Monday, February 4, 2019

Proper Gander (at the movies): The Benefits Trap (2017)

The Proper Gander Column from the January 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

Film Review: 'I, Daniel Blake' director Ken Loach

The most important film of 2016 was undoubtedly Ken Loach’s passionate response to the government’s austerity measures, I, Daniel Blake. The eponymous main character (played by stand-up comedian Dave Johns) is a 59 year-old joiner living in Newcastle. The story begins with Daniel recovering from a heart attack. His GP has judged him not fit to work, and has signed the ‘med 3’ form (used to be nicknamed a ‘sick note’, now renamed in doublespeak as a ‘fit note’) he needs to claim Employment and Support Allowance sickness benefit. However, at the ‘work capability assessment’ which claimants have to undertake to continue to be paid, he is judged to have enough capacity to find work. Perversely, this decision by a ‘healthcare professional’ trumps that of the GP. So, Daniel (almost literally) half-heartedly looks for employment, but feels unable to accept jobs because of his GP’s advice. He makes a claim for Jobseeker’s Allowance, but struggles with the procedures for looking for vacancies online. In the job centre, Daniel meets Katie, who with her young children has been relocated from a homeless hostel in London to a flat in Newcastle. She is claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance, but her claim gets suspended (or ‘sanctioned’) because she’s late for an appointment. Without an income, she is forced to instead turn to prostitution and food banks.

The script was researched with the assistance of Department for Work and Pensions employees, who remain anonymous in the credits for fear of losing their jobs. The film doesn’t dwell on the reports of job centre workers having targets for the numbers of claimants they sanction, although it features staff being told off by a manager for being helpful. Other details in the film are familiar to anyone who’s tried to navigate the benefits system, such as the questions in the work capability assessment: ‘can you raise either arm as if to put something in your top pocket?’. Similarly accurate is the music heard when Daniel inevitably gets placed on hold when phoning the benefits office. What would Vivaldi think now if he knew that was the use to which his Spring would be put?

I, Daniel Blake has had a wider impact than Loach’s recent films. In November, the film’s pivotal scene of a spray-paint protest was played out for real when the words ‘I, Daniel Blake’ appeared on the wall of Exeter job centre. In a Prime Minister’s Question Time session, Jeremy Corbyn suggested that Theresa May should watch it when he was criticising the ‘institutionalised barbarity’ of the benefits system in relation to unwell claimants. Someone who hadn’t seen the film was Damian Green, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who nevertheless felt able to describe it as ‘monstrously unfair’. One of his predecessors – Iain Duncan Smith said ‘The film has taken the very worst of anything that can ever happen to anybody, lumped it all together and then say ‘absolutely, this is life as it is lived by people’. And I don’t believe that’. A DWP spokesperson chipped in with ‘This film is one person’s artistic interpretation of the benefits system. … It is a work of fiction, not a documentary’.

Loach has said that he finds politicians criticising the film ‘predictable’. In a comment to the Press Association, he said ‘If they don’t know what they are doing to people they are incompetent and shouldn’t be in government. If they do know what they are doing then they are not fit to be in government.’ Elsewhere, Loach has criticised the Tories for the ‘conscious cruelty’ of the benefits system. He’s a fan of Corbyn, but isn’t a member of the Labour Party, having previously backed Left Unity before it was eclipsed by Labour’s shift leftwards. He still calls Labour ‘the party of the working class’. While Loach may be a left-wing reformist, his film doesn’t openly advocate reforms to the benefits system. Instead, it shows the bureaucratic trap where many people too unwell for work fall (being unable to fall into the other trap of employment), and allows us to draw our own conclusions. The film is likely to reinforce the views of those who back reformism, but could equally be interpreted as illustrating how the whole system of which the welfare state is a part is unworkable. Once he has to rely on the benefits system, Daniel finds that it’s not really there to benefit him, and its rules and procedures seem designed to make it harder to maintain a claim.

At the age of 80, Ken Loach has lost none of the anger at how capitalism affects people which his previous films have expressed. I, Daniel Blake takes elements from his previous work, such as the title echoing that of My Name Is Joe, his 1998 film about a recovering alcoholic. And he hired a stand-up comedian to play the lead role, as he had with casting Chrissie Rock as a victim of domestic abuse in 1994’s Ladybird, Ladybird. Most obviously, I, Daniel Blake shares its target with Cathy Come Home (1966), both criticising the failings of the welfare state, and both having an impact beyond the screen. Loach himself has said that it’s ‘shocking’ he’s made a film in a similar vein to Cathy Come Home fifty years on.
Mike Foster

Must There be a Ruling Class? (2017)

From the January 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
Is the social philosophy of Marxism a ‘pernicious illusion’, a variant of a ‘utopian dream’ which must cost humanity dear whenever an attempt is made to realise it? In other words is the realisation of socialism impossible?
They say ‘Yes’
A powerful argument against its possibility has been advanced in the political sociology of Mosca, Michels and Pareto. Their arguments are impressive, especially when we remember that, writing before the First World War, they were writing prior to the establishment of modern totalitarianism, and at a time when optimism was as general as pessimism is today. The fact that their predictions have been partially confirmed by events gives them added weight.

Anyone who has had experience of modern politics would tend to agree with Mosca’s theory; it has a high plausibility and contains much that is true. It asserts that political power in actuality never rests upon consent of the majority, that irrespective of ideologies or leading personalities, all political rule is a process, now peaceful, now coercive, by which a minority gratifies its own interests, in a situation where not all interests can receive equal consideration. As Mosca puts it in The Ruling Class:
  ‘Political power always has been, and always will be exercised by organised minorities, which have had and will have the means, varying as the times vary to impose their supremacy upon the multitudes.’
The means vary from public myths and legal frauds to direct brutal force, depending upon the conditions of the time. Whichever side wins the masses who have fought, bled and starved, lose. Their ‘saviours’ become their rulers under the prestige of new myths. The essential content of minority control and exploitation remains despite the fact that mythical forms change. For Mosca this is a ‘law’ of all social life which can be demonstrated to the satisfaction of everyone except the ‘dull,’ the ‘pious’ and candidates for political leadership. It is a ‘law’ accepted by every political partisan as obviously true for other organisations but as a slander when applied to their own.

According to Pareto (in Mind and Society) differences between groups and conflict between their interests are always more persuasive than the harmonies which idealist philosophers discover more often than not by definition. Belief in the homogeneity of society is a fable for simpletons. Every society divides roughly into two classes – an elite which includes all who enjoy the fruits of recognised excellence in virtue of their strength, cunning, valour, wealth, social origin – ‘the lions and foxes’ – and a non-elite which comprises the rest of the population – the sheep. The elite, in turn, subdivide into a governing elite and a non-governing elite which mutually support each other. Like the poor, the governing elite we will always have with us. Whenever its members lack quality of vigour, will, discipline and readiness to use force in an emergency new members are recruited from the non-elite, those who prove that they are not sheep after all. ‘History is the graveyard of aristocracies.’ But we will always have aristocracies. Power may be taken in the name of humanity, democracy and freedom; it can only be wielded by a few.

Michels in Political Parties reaches the same conclusions, but they are based on a far more empirical study. Political power on behalf of any ideal, no matter how democratically conceived inevitable, involves the emergence of a leadership which in the (last analysis) controls the organisation. If it is defeated it is replaced, not by a functioning democracy, but by a new leadership. All democratic movements, therefore, are doomed by the ‘iron law of oligarchy’. According to this ‘the majority of human beings, in a condition of eternal tutelage, are predestined by tragic necessity to submit to the domination of a small minority, and must be content to constitute the pedestal of an oligarchy’.

We say ‘No’
We should distinguish between the descriptive analyses and the theoretical explanations these writers offer. After differences in political rule have been taken into account most of their conclusions are valid. Ruling parties are controlled by minorities, they do rely on lies, chicanery and naked force. These are the props of political rule. We couldn’t agree more. But in explaining these phenomena Mosca falls back upon a psychological theory of human nature as something given and fixed independently of its social and historical context. Almost every one of his major explanations and predictions involves an appeal to an original nature, seen as essentially unalterable despite its varying expressions. Political laws are derived from the unchangeable elements in the nature of humans. Mosca referred to them as ‘wicked instincts’. It is from this conception of original sin that his direct prophecies flow.

Pareto’s doctrine of the constancy of the residues – instincts, needs and interests – is summed up in the sentence: ‘The centuries roll by and human nature remains the same.’ Michels weakens the force of his arguments which are drawn from the technical indispensability of the division of labour in all political organisations by deducing that ‘the majority is permanently incapable of democratic self-government.’

An argument from human nature is invoked to support a sociological law. The analysis, although historical in form and content, is based upon a non-historical theoretical explanation. The sociological explanation is empty because it is devoid of history, that is, it is not based on theoretical activities of man but upon presupposed psychological qualities which give rise to these activities.

For the sake of argument we can grant their claims except when they speak in the future tense. Social problems are always specific, are always rooted in the concrete needs of a particular people at a determinate time. How they will solve these depends upon the conditions at hand – the knowledge they possess, for example, the knowledge of political and economic laws, the predominant social values and a number of other factors. The way people will act in the future will depend upon the problems they will have to solve and upon their state of knowledge, and not upon any unchanging nature. The problems themselves change with changing understanding. The problems facing the socialist are difference from those facing the non-socialist. Different problems require different solutions, thus different behaviour, different ways of acting, a different human nature.

It seems, then, that any attempt to find an invariant core of properties which constitute human nature will not stand up to sociological or historical analysis. We can only observe how people behave and act under certain conditions. What we are interested in is what people actually do and how they do it, and since human activity and behaviour is continually changing, the study of human nature must be a historical study. Historical traditions, habits and social institutions play a much more important role in political behaviour, and are more reliable in predicting the future than any set of innate impulses, residues, instincts or urges. By isolating the latter from their objective cultural setting, selecting from among them an alleged impulse to dominate, to be selfish, to fight, love or flee, the pattern of human nature can be cut to suit any political myth. This is precisely what the elitist theorists have done.

They have rendered a service in so far as they make us realise the need for devising institutional safeguards for the attainment and preservation of democracy. The most import safeguard being the replacement of the institution of private property by that of social property. These theories are pernicious in that they amount to a counsel of despair. If human nature is something unchanging and static then any social change is futile, since domination, oppression and exploitation will remain although masquerading in different forms and under different ideologies. Indeed Mosca and Pareto (Michels is in a different category, although a pessimist, he advocates struggle and social revolution) maintain that social revolution is meaningless. We cannot agree. We find the status quo impossible.

‘Bourgeois’ Ideology (2017)

From the January 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

One of my less endearing characteristics, according to some friends, is my condemnation of anything I find politically or culturally objectionable as ‘bourgeois’. It is a polemical convention that socialists sometimes use as a description of values and concepts we find to be provocatively antithetical. For non-socialists this kind of political shorthand can be mystifying and downright annoying. So what exactly do we mean when we use this most cutting and dismissive of critiques? Is there a coherent set of values and principles that underlies the constant drone of contemporary cultural commentary which represents a conscious attempt to control our response to events and ideas and make them conform to political norms?

Before continuing our analysis we must define what we mean by ‘bourgeois’. Historically it defined the capitalists who were to challenge the political hegemony of the king and aristocracy. After having been successful in their quest for power they now represent a ruling class. Today’s ‘middle class’ can be defined as members of the working class who are relatively a little more affluent than their fellows and who, more importantly, aspire to the position and values of the ruling class. In many ways it is this section of our society that has attempted a political defence of their masters in terms of a value system (ideology).

Throughout this article when referring to this ideology it is not a reference to any work done specifically by members of the bourgeoisie themselves, but rather to the efforts of those who seek to proclaim and defend their legitimacy. Bourgeois economics for instance, is rarely, if ever, the product of the class that bears its name but rather that of those who are blessed and sponsored by them (including mainstream media etc).

So what is the essence of this ideology? Perhaps there are three elements that are always present: (a) the deification of the market, (b) the need for authoritarian social structures and (c) the contempt for real ‘work’. Other bourgeois ideologists replace these three categories with: (a) rational economic exchange, (b) democratic security and (c) success as a celebration of ‘hard work’. This obvious dialectically opposed description of the same ideology is an illustration of what Marx called the ‘internal contradictions’ within the attempt to rationalise the ruling class’s power. As to which description is more relevant or which better represents ‘reality’ let us now revisit our categories in turn.

Adam Smith’s celebration of the ‘invisible hand’ in his work The Wealth of Nations was an important step towards the deification of the market system. It is both a supernatural metaphor for the economic mechanism of capitalism together with a quasi-religious admiration for it. In a way Marx also shared this admiration but only insofar as it made socialism possible. Marx systematically demystified capitalist economics and although he represented the climax of Smith’s classical tradition, subsequent economists have sought to distance themselves from his work. Why? Because he revealed it for what it was, and still is – the exploitation of the majority by a parasitic tiny minority.

Most contemporary economists work within the narrow paradigms of capitalist ideology that refute the possibility of any alternative economic relationship and, through ignorance, proclaim it as the ‘true faith’. As a result of their attempt to ‘rationalise the irrational’ most people are totally mystified and believe that these high priests of bourgeois ideology must have access to some profound secret that explains it all – when all they have, in reality, is their faith.

Given the stark contradiction between the social production of everything and the individual ownership of what’s produced it is not surprising that this tiny minority feel the need for the threat of force to be available to defend their wealth. This is the only reason for the existence of the state and its enforcers: the armed services and police. Bourgeois ideology depends on a phantom of ‘human nature’ as greedy, envious and violent in order to rationalise this ever-present threat. Enshrined in their ‘laws’ are the rights to defend their stolen wealth with violence and imprisonment. This authoritarian ethos becomes even more dangerous when, as periodically occurs, capitalism crashes and the subsequent chaos encourages people to blame immigrants and foreigners for their economic suffering, which in turn, enables the authoritarian character of the state to flourish.

Bourgeois ideology has no interest in whether ‘work’ is fulfilling, meaningful or even destructive just so long as it’s profitable. If, as socialists believe, the very essence of our humanity is our creative work and the benefits it brings to the community, then capitalism has rendered us ‘inhuman’. An employer once told me, when asked what motivated him, that: ‘I want to lie around on a desert island and never work again’. Such a sad superficial understanding of what brings happiness to humanity together with the obvious contempt for any kind of ‘work’ is an indictment of their ideological perversion of a basic human need.

This then, is the ideology created by the intelligentsia of capitalism. It is debatable how appropriate or informative the use of the term ‘bourgeois’ is for all of the intellectual and productive endeavours within capitalism, but given the above definition it seems always present to a greater or lesser degree. We have to bear in mind that socialism will be born out of capitalism and so some of its activities are potentially subversive and progressive. Although there is much talk of ‘bourgeois science’ it is hard to recognize an ideological element within mathematics or geometry; that particular debate has yet to be resolved. Of course the uses to which science is put in this benighted culture of ours are readily explained by bourgeois ideology but perhaps the ‘scientific method’ itself, however problematic, will aid and not hinder the cause of revolution.

Power, Overt and Covert (2017)

From the January 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

The concept of power is an important but contested one. For socialists the question is an important as they are engaged in a process challenging and ultimately transforming the existing power relations of society. How power is defined determines what is examined and what our conclusions about it will be. This article looks at how some key contemporary writers have approached the problem.

Writing in the 1960s, Robert Dahl came to the conclusion that while there was an apparent tension between equal access to voting rights and unequal access to power resources – such as ‘knowledge, wealth, social position, access to officials, and other resources’ –  a small elite did not dominate policy making and that a wide range of actors did take an active part in the process. Dahl based his work around study of political activity in New Haven, Connecticut, US and focused exclusively on the final decision-making stage of the policy process, where the actions of the various actors could visibly be studied. He measured success in terms of having a proposed policy accepted.

Bachrach and Baratz, in a later study, saw this as a shortcoming of Dahl’s work and argued that power can be exercised as much by keeping issues off the political agenda as by having a policy approved. For them Dahl’s focus on overt power failed to capture the whole picture, where covert influence – such as the press’s and politics ability to control the terms of the debate – played an important role. When an issue reaches the stage of political discussion a certain amount of obstacles have already been overcome.

Further criticism was raised by Steven Lukes, who looked at how the preferences of actors involved in the process of policy development were shaped and developed. For an issue to become a candidate for a prospective policy it has to be framed in such a way as to motivate sufficient interest and salience. Lukes argued that the way in which people think about an issue – about what is valid, realistic or fair – is shaped by the dominant values of their society and that these values therefore exercise a kind of latent power. For a certain set of ideas or values to become socially dominant a vast amount of persuasion and leadership must have already been drawn upon. Lukes was concerned with the broad value structures of society and how these shape outcomes.

Taken together these three outlooks can be seen as representing what Lukes in his 1974 book Power: A Radical View called the ‘three dimensions of power’. Dahl focuses on the visible vote winning and proposal acceptance, as one dimension. Bachrach and Baratz add the ‘none visible’ power of agenda setting as a second dimension of power. Lukes adds the third dimension, the most hidden aspect of setting the social norms and values that steer agenda setting. It is this third dimension that is of most interest to socialists, since socialism is not currently on the agenda and common opinion would still seem to be against it.

Many regular readers of the Socialist Standard may note the similarity between Lukes’ third dimension of power and Marx’s and Engels’ writings on ideology and false consciousness, and Luke’s would not deny this. The idea is that people do not act according to their real or objective interests because these have been clouded by false consciousness or a mistaken understanding of the facts. There are generally two objections to this proposition. The first is that the claim makes reference to some kind of privileged access to true knowledge; that someone, other than the person in question, is better determined to know their real interests than they are themselves. The second, more recent, criticism is that there cannot be such a thing as ‘false’ consciousness since there are multiple ‘true’ consciousnesses each generated and sustained by power. On this view, to impute false consciousness is mistakenly to believe that there even could be a correct view that is not itself imposed by power.

Lukes argued that it is possible to speak of false consciousness without claiming to have access to perfect knowledge. Our desires and beliefs are not fixed, as many of the criticisers of false consciousness imply, but can to a lesser or greater extent be changed through reasoning and reflection. The power of others can and does play a role in influencing our reasoning. We can be mistaken and misled in terms of what we desire and what we believe, and mistaken in the underlying beliefs that form these desires, so ultimately we can be misled about where out real interests lie.To deny the possibility of our being led astray is to say something highly implausible. We have many different interests and in some cases because of inaccurate or incomplete information we will not know what our real interests are.

Lukes gives examples drawing on what Bernard Harcourt has called ‘the illusion of free markets’ – the notion that markets are natural and state intervention or regulation is unnatural, that markets are inherently efficient and left to their own devices will achieve equilibrium. This has the effect of shielding from criticism the distributions of wealth that occur through the market and masks the role of the state and its regulatory and legal framework that is behind every supposedly free market transaction. So through these means you can have the example of unemployed followers of the literature and ideology of the US Tea Party who, though dependent on social security themselves, call for the end of government and spending and welfare so as to boost the economy.

Claims like these are depend on the truth of the assumptions behind them. It is possible to attempt to separate out ignorance of facts about the social world, from theoretical disagreement about how to explain it, and we can do this without making arrogant claims about our possession of the truth. If we make judgments about others, we must be able to adequately justify them, and the same goes for judgments we make about ourselves. To quote Lukes ‘To judge well –to assess rightly what policies or programs are in one’s interest –one needs, first, to have an adequate understanding of the status quo; second, to have a convincing view of what is (counterfactually) feasible; and, third, to judge whether the costs of transition to what might be a better situation are worth paying. Here too the recognition of these sources of fallibility involves neither an arrogant claim to privileged access to truth nor the claim that there is nothing for such judgments to be mistaken about.’
Darren Poynton

World Common Ownership (2017)

From the January 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

By common ownership we don’t mean state property. We are not proposing the science-fiction nightmare of all the Earth’s resources being owned and controlled by a single World State. We mean the opposite: that there should be no private property or territorial rights over any part of the globe. The Earth and its natural and industrial resources should not belong to anybody – not to individuals, not to corporations, not to states. They should simply be there to be used by human beings to satisfy their needs.

World Common Ownership is not a new concept. When in the 1970s they were discussing dividing up the seas amongst States and individuals in the same way that the land has been, the idea of ‘global commons’ was put forward. And you had, of all people, President Nixon talking about making the seas ‘the common heritage of all mankind’. The idea was that there should be no private property and territorial rights over them. The same has been proposed for Antarctica and the Moon.

What we are proposing is that this should apply to the Earth as well – that private property rights and territorial rights over any part of the planet should be abolished. This is the only basis on which we as the human species can set about arranging our relationship with the rest of Nature in a rational and ecological way so that the planet becomes a habitable place for all of us.

Due to the development of the world market economy, the relationship between humans and the rest of Nature has now become a relationship between the whole human species and the biosphere as a whole. Which is a point that some Greens overlook when they propose going back to local small-scale self-sufficient communities.

Just look at the sort of problems that have been discussed at the various Earth Summits that used to be held: global warming, tropical deforestation, the thinning of the ozone layer, acid rain. All these are world problems – problems that ignore the artificial frontiers which crisscross the globe, problems which concern the whole human race.

The calling of so-called Earth Summits and other meetings to deal with climate change are a recognition that there are no national or local solutions to these problems. But these meetings have been failures, and were bound to be, because solutions were sought within the framework of the present, profit-driven, capitalist world economic system. The leaders of states, driven by the system to engage in a competitive struggle for profits against each other, were expected to co-operate to solve ecological problems – problems caused by the competitive, profit-seeking system they support and uphold.

While it is clear that a question which concerns the whole world such as the possible consequences of global warming can be effectively dealt with only by unified action at a world level, it is equally clear that this is not going to happen under the profit system. The different states into which the world is divided have different – and clashing – interests. At most, all that can happen under the profit system when a global problem arises is ‘much too little, much too late’.

The profit system, the world market system, must go before we can tackle these problems in a constructive and permanent way. It must be replaced by a global system of common ownership and democratic control. We must organise to take the Earth back from those who currently own and exploit it, and must make it the common heritage of all.

The Blurring Boundaries of Political Spending (2017)

From the January 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
With the increase in inequality, the influence of corporate political spending is stronger than ever.
In the current free market framework of global politics, regulation is perceived by capitalists as a barrier between big business and an increased accumulation of assets. These free market principles have been applied to many aspects of life, from the deregulation of the financial industry towards the end of the 20th Century, to the increasingly neoliberal state of political finance regulation. In the United States particularly, a common trend has been occurring with regards to political spending. In 2010, the United States saw a Supreme Court decision that would change the role of money in politics by deeming caps on political spending to be ‘unconstitutional’. This was a decision born out of the misuse of the 14th Amendment of the American Constitution and, having had a significant impact on political spending, corporations are now playing an increased role in influencing governments to be capitalist- friendly.

The 14th Amendment and Corporate Personhood
In 1868, the 14th Amendment was added to the American Constitution, with its purpose being to bring equality to all citizens of the United States. Putting this into context, the amendment was made in the wake of the American civil war, and its intention was to protect newly freed slaves from further persecution. Whilst this amendment was added to protect the people, the rise of capitalism as the dominant ideology in the United States has led to this legal construct being twisted to suit the needs of corporations. Capitalists argue that, as corporations are formed and exist within the confines of the United States, they should be entitled to the same constitutional rights as people. This idea has remained in the psyche of the United States since the addition of the 14th Amendment and still holds influence today, with the Supreme Court case of Citizens United vs The Federal Election Commission being based around this theme.

Citizens United vs The Federal Election Commission
This was a Supreme Court case held in response to legislation restricting corporate funding for political advocacy adverts during electoral periods. After deeming Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 documentary to be a smear campaign against President Bush in 2004, conservative non-profit group Citizens United produced a documentary named Hillary: The Movie in the run up to the 2008 primaries. This film contained clips from interviews with major political figures, in which they were highly critical of the career of Hillary Clinton. The Federal Election Commission took Citizens United to the Supreme Court as a result, stating that the documentary’s sole purpose was to influence the opinion of the public. However, Citizens United won the case, with the Supreme Court ruling that caps on political spending violated First Amendment rights to free speech, essentially rendering defunct the legislation for this.

Quid Pro Quo Politics
Whilst the Supreme Court verdict suggested that spending money comes under the remit of the First Amendment rights to free speech, this should not be the case. In capitalist societies, where the sole purpose of production is to accumulate as many assets as possible, big business will only spend money if there is a guarantee of returns on their investment. This causes an issue to the wider public as, with the mammoth increase in political spending since this decision, governments are pushed into the arms of corporations. Noam Chomsky is clear about this sentiment when he says “Concentration of wealth yields concentration of political power”, as the continued influence of money has blurred the boundaries between politics and business.

Brexit Campaign
This theme of spending money to influence political issues has not just been a phenomenon in the United States. In this year’s EU Referendum, just over half of the donations given to groups from both sides of the debate were given by 10 individuals. Breaking down the totals of the top 10 donors, £6.9 million was donated to the Remain campaign, with £9.5 million to the Brexit camp. Thus, the ball has been removed from the court of the wider public when important political decisions are being made, with the tide now very much with the wealthiest individuals in the world. This is a damning statement, particularly when considering that the wealthiest 1 percent of individuals in the world now own at least as much as the rest of the 99 percent combined. It’s a worrying thought that, with enough money, anyone can get what they want. Just ask Mr. Trump.
William Horncastle

Pathfinders: How the Rich Suffer With Their Piles (2017)

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

The news late last year that Buckingham Palace was to receive a makeover to the tune of £369 million of ‘taxpayer’s money’ was greeted with outrage by that section of the press which thinks it will sell more papers by simultaneously fawning over celebs and royals while also striking populist poses against wealth and privilege.

As we’ve often said in this journal, this taxpayer’s money may appear to come out of workers’ wages, but really it bypasses those wages altogether and flies directly from the employer to the Treasury. Thus it is not with outrage but with equanimity that socialists look upon the prospect of the capitalist class being forced to rewire and replaster Brenda’s Royal Shed at their collective expense. Let them buy the old trout a gold roof while they’re at it, and a new Xbox with the latest Call Of Duty and Grand Theft Auto pre-loaded, if it makes her happy.

Buck House isn’t the only stately pile in need of remedial work. Many great houses in Britain are in a decrepit state as their former lordly owners pissed their inherited wealth up against a wall and left the bills to their descendents, who are now unable to keep up with the upkeep. Many have thus been donated to (or dumped on) The National Trust, though being a business like any other the NT isn’t keen on taking on the huge repair bills these estates bring with them.

One grand mansion with hidden problems is Highclere Castle, the Hampshire location of TV’s Downton Abbey and lately doing a roaring trade in visitors. These visitors have to pay handsomely to see the house, and extra to see the Egyptian collection in the cellar, so they will probably assume that the Carnarvons who own the place are running a pretty lucrative racket. However Wikipedia reveals what the Highclere website doesn’t, which is that the milords are stuck with a £12 million repair bill, that all but the ground and first floor, and at least 50 rooms, are uninhabitable, and that the owners have been living in a cottage in the grounds for the past seven years. A similar state of affairs can be found at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, currently swathed in scaffolding and where rooms are closed to visitors not because they are private spaces for the owners but because they are derelict. Likewise Castle Howard in the Yorkshire Dales, still unrecovered from a devastating fire in 1940 and now suffering serious water damage, with the south-east wing an empty shell. Go to just about any large stately home in Britain and talk to the staff, and you’ll hear variants of the same tale of woe.

Some visitors who tour these gorgeous estates with their manicured lawns, sophisticated collections, exquisite furniture and priceless paintings will likely find themselves sympathising with the ‘plight’ of the current owners, whom they suppose to be as sophisticated as their surroundings. Socialists however would view this as a form of Stockholm Syndrome. The rich are nothing to look up to, and indeed, when you look at their histories, rather the reverse.

At Blenheim Palace, known to at least one unhappy wife as ‘The Dump’, the 9th Duke of Marlborough inherited a bankrupt estate and coldly married into the American Vanderbilts in order to siphon their money into it. The Vanderbilts, dazzled at the prospect of buying a real English title, locked up their daughter Consuelo until she consented to the marriage. The Duke thereafter treated her so appallingly she later divorced him, and his second wife dined with a loaded revolver next to her plate. Eventually he had the water, gas and electricity turned off to force her out of the Palace.

Why therefore should socialists care a jot about the condition of these estates, whose existence continues to rub our collective noses in our own poverty while celebrating the crass self-interest and obscene luxury of the exploiting class?

Well, we should care, because in the future socialist society, these places are going to belong to all of us as part of our collective world heritage. You might imagine that country houses, castles, palaces, stately homes and genteel manor houses are not particularly numerous, but in fact they’re everywhere. In England alone, and not including those in a state of ruin, there are around 2,700. Many have been converted for charitable uses or as museums, but a great many are still in private hands. Think what we could do with them.

Call it educational or call it art, but heritage matters. Nobody in their right mind would destroy the Pantheon in Rome simply because its first owner was a Roman emperor with despotic powers ruling a slave empire. Nobody would pull down Versailles just because Louis XIV was an autocratic ruler with a large ego. Unless revolutionaries are seized with some insane Mao Zedong-like mania for destroying all the art and culture of pre-socialist times, people are going to want these towering hulks to be in reasonably good nick. So if you love architecture or sculpture or you just like poking round posh people’s houses, you don’t need to feel you’re betraying any socialist principles. Relics of oppression they may be, built on misery and blood and injustice without a doubt, but still beautiful works of art for all that. And once we’ve got socialism, you won’t have to gyp at the price of admission.
Paddy Shannon

50 Years Ago: Rhodesia (2017)

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

In the Commons debate on Rhodesia on December 8 last, Harold Wilson said:
  ‘The present situation in Rhodesia faces Britain with the greatest moral issue she has had to face in the post war world.’
On the same day in the House of Lords, Tory Lord Ferrier was assuring the government:
  ‘I and millions like me could never be persuaded to open fire on our kith and kin in Rhodesia.’
In Salisbury, Ian Smith has said all along that he stands for a settled, civilised way of life against barbarism.

In other words, however much both sides may disagree on other matters, they are at one in presenting their struggle with each other as a moral issue.

There is of course nothing new in this, although it is something of a mystery, why politicians think it is always necessary. There is no evidence that working class support for capitalism would decline, if they were told the truth about its power struggles.

Capitalism has many conflicts, all of them basically economic in origin. There is no morality involved in them, no human interests, no distinct division between right and wrong.

Wilson’s professed moral indignation against Rhodesia, for example, does not at present extend to South Africa, which has never made any secret of its support for the Smith regime.

The reason for this is plain. South Africa is too valuable a trading partner for Britain’s Labour government to want to upset.

The African states in the Commonwealth may protest at this, and they also use moral arguments to support their case.

Behind all this fog of confusion and official lies, the processes of capitalism grind inexorably on. They recognise no morality and the only issue they are interested in is a healthy balance sheet.

(Socialist Standard, January 1967)

Rear View: No gods! No masters! (2017)

The Rear View Column from the February 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

No gods! No masters!

‘Creationist Ken Ham is very angry at the Washington Post for incorrectly reporting that he believes dinosaurs were wiped out by the biblical flood described in the story of Noah’ (, 1 January). According to Ham, they joined Noah on his ark and the Post should get their facts right! The standard atheist approach to such nonsense is to use real facts. Against the belief in an all-knowing/loving/powerful god/s, an atheist is right to wield facts such as humans are 90 percent bacteria, see less than 1 percent of the light spectrum , have sub-optimal plumbing (breathing, eating, excretory and reproductive) and are programmed to die. The atheist could reasonably add that at least 40 percent of animal species are parasites, and over 99 percent of all species that ever lived are extinct. Socialists, unlike atheists, fight against Creationists like Ham and clerics in general not because of their belief in God but because priests of all religions have been, in all phases of history, the allies of the ruling classes in keeping the masses bent under the yoke. Churches have crowned the peoples’ oppressors, and crucified our forebears. New Age religion is merely the old repackaged in a new, modern form. Rather than obeying a priest, they choose the form of our own mental domination and the flight from reality into a magical world.

Universal Freedom

The concluding paragraph of Money for nothing: What universal basic income means for you reads: ‘I realize that to some, basic income sounds like a Black Mirror episode with millions of people sitting on their couches all day, bored, listless, and up to no good. But based on what I’ve read so far, I believe that if it’s handled correctly, it could be a positive step forward in the age-old journey to realize our true human potential’ (, 4 January). But, of course, the capitalist class have enjoyed for centuries an unearned income – money for nothing! – that is anything but basic. For the 99 percent UBI is nothing more than a redistribution of crumbs, promoted by reformists of the left and right.

Looking backwards

When it comes to predicting the future, economists are marginally better than clairvoyants but far worse than meteorologists. ‘It is official. Figures for the past six months show that the forecasts of instant Brexit catastrophe from the Treasury and the Bank of England were garbage. The Bank’s economist, Andrew Haldane, admitted yesterday that it was a repeat of the failure to predict the 2008 crash. It was another ‘Michael Fish moment’, when meteorologists failed to forecast the 1987 hurricane’ (,6 January). 85 years ago we published the pamphlet Why Capitalism Will Not Collapse. The economic outlook back then appeared even worse than it is today: ‘We are in the midst of a crisis that is world-wide. Every country feels its ravages. Millions and millions of workers are unemployed and in acute poverty. Everywhere there is discontent and a feeling of insecurity, and the prestige of even the strongest of governments has been shaken. All sorts of emergency measures have been hastily adopted, but the depression still continues. Working men and women who normally ignore such questions, are now asking why the crisis has occurred, what will be its outcome, and whether it could have been avoided. In some minds there is a fear, and in others a hope, that the industrial crisis may bring the present system of society down in ruins, and make way for another.’ We warned those who said that capitalism would imminently collapse that their claim was groundless. History has vindicated this position. There will be no need for economists in a socialist world where production is for use not profit and distribution according to self-defined need rather than having sufficient money. They along with former bankers, expropriated capitalists and tax consultants will join clairvoyants, homeopaths, lawyers and priests looking for something more meaningful to do with their lives.

Dustbin of history

‘One Nation candidate Shan Ju Lin has labelled gay people ‘abnormal’, saying that they ‘should be treated as patients’ and ‘need to receive treatments” (, 7 January). Unscientific prejudice like this serves the interests of the status quo by dividing our class and delaying the socialist revolution.

Views On The News (2017)

The Proper Gander TV column from the February 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

When Gogglebox’s producers came up with the show’s format, they’d found the Holy Grail of television shows: cheap and straightforward to churn out, but still massively popular. Netting four million viewers is quite good going for a programme that any of us can make just by putting a mirror next to our own TV. It’s no surprise, then, that a production company with a dearth of original ideas has nicked Gogglebox’s format in the hope of also nicking some of its viewers. The result is BBC2’s Common Sense, which features ‘real people’ (as opposed to what? Surreal people? Androids? Holograms?) having contrived chats about the previous week’s news stories with a camera shoved in front of them while Ruth Jones narrates. And that’s it.

The participants have been picked for ‘their sharp wit and humorous take on life’, but also reflect the stereotypes of ‘real people’ which the media easily falls back on. So, we have Cockney wideboys, cuddly grannies, rosy-cheeked butchers and poshos in pin-striped suits, although others, thankfully, are less obviously chosen to represent a tick-box group, such as the male Mancunian / Vietnamese nail technicians. They’re all there, really, just to open their mouths and let the words fall out.

In the first episode, we hear their views on populism (mostly bewilderment, but defined by one of the pin-striped suited poshos as ‘a word used by people who hate democracies functioning effectively’), climate change (‘we’ve got icebergs floating all over the place now’), the Queen being briefly mistaken for an intruder in Buckingham Palace’s gardens (‘if he had shot her . . .  I bet they would have made a court case out of it’) and the Prime Minister taking yonks to say anything more substantial about Britain leaving the European Union than ‘Brexit means Brexit’ (‘people are calling her flippin’ Theresa Maybe’). There’s a healthy cynicism about Tony Blair attempting to ‘worm his way back into British politics to make up for Iraq’ alongside trying to ‘smarm his way’ into being the ‘President of the European Union, among other things. If not, he wants to be God’. Inevitably, Donald Trump’s tweets come up, and whether he’ll take notice of any of his advisers brave enough to ask him to tone his mad rants down (‘Otherwise they’ll shoot him’).

Most of the participants, having probably watched Gogglebox, know the score and realise that witty banter is the order of the day, even if they don’t always deliver. Their chats are edited down into short exchanges, with the assumption that us viewers have the attention span of a bluebottle. Random sentences are punctuated by annoying plinky-plonky music, which somehow sounds like the producers sneering. And rather insultingly, the characters are introduced in exactly the same way as those in Little Britain are – with them looking at the camera while it pans slowly across them as jingoistic music plays. As the reviewer in the Telegraph asked, are we supposed to be laughing with or at the participants?

Common Sense reminds us that television has a condescending, awkward way of presenting ‘real people’ – i.e. any of us – on screen. The smarmy title gives it away, with the snobbish connotations of the word ‘common’. It’s as if the producers are looking at ‘real people’ from outside, like they’re staring at goldfish in a tank and prodding the glass every now and then. An extreme example of this tendency is, of course, the odious The Jeremy Kyle Show, which turns desperation into a spectator sport. And when ‘real people’ dare to think they’ve got talent and try their luck on The X-Factor and its ilk, those that can’t get remoulded into what’s likely to sell gig tickets and downloads get their dreams chewed up and spat out in their faces. All these shows exploit as well as present the ‘real people’ who appear on them. Even though they ostensibly give us proles an opportunity to express ourselves, they also reveal bourgeois attitudes about the working class. It’s not that programme-makers are necessarily deliberately setting out to do this; they’re just making a living by producing what the market supposedly wants, like the rest of us. However, the patronising whiff around series which ‘showcase’ ‘real’ or ‘ordinary’ people does make you wonder if they’re produced by people who think they’re a cut above. At least the internet gives many of us the opportunity to broadcast ourselves if we want to, in whatever way we prefer, without television’s distorting lens. If we want to make a YouTube video giving our opinions on the link between earthquakes and fracking we can, and equally we can make one listing our favourite Harry Potter books. Or, if we really want to engage with ‘real people’s’ views, we could just as well switch off our screens and start a conversation ourselves.
Mike Foster