Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Between the Lines: Increasing Misery (1994)

The Between the Lines column from the January 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard

Increasing Misery
Marx once wrote that as capitalism develops the mass of misery of the working class grows progressively worse. This is all the more true if one bears BBC1's EastEnders in mind (Tuesdays and Thursdays, 7.30 pm). For never in the history of television has a TV programme been so dedicated to spreading misery among the working class.

Let there be no doubt about it — EastEnders is a truly horrendous soap opera and anti-working class to its core. At best, its portrayal of working class life is a caricature which bears little relationship to the way workers actually conduct themselves. At worst, its aim appears to be to convince you that life is one long emotional roller-coaster which we are entirely powerless to change. To this end, few characters in EastEnders have any interests other than conducting screaming matches with those they profess to hate, which at any given point in time is roughly half of the rest of the cast. When they are giving their lungs and their fists a break, they play a curious game of treading on eggshells with one another until an unsuspecting actor puts a foot wrong and another extended bout of ranting begins. Some characters, including the psychopathic Grant Mitchell, Pauline Fowler and her son Mark, exhibit mood swings the like of which are rarely seen outside of hospital psychiatric units. Their emotions are seemingly uncontrollable, ebbing and flowing wildly above treacherous depths like storm tides over a beach of quicksand.

Other characters are simply “write-offs" they were apparently born evil and will always stay that way. Their only pleasure in life lies in causing trouble for other people. Such is the lot of "Tricky Dicky", the market stall manager, and homeless Mandy, whom the other characters treat like Satan’s Daughter, only not as politely. “Tricky Dicky" and Mandy, indeed, are the only remotely stable characters in the series and their stability is one born of calculated malice and an effortless contempt for others which some characters in the series appear to secretly envy.

Happy Half-Hour
In the episode of Thursday 2 December one character — Frank Butcher — smiled, through only at the prospect of someone else's misfortune, but for this character it was still a definite advance. Ironically, the actor Mike Reid who plays Frank Butcher used to be a comedian of sorts, but really do any of the characters in EastEnders ever have the wit to say something funny. That would be to display signs of intelligence, and the scriptwriters can't be seen to be having any of that. The characters they create and manipulate have to be humourless and stupid if they are to appear to be convincingly powerless.

Neither can the characters been seen having stable long term relationships with one another. A quick fumble behind the Queen Vic is all that most of them are capable of until the inevitable bitching and recriminations commence. A case in point was Arthur Fowler's tawdry affair with Mrs Hewitt, so unsophisticated and furtive as to be reminiscent of Howard and Maria from Last of the Summer Wine, only without the humour. Though a bit of sex always spices up a dull script, other soap operas manage without the constant transfers of sexual allegiances that occur in EastEnders, and we can only suspect that it is again a deliberate policy to portray the working class as shallow, feeble and fundamentally untrustworthy.

Nay, Nay and Thrice Nay
The really bad news for the future is that the BBC apparently have plans to increase the dose of this anti-working class nonsense from twice to three times a week. There are reports of unrest among the cast at this prospect, and some prominent cast members like June Brown and Peter Dean have already left the series in disgust at the way things are going. Their view is that the “golden age" of EastEnders is over, but in truth, there was no such cultural nirvana in Albert Square to start with. Even at its peak EastEnders always glorified in portraying the grosser aspects of working class life and unlike other soaps largely shunned humour and pathos. Its leading characters have inevitably been thoroughly unpleasant creatures and its message a hopelessly bleak one. Twice a week has been bad enough, three times a week would be to extend the cycle of misery to breaking point.
Dave Perrin

Scargill: the Unauthorised Biography (1993)

Book Review from the December 1993 issue of the Socialist Standard

Scargill: the Unauthorised Biography By Paul Routledge. Harper Collins. £16.99.

Arthur Scargill arouses mixed feelings in Socialists. On the one hand, he is one of the few public figures who says things we can agree with. For instance: "History is littered with abortive attempts to reform capitalism. You cannot reform this system out of existence. What we need is a complete and utter change of society" (p. 261) He even once told an incredulous (then plain Mr) David Frost that he stood for a moneyless society (Daily Mail. 19 September 1983). On the other hand, [he] sees himself leader with the presumption and arrogance that goes with this.

Fellow traveller
Scargill’s background was with the old Communist Party (he was a member of its youth section and stood as a candidate for them in local elections in 1960). He inherited from them the anti-socialist idea that what the workers require is the right leadership — in the case of the Yorkshire miners, his leadership.

Routledge makes out a convincing case for saying that Scargill left the CP only because he felt that membership would stand in the way of his ambition to be a leader of the Yorkshire miners' union. Alter leaving he still retained their mistaken conception of socialism as state capitalism on the Russian model. Even today his political position is nearest to that of the faction of the old CP that brings out the Morning Star.

He is also a bit of a syndicalist in the sense that he believes that workers should take mass industrial action, not just to get higher wages and better conditions, but also to bring about political and social change. Not that there is any evidence that mass industrial action has been able to override the economic laws of the profit system any more than can the reformist parliamentary action he derides.

In fact even as a trade union leader Scargill has been a distinct failure. It was his misfortune to realise his ambition of becoming president of the NUM at a time when coal was being outcompeted by other fuels and so doomed to decline as a capitalist industry. No doubt the miners had to go on strike in 1984 but the tactics adopted meant that when they were forced back in 1985 they were completely defeated: not only did they not obtain any concessions on the speed of pit closures (the most they could have hoped for) but their ability to fight another day was undermined by their split into two rival unions. After that it has been downhill all the way.

Paul Routledge, it has to be said, emerges as nasty a character as he paints Scargill to be. During the strike the State seized the assets of the NUM. So the national officials decided, quite legitimately, to set up a parallel, secret fund. Naturally these funds couldn’t be properly audited. When the capitalist press discovered this, led by Robert Maxwell (who, it later emerged, knew a thing or two about how to get his hands on unauthorised funds) they cried "scandal", "corruption". Although Scargill was exonerated of any charge of misappropriating union funds for his own personal benefit, Routledge repeats this allegation a number of times while only mentioning in passing the exoneration. This is despicable and the mark of a capitalist journalistic hack.
Adam Buick

The Labour Party Conference (1935)

From the November 1935 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Labour Party Conference was held this year at Brighton. For many reasons it was outstanding. The imminence of a general election gave it a cautious tone. The memory of two Labour Governments served to remind delegates and leaders that economic and political problems do not vanish as before the wave of a magician's wand when a Labour Government is elected. This robbed them of some of the cocksureness of former years. Promises of what they would do if and when they were elected were not so lavish. Delegates seemed to sense their limitations. Mr. George Lansbury, for years, had talked of “classless society" and “the brotherhood of man” in a way which implied these things to be Labour Party objects. He still talked of “classless society" and the “brotherhood of man," but only as an “ultimate goal." The irrefutable fact has apparently penetrated his mind that whatever else these objects are they are not Labour Party policy, and that Labour Party policy does not go beyond the immediate one of administering capitalism.

Mr. Lansbury is perhaps typical of many thousands of members and followers of the Labour Party. It is to be hoped that events have had the effect of similarly dispelling their illusions. In seeking to get the votes of the workers the Labour Party resorts to the electioneering trickery of the other capitalist parties. Unemployment and other evils which are part and parcel of capitalism are attributed to the policy of the party in power, completely ignoring the fact that no remedy for these evils was produced when a Labour Government itself was in power. This, however, was forgotten when Conference made comparisons between Labour Governments and the present Government. The “National" Government was described as a fraud, but no mention was made that many present leaders of the Labour Party were alleged to have been prepared to join it when it was formed if the trade unions had not threatened to withdraw financial support from the Labour Party.

The Question of Sanctions Against Italy
There was one question—the Italian dispute with Abyssinia—which dominated Conference, took up most of its time and caused other matters to be treated as routine questions. A resolution demanding that sanctions be applied against Italy was carried by the enormous majority of twenty to one. No effort was made to conceal the fact that sanctions might lead to war. In winding up the debate on the resolution, Mr. Morrison said : “The economic and financial sanctions may well be effective. But do not let us delude ourselves with that belief. If they are not effective, I am not going to say that military sanctions are to be ruled out when it may weaken the power for peace" (Daily Herald, October 3rd).

Mr. Morrison, however, did not explain how military sanctions could strengthen peace. He did not, because he could not. To send British and other armies to Abyssinia to drive out the Italian army is not peace, but war. Nor did Mr. Morrison explain how war would serve working-class interests. He did not, because he could not. If war is the outcome of the present capitalist quarrel it will be because of the competitive basis of capitalist society. The Labour Party has apparently learned little since 1914. If there is any difference at all between their position in 1914 and now it is that their support of capitalist interests, and willingness to send workers to the shambles, is more shameless now than it was then.

It is not surprising in view of his demand for sanctions, including, if need be, military sanctions or war, that Mr. Morrison obtained the withdrawal of the resolution which came next on the agenda. It ran: —
  This conference declares its hostility to the proposals for instituting civilian air-raid drill, and considers these proposals not only futile as a means of protection against aerial attack, but a definite attempt to arouse public feeling in favour of the Government’s arms policy.
   This conference therefore instructs the National Council of Labour to draw up plans immediately for organising public resistance to compulsory air-raid drill, and recommends all Labour controlled authorities to refuse to operate the Government’s plans in any way.—(Daily Herald, October 4th.)
That piece of simple-mindedness, or electioneering tactics, was obviously on the agenda before the present crisis developed.

The open discussion in the Press of the sanctions being applied against Italy, together with the present dangerous international situation, has produced some strange results. Many who imagined that sanctions were a guarantee of peace, suddenly had brought home to them that they might lead to war. It may be crediting Mr. Lansbury with ingenuousness to say that he shared this illusion, but it appears that that was the case. Indeed, how else could his change of mind be explained. Sir Stafford Cripps, who was not under this illusion, and demanded that sanctions be applied to Japan when that country invaded China, changed his mind when the question was nearer home and when the possibility of the Labour Party, as the Government, having to apply them was less remote than then. Perhaps the most ardent sabre-rattlers were those who suggested that Fascism was the real enemy.

The present support by the Labour Party of the League of Nations is the logical result of its policy since the last war. To go back on this policy now would, they think, mean a loss of political prestige, and consequently of votes.
Harry Waite

Woe to the Victors (1934)

From the November 1934 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Labour Party Conference this year was held in an atmosphere of expectancy and confidence of triumphs to come. Rightly or wrongly, the delegates felt that the rule of the National Government, coming to a close, is not to be renewed, and that the defeats and desertions of 1931 will be forgotten in a sweeping electoral victory not far ahead. Then, with a majority to back up its decisions, a Labour Government will inaugurate a new era in British politics. That is the belief, but Socialists do not share it. Electoral victory maybe—though improbable without a Labour-Liberal alliance of some sort or other—but that victory will be more than perilous; it may well be one of the most disastrous episodes in working-class history, comparable with the post-war “victories” of the Social-Democrats in Germany and Austria, with all their aftermath of violence, despair and savage reaction. Such victory will be not a development towards Socialism, but yet another check to the growth of the Socialist movement. These are hard words. Let us justify them in the light of what was by far the most instructive of the resolutions of the Conference. It was a resolution which the Labour Party's official organ, the Daily Herald, regarded as of such importance as to merit being featured on the front page. It was carried “by the largest majority that has been polled at the present Conference" (Daily Herald, October 5th). What was this question which divided the votes into a stupendous majority of 2,118,000 on the one side and the tiny minority of 149,000 on the other? Surprising as it may appear to those who regard the Labour Party as a party of Socialists, this huge majority came together in order to demonstrate the Labour Party's abhorrence of anything smacking of Socialism. It was, to be explicit, a recommendation of the Executive Committee in favour of “fair compensation" for owners and shareholders whose property is nationalised by a Labour Government, the compensation to be based roughly on the present valuation of the property. The proposal which the majority rejected was one put forward by the Socialist League which would have meant depriving the owners of one-half to two-thirds of their property.

Let us, first of all, make it perfectly clear that the Socialist League’s proposal is not Socialism, and that the League, in our view, is almost as muddled in its views as the I.L.P., from which it sprang, and as the Labour Party, to which it is uneasily affiliated. Socialism does not mean State industries run on capitalist lines, either with or without compensation of the existing owners. Socialism means a system of society in which the means of production are owned by society as a whole, a system in which goods will really be produced for use, not for sale and profit-making, and in which there will be no such thing as an income from the ownership of property, whether as land, buildings, plant, shares or Government bonds. These things are plain enough to Socialists, but at present utterly beyond the comprehension of the great majority of members of the Socialist League and Labour Party.

It follows that Socialists are not at all interested in the issue which divides the Socialist League and the Labour Party, as to whether or not the owners should receive full or only part compensation. There can be no such thing as compensation if Socialism is to replace Capitalism. What the owners now possess is the right to an income from property, the right to live without working, the right to exploit the labour of the working-class. There can be no Socialism unless and until the means of production and distribution are taken from them and made over to society for the use of all. The former owners will then enjoy the fruits of associated labour on an equal footing with all other members of society, neither privileged nor suppressed, but as equals. But there can be no compensation. You cannot abolish exploitation and at the same time give the exploiters something equivalent to their former right of exploitation. A slave-owner, deprived of his slaves, could be given property rights of another kind under capitalism. But abolish capitalist wage-slavery and you end exploitation for all time and for all persons.

These elementary truths of Socialism are, of course, unknown to the delegates at Labour Party Conferences, but in their groping, muddle-headed way the Socialist League members feel that there must be some catch in the Labour Party's bland assurance that there is going to be more of the cake for the workers without decreasing the share of the capitalists—hence their attempt at revolt, which was crushed with such devastating completeness.

It means that the Labour Party has reiterated its belief in “compensation," that is, in capitalism. It will take office if opportunity arises, determined to apply its numerous and complicated schemes for reorganising industry, raising wages, abolishing unemployment, etc., while retaining all the essentials of capitalism. It will retain rent, interest and profit, the wages system, buying and selling, and the struggle for foreign markets, and will leave the capitalist class still possessed of their property rights, their right to exploit the working class.

The result will be another tragic collapse, tragic because many workers will believe it to be a collapse of Socialism, or proof that political methods are useless. Every individual who lends a hand in the establishment of the Labour Party in power is contributing to that collapse, and is helping to ensure a further lease of life for capitalism, with the likelihood that the subsequent Government may be one of iron-handed, panic-stricken repression.

Before concluding, we may usefully devote a little space to the arguments of those who opposed the Socialist League. Mr. Herbert Morrison, an astute Labour politician, put the case cogently from a Labour Party standpoint when he said that to adopt the Socialist League amendment would frighten the electors, and "You would keep yourself out of political power " (Daily Herald, October 5th). Mr. Morrison here, as elsewhere, shows himself a clever exponent of half-truths. He will say, as we do, that there can be no Socialism without political power, and no political power without the support of the electors. He knows, too (but is very careful not to proclaim it at times and in places where it may prove embarrassing to the electoral prospects of the Labour Party), that there is no solution to the poverty problem other than Socialism, that all the highfalutin schemes of his Party will leave the problem unsolved. That is where the Morrisons— those who are interested in political careers—necessarily part company from the Socialist. We face up to the logic of the situation. Mr. Morrison and his Party dare not do so. They dare not proclaim from the public platform that there can be no Socialism without an organised majority of Socialists, with its logical corollary that any acquirement of political power before that organised Socialist majority exists is a snare and delusion to the working class. Mr. Morrison knows, and admits, that a Government cannot go beyond the mandate and understanding of the electorate. He knows that a Labour Government cannot introduce Socialism, which the electorate and the bulk of its own members neither want nor understand. He knows that the reform measures the electorate will permit and endorse are not Socialism, and will not solve the problems facing the working class, who form the overwhelming majority of the electorate. He knows, therefore, that a Labour Government cannot do the one thing which alone can solve the problems it is promising to solve. Only Mr. Morrison and his colleagues can say why they play this double game. Is it vaulting ambition, reckless of consequences? Is it the insane over-confidence of the “leader," persuading himself against his own knowledge and experience, that his god-like gifts will enable him to lead the "mob" to impossible victory ? Is it, after all, merely that underneath the surface-smartness of the successful Labour politician there is a profound stupidity and ignorance about the realities of capitalism and Socialism?

Whatever the answer, the penalty for the working class is appalling to contemplate. Let the leaders and followers alike stop and consider the spectacle of savage Hitlerite capitalism before launching out blindly on the path which led the German Social-Democrats to destruction, and may lead to a similar end in this country.
Edgar Hardcastle

Who wants an Income Policy? (1962)

From the September 1962 issue of the Socialist Standard

Anyone who reads newspapers, listens to radio or looks in on TV, must be aware that there is supposed to be a thing called incomes policy and that it is most important. It is not, in the main, spoken of as something anyone actually knows or has, but as something we ought to have, and all good citizens are looking for. Some unofficial seekers claim to have found it. The Prime Minister, with more modesty or more caution, is setting up the National Incomes Commission to operate the as yet undefined policy, though the TUC has, in advance, rejected the Commission as “both irrelevant to the nation's needs and unworkable in practice."

Mr. Macmillan, addressing a Conservative rally at Luton Hoo towards the end of June, had told them about “ two great policies” he has for putting this country on the right road. The first is joining the Common Market. The second, as reported in the Sunday Telegraph on June 24th, “was to find further means, with the general consent of the people, to implement on a continuing basis an incomes policy based on fairness and common sense.” If we find such a policy, said Mr. Macmillan, and successfully applied it, we would “be able to keep our four great objectives, full employment, steady prices, a strong pound and steady growth.”

With the promise of fairness and common sense as its foundation, and so many nice things flowing from it, how could anyone not accept Mr. Macmillan's N.I.C.? But the truth is that when the TUC slashed the Commission on the ground that it is the Government’s device for restricting wages, they were echoing the thoughts most workers have when their own wage claims are being met with arguments about "putting the national interest first.” They think, with good reason, that it is to help profit.

Yet, despite its refusal to participate in NIC, the TUC (and the Labour Party) agrees that in principle there must be an incomes policy: only Socialists take another view.

People and unions and political parties have been arguing about an incomes policy and trying to frame one that would satisfy everybody, for a century and more. The ideas of the Unions have been rather restricted, going no deeper, for most members of each Union, than the belief that they at least ought to have higher wages even if the claims of the rest of the workers were a bit thin. The Unions found one slogan they could all agree upon: “A Fair Day’s Work for a Fair Day's Pay.” They and Mr. Macmillan both have a liking for that word fair. But, as the late Dr. Joad would have said, it all depends on what you mean by fair—such a comfortable word and so completely lacking in any meaning substantial enough to be got hold of. How can there be “fairness” between wages to workers who produce all wealth, and property incomes to non-workers?

Others, who thought a little more deeply about the question of incomes, discovered that it is impossible to justify the incomes we see being paid and received, on grounds of logic, humanity, or the moral tenets of “just reward” that are supposed to govern the world of work and which in fact have no influence whatever. So, a number of people totally rejected inequality of income and decided that there should be universal equality. Among these people may be named the late G. B. Shaw and the Labour Prime Minister, Lord Attlee, who were writing  on these lines thirty years ago. What they meant, and what the leaders of the  Russian Communist Party meant when they promised equality in Russia in 1918,  was that there should be only one rate of income all-round, with no, or at most, only small variations. There would in fact be one standard of living for everybody. Socialists were not surprised that both in this country under Labour Government and in Russia under the Communist Party, equality never happened. It never had the slightest chance of happening, for the good and sufficient reason that you cannot retain capitalism yet hope to impose on it an abstract conception of equality which was quite alien to it.

In the very early days of British capitalism there were individuals, Jeremy Bentham was one, who thought that that society was moving towards equalitarianism under its own momentum. We have seen how wrong they were. Inequality of accumulated wealth and property-income grew apace while Bentham was expecting the reverse, and once a high degree of inequality was reached it has remained, not at all affected by reforms supposed to end or at least to mitigate it. And with the growth of bigger and bigger companies and combines inequality has strengthened its hold, so much so that demands for equality are hardly heard any more.

But Socialists are still aiming at Socialism; which does not mean equal incomes, but the introduction of the only possible distribution principle for a Socialist social system—” From each according to his ability; to each according to his need,” and this, of course, involves the end of wages and salaries as well as the end of rent, interest and profit. As Marx told trade unionists back in the 19th century, they should scrap their slogan, “A Fair Day’s Work for a Fair Day’s Pay,” and put in its place the abolition of the wages system.
Edgar Hardcastle