Monday, October 1, 2018

‘A Very Short Introduction To . . . Capitalism’ (2007)

Book Review from the March 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Capitalism. A Very Short Introduction, by James Fulcher. Oxford University Press. £6.99

Capitalism is the system of production in which capital prevails. Capital, as Fulcher says, is “essentially the investment of money in the expectation of making a profit”; “money that is invested in order to make more money”. As such it existed even in Ancient Rome and the Middle Ages, but capitalism, as a system, only came into being when capital came to be invested in the production of goods rather than in trading or money-lending. This happened increasingly from the 16th century onwards, accelerating in the 19th century and coming to dominate the world before its end.

All this is well explained in the opening two chapters. Then there’s a rather sudden leap from a discussion as to why capitalism first developed in Europe to modern, 20th century capitalism, which Fulcher calls “managed capitalism”. The state has always intervened in capitalism (that a so called free market capitalism with no state intervention once existed is a myth), but in the 20th century the claim was that this was being done in the interests of all the state’s subjects rather than just the capitalist class, as patently evident before.

Capitalism is, and was from the start, a global system but it has different institutional forms in different countries due to their specific historical and political circumstances. So Fulcher is able to answer his question “Is capitalism everywhere the same?” with a no, different forms of capitalism exist. However, he does not go so far as to include the USSR in its time as having been capitalist. He sees it rather as some non-capitalist alternative, even though money there was invested in the expectation of profit – by the state; hence our view of it as “state capitalism”.

In discussing crises in the final chapter Fulcher points out that “the history of capitalism is . . . littered with crises. Periods of stable economic growth are the exception not the norm. The quarter century of relatively stable economic growth after 1945 may have shaped a generation’s  expectations about capitalist normality but it was not historically typical of capitalism”. But, he says, “particular crises . . .  come to an end” and that “contrary to what some of his followers have thought” Marx did not believe “that capitalism would end in some huge economic collapse. It would come to an end only when overthrown by the workers it exploited”.

Not that he thinks Marx was being realistic here since his book ends on a distinctly pessimistic note: “The search for an alternative to capitalism is fruitless in a world where capitalism has become utterly dominant, and no final crisis is in sight or, short of some ecological catastrophe, even really conceivable . . . Those who wish to reform the world should focus on the potential for change within capitalism”. Naturally, we disagree. That’s been tried  before, and it doesn’t work.
Adam Buick

‘A Very Short Introduction To . . . Socialism’ (2007)

Book Review from the March 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Socialism: A Very Short Introduction, by Michael Newman. Oxford University Press. £6.99.

We are hard to please when it comes to books on socialism because it is likely they won’t mean by socialism what we do. This book is no exception but if “socialism” is understood as meaning “what has been considered socialism” it’s not too bad.

The definition of socialism we have inherited – a society based on the common ownership by all the people of the means of production – is logically and historically justified, but we don’t want such common ownership for its own sake. What we want primarily is a society where people are socially equal, have an equal say in how things are run, and feel, and are, part of a genuine community with a common interest; in abstract terms, where equality, democracy and community exist, arguing that this can only happen on the basis of the common ownership by all of the means for producing wealth.

Newman says that socialism involves “a belief in the possibility of constructing an alternative egalitarian system based on the values of solidarity and co-operation”, that such a system is not incompatible with human nature and that it can be brought about by conscious human action. We fall into this category, but so do others. Newman uses the word “socialist” in this book to describe all who do.

The two major movements in the last century which claimed to be committed to this were the Social Democratic and Labour parties and the Leninists. The former believed that an “alternative egalitarian system based on the values of solidarity and co-operation” could be gradually introduced through parliamentary action within capitalism; the latter argued (for most of the time) that it could only be done dictatorially, though still gradually, after the seizure of political power by a vanguard party.

Newman examines what he considers the most favourable cases of both strategies: Sweden for the Social Democrats and Cuba for the Leninists. He does conclude that less inequality came to exist in these countries than previously, but suggests that other factors than a desire to establish “socialism” were involved.

Our view is that all Sweden had under the Social Democrats (recently voted out of office again) was a reformed capitalism, while Cuba (Russia, China, North Korea and the rest) were state capitalist dictatorships which had nothing to do with socialism. And that both contributed to the alteration of meaning that the word socialism underwent in the last century.

Searching for more modern contributions to the idea of socialism, Newman comes up with feminism and ecologism. Socialists are of course feminists in the sense that we believe in equality between men and women, but nowadays only a few ageing feminists from the 1960s and 70s still see feminism as having some connexion with socialism; most now see it as meaning that women should be allowed to compete on equal terms in the rat-race capitalism imposes and have an equal chance of ending up capitalists, top politicians or army generals.

Socialists have become more aware of environmental issues than at one time, but most Greens think that these problems can be solved by gradual parliamentary action, and participation in running capitalism, as the old Social Democrat and Labour parties used to think working-class problems could be.  They, too, are doomed to fail.

We can, however, agree with Newman when he says, in his conclusion, that as long as capitalism exists so will socialist ideas: “What can be maintained with confidence is that capitalism will not be able to resolve the problems and injustices it causes, that there will be constant protests in one form or another, and that socialist arguments remain relevant. However, it is the task of socialists to help create that consciousness” rather than assume that socialism will come automatically.
Adam Buick

‘A Very Short Introduction To . . . Anarchism’ (2007)

Book Review from the March 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Anarchism, A Very Short Introduction, by Colin Ward. Oxford University Press. £6.99.

This is a reminder of what anarchists in Britain used to be like before the 1980s when a new breed, borrowing vanguardist tactics from the trotskyists, appeared calling themselves “class struggle anarchists”. Ward puts the case for a pacifist, reformist anarchism, concerned with gradually breaking down authoritarian attitudes in education, sex, the family, prisons, censorship and with promoting decentralization and voluntary self-help even within capitalism.
Adam Buick

Cooking the Books: Loose Talk About Thin Air (2012)

The Cooking the Books column from the October 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

The pre-WW2 currency crank, Major Douglas, used to talk about banks being able to create credit by a mere “stroke of the pen”. Currency cranks have been comforted in this belief by some modern writers on money and banking saying that banks can create money out of nothing. What the cranks don’t realise is that these writers mean something quite different.

One quote they have trumpeted all over the internet is from leading Financial Times journalist Martin Wolf who wrote in 2010:
“The essence of the contemporary monetary system is creation of money, out of nothing, by private banks’ often foolish lending.” (10 November)
US economist, Paul Krugman objects to such talk:
“As I read various stuff on banking . . .  I often see the view that banks can create credit out of thin air . . .  it should be obvious that it’s all wrong. First of all, any individual bank does, in fact, have to lend out the money it receives in deposits. Bank loan officers can’t just issue checks out of thin air; like employees of any financial intermediary, they must buy assets with funds they have on hand.” (Link.)
Wolf will not believe that an individual bank on its own can create money out of nothing to lend. The theory he was expressing somewhat sloppily is that the whole banking system (including central banks, such as in Britain the Bank of England, in the US the Fed) can.

Today all banks (which includes building societies) have to hold reserves at the central bank which are used to settle payments between them at the end of the working day. The argument is that this means that a bank can make a loan without first having the money. But not for long: they have to find it by the end of the day (literally). In a polemic against Krugman, another US economist, Scott Fullweiler, explains:
“But, let’s also assume that Bank A had no reserve balances on hand when it made the loan. How does it transfer reserve balances to Bank B? As it turns out, the Fed provides an overdraft for any payment sent in which a bank’s account goes below zero – that is, the payment is never rejected when it occurs on the Fed’s books. The Fed does this as part of its legal obligation to promote stability in the payments system. The rub is that the Fed requires Bank A to clear this overdraft by the end of the day, which Bank A will most likely do in the money markets (such as the federal funds market, often via pre-established lines of credit). So, on the liability/equity side for Bank A, we end with ‘+borrowings’ in the money market to clear the overdraft.” (Link.)
This invalidates neither the view that all loans have to be covered by deposits nor that banks are financial intermediaries, borrowing money and then lending it at a higher rate of interest (as Fullweiler puts it, banks aim “to earn more on assets than is paid on liabilities“). What this theory is aimed at refuting is the view that the central bank can, under existing arrangements, control bank lending, as indeed it can’t (for other reasons too). But to express this by saying that banks have the power to create money to lend “out of nothing” is highly misleading and a gift to the currency cranks.

What it does not support is the view that an individual bank can make a loan with no funding by a mere computer entry and then charge interest on it, a common currency crank fallacy.

Socialism: restating what you should know (2018)

From the October 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

Socialism is not some thought-up ideal system of society. It is the practical alternative to the existing capitalist society of minority class ownership and production for a market with a view to profit. The problems that capitalism generates for humanity as a whole and for the majority class of wage and salary workers in particular arise from its very nature as such a society. Production for profit by competing enterprises (whether owned by rich individuals, corporations, the state, or even cooperatives) inevitably gives rise to market forces that impose the rule that making profits has to come before meeting needs.

As a result, housing, education, health care, transport and other needs are inadequately met, while at least ten percent of the population in the advanced capitalist parts of the world are deprived even of basic necessities (in other parts of the world it is much higher). In addition, society is more and more commercialised with market values encroaching on human values such as solidarity. On a global scale the pursuit of profits has led to enterprises adopting productive methods that are leading to global warming and climate change. Production for profit involves conflicts of economic interest between competing states that lead to wars, at least one of which is always going on in some part of the world.

In other words, capitalism inevitably produces inadequate services, deprivation, commercialism, pollution and war. These problems are never going to be solved as long as capitalism lasts.

The only way out is to move on from world capitalism to a global society of common ownership, democratic control, production to directly satisfy people’s needs, and distribution on the principle of ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’. Only within such a framework can the problems that capitalism causes be effectively and lastingly overcome. Human social evolution having evolved to where it now is, such a world socialist society is the only practical alternative to global capitalism.

Moving on to socialism does not mean that society has to be completely reconstructed from scratch. Socialism takes over from capitalism and in fact did not become a practical possibility until capitalist development had created the material basis and infrastructure for it in the form of a productive system technologically capable of producing plenty for all and an administrative system capable of managing the provision of public services.

Socialism takes over the means of production, by abolishing all sectional property rights over them, and uses them to directly produce, without the intervention of buying and selling, what people need, both as individuals and as communities. It takes over the state apparatus, lopping off its undemocratic and coercive features (it thereby ceasing to be a ‘state’) but retaining some of its useful administrative and coordinating functions. In other words, there is no need to abandon modern industry (only its ownership by rich individuals, corporations and states) nor to smash the state (only to transform it into an unarmed, democratic administrative centre).

The Use of
 the Vote (1959)

Editorial from the October 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard

Issues that will be decided
Before the next issue of the Socialist Standard appears the General Election will be over. You, the wage and salary earners who make up the great majority of the electorate, will have had your little hour of prominence in which you decided the fate of individual candidates and their political parties for perhaps another five years.

The Tories will know whether you have favoured them with the unusual prize of three consecutive general election victories. The Labour Party will know whether those of you who wanted a change of government are numerous enough to have put them back after nearly eight years in the opposition wilderness. And the Liberals will have had your answer to their plea for enough Parliamentary ' seats to be able to exercise a restraining or enlivening influence on the bigger parties. It is you who will have decided these issues in the way you cast your votes.

The power you have
In the weeks of electoral excitement before polling day you will have been made to appreciate, at least a little, that you are, for the moment, important people. Between elections you look up to politicians and big business men as important, but during elections it is they who go to endless trouble to influence you and win your support for them and their policies. It is you who can make or mar the career of a politician and you who can place power in the hands of a government which during its term of office can, by taxation and tariff policies or by subsidies, raise some industries to prosperity and bring others to their ruin. It is you who give power to governments in whose hands rest decisions about peace and war.

Illustration by Alwyn Edgar.
Power for no use
Since the Socialist Party of Great Britain was formed there have been fourteen general elections in this country: this is the fifteenth. Fifteen times the Tory, Liberal and Labour Parties have appealed to you to help them with your votes. Fifteen times you, the workers, have used your votes against your own interests.

Although the parties we have mentioned use different names for their programmes and promises of legislation, there is very little of importance dividing them. They are all concerned with trying to administer British capitalism as well as may be in a troubled world of rival capitalist groups. In any big emergency like the crisis of 1931 or in war they come together and form coalition governments.

Whichever of them, you, the workers, vote for in an election, it is a defeat for you, a betrayal of your own interests.

The Socialist Alternative
The Socialist Party of Great Britain was founded with one purpose, that of achieving Socialism. Socialism is not something akin to reformists' efforts to improve capitalism, but an alternative social system. One in which class ownership of the means of production and distribution would be replaced by common ownership, buying and selling, profit-making and the wages system would disappear, and with them the wars that are caused by capitalism's commercial rivalries.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain has carried on propaganda all these years to increase the understanding and acceptance of the Socialist message, and from time to time have contested elections. What we can do in this direction is strictly limited by our meagre financial resources—even the £150 election deposit is a serious item to us. On the present occasion our comrade J. Read stands as [the] Socialist candidate at Bethnal Green.

By that candidature in Bethnal Green and by our propaganda elsewhere the Socialist Party of Great Britain seeks to shorten the day when you. the workers, will recognise that your interests, and indeed that of the human race, demands the abolition of capitalism and establishment of Socialism through the intelligent use of the vote by an international Socialist working class.

The Darwin Centenary (1959)

Editorial from the November 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard

As this month is the hundredth anniversary of the n publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, a book that raised a storm in its day, we are devoting considerable space in this issue to Darwinism and its relation to Marxism, particularly as Marx published the first section of his main work the same year.

Darwinism is an outlook based upon certain fundamental propositions put forward by Charles Darwin, just as Marxism is an outlook based upon certain fundamental propositions put forward by Karl Marx. Books by both of them were published in 1859 which clearly stated their fundamental propositions, and each devoted the rest of his life to accumulating facts in support of the theories that had been put forward. In both instances their theories have been enriched and qualified in certain directions by subsequent investigation, but in neither instance has the accuracy of their fundamental propositions been affected.

Just as Darwin brought order into biological investigation, so Marx brought order into social investigations. Darwin demonstrated that living forms evolve and Marx demonstrated that social forms evolve.

Again, in both instances, their theories were assailed from all sides, and they were showered with vituperation, but, in spite of the critical efforts focussed upon them, a great deal that each put forward has become absorbed into accepted practice today. Every writer of repute in biological fields seeks to explain living forms at any period by delving into those that existed before them, in order to see how the new ones came into existence. In like manner, every writer of repute in sociological fields seeks to explain the social forms of a period by delving into the social organisation that preceded them, and observing the changes that brought into existence the new social form.

The idea of evolution was in the air long before Darwin wrote his book, but he brought it to earth by his observation and comparison of different living forms, and of the biological forms that had existed in past ages. In like manner the idea of Socialism was in the air long before Marx wrote anything, but it was associated with experimental colonies out of touch with the general conditions of life of the times. Marx brought the idea to earth by his analysis of capitalism and of the forces within it that made for change, the principal of which was an organised and understanding working class. He also brought hope by showing the inevitability of a change from the present sordid system of profit-hunting, into a system where everyone could enjoy the best that life could offer.

In articles in this issue will be found an assessment of the work of both Darwin and Marx, and the effect they have had upon subsequent ideas.

In the early years of the Socialist Party of Great Britain the Darwin controversy was still at white heat. We accepted his theory of evolution and had to defend it from the platforms and in our literature. Now the antagonists have fled the field, the evolutionary theory is generally accepted, and the various religious denominations, which used to be its bitterest opponents, are trying their hardest to digest it into their deluding creeds, just as the economists and historians are trying to digest and demoralize Marxism.

Editorial: No Class Struggle? (1959)

Editorial from the December 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is interesting to note the revival, both inside the Labour Party and in the Tory-Liberal ranks, of the belief that though there was once a “class-struggle" that was in the bad old days, and we no longer have it with us. It is particularly amusing to recall that that Labour Party pioneer, Keir Hardie, was saying the same fifty years ago. In 1904, the year the S.P.G.B. was founded, Keir Hardie wrote in his paper, the Labour Leader (September 2nd. 1904):-
For my part I have always maintained that to claim for the Socialist movement that it is a "class" war dependent for its success upon the “class” consciousness of one section of the community is doing Socialism an injustice and indefinitely postponing its triumph.
and again:
There is no “ruling and oppressed class" in the Marxian sense of the terms in England now. . . Socialism will come for the most part as a thief in the night, without observation.
Socialism hasn’t come stealing in, but the Tories have stolen Labour’s reformist programme, including Keir Hardie’s beliefs about no class-struggle.

Editorial: Down With Leaders (2018)

Editorial from the October 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

One thing that all capitalist political organisations, whatever their political complexion, have in common is that they are organised around the leadership principle. At the apex is a leader or a leadership body, who will determine and control the direction of the organisation. Under capitalist democracies, the political leader is usually elected by a ballot of its parliamentary representatives and/or its party members (In the case of the Labour Party, members of affiliated unions can also vote). Although party members have some involvement in the annual Party Conferences, the party programmes that are presented at election time are ultimately determined by the party leadership. Once the party is elected to power, the party leader becomes the national leader. Aside from voting at each General Election and at the occasional referendum, the working class has no say in the running of the government. In political dictatorships, the leader is usually appointed by a governing clique or is selected on the basis of nepotism, as is the case with North Korea.

The leadership principle is not confined to the mainstream parties, the so-called revolutionary left base their politics on Lenin’s theory of the vanguard party, in which a body of professional revolutionaries will lead the working class to socialism. Political power rests with the Central Committee who control the decision making process within the organisation.

Not only in politics, but in other spheres of life we have leaders. Shareholders elect the company’s CEO and board of directors who make the investment decisions and have control over the workforce. Trade unions also have leaders. At school, we are taught about the ‘great’ leaders of ‘our’ country. So we are encouraged to believe that the most able and ‘talented’ of the human race are destined to be leaders, while the ‘untalented’ rest of us have to accept our place as followers.

Yet history shows that this has not always been the case. In the earliest formations of human society, which Marx described as ‘primitive communism’, there was no private property, no state no class divisions and people were able to participate without the need of leaders. However, when society developed to the point where a surplus could be produced over and above its basic needs, a minority class emerged that was able to appropriate it. To do this, the new ruling class needed a state machine that would rule over the exploited wealth producing class and keep them in order. Thus a political ideology promoting leadership emerged. Under capitalism, leaders are selected either from the capitalist class or from members of the working class who are willing to manage the economic system, on their behalf, so that the workers continue to produce profits.

Under socialism, where private/state property is abolished and the means of living are held in common, class divisions will disappear, there will be no need for political leaders and people will be able to participate freely in society. As the organisation of the Socialist Party reflects the socialist society for which it is striving, there is no place for leaders and is, therefore, under the control of its membership.