Thursday, February 28, 2019

Rear View: A frightful hobgoblin is stalking US colleges and universities (2016)

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

A frightful hobgoblin is stalking US colleges and universities

‘The Communist Manifesto is ranked among the top three most popular assigned readings in American college and university classes, according to the Open Syllabus Project (OSP). Karl Marx himself is the most assigned economist in higher education courses … One of the reasons Marx and Engels’s pamphlet may be so popular nearly 170 years after its publication is that it can be used to study a wide variety of subjects, including history, economics, social theory, and politics. It is also arguably the most influential work of the twentieth century, inspiring several uprisings, a number of communist revolutions, and the formation of both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China among other governments’ (, 1 February). Supporters of the status quo can relax: the spectre haunting colleges is not that of communism but, at worst, social democracy, as espoused by Bernie Sanders. Marx and Engels, by contrast, wanted something rather different: ‘in place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’ (Communist Manifesto, 1848). Nothing like this exists, or has existed. The old lie about Russia being socialist or communist (Marx and Engels used the terms interchangeably) – and later, China, Cuba, Venezuela, etc – was identified remarkably early: in the August 1918 edition of this very journal.

Workers of the word wake up!

1865: ‘Instead of the conservative motto, A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work, we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, Abolition of the wage system’ (Marx, Value, Price, and Profit).

1928: ‘Earning a wage is a prison occupation’ (Wages, DH Lawrence).

1965: Workers still ‘don’t realise that they can abolish the wages system’ (Socialist Standard).

2016: ‘Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to gradually increase the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour is supported by two-thirds of New Yorkers, according to a new Siena College poll’ (, 1 February).

Vice-president Marx?

‘Some Americans seem to be disconnected with historical reality, as a number of Hillary Clinton supporters signed a mock petition to approve 19th century socialist philosopher Karl Marx as her choice for vice-president if she’s elected president’ (, 2 February). Socialists do not agree with everything Marx said, even less actions carried out in his name or that of socialism/communism by groups or states –which would have him repeating in his grave the declaration ‘one thing’s for sure – I’m not a Marxist! – but starting with a clean slate, without misconceptions, can be viewed in a positive light. Emancipation à la Marx is ‘the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority in the interest of the immense majority’, without leaders, presidents –vice or otherwise.

Danger! Capitalism at work

Residents of Flint, a city in the US state of Michigan, have suffered greatly of late: cost-cutting has resulted in drinking water containing toxic levels of lead whilst clean water goes to Nestle. Legionnaires’ Disease is on the rise as is poverty. Flint also has a per capita violent crime rate seven times higher than the national average. Investigations are underway, but some members of our class, in a refreshing display of unity and concern, have already taken action: ‘more than 300 union plumbers from all over Michigan flooded Flint to install free filters for residents … Local plumbers with United Association Local 370 in Flint have been going door-to-door making sure that faucets are filter-ready since October … And last weekend, they got a boost from hundreds of union volunteers’ (, 2 February). Sadly, local action is not enough as across America 535,000 children ages 1 through 5 suffer lead poisoning, by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates, and, of course, this ‘problem’ exists worldwide.

Cultural poison

Lead poisoning such as that of water in Flint or from paint and petrol is an old ‘problem’ of modern capitalism which will end along with many others when a worldwide majority of us act to bring about socialism. The end of pre-history will also see the yoke of many barbaric cultural practices lifted, such as that of female genital mutilation which, according to a new study, ‘at least 200 million people in 30 countries have experienced ‘ (, 5 February). This particular tradition of long dead generations is a nightmare for its living victims. Other poisonous cultural relics include forced marriage, child brides, non-evidence based medicine, cock and dog fighting.

Dublin, Easter 1916: What We Said At The Time (2016)

From the March 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
A grave armed revolt in Dublin against English rule is raging at the time of writing. It is a revolt doomed from the outset, both because of the futility of its narrow nationalist aims, and the utter hopelessness of such a revolt against the mighty organised force of the political State. It is, apart from the fact that Socialism alone is worth fighting for, yet another illustration (if such were needed) that the organised Socialist conquest of the political power of the State is the only way, and that mere mob violence plays into the hands of the oppressor and strengthens the gyves that fetter us. Such a revolt, however, is the natural result of centuries of alien oppression, which has forced the ideas of Irishmen into nationalist channels and blinded them to its futility. And it is at the same time a fitting commentary on the pervid declarations of the British champions of “honour” and “righteousness” that “they” are fighting, above all, for the “rights of small nationalities”. (Editorial, May 1916)
The capitalist class – national and international – being in possession of the wealth stolen from the workers, compete with each other for the control of the world’s markets. This capitalist class, split into warring factions, are continually embroiled in trouble over the disposal of the wealth on the markets, but they present a solid front to the workers whenever the latter get out of hand in the endeavour to better their conditions of life. We have just witnessed in Ireland an example, where, as a result of an incorrect conception of their position in society, thousands of working men and women flocked into the Sinn Fein movement, only to be butchered by their oppressors in control of the armed forces of the State.
It is true that the Irish workers have a fearful struggle to live, like the rest of their class the world over. But an anti-social movement like theirs, with “Ireland for Irishmen” for its slogan, was doomed to failure from the start. We, the working men and women who form the Socialist Party of Great Britain, sympathise with our fellow workers in Ireland in their struggle against the hideously squalid conditions that prevail among them, but must record our hostility to any movement that is not based upon the class struggle. (The Prize-Fighter’s Evidence, July 1916)
We have heard much in times past on the subject of German atrocities, but the revelations vouchsafed to us in connection with the Dublin revolution leaves the question, a very debatable one as to whether the ruling class here are any better than elsewhere. The shooting of Sheehy Skeffington and two other journalists affords an illustration of the point. The details are rather significant, particularly the second shooting of Skeffington, when it is borne in mind that the officer who gave the order is declared insane. The reports of the court-martial to be found in the columns of the “Daily Chronicle” for June 7th and 8th are highly interesting. (By the Way, July 1916)
The latest blunder of the Irish working class is in the support given to the Sinn Fein movement, which seeks to establish a republic, with the examples of France and the United States before them proving conclusively the futility of such an experiment to abate their ever-growing poverty. The form of government makes no difference to the workers. Government implies subjects and under the capitalist system of society the actual government machinery, Parliament, councils and judiciary, etc., are representative of the capitalist class – the necessary machinery for ruling a subject class composed of wage-slaves. (….)
It is a false notion of the Sinn Feiners and Nationalists that the Irish workers must struggle for national independence before they can tackle the problem of poverty. But the working class everywhere is under one capitalist government or another. To split territories, set up new governments, or to re-establish old ones will not help them nor even simplify the problem. Their only hope lies in the speedy establishment of Socialism. They must join hands with the workers of the world, and make common cause against the ruling class. They must make ready use of the last war – the war of the classes, in which classes will be abolished and a real equality established on the basis of “common ownership and democratic control of all the means of life.” (The Irish Question in History, August 1916.)
The difficulties already existing in Ireland, coupled with the feelings engendered by the ruthless use of the military both during and since the futile “rebellion” would seem to make the game [of imposing conscription on Ireland] scarcely worth the candle (…)
Not until the working class in Ireland clearly grip the essential fact that they are slaves to the master class no matter what nationality these latter may be; fully realise that such slavery is confined within no national boundary but is world wide; throw off the mental shackles of either “nationalism” or “religion,” and join hands with their fellow workers the world over to abolish capitalism –the cause of modern wars –not until then will they be free from oppression and tyranny and be able to enjoy the results of their efforts applied to Nature’s resources. (Conscription Continued, November 1916)

50 Years Ago: The Election – What is at Stake? (2016)

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

On March 31st the electorate will once again go to the polls and perform the act which Socialists consider is of crucial importance to the way in which society is organised ― they will vote. Like other elections in the past, this one will generate its own groundless optimism. Once again, the illusion will be fostered that here is a fresh opportunity at last to solve the problems which have been a burden for so long. In spite of the enduring failure of all varieties of political parties to overcome such problems as war, poverty and the general chaos that is a constant feature of Capitalism, the Labour and Tory parties will go blandly into this election as if the experiences of the past had never occurred.

Once again, there will be the cheap traffic in promises. Once again, there will be the contrived differences between parties who are united in their defence of Capitalism. Once again, there will be the complete failure to face up to the realities of life in 1966. Once again, the politics of personalities, gimmickry and opportunism will take precedence over a serious understanding of the difficulties besetting society.

The records of both the Labour and Tory parties make a mockery of their claim to be the instruments of social improvement. The past policies of both these parties are an indictment which no amount of hollow phrase-mongering can overcome. For all their talk of progress and modernisation, their ideas and actions are imprisoned by the limitations of the status quo ― that is ― Capitalist society.

What is at stake in this election? What is it that the electorate by voting Labour, Tory or Liberal will endorse?

Whatever spurious disagreements will engage the Heaths and the Wilsons during this election, in fact they have a great deal in common. Socialists talk about the means of production and by this we mean all the instruments and technical know-how that man has developed for the purpose of producing wealth, from hand tools to nuclear power stations. All reformist politicians agree that these means of production should continue to be monopolised by a small privileged section of the population.
(From Socialist Standard, March 1966)

Rear View: Peaceful New Year? (2019)

The Rear View Column from the February 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

Peaceful New Year?

2019 got off to an unexpectedly candid start with US Strategic Command – ‘Peace is our Profession’! – tweeting ‘#TimesSquare tradition rings in the #NewYear by dropping the big ball . . . if ever needed, we are #ready to drop something much, much bigger’. The nuclear-armed Command later recanted: ‘Our previous NYE tweet was in poor taste & does not reflect our values. We apologize. We are dedicated to the security of America & allies’ (@US_Stratcom, 1 January). The video clip accompanying the original tweet prompted Caitlin Johnstone to comment: ‘The only way you could possibly encapsulate the US military’s values . . . more perfectly than cramming it full of footage of $2,000,000,000 warplanes cruising around dropping $3,500,000 GBU-57 bombs would be to also show the human bodies they land on being ripped to pieces. Inflicting death and destruction using unfathomably expensive machinery is the US military’s whole job. Of course, it reflects their values’ (, 2 January).

Class war

‘In the first three days of 2019 top bosses will have earned more than the typical worker will earn all year, according to a report. The average pay of a FTSE 100 chief executive is £1,020 an hour, research from the High Pay Centre and HR industry body the CIPD has found. By “Fat Cat Friday” bosses will have earned more than the typical annual UK salary of £29,574, the report said’ (, 4 January). Kautsky saw such capitalists as anachronistic by the late nineteenth century: ‘But however necessary were the capitalist system and the conditions which produced it, they are no longer so. The functions of the capitalist class devolve ever more upon paid employees. The large majority of the capitalists have now nothing to do but consume what others produce. The capitalist today is as superfluous a human being as the feudal lord had become a hundred years ago’ (The Class Struggle, 1888).

‘There never was a good war or a bad peace’

Writing a century earlier Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers who paved the way for American capitalism, wrote: ‘What vast additions to the conveniences and comforts of living might mankind have acquired, if the money spent in wars had been employed in works of public utility. What an extension of agriculture even to the tops of our mountains; what rivers rendered navigable, or joined by canals; what bridges, aqueducts, new roads and other public works, edifices and improvements, rendering England a complete paradise, might not have been obtained by spending those millions in doing good which in the last war have been spent in doing mischief! In bringing misery into thousands of families, and destroying the lives of so many thousands of working people who might have performed the useful labor’ (Letter to Josiah Quincy, 11 September 1783). Indeed.

Piecemeal lists 40 major wars since 1700, including WWI, the war to end all wars. Just five years after that mass murder ended, War Resisters League was founded by Jessie Wallace Hughan with a focus on ending armed conflict. ‘Today’s WRL is zeroing in on underlying causes of military tension—including economic inequality, unequal access to resources, imperialism, and racism’ (, 25 October). How many such groups have come and gone? Innumerable peace treaties, pious resolutions, prayers, demonstrations have been written, passed, uttered, forgotten and staged since the dawn of capitalism. Nuclear weapons remain and cluster bombs are making a comeback. In addition to weapons of mass destruction, capitalism produces poverty, insecurity, disease, and all the vicious things that stem from those, and it gives rise to the wars for which governments are constantly preparing.

World without war

‘The increasing intensity of competition for economic markets must lead to armed conflict unless an economic settlement is found. This, however, is hardly to be hoped for. Talk about peace in a world armed to the teeth is utterly futile’ (W. M. Hughes, Prime Minister of Australia during WWI, News Chronicle, 25 July 1936). Time and time again the socialist has demonstrated that war stems from capitalist struggles for markets, trade routes, sources of raw materials, and places of strategic importance. The 99 percent based in the UK and US face the same problems as members of our class existing elsewhere. Workers have no country. If anybody can really delude themselves into believing piecemeal measures will bring everlasting peace worldwide, their gullibility can know no bounds. We have a job to do, in this century, the establishment of socialism, and while workers are pursuing reform rather than revolution, they are falling down on their historically appointed task.

Pathfinders: The Far Side (2019)

The Pathfinders Column from the February 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last month saw a lot of coverage of China’s ‘far-side’ moon landing, which in a technical first gave us close-up views of what’s possibly the most boring landscape in the solar system. While various scientific objectives were advanced by pundits to justify this extravagant operation, some of them even possibly valid, nobody was in any doubt about the real reason. The Chinese state did it just to show off. It would of course be churlish to suggest they could have spent the money on something more useful, such as helping the estimated 30 million Chinese living below the poverty line. Shame though that they didn’t plant their probe in the Sea of Tranquillity right next to the Apollo 11 lander, just to prove the Americans really went there in 1969, which might finally shut up the Moon Hoax conspiracy nuts. Indeed that’s exactly what the head of Russia’s space agency proposed to do recently ‘to verify whether they’ve been there or not’ (Independent, 24 November). Not that this really would shut up the conspiracy bores anyway. They would just claim that the Russians had faked their trip too.

There is in the contemplation of certain technological feats a strange sense of detachment from Earthly realities. Instead of ‘how?’ you find yourself asking ‘why?’ Take the annual CES technology show recently displaying the latest in allegedly must-have gadgets in Las Vegas. Who for instance is ever likely to need an indestructible notepad that works underwater, a digital plank of wood, a robot pet or one that draws doodles on your walls, a skin printer that covers up facial lines, an automated laundry folder the size of a wardrobe, an advent calendar that defeats ‘smell fatigue’, a walking car, or a light sabre you can really hit people with? It all makes bendy phones and wall-size TVs seem positively conservative. No wonder one visitor expressed his feelings thus: ‘I feel my sanity draining away’ (BBC Online, 11 January). In a socialist society that’s solved the most pressing social issues already, such as hunger and homelessness, you might certainly argue that there’s a place for weird and wacky inventions. Nobody wants to be a killjoy, after all. But there are certainly bigger priorities right now. Instead of inventing things that people don’t need, didn’t ask for and mostly can’t afford anyway, why don’t the tech boffins think about what people really do need?

Well the short answer is that invention in capitalism isn’t driven by necessity so much as buying power. The nerds are trying to produce things that people who already have too much stuff and money will be willing to spend that money on. So the rich are targeted with ever more techno-tat while the poor remain ignored. As for the long answer, well technology won’t give us what we need anyway, because what we really need is a change in society and the abolition of class inequality, and you can’t knock that up in a laboratory or a garden shed.

One controversy at CES was the banning of an award-winning innovation, which was a women’s robotic sex toy. Quite why this was banned was unclear. The organisers claimed it was ‘inappropriate’ although they didn’t see anything inappropriate about the Virtual Reality Porn room next door to the expo, which saw over a thousand visitors on the very first day. Many of the visitors described the experience as ‘awesome’, or words to that effect, and appeared to appreciate it far more than the debut appearance of the creepy AI sex robot that swivels its head, blinks its eyes and talks as if it has had its jaw wired. While the CES organisers contend with an ongoing image of male bias and prejudice, the idea of virtual reality porn suggests a further inspiring notion: virtual reality socialism. Maybe in the absence of a real global revolution for common ownership we could invite people to put on a VR headset and ‘see’ socialism in action. A friend’s comment in response to this idea was ‘You mean you’d put on the headset and all the beggars and rough sleepers would disappear off the streets?’ Er, yeah, we guess so, among other things, although in that case you’d better watch where you put your feet.

Nature 3/10 Must Try Harder
Contrary to what creationists seem to think, if evolution was really driven by a conscious designer, that designer would get the sack for negligence and incompetence. No engineer – much less an omnipotent being – would design the mammalian eye with blind spots, or send the giraffe’s laryngeal nerve on a long and pointless route from the brain all the way down its neck and around the heart before looping back up to the larynx. Similarly, why design plant photosynthesis to be only 2 or 3 percent energy efficient, when we can already do better than that with today’s photovoltaic cells? Well now a team has figured out how to tweak plant chemistry to increase its energy conversion rate, and first results have shown a 40 percent increase in crop biomass (New Scientist, 12 January). Now that’s what we call useful technology, although there is bound to be a backlash from anti-GM protestors who will insist that what is ‘natural’ is good and what is artificial is therefore bad. The fears of such protestors have not been borne out by experience over the decades GM has been used in America, China and South-East Asia. The world has not after all been overrun by invincible killer GM weeds or new killer pests. If socialism were established tomorrow and food production needed to be ramped up quickly, GM technology continues to look like a good bet.
Paddy Shannon

Scam Exposed (2019)

Book Review from the February 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Sarawak Report: the Inside Story of the 1MDB Exposé’, by Clare Rewcastle Brown (Lost World. £14.99)

In May last year there was a general election in Malaysia in which the Prime Minister, Najib Razak, was voted out of office. This was the culmination of events dating back to 2009 and involving a massive scam in which billions of dollars were allegedly siphoned from the country’s finances into shell companies and the pockets of Najib himself and others. How all this was exposed is chronicled in considerable detail here by Rewcastle Brown, an investigative journalist whose blog Sarawak Report played a major role in bringing things out into the open.

The book and the exposé can be quite hard to follow for those not familiar with Malaysian politics; a glossary would have been very helpful in keeping track of the individuals and institutions involved. So we will focus on some of the more general issues which emerge.

One is the rarefied lives lived by a tiny number of elite people. Najib – who was also the Malaysian finance minister – used some of his wealth to buy votes in elections, while his wife had a liking for jewellery and expensive handbags. The ‘businessman’ Jho Low owned a mega-yacht and enjoyed throwing fabulously expensive parties. The Saudi royal family were involved too, and a company called PetroSaudi was used as a front for 1MDB (1 Malaysia Development Berhad, which is the equivalent of ‘plc’).

Stealing vast sums of money is all very well, but the funds need to be transferred into the global economy in order to be used. Ways of doing this include use of private banks, shell companies and tax havens, but also buying works of art (such as a Picasso painting for $179m). Large auction houses, Rewcastle Brown argues, need reform just as much as dodgy banks do.

There is also the issue of the ways in which the ultra-rich defend themselves. Lawyers write letters to those investigating their clients, demanding apologies or threatening to sue. PR firms are paid to produce vitriolic personal attacks on bloggers and journalists and, in this case, run a website Sarawak Reports (with the extra ‘s’). Fake accounts are set up on social media, and Facebook and Twitter are useless in combating what the author calls ‘a professional defamation industry’.

Sarawak is a state of Malaysia on the island of Borneo. Rewcastle Brown was born there, and she tells the story here of how many indigenous people have suffered under the corruption and profiteering of Malaysia’s elites: ‘Tribes that had survived for centuries by their own skills, living in the jungle off abundant fish, vegetation and meat, were now stranded and starving in the face of “progress”.’ The whole book shows how a few people can attempt to fix things in their own interests, even if in this case they were in the end not successful.
Paul Bennett

Making A Drama Out Of A Crisis (2019)

The Proper Gander TV column from the February 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

The great big mess Parliament’s made of leaving the EU wasn’t what the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign told us it would be like. If you believed the slogan on the side of that bus, it would be as simple as transferring the £350 million apparently sent to the EU each week into the NHS’s needy coffers. That particular stunt was one among many examples of how the campaign strategists tried to shape opinion in the run-up to June 2016’s referendum. The manoeuvrings of the Vote Leave campaign team were recently dramatised in Channel 4’s revealing one-off Brexit: The Uncivil War.

Vote Leave’s chief strategist, and the drama’s central character, is Dominic Cummings. His CV includes running projects to stop Britain adopting the Euro and ratifying the EU’s constitution, and being Michael Gove’s main adviser during his unpopular stint as Tory Secretary of State for Education. Despite having a key role in shaping the Leave campaign, Cummings hasn’t been widely heard of, or attracted the attention of many journalists or commentators until now. Instead, the faces of the Leave campaign have been those of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, who are hardly glowing examples of humanity. In the drama, Cummings is portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays him as the usual Cumberbatch brooding maverick-type with an annoying amount of self confidence. He stands on tables, he cycles on the pavement, and he talks in blunt, opinionated aphorisms.

His manner makes him disliked among the ranks of white-haired, old-fashioned Leave-supporting MPs, not least for his boasts about wanting the campaign to look like ‘an insurgence against the establishment’. They needn’t worry about him doing anything to really challenge the status quo, but they should have realised he’s much savvier than them about how political campaigns are run in the 21st century. So, his approach utilises the latest social media tools, with its messages carefully honed from research and data.

Cummings wants his campaign to focus on ‘cost and control’. He’s reluctant to bring immigration too much into the pitch, saying there’s no need to target people who are against immigration as they’re already likely to back leaving the EU. He also thinks that Farage’s influence will lose them support, but sidekick Matthew Elliott suggests that Farage and his ilk can do the ‘heavy lifting’ on bringing xenophobia into the debate so ‘Vote Leave’ can keep their hands clean on the issue. The drama makes much of the lightbulb moment when Cummings thinks up the slogan ‘Take Back Control’, saying it appeals to the desire to regain what’s supposedly been lost. He wants leaving the EU to be a seen as proudly returning to the correct order, rather than bumbling into the unknown, as it’s turned out to be.

Also featured in the drama is Craig Oliver (David Cameron’s Communications Director), the Remain campaign’s main strategist. He’s depicted in a more reasonable, positive way than Cummings, albeit exasperated by his own campaign’s uphill struggle. Chatting with Cummings down the pub, Oliver says his campaign has had to counter a ‘slow drip drip drip of fear and hate’ he attributes to immigration. He tells Cummings that the Leave campaign ‘feeds a toxic culture’ of mistrust, while Cummings tells Oliver that his type has dominated politics for decades, and ‘change is exciting’. In an earlier scene, Cummings had recognised that (capitalist) referenda reduce complicated issues to crude binaries and sharp divisions in opinions. He doesn’t seem to realise, though, that his approach to the campaign exacerbated this.

Both sides of the campaign are shown to have a patronising, estranged attitude towards the general public. To them, each person is just a potential vote, there to be moulded into believing enough to cast it. The campaign teams ‘segment and target’ groups of people, such as ‘Ardent Internationalists’: degree-educated, gay marriage-supporting Remainers, and ‘EU Hostiles’ who are 98 percent white and retired, each comprising 11 percent of voters. Dividing up people into groups goes much deeper and more detailed than this, though. Our online activities leave behind a wealth of information about us, and algorithms are the mysterious driving force behind how this data gets processed, correlating who we are with what we prefer. Specialist software gathers information on websites visited, or tweets retweeted, or Facebook groups joined, cross-references it with each other and builds up a vast database of who is interested in what. Millions of Facebook users had their data surreptitiously mined by the disgraced consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica, and sold on to Vote Leave. This information was then used by the campaign to target particular adverts to particular groups of people. So, anyone who clicked on a specially-designed Facebook post about Turkey, for example, would be sent the version of a Vote Leave advert which they will be most receptive to. The idea is that you’ll convince someone of something easier if you exploit its connections with something they already agree with. Barack Obama’s presidential election campaign led the way with this strategy, apparently.

Reducing people’s preferences to data is a simplistic way of relating to others, and when used to shape opinion, is manipulative and demeaning. The campaign teams are more comfortable treating the electorate as statistics than dealing with them as real people. As Brexit: The Uncivil War shows, modern political campaigning is about using the latest technology in an insidious, cynical way and glossing over complex issues. Why risk trying to change opinion through balanced, reasoned debate when you have tools like targeted adverts and a big red bus plastered with an extravagant claim?
Mike Foster

The Dark Side of Agri-Capitalism (2019)

From the February 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

Part Two: Environmental Impacts

While Almeria has an annual rainfall of just over 200 mm, greenhouse production requires something equivalent to 800-1,000 mm of water. The shortfall in water supply has traditionally been overcome by sinking wells and tapping the water trapped in the local aquifer. Hundreds have been sunk – many illegally – causing the water table to drop. Not only has this adversely impacted on the wider region but ‘aquifer drawdown’ also tends to create a vacuum underground which is then filled by another water source nearby – the Mediterranean.

Sea water is, of course, saline (and the level of salinity in the Mediterranean itself is comparatively high) so the ingress of seawater underground, and then into the irrigation system itself, results in salinisation and, hence, the destruction of crops. This has led to some greenhouses falling into disuse with new ones being erected elsewhere, along with the sinking of new wells, to get round this problem, thus increasing the area under plastic in a way that mimics the pathology of a spreading cancer.

Technical fixes have been advanced to tackle this problem, including the establishment of several water de-salinisation plants but the water provided is 1.5–4 times more costly in energy terms than pumped water. Relying on the Mediterranean is just exchanging one finite resource for another (Melissa Cate Christ, The Scapegoat Journal, 2013).

Other technical fixes include water re-use (though this is not very suitable for young plants) and the development of soilless or hydroponic systems of growing crops, using a substrate like perlite, and computerised drip technology which also delivers chemical fertilisers to the plants. ‘Fertigation’, however, presents a problem with what to do with all the vegetable waste – over 700,000 tonnes per year (ibid) – much of which is just dumped, rather than recycled or composted, contributing to contamination of the environment. While such technologies have certainly improved the efficiency of water usage they have not really overcome the growing problem of falling water tables or, indeed, the leaching of chemicals into the environment.

Moreover, the close proximity of thousands of greenhouses creates ideal conditions for the spread of pests and diseases. The traditional response has been to blitz crops with chemical pesticides – although, interestingly, Almeria itself has become a world leader in Integrated Pest Management (IPM) involving more environmentally-friendly methods of pest control. This came about as a result of a 2006 Greenpeace report revealing high levels of pesticide residues in produce from the region. The bad publicity caused a drastic drop in sales and the chemical in question was blacklisted. Nevertheless, pesticides continue to be used with adverse health consequences for those working within the relatively closed environment of the greenhouses.

Another environmental problem is the industry’s ubiquitous use of plastic itself. Not only does the manufacture of plastic sheeting add to the industry’s environmental footprint in terms of the consumption of fossil fuels this requires (the same would be true of the high transportation costs of shifting agricultural products by truck to Northern Europe); there is also the problem of how to dispose of all that plastic once it has been used.

Plastic tarps have a relatively short lifespan under the blazing sun of Southern Spain. Though in recent years the authorities have set up collection points for used plastic, a lot of it – not just tarps but containers of all sorts – ends up being dumped along roadsides or in gullies or even burnt – presumably because it is more convenient or less costly than transporting it to the collection points where it has to be sorted. In 2018, the group, Ecologistas en Accion, released dramatic video footage of a local river, normally a dry barranco, absolutely choked with plastic detritus after a storm. Such rubbish makes its way to the sea where it can harm or kill marine life, including even sperm whales, or else breaks down over time into micro-plastic particles that enter the food chain.

Migrant Labour
The so-called ‘economic miracle’ that is Almeria’s greenhouses would not be possible but for the harsh exploitation of cheap labour. This is yet another externality, along with the environmental costs of production that tends to be left off the capitalist equation: the social costs of production. For Marx, these things were vitally interconnected:
 ‘All progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility’ (Capital, Vol 1).
When Almeria’s greenhouse sector began to develop back in the 1960s it relied mostly on family labour supplemented by locally-based seasonal labour. In the 1970s immigrant workers, chiefly from Morocco, began to arrive. Entire families would come to do the harvesting and then return to Morocco. Being paid less than the local workforce they soon replaced the latter as a source of seasonal labour.

In the 1980s, Moroccan labour was supplemented by workers from Sub-Saharan Africa which also signalled a shift from the organised annual too-ing and fro-ing between countries that had characterised the earlier migrations. Increasingly migrants tended to remain in the area, post-harvest, because of the greater logistical problems of migration in their case. Still later, from the 1990s onwards, this pool of migrant labour was joined by others – from Latin America and Eastern Europe (following the enlargement of the EU). Some of this labour, as in the case of Eastern Europe, was officially recruited in the country of origin but increasing use was made of illegal undocumented migrant labour, particularly from Africa. Recent developments in that continent (and elsewhere) have ensured a steady growth in this supply.

While Europe’s so-called refugee crises, peaking in 2015, initially focussed on refugees from the Middle East and their impact on point-of-entry countries like Italy and Greece, more recently attention has shifted to Spain which, according to a Reuters report, is emerging as a ‘new weak link’ in Fortress Europe’s efforts to stem the inflow of migrants (July 7, 2018). The numbers of asylum applicants arriving in Spain is currently rising sharply. This graphically illustrates how interconnected the world has become and subject to the dynamics of global capitalism. The economic forces that precipitate civil wars over mineral wealth in some distant African state are the self-same forces that condemn those who flee to a miserable existence in Almeria’s plastic hell.

Many of these are undocumented illegals; their very illegal status enabling employers to depress their wages to a bare minimum. Even those with legal contracts are little better off. Ironically, the ability of employers to hire large numbers of illegal workers, often with the collusion of the authorities, means that workers applying for a legal contract, supposedly granting them certain basic rights, have to pay a steep price for it. According to one source this can amount to several thousand euros (Network for the Promotion of Sustainable Consumption in European regions). Even then, there are ways and means for employers to get round legal requirements – for instance, registering workers for social insurance – simply by hiring them for less than the statutory minimum of 180 days per year. All the odds are stacked in favour of the employers and against the workers.

The wages these workers receive fall significantly below even the legal minimum. The norm is between 33 and 36 euros per day, though there have been cases reported of daily earnings falling well below even this derisory level – of 20 euros per day according to one report in the Guardian (7 February, 2011).

There are an estimated 100,000 migrants working and living in the greenhouses. Work conditions are atrocious. Temperatures in the greenhouses can rise to above 45 degrees Celsius, the toil is back-breaking and Health and Safety standards are poor. There is little protection against the chemicals the workers come into contact with or breathe in.

Given their abysmally low income, they cannot afford even a minimally acceptable level of accommodation. Some live in barrack-like squalor in semi-derelict cortijos with hazardous electrical connections and poor sanitary facilities for what is often, under the circumstances, an extortionate rent; others create constructions for themselves called chabolas made out of old pallets, plastic and cardboard erected amongst the greenhouses themselves. There tends to be a rigid segregation between migrants and locals (who live in agro-towns completely surrounded by the greenhouses) which creates a breeding ground for racism. Simmering tensions have in the past broken out into race riots as happened in the town of El Ejido in 2000.

Contradictions of greenhouse production
Ironically, those who harbour such racist sentiments are sometimes the very people who have prospered on the backs of the migrants. The direct employers, as stated, are largely small-scale family-based operators — an estimated 13,500 of them – who, over the course of several decades, have come to forge close dependent ties with an array of large-scale intermediaries such as banks, agribusinesses (providing seeds, irrigation technology, plastic sheeting etc.) and the supermarket chains. All of these want their slice of the pie and all have an interest in enlarging the size of that pie.

The result is that there is strong pressure on farmers to embrace technological innovations that enhance productivity. Output per hectare has indeed risen but at the cost of rising indebtedness to the banks to finance this technology. And therein lies the rub. For while innovation enables the operator to increase output it also leads to falling prices through increased productivity which then undermines the ability of these small operators to pay off their loans.

According to the aforementioned NPSCER report, operating costs can be between 30 and 40k euros per hectare, leaving many struggling to break even in stark contrast to the big supermarkets that bulk buy their produce. Such is the contradictory nature of the system we live under that plenty should come to be considered an economic curse.

The squeeze on profit margins, exacerbated by the small-scale nature of the greenhouse operators themselves has a further consequence – namely, that is likely to increase pressure on them to seek ways to reduce or externalise their costs of production. Certainly, as far as labour costs are concerned, the growing oversupply in relation to demand fuelled by the migrant crisis and augmented by the haemorrhage of jobs in construction following the 2008 property market crash, means the prospects of any real improvement in the circumstances of the greenhouse workers themselves seem bleak.

The same might be said of the environmental costs of greenhouse production. Despite efforts by the industry to clean up its act, notably with the adoption of IPM technology, to an extent this is just another example of ‘greenwashing’ to allay the concerns of increasingly health conscious customers in Northern Europe. It distracts from the more fundamental issues affecting the region – above all, that of falling water tables and future water supplies in the context of global climate change. Rainfall in the region has decreased by 18 percent since the 1960s and water shortages are projected to grow.

A final irony is that the very success that the Almeria greenhouse complex had achieved as an exemplar of high-tech commercialised agriculture has encouraged others to copy it. Though its energy costs are markedly less than in Northern Europe where greenhouses have to be heated, this advantage falls away in other parts of the Mediterranean basin such as Turkey or Morocco. Here the same model of greenhouse production is being aggressively pushed and labour costs are, if anything, even lower. With international competition heating up, this will likely add to the already relentless pressure to reduce or further externalise costs.

In so many ways, this little corner of the world represents a microcosm of global capitalism, a mirror on the environmentally and socially destructive forces the system unleashes in its pursuit of profit at any price.

Robin Cox