Thursday, October 25, 2018

The New Labour Party (1917)

Editorial from the November 1917 issue of the Socialist Standard

The latest move of the capitalist politicians is an endeavour to extend the Labour Party so as to embrace all and sundry who come within the category of “wage-earners.” ‘The announcement meets with the pretty general approval of the capitalist Press, as might be expected. It is realised among the circles of the astute that there is going to be a pretty brisk business doing in the political way when the war is over, and that such business will not follow quite the same old lines. Men who have been dragged from their cricket and football fields and made to waste the years of their prime in the torture chamber of the modern field of war will come back thinking beings; they will have acquired the gravity of greybeards, and the respect for politics of the seasoned Socialist; they will have learned that since all their unforgettable and unforgivable miseries have been heaped upon them by the men they and theirs sent to the House of Commons, and that such men are in a position to do it all again, the vote is not a joke after all, but a weighty and serious matter, worthy of their most earnest consideration.

That the power those who have political control have over the lives of their subjects has been revealed with intense clearness by the events of the last three years is quite understood by our masters and their agents the labour leaders. They know that the mask is stripped from their faces, and that the hollow sham of the “objects” of the war, long since laid bare by their own lying lips, has discredited their parties. They see men turning away from them in myriads, groping with outstretched hands for a new passage to follow, a more hopeful path to tread. For this reason we are to be provided with a working class political party (!) on a very broad base, to the end that the war-awakened proletarians may be shepherded quietly along the road that provides fat paunches and triple chins for labour leaders and safety for their pay-masters.

Well, the change makes little difference to us. The new Labour Party will inherit two legacies from the old—their foul record and the bitter hostility of the Socialist Party. We shall show them no mercy.

50 Years Ago: G.B. Shaw – A few notes (2000)

The 50 Years Ago column from the December 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

The death of Bernard Shaw has been the instance of eulogies galore in all of which he is acclaimed as one of the great, if not of the greatest, intellectual giants of all time.

What we are concerned with here is the claim so often made that Shaw was a socialist who made an outstanding contribution to the socialist movement. This claim has been unceasingly made by the unblushing principal and his adherents during the past sixty odd years; on the part of the latter with an occasional tolerant and amused chuckle at his “crankiness.” The basis of the claim is his tilting at social abuses and at smug “respectability.” This tilting was really only the spearhead of his own smug worship of “men of ability,” in the front rank of whom he modestly placed himself.

In fact Shaw was not a socialist, never was one, and did not understand what Socialism implied. All his life he confused Socialism with State Capitalism and with a “business-like government.” He envisaged a state ruled by a self-elected few who, at the best, would exercise a kind of benevolent despotism over the ignorant mass in a system based upon property with the buying and selling of goods.

Whatever Shaw may have been as a dramatist and artist, as a writer on Socialism he was ignorant, incompetent and blown-up with the petty conceit of the self-styled intellectual. If we were asked what his outstanding contribution in this field was we would unhesitatingly reply that he was given considerable aid to that movement which has built up labour parties that have confused and beguiled multitudes of workers into a path leading to the blank alley of despair. In this field he will be remembered as a clever and witty decoy who helped to head off the march to revolutionary change.

[From editorial, Socialist Standard, December 1950]

Democracy and mad cows (2000)

From the December 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard
The fact that a privileged few can make decisions in secret that potentially affect the lives of thousands gives the lie to the notion of democracy under capitalism
“In March 1996, the Conservative Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell told the House of Commons that, despite the government’s many previous assertions to the contrary, there probably was a link between ‘mad cow disease’ and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD).” So, rather dramatically, begins an article in the Economist that goes on to puzzle over just how much information governments should share with the public. The fact that the question needs to be asked at all makes a laughing stock of the notion, propagated so tirelessly by the Economist, that we live in a democracy. There is a name for the sort of system where a privileged few can decide what information is fit for public consumption. It is, effectively, a dictatorship.

The head scratching of the leader writers of the bourgeois press began when Lord Phillips recently released his 16-volume report. A report which took him two and a half years to complete, cost £27 million to produce, and all of a few seconds to conclude that nothing and no one was to blame: it was all just an unfortunate quirk of the normal functioning of the system. We could be forgiven for thinking that the only reason for publishing reports like these in the first place is, as the American comedian Bill Hicks once claimed, to put the country back to sleep and convince them that their government is in control.

But in a sense Lord Phillips is quite right. The BSE crisis was just an unfortunate accident arising from the normal functioning of the system. And although one might think that it would therefore be natural to challenge the system that accepts this lunacy as an unfortunate accident, nothing could be further from the minds of the authors of the press coverage that followed.

Although the report draws no real satisfactory conclusions, it does draw attention to the unwillingness of politicians and civil servants to “alarm the public”. For example, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) withheld for six months the publication in the scientific literature of the first report into BSE. Many of the papers made much of this government fear of panic, as if the state was an overanxious parent, concerned that its favourite child wasn’t yet ready for the news of the death of a pet rabbit. But “panic”, of course, would have been a quite reasonable response for the public to make if made aware of the fact that their food was lethal. The government knew full well that this panic would not just lead to tears at bedtime, but falling sales. As the Western Daily Press of 17 October put it, the pressure on the farming industry to increase profits had been “relentless”. “It was productivity which counted, not product safety … The crash in beef prices, when it came, was devastating, particularly when the gates closed on the export trade, then worth £500 million a year.”

The 4 November New Scientist criticises this lack of transparency, saying that “information [should] be made freely available to everyone as fast as possible” and concluding that “real changes are needed. We must continue to call for free access to information on every issue where science and technology affect the public.” What New Scientist fails to see is what might be called the obvious: all science and technology affects the public, and science and technology can have no neutrality as long as its decisions are ruled by the interests of capital. Is it any wonder that science and technology presents itself to many in present-day society as a hostile force to be opposed, when it could so easily be turned to the task of satisfying human needs? These conflicting calls for secrecy and openness can reflect the conflicts of interest between different sections of the capitalist class (see box), as well as between the capitalist and working classes.

But technology and the products of our own hands do not just appear as a hostile force. Under capitalism, they are in fact a hostile force. Modern farming technology on the one hand provides us with the means to feed the world. On the other, it feeds cows with dead cows in order to cut costs, and views the resulting loss of human life as a mild irritant to be reported on, and quickly forgotten. According to Department of Health figures, more than 80 people have already died after prolonged suffering with vCJD. Some models have estimated that thousands more could die. This might sound like a cause for concern for those of us who eat food, but for the capitalist class the “major economic concern was the loss of export markets,” as the BSE inquiry admits. This is only natural, the report adds. It says that “economic concerns naturally had an influence on both government and industry in their response to BSE”.

Indeed, the Daily Telegraph goes further and dismisses the Phillips report as a “fruitless and pointless search for someone to blame” when it was “clear” that the evidence available at the time was not sufficient to risk restricting beef sales or jeopardising an industry. This is the familiar line, taken by the government throughout the early days of the crisis, that the absence of “hard evidence” meant that no threat existed. Yet it was clear that there was a potential hazard to human health, which was kept secret. Even when dangers became more and more apparent, these were deliberately downplayed to protect the profits of the beef industry.

This is not covered up in Phillips’s report. Indeed, the report does not even censure Professor Richard Kimberlin, who was at the time a member of the government regulatory committee on BSE and a paid consultant to the meat and livestock commission—-in fact it supports the right of scientists who sit on government committees to have relevant commercial interests.

New Scientist has some reassuring news, however. “Can we be sure that a similar food and health disaster won’t happen again? The simple answer is no,” they tell us. Private Eye had already drawn our attention to the fact that hundreds of thousands of children have been injected with vaccines produced from bovine material which it was known could have been infected with BSE. The BSE inquiry confirms that this was the case. France is also currently considering measures to “control panic” amid fears that contaminated feed “is still finding its way into cattle troughs” (Reuters) and the Daily Telegraph recently reported that MAFF has just cut its research budget . . . .

Commenting on the report, Health Secretary Alan Milburn tries to reassure us that the “era of bland reassurances has come to an end.” And should anyone be tempted to believe that bland reassurance, we should remember what the priorities of government are. Peter Mandelson, when he was Trade and Industry Secretary, told the Confederation of British Industry that his brief from Blair was “to act as a vocal and tenacious advocate of the needs of wealth creation and business”. His replacement, Stephen Byers, told the House of Commons in March 1999 that he was “putting the interests of business first”. So forget the hypocritical cant of the politicians when they tell us that things are changing. Everything will stay the same until we organise to change it.

When our own food threatens to destroy us and appears to us as a force beyond our control, then there is a danger—-reflected in religion and idealism—-of doubting the ability of our thinking to distinguish truth. In a period of social decline, such as that we are now in, men and women are faced with two options: accept that there is no way out and resign themselves to their fate, or confront reality and fight to change it. We in the Socialist Party have taken the latter course of action.

Scientists, such as Professor Richard Lacey, a leading microbiologist, were ridiculed by the media, farmers, the food industry and politicians when they said at the time of the first cases of BSE that it represented a major human health risk. They became objects for fun, crackpots. As members of the working class aiming to come to a materialist understanding of the society we live in so that we can begin to change it, we look forward to the day when our “crackpot” position is vindicated.
Stuart Watkins

Obituary: Heather Ball (2000)

Obituary from the December 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Readers of her regular column will be saddened to hear of the death of Heather Ball last month. As they will have gathered from her recent articles, she had come to suffer from a degenerative disease which increasingly disabled her.

Heather was born in 1933 and brought up in London to where her father had moved from Scotland and before reaching pension age had worked in the various kinds of factory, office and cleaning jobs that was often the only choice for working class women of her generation. Her father was a member of the Communist Party and she was brought up to join first the YCL and then the party itself. However, she was one of the many who left after 1956 following Khrushchev’s secret speech about Stalin and the Hungarian uprising. She joined the Trotskyist Socialist Labour League—a case of out of the frying pan into the fire—from which she was expelled in 1960. This put her off vanguardist politics for good and she became active in the peace movement in East Anglia to where she and her family had moved. In 1994, tiring of single-issue politics too, she joined the Socialist Party. She was active in our Norwich Group and of course as a writer of a regular column in the Socialist Standard which many readers liked as a contrast to the other, more overtly political articles.

We extend our sympathy to her husband John, also a member, and family.

Welfare cuts – the government’s austerity programme (1998)

Editorial from the February 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

Many people are worried about the welfare state–and so they should be. The Labour government, like so many governments around the world, is attempting to cut back on social spending because the capitalist class can no longer afford to pay for it at its previous levels. In times of economic difficulty welfare spending is always the first element of state expenditure for governments to look to cut back. For the last two decades in particular governments across much of the industrialised world have been trying to cut back social spending–indeed, this was a project of the Tories in Britain when they were elected in 1979.

Cutting welfare spending, however, hasn’t been easy. Restructuring of the economy to bolster a sagging rate of profit has taken place alongside an ever growing welfare budget which government after government has pledged itself to tackle. Within weeks of his election Tony Blair made it apparent that his government was in reality (despite the rhetoric) further to the right than both Thatcher and Major because it was this government which was prepared to “think the unthinkable” and make the necessary “hard choices”. From a materialist point of view this simply meant that as the economic difficulties of the period have progressed, the austerity measures required to deal with them have also progressed, and that Blair is aware of this.

This reality is already filtering home to many of the working class. If they are unemployed, disabled, a pensioner or a single parent (in other words, a huge swathe of the population) it is difficult for them to rest in their beds easily. Government talk of the “stakeholder society” and of the “new deal” fools few of them now–workers do not even have to be very interested in politics to appreciate that the government is embarked on a classic austerity programme.

In France recently there have been riots over unemployment, and in Germany a few months ago angry steelworkers clashed with the police. As France and Germany prepare for the Euro (which will be used as an excuse for more austerity cuts, that’s even if it doesn’t directly lead to any) we can expect such expressions of class struggle to increase. And it is indeed a class issue. For however the capitalists and their mouthpieces try to divide us–employed against unemployed, the nuclear family against single parents–a united class struggle within capitalism but against it is our only answer.

The Price of Everything (2018)

The Cooking the Books column from the October 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

At the end of August the Office for National Statistics published its annual ‘UK national balance sheet’ which it says is a measure of ‘the nation’s wealth’. More accurately it later explains that it’s an ‘estimate of the total value of land, housing, machinery and financial assets held in the UK by individuals and companies.’ What is being measured is the price that the assets held would fetch if notionally sold. The tables can be found here: [Link.]

The figure the ONS arrives at for the end of the year 2017 is £10.2 trillion (a million million, what used to be called a billion), adding that this is ‘an average of £155,000 per person.’ Relevant for comparison with other countries, this latter is completely misleading if taken to mean that every individual in Britain has net assets of that amount, if only because it doesn’t take into account how the £10.2 trillion is divided. As we know from other ONS statistics, it is very unevenly divided.

Wealth is something, either provided free by nature or fashioned from it by human work, that is useful to human life in a particular society. By this standard, financial assets are not wealth; they are merely claims on wealth. Counting them as wealth as well as the wealth they have claims on – for instance, the mortgage as well as the house – is double-counting.

Ignoring, then, financial assets, what’s left are two forms of real wealth, which the ONS calls ‘produced non-financial assets’ (buildings, structures, machinery, equipment, inventories) and ‘non-produced non-financial assets’ (land). The ONS emphasises just how much of their total figure for 2017 is represented by land:
‘UK net worth more than trebled between 1995 and 2017, but much of this was from growth in the value of land. Land accounts for 51% of the UK’s net worth, higher than in any other measured G7 country.’
In Germany in 2017 it was 26 percent. In the UK in 1995 it was 33.7 percent.

The Times (30 August) commented that this showed ‘that the economy is floating on a house price bubble.’ Actually, it’s a land price bubble as it is not the price of houses that has gone up (if anything this tends to go down) but that of the land on which they stand. The ONS statistics illustrate this very well. The total notional price of ‘dwellings’ owned by ‘households’ amounted at the end of 2017 to £1.57 trillion while the total notional price of the land on which they stood amounted to £4.1 trillion, over two-and-a half times as much.

The price of land, however, is as irrational as financial assets in that an increase in its total amount never represents an increase in total wealth. In both Marxian and pre-Marxian economics, land, being what the ONS itself describes as ‘non-produced’, i.e., not the product of human work, has no ‘value’ separate from its price. This is the capitalisation of the income the land is expected to bring as rent over a period of years. This is speculative in both senses of the term; that the rent will be the same for the period is a speculation and that it won’t be can be a subject for financial speculation.

It is not land price bubbles that drive the capitalist economy; that’s the pursuit of profits by ‘non-financial corporations’. Land price bubbles only make the system more unstable, more unequal – and more irrational.