Monday, December 24, 2018

The World Military Situation (2018)

From the May 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard
The military situation in the world is as threatening today as it was during the Cold War between the West and the old Soviet bloc.
The armed forces of nuclear powers are in direct confrontation in a whole series of regions.

In the new Cold War between Russia and the West, American and Russian warships and aircraft have repeatedly come close to colliding in the Black Sea, offshore from the proxy hot war in eastern Ukraine, as well as in the Baltic Sea and adjacent airspace. Following the defeat of the Islamic State, Russian, American, and now Turkish forces are more clearly engaged on opposite sides of the civil war in Syria.   

Intermittent fighting between India and Pakistan continues in Kashmir. A nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan would suffice to generate a ‘nuclear winter’ that would destroy agriculture throughout much – perhaps all – of the world. 

In the Far East the confrontation between the US and North Korea may soon resume. There is also a potential for clashes between US and Chinese forces in the contested waters of the South China Sea and in or around Taiwan. According to analysts, China plans to be ready to invade Taiwan by 2020 (Ian Easton, The Chinese Invasion Threat, 2017).

Good luck
All these standoffs provide plenty of scope for accidents, mistakes, misunderstandings or unauthorised – or, indeed, authorised – actions that might spark nuclear war. Many such past incidents are now coming to light as archives are opened to researchers.

During the Cuban missile crisis, to draw an example from Daniel Ellsberg’s new book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (2017), the US navy used depth charges to try to force a Soviet submarine to surface. Two of the three officers on the submarine who jointly controlled its nuclear weapon, unable to establish radio contact with higher authority and believing that war had already begun, wanted to fire. The third man refused to cooperate, thereby saving the world.        

It is only thanks to a remarkably long run of good luck that the world has escaped Armageddon so far. But how much longer can our good luck hold?

Other confrontations
Then there are the many other actual and potential confrontations in which some or all of the sides do not possess nuclear weapons. The ‘mobile phone war’ over access to precious metal ores like coltan drags on in Congo. Fighting continues in Libya, Somalia and Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia, aided by the US, is waging a genocidal war in Yemen. Iran is back in the American ‘crosshairs’.

The ‘scramble for the Arctic’ still looms ahead, pitting not only the Western powers against Russia but also the US against Canada.

Neocons in the ascendant
Many conflicts, though far from all, stem to one degree or another from US foreign policy. Under Trump the neocons are again in the ascendant after a partial ‘reset’ under Obama, as reflected in his nuclear deal with Iran. The aim of the neocons continues to be ‘regime change’ wherever governments are insufficiently susceptible to US influence, using any means including military force (when judged necessary and feasible). Targets have included ‘leftist’ regimes like Cuba and Venezuela, Ba’athist and other Arab nationalist regimes (now toppled except in Syria), Iran, North Korea, Russia-oriented regimes in the former Soviet Union (Ukraine, Belarus) and ultimately Russia and China.

A specific source of conflict – in Ukraine, the Caucasus and the South China Sea, for instance – is a difference of opinion between the US and other great powers concerning spheres of influence. Russia, China and India claim special rights to intervene in areas adjacent to their borders. The US, however, recognises no such rights (except for itself).

Any conflict in which the US is involved can easily escalate to the nuclear level, especially as the US has never renounced the right to use nuclear weapons first. (Russia does renounce the right to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states; in the period 1982-1993 it renounced all nuclear first use.) Moreover, the US has recently expanded the range of events to which it asserts the right to respond with nuclear weapons to include ‘non-military attacks’ like the hacking of key computer systems, even though it is very difficult to determine who is responsible for such acts. 

A new nuclear arms race is now underway. It seems unlikely that the US and Russia will agree to extend the ‘New Start’ arms control treaty, which is due to expire in February 2021. In his speech to the nation on 1 March, Putin announced that Russia has tested new types of delivery vehicle, including hypersonic missiles and underwater drones, that can evade missile defense systems and maintain Russia’s ability to deter a US first strike.  

Terrorism a secondary concern
The Trump administration has made it clear that action against ‘adversary’ states will henceforth have priority over the fight against terrorism. This issue poses a dilemma to the neocons because the Sunni Islamists who attacked the Twin Towers on 9/11 and have perpetrated more recent acts of terror in Western Europe are backed mainly by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which are considered not adversaries but allies.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 it must have seemed necessary to assure the American public that the fight against terrorism would take priority over everything else. At no time was this ever really the case, but actions in pursuit of the neocon agenda, such as the invasion of Iraq, were fraudulently justified in terms of anti-terrorism. The passage of time without further acts of Islamist terrorism in the US has evidently emboldened policy makers to state frankly that terrorism is a secondary concern.    

An irrational strategy
Objectively the global pattern of power continues to shift towards multipolarity. No state now has the power resources to dominate the world. In reality all states are now local or regional powers. The pursuit of global hegemony to which the US has reverted is doomed to fail, but is all the more dangerous for that reason. It is a deeply irrational strategy, fuelled by the trend towards the privatisation of armed forces and military industry. It reflects not the interests of the American capitalist class as a whole but the special interests of the military-industrial complex – the ‘war business’. 

But what can ordinary people do about all this? The extreme gravity of the situation makes it easy to fall prey to despair. The forces at work seem much too powerful for us to challenge, let alone abolish.

However, this is a false impression deliberately maintained by our masters. They do not like to admit that they care about popular opposition. In fact, we are not as helpless as we think. Thus Ellsberg reports archival evidence that public protests against the war in Vietnam really did constrain the options of US policy makers — in particular, helping to prevent the combat use of nuclear weapons.  

The story is not over until it is over.

What is Freedom? (2018)

From the May 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

You haven’t any meaningful freedom except to sell your labour power. You sell your labour power to your employer for a wage/salary in order to live, because you are not the owner of the means of production, as the employer is. So, your wage slavery is your social existence. The employer does not get a wage or salary, they get a surplus value, profit. They have the freedom to buy living human energy, labour power. You haven’t real freedom of choice, such as to work according to your ability and to consume according to your needs.

Everywhere and in everything you are bounded in property relations. All the consumable wealth is produced socially, but what is produced is owned individually under the laws of the private property system. These individuals own and control the property relations backed by the fear of the political state, which will become defunct with the abolition of the private property system. The lawmakers and judges, whose role is to act on behalf of the ruling capitalist class, haven’t any freedom except within the exploitation and the private property system.

The cause of all this is wage slavery which has to be abolished. You haven’t any freedom to cross national borders without permission of the owners of the means of production. But capital has a freedom – the freedom of exploitation, to exploit human labour power across the world, irrespective of borders

Freedom is not an individual choice, it is a social matter, to be achieved through the class struggle to eliminate the class society of capitalism.
G. P.

New Pamphlet: The Road to Socialism (2018)

Pamphlet Review from the May 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

Our Companion Party in India has just published a new pamphlet, History of Universal Suffrage: The case for turning universal suffrage into human emancipation.

These days it would be difficult to find any intelligent person in the developed world opposed to universal suffrage. However in nineteenth century Britain, universal suffrage (the right for all adults to vote in elections) did not exist. Extending the franchise (those allowed to vote) was opposed by notable Tory politicians including both Prime Ministers William Pitt the Younger and the Duke of Wellington (who quelled the Chartist rebellion), Edmund Burke, but also erstwhile Liberal Lord Palmerston.

This pamphlet is a wide-ranging overview of both the history of this and a socialist polemic making the case in favour of universal suffrage. There is a focus on Britain, but there are also chapters on universal suffrage in America and India and reference to suffrage in other countries around the world. Marx and Engels’ writings on the subject are excerpted too.

In 1831, out of a population in Britain of 24 million, only 478,000 were allowed to vote. Mainly these were landowners with property worth at least forty shillings rent a year, a law dating back four hundred years. Birmingham, Sheffield and Manchester had no MPs, and electoral corruption was rife. Women could not vote on the same terms as men until 1928.

What prompted the franchise to be extended was not a benevolent change of heart, but rather the legacy of the French Revolution, events such as the Peterloo massacre and the popularity of the Chartist movement for electoral reform.

It is fair to say movement towards universal suffrage was welcomed by Friedrich Engels. Engels called it ‘one of the most powerful weapons, particularly in the sphere of organization and propaganda. Universal suffrage provides us with an excellent means of struggle’.

Engels however was careful to add a cautionary caveat ‘universal suffrage is the gauge of the maturity of the working class. It cannot and never will be anything more in the present-day state; but that is sufficient. On the day the thermometer of universal suffrage registers boiling point among the workers, both they and the capitalists will know where they stand.’

Karl Marx regarded participation in parliamentary elections as imperative for socialist parties. He helped draft the programme adopted by the predecessor of, and retained by, the French Workers Party which included the statement: ‘such organization must be pursued by all the means which the proletariat has at its disposal, including universal suffrage, thus transformed from the instrument of trickery which it has been up till now into an instrument of emancipation.’

It is also worth mentioning that in the US women did not achieve equal suffrage until 1920 and the experience of discrimination faced by African-Americans in relation to voting until 1965. In what is now the world’s biggest democracy, India, new property restrictions to voting were introduced in 1935 and universal suffrage achieved only in 1948. The pamphlet correctly observes that ‘our ruling class did not gift universal suffrage to us.’

The pamphlet is broad in scope and liberally peppered with useful quotes and references. Suffragettes were lightly covered and one Socialist Standard article that was not quoted was ‘Suffragette Humbug’ (June 1908, also appearing in Socialism or Your Money Back). It contained the excellent quote ‘The Socialist is in no quandary as to why the many are poor … Democracy is not an end in itself, but a means to an end; and for us that end is Socialism. And were the workers to understand rightly their position and their policy, the political freedom they now possess would enable them to achieve their emancipation irrespective of sex.’

(To order a copy send a cheque for £4, postage included, made out to ‘The Socialist Party of Great Britain’ to Socialist Party, 52 Clapham High Street, London SW4 7UN; or by Paypal to

Ethnicity: Sticky Wicket or Slippery Slope? (2018)

From the May 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

Ethnicity has been a very sensitive topic since the foundation of the modern Turkish Republic. The causes of this sensitivity have their roots in the endemic oppression and persecution of non-Muslims via taxation and pogroms which intensified with the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the occupation of large parts of eastern Turkey by Russia following the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78) when Christian Armenians were widely perceived as collaborators. Then further with the ethnic cleansing of Muslims from the Balkans and Caucasus following the Balkan Wars, when as many as 850,000 of these usually destitute refugees were settled as a matter of policy in Armenian-populated areas leading to resentment and violence.

With the foundation of the new republic there was an obvious need to try and weld a cohesive whole, a ‘Turkishness’, that could patch over the divisions together with a need to bury the persecutions and oppression of the recent past. The latter not least because of the probable involvement of some members of the new republican authorities in those actions.

A Turk of the new republic and ‘Turkishness’ was defined as ‘anyone who is attached to the Turkish state as a citizen.’ This is enshrined in the constitution.

With the foundation of this fragile new republic came a blanket of secrecy about the turbulent and violent times leading up to it. Certain subjects were made taboo and remain so to this day. A close second after talk about ‘Armenian Genocide’ is the subject of ethnicity.

During the periods of greatest internal conflict, war, mass deportations and killings countless numbers of Armenians, Greeks, Jews and Syriacs converted to Islam to avoid the consequences of ‘being different’. Children were displaced, lost and orphaned in their thousands and were ‘adopted’ by Turks and Kurds to be raised as Muslims.

So much of this might well have stayed in the dusty cupboards of a murky period in modern Turkey’s history apart from one action by the present government – it has made available, online, the genealogical database of the ethnicity of all citizens dating back to Ottoman times.

A few short years ago, during a period of rapprochement with the Kurds, this might have made less of an impact. Today, when the AK Party government is involved in conflict with its own Kurdish population, war in Syria, internal repression and in need of a pact with the fascist Nationalist Action Party (MHP) in order to bolster its weakening support, it has caused a mighty stir. Such has been the interest that when the site went ‘live’ on the 8th of February it quickly crashed only to be back up again on the 14th February.

In a country equally divided between nationalism and tolerance Turks who thought they were ‘Turks’ have discovered that they are not as ‘pure’ as they believed, that they have a different ethnicity or religion. After so many years you might wonder if it really matters. Social media is helping to answer that question. ‘Crypto-Armenians, Jews and Greeks in the country will now be exposed’ or ‘traitors will finally learn their lineage’ are commonplace comments.

Just imagine, a man who had served as the director of religious affairs (1972-76) of this country by the name of Lütfi Doğan had a brother who was the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul Sinozk Kalustyan (1963-90). When, a few years ago, the Armenian language newspaper Agos revealed that Sabiha Gökçen the adopted daughter of Atatürk and Turkey’s first female military pilot was of Armenian parentage it convulsed the country. Hrant Dink, the author of this, was placed under investigation. He was then gunned down on the street in 2007.

Yusuf Halacioğlu, the director of the Historical Society of Turkey in 2007, who had bluntly threatened, ‘Don’t make me angry. I have a list of converts I can reveal down to their streets and homes’, went on to become a Nationalist Action Party (MHP) MP.

In 2013, Agos newspaper reported that the government was secretly coding minorities in population registers: Greeks were 1, Armenians were 2 and Jews were 3. The covert classification of religious/ethnic minorities was met with widespread outrage.

To answer the question ‘does it matter?’ If you suddenly discover that you are a Crypto-Armenian/Greek/Jew/et al consider this also: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is on record (YouTube) saying, ‘We are accused of being Jews, Armenians or Greeks.’ To his followers, nationalists, the AK Party trolls on social media and the fanatical nationalist gunmen it matters. To the non-Turkish Turk who is denied a job in public service it matters. To the young man who must undertake conscription it matters. At best they are treated with suspicion and at worst as terrorists.

Learning of their ancestral roots in other counties, particularly European ones, has led to a spike in Turks enquiring about citizenship and/or dual nationality. Those who found that their ancestry traces back to EU-member countries such as Bulgaria, Greece and Romania have been particularly keen to look into possible double citizenship opportunities. Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina are also said to be receiving citizenship applications from Turkish citizens, with many submitting legal enquiries to the justice, foreign and interior ministries of the countries, as well as their consulates and embassies in Turkey.

National registers of ethnicity are divisive and dangerous – and lethal in the wrong hands.

Zambia: Corruption and the Origin of a Local Private Capitalist Class (2018)

From the May 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

Corruption defined as the pilfering and shameful mismanagement of state resources first appeared to rear its ugly head after the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) came to power in Zambia in 1991. During the authoritarian one-party state under Kenneth Kaunda members of the United National Independence Party central committee had been forbidden from amassing private wealth of any kind.

When the MMD came to power under President Chiluba it pursued a rigorous policy of economic liberalisation defined as privatisation. State-owned companies were auctioned off at prices below their book value. Corruption as a political vice first came to public attention when the third republican president Levy Mwanawasa made corruption allegations against former MMD president Fredrick Chiluba in 2002. It was alleged that Chiluba had swindled the government of millions of dollars through Access Financed Services and the Zamtrop state security account operated in the UK. The MMD government under Dr. Chiluba was afterwards blamed for having instituted a culture of graft and impunity that stalled Zambian economic development.

Creating a capitalist class
The main task the MMD government set itself when it came to power was the social and economic empowerment of indigenous Zambians. The MMD went on to create what was a private-sector capitalist class dominated by economically empowered Zambian entrepreneurs. To quote from the late Dr Chiluba’s speech when defining the new capitalist society:
  ‘Ours is a capitalist society. It is therefore inevitable that in part and I repeat in part we must address the goal of privatisation within the context of the people’s relations characteristic of a capitalist economy. As part of the realisation of our aim to eradicate poverty in our country we must strive to create and strengthen a Zambian capitalist class – the new culture. Because we come from the disadvantagedmany of us feel embarrassed to state their goal as nakedly as we should. All this frightens and embarrasses all of us who are Zambians and might be part of the rich. Accordingly we walk as far and faster as we come from the nation, that the struggle against poverty in our country must include the objective of creating a new Zambian bourgeois. As part of our continuing straggle to wipe out this legacy of poverty we must work to ensure that there emerges a Zambian bourgeoisie whose presence within our economy and society will be part of the process of privatisation of the economy and society.’
The task of privatising sections of the economy proved to be a nefarious and blatantly corrupt affair which had a triple effect upon the poor and marginalised working class. Unemployment trebled due to the abrupt liquidation of state-owned companies and the once economically vibrant copper-belt mining towns of Kitwe, Chingola, Mufulira, Ndola and Chililabonbwe became ghost towns. In most cases workers made redundant from parastatal companies have until today not received their redundancy packages. President Chiluba went on to surrender council houses to sitting tenants in a move designed to socially empower the Zambian citizens, a move that had dire social economic consequences upon local authorities. Privatisation dubbed ‘economic empowerment’ helped give rise to social squalor and urban poverty of a severe kind.

The idea that public property belongs to no one in particular is an entrenched feeling among ordinary Zambians, especially those who work in the civil service. It makes them solicit money from people seeking to obtain things like a visa, a passport or a driving licence. The police appear to be the most corrupt civil servants in the sense that they set free criminals upon receiving money. It is very rare for a magistrate to convict a rich person in Zambia today. The vice of corruption has spread into the Ministry of Education where examination leaks appear to be the order of the day. Under the new private enterprise culture ‘social and economic empowerment’ is a political slogan that legalised street vending, prostitution and crime. The privatisation of the ZCCM led to the emergence of self-styled copper dealers called ‘jerabos’ who steal copper cathodes and concentrates from the private owned copper mines where security became lax after the dissolution of ZCCM mine police unit.

Thus corruption in Zambia has been a matter of accumulating wealth and social status as most of the Zambian capitalist class derived its wealth through outright corruption.

When Levy Mwanawasa passed away in 2008 he was succeeded by his Vice-President, Rupiah Banda, as acting President. In 2010 Banda had to quash the pending corruption allegations against Chiluba because he was cognisant of the fact that corruption was a means to economic empowerment under the MMD government. Corruption was at its highest peak during the time Banda was head of state. It was President Banda, acting with his son Andrew, who was alleged to have milked millions of dollars from the Zambian government under a dubious contract to purchase oil from Nigeria in 2009. The taskforce created by President Mwanawasa proved toothless when it came to arresting and convicting politicians alleged to be corrupt.

‘Anti-corruption’ campaigns
‘Anti-corruption’ is used as a weapon of political victimisation against political opponents and as such is not transparent. In his inaugural address when he was sworn in as president of Zambia in 2016 President Lungu promised the people of Zambia that he was going to continue the legacy of the late President Sata through creating more jobs and fighting corruption. President Lungu is not a domineering and abrasive leader when compared to the late Michael Sata – without rigidity or defined ideological convictions. Ascending to the leadership of the Patriotic Front (PF) without a flamboyant political background Lungu has come to rely on the political goodwill of the masses and his closest stooges.

After the initial political blizzard of 2014 the PF government under Lungu has presided over the recovery of the Zambian economy. Favourable copper prices from demand in South East Asia (mostly China and Malaysia) boosted investor confidence in the mining sector. The release of the United Party for National Development (UNPD) leader Hicilema helped to cast a positive image of political tolerance and the rule of law. In Africa and overseas Lungu seems to have won a lot of political and economic accolades. The European Bank, World Bank and Amnesty International have expressed satisfaction with his style of leadership.

But from within the apparently stable political and economic outlook looms the ugly revelations day in and day out of corruption taking place in the high echelons of the PF government, fuelled by allegations from former Minister Chishimba Kambwili who was himself dismissed for corruption. The report of the Auditor-General on the estimates of capital expenditure reveal gross irregularities in the procurement and implementation of government programmes. Yet the erring ministries or public officers are not prosecuted.

Policing corruption, as with the recent forced resignation of President Zuma in South Africa, will not resolve the dilemma of social poverty and corruption. Corruption is just another face of capitalist society that is endemic to the system. It is just another problem that cannot be resolved unless money, government and leaders are dispensed with.

A one-party state is a feature of state corruption in which a handful of individuals exploit the majority of workers. Parliamentary democracy on the other hand is made up of wealthy and ambitious politicians trying to reform capitalism. They hoodwink the working class into voting for them by promising them a heaven on Earth. But once the politicians win elections and become leaders the workers remain mere spectators of any political and economic changes taking place in society.

Socialist ideas need a revolutionary class behind them to become practical. The problems facing capitalism require conscious political action by socialists and the democratic capture of political power. Everything else is reformism and leads to total disappointment.
Kephas Mulenga

Cooking the Books: Pleasing Business Leaders (2018)

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

Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell may well still want the Labour Party’s old Clause IV to be implemented and all industries to become state-owned, but they are well aware that, if Labour comes into office, it will have to govern in the context of virtually all industry being in the hands of profit-seeking private enterprises. In other words, that they will be presiding over the operation of a classic capitalist economy.

The representatives of business realise this too and that they would have to work with a future Labour government. Hence, the CBI’s invitation, on behalf of big business, to Corbyn to address their annual conference last November and the British Chambers of Commerce’s invitation, on behalf of smaller businesses, to McDonnell to address theirs in March. The Times (9 March) reported the latter under the headline ‘McDonnell wins applause from business leaders’.

So what did McDonnell say to win applause from a gathering of capitalists? The Times quoted him as promising:
  ‘A Labour government will champion business by ensuring small companies get the long-term investment and start-up risk capital they need.’
   ‘Good businesses don’t require no government, good businesses require good government … It means a government that pays a little less time to the rentiers and speculators and more time for those who work in and run our businesses. It means making finance the servant and not the master of the real economy.’
And, in the passage at which the applause was perhaps the loudest:
  ‘Mr McDonnell said that Labour would create “an environment where people feel if they invest they will get a secure return”.’
McDonnell is being realistic. He knows that a future Labour government will be governing in the context of capitalism and that, as capitalism runs on profits, it will have to let profits be made; not just that, but must encourage them to be made and create an environment in which they can be made. This is what being a ‘good government’ for business will involve.

Whether in fact a Corbyn/McDonnell Labour government will be able to redirect money from speculation in the City to small businesses remains to be seen. The attempt to do this might well lead to a run on sterling and force a U-turn with recriminations about ‘a bankers’ ramp’ and ‘gnomes of Zurich’. The current Labour leadership is apparently aware of this as, according to a front-page headline in the Times (27 September), ‘Labour preparing for a run on the pound, admits Corbyn’.

As a profit-making system capitalism can only run in the interest of the profit-takers. It cannot be run in the interest of the majority class of wage and salary workers. Profits must come before wages. Any government which takes on responsibility for presiding over the operation of capitalism is sooner or later forced to recognise this, as the experience of every single previous Labour government has shown. On the basis of this experience, as well as an understanding of how the capitalist economic system works, we can safely predict that a Corbyn Labour government will be no different. It, too, will fall flat on its face.

50 Years Ago: Martin Luther King (2018)

The 50 Years Ago column from the May 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

Even before the killing of Martin Luther King, this summer promised to be a bad one for race troubles in America. Many city authorities, fearing an intensifying of the riots, had armed themselves with some formidable weapons.

The Negroes were also preparing and waiting, with no lack of black nationalists to advise them on how to use arms, petrol bombs and the like. This menacing situation was ignited by the assassination of Martin Luther King and the death of the advocate of passive resistance was, ironically, marked by a flare-up of the very violence he denounced.

King had, in fact, been losing some ground to the groups like Black Power and this in itself is symptomatic of the change which America has undergone during the last twenty years. The suppression which the Negroes have suffered for so long was bound one day to erupt. For too long have they been denied the vote, subjected to a host of indignities and restraints. For too long has colour discrimination been a part of the American way of life. For too long has a coloured life been cheap so that, in some states, the murder of a Negro counts for little more than the killing of an insect—and the body silently disappears into some southern swamp.

The predictable result of this has been the Negro protest, the riots and the rise of the Black Power theorists. Kill Whitey and Burn, Baby, Burn are sterile remedies for the Negroes’ frustrations—but who, or what, must bear the blame for them?

Martin Luther King, for all his courage, had little more to offer the American Negroes than a place beside the country’s white workers. For most coloured workers, this is their highest aim—the right of access to the same sort of employment, the same sort of working class homes, the same sort of terms from the hire purchase company, as others.

Many have died in the long history of the American Negro, and many will die in the future. Is the result of it all only to be the exchange of one kind of oppression for another?
(Socialist Standard, May 1968)

Pathfinders: Killer Apps (2018)

The Pathfinders Column from the May 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

Killer Apps
People in capitalism have funny notions of ethics. Take the recent US retaliatory bombing of Syrian sites following Assad’s alleged use of chemical bombs in Douma. The Syrian government has been bombing, strafing and massacring its own population for the past seven years with scarcely a raised eyebrow from Western powers. But let him once resort to an ‘illegal’ weapon of war and the civilised world goes into a moral hissy fit. In a similar vein, a group of scientists have announced they are boycotting work at a South Korean university which they say will lead to autonomous battlefield robots able to identify and kill people without any human oversight (BBC Online, 5 April). The university denies it of course, but even so there’s a strange logic to all this. Rich states already have weaponised drones that can destroy at long distance, controlled by drone ‘pilots’ operating thousands of miles from the scene and able to see just grainy lo-res satellite images of what they’re aiming at. Do they make mistakes, and blow up residential blocks inside of missile silos, or wedding parties instead of terrorist cells? Yes, of course they do. As technology has steadily increased the distance between warring sides, to the point where the no-man’s-land in between is the size of a continent, the ability of the remote operators to make the right tactical decision based on good, on-the-ground information has suffered accordingly. The logical next step is to take humans out of the equation altogether and let artificial intelligence make the decisions. After all it’s not going to make much difference to you whether you’re blown up by some red-eyed half-asleep drone operator in Nevada or by a bright shiny AI program on someone’s iPhone. Either way it’s nothing personal. If capitalism is determined to kill you, it will at least try to do it efficiently. For socialists, there are no ‘moral’ ways of killing, and to take sides in some bogus ethical debate about legitimate and illegitimate weapons is simply to collude in the social acceptance of the truly monstrous. Either you’re against all capitalist war, or you’re not. Trying to take a middle position in no-man’s-land is just artificial unintelligence.

Faceclock and the Binopticon
Recently it was reported that Chinese face-recognition AI software had successfully scanned 60,000 people at a pop concert and picked out one individual who was wanted by the authorities. Nobody was more amazed by this technological feat than the fugitive himself, who protested that ‘If I’d known, I wouldn’t have come (to the concert)!’ Chinese police are now also trialling face recog sunglasses, and the long eyeball of the law is even being used to identify jaywalkers and toilet roll thieves (Hong Kong Free Press, 19 June 2017). Ali Baba, the Asian Amazon, are heavily investing in face recog while Facebook plans to roll it out across Europe despite CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently being carpeted by the US Congress for selling user data. No doubt they will call it Faceclock.

We are living in an era where surveillance is more sophisticated than ever, and it is coming at us from two warring directions, from the state, and from the private sector via retail and social media. Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century imagined a kind of transparent glass prison, the Panopticon, where all inmates could be watched, without their knowing it, by just one guard. What we are dealing with now is the Binopticon, and we are increasingly pinned securely in its stereo vision without the possibility of manoeuvre or escape. Many people are not worried by this and indeed appreciate the benefits of surveillance by the state (less chance of being mugged in the street, more terrorists watched) and by retail and media (conveniently filtering out products and ideas you don’t want to see). Capitalist media pundits make hay over the ‘threat’ to democracy, but this misses a larger point. The Binopticon is presently out of focus as the two ‘lenses’ fight for data supremacy. What happens when state and private sector inevitably overcome their spat and learn to operate ‘in phase’? Then the question arises: who needs democracy at all? The whole idea of ‘government by consent’ breaks down if individual workers can be watched, tracked, brainwashed and micromanaged 24 hours a day. People tend to make the unwarranted assumption that history is progressive and that democratic forms are built into the DNA of liberal capitalism. But that could be a foolish delusion. Capitalism could function perfectly well without any democracy at all, once surveillance technology is perfected. If you don’t want to spend the rest of your life in a glass prison, better start throwing some stones while there’s still time.

Slow boats and fast bucks
The news that the global shipping industry has agreed for the first time to cut its carbon emissions will come as a surprise to anyone who didn’t realise that shipping, like aviation, has never been part of any climate agreement and thus not discussed at Kyoto, Rio or the Paris accord. Capitalism is a global profit system but when it comes to picking up the environmental tab for those profits the transnational distribution system has so far escaped responsibility, despite shipping being, in carbon footprint terms, the world’s sixth largest country (BBC Online, 13 April). Now the International Maritime Organisation has agreed to a 50 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 relative to 2008 levels, despite opposition from the US, Brazil and Saudi Arabia. The deal may spur new marine technology, or even see a partial return to the days of sail.

Container shipping has revolutionised world markets and is responsible for 80 percent of the world’s trade by volume and 70 percent by value (2016 Safety & Shipping Review). Though worker fatalities have fallen in recent years, to around 1,000 a year, shipping remains one of the world’s most dangerous activities. Given this, you might assume that firms don’t ship goods unnecessarily, however it is a fairly common experience to buy an item online, on the assumption that it was available locally or at least nationally, only to find weeks later that it has been shipped all the way from China or Korea. Many online marketplaces don’t bother to give you this information, probably because many people would choose not to buy long-distance in this way. In socialism the aim of production and distribution would be to localise as much as possible, to reduce complexity, resource and energy costs, and of course human exposure to risk. In capitalism none of this matters next to the overriding question of what will make the most money.
Paddy Shannon

Marx on Money (2018)

Book Review from the April 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

Marx’s Theory of the Genesis of Money’. By Samezo Kuruma,  (translated and edited by Michael Schauerte. Brill, 2018)

A collection of essays which examines how, why and through what is a commodity ‘money’. It is based solely on the first two chapters of Marx’s Capital, Volume One. Kuruma (1893-1982) was a Japanese academic who specialised in Marxist economics. Schauerte, who provides a 20-page introduction, is a regular contributor to the Socialist Standard.

By beginning with the commodity and the theory of value, Marx was able to bring out what he called the ‘power of abstraction’. This simply means setting aside whatever elements are not relevant to the theoretical question at hand. As Schauerte points out, Kuruma’s interpretation is not original and is simply a close reading of what Marx actually wrote. An important reason for doing this is that Kuruma thought he needed to show that some of his colleagues had misunderstood Marx in important ways. This book is a specialist work and the general reader would perhaps be better directed towards Marx’s Capital itself or some of the widely-available introductions to it.
Lew Higgins

The Myth of ‘Homo Economicus’ (2018)

From the April 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

Human beings are naturally cooperative. Recent research has discovered ‘genetic evidence’ supporting the ‘self-domestication’ hypothesis. According to Science Daily (15 February), ‘among the driving forces of human evolution, humans selected their companions depending on who had a more pro-social behaviour.’

This makes sense. Contrary to Thomas Hobbes’ depiction of early human existence as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’, human beings have always lived in social groups and have prospered by doing so. Indeed, language itself presupposes society; understanding each other presupposes the shared meanings we attach to our vocalisations. Hobbes’ mythical pre-social individual could hardly have forged a ‘social contract’ with others, vesting power in a single authority (according to him) to maintain the peace and establish a human society, had language not existed in the first place.

To live in a group entails not just benefits but also obligations – that is, the ‘moral duty’ to cooperate. This is why ‘free riders’ tend to be universally frowned upon, even despised. Of course, things are not always so straightforward. In a class-divided society like capitalism the exploitative function of a free-riding capitalist class is masked and mediated by a power structure that effectively inverts social reality. Workers are made to appear dependent upon the capitalists when, actually, the very opposite is the case.

Nevertheless, it remains broadly true that living in a group means your own wellbeing depends not just on what you get from the group but on what the group gets from you by way of what you contribute to its wellbeing. The more motivated individuals are to contribute to the group, the more robust the group and the more likely it is to survive and flourish. There is increasing recognition these days that evolution is a ‘multi-level selection process.’ It operates not just at the level of individuals but at the level of the group as well. A group of rampant egoists is more likely to go extinct than survive.

‘Morality’ being based on a concern for the wellbeing of others, is both the outcome and prerequisite of social existence. It implies altruism though it is not quite the same thing as altruism. The latter term was coined by the French philosopher, Auguste Comte, as an antonym for ‘egoism’. It derives from the Latin word alteri, meaning ‘other people’. An altruistic outlook is one that regards other people as having value in themselves and not just as a means to your own ends (egoism). Morality builds on this by being prescriptive in how we relate to them.

To clarify – saying a disposition towards moral thinking is fundamental to human society does not make this or that moral belief ‘natural’. Particular moral belief systems are the products of particular historical circumstances which can and do change. However, our capacity to think and behave ‘morally’ is part of what makes us human beings and, indeed, according to ethologists like Frans de Waal it is found to some extent also in other animals like the great apes. Social groups need norms to regulate the behaviour of their members.

Underlying this ‘natural’ capacity to see the world in moral terms is an ability to empathise with others. The discovery of ‘mirror neurons’ by Giacomo Rizzolati and his colleagues in the 1990s suggests this is something we may have acquired in our evolution as a species. A mirror neuron is a specialised kind of brain cell located in the premotor cortex which ‘fires’ in response to the observed actions of other individuals and causes the subject to involuntarily mimic or ‘mirror’ these actions to some extent. An example would be the twitching and tensing movements we make when watching, say, two boxers fighting in a ring. We put ourselves in their shoes, look at the world from their perspective.

Having the ability to empathise does not mean we necessarily always will. Much depends on our social environment and the particular social influences to which we have been subjected. In an article, intriguingly entitled ‘Capitalism Short Circuits Our Moral Hard-Wiring’, Gary Olson argues that capitalism has contrived to engender a ‘carefully manufactured narrative of market capitalist identity’, and a self-serving capitalist construct of human nature as fundamentally egoistic, via a relentless barrage of ‘elite propaganda’ that seeks to override what our mirror neuron system is telling us (Common Dreams, December 18, 2008). Nevertheless, suggests Olson, the ‘received wisdom about our socioeconomic system’, will always struggle to maintain its grip on our thinking since it is fundamentally at odds with what makes us human – our sociality and willingness to help each other.

Egoism or altruism?
However, we should be wary of pushing this argument too far. In every conceivable kind of society there is always going to be a mixture of motives driving individuals. We are not purely altruistic any more than we are purely egoistic.

What is distinctive about capitalism is the way in which these two qualities have been separated out and counterposed to each other by being consigned to, and compartmentalised within, quite different spheres of activity. Egoistic values pertain to the world of business, altruism to the world of charitable giving, the rearing of children and so on.

In a sense, capitalism needs to maintain this dichotomy. What business could survive in a dog-eat-dog world of capitalist competition if it looked upon the needs of its workforce as a charitable concern? On the contrary, it must regard the wages that it pays its workforce as a cost to be ruthlessly minimised. There is no room for sentiment in such a world.

That does not mean businesses will not strive to foster the impression of having the interests of their workforce at heart. Of course they will. Commanding the loyalty, even the affection, of their workforce will tend to raise productivity. However, such sentiments are rooted in the shifting sands of class struggle. By their very nature they are liable to be transient, superficial and, in the end, two-faced.

This superficial crossover of sentiments from the domain of altruism to the domain of egoism is evident too in the case of ‘ethical investment’. The tokenistic nature of such investment, as critics have noted, may be a good selling point but has often served as a fig leaf to conceal some pretty dubious practices or questionable products. To the extent that ethical investment does indeed live up to its name, the result is a generally poorer return on one’s investment. Trying to run together altruistic and egoistic values in a capitalist business is like trying to mix oil and water. As one commentator noted with regard to the Coca-Cola Company:
  ‘Investing in Coke because they’re actively trying to make a difference is sort of confusing two separate goals. The goal of investing is to make money (for yourself), while the goal of social good / social responsibility is to make life better (for other people). It is mathematically impossible to maximize for two variables at once… At best, socially responsible investing is an ineffective half-measure that is both costly to the investor and the causes they care about.’ (LINK.)
Naturalising Capitalism                                                                                            
This fragmented way of looking at things which counterposes the ‘economy’ as the domain of pure self-interest to other domains of social reality where altruistic values prevail is a uniquely capitalist development. In traditional pre-capitalist societies it would have made no sense at all. There was no such thing as a distinct and separate domain of reality called ‘the economy’. Everything was jumbled up and intermixed. What might appear on the surface from the vantage point of modern capitalism to be an example of purely self-interested economic behaviour would be laden with multiple significations – cultural, political and religious.

The journey from traditional ‘holistic’ societies to modern capitalism involved precisely the disaggregation or breaking up of social reality as a unified ‘total’ experience into a number of separate domains. In his Essays on Individualism (1986), Louis Dumont traces this development culminating in the first clear exposition of the ‘economy’ as a self-contained and distinctive domain, subject to its own inner laws, in the writings of Adam Smith (misleadingly dubbed the ‘Founding Father’ of capitalism).

Smith, whose first book was on moral philosophy, was later influenced by Bernard de Mandeville’s scandalous tract The Fable of Bees (1714) which talked of how ‘private vices’ could be converted into ‘public benefits’. This gave him the core meme that he developed in The Wealth of Nations (1776). As he put it:
  ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages’.
Thus, the ‘invisible hand of the market’ would guide individuals motivated by nothing more than their own self-interest to paradoxically promote the interests of others.

This mechanistic conception of the economy went hand in hand with a thoroughgoing individualistic view of individuals as atomised decision-makers linked to others via an impersonal ‘cash nexus’. The decisions these individuals made were essentially egoistic, reflecting our very bedrock nature as a species. According to Smith, the propensity to ‘truck, barter, and exchange’ in pursuit of one’s own interests is something integral to human nature. Out of that emerged the division of labour as a ‘very slow and gradual consequence’ of this ‘natural’ propensity.

What Smith was doing, and what many apologists for market capitalism have done ever since, was to retrospectively ‘universalise’ such capitalist categories as ‘market exchange’ and treat these as embedded aspects of all human societies, past and future. Earlier societies were said to differ from capitalism chiefly in the comparatively limited extent to which the division of labour had developed within them. But in the basically egoistic motives driving individuals, there was essentially no difference; given time, these motives would eventually deliver a capitalist society as the predestined expression of our human nature.

Smith was writing at a time when the discipline of anthropology was undeveloped and largely speculative in nature. Sweeping conclusions were derived from the opinionated evidence supplied by explorers, missionaries and colonisers moving into the Non-European world (looked upon as providing a window on Europe’s own past). Ascendant capitalism needed to ‘naturalise its own arbitrariness’, as Pierre Bourdieu once aptly put it, and what better way to do that than through a historical reconstruction of the past that emphasises an essential continuity with the present?

However, the subsequent development of anthropology as a discipline, particularly since the introduction of intensive fieldwork as a methodology in the early 20th century, has effectively blown apart such speculative theories.
Robin Cox

Why I am Striking: A Diary of the Universities Strike (2018)

From the April 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

Day 5: Lecturers are on strike again, with the first tranche scheduled to last fourteen days in all. Cue jokes about academics sat at home not thinking, or troops being sent in to give seminars on the use of Christian symbolism in late-period Anglo Saxon poetry.

I am not an academic, nor am I even in their pension scheme, the root of the conflict. I am a university worker, and I have been standing on the freezing cold picket line, asking staff and students not to cross it.

I understand that academics have achieved something very difficult. The Tories have introduced a new law to make it so that public sector workers proposing a strike have to achieve not only a majority of those voting, but a majority of those eligible to strike must vote as well. (Universities claim to be public sector for this purpose, but have managed to get themselves declared private sector for the purposes of procurement, because a majority of their money comes from fees now).

The result of this is that instead of the gentlemanly dance of previous university strikes – two days here and there – the difficulty of getting a strike called at all means it has to be decisively disruptive: these are the counter-productive aspects of the Tories trying to regulate strikes out of existence, the pressure valve is gone, and it will make strikes more bitter.

The root cause is an attempt to change the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension from being a defined benefit scheme (where the academics will receive a guaranteed pension based on their career average salary), into a defined contribution scheme (where the benefit pays depending on the returns of the scheme’s investments, throwing all the liabilities of the Universities onto the vagaries of the bond and stock markets). The scheme has already changed from being final salary to being career average related (and employer and employee contributions have both been raised in recent years).

The cause of this is that under accounting rules, the scheme must be funded so that if all universities went bankrupt tomorrow, all the liabilities could be met. This creates a phantom deficit of billions of pounds, despite all universities not being bankrupt, and the scheme currently being able to manage its liabilities.

Make no mistake, universities are far removed from the rarefied world of a David Lodge novel: today they are vast Dickensian factories employing thousands of staff and servicing tens of thousands of students each. This is indicated in the scale of the strike, with a rough (low) estimate of 20,000 workers out. As Boris Johnson noted in his recent farcical speech on Brexit, Britain stands a long way up the value chain, not producing raw materials or components, but designs and innovation. Thousands of foreign, particularly Chinese, students come to the UK to study, bringing in much needed revenue.

When I discuss this matter, friends tell me that academics are lucky to still have defined benefit pensions, or that they themselves have had their pension downgraded. For me, this makes it all the more important to put a marker in the sand to stop this downgrading of all our deferred salaries.

I understand that what is at stake here is the ability to strike at all, and to have a conscious say in our workplaces: the academics are being attacked as workers, and they recognise their position as workers by calling this strike. They deserve support and solidarity, even at the cost of 14 days’ pay, because anything that makes employers think twice about downgrading terms and conditions of their employees is a benefit for all workers, everywhere.

Capitalism draws increasing numbers into the condition of wage slavery, many academics are on the equivalent of zero hours contracts, or have to continually search for funding for their own salaries. Of course, ending capitalism and abolishing the wages system is the necessary political act, but in the meanwhile the class struggle rumbles on, and we have to engage with the struggle to defend ourselves and pursue the best living standards we can manage within the labour market.

If we don’t strike, we all lose: and maybe, for all those students who smile wanly, shrug and say they have to go in to lectures, the library or to study, they can learn the lesson that they too will soon be waged workers, who will need solidarity to protect them in their workplaces.

Day 14: The strikes have succeeded so far in dragging the employers to the negotiating table, and throwing their ranks into disarray. The Vice Chancellors of several leading universities have come out in favour of returning to defined benefit. The talks, however, produced an offer which would have still seen lecturer’s pensions reduced by at least 19%, and threw in the added insult that lecturers should reschedule classes (which they have been deducted pay for not holding).

I was lucky enough to attend the rally outside UCU headquarters (down an alley in Camden Town), where hundreds of strikers turned up to lobby the committee and delegate meetings considering the offer. The usual toy-town revolutionaries are trying to paint this as a ‘revolt by the members’ against the leadership, where it was in fact the normal and proper functioning of democracy in a trade union. Indeed, my local branch have been running daily strike meetings to run the operation of the strike, and further, credit where it is due, a useful daily strike bulletin has been brought out by Socialist Worker.

There is a question of why the offer was accepted and put to the members given that it was so terrible (and promoted to and by the media as a resolution of the conflict, but some of that will be down to the way ACAS operates, as well as to the mandate given to the negotiators). It was heavily voted down by strikers on the picket lines, and voluble cries of ‘no capitulation’ on social media.

The scene is set then, for the strike to continue, and a further fourteen days in April and June have been approved (but not yet set). We’ve marched through the streets of London twice now (in relatively well-attended marches), and there is talk of the need to pressure government to agree to underwrite the pension scheme. Many academics are enjoying taking the details of the pension plan apart showing how the deficit is not real. A lecturer at Birkbeck has uncovered documents that show there has been a determination to end the defined benefit scheme since at least 2014 – the general idea is by curtailing the scheme’s liabilities, universities will be able to borrow more for building and expansion projects.

Students up and down the country have been occupying spaces on campus in solidarity, and ‘teach outs’ are commonplace across the country.

On a theoretical side, this strike is a demonstration of how commodity fetishism isn’t just a feature or process of capitalism, but a social strategy by the rich and powerful: they are trying to limit their responsibility to their employees through throwing it onto the market, rather than guaranteeing a level of income after we are superannuated.
Ptolemy S.

Rear View: The capitalist farm (2018)

The Rear View Column from the April 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

The capitalist farm

‘China bans George Orwell’s Animal Farm and letter ‘N’ as censors bolster Xi Jinping’s plan to keep power indefinitely. Experts believe increased levels of suppression are sign Xi Jinping hopes to become dictator for life’ (, 1 March). One famous phrase from this satire concerning the perversion of revolutionary aims is all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others. State capitalist China has over 100 billionaires who together have wealth equal to twice Ireland’s GDP and, according to a Peking University report from 2016, its income disparity is getting worse with the top 1 percent owning a third of the country’s wealth and the bottom 25 percent of the population just 1 percent. The human oppressors in Orwell’s classic are overthrown by the farm animals, but their desire for the farm to be run for the benefit of all is thwarted by the emergence of a new ruling class composed of dogs and pigs. Under new management the wealth of the farm grows but is accumulated by the rulers rather than shared. The pigs start to argue and reflecting the power struggle between Stalin and Trotsky, one leading pig uses his trained dogs to drive another member of the ruling class off the farm. Such struggles continue today in the real world. We are also informed ‘it was not immediately obvious why the ostensibly harmless letter ‘N’ had been banned, but some speculated it may either be being used or interpreted as a sign of dissent.’ Indeed, why not: the banished pig was called Snowball and the victor Napoleon.

Pigs in paradise

‘After long playing second fiddle to China, India has leapfrogged its rival to become the world’s fastest-growing major economy’ (, 1 March). Yet this growing prosperity for a small parasitical class has not lessened the chronic malnutrition of children; in the 2017 Global Hunger Index of 119 countries India slipped to the 100th place. In fact, this country is home to a quarter of the world’s hungry – a staggering 190.7 million people or 14.5 per cent of the population is undernourished. India also has the world’s largest number of homeless and landless persons. Furthermore, at least 5,650 Indian farmers committed suicide in 2014. Earlier this year, ‘seven workers died of suffocation…while cleaning an underground drainage pit at a poultry farm in southern India…. Such accidents are common in India, where workers clean deep drainage pits without protective gear’ (, 16 February). India’s ruling class prefer to use the stolen wealth elsewhere: ‘New Delhi and Moscow have finalised contractual terms for four new stealth frigates that Russia will supply the Indian Navy for slightly over Rs 200 billion ($3 billion), or about Rs 50 billion ($775 million) per vessel’ (, 28 February).

Tolstoy’s farm parable

‘I see mankind as a herd of cattle inside a fenced enclosure. Outside the fence are green pastures and plenty for the cattle to eat, while inside the fence there is not quite grass enough for the cattle. Consequently, the cattle are tramping underfoot what little grass there is and goring each other to death in their struggle for existence. I saw the owner of the herd come to them, and when he saw their pitiful condition he was filled with compassion for them and thought of all he could do to improve their condition. So he called his friends together and asked them to assist him in cutting grass from outside the fence and throwing it over the fence to the cattle. And that they called Charity. Then, because the calves were dying off and not growing up into serviceable cattle, he arranged that they should each have a pint of milk every morning for breakfast. Because they were dying off in the cold nights, he put up beautiful well-drained and well-ventilated cowsheds for the cattle. Because they were goring each other in the struggle for existence, he put corks on the horns of the cattle, so that the wounds they gave each other might not be so serious. Then he reserved a part of the enclosure for the old bulls and the old cows over 70 years of age. In fact, he did everything he could think of to improve the condition of the cattle, and when I asked him why he did not do the one obvious thing, break down the fence, and let the cattle out, he answered: ‘If I let the cattle out, I should no longer be able to milk them’’ (Leo Tolstoy, 1828-1910, pamphlet ‘to the working classes of all nations’).

Proper Gander At The Movies: Red Carpet Campaigning (2018)

The Proper Gander Column from the April 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

Over the years, film awards have become ever more politicised. It used to be that the occasional comment on an issue like the Iraq War would slip in to acceptance speeches, but recently, Golden Globe and Academy Awards ceremonies have been used as platforms for whole campaigns, focused more inwardly on the film and awards industries themselves.

When nominations for the 88th Academy Awards were announced in early 2016, there was some criticism that for the second consecutive year all twenty nominees in the acting categories were white. Social media buzzed with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite and several prominent film-makers called for the event to be boycotted. The following year, a record number of black actors were nominated. For 2018’s awards season, the issue of ethnic diversity was overshadowed by the sexual abuse scandal which broke last autumn. Over 80 women have come forward to accuse film producer Harvey Weinstein of abuse dating back to the 1970s. Weinstein denied any allegations of non-consensual sex, said he had gone into therapy, and hired a Public Relations firm which specialises in crisis management. At January’s Golden Globe Awards, many attendees showed solidarity with women suffering abuse by wearing black, and the hashtags #MeToo (used by people to say they have experienced sexual harassment) and #TimesUp (a campaign against sexual abuse and for gender parity) trended on social media. These campaigns were at the start of an explosion of abuse allegations, not only in the entertainment industry, but also in journalism, charities and parliament. There’s a widespread, strong feeling that abuse won’t be tolerated any longer, which the campaigners have the challenge of translating into cultural change.

Those who dared to dispute how the abuse scandal is being played out have faced a backlash in mainstream and social media. Actress Catherine Deneuve was the most prominent signatory of a French counter-campaign which criticised the current wave for conflating allegations of rape with clumsy attempts to seduce. She later apologised for causing any offence to abuse victims. Germaine Greer said that hashtag campaigns won’t work ‘because all the powerful men who are now in all sorts of trouble are already briefing their lawyers’ (1). Greer has hinted at an important point. While these campaigns might lead to some important measures, such as abuse survivors getting support and a sense of justice, they can’t change the power structures which led to perpetrators being in the position to manipulate and abuse others in the first place.

These structures are also the root cause of the other issues highlighted through recent awards ceremonies’ associated campaigns. While 2016 and 2017’s award seasons focused on ethnic diversity, 2018 also highlighted the lack of prominent women in the film industry. A study by San Diego State University of the staff behind last year’s 250 most popular films found that women comprised just 18% of senior behind-the-scenes roles (2). At the Academy Awards ceremony, Frances McDormand used her acceptance speech for the best actress gong to suggest increasing diversity with ‘inclusion riders’. A ‘rider’ is part of a contract in which someone can specify their own demands on a project, so an ‘inclusion rider’ would involve only agreeing to work on a project with a diverse talent pool. It’s yet to be seen how many film-makers will either attempt this or be influential enough to get what they want. The lack of female film-makers was reflected in the awards given; only six went to women, the lowest amount since 2012.

Decisions about who wins an Oscar are made by the 6,000-or-so members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. To become a member, you need to have been nominated for an award or be ‘sponsored’ by two existing members. In 2016, 683 newcomers joined, nearly half of whom were women and not white. Overall, Academy members were still largely white (89%) and male (73%), and the term ‘steak eaters’ has been used for the rump of white males with traditional values who have a heavy influence when films get nominated (3). Each November, the nominations process starts with what’s known as ‘the race’, when studios, distributors and publicists push their films to Academy members. The canniest distributors will have just released their movies, as most nominations go to films which come out in the last three months of the year. Members in each ‘branch’ of the industry vote for who they want nominated within their own trade, so costume designers vote for other costume designers, for example. This system means that decisions are made either by those with specialist skills best able to judge, or by a closed set of people who like back-slapping each other, depending on how you look at it. Many members would have a vested interest in films they or their pals have contributed to, whether practically or financially. Shortlists for each category are drawn up after the nominations are mysteriously weighted by auditors, then all members can vote for the winners in each category. So, whatever the identity of the Academy’s members, deciding who gets an Oscar is still a bit incestuous, with financial concerns never far away.

Challenging the disproportionately high number of white men in both the Academy and in senior roles in the film industry (among others) has been largely through the prism of identity politics. This is the approach where identity is seen as the key issue in how institutions function, rather than economic forces. The surface argument is that non-white, non-male talent has been held back by industry inertia weighted in favour of white males. Not enough discussion has centred on how this inertia is linked to profitability more than identity. Films produced by ‘steak eaters’ with a casting couch, whatever their faults, were profitable, and that’s what the studios’ owners are most interested in. Films with diverse casts and crew will flourish only if they can make a profit. Investors can be reassured by figures showing that Oscar-nominated films with a woman in the lead role are around 33% more profitable than those starring men. This is partly driven by American box office returns being 7% higher for female-led films, but more so because they tend to have lower budgets and therefore smaller overheads to eat into profits (4).

So, there probably will be greater diversity among film-makers in future, as the economic conditions are right. And of course it’s a good thing if more people have the opportunity to make movies, without expecting harassment or abuse. But they’ll be working in the same old profit-driven institutions, the same old power structures which enable discrimination and exploitation.
Mike Foster

Consciousness and Illusion: From Plato’s Cave to the Matrix (2018)

From the April 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

Down the centuries many thinkers have been convinced that how we both perceive and conceive the world can be very misleading if not downright deceptive. Humans no longer primarily depend on the sensory and instinctual facilities that our fellow animals exclusively do. Our instincts and perceptions are subordinate to the cultural education that we receive as children; and that cultural education is covertly political. The vehicle of education is language – the communication device par excellence. Human language is a complex system of abstraction: from shapes on paper (writing) to various sounds (speaking) not to mention gesture and expression. A child will take many years to master this system to a point where it doesn’t need its parents to survive. Because we do not live in nature the mastery of language is our primary survival tool.

Of course human culture lies within nature but its technology intervenes at every level in our relationship with it. Part of the reason we find ‘survival’ or ‘back to nature’ documentaries particularly  intriguing is because we have become so alienated from the natural environment that we are vicariously entertained by the helplessness others experience when thrown into it. The complexity of language has reached a point where it allows us to make grandiose claims about our understanding of both nature and culture and, the point of this essay, about the relationship between the two.

Plato’s cave
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato presented us with a celebrated thought experiment concerning the relationship between perception and cultural illusion. It featured prisoners chained in a cave in such a way that they could only see shadows of the world on their cave wall. Their perception of the world was necessarily extremely narrow but their sense of sight was not impaired. Plato used this as both a metaphor for how misleading sensory perception alone can be and also to illustrate that we are all, to one intellectual degree or another, prisoners of our culture. In this case these were actual prisoners who were represented as the victims of political manipulation by those with power over both perception and information. Among the many implications of this line of thought are (a) that there exists some kind of independent superior ‘reality’ and that (b) our inability to witness this realm is caused by the limitations of our cultural (linguistic) context and/or by its manipulation by the powerful to inhibit our access to it. Plato was something of an elitist and he believed that only a small minority were capable of seeing through the illusion of culture and power. Why is it that most of us are so reluctant to subject our received values and perceptions to any level of serious critique?

Certainly some are more predisposed to abstract thought than others. For socialists the balance between thinking and action has always been understood in terms of a praxis which, hopefully, enables us to avoid both intellectual philistinism and intellectual elitism. But we know that without subjecting personal paradigms to a critical process there is little hope of understanding the seductive power and potential manipulation of language. I recently overheard someone claim that Dolly Parton was a socialist because of her charity work. Such a statement would not have been possible without the continual subversion of the word and concept by both the politically ignorant and the politically astute. The ego rebels against any proof of intellectual manipulation. Our identity is very dependent on what we think we know and any attack on our intellectual integrity is felt as a profound threat. Many retreat into cynicism; the last refuge of the insecure because it both protects the ego and relieves us of any need for political activity. It would seem then that the reluctance to subject the inherited political paradigms to any criticism is partly to protect our identity; this is the main psychological consequence of individualism.

The Matrix
Of all of the political concepts individualism is one of the most powerful and corrosive together with being the most illusory. Illusory because mankind has never before lived at such a level of global interdependence where every element of the means of life is socially produced. But the ideology of capitalism has to insist on anachronistic individualism to defend the minority ownership of everything. The consequence of this is to lock us all into a tiny egotistical prison cell where others are seen as competitors rather than as the only way to express our humanity (as a community). As you read this, if you are not a socialist, it is probably challenging many of your most profound political values. But before you put it aside answer one question: has anything you eat, think, feel, wear or understand not been socially produced? From your ability to read these little abstract shapes on the page to your very consciousness of existence, these are all socially produced concepts. So having this wonderful inheritance from our species why do we feel so profoundly alone and continually threatened?  It is because we have been conditioned to feel this way by the manipulation of information and perception. As to how we might overcome this illusion we must turn to a favourite concept of not just socialists but to almost all who have seriously considered the problem;  levels of consciousness.

In the film The Matrix we are presented with a scenario where humanity is merely a source of energy harvested by sentient machines. To keep them ignorant of their slavery mankind is distracted by an illusory environment (our everyday world) generated by computers. A revolutionary group has discovered the reality behind this illusion and seek to destroy it by converting those who have suspicions to their cause. Sound familiar? That is the socialist modus operandi and this journal is our version of the ‘red pill’ which, in the film, is offered to those who wish to see what lies behind the illusion. Of course we part company with the narrative in its search for a messianic figure because, unlike the film’s writers and Plato, we believe everyone has the potential to see through the illusion. Revolutionary consciousness is primarily created by the contrast of the professed values and promises of a ruling ideology compared with the reality (for the vast majority) of living in the world that these ideas seek to defend. Many of great intellect, who being unaware of this (Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawkins for example) are condemned to live in Plato’s cave or the matrix despite their intelligence. Socialism needs no magic red pills, Messiahs or philosophic geniuses; it needs you. Illusions can be comforting and even fun but all of us, deep down, need to know what lies behind and beyond.