Friday, January 18, 2019

50 Years Ago: The Common Market (2017)

The 50 Years Ago column from the June 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

It was no surprise when Harold Wilson described the British application to join the Common Market as a “great turning point in history.” Politicians, especially politicians like Wilson, are fond of such phrases; they know that while the working class have their attention focussed on the horizons of history they are not likely to be worrying so much about their immediate problems like frozen wages.

Of course Wilson is not interested in fundamental changes in history; a turning point from capitalism to Socialism would be altogether too great for him.

His business is to manage the affairs of the British capitalist class as a whole, and it necessary to sacrifice some industries in the interests of others.

This will probably be one result, if Britain joins Europe. Wilson expects British agriculture to suffer; “Undoubtedly,” he said, “the community’s policy will create problems for some of our smaller farmers.” But he also hopes for an “. . . enormous and growing market for our own more sophisticated and technological products . . .”

This rosy picture of Europe as an ever-expanding market takes no account of the fact that the countries already in the EEC are by no means free of economic troubles.

West Germany, for example, has just come through a sombre winter in which, although it was not as bad as many observers were expecting a few months back, unemployment rose from 216,000 in November last to 673,600 in February this year, falling to 501,303 in April.

The Common Market cannot solve capitalism’s built-in contradictions. Neither can it ease the problems of the working class. Whether it causes a rise in the cost of living, whether it is Wilson’s great occasion or Michael Foot’s disaster, the workers in this country will not need long to discover what their counterparts on the Continent have had to face. It will make no difference to them at all.

[from “Review”, Socialist Standard, June 1967]

I’m Putting on my Black Hat . . . (2017)

The Pathfinders Column from the June 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

It’s probably not the first question you need to ask about the practical workings of socialism, but given the recent panic about NHS trusts suffering ‘ransomware’ cyber-attacks you might be tempted to wonder what a future socialist society would do about a potential cyber-induced system shutdown. Leaving aside the fact that hopefully socialists wouldn’t be as daft as some of these trusts are alleged to have been in ignoring repeated warnings and not upgrading their obsolete operating systems, there is the question of why anyone in a free and cooperative non-market society would launch such an attack in the first place. In socialism there would be no money to extort from victims, and it seems difficult to envisage anyone being so zealously anti-social as to try to take out a hospital for the sheer hell of it.

But still we can’t be sure. On the face of it, socialism once established would be highly inclined to apply the same principle to its cyber systems as to any other of its systems, which is to say open and accessible, without locks, passwords, public or private keys, codes or captchas. Would this be asking for trouble? Maybe. Socialism in its infancy would be wise to take precautions against petty reactionary vandalism. But the way that mature socialism would work would tend to militate against vulnerability.

First, one of the reasons the Windows operating system is so hard to defend against attack is that its source code is kept secret, for business reasons, and therefore friendly ‘white hat’ hackers are kept out of the loop and unable to help spot flaws. Contrary to what Apple acolytes so often claim, the reason Apple rarely gets hit is not because it is superior but because it locks out all non-Apple software while Windows is an open platform, and because relatively few people use its desktop operating system so ‘black hatters’ are not so tempted to tinker with it.

Second, in socialism there would be no financial or other incentive to refuse or forget to update obsolete systems. If anti-virus software was deemed necessary, it would be state-of-the-art and automatically installed and updated. One of capitalism’s more minor stupidities is putting the financial onus on individuals to protect themselves and thereby society against digital or biological infections, where common sense would dictate making such protection free and universal.

Third, though it would make sense to standardise hardware to maximise repair and reuse, socialism could choose to adopt a diversity policy over software similar to agriculture, the idea being that monocrops spread plague whereas diversity diminishes their effectiveness. There isn’t just one way to write a program, there are potentially hundreds or even thousands, but capitalist competition tends to destroy all variants until only one is left. Socialism, to immunise itself, could in theory do the exact opposite and encourage as much cyber-diversity as possible, though such redundant complexity would not be without its own problems.

Lastly, there is the matter of widespread anonymity in the capitalist web, surely an affront to the socialist ethic of transparency. Hackers hide behind elaborate mazes of their own making, which socialism would have every reason to demolish. Such openness might make people nicer online too. An interesting study has shown that trolling behaviour is generated where two conditions are met: first, the online environment is hostile so that users feel antagonised, and second, the users are anonymous. Where there was no anonymity, the hostile environment still triggered some trolling but not as much, and where anonymity and hostility were both absent, a ‘virtuous circle’ resulted, where well-behaved peers encouraged good behaviour in turn (New Scientist, 13 May). There’s no reason to think that socialism wouldn’t do something similar.

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It’s alive, it’s ALIVE!
Sex dolls that make small talk, recognise your face and get jealous of your Facebook friends? Yup, they’re now on sale at around $10,000 (BBC Online, 15 May). That’s great news for agalmatophiliacs everywhere. Pygmalion eat your heart out. Of course, the dolls don’t have much of an emotional range or even very sophisticated vocabulary, but then that probably suits the buyers very well. Many of them view their acquisition in terms of a ‘relationship’. One says ‘I can go out shopping for her and look for clothes – it is like having somebody in my life without having to deal with making mistakes. If I like a hat on her, she doesn’t say that she doesn’t like it.’ No indeed, because of course you can program their moods for them, even choosing to allow them to be moody, angry and jealous. Oh, and of course you can customise their bodies too, according to taste. But social acceptability is another matter and it may be a while before the happy hat-buyer is willing to go out shopping with his doll instead of for it.

Ethically it would be less accurate to say that the jury is out than that the jury has not been sworn in yet. Last time we mentioned this horizon tech (October 2015) things were still very much at the prototype stage, but already some academics were crying foul and calling for an outright ban. Now one of them has changed her mind, deciding that dolls aren’t really the problem, we humans are, in particular our ugly habit (that is to say capitalism’s ugly habit) of turning us into objectified and disposable machine tools. Meanwhile other academics guardedly suggest such developments might be a good thing if they help lonely and unhappy people with little chance of a real relationship. Maybe so, but the plot thickens when you start talking about child sex robots. If none are currently in secret development, one wonders how long it will take capitalism to pounce on the possibility.

Here’s a happier thought – what if they start designing politician sex robots? We could program them to be honest, truthful, incorruptible, selfless and competent. Silly idea, we know. But at least then we’d be screwing them instead of them always screwing us.
Paddy Shannon