Friday, October 5, 2018

Sting in the Tail: Winter blues (1993)

The Sting in the Tail column from the December 1993 issue of the Socialist Standard

Winter blues

Every worker in Britain will shortly have a series of beautifully produced, full colour and glossy pieces of nonsense thrust through their doors.

Your husband can buy you a super collossal new washing machine. Whoopee! Your wife can buy you a new chainsaw. (Well, the kids have become a bit uppity recently.)

In December we are in the month when sellers of commodities wring their hands at the prospects of giant sales. It is Christmas, when alienated workers try to make up for their anti-social behaviour by buying their friends commodities that will never make up for that behaviour.

Inside a socialist system of society women and men will probably celebrate the winter solstice, but it will be without recourse to the nonsense of spending money as a substitute for community and love.

Not in the script

All over the world in every industry the cry is that costs must be cut because of competition. Besides low wages and more unemployment, this also means the lowering of safety standards at work and nowhere is this more apparent than in Britain's mines

The Cost of Coal (BBC2, 29 October) revealed how pressure to cheapen production is leading British Coal to fake the monitoring of dust levels, and the American system of "Extended Cut" is being introduced. This allows coal-cutting machines to cut further without additional roof support and the accident rate in American mines is much greater than in British mines.

Most people used to expect that life in capitalism would inevitably get better: incomes would grow, jobs be more secure and safety at work improve, yet the opposite is happening. Those expectations simply didn’t take into account capitalism’s built-in drive for profit and the competition it brings in its wake.

Fair Trading?

Sainsbury, Tesco and Safeway; the names ring out like a litany of praise to the benefits of competition. Or at least so they would have you believe. The facts are somewhat different.

They were all objectors to Costco, a US warehouse-style club, and its plans to open its first UK store. However a high court judge ruled against them and Costco opened its first store on 30 November.

The reason for the big three being so concerned is not difficult to deduce.
"In the US, although this may not he the same in the UK, food trades off a gross margin of around 10 percent, significantly loner than the 26 percent or so currently achieved by the operators of UK superstores" (Herald, 2S October).
It is that old capitalist story again. 
Competition is good — for other people!

Pads for proles

Prince Charles's visit to Glasgow provided the opportunity for yet another lecture on how to patch up capitalism.

HRH blamed modern tower block housing for creating feelings of "hopelessness and alienation" among youngsters and praised the traditional Scottish tenement which he thought "could, perhaps, solve many of our current problems".

The idea that tenements were full of happy, neighbourly people is an old one. Apparently, you could leave your door unlocked with safety and everybody looked after one another. After a lifetime spent in tenements, and not just in Glasgow, Scorpion’s experience hasn’t been quite like that.

The Prince urged developers to ask themselves before schemes went ahead — "Would I want to live here myself?". That’s the question he should ask himself before singing the praises of tenements, but then he was talking about homes for proles, not parasites.

Cancerous growth

Every year breast cancer kills 13,000 women in Britain, so when the breast cancer gene was discovered somewhere in Chromosome 17 there was universal excitement. It seemed that a breakthrough was on the way to understanding the disease.

Scientific teams world-wide exchanged information regularly in an effort to identify regions of the chromosome that could be eliminated. A wonderful picture of selfless white-coated devotees peering through microscopes and co-operating internationally to cure this scourge emerges. Well, it’s not quite like that. This is capitalism after all:
  "But as the groups edged closer to identifying the gene they began to split apart", said Simon Smith, head of Cambridge University research team funded by the Cancer Research Campaign. "Things have now gone quiet because none of us wants to give information to the other", he saul.
  "In an ideal world we'd be talking to each other and not holding back information. But our work is judged on what is published. If we are always second it's no good. " (Independent on Sunday, 31 October)
So the winner gets the kudos, the big financial rewards and the biggest grants. Isn’t competition a wonderful thing? Tell that to the 13,000 women and their grieving families.

Taken for granted

Towards the end of World War Two the British government set in motion plans to regain control of Britain’s Asian colonies, particularly Hong Kong, from the local politicians who would initially take over from the Japanese.

To this end SOE, part of Britain’s spy network, organized "subversive activities". Lists were drawn up of "who to bribe", plans made for "fabricating the semblance of pro-British demonstrations" and to spread dark rumours that displaying the British flag "was the best guarantee for the safety of one’s person and one’s goods" when British forces returned.

All this and more is contained in the lastest batch of secret documents to be released as part of the "open government" initiative. What is remarkable about these revelations is not so much the greed, cynicism and corruption of our rulers, but their absolute confidence that they can tell us all about it and still retain our trust in them.

Between the Lines: "Life under capitalism is a serious business . . ." (1993)

The Between the Lines column from the December 1993 issue of the Socialist Standard

Life under capitalism is a serious business, but there are some laughs along the way, often at the expense of the rulers rather than the ruled. Modern political humour comes in a variety of forms, several of which have received a TV airing in recent weeks. Most aim their fire at the easiest targets of them all politicians — and with varying degrees of effectiveness.

Spitting Image (ITV, Sundays, 10pm). the long-running puppet show, attempts political comedy via the art of caricature and lampoonery. and not really as successfully as when it began in Thatcher's heyday. Its 1987 General Election special with Thatcher's cabinet rigged out in lederhosen singing "Tomorrow belongs to me" was a masterly piece of political lampoonery at a time when tomorrow really did seem to belong to them, with their market lunacies and anti-trade unionism all fuelled by the prejudices of the wide-boys in the City

Since then things have turned sour for the economy and the Conservatives alike, and Spitting Image has been struggling hard to keep up with the trend. When "personalities" abound in the realm of capitalist politics caricature is in vogue, but when confronted with the present political vacuum, it loses its bite and has to look elsewhere for entertainment.

A popular offshoot of caricature has been the art of mimickry and impression. Mike Yarwood made this popular in the 1970s with his homely impersonations of Wilson and Callaghan, but just like them, what he said was always secondary to the way he said it. Yarwood eventually took to the bottle when his principal targets left the political scene, leaving him devoid of replacements. His line in political impressionism was eventually taken up by Rory Bremner (C4. Saturdays. 10.05pm and Wednesdays. 11.05pm). Bremner. who is possibly no more talented a mimic than Yarwood. succeeds where Yarwood failed through greater flexibility and better scripts. Bremner aims at much more than simply poking fun from the sidelines and consequently his show is often one of the most overtly political on television. Its mimickry is frequently blended with satire to highlight the cant and hypocrisy of the ruling elite in society. The politician/interviewer sketches involving John Bird have been particularly effective and haven’t shirked from showing up not just the insanities of the political process itself but the market system which dictates the parameters within which politicians are bound. Bremner and his supporting cast appear to have a deep antipathy towards the market economy which can only be applauded by socialists, though unsurprisingly it has already provoked the wrath of Tory politicians and sections of the tabloid press.

A more subtle approach to political comment has recently been provided by Andrew Marshall and David Renwick's new black comedy If You See God, Tell Him (BBC 1, Thursdays. 9.30pm). In this sitcom the lead character, played by Richard Briers, has suffered a freak accident which has left him with a thirty-second attention span ideal for memorizing TV adverts, but little else. Briers’s character becomes obsessed with TV advertising, organizing his life around what he has been influenced to buy, and spending his “happiest" hours attempting to get his dishes whiter than white with the latest revolutionary brand of washing-up liquid. Needless to say, the compensation money from his accident is spent within a matter of weeks and his life becomes a market-driven living nightmare in every sense.

Just like One Foot In The Grave, which emerged from the same writing stable, If You See God, Tell Him takes the particularly frustrating aspects of capitalist life and magnifies them until they emerge at the level of obsession. The humour has a somewhat sick edge to it in parts, and will not be to everybody's taste, but it sure beats the trash usually served up as an excuse for situation comedy. And it is refreshing to see a sitcom — often the most tame form of comedy — which shows a willingness to illuminate some of the inanities and insanities of the market system.
Dave Perrin

Go for a million update (1993)

Party News from the December 1993 issue of the Socialist Standard

Our plans to contest four seats in next June’s elections to the European Parliament are well advanced. The candidates have now been chosen and we are preparing the information pack to be sent to the thousands of replies expected to the million leaflets that will be distributed by the Post Office.

The four Socialist prospective candidates are Ron Cook (Birmingham East), Jim Fleming (Glasgow), Clifford Slapper (London Central) and Brian Gardner (Lothians).

Those replying to our leaflet will be sent a socialist information pack containing a special issue of the Socialist Standard and leaflets on particular subjects as well as a personalized covering letter. This will be the main work of the campaign and will be organized at our Head Office in London. The plan is to have a team of up to twenty people working there over the election period and immediately after. If you would be available to help over this period in London (last week in May to third week in June) by opening letters, answering the phone, keying in names and addresses, and putting the information packs into envelopes, please get in touch with us.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank all those readers, members and sympathizers, both here and abroad, who have contributed to our Election Fund. We are well on the way to achieving our target of at least £20,000. At the time of writing (mid-November) the amount paid into or pledged to our Election Fund stood at £14,883. So we still need a further £5,000

If you want to help finance this biggest ever campaign to get Socialist ideas across and have not yet contributed you can do so by sending a cheque or postal order (made payable to the "Socialist Party of Great Britain") to Election Fund, 52 Clapham High Street, London SW4 7UN.

Collapse of the Popular 
Front in France (1938)

Editorial from the February 1938 issue of the Socialist Standard

The French Popular Front Government has gone the way of all attempts to operate capitalism according to non-capitalist rules. It came in with a great blare of trumpets and goes out silent and discredited, each faction blaming the others for the miserable finale. Yet, paradoxical as it may sound to those who do not understand the true function of Labour Governments and Popular Front Governments, it was quite a success. That function is to get capitalism out of those political storms which arise when the working class, driven too far, revolt and threaten to upset the mechanism of exploitation. The French capitalists faced such a revolt two years ago, when the fever of sit-down strikes swept France. In came a Popular Front Government led by Blum, a “Socialist," and backed by the Communist Party. It passed some reform legislation, told the workers to be good boys and wait for better conditions when the “Socialist" Government got to work, and so the trick was done—or, at least, the French ruling class think it has been done. The workers are now confused and disappointed, the employers have recovered their nerve, and the old gang of capitalism think they can safely take the reins again. Altogether, the Popular Front has been a good investment for French capitalism.

The way the Government came to an end contains a lesson for those who hold the theory that a Labour or Popular Front Government can be neutral in the class struggle and keep the ring fairly for both employers and workers. A fortnight before it collapsed the Government invoked special powers to smash the Paris transport strike. “But," the apologist will say, “it is the duty of a Labour Government to keep the public services going and not allow the public to be intimidated by either workers or employers.”

We won’t waste time examining the fallacy of that argument but turn to the way the same Government acted to the employers a fortnight later. The Government called a conference of employers' and workers' organisations to discuss economic peace. The French equivalent of the Trades Union Congress readily consented, but big business treated it with disdain, and refused to attend except on unreasonable conditions, which they knew would not be acceptable.

Did the Government then call out the armed forces, clap some big business leaders in jail, and threaten the rest with martial law? Nothing of the kind.

What the Prime Minister actually did was to make a bitter speech in which, in addition to attacking speculators, he attacked the workers for striking. (Daily Herald, January 14th, 1938.) So ended the Popular Front Government.

“But,” the apologist will again say, “if the Government were to take action against the capitalists the existing organisation of society would be endangered and public opinion would be against them.”

All very true, but what then is left of the Labour Party’s case for reforming capitalism? And what is there left to say against the Socialist argument that working class problems can only be solved by abolishing capitalism, and capitalism can only be abolished after a majority of the population have been won over to want it abolished ?

One step forward can be recorded in France. Having had experience of this sort of thing, the French workers will not be so easily roused to enthusiasm next time capitalism lets a Popular Front Government extricate it from a crisis. Capitalism masquerading as Socialism is a fruit which the French workers will find less enticing in future. It has, if we may say so, lost its bloom.

Before the new Government was finally formed, Blum tried to get a Cabinet together.

Although he long ago declared that he would in no circumstances desert his Party, as did the late J. R. MacDonald in Great Britain, Blum attempted to form a coalition of seven parties, including' parties not in the Popular Front. His statement was as follows: —
  I am attempting to form a national coalition round the Popular Front.
 This becomes in practice an attempt to associate the representatives of all the parties of the Popular Front with men who have until now belonged to the Opposition, but who are known for their attachment to democratic liberties. (Daily Telegraph, 17th January, 1938.)
The attempt failed because M. Reynaud, who was expressly invited by Blum to join the new Government as Finance Minister, and "who has held this post in the Right Wing Governments of M. Laval and M. Tardieu . . . stipulated . . . that M. Marin's Right Wing group should be included." (Daily Telegraph, January 17th, 1938.) This condition M. Blum would not accept.

It will be noticed that the idea of a National Front, including Conservatives, was being canvassed about a year ago by Thorez, leader of the French Communists, and that when the new Government asked for a vote of confidence on first presenting itself to Parliament on January 21st, the Communists (and the Conservatives) were among the 500 who placed on record their confidence in this frankly capitalist Government.

Socialists and A.R.P. (1938)

Editorial from the August 1938 issue of the Socialist Standard

The capitalist class is perhaps the most harassed property-owning class that history has produced. Problems and fears press in upon it from all sides. The individual capitalist may wake up one morning and find himself dispossessed of his ownership or of his share (part ownership) in some industrial undertaking which he never saw, of whose processes he was entirely ignorant. He might be fleeced by the sharks of his own class and nationality who are the more cunning; or his investments in some distant part of the earth might be stolen from him by the growth and expansion of some new capitalist power, like Japan in China or Italy in Abyssinia. It is very distressing—for the capitalist. The distress is the more manifest when threats to their ownership press acutely upon any one national section of the capitalist class. Socialists do not share the distress of the master class. Rather do they seize the opportunity to show that capitalism’s contradictions can only disappear in Socialism.

One persistent problem for the capitalist is to ensure the acquiescence of the working-class in the property-owning rights of its masters. But capitalist interests demand much more than that. If any national section of the capitalist class is to survive in its struggles with its competitors it must have a working class willing to defend its interests. It is the perpetual concern of the capitalist class to arouse that willingness. It is a task which inevitably brings out capitalism’s contradictions. For example, there are many thousands of workers attached to various religious organisations who are opposed to war despite the assurances of Archbishops that it has the approval of the Almighty: there are many thousands of working-class supporters of the various political parties who see through the smoke screens of pretence set up by their leaders. (The Editor of “Forward,” for example, espouses an attitude to war approximating to the Socialist position despite official Labour Party policy.) These tendencies are possibly more widely spread than before the war, 1914-18. The reason is not far to seek. Modern war brings whole populations within the area of military operations. All have to be regimented and disciplined in one vast co-ordinated military machine. It adds to the problems of the capitalist class that the conditions which more and more demand loyalty to its interests at the same time makes that loyalty difficult to ensure. Nevertheless the immediate difficulties of the capitalists are perhaps not insurmountable. Attempts are being made to canalise opposition to war into channels which are linked up with the preparation for war.

Air Raid Precautions provide an example. Here the opportunity arises for many who claim to be opposed to war to engage in an activity which does not appear to be in conflict with their opinions. The situation is on a par with the conscientious objector who would agree to certain war work on humanitarian grounds, but would object to being a soldier.

The position of the Socialist Party on the question is quite clear. We are opposed to war not on humanitarian grounds, but on the grounds that wars arise out of the struggle between competing sections of the capitalists over the question of the possession of the wealth of the world and matters relating to it. Being opposed to war on these grounds we are therefore opposed to preparation for war. Moreover, we shall express our opposition to it at every opportunity. That is not to say a Socialist will never be found taking part in the prosecution of war as a soldier or in some other form of war activity. The pressure exerted in a war-mad world where the majority were against him would perhaps be too strong for resistance in some cases. But this is no argument against the correctness of the Socialist position. Our attitude on war cannot be toned down because we happen to be in a minority or because any other attitude at any given moment appears to be more consistent with the humanitarian instincts of social beings. The Socialist attitude to war and war preparations is sound because the degree to which it became accented by the workers would to that extent make war more difficult (if not impossible) for the capitalists to pursue. It does not appear likely that workers are yet in a position to accept the Socialist position on war in any great numbers. Nor would it be reasonable to expect workers who do not accept the Socialist case against capitalism generally, to understand and accept our attitude to war. Nevertheless, that provides no grounds whatever for compromise. To water down our opposition to war in any of its aspects would be to lessen the possibilities of its more general acceptance should conditions develop favourably for it.