Friday, January 4, 2019

To New Readers. (1930)

From the May 1930 issue of the Socialist Standard

Our object is the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by, and in the interests of, the whole people. Let us examine this object a little closer.

First of all, what do we mean by common ownership? Do we propose taking over all the means of production, etc., and then dividing them up amongst the whole people? Of course not. Mills and factories, railways and steamships, are all too large and too complicated to admit of piecemeal division. In fact, one of the benefits capitalist production has conferred upon society is just this: that it has organised production on a large scale, though the process has brought misery to millions of workers and small proprietors. If we were to attempt to “divide up” existing wealth, therefore, we would have to take a step backward in development and revert to the primitive productive methods of our forefathers. And even if it were possible to take such a step backward, we would then be faced with two hopeless tasks: (1) To produce enough to satisfy the needs of the present huge population, without the productive, transport and other facilities that exist to-day; and (2) with private property of a primitive kind in existence to prevent the regrowth of huge amalgamations, such as exist to-day.

So for the above reasons, and a host of others, we do not propose a “dividing-up” policy. What we do intend is that all the means of producing and distributing the things we need shall be taken over and administered as the common possession of one huge family—the human family. In other words, that each will be free to eat, drink and clothe himself according to his needs, and that in return each will contribute his services to production according to his capacities and the requirements of the times. This will involve the organisation of production according to plan. That is, it will be necessary to determine roughly : (1) The production required; (2) the raw material and machinery, etc., required; (3) the amount of work required to ensure the necessary production; (4) the allocation of the population to the work required.

Now the early stages of this alteration will obviously not be easy; it will involve an internal readjustment that will be great or small according to the size and mental clearness of the majority in favour of Socialism. Once a real beginning has been made, however, the tremendous surplus of working energy society possesses will soon make itself plain, and the call upon each individual for necessary productive work will be small. As we have often pointed out in these columns, one has only to pause for a moment and reflect upon the appalling waste of labour to-day involved in useless competition, in advertising, in Army, Navy, Police and Air Forces, in pandering to the tastes of a luxurious, bored and debauched ruling class, and finally—apart from myriads of other ways—in the tragic comedy of hundreds of thousands looking for work, while hundreds of thousands are in want.

When the new society has settled down to production on the new plan of organisation there will be ample leisure for each individual to employ himself in ways productive of pleasure. To some leisure time devoted to invention; to others the devotion to the different arts will be the outlet for their superfluous energies. Others again will like to spend some time in travel and it is just here that the new arrangement promises most. Modern industry has so simplified production that it has reduced the part of each to a comparatively simple one, and the tendency in this direction is still rapidly proceeding. Hence, under Socialism, as long as there is sufficient man (or woman) power in a given centre, it will not matter how often or how rapidly people change from one place to another. In the early days of capitalism it was customary for the handicraftsman to spend a part of his training in travelling from town to town, gaining experience before settling down, hence the name “journeyman.” In like manner, in the future, a worker will be able to cover the whole globe, working here and there, and dull, drab routine work will disappear.

This is not an idle dream. Ponder upon it, and you will find it is possible, inevitable and the glorious legacy of ages of suffering.

Choose Your Job — And Get Rich. (1930)

From the May 1930 issue of the Socialist Standard

Lord Cowdray (better known as Sir Weetman Pearson), the Liberal engineering and oil millionaire, built up a fortune out of the shares in firms and combines, he “controlled.” When he died recently he left behind advice to parents and children which the Daily Express (February 20th) entitles, "How to Become a Millionaire.” Among the hints are the following:
  Be sure that the career you are embarking upon is going to be congenial to you, that you have an aptitude for it, and that you can put your whole heart and energy into it. Your business in life should also become your great pleasure.
  Work hard and be patient. Do your best each and every day.
Like most employers who become multi-millionaires, Lord Cowdray made it harder for the worker to become an employer because he increased the size of his business so largely that competition became more difficult. He did not leave any information telling the workers how they could choose congenial occupation in these days when Labour Exchanges say "take any job you can get.” "Work hard,” says the industrial Lord, but most of the workers who have slaved their whole lifetime are without any wealth. The Editor of the Sunday Express (Mr. James Douglas) admits that hard work under this system is ruinous to the workers. His words are :
   "Our working people live their whole life on the poverty line, some of them a little below it and some of them a little above it, but most of them precariously poised on it.”
Adolph Kohn

Proper Gander: Sold A Pup? (2019)

The Proper Gander Column from the January 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

If you’ve been ripped off by a cowboy builder or scammed by a fraudster, then BBC1’s Watchdog could sniff around and get to the bottom of the issue. Since 1980 its reporters have investigated suspect business practices and exposed con-artists through undercover filming and foot-in-the-door confrontations. As well as raising awareness of ‘consumer rights’, the programme has been instrumental in recalls of dangerous products, closing down ‘rogue traders’ and securing compensation payments. In doing this, it highlights the cynical, exploitative nature of capitalism.

The programme regularly hounds ‘rogue traders’, firms which leave the job badly done and the customer disappointed. One example featured was a car rental business which hired out uninsured and unroadworthy motors to unknowing drivers, another was a delivery company with a track record of damaging and mishandling its parcels. Deliberately shoddy work tends to come about when the motivation to make a fast buck overrides any motivation to do a job well. So, tasks are rushed, or cheaper, sub-standard materials are used, or corners are cut. The less time spent on labour and the less money spent out, the more profit for the owners. Of course, this approach isn’t just found among ‘rogue traders’ – it’s built in to any enterprise within capitalism. A company only tips over into being a ‘rogue trader’ when it pushes its luck by breaking the law or the contract about what it will do. Some use more complicated rip-offs than just short-changing their punters. Fraudsters trick people into parting with their money, whether by pretending to be from an official organisation or hacking into bank accounts.

Watchdog reported how getting money back after it’s been scammed away is far from easy when banks reject fraud claims, adding insult to injury. Banks aren’t keen to sacrifice some of their potential profits by paying out, so will place a high burden of proof on the claimant. Only a quarter of the money lost to fraud ends up being refunded to victims, a failing which Watchdog attributes to the Financial Ombudsman Service. This organisation investigates disputes between consumers and financial services such as banks, insurance companies and investment firms, with 250 cases dealt with each week. It’s funded by these financial services, so no wonder it appears biased in their favour. People unlucky enough to get scammed often lose out twice, once to the fraudsters and then to the bank.

Watchdog has a bone to pick with unwanted phone calls as well. ‘Cold calling’, also known as ‘direct marketing’, is another way that scammers find their prey, although the technique can be used by firms working within the law. It’s usually just as we’re sitting down with our dinner when we get a phone call asking us about the accident we were recently involved in or trying to flog us double glazing or arrange PPI compensation. Registering with the Telephone Preference Service is supposed to remove your phone number from the list which direct marketeers can use, although this doesn’t stop the most unscrupulous ones. Despite cold calling being widely resented, the tactic must work otherwise the companies wouldn’t carry on doing it. If they call thousands of people, it only takes a few to part with their money to make it financially viable. Older people are targeted as they’re seen as particularly vulnerable to being conned. Cold calling sums up how alienating capitalist society can be. It must be a rather sad life to sit in a blandly oppressive call centre somewhere, treating whoever you’re phoning as nothing more than an opportunity to claw in money, a fraction of which you’ll get back as wages. No-one aspires to work in direct marketing; it’s the kind of job which people fall into when they’re desperate for cash and don’t have other options.

Watchdog also draws attention to misleading marketing techniques. For instance, some online clothes shops have time limited discounts on their clobber. On their websites, the clock which counts down to when the offer runs out just resets itself after the advertised deadline. It might not seem such a huge problem if a cheaper deal is always available rather than only for a short time, but really it’s a cynical marketing ploy. The countdown is supposed to give us the fear of missing out if we don’t buy quickly enough. It’s a way of being pressured into buying. Again, the aim is to squeeze as much money from us as possible. All advertising is a type of manipulation, even if this method is a bit more deceitful than most.

While Watchdog highlights problems and doggedly works to improve things for people who’ve had a bad deal, there’s a limit to how much it can achieve. Its bark is worse than its bite. ‘Consumer rights’ campaigners can help shape policies and reforms, but they can’t stop the impetus to maximise profits by whatever dodgy means possible; it’s inherent in capitalism.
Mike Foster

For socialism (2019)

Book Review from the January 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

Socialism and Commodity Production’. By Paresh Chattopadhyay, (Brill, 2018)

Commodities are items of wealth that have been produced for sale. Commodities have been produced in pre-capitalist societies but such production was marginal. It is only in capitalism that it becomes the dominant mode of production, where goods and services are produced for sale with a view to profit. Commodities must be capable of being reproduced, and this includes the uniquely capitalist commodity of human labour power, the capacity to work which is sold for a wage or salary.

Because of the incidental nature of ‘simple commodity’ production in pre-capitalist societies, argued Marx, it would be a mistake to claim there had been a ‘simple commodity’ production society. It is capitalist society which has generalised commodity production. Under capitalism the value of a commodity is determined by the amount of socially necessary labour time needed for its production and reproduction. According to Marx’s law of value, generalised commodity production results in money as the ‘general equivalent’ in buying and selling.

In Marx’s writings the abolition of capitalism is the abolition of commodity production, and with it the money-wages-buying-and-selling-system, together with all the institutions needed to make it function, such as the state. He called this post-capitalist society variously social-democracy, socialism, communism, a free association, the co-operative society and more — but they all meant the same thing.

In Marx’s time there was a consensus on this view of commodity production. So August Bebel could write in Woman and Socialism (1879): ‘since in the new society there is no commodity to buy and sell … There is no money either’. Anybody who regarded themselves as Marxist would have agreed. However, the consensus broke down in the twentieth century as politicians pursued their own political agenda. In 1924 Kautsky wrote: ‘a socialist society would not be able to exist without a system of exchange of products’, that is, money, commodity exchange and the wages system. Kautsky was leader of the German Social Democratic Party and although he mouthed Marxist phrases he pursued policies favourable to a state-run capitalism. In 1917 Lenin asserted in State and Revolution that socialism was a transitional society between capitalism and communism. In this conception of ‘socialism’ the state, commodity production and the wages system not only continue to exist but in the years after the Bolshevik revolution their scope and intensity was extended throughout Russia.

In 1936 Stalin declared that the USSR was officially ‘Socialist’ and in a work published in 1954 spoke of ‘the necessity of commodity production under socialism’. For many the existence of commodity production and the law of value in ‘socialism’ was self-evident. The economist Oskar Lange could confidently write: ‘A careful study of Marx’s writings establishes clearly that he held the view that the theory of value applied to a socialist economy’ and ‘In a socialist economy the law of value continues to operate because production continues to be commodity production’. Unfortunately for Lange, Marx never held that view and here are just a couple of his repudiations:
 ‘Only on the basis of the capitalist mode of production do commodities become the general, predominant form of production’ (Capital, Volume 1).
 ‘Within the co-operative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products’ (Critique of the Gotha Programme).
Paresh Chattopadhyay does a good job of showing why and how the establishment of socialism means the abolition of commodity production. Included in this work are detailed analyses of so-called ‘Market Socialism’ and the ‘Economic Calculation Argument’ and much more. It is to be hoped that a cheaper and more readily accessible version will soon become available.
Lew Higgins

Hope (2019)

The Wood for the Trees Column from the January 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

The only good news these days, it would appear, is no news. The rise and rise of populist fascism; the ever-broadening gulf between rich and poor; the degradation of the environment; the multiplicity of wars; all of this seems to leave little space for hope. Is all hope an illusion or is it essential for life to exist at all? Everything we do is motivated by the hope that it will achieve the desired result; without hope we would do nothing because nothing would always be the result of both action and inaction equally. But without some evidence that human agency can achieve the aims hoped for, it becomes an empty faith. Ironically the hope that its absence will bring about a level of contentment courtesy of complacency and cynicism is nothing more than a paradox – the hope that a lack of hope would be emotionally and rationally preferable is also a hope. Unless we are clinically depressed it would appear that we’re stuck with hope; and that being the case is there any evidence that ‘the glass is half full’ rather than ‘half empty’?

Famously when Pandora opened her box (jar) and released all of the evils into the world only one thing remained, after she had hastily closed it again, and that was hope. Since that time hope has had a deeply ambivalent quality; was it one of the evils within the box or was it the only incarnation of the good? Were we saved from hope by its imprisonment in the box or does it represent a positive resource preserved to enable us to face the evils? The hope for immortality in heaven and that karma will right the wrongs done to us are examples of the evil nature of hope since they are both represent the negative and impotent ‘triumph of hope over experience’. But does the hope that socialism represents the redemption of humanity also fit into this category? Certainly the ‘culture industry’ of capitalism ceaselessly endeavours to convince us that it does. It is very illuminating that our culture readily embraces a supernatural parental deity but finds the idea of a mature, rational and democratic society completely crazy! Let’s have a look at the hopes incarnate within capitalist ideology.

Happiness, we are told, depends on our ability to find someone to exploit our labour so that he can join the Freemasons and send his children to public school; it depends on us producing everything and then buying a tiny portion of it back to create profits and a ‘thriving’ economy; it depends on two weeks in a year where we get to work on our skin cancer under a ‘foreign’ sun; it depends on chaining ourselves to debt and mortgages; it depends on finding a ‘significant other’ that will give ‘meaning to our lives’ etc. Those who hope for these things deny the overwhelming evidence that all they bring is alienation, disappointment, bitterness and anger together with an early grave. The hope for the creation of a community based on mutual love and respect rarely features in the ‘bucket list’ of contemporary humans. This is the triumph of hope as a consumer durable with built-in obsolescence.

Socialism represents the antithesis to consumerism and its promise that if you have enough ‘stuff’ you will be happy; it offers a world where meaningful and fulfilling production for and within an egalitarian community provides for our most profound human needs. This is what socialists ‘hope’ for and believe in; it is not a faith because with faith you have certainty and with certainty there is no need for hope. We are well aware of the alternative which is barbarism; the fear that, as happened in Europe 1600 years ago, we are entering another Dark Age. Once it was thought that God would end the world because of its violence and injustice; today it is the Earth itself that will reject us by heating up and making human life unsustainable. Our species only just avoided a nuclear holocaust and we might never be that lucky again; those who say they cannot ‘wait’ for the revolution and want to do something ‘now’ are just prolonging the agony by promoting anti-revolutionary reforms.

Many in the past have been convinced of the imminence of some kind of ‘Armageddon’ and our contemporary fears are, in some ways, no different to theirs because since the development of private property societies and their violent parasitic elites there has always been much more room for despair and cynicism than hope. But there have also always been minorities who have courageously worked for a better future driven by the hope that humanity will turn its back on the tribalism of property and create a global community worthy of our potential – socialism.

Beyond the Suffrage (2019)

Pamphlet Review from the January 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

Sylvia Pankhurst on Socialism’. Socialist Party. £1.50 (£2.50 incl p&p inland UK)

‘Full and complete Socialism entails the total abolition of money, buying and selling, and the wages system.’ So wrote Sylvia Pankhurst in a 1923 article ‘The Future Society’ reproduced in this pamphlet, an article which makes it clear that she viewed socialism in essentially the same way that the Socialist Party does.

Socialism and communism are the same, she says, and involve common ownership of the means of production, with production for use. Capitalism, in contrast, involves many people engaging in unproductive work such as banking. It also entails such institutions as pensions and the Poor Law, and the wages system makes the worker’s life precarious and leads to unemployment. She in effect opposed reforming capitalism, though she discussed this in a rather confusing way as setting up a half-way house to socialism.

In ‘Socialism’, another article from the same year, also reproduced here, Pankhurst emphasised the idea of abundance, and stated that the aim was not to put new rulers in place of the present ones. Capitalism limits production: for instance, agricultural land is turned into deer forests or private parks, and much land is left vacant. Production is further limited because only a certain amount can be sold at a profit. Workers who could be productive are unemployed, and factories are idle. In socialism, in contrast, the land and other means of production will belong to all the people. Production will be for use, and every effort will be put to supply essentials such as food, clothing and housing. What is produced will be freely available, with no money or exchange.

The pamphlet also contains a review, reprinted from the Socialist Standard (November 1999), of Mary Davis’s book Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life in Radical Politics. The review contrasts Sylvia’s position with that of the ‘official’ suffragettes led by her mother Emmeline (wrongly referred to as ‘Emily’), who advocated votes only for wealthy women. Sylvia supported universal suffrage and then, unlike her mother, opposed the First World War and was for a short while a member of the ‘Communist’ Party. She later abandoned radical causes and supported Ethiopia against fascist Italy.

The pamphlet’s introductory essay traces her political trajectory in a little more detail, including her work in the East End of London, her publication of the Workers’ Dreadnought and the various organisations she belonged to. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia led her to support soviets rather than the use of parliament and to oppose the CPGB affiliating to the Labour Party. For this she was fiercely criticised by Lenin, and she was expelled from the CP in 1921. She then went on to view Russia as capitalist rather than socialist, and in 1924 described Russian workers as wage slaves.

Sylvia Pankhurst ought to be recalled, not as someone who played a subsidiary but significant role in the suffrage movement or was an object of Lenin’s criticism, but as someone who saw through the propaganda of capitalist politicians and the Bolsheviks, and – for a few years at least – stood for the abolition of the wages system. This pamphlet should help to ensure that this aspect of her politics is not forgotten.
Paul Bennett

No longer invisible (2019)

From the January 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

In hi-vis vests France’s semi-rural towns get stroppy
Over the last few years French sociology textbooks have been preoccupied with the fraught situation of a new class of worker; workers whose discrete presence in the workplace, low participation in trade union activity and variable hours render them largely invisible to the society they live in. They are, for this reason, very expendable and easily exploitable. Another, much older, type of working class invisibility devolves from the very organisation of the great cities of capitalism: spatial segregations being a tried-and-tested method to organise political marginality. Many ‘sink estates’ in Britain, for example, are located on the periphery of the big cities and are largely inaccessible given the scanty coverage of transport networks dominated by the privately owned car. Small rural towns with declining industries are also increasingly isolated by the scaling back of public transport and so on. Invisibility is, in itself, an important political issue in modern capitalism.

France, of course, is distinctive in having massive council estates surrounding the larger cities; estates where major social problems can be concentrated and accumulated with little risk to the everyday lives of the more prosperous populations living in the prestigious centres. The largely immigrant population of the suburbs in France gained a massive upsurge in visibility during the violent riots of the early years of this century. For their part, the small towns seemed until recently to have managed to retain a surprising level of political tranquillity despite the gradual accumulation of distinctive social problems. Their material situation seems to have declined in the years following the crisis of 2008 and some of the more perspicacious sociologists have taken to contrasting the lively economic situation of the suburbs around Paris to the continual economic decline of the smaller rural towns, even those not too far from Paris. Poor access to medical care or to legal redress, distant social service provision, haphazard retail outlets and so on are problems that can be found in most rural areas across Europe, of course – in Scotland, for example (which shares a similarly low population density with rural France). The problem then is not why have workers in provincial France suddenly donned fluorescent yellow jackets, interrupted the flow of traffic and orchestrated noisy demonstrations in the distant towns? The real question is not what took them so long but how did they manage to do it. What and who is behind this yellow jacquerie?

The emergence of this movement into high visibility started suddenly in November when President Macron’s government rolled out its plan to increase the tax on diesel fuel for cars, motorbikes and scooters under the (questionable) pretext that this would eventually limit carbon dioxide emissions. In line with this thinking, motorists were supposed to oblige by selling their existing bangers and buying hybrid or electrical cars, cost being no excuse. The tax was also to be laid on the heavy fuels used to heat houses and out-houses in the smaller rural areas, presumably an invitation to install solar panels. But this was a tax hike which hit a population far more dependent on the private car than their contemporaries in the large cities. These are people who can rarely rely on the kind of cheap and efficient public transport commonplace in the large metropolitan centres. Financial capitalism, in other words, had finally caught up with those workers who had sought to avoid the off-putting compromises of life in the big cities by resorting to long-distance commuting to work from one provincial town to another. It was a tax bullet they felt they couldn’t dodge. To make things worse, it came on top of the disastrous emptying out of rural life which has accelerated over the course of the last two decades: Rural railway services are being run down for lack of profitability. Doctors are leaving for the bigger towns, hospitals are few and far-between, post offices and banks are closing, cafés, bars and restaurants are being boarded up. Those who remain are often the elderly, seniors or those who have — as we have seen – constructed an increasingly absurd life of long-distant commuting. For the elderly, in particular, the current rural set-up promises little more. Pensions were de-indexed a few years ago (thank you François Holland) and not revised upwards by Macron. Indeed, Macron’s hike in the Contribution Générale de Solidarité (CSG) took even more money from the poorer pensioners. Even if rural transport was available in the rural areas, many of the elderly would be in no position to afford it.

The revolt of these provincial workers owed a lot to the possibilities opened up by social media, of course. The internet allowed the distances between the smaller towns to be shrunk down. The militants used social media to co-ordinate road blocks disrupting the smooth flow of supply across the various départements, playing cat and mouse with the police. The result was chaos. Surprisingly, these roadblocks encountered massive support from motorists and from a majority of lorry drivers despite the inconvenience. Most of the ‘militants’ seem to be middle-aged with a sprinkling of young people including many single mothers. Many ‘activists’ are drawing a pension. There are many wage-earners though some are currently unemployed. There are also many self-employed craftsmen and small businessmen. To begin with exchanges with motorists and lorry drivers were good-natured although there were some violent scenes. This seems to have remained the pattern: that of a friendly movement of people who know each other and who, for the vast majority, are undertaking unconventional political activity for the first time. Here it should be mentioned that small town rural France is generally conservative. It votes for moderate candidates in elections and is rarely impressed by the noisy extremist leftism one finds in the bigger cities. No wonder everyone is surprised.

In response Macron announced a rise in payments to those on the minimum wage and in the income level above which pensioners have to pay the CSG and promised to increase taxes on the ‘digital giants’ Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple. Nothing fundamental will change except perhaps the people themselves; ordinary people on barricades or on road blocks. Or those who have (amazingly) found themselves on television arguing for a fairer taxation regime which pursues the wealthy and counters tax evasion. Then there will be those who have discovered the power they have to co-ordinate political activity via social media. Perhaps that’s one reason why Macron wants to increase the tax on Facebook.