for free. Not only does vandalism grow but the motivation to use the car remains. They profit from it. Cheap tickets on the other hand, where people pay a kind of contribution, is the right way to get people to use public transport more often" (Het Nieuwsblad, 22 May).
He may turn out to be right about free public transport not working in the sense of not discouraging people from using their cars (that remains to be seen), but what's all this nonsense about vandalism increasing? Husquin's objection here is, clearly, ideological. According to him, if anything is free people must abuse it because that's human nature. However, as yet there have been no reports from Hasselt of people boarding the buses to slash the seats because they can now do this without paying.

Husquin is a university professor but that seems to be qualification for talking nonsense on this subject. Two lecturers from a university in Antwerp came up with an equally silly objection.

Starting from the premise that humans are, or ought to be.,walking calculating machines who if they had all the facts would decide to spend their money in such a way that the marginal price/benefit ratio of everything they consumed was the same (yes, such are the nutty ideas that circulate in university economics departments and that students arc required to at least pretend to subscribe to if they want to pass the exams), they argue that free transport is not desirable as it distorts people's judgements. When something is free this registers on the calculating machine in their heads as a price equal to zero and encourages them to use more of it than they would want if they knew all the facts, i.e. the "marginal social cost" of the free service.

So. say the nutty professors:
   "Rather than subsidising public transport, economists propose to apply to the whole transport sector the principle of pricing at marginal social cost" (Le Soir, 4 June).
They admit that this will mean an increase in the average amount charged for transport, more for the car user than for the public transport user but more for the public transport user too.

The logic of this argument—and the proof that it is wrong—is that everything should be charged for. Everything should have a price tag on it. Nothing should ever be free. Not just water, phone calls and buses, but not libraries, museums or parks. In the transport sector roads should not be free.Tolls should be reintroduced not just for roads but for pavements too since it costs money to clean and maintain them.

As Robert Tressell pointed out in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, if these people could find a way of doing it they would charge us for the air we breathe.
Adam Buick