Sunday, July 15, 2018

A Matter of Perspective (2018)

The Wood for the Trees Column from the July 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

Living in a prosperous part of South England I occasionally encounter people who claim to be happy with their lives. They seem not to be suffering alienation in their work and are content with the standard of living it provides. What is a socialist to make of such an individual and is our call to revolution impotent in the face of such contentment? Certainly the traditional Marxist case depends on developing and politicising the pre-existing frustration and unhappiness that usually accompanies wage slavery. What does socialism have to offer such people?

Although initially taken-aback by the self-centeredness and political myopia of such individuals socialists can still offer them personal and political liberation by pointing to the perspectives of ‘time and place’. In terms of time we will refer to the struggles of the past that have enabled them to enjoy the relative material and political freedoms they have and point out that these can be eroded and/or destroyed by the instability of capitalism at any moment. The economic crashes that define capitalism can destroy jobs and savings just as its wars can murder its children. Anyone who is content to leave the future of their children in the hands of politicians whose only loyalty is to those with wealth and power is surely guilty of both extreme naivety and neglect. And if they are fortunate enough to personally escape these wider inevitabilities then even the most optimistic among us would be in complete denial not to be concerned about the dangers of pollution and global warming that will be their inheritance.

As I grow older I become aware of just how fragile our individual world is. Even the most successful and healthy individual can succumb to accident or illness at any time. Although socialism could not prevent such vicissitudes of existence it will end the added stress that accompanies loss of earnings in capitalism. Falling into poverty because of illness or bereavement is a common enough phenomenon in our present society. Living in a culture of such great inequality of wealth and opportunity creates crime. The relatively affluent among us are very fortunate if they do not fall victim to crime at some time. As Gil Scott-Heron memorably said about injustice in his song Angola Louisiana: ‘It can walk into your living room as long as it surrounds your home’. They might equip themselves with state-of-the-art security but all this does is foster the feeling of being ‘under siege’ and further alienates the individual from the wider community.

In terms of the ‘place’ element of our subversion of any feelings of smug contentment and complacency we need only point to the ease with which such a person can get on a plane and within hours be in the company of parents who have to watch their children die for the want of clean water. This is not some unrelated and alien ‘third world’ but a world that our actions and/or inaction have created. The components of the electronics (for instance) that a ‘first world’ consumer enjoys may well depend on the low wages of a sweat shop on the other side of the world. Because capital always flows to the area of production with the highest rate of exploitation this quite often means, in the underdeveloped world, very low wages and so contributes greatly to maintaining regional poverty.

And you don’t have to travel far to be ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time’ since the very act of travelling can kill or maim you. A staggering 1.3 million fatalities occur on the roads every year as part of the overall 50 million injuries per annum. In this country alone there is an average of 2,000 fatalities per year among the 200,000 injuries. Given the speed and power of contemporary vehicles together with the desperation to meet delivery deadlines combined with long and monotonous hours involved in commercial traffic, this is hardly surprising. Every time you start your car you take your life into your hands. 

There is an endless list of potential everyday hazards created by capitalism that can put you ‘in the eye of the perfect storm’ including: food adulteration, dangerous working conditions, tired doctors and nurses, faulty domestic appliances, etc., etc. I thought, at one time, that I had finally come across a purely ‘natural disaster’ when I heard about the terrible tsunami in Sri Lanka some years ago; only to discover that the local council had turned off the early warning system because of ‘financial considerations’! 

Life is fragile enough without the additional threats inherent within capitalism. We are so interdependent that we are all, by default, ‘our brother’s keeper’. The ultimate perspective was first provided by the Apollo 8 spacecraft back in 1968 when it emerged from behind the moon to see our planet some 240,000 miles distant. If life is fragile then just how much more is its host; a tiny blue jewel hanging in the midst of nothingness. It is the shared inheritance of us all and no parasitic minority should be allowed to destroy it. At the moment the majority of our species inhabit this world like ghosts haunting it instead of truly living as a part of it. We urgently need to realise this and resurrect ourselves as politically conscious and interactive members of the human family so that we may protect each other and our planet – that is our challenge to those who profess to be content with their lives.

Political Notes: Splits (1982)

The Political Notes column from the March 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard


Does the Tory government know its own mind? On the one hand we have Howe and Tebbitt, dredging among the official statistics, assuring us that there are unmistakable signs that the worst of the recession is over and that we can now look forward to better times ahead. On the other there is Francis Pym, who has the job of master-minding the government’s propaganda, warning us that things are going to get worse:
  In the short run, living standards generally can only fall . . . we have to find ways of coping with and living with much higher levels of unemployment
There is no evidence that Pym was thinking about his own living standards or his own unemployment, although he talked about what “we” have to cope with. In any case, those with memories extending beyond last week may well prefer this sort of gloomy prognostication, from their experience of what has too often followed a politician’s hearty assurance that better times are just around the corner.

Are speeches like Pym’s, then, completely irrelevant? In fact, some people might find consolation in them, for no politician can forecast what will happen to capitalism’s economy; they can no more foresee a slump than they can a boom. If they had this ability the present recession would not have happened. There would be no three million dole queue. There would be no public expenditure cuts. We would be spared the offensiveness of ministers like Norman Tebbitt, who pretends that poverty (ours, not his) is good for us. We would not have to endure Thatcher’s nervous defiance of the reality she sees all around her. And we would be freed of the drivel of people like Pym.

Whatever stress this government is under, they are not split on the fundamental principle that capitalism must be run in the interests of its owning minority of parasites.


The death last month of Ritchie-Calder saw the end of an identikit lefty, who moved easily in the unreal world of soft headed, temporising liberals, ready to support any excess of capitalism provided it is the work of their favoured party.

A devoted member of the Labour Party and a journalist who wrote mainly about science—which he saw as a means of dealing with social problems—Ritchie-Calder must have been thrilled when, in 1963, Harold Wilson began to claim for Labour the role of the party of science. The red (or was it white?) hot technological revolution, promised Wilson, was going to abolish poverty and strife through a four per cent growth in productivity. It sounded simple and it deceived a lot of people, like Ritchie-Calder, who should have known better. And of course it didn’t happen as Wilson promised.

Typically, Ritchie-Calder was a professed pacifist who nevertheless supported war, ending up with an important job on the Political Warfare Executive during 1939/45. Plenty of other lefties went the same disreputable way, after a brief obligatory struggle with what they called their principles.

After the war, Ritchie-Calder's continuing quest for impotence led him into the United Nations; he toured the Congo on their behalf during the troubles in 1960. He probably felt more comfortable there; the history of that country’s blood soaked exploitation by the rubber-seeking imperialist powers can keep a left wing journalist’s typewriter rattling for months.

Inevitably, he joined CND. No Aldermaston march was complete without his personification of the delusion that capitalism can be a society where human knowledge and achievement are used for human benefit.

And inevitably again, the ruling class showed what they thought of him that he presented no threat to their interests—when in 1966 he became a life peer and. a few years later, chairman of the Metrication Board.

Ritchie-Calder was one of those eminent people who give respectability to the organisations of capitalist reform—and therefore to capitalism itself. They may or may not be sincere; what is undeniable is that they are dangerously misguided. We have had too much of them and of their works. Behind a benign exterior they are as devastating as a malignant disease.


Margaret Thatcher was once dubbed by Labour MPs, taking advantage of the abolition of free milk for some school children, as Thatcher the Snatcher. (The Iron Lady later said that she had been so wounded by these slurs that she would creep home and weep privately to her husband Denis.)

Well now the Prime Minister has advanced up the scale of criminality and from a snatcher has become, according to one outraged Labour MP. the Westminster Ripper. This parliamentary language may be written into the Labour Party campaign to exploit the government’s discomfiture over the cuts in public expenditure, which are now being blamed for almost all our ills from suicidal unemployed to decaying hospitals.

From this there has emerged a handy, distorting equation: Tory equals cuts equals poverty; Labour equals no cuts equals prosperity. Like all such propaganda, this has no basis in truth.

The Labour government of 1929 was infamous for its attacks on the already precarious living standards of the workers. That this was no accident was proven by such Chancellors as “Austerity” Cripps and Roy Jenkins, with his lugubrious warnings about the disaster awaiting us if we continued to live it up in our palaces on caviar and champagne. As a result of watching Jenkins on TV, a number of slum dwellers are said to have guiltily reduced their consumption of fish fingers, hoping thereby to contribute to the national recovery.

The last in this line—Denis Healey—was known as the “first monetarist”, which did not mean that he was a “monetarist” but that he zealously pursued a policy of public expenditure cuts. The latest account of this is in the book Inside the Treasury by Joel Barnett, who was Healey’s Financial Secretary. Apart from admitting that, in contrast to their promises to be able to control capitalism, the Labour government of 1974 did not have the first idea of what to do about the economy, Barnett records how Healey’s proposed cuts were pushed through the Cabinet, against some typically inconsistent opposition: “There is no will in this Cabinet,” expostulated Peter Shore, “To tell the IMF to take a running jump, even if unemployment rose to 2 million”.

Both Labour and Conservative governments have imposed cuts, which is another way of saying that they have both tried to do what the capitalist system demands of a government. They are basically in complete agreement on that. And that is another way of saying that no member of the working class, with the power to transform society, should misuse that power by supporting them.