Wednesday, December 26, 2018

On Third World debt (1988)

From the December 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

At the Economic Summit held in Toronto in June this year, the seven leaders agreed, in principle, measures to ease the debt problems of the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Africa is mainly dependent on raw materials for its trading income, but because of the state of the world economy, and the introduction of substitute materials, the demand for Africa’s staple products has dropped, so that a typical 'basket' of exports buys nearly one third less imports than ten years ago. Debt service obligations for countries like Mozambique. Sudan and Somalia now pre-empt the whole of their export income.

The measures eventually worked out by the Paris Club, from the "menu of options" (sic) agreed at the Summit, will do little to relieve the conditions of the poor in those countries. The lucky beneficiaries of debt relief must first be undertaking internationally approved "adjustment" programmes. This means conditions laid down by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The aim of such conditions is to increase exports, and those most frequently imposed are devaluation of the currency, drastic reduction of government expenditure, price increases, wage cuts, and the reduction of domestic consumption. When added to the difficulties arising from the dependance on particular products, the concentration on growing cash crops, "unfair" competition and falling world prices, these policies spell disaster for people whose incomes are precarious at the best of times. Over forty countries are under IMF "guidance", while others practice Fund doctrine without formal agreement, in order to obtain loans from other sources.

Formed at the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944, the IMF is a financial institution, primarily concerned with promoting trade, which only slowly became involved in developing countries. It is governed by the Group of Ten leading members, and voting rights are related to the quotes put in by each member country, although the US has what amounts to veto power on important issues.

Although the deprivation endured by mill ions in Third world countries has intensified, their poverty did not begin with the debt crisis. It is a capitalist world. Every country is run in the interest of its owning class, following the dictates of a system geared to sale and profit. The Third World (or "The South' or "less developed countries") accounts for three-quarters of the world's population, and includes countries at widely differing stages of development. Most of the high interest debt has been incurred by the better-off developing countries, while the countries needing most help to "develop" are the least attractive from an investment/profit point of view. There has not been the same incentive to push loans to them. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for less than 9 per cent of total Third World borrowing. In A Fate Worse Than Debt Susan George details the background, and the many implications, of debt for the less developed countries. She describes the dire consequences of IMF adjustment programmes for the poor — who do not benefit from the loans; how repressive ruling elites are assisted by IMF loans; how billions of dollars have been "squandered on current consumption or spent on sterile pursuits or has ended up Northern banks" (p59); and the way in which huge foreign loans have contributed to "environmental plunder, widespread impoverishment and ethnocide" (p161).

The International Bank of Reconstruction and Development, known as the World Bank, was also founded at Bretton Woods. The 134 member countries have to be members of the IMF. and subscriptions and voting power are on the same basis. The projects financed by the World Bank are supposed to follow guidelines with regard to migration, minorities and the environment. These guidelines have been flouted by internal migration programmes in Indonesia and Brazil. The Grande Carajas iron ore project in Brazil is receiving major funding from the World Bank, Carajas, the "several billion tons of iron and half a dozen other mineral-ore deposits", has been described by the Brazilian government as a "national export project", and as an answer to the country's crippling debt problem. It will cost $62 billion (with an EEC contribution of $600 million) and will mean an area the size of France and Britain together, being partially or totally deforested. To hasten the completion of the Tucurui Dam. forest was not cleared but sprayed instead with the defoliant Dioxin — agent orange. Landless peasants are sent to the deforested areas, where the soil is unsuitable for cropping. to grow soybeans — a major cash crop — for the foreign exchange needed to help pay between $12 and $14 billion in interest on loans each year. The price of soybeans is depressed because of “overproduction" in the US (the effect of the current drought in US remains to be seen), so more must be grown “to keep the revenues stable". However the motivation for extracting mineral wealth, and for the drive to export, is the pursuit of profit — regardless of the debt problem

Servicing the debt is seen as a major obstacle to development, with development itself adding to the debt burden. Under the influence of foreign experts, the western industrialised model has been followed in Third World countries regardless of whether it was appropriate, and the costly capital goods and energy requirement have been financed by borrowing. Some highly inappropriate and expensive projects have been debt financed. In the Philippines a nuclear power plant was sited in a zone of high seismic activity — it is not being made operational. Possibly up to $40 billion of Brazil’s debt is due to the purchase of nuclear reactors (also non-operational to date). Twenty per cent of Third World debt is down to military spending.

Over a quarter of the debt accumulated by the totality of Third World countries is accounted for by the increase in oil prices following the oil and energy crisis of 1973/4 and 1979/80. When the Reagan administration refused more resources to the IMF bank, lending, which had already expanded, was increased to the most heavily indebted countries. In the four years to the end of 1982 the amount loaned by US banks grew from $110 billion to $450 billion. The banks eagerly sold money to Third World countries, including those with oil (Mexico borrowed heavily to develop the oil industry), ignoring the usual constraints and safeguards. There was pressure to serve the interests of their domestic clients. Bank loans enabled countries to purchase the products of US and European corporations like Boeing and Westinghouse. Some of the money borrowed is invested outside of the debtor country. Banks accommodate this capital flight which accounts for billions of dollars in debt — possibly 70 per cent of the new loans to the big ten Latin American countries between 1983 and 1985. Money from corrupt government officials, or national companies whose government has guaranteed the debt, goes straight back to the banks — some of it actually carried back in suitcases taken there empty for this purpose — but has still been added to the burden of debt. Multinational corporations have taken over the role of direct investment. Apparently the banks do not consider development to be any of their business Bank strategy, based on the assumption that countries could not cease to exist, was (is) simply to make money. Even the debt crisis was looked on as "a true windfall" with Brazil, for example, paying back $69 billion in interest between 1979 and 1985. However, global recession brought home to the banks their over-exposure. Clearly countries could have repayment problems, with further borrowing as the only way to service their debts.

Borrowing and lending are normal commercial and banking practices, and the usual answer when countries get into repayment difficulties is to reschedule the debt. There were 144 reschedulings of official debt alone in the ten years to 1985. Default is not in the interest of either side. All of the indebted Latin American countries defaulted in the 1920s and 1930s when most of their debts were in the form of government bonds held by individual investors. Today the situation is different. In 1982 Mexico came close to default when holding $80 billion of debt. The nine largest US banks had 44 per cent of the capital tied up in loans there. A deal was eventually agreed between assorted representatives from US government Departments and Agencies — including the White House, "top brass" from the commercial banks with their lawyers, the Mexican team led by their Finance Minister, and with the involvement of the IMF. The banks were saved from having their stock plummet, an international financial crisis was averted — and Mexico got $8.3 billion in fresh money. Dividends declared by the big nine banks increased by more than a third between 1982 and 1985. (the fate of more than 400 smaller banks was rather different.) A country which defaulted would have considerable difficulty getting new loans. When Argentina showed signs of stopping interest payments in 1984. coercion was applied by US bankers, and representatives from the IMF, commercial banks and officials from major industrial countries. The US Treasury compiled a list of items likely to become "scarce" — and raised questions of what would happen to a President of a country if, for example, "the government couldn’t get insulin for its diabetics? (George. p68).

Third World countries are expected to solve their problems by exporting, but their exports have to compete in world markets. They also provide markets for creditor countries. The Brazilian computer industry became so successful that in 1985 it managed to outsell the transnational competition, which brought threats of "trade reprisals" from the US if local (Brazilian) demand continued to be satisfied at the expense of IBM. Ironically IMF imposed conditions mean fewer imports. US exports to Latin America fell by 42 per cent between 1982 and 1984. and hundreds of thousands of US workers lost their jobs. The annual report of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) calls for the writing off of at least $90 billion of Third World bank debts, and says that, if combined with the $5 billion of debt relief for sub-Saharan African countries, debtor countries could increase their "net demand for imports by $18 billion each year". A third of this would come from the US “helping its trade get out of the red" (The Guardian, 2 September 1988). The report also argues that debt relief on this scale (30 per cent of the $300 billion owed to banks by the 15 worst afflicted countries) would enable Third World economies to grow faster, and boost the world economy.

Since the Mexican rescue the banks have made their own provision against the effects of possible bad debts, by adding to their reserves. (Some debts have been sold at a discount, and some "debt for equity" swaps have also been made.) Together with the IMF. they are opposed to the UNCTAD proposal, preferring the present strategy whereby each near-defaulting country is dealt with "case by case".

Whatever deals over debt relief are agreed in order to facilitate trade, they will not end Third World poverty — that is not their purpose.
Pat Deutz

Letter: A "normal observer" amazed (1988)

Letter to the Editors from the December 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Editors.

I recently had occasion to see a list of the General Election results of the Socialist Party of Great Britain since 1945. I must confess to being shocked. The conclusion I draw from seeing that in 18 parliamentary elections the Party has barely achieved an average of one per cent of the vote is that your dogmatic attachment to the "principles” formulated in 1904 has made you into a kind of religious sect, perhaps a more sectarian one than any other and even less successful in winning people to its point of view.

Being "sectarian" doesn’t necessarily mean having a short-sighted attitude or a wrong view of things. It's possible for you, a tiny minority, to be right and almost everyone else, the vast majority, to be wrong. But what has never ceased to amaze me in my regular reading of the Socialist Standard is the total lack of consideration by the SPGB of the causes and reasons for the absence of a "socialist"' movement in the sense that you understand the term. I'm also amazed by your failure to try and analyse your total lack of success over the years. After 40 years of participating in elections on behalf of democratic parliamentary socialism, you've got absolutely nowhere. And this after the cataclysm of 1939-1945 and after Auschwitz and Hiroshima. (1 don't of course know what electoral success' your Party had between 1904 and 1945.)

As for the efforts of the Socialist Standard in trying to reach the working class, you are labouring under delusions about your chances of success. If the capitalist dailies average circulations of several million what chance is there for the spread of socialist ideas without a mass circulation working- class daily?

Marx had a clear theory about the "transition" from the capitalist mode of production to the socialist-communist one. He also had knowledge of what was required for the creation of a "communist consciousness" in terms of the psychology and social development of workers and bourgeois intellectuals — what you might call the "ethical" side of things. This consciousness was supposed to be created spontaneously under the weight of ever worsening material and moral conditions. This idea of Marx has given rise to controversies between the various different schools of Marxism about so-called "increasing misery" among the workers. According to the idea, the resistance and opposition of the workers to an employing class that was becoming smaller and smaller in number yet increasingly richer and more oppressive would intensify until it finally brought about the famous reversal of roles as to which class dominates — the "negation of the negation" — with the period of transition having the form of a "dictatorship" of the immense majority who would cleanse society of its capitalist institutions. But much has happened since the disappearance of Marx and Engels which should cause us to "reconsider" the materialist . . .

If we look at the result of your "activities", which consist of trying to 'make' socialists before the objective circumstances favourable to the establishment of socialism appear; if we consider the fact that four-fifths of the world's population are ruled by economic, political and ideological dictatorships with methods of terror and brainwashing which are increasingly more efficient and sophisticated, then we must be tempted to question not only your methods but also all so-called "socialist" strategies in the whole of the so-called ""free" world. And we must also ask the question whether it wouldn't be more reasonable to abandon the traditional terminology which has done nothing but mislead people since the capitalist empires of the East have managed to usurp the names of "socialism" and "communism".

Reading your replies to readers" questions in the Socialist Standard, your extreme sectarianism becomes apparent. Under cover of rejecting "reformism", you throw cold water on all participation in movements of protest and opposition not carrying the "socialist" label as defined by yourselves. In a context of limitless barbarism wherever one looks in the world, you reject out of hand the imperative need to put aside ideological disputes and join hands with radical pacifist, ecological and feminist movements. Not once in the Socialist Standard have I read a serious study of the uniqueness of the present crisis which for the first time ever raises the question of the very survival of the human species. To the question. "If that's the point we're at, whose fault is it?" the SPGB will reply: "It's capitalism that's to blame But of course, one could equally well reply: "It's the workers who are to blame". Your French-language journal, Socialism Mondiale, in reviewing a book by Serge Kolm (No.2. 1985). criticises the author's thesis according to which to arrive at relations of economic equality people must behave in an altruistic not a selfish fashion. While we would all reject the notion of "human nature", we must nevertheless admit that to behave like a socialist (in the SPGB sense) means to behave in an opposite way to the majority of workers. And are we not in actual fact being "altruistic" in aspiring to a community of conscious human solidarity without seeking either power or wealth for ourselves? Unfortunately, the problem of today's world is precisely one of "altruism": that of the workers who sacrifice themselves to ensure the wellbeing and the continued authority of the ruling class.

To return to another aspect of the verbal "fetishism" tirelessly cultivated in the Socialist Standard, may I mention: (1) your condemnation of money in the name of an abstract principle which the average worker will certainly find difficult to grasp; (2) your advocacy of "voluntary work"; and (3) your insistence on "free access". Kolm, in the book I've mentioned, suggests a form of "money" which has nothing in common with money as a source of profit but is used as a "general unit of accounting" in the tradition of utopian thinkers such as Owen and Proudhon, and indeed as advocated by Marx himself. Anyone who is in the slightest bit receptive to the reality of daily life, where money is more and more subject to the ups and downs of the finance market, will inevitably, when confronted with the fine phrases of the SPGB, ask questions about the virtues of "voluntary co-operation" and the principle of the "gift economy" and will in particular want a precise, detailed explanation concerning the transition from a capitalist mode of work to a socialist mode of work. Such an explanation will of course have to include a plan of organisation for the countless jobs and occupations in which today's millions of wage workers are involved and enslaved as they carry out tasks which are overwhelmingly useless and alienating inasmuch as they are producing goods or services for the exclusive profit of the master class (excuse my over-stark terminology — I am trying to make my point absolutely clear).

Let's take, for example, the large number of people (civil servants, office workers, manual workers, technicians, experts, etc.) involved in producing armaments for the "killing industry" or involved in work aimed at intoxicating people through the advertising industry or through foisting the latest fashions on them. These workers will not be able to be "recycled" from one day to the next to carry out tasks and occupations useful to the new community and will consequently have to be fed, clothed and housed "for free" by their "productive" fellow workers. This in fact presupposes a different kind of "altruism" from the present masochistic sacrifices of the world's workers.

Marx himself came to reflect on the problem of the "transition" and outlined his project for it in the Critique of the Gotha Programme. The SPGB rejects this "heresy", replacing it with phraseology it calls "materialist" but behind which is concealed a quite unjustified confidence in the feelings of solidarity which would be shown by those workers who had been transformed into "socialists" even before the Great Moment of Liberation (excuse the irony but I'm trying to stress how unrealistically vast are the Socialist Party's expectations of the mass of workers).

Hoping that your election results and my observations will cause you to reflect seriously on the conclusion any normal observer (and I count myself as one) is driven to when faced with your unrelenting and continuous lack of progress.

These criticisms range over a very wide field — our failure at elections, the restriction of membership to those who accept our principles, the content of our propaganda, our refusal to join up with non-socialist organisations and, finally, the usefulness of our socialist objective. Maximilien Rubel clearly thinks his criticisms are his own original work. He is quite unaware that they are not only very old but that all the things he tells us we ought to do were put into practice long ago by self-styled socialist organisations; with disastrous results for the socialist movement.

Lack of success
Why does the Socialist Party regularly achieve such a low percentage poll when it contests elections? Is it our dogmatic "sectarianism", our refusal to "join hands" with other groups, (anti-war, ecologist, feminist)? Frankly we don't think so since, despite the enormous efforts of such groups, they have — both separately and joint — had very little more success than we have. And, more importantly, although we would not want to deny the goodwill and sincerity of these groups in seeking to improve living conditions and solve social problems, we would not want to merge with them to try and bring about reforms of the capitalist system. This is not sectarianism either. It is merely a way of keeping our objective clear and not being sidetracked into activity which has nothing to do with the work of building a movement to advocate and achieve a society of common ownership and democratic control. In fact, M. Rubel is himself not prepared to argue that restricting membership to those who accept a Declaration of Principles is necessarily unjustified. "Being 'sectarian' doesn't necessarily mean having a short-sighted or a wrong view of things." Indeed he concedes that perhaps we might be right, and the others were wrong.

In Britain we have had a party which was formed on the basis of precisely the theory and strategy he lays down. It was the Independent Labour Party, formed to rescue the socialist movement from the "dogmatic" and sectarian attachment to principles shown by the existing Social Democratic Federation (Later on the ILP made the same criticisms of us.) Keir Hardie. its chairman, pointed to the overall votes SDF candidates got and their consequent failure to be elected and said it was due to the SDF "wooing the electors on what they allege to be a pure socialist ticket.". The only way to get elected, the ILP said, was for socialists to interest themselves more in the workers' day-to- day struggle and take up whatever issues the workers happen to be concerned with from time to time. There was to be no "dogmatic" adherence to a rigid set of principles. Here are Keir Hardie's words: "a broad tolerant catholicity has always been a leading characteristic of the ILP. It has never had a hard and dry creed of membership". The ILP and the SDF have now both vanished from the political scene. We have no intention of accepting Maximilien Rubel's advice and meeting the same fate.

We are of course always keen to discuss and debate with other groups and parties, hold forums with them, carry their views in the letter column of the Socialist Standard, and indeed learn from them where they have knowledge that we do not have. At the same time, we would point out that literally thousands of such organisations have come and gone this century without managing to stem the barbarity and horrors which Professor Rubel points to and which appall us as much as they do him. There can be no doubt that had the Socialist Party joined forces with any such organisations, we would have gone too As it is, we have at least had success in keeping the socialist idea alive — perhaps no mean feat considering the obstacles we have constantly had to overcome.

Increasing misery
We agree with Professor Rubel that Marx's concept of "increasing misery" is open to interpretation, as is much else Marx wrote. But we don't think that what has happened since Marx's time negates the essence of that idea. Workers are increasingly worse off. if not in absolute terms, then in terms of the proportion of wealth they actually consume. In mentioning Auschwitz. Hiroshima and the "limitless barbarism" of the modern world. Professor Rubel himself surely points to a worsening of what he calls "moral conditions". But we don't think that such conditions, material and "moral", give cause for hopelessness. What they do in fact is to create an increasing likelihood that people will turn to the solution that socialism offers to their problems. Our own small voice trying to point people in that direction is one which has been born of those conditions and has seen a way out of them.

The transition
We can understand that our use of terms like "voluntary co-operation", “moneyless society" and "free access ' should seem like "word fetishism" to Professor Rubel. But all we are trying to do is to describe the kind of society we are aiming at. While we can accept that to many people these terms may seem over-abstract, we'd certainly be selling ourselves and others short if we didn't make it absolutely clear what our objective was. If there are other and better ways of putting across the same idea, we'd be genuinely pleased to know about them. Indeed that's what we re constantly looking for and we're as aware as Professor Rubel that the word "socialism" itself often leads to confusion and misunderstanding. The only thing we don't want to do is to conceal, or appear to want to conceal, the true nature of our objective. Nor do we want to claim that we can provide a detailed scenario for the transition from capitalism to socialism or for the organisation of socialism. We can't. It's true that many people, in order to feel that socialism is a tangible objective, want an explanation about how it s going to come about and then be organised. But it's an explanation we can only give in a general not in an exact and detailed way. We cannot, for example — small number that we are now — know exactly how the millions of people involved in socially useless work under capitalism will switch to socially useful work in socialism. We can, and do, speculate on this to a certain extent and this is one of the things we have tried to do in our recent pamphlet, Socialism as a Practical Alternative. But the kind of thing we can be fairly sure of is that as the socialist movement grows within capitalism, those in the movement will be developing plans as to how work will be organised in socialism and will be ready to put those plans into operation once the political changeover from one system to another takes place. Of course, as Professor Rubel suggests, this new organisation of work will not be an overnight process — nothing important in human affairs ever is — but at least the social basis for it will be there. Nor will "human nature" be in any sense an obstacle since making socialism work will be in the practical interest of each member of the community and will therefore not involve an "altruism" that some may find it over-optimistic to expect from the human species.

Maximilien Rubel started by noting the slow progress towards working-class acceptance of socialism as defined by us. Then it transpires that he isn't really sure that our objective is worthwhile anyway! He raises supposed big difficulties in the operation of socialism and suggests, instead of free access, a money system which, he says, "has nothing in common with money as a source of profit but is used as a general unit of accounting". Other supposed difficulties are getting the workers to accept the idea of "voluntary work" (that is, the abolition of the wages system) and the problem of moving over to useful work all the great army of people at present producing armaments or doing other work necessary only to capitalism. He also says that we condemn money "in the name of an abstract principle which the average worker will certainly find difficult to grasp".

Taking the last point first, we do not "condemn money" on an abstract principle but on the basis that with the inauguration of production solely for consumption there is no useful function for money to perform. However, M. Rubel then proceeds to invent a supposed use for money in socialist society. How useless it is can easily be seen.

In socialist society it will be necessary to know how many tons of each kind of coal come from each coal mine, how many kilowatts of electricity from each power station, how many yards of each kind of cloth from each textile factory, and so on. This is easy to calculate and done already. And in precisely the form in which the consumer in socialist society will want the information. Maximilien Rubel wants to stick a price label on everything so that there will be a combined total of £x, covering prices of all the different kinds of products. For what purpose? It won't be wanted by the consumer and M. Rubel tells us it won t be a source of profit to anyone. So why waste effort doing it? And in M. Rubel's "socialism'. who will fix all the prices, including wages, the price of labour power? And on what basis? When M. Rubel says that the average worker finds it difficult to grasp the idea of abolishing buying and selling, has he considered the difficulty that workers will have in grasping his money that is not money and a price system that serves no apparent purpose?

These would indeed be real, in fact, insoluble problems for muddled bureaucrats who envisage operating socialism with a non-socialist working class, either by leadership, exhortation or by imposing it through dictatorship. But the essence of our case is that there can be no thought of achieving power to establish socialism until a majority, politically organised, have come to understand and accept the socialist case with all the responsibilities that socialism will entail.

Another issue he reuses is that four-fifths of the world's population are ruled by dictatorships and that, consequently, we are "trying to "make" socialists before the objective circumstances favourable to the establishment of socialism appear" We do not accept the implication of M. Rubel's statement, which is that it is impossible for four-fifths of the world s population ever to have heard of the socialist idea and impossible for them to reason out for themselves where working class interests lie. How does he suppose ideas of socialism developed in the first place and were propagated in Britain, at a time when all industrial political organisation and propaganda were illegal and savagely suppressed? And it can hardly have escaped M. Rubel's notice that the supposedly monolithic and impregnable capitalist dictatorships in Russia and elsewhere are beginning to be removed, as they were long ago in industrially advanced countries like Britain. France. Germany and Japan.

The future
We too would like to see a mass-circulation working-class daily and agree that a small-circulation monthly publication can’t hope to make a great impact. But luckily the development of socialist consciousness does not depend solely on the Socialist Party and its publications but more generally on the conditions people live under in capitalism and the need to change those conditions. Having said that, we'd like the Socialist Standard to be as effective, wide-ranging and wide-circulating a vehicle of socialist ideas as possible; so the more people who have already arrived at a socialist consciousness become part of the organisation propagating those ideas, the more members and the more resources this will give us to increase our circulation and move towards weekly and then daily publication.

Running Commentary: Used in evidence (1988)

The Running Commentary Column from the December 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

Used in evidence
Certain members of the criminal set will have greeted with hollow laughter the announcement of the government's intention to abolish the so-called Right of Silence. A fat lot of good it ever did them, they may well have mused; for they are the people who have suffered the fate of being "verballed-up" — convicted on a spoken admission of an offence ("It's a fair cop. guv" sort of thing) which they did not in fact make but which was the creation of an imaginative copper.

Of course under the new arrangements suspects helping the police with their enquiries will still be able to remain silent if they wish and are able to hold out against their interrogation. But at their trial the prosecution will be allowed to refer to this and to make as much of it as they can, inviting the jury to conclude that only the guilty keep mum.

This has some embarrassing implications for all politicians and especially for those in positions of power. Poor Robert Armstrong, in the Spycatcher trial, talked about being economical with the truth; now what about those who economise in that way by a sparing use of words — those who use phrases like "no comment" or simply ignore pointed questions in order to hide their culpability in some outrageous decision or incident?

For example, a little while ago it was revealed that when he was prime minister the late Harold Macmillan decided to suppress the report on the 1957 fire at the Windscale nuclear reactor. This resort to silence was used because the report laid out some facts about the true scale and threat of the fire and Macmillan thought that to publicise this would have been an embarrassing complication in Britain's relationship with America, which he saw as balanced on nuclear capability. Human rights and safety did not enter into it. How do we now judge Macmillan?

More recently Mrs Thatcher habitually responds with evasions to parliamentary questions which prove some Tory vulnerability and could not. she may feel, be answered without conceding a point to Labour in their need to show that they would make the better job of running capitalism.

If, every time a politician stayed silent or evaded a question they were incriminating themselves, they would now stand convicted of a mass of very serious offences against human interests. Their guilt would lie in their impotence to affect or improve society as they have claimed they could. It would be in their unrelenting efforts to deceive us into keeping this social system in being although it cannot meet our needs and is repressive and destructive of us.

Whatever they say — how much, how little — they cannot hide this awful reality. They cannot evade the fact of their guilt and it is high time that what they stand for was brought to account.

Home Secretary Douglas Hurd explained the government's plans to place restrictions on free reporting about events in Ireland by saying that it should not be possible for anyone to try to justify acts of indiscriminate killing and destruction.

He did not make it clear whether this will prevent future media obscenities such as the notorious Sun headline, which gloated over the ruthless killing of hundreds of Argentinian sailors on the Belgrano with the word "GOTCHA!".

At all events the policy — like quite a lot of what this government does — seems to be politically crude and ill-advised, an attempt to stifle what freedom of expression we have through an impulsive reaction to a problem. No minister can seriously believe that the sight of Gerry Adam 's cold features on television after the reporting of some IRA bombing would help to persuade anyone that the bombing could be excused. The very opposite is more likely to be true; for Adams — and on the other side the likes of Robinson and Paisley appeal only to the already-converted and tend to antagonise others.

Perhaps, twenty years after the Irish problem flared up again, the government is having to face the fact of its own impotence. Of course they are very free with the propaganda about the IRA suffering crucial setbacks, being on the point of final defeat and so on but there is plenty of historical evidence to show how futile it is for a power to engage in a prolonged struggle with a nationalist movement which has any considerable popular support.

In the case of Ireland, British policy is complicated by the rival economic interest and the manner in which these energise deep-seated bigotries — a feature not unknown in war. What is apparent is that since 1968 there has been no progress towards settling the troubles. Direct rule from London; occupation by British troops; internment; the abolition of juries; all have failed to have any real effect.

The only policy the British government have been left with is to step up the pressure on the IRA, for example by the Shoot to Kill tactic, by abolishing the Right to Silence and now by the media ban. They have also given considerable publicity to what they have done so that they appear to be effective when in fact they are not.

The persistence of the troubles, and the government's continuing inability to deal with them, provide evidence of how powerful is the conflict of interests in Ireland and of the bigotry there — which the British government has not been averse to using for its own ends in the past. This is a typical, tragic episode in this social system in which rival capitalist groups exploit the ignorance of millions of workers while politicians pretend to be able to unravel the mess. How the media behaves in this hardly matters; the realities are too clear and too urgent.

Maggie immortal?
If they had known in 1979 that Margaret Thatcher intended to remain as Prime Minister for ever or until she died, whichever is later, would the working class have been so ready to vote her into power? Her reign - for that is how she seems increasingly to regard her time at Number Ten — has been remarkable for a number of features. Typical of them was the style of her recent announcement about carrying on. when she said this was partly because nobody else was up to the job, which was a pretty damning thing to say about her ministers.

But this was inevitable, considering how assiduously Thatcher has weeded out anyone who posed as a threat to her. She has not sat easily with doubts or criticism from her supporters and now has a government which is likely to go down in history as a unique collection of toadies. She has turned on its head the once accepted theory that the most efficient government is the one which is most open to the stimulating effects of opposition.

Her administration has also been notable for its dismantling of the policy — which in some respects goes back to just after the First World War — that governments and local councils should have a decisive role in almost everything of social consequence. On that policy councils all over the country were enabled to set down housing estates, run homes for children and old people, clear up the rubbish and so on. The central state took control over industries which, to serve the interests of the British capitalist class as a whole, were most effectively run as an integrated whole. In that way were born the Post Office, the National Coal Board. British Railways and the rest. In the past Conservative governments were not averse to carrying through their own bits of nationalisation, or leaving untouched those which were already in existence, if they considered there was a case for this in terms of overall profitability.

Now that this is being replaced the former image of the all-caring, all-managing state has been replaced with the look-after-yourself, stand-on-your-own-feet image of privatisation. It did not seem possible, ten years ago, that a government would be able to inspire such a reversal of popular thinking but it has happened.

There is a danger that the mourning for state and council control will obscure some important facts. The policy was originally formed, not to serve the interests of the people who do all the work and produce all the wealth but to protect and improve the profits of their exploiters. The case for nationalisation was that it was a more efficient way of running a business like the coal mines and would therefore work towards safeguarding the profits of the industries which depended on coal. The case for the NHS was that the former fragmented services were not the best way of dealing with workers' illness, of servicing them into consistently productive and profitable employees.

Labour Party supporters will not appreciate the point, but from the point of view of workers' interests neither theory — state control or privatisation — has anything to offer. They are both methods of running a social system which cannot operate in our interests. Workers who are now debating the issue of privatisation should consider the actual experience of both methods, and draw the obvious conclusions. It would be nice if they did this before Thatcher finally goes, for the sooner the better.

Arrival and departure (1988)

From the December 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

Combe Hill is the highest point in the Chilterns and from the top you can look westwards down onto Chequers, the Prime Ministerial estate where Thatcher and the least despised of her cronies have plotted some historically audacious propaganda coups. In the Vale to the north lies Aylesbury, dismally landmarked by the gnarled finger of concrete rising through the haze. It is a much uglier town now, after the planners and the developers have left their mark, than it was when I was forced to make a brief visit there in September 1939 — although in any case I was too young and unhappy at the time to have been able to value any virtues it might have had.

The alleys, inns and duck-ponds which once characterised the town have been swamped now by what is called progress but which is more accurately known as profitable, uncaring investment. A few mediaeval bits, as well as some Georgian and Regency buildings, have survived. There are industrial estates and wedges of 1960s suburbia, all set down to attract Londoners; thirty years ago the theory of urban overspill was the brilliantly insightful solution to inner-city congestion. That concrete finger — known as Fred's Folly after its architect — was built during the time to house the administrative offices of the County of Buckinghamshire. In between a lot of housing went up during the nineteenth century and it was to these that my two brothers and I were evacuated at the start of the Second World War.

On 1 September 1939 I was in school, enduring a moderately tedious lesson, when the Deputy Head came to whisper some awful message to our teacher. For a while she tried distractedly to carry on but then blurted out the news that the German army had invaded Poland that morning. This had little effect on me, much less than the pervasive gloom of the Munich crisis a year before, when I had learned to pronounce Czechoslovakia and looked it up on the map but had then accepted with relief my mother's crass endorsement of Neville Chamberlain's assurance that he had signed up for Peace In Our Time. After all, great men like the Prime Minister, the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury did not say things which were not true. By the end of the war I knew better.

Over the next two days the government plan to evacuate the children of London was carried out. For some weeks we had kept on the mantlepiece the instructions for our part in this huge operation — how we should be labelled, what we should do, where we should go (or "report" as it was militarily put), who we should obey — and the list of basic clothing which had to be packed in a rucksack (suitcases were officially frowned on, on the grounds that a rucksack would allow us to run faster in an emergency). We all knew what that emergency was expected to be; for example our headmaster had assembled us one day in school to bark at us some astoundingly stupid advice on how to survive an air raid, based on a government publication which was widely circulating. We were urged to keep a smart look out for bombs, the better to dodge them; they could easily be recognised because as they fell they looked like silver arrows. The evacuation plan was that we should go with our schools, presumably to ensure the greatest possibly continuity in our training in patriotism, the acceptance of international rivalry and the ultimate glory of military success. As far as my family were concerned, the problem was that my two brothers and I attended three different schools. To keep us together while civilised life was destroyed all around my mother had to ignore instructions and send us all to be evacuated with the local grammar school, where my eldest brother was a pupil.

So on the morning of 3 September we took a numb farewell and climbed aboard a fleet of requisitioned London transport buses which trundled off north-westerly to Aylesbury (although we were not allowed at the time to know where we were going; at that early stage we had the neurotic secrecy of wartime thrust down onto us). We were resigned never to see our homes and families again, for if war came the silver arrows would lay waste to London within the hour. When we reached Aylesbury our labels were examined and listed time and again by intimidatingly brisk women, we were given bars of chocolate larger than I had ever seen, let alone been encouraged to eat (these were our "rations" — the bombing was expected to dislocate food supplies immediately), and taken to our billets. As soon as we could we had to make our way to the local park, where as we assembled in the calm afternoon one of the older grammar school boys told us that war had been declared that morning, at just about the time we were getting on the buses. "We're bound to win", he assured us cheerfully but my elder brother told us his parents were German so we could not be sure about which side he meant by "we"

Perhaps because we had no official place on that evacuation, my middle brother and I had about the worst billet in the whole of Aylesbury, with a couple whose awareness of childish needs was as stunted as ours of geriatric eccentricities. Mr. Gilson — stout, silver-whiskered, frock-coated — was in his eighties and his housekeeper Miss Marks — thin, faded, anxious — was in her seventies. I suppose they did their best, which was more than could be said for us, who immediately succumbed to treating them with either fear or contempt. Their childhood was long lost in time and we could simply not imagine ourselves ever being as old as they were. Between us and them lay decades of school, employment, parenthood, retirement — with all they meant in poverty and stress. Their house was deep in musty gloom, with electric light in only a couple of the downstairs rooms and food cooked — and flavoured — by a paraffin stove. Miss Marks, in a rare spasm of forethought, had provided a cake to welcome us. It was meant to be a treat but as we gulped it down, appalled and terrified at where we found ourselves, we began to cry. Miss Marks was ready for this — or perhaps she had been hoping for a chance to show some physical comfort to someone. She crushed each of us briefly to her bony chest while Mr. Gilson shifted and cackled in embarrassment from his chair.

Whether our eldest brother had done better was hard to decide. He was with Mr. and Mrs. Davis, who were in their forties and whose house exuded respectability with the smell of polish and the resentment of these kids from a poor London home who were so scared yet so careless of so immaculate and sterile a house. Mrs. Davis gave a new dimension to frugality, grimly rolling newspapers into tight ropes which she then knotted into knobs for use as fuel alternative to wood or coal. Whenever we called for our brother she eyed our grubbiness with a disdainful ambition (Mr. Gilson and Miss Marks never noticed whether we washed) and one day she humiliated us into a distressingly painful scrubbing of our faces, necks, hands and knees before she allowed us out again. Perhaps enforced cleanliness was the crucial indignity, for it was about that day that we decided to go home as soon as we could. Only six days after being evacuated we were back in that London suburb, emerging from the railway station to find the place unravaged by bombs, unsullied by gas. untroubled by German spies or saboteurs.

Our defiance of authority gave us a little short-lived local status as heroes but then other evacuees began to trickle back, in particular from Wales and the West Country, with stories of impossible billets among unwelcoming communities. When the air raids did begin we heard with some wry satisfaction that Aylesbury was bombed before our town. The West also suffered, as I saw later in the war when I watched from coastal sand dunes along the Bristol Channel the flashes and searchlight sweeps of the air raids on Bristol and the South Wales ports.

So why did it happen? What was the reason behind the traumatic uprooting of all those children? Did the bureaucrats fail to consult a map before they planned to remove us to what they told us would be safety? Did they overlook the range of the German bombers? Was it simply a case of ignorance or incompetence? As the war dragged on, another explanation asserted itself. Only twenty years after the previous War To End All War, with families all over the country still grieving for the dead of the great battles of Flanders, the British people were being cajoled into going to war again. The reputations of the politicians of 1918 were in tatters. How could their successors in government rebuild the collective, self-destructive hysteria so necessary to a war effort? To some extent, the British ruling class had ready-made propaganda for this to hand, when they abandoned their policy of trying to carve up Europe in conference with their German counterparts and instead went to war with them, in the huge cruelties of Nazi Germany, which they had so recently been so ready to conceal. But a war effort is best energised by acceptance of its immediate, threatening reality among the people who actually have to fight it. Of course at times the propaganda to this end reaches the absurd — but as we all know in war the first casualty is truth.

I have already mentioned some of the misinformation which was fed to us about air raids. There was also an official obsession about gas attacks. For example, street furniture was treated with yellow paint which, just in case our lungs and nervous systems did not tell us that something was up, would help us by turning green in a gas attack. In defence we were issued with gas masks, which we were supposed to carry at all times in a small cardboard box on a length of string. (“I saw Mr. Gilson today." sneered Mrs. Davis. "He had his gas mask on his back. He'd never manage to get it on in a gas raid".) In truth, as was generally acknowledged later in the war, the gas masks would have been useless and they were soon consigned to junk-rooms and cupboards.

We were abjured not to pick up stray packets of sweets we might find lying about in the streets, in case they had been poisoned and deposited from German aircraft (German aircrews were imagined to be especially ruthless and cunning in their will to get at all the women and children in Britain). We were instructed in the recognition of German paratroopers, who were expected to drop from the skies dressed as nuns. Towards the end there was a rather different deception — the plans for a Welfare State as reward for our vigilant compliance in British capitalism's war effort. It hardly needs to be said that this may all have been a waste of time. Would not the British working class, unmindful of where their interests lay and deluded that they had some common, national cause with their exploiting class, have done all that was needed of them without such elaborate and costly goading?

In September 1939 our evacuation was experienced as forcible deportation, so that we three kids felt we had to keep our decision to go home a close secret. In fact, at the last minute our intention was uncovered so we made a run for it and were chased part of the way to the railway station. It felt as if Britain was one huge prison camp and we were absconding. Years later we learned that our departure had provoked an angry panic, that the entire school had been joined with the local grammar school to sweep the countryside to find us and drag us back to a speechless Mr Gilson.

The episode gave me an unreasoning hatred of Aylesbury which endured until I had to go there again, in December 1950, to help film the carol singers in the Square. I saw then how distorted my view of the place had been by my childhood and the miseries of evacuation. By then Mr Gilson must have been dead and I had my regrets that I had not gone back to apologise to him for the bewilderment caused by our arrival and the panic left by our departure. I would also have liked to rummage through his memories, for as I recalled him he was by no means senile and he had lived through such times as the American Civil War, the Paris Commune and the slumps and trade union struggles around the turn of the century. By then I was absorbed with the society of the future and he was a precious link with the past. There had been something to say for Aylesbury, after all.