Friday, February 8, 2019

New realism — new unionism (1988)

From the January 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

The trade union movement is being afflicted, we are told, by a "new realism". What does this term mean and how does it differ from the "old realism" which previously affected them? To have a clear understanding of this change we must first of all examine realism in the context of present day society. To be a realistic member of capitalist society, whether you are a trade unionist or any other member of the working class, it is essential that you have a blinkered and distorted vision of the possibilities for the future. In other words, to be a realist you must see capitalist society as an inevitable feature of human life. Any person who puts forward the view that the earth's resources should be owned and consciously and democratically controlled by and in the interests of humanity, anyone who believes that the purpose of production should be to produce useful items to meet peoples' needs rather than for profit is of course being unrealistic. The argument that, freed from the present constraints of minority class ownership of wealth and production for the purpose of exchange, society has the potential to produce directly for use, is of course quite unrealistic. The evidence all around us is that present day society's ability to produce is outstripping a system confined to production for sale. Hence we have such contradictions as "over-production" of food for the market alongside millions of people, worldwide, dying of hunger quite unnecessarily and the vast majority living sub-standard lives. In addition, modem technology, which could be used to further increase productive capacity and free people from dangerous and/or soul destroying work, in many cases cannot be fully applied. Such evidence you must of course ignore for to draw the conclusion from such everyday experience that we could create a sane society will result in at best being labelled a utopian dreamer and at worst a dangerous subversive. Such are the constraints of being a realist in capitalist society.

If you want to remain a realist, while it is acceptable to wish to reform society, you must remember there are limits to how far you can go. Therefore, as a trade unionist, while under certain circumstances it is feasible to ask for higher wages or improved conditions. you must always take into account the needs and right of your employer to make a profit out of your labour. Remember, as a realist you have accepted capitalism — with production for profit as its golden rule — as inevitable so you must surely realise that if there is a conflict between your need for a decent standard of living and your employer's need for profit then, as a realist, you must accept that profit must take priority. Then we have those totally unrealistic people who believe that we can end the current class relations of production where the producing non-owners of the means of production are economically forced to sell their ability to work to the owners in return for a wage or a salary in order to live. Along with common ownership of the means of production and the replacement of profit by need and usefulness, as being the priority behind production, these unrealistic members of society argue that people could voluntarily give their skills and abilities to society and have free access to all goods and services on the basis of self determined need. To such people we realists must point out the unrealistic nature of such demands. They are after all based simply on the actual experience of the world around us as it is the useful majority, the working class, which produces all the goods and provides all the services that keep society going. So once again, as a realist, such everyday experience must be ignored for surely it is obvious to us all that a society which is organised around the domination of a small useless minority over the useful majority is natural, inevitable and unchangeable?

As trade unions are essentially an integral part of capitalist society it follows that as institutions they must accept that society, with all its inherent features, as inevitable. The point is, before elaborating on the new realism of trade unions, to look at how their previous mode of realism affected their behaviour.

It is quite clear that a main complaint of the trade union leadership with the present government is the latter's refusal to give the unions a role in the management of British capitalism. In the past the trade union movement had established a reputation for working with, and being accepted by, governments of various shades. In the late 1930s the TUC were gradually drawn into the consultation machinery which accompanied state intervention in industry. Thus the textile union became involved in the task of reorganising the cotton industry and the TUC were consulted on the appointment of representatives to advise the government on the fishing industry by the legislation of 1935 and 1938. In 1938-9 the TUC general council were asked by the National government to help to prepare its plans for war mobilisation and air-raid precaution. That the trade unions fully supported the Second World War and saw it as a war to defend democracy can be seen by this statement issued by the Trades Union Congress in September 1939.
  The defeat of ruthless aggression is essential if liberty and order are to be re-established in the world. Congress, with a united and resolute nation, enters the struggle with a clear conscience and steadfast purpose.
After the Second World War the trade unions supported the newly elected Labour government, many of its leaders and members mistakenly believing that its policy of widespread state ownership would radically alter the structure of capitalism. Of course little or nothing changed and Attlee's government pursued policies of wage restraint in both 1948 and 1949 which the official leadership of the union movement failed to oppose. During the period 1948-50 that same government used troops to break strikes in the London electricity power stations. in London and Bristol docks, against gaswork maintenance workers and in strikes at Smithfield market. However involvement in the government of capitalism did not end with the Conservative Party's election victory in 1951 as this statement made by the General Council of the TUC in that same year makes clear.
  Since the Conservative administration of prewar days the range of consultation between Ministers and both sides of industry has considerably increased and the machinery of joint consultation has enormously improved. We expect of this government that they will maintain to the full this practice of consultation. On our part we shall continue to examine every question solely in the light of its industrial and economic implications.
It was with the election of the 1974-9 Labour government that the trade unions were last deeply involved in helping to administer capitalism. In the period 1974-7 they agreed to a policy of wage restraint known as the Social Contract. This agreement was based on the mistaken belief that prices could be held down by limiting wage increases. In reality the agreement had little effect on prices.

In fact price levels rose between the return of the Labour government in February 1974. and February 1977 by 71 per cent. However policy did have a drastic effect on wage levels. According to figures provided by the Treasury, the purchasing power of the take home pay of workers on the average wage fell by 12 per cent between December 1974 and February 1977. (The Times 16 May 1977).

So a realism confined to capitalism is nothing new to the trade union movement. Now they are faced with the twin pressures of a prolonged economic recession which has resulted in declining membership and influence and a Conservative administration which has fostered a hostility to the kind of collective organisation and action that trade unionism entails. It is in this context that the "New Realism" has to be seen.

As trade unions accept capitalism as an inevitable way of life, they lack any analysis of the root causes of the problems faced by working class people. What is also lacking is any understanding of why workers develop the kind of ideas that they do. In this situation unions are forced along the road of reacting to surface appearances. It is on the basis of this mistaken analysis that trade unions are seeking to appeal to what they believe is a new breed of workers — a new "affluent" group of workers who aspire to a different set of values and attitudes compared with what is seen as the "traditional" working class. This group of workers, it is believed, have fundamentally different interests as they might "own" their homes, have a new car and even have a few shares in one of the newly privatised, formerly state owned enterprises. At the same time lower paid and unorganised workers still have to be catered for. To some union leaders new realism means appealing to this group of affluent workers who are supposed to be less "militant", presenting an image of unions which stresses the need to co-operate with the employer. Hence we have the business unionism of the EETPU, sponsored by the likes of Eric Hammond, with the non-confrontational policy of no-strike deals.

The Daily Mirror (June 24 1987) discussed some of the problems of declining membership faced by the unions and the kind of methods, termed as "New Unionism", by which they are attempting to respond to the situation. The TGWU, once (under Jack Jones' leadership) over two million strong, is now down to under 1.5 million; the AUEW which in the days of Hugh Scanlon had one and a quarter million members has slumped to 857,000. while USDAW has lost 100,000 members in eight years and the NUM has declined from 250,000 to 104,000 in a decade. So-called modern methods, the Mirror notes, are being used to increase membership. Union ties, badges, scarves, beermats and track suits are being sold to brighten up the image of the movement. Along with no-strike deals the EETPU offers benefits such as private medicine in an attempt to attract members. Thousands of pounds are being spent on advertising and recruitment drives. The GMBU spent £35.000 on a campaign run for them by a firm of design consultants which is best known for promoting Lamborghini cars. NUPE. the TGWU and USDAW are all spending considerable amounts of money on public relations, design consultants, typography and advertising. In recruitment campaigns, videos, double decker buses, promotional packs, educational films for use in schools and pop concerts are being used. The TGWU enlisted pop star Billy Bragg for concerts promoting union membership among the jobless and low paid and unorganised part- timers.

Many of the problems this so-called new realism is attempting to deal with have been faced before by the trade union movement. Much of the loss of membership is through economic recession and the restructuring of the British economy. Thus jobs have disappeared in many traditional industries where union membership was high and new ones have appeared in places where unions have yet to gain a stronghold and where government and employer strategy and the economic conditions will make things difficult. Much of the loss of membership in the three unions mentioned in the Mirror article — the TGWU. AUEW and the NUM — can be put down to the recession and restructuring of the economy. However the area that gives rise for most concern is how the movement is responding to the divisions within the working class and the concept of no-strike deals. It does not take a genius to realise that under capitalism the working class is divided. It is divided in many ways, unemployed and employed, high and low paid and so on. However the trade union response to this situation should be to promote the common interests, not to pursue policies that are likely to increase those divisions. Unemployed, employed, high or low paid, the root cause of working people's problems is that they have to sell their ability to work in order to live and that their standard of life is dictated to them by the price they can get for the sale of their labour power. Most workers, whether low or high paid, have to spend the greater part of their lives in employment which is boring, sometimes dangerous and nearly always uncreative and degrading. The lives of most workers are dominated by their employment and at the level of consumption their needs are to some extent fashioned for them as the same forces which control the means of production are also dominant in the sphere of mass communication. Thus, while it is true that capitalism has created some differences in life style for different sections of the working class, all workers share many common, everyday experiences, and although they take place in different settings, they will last as long as capitalism does.

Thus the new realism of the unions is based on false premises. It is based on the idea that capitalism is inevitable, that workers and employers can have common interests. What is more, it fails to get to the root cause of workers' problems and can therefore never solve them. What is needed is an alternative realism, based on a knowledge of how this society operates, for only then will workers be aware of how to carry out the defensive struggle within capitalism with some success. Most of all this realism needs to make it clear that this society can never be made to operate in our interests. Mostly we need a realism which does not see the present as unchangeable but one that sees the possibilities of today as the reality of tomorrow.
Ray Carr

Between the Lines: Keep the tears flowing (1988)

The Between the Lines column from the January 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

Keep the tears flowing

Television thrives on tears. Tears of distress make good news disaster stories; tears of sentimentality bring in a few quid for Terry Wogan's annual evening of pseudo-benevolent piety. Children In Need (BBC1. Friday 27 November, all evening); tears of anger, such as those of victims of so-called terrorists' attack, are easier images than those of explanation. It is a cruel and harsh observation to make, but the facts indicate that cheers go out in the TV centres every time news of a new cause for tears and mass suffering comes in through the teleprinter. One sees the look of excited expectation upon the faces of these tasteless, trivialising newsreaders; "And news is just coming in of an air disaster in Manchester — it looks like as many as twenty could be dead — but keep watching, we'll do our best to push the figures up — and then we'll be the first on the scene when the injured are persuaded to show their ugly wounds before the cameras — as a matter of fact, a little birdy tells me that we might just have first degree burn on a little kid to flash before you. so keep your eyes on the screen and then well show you the ritual tour of the overcrowded casualty wards by The Royal Couple".

No, of course it is not true that TV producers actually take a sadistic pleasure in seeing workers suffer, but there can be no doubt that tears make good TV for them and that is what they are out to make. One recalls that awful day when cameras showed the burning alive of those numerous workers who stood on the unsafe terraces at Bradford Football Club and perished. Of course, the commentators were genuinely moved. But something else was going on. TV uses disaster for a particular social function. Firstly, it is intended to say to viewers. "Look at these poor sods: you might be poor, insecure and depressed, but at least you're not the ones being burned alive. There's always someone worse off than you. you know". How long have workers been deterred from taking real action to solve our own misery now on the grounds that to do so would be wrong, for first we must attend to the miseries of those who are worse off than us?

Secondly, there is something inherently irrational about tears. To be sure, it is psychologically very useful to have a good cry when misery becomes too much to bear — and it is incredible the number of men who are afraid to do so, not least because of the TV imagery which shows that "men don't cry". But tears are an expression, not an explanation; a cry and not a speech. And TV likes to catch the workers at our most inarticulate and animalistic. It confirms the basic Christian doctrine that try as we might to pose as reasoned beings, when the Lord decides that it is disaster time (vicious swine that this legendary god must be) all we are empowered to do is weep like babies.

Thirdly, disaster allows the capitalist system to be seen as caring. That is why Margaret Thatcher is always on the scene — with cameras firmly focussed on her — when the tears are flowing. The newsreader lets us know that The Queen sends her condolences. When do these uncaring, rich parasites send their condolences to the families of the thousands of old people who die of hypothermia each winter because they are too poor to switch on a heater? But give us a nice, single, packaged disaster and we see just how caring these defenders of the system really are.

What TV does not show — or, if it ever makes moves towards doing so, it happens at late and undramatic moments — is why these tears must flow. Why did hundreds drown in the cold sea off Zeebrugge? Was it anything to do with the shipowners making huge profits out of over-packing cross-channel ferries? Why did they burn to death at Bradford? Were the owners of the football club, who allowed spectators to stand on dangerous wooden stands, not placing profit before human needs? Why did they burn to death on the escalators at King's Cross station? We do not yet know, but might it not have at least something to do with London Regional Transport's decision to divert the money it had allocated for scrapping the unsafe wooden escalators to building heavy steel barriers to stop fare dodgers?

Why are children in need, Terry Wogan? Your children will not be in need (and we are very glad to know it) because you receive millions of pounds for presenting trivia to the BBC. But is it really worth spending one evening a year indulging in a TV charity marathon which can only collect less than £10 million from the entire population of Britain when every hour the British government spends £1.5 million on arms alone? Children In Need shows a tragedy beyond the tragedy. The tragedy it tries to depict is that of large numbers of kids who need our pennies and the few quid which the worker can spare in order to alleviate their suffering. Credit where it is due: the presenters of the programme all do a very good job in showing us just how needy these kids are. just how tearful we should be. But the tragedy which transcends those tears is that we are now living in a society which is more than able to satisfy the needs of those deprived and diseased children — more than capable of allocating resources to end or alleviate as much as possible their suffering, but does not do so because of the warped logic of capitalism which must place profits before needs.

The real tragedy is that we must look at the needless waste of children's health and happiness which has been allowed to go on in a system which makes a TV show out of caring and an economic science out of saying "go away and die". When workers wake up to the sense of what capitalism is doing to us all — to the children of Ethiopia who now are pushed before the cameras so that more tear-flowing may be indulged in. led by the ever-miserable Bob Geldof — and to men, women and children across the world — when workers wake up there will be more important things to do than to weep. We can leave that to the tears of relief which will doubtlessly follow upon our self-emancipation.

Murder by law

If tears are what you fancy, then few programmes in 1987 could have had more effect than Fourteen Days In May, shown by the BBC last November. This was a documentary which would soon disabuse innocents who were under the misapprehension that racists stopped sending their victims into gas chambers after the Nazis fell from power. Not so. This extremely moving documentary told the story of a black worker from the Southern USA who was convicted to death for the alleged crime of shooting a white cop and — worst of all — raping a white woman. In the racist South nothing short of legalised murder would suffice to teach the man a lesson (there's nothing like death to teach us lessons, I always think) and in this particular state death is by gassing.

The BBC cameras showed the gas chamber being prepared by the wage slaves in uniform, and even the gassing of a rabbit on a trial run. All very sick. We watched the victim live out his final fourteen days on Death Row where he had been for eight years. We watched him hope for leniency and we watched him walk into the gas chamber. It was like watching a social system throwing up. After Johnson had been gassed to death we had a message from the producer flashed across the screen. On the night that he had allegedly committed the two crimes of which he had always pleaded innocent he had been with a black woman. This alibi went into a police station some time after his arrest and offered herself as a witness but was warned by the white cop that she had no right to interfere in their business.

Earlier the same month we were shown on Channel Four the excellent two-part documentary, Shoah, which told of the mass gassing of people by the Nazis half a century ago. Capitalism still goes on; the gas chambers are still being used; who the hell are the inhabitants of this system to call themselves civilised?
Steve Coleman

Rear View: Same shit, different day (2016)

The Rear View Column from the December 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

Same shit, different day
General elections worldwide, whether ‘fair’ or foul, past and present, have one result in common: they won, we lost. You will not hear socialists today talking about the USA being on the brink of revolution or that ‘the capitalist class is on its last legs’ as the Marxist Daniel DeLeon did in 1896 and 1902 respectively. Elections can serve as a barometer of socialist consciousness and ultimately as a way of making capitalism history. In the US Sanders’ reformism was no threat to the status quo, and President s Trump means business as usual just as much as President Clinton would have. Depressing enough without considering the recent coronation of King and Queen Ortega in Sandinista Nicaragua.

An old opiate
‘Schools across Egypt are forcing Christian children and those of other religions to wear the Muslim headscarf and quote the Koran by heart, or they will be punished and kicked out of school. Muslims are also getting punished if they do not wear their hijabs. One 12 year-old Muslim girl named Rahman Salem was forced to leave her school lesson after taking off her hijab, and was banned from participating in any activities at her school, located in the Northern part of Egypt’ (, 5 November). Religion 101: Islam means submission, so such news should not be surprising. Socialism 101: banish gods from our minds and capitalists from the Earth! Socialists unlike professional atheists recognise that capitalism is the main source of irrationality and exploitation in the modern world. Religion then will not end until we the 99 percent understand and act to end the vale of woe that is capitalism.

From the horse’s mouth
‘Indonesian President Joko Widodo said there will be “no compromise” to his country’s sovereignty in the contested South China Sea, ahead of a visit to staunch US ally Australia. The comments come after Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, on Tuesday said the two countries were considering joint naval patrols in the contested waters. China claims almost the entire South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion worth of trade passes each year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and Indonesia also claim part of the sea…Indonesian warplanes staged a large-scale exercise last month in the waters around the Natuna Islands archipelago, following a spate of face-offs between the country’s navy and Chinese fishing boats in the gas-rich southern end of the South China Sea’ (, 4 November). Here we have it black and white: wars are fought over trade routes, areas of domination and resources.

Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov
Valery Raskin, a so-called Communist MP, wants to see the dead dictator feature on coins and notes as a way of marking the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917: ‘Lenin’s return to Russian rubles will confirm the fact that our society has finished its formation and entered the phase of maturity. This will also be good because the majority of Russian citizens have warm feelings towards Vladimir Iliych [Lenin] and the Soviet era in general, as it allowed us to become one of the world’s leading countries. We should pay tribute to Lenin, who laid the foundation of a social state in Russia’ (, 2 November). This is a fitting tribute as Lenin and the Bolsheviks hastened the development of capitalism in Russia. He also distorted Marxism and thereby severely damaged the development of a socialist movement. That members of the 99 percent in Russia are wage slaves like us and have need to reflect positively on life under past dictators says much about the struggle to live under  Putin.

Imagine no countries
We hear daily reports of the horrors of war in places such as Syria. Imagine then, if possible, all the accumulated indignities and suffering which led to one resident of a refugee camp in Greece to state recently: ‘Give me the money to pay a smuggler and I’ll go back to Syria right now. There the death is quick. Here we are dying slowly'(, 2 November).

50 Years Ago: America Votes (2016)

The 50 Years Ago column from the December 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

The mid-term elections in America provided the customary festival for the devotees of the Great Man Theory.

Disgruntled Democrats were ready to blame President Johnson for their losses. The Daily Telegraph‘s Washington correspondent passed on a report that Democratic leaders in Michigan were thinking about opposing Johnson as their Presidential candidate in 1968.

On the other side, jubilant Republicans surveyed their leaders — Reagan, Romney, Percy, Nixon — and began planning the build-up to present one of them as the nation’s saviour at the polls the year after next.

Whichever party is defeated at the election, the Great Man Theory remains unbeaten. The Democrats who now blame Johnson for their setbacks are conveniently forgetting that they once adored him as the man who would build the Great Society. The only remedy they have to offer is to peddle the same sort of nonsense about another man.

In the same way, the Republicans who are now come to praise men like Reagan and Percy may yet stay to bury them in unforgiving recrimination.

This is a familiar spectacle. Capitalism’s leaders are always being credited with more power over the system than they actually have. No man, and no government, has ever been able to control capitalism; in the end the system wins.

When we have an election in which the votes reflect a developing knowledge of that fact, we shall be somewhere near getting rid of the problems the great men are always promising, and always failing, to solve.
(Socialist Standard, December 1966)

Politics is Not in Control (2016)

From the December 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

The last time there was a prolonged period of slump and stagnation, in the 1930s, a few correctly identified the cause of the problems facing the majority class of wage and salary workers as the world-wide capitalist system of minority class ownership and production for profit. Unfortunately, however, most of those who wanted change misidentified it as there being something wrong with capitalism’s political superstructure.

Extremists on both the left and the right blamed political democracy, or ‘bourgeois democracy’ as they both called it, and both saw the way out as a dictatorship within the boundaries of the nation-state. Mainstream political opinion, too, envisaged a national, not to say nationalist, solution, in protectionism, or the erection of tariff barriers to keep out foreign imports as a way of trying to revive home industries. This didn’t work and in the end the rivalries to protect national capitalist interests led to war.

Is history about to repeat itself? Not that there is any reason it should, but it doesn’t seem so, even though there are signs of a return to national protectionism as advocated by Bernie Sanders and Trump in America and in the sentiment behind the Brexit vote in Britain. This time the political reaction of both the left and right has been different. There has been no tendency to blame political democracy as such; to blame the current elected politicians, yes, but no call to replace political democracy with political dictatorship.

Quite the contrary. This time the trend has been to blame there not being enough democracy. On the left , this has expressed itself in substantial support for parties like the Five Star Movement in Italy, Podemos in Spain, and the Pirate Party in Iceland which blame remote and corrupt politicians and favour a more direct democracy in which voters themselves get to decide more. On the right too the call has been for more referendums and to ‘take back control’, even if to try to push through a populist and nationalist agenda.

Although more respectable, ‘more democracy’ is as little a way out as ‘less democracy’ was in the 1930s. This is because the problems the working majority face today, as then, result not from some fl aw in the capitalist system’s political superstructure but from the very basis of the system – minority ownership and production for profit. What is required is not political reform but a complete revolution in the basis of society.

Even if the political superstructure was made more democratic – with electors being able to initiate referendums, recall MPs, instruct them how to vote by internet polling, etc – this would not make any difference to the way the capitalist economic system operates.

Today’s politicians fail, not because they are insincere, corrupt or incompetent (as many but not necessarily all are) nor because they are not subject to enough control by those who elected them. It’s because those who elected them have set them an impossible task, that of making the capitalist economic system work in the interest of the majority class of wage and salary workers. This can’t be done because the workings of the capitalist economic system forbid it.

Capitalism is a profit-making system that can only work in the interests of the privileged few who live off profits, never in the interest of the majority. As the system runs on profits, making profits has to come before meeting people’s needs. If they don’t, or are not allowed to, then the economic system stalls. That’s the nature of the system.

This is why greater transparency, no corruption and more voter control will not make any difference to the way capitalism works. The new breed of elected representatives that this would bring, and has already brought in some countries, would not be able to fare any be% er than the old gang. The economic laws of capitalism would oblige them too, on pain of provoking an economic downturn, to put profit and the conditions for profit-making above solving the majority’s problems and meeting their needs properly. Given the profit system, profits must come first.

This said, the call for ‘more democracy’ is valid. But, within capitalism, it is not going to make any essential difference. For it to be effective requires a radical change in the basis of society, from minority ownership to common ownership by all. Only on that basis can production be geared to directly meeting people’s needs instead of being subjected to the economic laws of the profit system. Only on that basis will there no longer be the vested interests and inequalities that distort formal democratic practice today. Only on that basis can what people decide they want be implemented and those they choose to carry this out be subject to effective democratic control. In short, socialism is the only framework in which ‘more democracy’ can be meaningful.
Adam Buick

Material World: Pirate Nations – The Jolly Roger (2016)

The Material World Column from the December 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘We’ve had enough!’ The Pirate Party have captured the imagination of many in Iceland, especially the young. Iceland’s political landscape has been transformed by its general election result and the success of the Pirate Party which won 10 seats in the 63-seat parliament – up from the three it won in the 2013 general election, in a voter turn-out of 79.2 percent.  For the Icelandic establishment, they may still retain control of the helm but their ship of state is beginning to flounder.

The Pirate Party does not have a leader, although former Wikileaks activist and founding MP Birgitta Jonsdóttir tends to speak for it in public (perhaps, as a poet, she has a better way with words). She said her party subscribes to its agenda of ‘fundamental system change’.

They are challenging the assumption that political leaders are necessary and politics could not operate without them.

Ásta Guthrún Helgadóttir, another of their parliamentary members explained, ‘We are not here to gain power. We are here to distribute power.’

The Pirates’ core issues appeal to the popular sentiment in Iceland; direct democracy; freedom of expression; civil rights; and government transparency as set out in a crowd-sourced constitution which creates new rules for civic governance.

Political parties under the Pirate flag are now active in many countries. But we should remember that their libertarian attitudes were based on the history of real and sometimes not so real pirate ‘nations’. In the modern era, we have had Somalia which was notorious for its piracy, while one of the earliest foreign interventions of the newly-independent United States was the suppression of the Barbary pirates operating from North Africa. Our conception of piracy stems from the adventurers of those state-sponsored buccaneers and privateers from the time of Raleigh and Drake when the Caribbean was a melting pot of poor immigrants, political exiles and escaped plantation slaves.

Christopher Hill in Radical Pirates? described life at sea as based upon mutual aid, a much necessary survival tactic in which piracy was no exception in fostering a natural solidarity. Many pirates had crewed on merchant ships and grown to dislike the hierarchal authoritarianism.

Booty was divided up by a fairly egalitarian share system and those maimed received extra compensation. The Dutch Governor of Mauritius met a pirate crew and commented: ‘Every man had as much say as the captain’. The captain enjoyed no special privileges. Pirate captains were elected and could be deposed at any time for abuse of their authority; for cowardice or cruelty towards the crew and revealingly, for refusing ‘to take and plunder English Vessels’ for the pirates had turned their backs on the state and its laws and no lingering feelings of patriotism were to be allowed. The captain only had right of command in battle, otherwise, all decisions were made by the whole ship’s company.

Libertalia (or Libertatia) was a more-than-likely fictionalised colony founded in the late 17th century in Madagascar by pirates. Marcus Rediker, in Villains of All Nations, writes of Libertalia, ‘ [The] pirates were anti-capitalist, opposed to the dispossession that necessarily accompanied the historic ascent of wage labor and capitalism. They insisted that ‘every Man was born free, and had as much Right to what would support him, as to the Air he respired.’ They resented the ‘encroachments’ by which ‘Villains’ and ‘unmerciful Creditors’ grew ‘immensely rich’ as others became ‘wretchedly miserable.” They spoke of the ‘Natural right’ to ‘a Share of the Earth as is necessary for our Support.’ They saw piracy as a war of self-preservation. [They redefined the] fundamental relations of property and power. They had no need for money ‘where every Thing was in common, and no Hedge bounded any particular Man’s Property,’ and they decreed that ‘the Treasure and Cattle they were Masters of should be equally divided.’

Of course, the Pirate Party of Iceland will be unable to manage things much better than the conventional parties since it is capitalism, not the politicians, which runs its government and which is to blame for all our problems. They will have the doomed future of the original anarchistic pirates they wish to emulate, which they will soon discover if they ever do form a government.

Gigs and Umbrellas (2016)

From the December 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
We look at some changes that have led to new forms of work, and ask whether these are truly new and better than traditional kinds of employment.
Being your own boss, as a self-employed sole trader, may sound like a good idea. You can to some extent decide on your own hours, and are not subject to a boss or manager who lays down the law about how you do your work. But, like so much under capitalism, the reality does not match the image.

Officially, a self-employed person runs their own business and sells goods or services for a profit. You can hire other workers, you provide your own equipment, and (according to you ‘can decide how, where and when you do your work’. You have to register as self-employed, keep proper records and complete a self-assessment tax return each year. You will have to cope with insurance and business rates and provide for your pension. You have to worry about business plans and cash flow. Moreover, you will not get sick pay or holiday pay, and income can vary and be unpredictable. Self-employment is clearly not all plain sailing, with lots of administrative matters to take care of as well as being sure you actually make enough money from your work.

There are nearly five million self-employed in the UK, an increase of 45 percent since 2002; part-time self-employment has grown much faster than full-time. The self-employed work in many areas, from plumbers and electricians to accountants. As another example, many hairdressers rent the use of a chair in a salon, rather than being employed by the salon. But, while the number of self-employed is going up, their earnings have been going down. One claim is that average wages for such workers are less than they were twenty years ago, at £240 a week. BBC Online (20 October) looked at some examples. One man who has his own cleaning business was earning far less than previously but said he had a much better work–life balance. A session singer said payments had changed very little over the last couple of decades but, with changes in music-buying habits, his income from sales was now virtually non-existent. The rise in numbers is partly the result of workers who have lost their jobs trying to set up in business on their own. But it is also due to people being classified as self-employed when that description is not really applicable to them.

At the end of October, minicab drivers for the firm Uber won a case at an employment tribunal, which ruled that they should be classed as workers employed by the company, rather than as self-employed, and so should receive holiday pay and the ‘national living wage’. Uber put passengers in touch with drivers via a Smartphone app, and claimed to work for the drivers, enabling them to increase their ‘business’. But in fact Uber recruited and controlled the drivers, set their fares and ran a disciplinary procedure. The tribunal judges described the company as using ‘twisted language’ to describe their relationship with its workers. Uber took 20 percent commission from its forty thousand British drivers, and is a massive international company operating in over sixty countries, with income last year of $1.5bn. This was clearly not self-employment at all but a bogus set-up which made the company big profits, intensified the exploitation of the drivers and worsened their working conditions.

It has been estimated that well over 400,000 of the five million mentioned earlier are wrongly classed as self-employed. It is impossible to know the correct figure, but it is clear that Uber are not the only company that gets away with calling employees self-employed. The courier company Hermes has been alleged to be another example, as has Deliveroo. Even the Financial Secretary to the Treasury has stated that ‘Employment status in the UK is determined by the reality of the working relationship and not simply by the terms of any contract’ (, 27 October). In fact this is part of a wider phenomenon, sometimes known as the gig economy (based on the idea of musicians performing and getting paid for individual performances, rather than working regular hours). A gig economy is ‘an environment in which temporary positions are common and organizations contract with independent workers for short-term engagements’ ( Freelance work has been common for years, especially in areas such as journalism and translating, and the majority of freelance workers are women. The Internet has increasingly made it possible for people to work from almost anywhere, so that the worker’s location and that of the company employing them can be miles or even continents apart. Many more people now work from home or from coffee houses, which can be very atomising in terms of having no face-to-face contact with fellow workers.

Another new development in this area is so-called umbrella companies, which operate as intermediaries between temporary workers (often called contractors) and the agencies that provide work. About a third of supply teachers, for instance, have had to join such a company. Supposedly this makes it easier for teachers who work in different schools, and even for different agencies, in the course of a week, as they have only one organisation to deal with from an administrative and payroll point of view. But many workers in such a situation have found themselves worse off financially, since the umbrella company takes a cut from their earnings, and it can take some time to get paid. This is not technically self-employment, and is in reality little different (if at all) from working directly for an agency or school.

The Communist Manifesto noted how fairly prestigious occupations such as doctor, lawyer and scientist had under capitalism been converted into wage labourers. Maybe the nature of employment is currently changing further. Rather than the masses of workers employed for years or decades in mine, mill, factory, shop and office, there is now much more short-term and temporary work with a sequence of employers, where someone can work for one company for a week or a month but then for a quite different company, undertaking different projects for which continued employment with one employer would simply not be appropriate. Many computer programmers and other IT specialists work this way, for instance. It all shows how zero-hours contracts are by no means the only way in which capitalism is making workers even more insecure.

One defence of self-employed status is that it involves workers owning the means of production. But owning a laptop or a van and a few tools does not make anyone independent of the market system or the overarching control of the capitalist class. The gig economy, umbrella companies, ostensible self-employment: none of these alters the subordinate status of the workers they apply to or represent anything other than a merely formal break with wage labour.
Paul Bennett

A Very Costly Illness (2016)

From the December 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

The occasion of the first discernible symptom was treated as a joke. Around the table in the coffee bar on a Saturday morning Ben suddenly lunged across to grab his brother’s croissant and sat there eating it. But he was not smiling. And neither was his brother or his wife Deb. And it was the same on another coffee morning when Ben suddenly arranged two unnecessary seats at the table, telling the others that these were for his father and his eldest sister – who had been dead for some years. 

But as the disease took its remorseless grip on him it became less and less appropriate to be amused by those symptoms. There was the morning when Deb still had enough confidence in him to agree for him to go to the shops in the parade around the corner from the maisonette where they lived but this was changed when he lost his way along the half mile or so of the pavement – and did not bring back any shopping. Then there was the sudden need to lock away all food and drink in a high cupboard after Deb came upon him in the kitchen making himself a morning coffee from a basic ingredient of washing up liquid. And when he suffered such confusion over doors – which one led where and why – that he mistook their front door for the entrance to their toilet and urinated on their balcony in view of the other residents.

Respite Care
Ben’s reaction to this situation was mainly a primitive fear for himself, which caused him to be guarded – defensively abusive – to others who put him under pressure to behave in a more conventional fashion. There were times when he refused to go to bed at night or to get up in the morning, to get dressed or to eat his food. And if anyone – particularly Deb – put any pressure on him to change he reacted with sulks, rages, threats. There were times – in a shop, a café, a car – when the situation became so badly out of control that she was starkly up against the memory of a friend whose husband also suffered from the same disease which changed his behaviour from a gentle, deeply caring partner and father to their two daughters into a man whose response to the presence of his wife was to be physically violent towards her. She tried Respite Care – short periods in a nursing home to provide his family with some relief – but his conduct was such that it became necessary for him to stay in a home permanently. Where he fumed and glared and swore until pneumonia took him into impotence and then the relief from death. This had to be an immediate prospect for Ben when his periods of Respite Care led to a succession of amnesia and seriously disabling accidents. It did not take long for him also to be placed permanently in a home – selected by Deb after prolonged, achingly guilty assessments of the locality  – where they kept him as free from serious accidents as they could until he also faded away, in the  local hospital, from what was officially recorded as another case of pneumonia. In fact he had suffered for some ten years from the developing grip of Alzheimer’s Disease.

The disease is named after Alois Alzheimer, the German neurologist and psychiatrist who perceived the particular pathological condition of dementia which carries his name. Medical science was always his obsession and in the late 19th century he took up a residential placement at the Hospital for Mentally Ill and Epileptics in Frankfurt, where his pioneering work was deservedly regarded as Free From Restraint. (He was, incidentally, a cigar smoking obsessive and was inclined to leave his stubs on the bench where he had demonstrated his work to his students – who thought none the less of him for it).  Alzheimer was especially involved – obsessed would not be too strong a term – with a 51 year-old woman who suffered from behavioural problems with a deepening memory loss developing into severe dementia. When she died in 1906 Alzheimer examined not only the records of her illness but also her brain. The conditions he found there were distinctive enough to justify a diagnosis of senile dementia which became known as Alzheimer’s Disease. He died, aged 51, in 1915 from cardiac failure. 

Ben was at first reluctant to take advice about his developing strange behaviour but Deb insisted. The early diagnosis was that he had a reading problem and, although he could read all the newspapers and some hefty tomes of history, he was referred to a Therapeutic Reading Group in the hospital. It was through Deb’s insistence that he was eventually seen by a consultant, who placed him as an Alzheimer sufferer and began visiting him at home for £150 a prescription.  The cruel reality is that with passing time Alzheimer’s and its dementia become more prevalent and insistent. The most recent figures show some 850,000 cases in the UK, expected to rise above one million over the next ten years. It is the third most common cause of death in UK women. Typical symptoms, matching up with Ben’s experience, are memory loss, slower thought processes, mental agility and judgement – the dreaded lack of emotional control and what it means in terms of potential violence towards those close to the patient. There is no cure.

As Ben’s condition worsened, as his responses to Deb – one of that gallant band of 700,000 known as ‘informal carers’ – became more chaotic and threatening, she became more desperate, struggling against the impending conclusion that the disease would in the end defeat her best efforts so that for both of them to survive she would have to surrender his care to some kind of residential institution, with all that meant in terms of paying for him to be there.

She found such a home, she worked out that all things considered she could just about afford a place there for Ben but when he was accepted his condition worsened until he could not walk, or even stand, or even sit upright. His speech became agonisingly slow and he was obsessed by his desire to be taken back to their home. In his brain there was chaos where before there had been order and forethought. One morning in his room a nurse was unable to find a pulse. The ambulance rushed him to hospital where in a few hours his wish to die was allowed to take effect. And who had to pay for all of this, and how? A succession of social workers – bright, sensitive, desperate to humanise Deb’s agony amid her loss (but with the job of controlling the cost – during the past year the average price of a place in a care home has risen to over £30,000) called to assess her situation. In some cases a local authority could put some cash in but only after an assessment had established a need and the fact that there was no other source. Any savings and property (they called it ‘capital’) above £23,250 would have to be taken into account. Or there were charities which might be able to help. Deb did not find it agreeable to submit to these interrogations while trying to control her exhaustion and grief.

But if you asked her, and her children, what they thought of this method of organising human lives, of managing and surviving, she would readily respond that it was the best available to us.  She could not – did not want to – look beyond a system in which money is a vital conduit along which all human activities including health, sickness, death, are directed. Ben suffered this as well and his death should have taught something to all those who knew him.

Religion As Cultural Identity (2016)

From the December 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

Many express surprise when told that to join the Socialist Party a prerequisite is that they must have no religion. For some, religion is regarded as a ‘personal matter’ that should not be subjected to any political analysis or individual inquiry. But an even greater objection can be articulated in terms of cultural identity. Someone of African or Indian origin, for instance, may regard their religion as an intrinsic cultural component of his individual and social personality.

To be told by someone of European origin that they must give up their religion can seem to be yet another example of cultural imperialism. It cannot be denied that the ‘Enlightenment Project’, of which Marxism/socialism is a part, has its roots in European history. Could it be that some cultures are so divergent from this tradition that any insistence on having no religion being a necessary prelude to socialist understanding is not only impossible but also an alienating insult to such cultures?

Changing ideology
Any study of the history of religion shows it to be, along with all other human ideologies, subject to change. Christians may object to this by referring to the 2000 years of belief in ‘the son of god’ but the contemporary version of their religion bears little resemblance to the small Jewish sect that began it. The Great schism between the Eastern and Western incarnation of the Christian church was forerunner to the Reformation and countless other sectarian splits.

Many cultures have embraced one religion or another but this is always changing along with the identities it forges among the population. The adoption of Christianity by the Roman state under Constantine saved this particular sect from falling into historical obscurity like countless other religions before it. We’ll never know his entire motivation for doing this but it would be naive in the extreme to believe that it was an exclusively spiritual decision unaffected by political influences.

You don’t have to be a Marxist to see that the adoption of any religion by a ruling class does depend on important political considerations. Henry VIII’s split with Rome must be understood in political terms (the need for a male heir to consolidate Tudor hegemony). And this is at the heart of all the major state religions; they are the result of the need of a powerful minority for an authoritarian social structure (and a religion/ideology) that legitimises their rule. Seen in this light, religion seems little more than the manipulation of the weak by the strong. This is why socialists reject religion of any persuasion; we regard it as part of the slavish mentality that sustains capitalism.

The above description of the role of religion within a dominant class’s ideology does seem appropriate outside of the European tradition. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam etc. have all undergone historical change due, in part, to the political needs of powerful elites within the countries concerned. Taking this historical perspective we can see that many religions have reached out from their origins both in terms of geography and in terms of their values and content. Indeed some, like Christianity and Buddhism, have become the very antithesis of the originators intentions. So in terms of religion as part of a cultural identity we are dealing with the same ‘shifting sands’ as we do with all other human value systems. This is not a criticism of religion but it emphasises the illusion of an unchanging cultural tradition and serves to undermine the accusation of any kind of ‘cultural incompatibility’ between the European origins of socialism and its global ambition.

Mythical Golden Age
Today we see, as a reaction against capitalism’s global nature, many cultures desperately clinging to indigenous traditions within which religion often plays a very important role. Socialists understand the revulsion that many feel towards consumerism’s complete lack of moral and ethical values; but trying to reach back to a mythical ‘golden age’ of righteousness and justice inspired by religion is pointless and dangerous. It feeds into the hands of zealots who would restore the oppression and hypocrisy that was the reality of any theocratic rule. And this is the heart of the matter; today the immense majority on our planet are enslaved by capital. Whatever culture and religion you belong to the greatest reality in your life is finding a capitalist to sell your labour to. This is the cultural reality we all share.

Capitalism also has its origins in Europe and has proven immune to any cultural barriers. Socialism cannot exist without the prerequisite of the development of ubiquitous capitalism, both in terms of the political consciousness created and its levels of production. As both the inheritor and destroyer of capitalism there seems no reason why socialism should prove any less ‘multi-cultural’ than its global predecessor. The world and its people are interconnected as never before – we can see that what we share as a species is more important than what separates us. Instead of rejecting this evolving worldwide culture and retreating into reactionary sectarianism let’s embrace it and, through revolution, realise its human potential.

It is tempting to see history in terms of the human species struggling towards maturity where there is no place for gods and demons. Ironically perhaps Saint Paul put it best when he said: ‘When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things’.