Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Economics of Health (1959)

From the April 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard

2. Food and Profits

Sir Jack Drummond, the nutritional expert who was murdered in the South of France a few years ago, declared that if we were to put the nation's diet right we could close half our hospitals. Drummond was well aware of the extent of food sophistication, that most of our foods are adulterated, preserved, coloured with dyes, treated with' anti-oxidants and anti-staling agents (not anti-Stalin agents), sprayed with poisonous concoctions and grown in soil which has been treated with chemicals. A lot of our foods have gone through all these processes—in fact, any food that comes from a factory and is canned or packed up in some way, has had most of these mysterious treatments. For what purpose is all this done to our food? Who has demanded that food should be grown artificially, have its vitamins removed, have chalk mixed with it, have it bleached with poisonous gases, and various chemicals added so that it will keep twice as long in a soft condition than it otherwise would? Whoever made such requests to food manufacturers? The answer is that nobody has ever asked that any of these things shall be done to his or her food—they are all done without our wishes and in many cases without our knowledge.

There are about 700 chemicals used in the manufacture of foodstuffs and most of this delightful list has not been sufficiently tested to determine precisely its toxicological effects upon the human body, This fact was referred to in an address given by Sir Edward Mellanby as President of the Medical Research Council, But let us ask again why are these foods tampered with in such a way? The answer is that it enables products to be sold and hence a profit made—which is the prime object. Caviar is not used to adulterate sausages nor brandy to sophisticate beer, because this would be unprofitable.

Why does the farmer grow wheat? Because there are people who want bread? No fear; so far as he is concerned they can starve if they have not the money to pay for it. there are people wanting all sorts of things, but nobody is going to try to provide them because there is no profit to be made. Yes, profit! The farmer grows wheat with a view to making profit, on which he lives. The miller grinds the corn to flour for the self-same delightful purpose—that of making profit, the baker bakes bread for no other purpose than profit. If it is profitable to use artificial fertilisers to grow more wheat. and barley, potatoes and sugar-beet then the farmer employs artificial fertilisers. If the miller discovers that by bleaching flour he can sell more of it, then it is bleached white, or if required, he would colour it purple to aid his sales. When he finds that by extracting vitamins from his flour he can keep it longer and so prevent germination, which would prejudice sales, then the germ of the wheat is extracted, if the baker finds that people want bread that does not go stale in 24 hours, and are prepared to pay for a loaf that is more like a pudding, then who can blame him if he makes it so? So long as society is run in this way we will have the present state of affairs—the factor that is wrong is neither the farmer, the miller nor the baker, nor even the public, but the social set-up that produces these idiotic and harmful phenomena. Fancy selling foods by colour. Not only are sweets made in all the colours of the rainbow with aniline dyes, but so are jams, confectionery and tinned foods. In older days, in order to adulterate a sack of flour a miller, if sufficiently unscrupulous, would put a heavy stone in it. The size of the stone was usually proportional to his scruples. To-day it is necessary to be a little more scientific and grind the stone down to powder and mix it carefully with the flour. Perhaps to-day’s process is the most dangerous for it cannot be so easily extracted as the former stone could. But the motive is precisely the same. Of course, ordinary stones are not used, but special ones- chalk and various powders functioning as anti-oxidants and anti-staling agents, and substances to soak up water, which makes a loaf more like a sponge, or causes water to stand up on end. All these chemical treatments masquerade under the name of “improvers,” meaning that they improve the profits of the baker.
Horace Jarvis

50 Years Ago: Industrial Unionism (1959)

The 50 Years Ago column from the April 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard

“Industrial Unionism” is merely a pleasant name for Anarchism and “Direct Action.” It is one of those almost inevitable elements of confusion and disorganisation which beset the working class in its advance. Every dog has its day: and every freak idea its boom, as though the workers were prepared to traverse every avenue of error before keeping steadily to the right road. The freak idea that the workers can, without the conquest of political power and by means of an industrial organisation alone, “take and hold” the means of life from the capitalists, is one that has just enjoyed its brief boom: but its hollowness has been quickly seen, and its followers have, in consequence, been rapidly dropping away.

(From the Socialist Standard, April, 1909.)

. . . from the branches (1959)

SPGB platform at Hyde Park.
Party News from the June 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard

May Day in the rain
Rain! Rain! Rain! That was Hyde Park on May Day 1959. Nevertheless, over fifty optimistic Comrades rallied to the demonstration to sell literature and support the platform. In the Park itself, despite the weather, a large audience was soon grouped about the Party's platform, where Comrades Ambridge, D'Arcy and Young spoke on the significance of May Day. Large posters were displayed advertising the evening meeting held at Denison House, which was an encouraging success, with more literature sold and a good collection. The front cover of the Socialist Standard had well indicated the debasement of May Day. Union Jacks and Nationalist slogans were displayed in the procession. — The title of our meeting — "Socialism Is International." Let May Day 1960 be Brighter and Better.

Islington report that their canvassing efforts have resulted in the sale of FORTY DOZEN "STANDARDS" for May. More power to their elbows!

On May 1st Manchester Comrades covered a large meeting of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament at the Free Trade Hall, where Bertrand Russell seemed to have benefited by the Party's persistent efforts. He stressed that it was not enough to merely seek International agreement on the banning of “H" bombs, but that we should grapple with the problem of war itself.

As part of the Pre-Election campaign in the constituency of Bethnal Green and Hackney South, two successful indoor meetings were held, the titles being —“The Alternative to the Labour Party" and “You’ve Never Had It So Good.” The meetings were well supported and a number of new faces were in evidence. A further meeting entitled “Nuclear Weapons and the Threat of War” has been arranged and is advertised in this issue.

The Branch had three candidates in the Borough Council Election in the triangle ward of Hackney. Considerable interest was aroused, both in the Press and elsewhere, although our Comrades were not elected this time!

Members are asked to note that there will be a special trip to Southsea on Sunday 21st June, to hold a propaganda meeting. Those wishing to make the trip are asked to notify the Branch Secretary as early as possible. Meet at Ealing Town Hall at 9 a.m.

The support of all members is specially requested for the outdoor meetings at Gloucester Road, beginning Thursday 4th June and continuing every Thursday afterwards. The meetings are timed to start at 8 p.m.

There are only a few seats left on the coach for the Branch trip to Eastbourne on Sunday 14th June (not 13th as announced last month). All members wanting seats are asked to contact Comrade R. Critchfield. Price 12s. for adults and 6s. for children.
Phyllis Howard

Who’s afraid of dialectics? (2019)

From the February 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

One of the many reasons for the misinterpretation of Marx’s writings has its origins in the misunderstanding of his method. His mode of investigation was entirely dialectical. To many of his subsequent readers down the years this has made his work relatively inaccessible.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the analytical school of philosophy had almost entirely eclipsed the dialectical tradition because of the analytical school’s association with the ‘scientific method’. The dialectics of the so-called continental philosophical school were thus confined to the analysis of the ‘humanities’ if they were used at all. When the analytical method was used to create the separate disciplines of economics, politics, history and sociology etc., (something entirely alien to the holistic dialectical approach) its conclusions were, unsurprisingly, very different from those of Marx. Sometimes this was due to the ideological bias of the individuals involved but more usually it was because the nature of the method defines the results. Some have thought that the analytical method easily disposes itself to defending the status quo and so is inadequate for use in radical and revolutionary discourse. It has been conjectured that the empirical analytical approach is optimal for the study of the natural sciences and that the dialectical method is superior in cultural analysis. Liberated from its present arcane and semi-mystical status dialectics can resolve this false duality and become a common-sense approach to understanding the world and our place in it.

When many first attempt an understanding of the dialectical method they can be intimidated by what seems to be an investigation into an esoteric and alien intellectual tradition. But it can be a surprising revelation that this was, in part, how they had thought of the world long before reading a word of Marx or Hegel. The most obvious example of an ‘innate dialectic’ is the ease with which some can associate and locate their lives within the bigger political picture. The individual’s concerns, joys and sufferings can be understood alongside the identical emotions of fellow beings within, as is quickly discovered, not just a familial, local or even regional context but that of the human condition itself. The self is understood within an historical context that has inherited a social condition, a language and a set of values (together with the very concepts used to understand it all) from those who had gone before. Of course the dialectical philosophers had systematised these universal experiences into a coherent methodology which has accumulated, as all philosophical discourses do, a series of concepts and phrases that can seem very remote from everyday life. But at its heart it seeks to find a language that can simulate and thus render understandable the phenomena of the real world.

Language and ideas
Language is an abstraction of utterance and gesture. It seeks primarily to facilitate communication about the experience of existence. It is important to always remember that thought uses ideas (abstract representations of perception and experience) to create concepts (mental reconstructions of relationships between ideas) and as such they attempt to represent the objective world that we find ourselves within and are not those things in themselves. Language is so seductive that once it becomes inducted into thought itself it can be mistaken for that which it represents (idealism). We speak here of the Marxian version of the dialectical method which is used in the service of materialism rather than the idealism of Hegel (Marx famously subverted the Hegelian method) but the philosophical technique is fundamentally the same. The foremost discovery of any dialectical analysis is that any abstract (idea and concept) is in the process of change. This reflects the fact that all of the constituents of the world are becoming something other than they appear to be at any given time. Everything has to be understood in terms of what it once was, what it is now and what it will become. To study anything in isolation from this dynamic is misleading and ultimately futile. This continual change is due to not just external factors but also to the internal structure of the abstract concerned. This is what dialecticians call internal relations. The method seeks to comprehend four relationships between the elements within the idea (phenomena under consideration): identity and difference, the interpenetration of opposites, the transition from quantity to quality and the tension created by internal contradictions. These processes are universal and so reflect the whole within its parts but, as we shall see, the very distinction between ‘whole’ and ‘part’ quickly becomes philosophically redundant and is only retained as an expository expedient.

Let’s use the humble apple as a subject for a dialectical analysis. The colour, shape, taste and texture combine to define ‘an apple’. These qualities are in turn dependent on a process that has changed the fruit and brought it to ripeness. In dialectical terms we see the development of the apple in both its difference from other fruits as well as its connection with them as part of the definition of being a fruit. We see in the ripening the interpenetration of opposites in terms of sourness transforming into sweetness. The development from a single cell to a combination of many as it grows is an example of quantity becoming a quality and finally the continuation of the processes of ripening, if the apple is left unpicked, will cause it to rot and die and this represents an internal contradiction. The perspective or vantage point from which the apple is perceived will also emphasise or diminish aspects of this development. The owner of an apple orchard will see the apples purely as having commercial value and will seek to maximise this by selective breeding and pest control etc. The consumer and/or producer of the apple will be purely interested in what it represents in terms of taste, price and wages. The tree’s fruit exists to pass on its genetic code as widely and as efficiently as nature will allow. These three perspectives may operate in parallel but each can obviously act against the interest of the others. In terms of what dialecticians call an extension of generality we know that the apple is dependent on the tree and that the tree is dependent on the sun and that much of life itself is dependent on solar energy etc. In this way a thorough understanding of an apple has the potential to give you an understanding of everything.

Obviously the mind cannot embrace the universe as a whole so we are forced to abstract it into component parts to intellectually digest it at all; but this is always done with the aim of reconstructing the phenomena as representing the whole. With this in mind we are free to choose a point of view that we feel will be most revealing – rather than being restricted in our perspective by ideological conditioning. Marx was always aware that he had to explain his method and conclusions within a non-dialectical intellectual context. The dialectical method has come a long way since its origins of ‘thesis, antithesis and synthesis’ in the Ancient Greek discipline of rhetoric. It has been said that trying to comprehend the world without the aid of dialectics is like trying to board a moving train whilst blindfolded. Dialectics is a method we can use to investigate the past, present and the future.

Marx’s method
Of all of the dialectical tools available Marx considered the investigation of ‘internal contradictions’ to be the most productive when studying history. Unlike most historians Marx analyses history backwards – he seeks out the elements in the past that are preconditions for the present. This is because, as already stated, every concept of the present is rooted in the past and possesses potential for the future. The money in your purse (present) has its origins in the development of an exchange economy (past) and as such is extremely unlikely to remain in your purse for long (future). The preconditions for the development of capitalism were both economic and political – Marx was never purely an economic determinist as he is so often portrayed. One of the necessary preconditions for capitalism was the economic power of the merchants, capitalist farmers and financiers whose wealth enabled them to replace the feudal lords as the ruling class which in turn accelerated the economic exploitation of coal and iron that instigated the subsequent industrial revolution. In other words the merchant adventurers, pirates and slavers who flourished under monarchical rule (Elizabeth I and James I) were the very people who would help to overthrow it; late feudalism had nurtured the elements of its own destruction (internal contradiction). Industrial technology facilitated social production which produced one of the famous instances of ‘the negation of the negation’ (when change seems to end up where it starts) because it severed the link between producer and owner (an earlier form of property) and substituted it with the ownership of the producer’s labour power as well as his product (property as capital) – one form of private property had replaced another.

What, then, can be seen as the preconditions for the future within capitalism? If we look for the most obvious example of an internal contradiction within the contemporary world one stands out above all others, possibly the greatest in all of human history, and it is this individual (or state) ownership of the products of social production. That the majority are only allowed to produce for the profit of a tiny minority is as economically irrational in the twenty first century as was the political power and wealth of the aristocracy in seventeenth century England. The political recognition of this fact by the majority (the working class) necessitates its end. Just as social production had superseded the individual craftsmanship of the past so will social ownership (socialism) replace individual acquisition in the future. Dialectically we can then look back from this future to the present to seek out the preconditions for socialism within capitalism. We have achieved the necessary level of production and what we need is revolutionary socialist consciousness which, from the vantage point we have imagined from the future, necessitates the rejection of any reform or political compromise with capitalism. Of course we speak of the future in terms of the probabilities offered by the present but this is no crystal ball gazing because, as has been said, the use of the process of projection and regression is implicit in the conception of anything whether we are conscious of doing so or not. A pile of bricks is never just ‘a pile of bricks’; we interpret it either as the remnants of a building or as the potential for a new building; a baby is not just a baby but is hopefully the result of joy and a potential adult. Dialectics can help you understand the probable quality and value of either – a Taj Mahal or an Adolph Hitler.

Given what has been outlined here it becomes obvious why dialectical materialism is feared and derided by those who would have us believe that capitalism represents the best of all possible worlds. The fear is instinctive (ideological) because few ever really attempt to understand it. As Marx said: the ruling ideas are those of the ruling class – a world where everything is frozen in time (we were just as violent and greedy in the past as we are now and the future will be no different) and where the only possible form of knowledge illustrates dead matter imprisoned in its present form and devoid of any inner dynamic that will change it (bourgeois economics and pseudo-science). Marx chose the vantage point of the working class because he understood that only they can create fundamental progress. History chooses a class to exhibit the potential for change; all it has to do is recognise the power that human development has given it. The theory of internal relations (dialectics) stands as the primary theory that can tell us when and how human agency can bring about a revolutionary political transition. Dialectics are fun.

When the red flag flew over Glasgow (2019)

Glasgow 1919
From the February 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard
‘Engineers!…We want your demands to be more exacting, and more deep the principles you struggle for. Fight with your brothers of other industries for these bigger and nobler things as earnestly and solidly as you recently fought. Fight politically as well as industrially, then, with the principle of the class struggle to guide your fighting’ (Socialist Standard, June 1917).
The story of Red Clydeside is one of disappointment in that there was no ‘revolutionary’ movement. Willie Gallagher observed in his memoir, Revolt on the Clyde: ‘A rising was expected. A rising should have taken place. The workers were ready to effect it; the leadership had never thought of it.’ There is little evidence that any such revolt was expected.

The Clyde Workers Committee (CWC), an informal network of shop stewards, was formed in 1915 to defend workers’ interests, further their industrial demands, and for some of them, to oppose the war. Under pressure from the CWC, a general strike in pursuit of a 40-hour working week was called for 27 January, 1919. It led to ‘Bloody Friday’, when strikers clashed with police in George Square on 31 January amid ‘unprecedented scenes of violence and bloodshed’ as the Glasgow Herald put it.

Myths circulate and re-circulate, and new ‘facts’ add to the mix. The troops and tanks in George Square, Glasgow is an example of imaginary incidents. A riot happened. There is no doubt about that but it was a police riot, who launched a violent attack on the strikers. The police had anticipated that their baton charge would drive the crowd out of the square – not so. Not only did the strikers and their supporters stand their ground but drove the police back. There was a re-grouping and the workers marched to Glasgow Green. When they reached the Green the police were waiting, ready to charge again. Undaunted the strikers pulled up the park railings and chased off their attackers. For the rest of the day and into the night, sporadic fighting took place throughout the city.

The event has to be viewed in the context of the capitalist class’s paranoia about revolution that they saw occurring in Russia, Germany and other places. The Lord Provost of Glasgow wired to London portraying the strike as an unconstitutional threat and indicated that the strikers’ demand was an ultimatum. ‘It is a misnomer to call the situation in Glasgow a strike – this is a Bolshevist uprising’ were the words of hysteria from the Secretary of State for Scotland. The Lord Advocate later concluded that in the strike ‘every act of revolution was in progress.’ The over-reaction to a threat from the working class demonstrates the willingness of our rulers to suppress any challenge to their political and economic supremacy. Emanuel Shinwell described the 40-hour campaign as ‘not revolutionary in character … It was attributable solely to the fear of unemployment in the near future and the desire to make room for the men from the Army and the Navy.’

There are lots of myths, including that the government used tanks against protestors but they didn’t. 10,000 men and six tanks were dispatched to Glasgow, arriving after the rioting was over. No-one was shot, beaten up or forced back to work by the army. No rioters faced troops with fixed bayonets and there were no tanks in George Square.

For years a photograph of a tank making its way through crowds at Glasgow’s Trongate was wrongly identified as dating from January 1919 but the picture was taken in 1918 during a campaign to promote war bonds. The ‘all the troops were English’ myth can be dismissed as the press at the time listed and photographed men from Scottish regiments such as the Seaforths and the Gordon Highlanders plus the 1,600 men from two English regiments (one of them based, in 1919, at Bridge of Allan, near Stirling, the other in Co Durham). Glaswegian troops at Maryhill, however, were confined to barracks as a precautionary measure. The soldiers stood guard at railway stations, tram depots, power plants and gas-works, and, with the still fresh memory of the GPO in Dublin’s Easter Rising, the city’s main post office.

The other exaggeration was the revolutionary nature of Clydeside’s Independent Labour Party (ILP). This was a reformist left-wing party whose vast majority of leaders were far from Bolshevik revolutionaries. The ILP in 1922 returned several MPs, among them James Maxton, David Kirkwood, John Wheatley, Thomas Johnston, John McGovern and Shinwell. They were sent to Westminster in a wave of left-wing enthusiasm.

David Kirkwood would later reflect, ‘We were going to do big things. The people believed that. We believed that. At our onslaught, the grinding poverty which existed in the midst of plenty was to be wiped out. We were going to scare away the grim spectre of unemployment … Alas, that we were able to do so little!’

Clydeside was far more revolutionary in hindsight than it ever was in reality. Iain McLean in The Legend of the Red Clydeside asserted that what took place was neither a revolution nor ‘a class movement; it was an interest-group movement’, engineers defending their skilled status and their pay differentials.

“Had there been an experienced revolutionary leadership, instead of a march to Glasgow Green there would have been a march to the city’s Maryhill Barracks. There we could easily have persuaded the soldiers to come out, and Glasgow would have been in our hands.” (W. Gallagher, Communist Party)

“This was a widely supported trade union dispute but it was a reformist not a revolutionary gathering and it turned into anarchy only because of political nervousness in London and maladroit policing.” Professor John Foster, University of West of Scotland (Observer, 6 January)

The Scramble for the Arctic (2007)

From the September 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

On August 3, the oceanographer and polar explorer Artur Chilingarov descended 14,000 feet in a mini-submarine and dropped a titanium capsule containing a Russian flag on the seabed at the North Pole. “The Arctic is Russian,” he declared.

In fact, the Russian government is laying claim not to the whole Arctic, but “only” to the Lomonosov Ridge, a wedge about half the size of Western Europe that it considers an extension of Siberia’s continental shelf. According to the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea, the five states with coastlines on the Arctic Ocean – Russia, Norway, Denmark (through ownership of Greenland), Canada and the United States (Alaska) – are entitled to 200 miles of territorial waters, but can claim more distant chunks of Arctic seabed by demonstrating links to their continental shelves.

This, of course, is a game that not only Russia can play. All the other Arctic states have advanced counterclaims or are preparing to do so, all on the basis of the same vague legal provision.

Why now?
Why is this carve-up happening now? Apart from people concerned with the deployment of nuclear submarine forces, the native Inuit (Eskimos), and a few scientists and explorers, no one used to care much about the Arctic. Vast quantities of oil, gas and other minerals might lie under the frozen wastes (up to 10 billion barrels of oil under the Lomonosov Ridge, for instance), but extracting them was not a practical proposition. So it did not matter if borders and exploitation rights were not very clearly defined.

Now, however, it is starting to matter. In part this is due to advances in extraction technology, but the main reason is the rapid melting of the icecap under the impact of global warming. The extraction of all those underwater resources is no longer a pipedream, and the big oil and gas companies and the governments that back them are jockeying for position in the new arena.

Survival versus profit
From the perspective of survival of the planetary ecosystem, the rush to grab Arctic oil and gas is grotesque in the extreme. After all, it is largely the burning of oil and gas that is melting the ice, thereby opening up the prospect of extracting and burning yet more oil and gas and further accelerating global warming.

The capitalists, however, have a quite different perspective. For them the overriding imperative is to be sure of making every last cent, penny and kopeck of profit from selling hydrocarbons before finally proceeding to exploit the next source of profit – solar energy and other “alternative” energy sources. By then, unfortunately, it may well be too late to prevent runaway global warming from turning Earth into a second Venus. But that is something the capitalists do not want to know.

The melting of the ice will also have a huge impact on shipping. Over the next few years, expanding areas of the Arctic — and within a few decades all of it — will be navigable to commercial shipping throughout the year. The Northeast Passage through the Russian Arctic and the Bering Strait is expected to be open within eight years, greatly reducing the distance and cost of sea transport between Europe and the Far East. The Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic will provide another link between the Atlantic and the Pacific, competing with the Panama Canal. New deepwater ports are planned to support trans-Arctic trade. Finally, a continuing rapid growth in Arctic tourism is anticipated.

Not a new Cold War
The alarm with which the media have reacted to the Russian claim on the Lomonosov Ridge is reminiscent of the Cold War, especially in the context of other recent tensions between Russia and “the West.” Nevertheless, it is misleading to talk about a new Cold War or, indeed, about “the West.” We no longer live in a world of bipolar confrontation between “East” and “West.” We now live in a multipolar world of fluid alliances among a fairly large number of powers, some of them rising (e.g., China) and others in decline (e.g., the US). In certain ways the early 21st century resembles the first half of the 20th century much more closely than it does the second.

Nothing illustrates the new-old pattern of multipolarity more clearly than territorial disputes in the Arctic. Several important disputes do not involve Russia at all. They are between the other Arctic states, all of which are still formally allies, fellow members of NATO.

The potentially most serious disputes are, perhaps, those between Canada and the United States. One concerns the offshore Canada/Alaska boundary, which traverses an area thought to be rich in oil and gas. The other dispute is over the straits that separate Canada’s Arctic islands from one another and from the mainland. Last year the Canadian government declared that it regarded these straits, which together make up the Northwest Passage, as Canadian Internal Waters. The US government has made clear that it still regards the straits as international waters by sending its navy to patrol them.

Lord Palmerston is famous for his remark that “Britain has no permanent allies, only permanent interests.” Evidently the same is true of any capitalist state.

Canada flexes its muscles
The behaviour of the Arctic states also debunks the widely held idea that some states are inherently peace-loving and others inherently militaristic. Many people think of Canada as being in the first category. They might be perturbed to come across the following Guardian headline: “Canada flexes its muscles in scramble for the Arctic” (LINK).

As Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper observed in this connection, “the world is changing.” It is changing in ways that on the surface seem quite dramatic. But there is a deeper level at which, as the French saying has it, “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” The 21st-century scramble for the Arctic is a phenomenon of the same general kind as the 19th-century scramble for Africa. Both are cases of commercial and military rivalry between the capitalist classes of different countries to open up for plunder and exploitation a region that was previously closed to them.

True, these scrambles now entail dangers that were unknown in the past. The 19th century knew nothing of either nuclear weapons or global warming. It is high time to move on.

Pathfinders: Taiga Taiga burning bright . . . (2010)

The Pathfinders Column from the September 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Fires are nothing new in the Russian boreal or northern forest. In fact 20 to 35 thousand wildfires annually affect between 0.5 and 2.5 million hectares of Russian forest (LINK). However the fires this August have been severe enough to reduce entire villages to ash and melt car engines, due to the worst heatwave for decades, with temperatures reaching 42ÂșC. Deaths from the fires were reported at 30 but there were also 2000 deaths from drowning due to people trying to cool off in rivers LINK.

Although careless humans are thought to be directly responsible for most Russian forest fires, it may be that careless humanity is indirectly responsible for the rest. The cause of the Russian heatwave is also the reason why August was a washout in the UK but catastrophically so in Pakistan, while the Japanese baked: there is something funny going on with the polar jet stream.

 Jet streams are fast-moving wind layers a few hundred miles across but only a couple of miles thick, circumnavigating the globe in meandering loops at the tropopause, the region at around 6 – 9 miles high which separates the dense troposphere from the stratosphere. Airliners save time and fuel by riding these streams and reducing drag in the thin atmosphere, but the streams are unpredictable, splitting, combining and even going back on themselves, and causing potentially fatal clear air turbulence. When a loop meanders south, cold wet air rushes down into the loop from the north, which is when the UK gets drenched. Where it loops upwards, hot dry air reaches northerly climes, giving Muscovites an excuse to get out the sun-lounger. All this is well understood and the explanations, to do with orbital velocity ratios and temperature, are straightforward. What is not understood at all, and which results in the UK being flooded in summer and frozen last winter while Siberia is incinerated, is why these meandering loops suddenly, and for weeks on end, come to a dead stop. Something is obstructing it, and nobody knows what.

It would be a truism to say that climatology is not a well-understood science. This is what makes the climate change debate so lively. But what is particularly alarming at the moment, in view of this level of uncertainty, is the amount of serious talk around about geoengineering.

On the face of it, there is a case for this. Capitalist ruling elites are never going to cooperate to reduce carbon emissions, that much is becoming painfully obvious. Even if they stopped all emissions today, the effects of what is already up there will be felt for centuries. The first ‘tipping point’ in a cascade of tipping points may have already been reached. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Maybe it’s time to call in the engineers.

There are two approaches to this, as outlined in the 2009 report of the Royal Society, Geoengineering the Climate: science, governance and uncertainty (LINK). The first involves carbon dioxide removal (CDR). This covers everything from carbon sequestration to ocean fertilisation with iron filings to encourage plankton blooms. Though CDR is seen as the preferable alternative, the techniques are expensive, not proven, largely untested (or where tested don’t work – plankton just don’t take carbon to the grave with them as was believed), and above all slow. There may not be enough time for these techniques to make any difference.

The second approach is solar radiation management (SRM). This is a fancy phrase for fast-acting tricks to stop the sun’s rays getting through, but which do nothing about the long-term carbon problem. Techniques range from the cheap and frankly silly – painting house rooftops white – to the hi-tech Heath Robinson – erecting mirrors in space.. One feasible suggestion receiving a lot of attention is the idea of chucking between one and five million tons of sulphur annually into the stratosphere in order to create atmospheric haze or ‘global dimming’, an effect known from volcanic case studies and from 20th century post-war industrial pollution. The irony of polluting the planet in order to avoid the consequences of polluting the planet can hardly need elaboration. And here we meet the jet stream again, for at the tropopause convection currents are horizontal, not vertical, thus it is supposed that all this sulphur, once up there, will stay permanently on top of what amounts to a set of impermeable tinted window tiles. But here’s the rub: climatology is an uncertain business. As the Royal Society report admits: ‘Indeed there is a range of so far unexplored feedback processes, which could become important with a permanently engineered sulphate layer’.

Since volcanic sulphur emissions are associated with ozone depletion, and since ozone is thought to be instrumental in the lateral convection processes in the stratosphere, it does not seem beyond the bounds of possibility that a depletion in one could result in a collapse in the other. If all this sulphur ended up crashing through into the troposphere and the cloud layer, it would give us a global dose of sulphuric acid rain the like of which we have never seen. Then we would be fried whatever the weather.

Whether for CDR or SRM, most advocates of geoengineering emphasise that this is not an ‘instead of’ emissions reduction’ option, it’s an ‘as well as’, but opponents have pointed out that prominent advocates of this approach belong to those same conservative think-tanks which have all along been climate change deniers. The fear is that geoengineering is being touted as a cheap fix in order to avoid doing anything worthwhile (ie expensive) to solve the problem of carbon emissions. The deepest fear, of course, is not that geoengineering wouldn’t work, but that it would, and that it would do something catastrophic. It’s like setting about neurosurgery with a trowel and a lump hammer, while wearing a blindfold.

It is entirely of a piece with capitalism’s modus operandi that it sleepwalks into a problem and then guessworks its way out of it, while arguing bitterly about whose fault it is and who’s going to pick up the bill. But there is one other interesting fact about the jet stream which, if the world gets a lucky break and the bickering capitalists get booted off the planning committees, socialists may well be able to turn to good account: “According to one estimate, of the potential wind energy in the jet stream, only 1 percent would be needed to meet the world’s current energy needs. The required technology would reportedly take 10–20 years to develop” (Wikipedia). Now that would be one hell of a windmill.
Paddy Shannon

Rear View: Return to hell (2016)

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

Return to hell

We the 99 percent suffer worldwide, but in some areas more than others. Haiti could reasonably be described as hell on Earth. 2010’s earthquake and tsunami killed more than 160,000 and displaced up to 1.5 million people. More recently, the UN-caused cholera outbreak killed thousands and hospitalised hundreds of thousands. During this time hundreds of women and underage girls traded themselves for food and medicine. The Red Cross avoided killing anyone but after raising half a billion dollars built just six homes – about as effective as using a Band Aid on a tumour. Last month, over 900 lives were lost when a hurricane struck. So why is Haiti so prone to such disasters, UNnatural or otherwise? ‘More than half of Haiti’s city-dwellers live in overcrowded shantytowns that take the full force of any earthquake, hurricane, or disease outbreak… Massive deforestation has also led to soil erosion, leaving hillside huts and poorly-built houses in the capital, Port-au-Prince, dangerously exposed. In rural areas, topsoil used for agriculture is often washed away. Political instability and corruption have been a factor. Without effective government for decades, Haiti currently ranks 163rd out of the 188 countries on the UN Human Development Index. It spends little on storm defences’ (bbc.com, 7 October).

Mighty Pillock

‘An Egyptian MP has called for women to be forced to undergo virginity tests before being admitted to university, it has been reported. Parliamentary member Elhamy Agina called on the Minister of Higher Education to issue a mandate requiring him or his officials to enforce the virginity tests, Egyptian Streets reports. He has suggested that university cards could only been issued to female students on completion of a virginity test. In an interview with local media, he said: “Any girl who enters university, we have to check her medical examination to prove that she is a Miss. Therefore, each girl must present an official document upon being admitted to university stating she’s a Miss.” The term “Miss” in Egyptian culture is often used to refer euphemistically to whether a woman is a virgin’ (theindependent.co.uk, 1 October). In a socialist world, education will replace schooling and have nothing to do with whether one is a virgin, can pay, possess a certain skin colour or caste origin. Such ideas will be thrown into the dustbin of history, along with degrees in conflict studies, economics, homeopathy, political geography, theology, etc.

Breaking down the profit system

‘In his 93 years, Bob Wallace has seen some product-pricing doozies over the decades, but the nonstop national furore over the stratospheric price hikes for EpiPens — now retailing above $700 for a two-pack — was the final shot . . .  So in time-honored Silicon Valley tradition — and piqued by the EpiPen-maker Mylan’s corporate tagline Seeing Is Believing — Wallace and Roland Krevitt, a veteran Scotts Valley manufacturing and tooling consultant, set out to demystify the cost to produce the EpiPen, piece by piece. The auto-injector delivers a lifesaving dose of adrenaline to treat serious allergic reactions to everything from bee stings to food. Hunched over his vintage Shopsmith table saw in his garage, Wallace sliced open the plastic injector to begin reverse-engineering the device. Then it was Krevitt’s turn to break out his gram scale and caliper to crunch the costs for molding and manufacturing the nozzle, needle, syringe, springs, safety cap — and 0.3 mg of epinephrine. Their startling estimate of the cost for a two-pack of EpiPens: $8.02 ‘ (mercurynews.com, 1 October).

$ick of the $ystem

Whether or not life-saving drugs are made is first a question of profit. Their use is not determined by need, as Dr Francisco Olea-Popelka, from the Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, confirmed recently. He said zoonotic tuberculosis is far more common than previously recognised, with over 120,000 new cases of animal TB each year. The figure is dwarfed by tuberculosis and HIV, with each accounting for between 1.1 million and 1.2 million unnecessary deaths in 2014. But Dr Olea-Popelka thinks we should care, adding ‘this is a well-known problem and has been neglected for decades, it is a disease that is preventable, treatable and curable and yet still today we have hundreds of thousands of people suffering from it’ (bbc.com, 1 October).

50 Years Ago: Insult to Injury (2016)

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

Make no mistake about it. The Labour government is out to cut our standard of living. To be sure, they claim this is necessary so that standards can rise in the future. But we need take no notice of this. After all we’ve heard it so many times before from Labour and Tory alike. First it was Cripps, then Gaitskell, then Butler, then Thorneycroft, then Selwyn Lloyd and now Wilson. But the promised prosperous futures with steadily rising living standards have never appeared and, of course, they never will. You don’t have to be a Socialist to be sceptical on this point.

What the government is trying to do is to freeze wages and salaries at July 20 levels and allow prices to rise to offset “tax increases and import price rises”. If this works, our standard of living will have been cut and more of the wealth we produce will be available for profitable investment.

It’s bad enough to have this attack on our living standards and to be intimidated by the “reserve powers” of the Prices and Incomes Act. But we have also to take Minister of Labour Gunter telling us that this is what we deserve as we have been “dishonest and thriftless” and clever Dick Crossman and the New Statesman telling us that this is a step towards Socialism.

It is surprising that there are still people who think that trade unionists and workers generally have something to gain from backing Labour.

(Editorial, Socialist Standard, November 1966)

Beyond protest (2016)

Book Review from the November 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

The End of Protest. A New Playbook for Revolution’. By Micah White. Alfred A Knopf. Canada. 2016.

Micah White says he was one of those who thought up the idea of occupying Wall Street in September 2011. His proposed aim for this was to demand that Big Money be taken out of American politics, but the Occupiers’ demands soon went beyond this. According to him, he and others really believed that the occupation could topple Wall Street in the same way that demonstrations and occupations earlier in the year had toppled dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt. This book is his explanation of why this didn’t happen, why it was never likely to, and why capitalism is not going to be overthrown in this way. Hence ‘the end of protest’, or at least of this kind of protest with this aim.

We could have told him that minority direct action of this sort is not the way to overthrow capitalism – as he himself points out, the state has the power and the majority-backed (even if manipulated) legitimacy to deal with such protests – but it is good to see someone who once believed this to be the way come to realise that it isn’t.

So what is he now advocating? On the surface, something surprisingly similar to how we have envisaged revolution. He calls for a ‘leaderless world revolution’ in which, among other things, a ‘World Party’ will win political power in one country ‘sparking an electoral insurrection in one place after another’, meaning ‘the electoral social movement would hop around the world from victory to victory’. The people, he says, ‘must capture legislative and executive control constitutionally and legitimately’ because this will assure mainstream support for the revolution. He compares his change of mind to Engels changing his about barricades and also advocating elections in place of an out-dated tactic.

That’s as far as it goes as White envisages that the ‘electoral social movement’ should start by aiming to win control of ‘sparsely populated towns and cities’, declaring them liberated and running them without leaders. He himself is practising what he preaches, standing for mayor of Nehalem (population 291) in this month’s US elections (we can report next month how he fared). He does not say on what platform he thinks elections should be contested. Since he still believes that a conscious minority can express ‘the people’s will’ independently of what a majority of people at one time might think or want, it could well be something other than a full revolutionary programme, just democratic reforms.

He has also gone mystical. At college he provocatively formed an atheist society but he now looks to divine or supernatural intervention to play a part in the revolution. This could lead to his other views not being taken seriously.
Adam Buick

Election result
In our review of Micah White’s book The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution we said we would say how he did in his bid to become mayor of Nehalem in rural Oregon in the election there in November. He got 36 votes (20%). The election was won by his Republican Party rival with 138 votes)

Changing climate (2016)

Book Review from the November 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Farewell to Ice: A Report from the Arctic’. By Peter Wadhams. Penguin Books, 2016.

Peter Wadhams is a professor of ocean physics at the University of Cambridge and former director of its Scott Polar Research Institute. Over 47 years as a polar researcher he has been on many expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic.

His book straddles three literary genres. Part of it is a scientific exposition of the properties and structure of ice and how it forms under various conditions (quite differently in the Antarctic from in the Arctic, for instance). Other passages are a prose poem on the beauty of icy landscapes that only a few hundred people have ever seen. Above all, it is a warning of the gathering speed and momentum of climate change, culminating in a ‘call to arms.’

The author explains all the positive feedbacks that are accelerating global heating. The most alarming new development, he argues, is the release of methane – a very powerful greenhouse gas – from shallow Arctic seas whose warming is starting to melt long-frozen seabed sediments. In his opinion, the seriousness of the situation is understated not only by those who deny the reality of human-made climate change but also by many of his fellow specialists in the field, such as climate modellers who stubbornly stick to the predictions generated by their models even when the latter conflict with recent field observations.

Although most of the book focuses on the Arctic, there is a very valuable chapter on the Antarctic. The Antarctic is rather isolated from the rest of the planet in geographical and meteorological terms, although if global heating continues it will eventually suffer the same fate as the Arctic.

Professor Wadhams takes the view that it is now too late to avert disaster without resort to geoengineering – that is, ‘engineering’ the earth in ways that will reduce incoming solar radiation, increase the albedo (reflectivity) of the Earth’s surface or remove greenhouse gases from the air. (For more on geoengineering, see Pathfinders in the September 2010 and January 2011 issues of the Socialist Standard.)

The author’s clear scientific explanations contrast with rather muddled treatment of economic and political matters. But credit where credit is due: there is one paragraph in Chapter 13 where he does penetrate to the core of the problem facing our species:
  ‘The world’s rickety financial structure still requires perpetual growth in order to retain stability … Within the present capitalist system, as practiced by everyone including China, there is no way that a sustainable equilibrium society can be tolerated. Everyone knows that exponential growth … cannot continue and will lead only to disaster, yet every finance minister seeks to encourage economic growth …’
Unfortunately, this is a flash in the pan. Wadhams does not develop this insight or explore its implications. Instead he reverts to blaming the situation on superficial factors like the greed that makes people buy SUVs and the fact that most political leaders have no scientific training (a noted exception being Margaret Thatcher, with whom Wadhams was in direct contact).

It is all very well to call for ‘colossal programs on an international scale’ – but there is no real world community to consider and undertake such programs. Who can imagine the rival capitalist powers pooling their efforts to bring back the Arctic ice? The same powers that right now are ‘scrambling for the Arctic’ – salivating over the profit-making opportunities opened up by the retreat of the ice and manoeuvring to control the region’s newly accessible resources (see ‘Scramble for the Arctic,’ Material World, September 2007)?

The crucial problem is not how to devise programmes to save our planet but how to create the world community.

Soap Gets In Your Eyes (2016)

The Proper Gander Column from the November 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

If you’re watching EastEnders and your mind starts to wander away from its latest round of tragedies, you start noticing the odd little conventions of soap operas. Why do characters in soaps never sit down to watch soap operas, for example? How do they find the time to go to the pub several times a day? Why do so few families have washing machines and instead air their dirty linen in the launderette? Why does every conversation end with one person looking pensively into the distance?

Since it began in 1985, EastEnders has clocked up over 5,300 episodes, and attracts audiences of around ten million viewers when there’s a big shock storyline. It’s more dour than rivals Coronation Street and Emmerdale usually are, and right from its inception was intended to reflect everyday issues facing Londoners.

So does EastEnders really represent ‘working class life’? We rarely see characters at work, except when they’re behind a bar or a shop counter and chatting. Having a job would get in the way of their complicated, convoluted relationships. Issues like debt, loss of employment etc are frequent sources of struggle, but the characters never talk about politics. Phil and Grant Mitchell didn’t have a discussion about which way they would vote in the EU referendum, for example. In fact, the referendum wasn’t even mentioned. Albert Square doesn’t get affected by real-world concerns like elections, wars and The Great British Bake Off.

But do we expect soap operas to be realistic, and mirror life within the sound of Bow bells? If Albert Square was a real place, no-one would want to live there, given the number of murders and disasters which happen, especially every Christmas. Thankfully, real life tends to be more humdrum, and if EastEnders really was realistic, hardly anyone would bother tuning in.

Or should we say that soaps are realistic to the extent that the characters behave authentically in an unrealistically constant succession of calamities and other life-changing events? As writer Steve Neale described, soap storylines are shaped by coincidences, chance meetings, revelations and last-minute rescues, far more than real lives are. Recently, EastEnders’ characters have faced alcohol addiction, miscarriage, homophobia, murder and redundancy, among other issues. The producers often consult with specialists about how the most emotive subjects should be approached, partly to shape our perceptions of them. A storyline about domestic abuse, for instance, would be carefully planned to raise awareness among viewers of the hurt and damage it causes and the support available. Soap operas therefore have some value and influence in highlighting social issues, even if they don’t relate them to a wider social context. This means that soap characters don’t necessarily behave in ‘realistic’ ways, but in ways which reflect what the programme-makers want to say. All drama is, by definition, contrived and even something improvised can’t reflect the ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty of real life. So it’s too much to expect soap operas to copy real life.

We gawp at soaps partly for schadenfreude – watching the characters live through each misery. When a prominent character is about to get killed off, this is often ghoulishly advertised with trailers and on TV guide magazine covers. But we wouldn’t keep tuning in if we didn’t find the characters engaging. Characters in soap operas are, to some extent, vicarious friends and families. We can snoop on their dodgy deals, affairs, lies and rows, because their lives tend to be more eventful than our own. Soaps also give us a vicarious sense of community. How many of us know as many of our neighbours as the residents of Albert Square do? Or in other words, how many of us know Dot Branning or Ian Beale better than we know some of our neighbours or colleagues?

Incidentally, if you’ve ever wondered why they’re called ‘soap operas’, it’s because these dramas originally tended to be sponsored by soap manufacturers. This term is appropriate, given that the characters and settings are set in a soapy bubble, away from everyday life.
Mike Foster