Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Can The Government Stop It? (1974)

From the April 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard

Every time a war ends they say, “Never again.” Every time trade picks up after a slump they say, “It can’t happen again. We know how to control the economy now.” They try tariffs, trade agreements, devaluation, revaluation, altering the bank rate, juggling with the price of gold. None of it works: slumps still happen, just as there is always a war going on somewhere these days. If things improve, the government takes the credit. If things get worse they blame the previous government or another country. The truth is that they have no control at all over the economic convulsions of capitalism, because they are uncontrollable. Slumps and wars are essential phases in its progress. They restore a sort of balance for a few years. But what a ramshackle way of organizing the production and distribution of goods in the world.


About Solzhenitsyn (1974)

Solzhenitsyn with Heinrich Böll in West Germany, 1974
From the April 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard

So Solzhenitsyn is now able to voice his views openly. It is possible, for the first time, to see how he measures up to the problems not merely of writers in Russia, but of all mankind. What can this Nobel Prize winner tell us?

Before weighing in with criticisms of his manifesto (Sunday Times, March 3), we must make it clear, first, that we have always opposed all forms of censorship, and secondly, that in criticising his ideas we are in no way defending the Kremlinite creed, to which we have consistently expressed our hostility. But however sympathetic we may be to one who has struggled successfully and has made his views heard in spite of all the Soviet censorship and suppression machine, we cannot applaud his political views.

We should like to have greeted him as a world citizen, an internationalist not a nationalist. But his views are based on an insular patriotism and Russian Orthodox Christianity. He believes in the myth of the “national interest”: indeed he bases his argument against a Russian war with China, not on the view that working-class interests are not at stake, but simply on the calculation that Russia could not win such a war and therefore it would be against Russia’s “national interest”.

Although apparently a fervent Leninist when he started his prison career, he is now a devout believer in Orthodox Christianity. If this is the result of incarceration in those inhuman prisons and labour-camps, it would seem to be an effective practical demonstration of the truth of Marx’s words:
  Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.
On War and the Environment
In his manifesto Solzhenitsyn argues on two issues of the day. The first is the prospect of a Sino-Soviet war: he proposes that, since in his view ideology is the main cause of friction, the Russian government should abandon its ideology in the “national interest”. He seems to believe that, if this were done, there would be peace with China.

What the author of August 1914 should know is that nowhere can one find evidence of a war being fought solely because of ideology. Dogs may dislike each other’s colour or breed, but when they fight it is over a bone, or a bitch. Humans likewise don’t fight over creeds, but over markets and minerals, ports and provinces.

Solzhenitsyn’s second argument is not original and he names his sources — the Club of Rome and the Teilhard de Chardin Society. He has adopted their doomsday environmentalism, arguing against pollution and skyscraper cities and for a return to 2-storey houses and horse-transport. He sees a no-growth economy as the solution to the problems of mineral shortages, population pressures and pollution.

His argument, like that of other doomsday writers, takes no account of any possible re-structuring of society. Their computers are never programmed to tell us how world Socialism, with production for use not for profit, would employ the earth’s resources. Like the Club of Rome, Solzhenitsyn assumes that production for profit will go on for ever, and then argues that this system must be reformed to prevent it from destroying mankind’s habitat. Better surely to argue for an end to capitalism, since it is a system which generates waste and seeks constantly to increase the quantity of materials processed, year by year.

Solecisms Versus Marx
But when we come to his views on “ideology” it is plain that Solzhenitsyn has no knowledge of what Marxist theory really is. He has accepted the lies of the Kremlinites and so presents us with a distorted caricature of Marxism, a series of Aunt Sallys which he passionately shoots down in flames.

From this great sage, we learn that Marxism, “a primitive, superficial economic theory . . . declared that only the worker creates value and failed to take into account the contribution of either organizers, engineers, transport or market systems.” To start with, he ignores the fact that Marxist theory puts engineers and transport workers in the working class: they all have a living to earn, they all have to sell their labour-power. Also that in reckoning the value of a commodity, we take into account the wear and tear on machinery, the value of all raw materials used in manufacture and also any socially necessary labour time used in research and development (e.g. by engineers, organizers etc.)

The Marxist theory of value asserts simply that human labour is the sole source of value. But there is a lot more to Marxist economic theory than this basic proposition: to start with there are three volumes of Capital, and it is doubtful if even the sage Solzhenitsyn would describe them as “superficial”.

His other attacks on Marxism are similarly wide of the mark. Most of all he goes wrong on the question of revolution. According to him, Marxism “was mistaken through and through in its prediction that socialists could only come to power by an armed uprising.” Evidently Solzhenitsyn’s education in ideology did not include what Engels wrote on this subject:
  The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses, is past.
Indeed Engels argued that for a complete transformation of society to be undertaken successfully, it must be on the basis of full participation and the support of the mass of the community.

Again, according to Solzhenitsyn, Marxism is wrong in stating that the Socialist movement will come to the fore in advanced and highly developed countries first. We have only to use our eyes, to look at countries such as Russia which claimed to be “socialist” and see that this vaunted pseudo-socialism is merely a nasty form of capitalism. In 1917 the S.P.G.B. was pointing to Russia’s backwardness as an indication that the revolution could only bring about an acceleration of capitalist development. Now in 1974 Solzhenitsyn describes how Russian technology has copied Western technology, how pollution increases due to greed for profits and how the people are oppressed by poverty:
  In practice, a man’s wage-level ought to be such that whether he has a family of two or even four children, the woman does not need to earn a separate pay-packet and does not need to support her family financially on top of all her other toils and troubles.
Russia is just as much a capitalist country as America or Britain, Cuba or Kenya. Everywhere the capitalist “mode of production” prevails: we see men and women who possess no land, no tools, nothing, who are driven by fear of want to sell their labour-power by the week or the month, mortgaging their lives in instalments so as to survive till the next pay-day. We see them producing goods galore, “an immense accumulation of commodities”, all their own work, yet they remain unable to afford most of what they need. We see human toil and human skills diverted from man’s real needs — food, clothing, health, housing, culture — to pander to the aristocracy of Big Business, the wasteful war-machine, the accountants, the luxury resorts, and so on.

This is what Marxists oppose: a worldwide system of exploitation of the many by, and for the benefit of, the few. A system which combines wanton waste with wasteful want. Shame it is that Solzhenitsyn has failed to join the movement to end it and has instead sided with those who say that authoritarianism can be made tolerable by reform. He is indeed one of those who “wear their chains with decency”.
Charmian Skelton

Russia is Capitalist (1974)

From the April 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard

No matter what lies their leaders tell them (chiefly to make them work harder), the people of Russia, China, Cuba, and countries like them live in capitalism — not Communism or Socialism. You want proof ? — In all these countries, just like Britain or U.S.A., capital is invested for profit; commodities are produced for sale; ordinary people work for wages. — That’s capitalism. It doesn’t make any difference if the state nationalises some, or all, industries — as we know in this country — the people still don’t own them. That is why they have to sell their energy and skill to those who do own them — and the state can be a more powerful and ruthless boss than private companies.

Wherever people work for wages or salaries, they have been robbed of the land, the mines, the factories and so on; and they are steadily robbed of everything they produce, because it doesn’t belong to them when they have made it. In Communism or Socialism (same thing) it will belong to them. The land and factories will belong to the whole people. But that doesn’t exist anywhere in the world yet. It is the next stage in the evolution of society — the system to supersede capitalism. The sooner we make the change-over the better.


So They Say: A Decent Idea (1974)

The So They Say Column from the April 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Decent Idea

“They fly forgotten, as a dream”: things said in General Election campaigns, of course. Here is one which should not be allowed to do so.

Before the election Mrs. Mary Whitehouse, as secretary of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, sent a five-point questionnaire to each of the party leaders purporting to seek their views “on the issues of indecency, obscenity and sex education”. In fact three of the questions were on that theme. The fourth asked for the leaders’ assurance that Christian religious teaching would retain a strong footing in schools. And the fifth? It ran:
  Would you establish a broadcasting commission to inquire into every aspect of broadcasting, particularly that of the facilities granted to the viewer and listener, and the effectiveness of existing safeguards against corruption and the exploitation of broadcasting by small and unrepresentative groups, whose activities enshrine anti-social and political aims.
(Guardian, 18th Feb.; our emphasis.)
Nothing about obscenity there. It means Mrs. White- house and her supporters want minorities to be refused expression of their views in the broadcasting media. Whose activities “enshrine political aims”?

Down With Profit — not Exactly —

During and after the Election the “big four” London Clearing Banks declared profits totalling over £600 millions, embodying increases over the past four years ranging from 67½ per cent. (Lloyd’s) to 99 per cent. (National Westminster). Whereupon Roger Opie, in The Guardian's Economic Notebook (4th March), carried on dreadfully — “effrontery”, “fantastic", “oligopolistic”, etc.:
  The Bankers have always had some excuse or other for their anomalous prosperity . . . Now a new one has been invented. The Chairman of the National Westminster Bank now has the impudence to argue that his and other banks’ vast profits are “in the national interest”.
Opie argues that the banks’ ordinary customers are made to subsidize their lending to pay for “the grasping excesses of the fringe bankers” and demands for advances from industry, and of the latter he says:
  Nor is this the only or the proper way to provide finance for industrial borrowers in liquidity trouble this year. Again, it is the responsibility of the Bank of England.
But this means Opie himself acquiescing in the myth of “the national interest”. He agrees that firms must be lent money at interest so that they can make profits. What is the difference? Is it nicer to see Carrington Viyella Ltd. on 11th March declaring a profit of £12,017,000 — or ICI’s £311 millions announced on 24th February? Presumably he would say these are features of the acceptable face of capitalism, as against the “unpleasant and unacceptable” one of the banks’ raking-in.

— in fact, Not at All

The source of all profit is the exploitation of the working class; where it goes is irrelevant. Part of the propaganda for nationalization (which Roger Opie ends up advocating, vis-à-vis the Clearing Banks) is that under State auspices workers are not exploited as they are under private ones.

The East German propaganda organ Democratic German Report (13th February) had a naive story on these lines. It told of Hermann Helbig, who had built up a small tailoring business after the war. It was one of 3,000 small enterprises nationalized in 1972, and he became manager. The article says:
   Property relations have changed fundamentally. Although the work is done on the same machines as two years ago, the workers are now the owners of the means of production.
That’s nice, Hermann. So the profit motive, wage- slavery and all that are abolished and . . . but what’s this?
  Hermann Helbig’s firm holds first place in the innovators’ movement of his district. Last year they achieved a per capita profit of 2,646 marks from innovations in the factory . . . New production techniques are to be introduced in the next few years and will provide for a further increase in productivity and reduction of costs.
So only the words are different. The actuality is the same.

Look, Mum — Twins !

We may have been wrong in insisting there is no difference between the “New” Left and the Old. There is a difference. The present lot are incontestably funnier, and International Socialists the most mirth-provoking of all.

Their paper Socialist Worker on 9th March had a front-page article headed keep your guard up! It began:
The Tories are out. Good.
The government that hammered workmg-class pay, living conditions and trade union rights for 3½ years has been kicked out of office.
Labour is back. That’s good, too.
We wanted a Labour victory because a vote for the Tories was a vote to carry on union-bashing, rent-raising, wage-freezing and profiteering.
Well, hurrah. And, having campaigned for a Labour government, what do IS anticipate from it?
For Labour supports the capitalist system . . .  it will surrender to the demands of the employers at home and the moneylenders abroad.
Don’t forget, the last Labour government — with a majority in parliament — froze your wages, hoisted your rents, boosted prices and profits and attempted to bring in anti-union laws.
This time the economic crisis is worse. Labour will attempt to shore up the tottering system by again turning on the organised labour movement.

Part of the System

IS, like the rest of the Left, want “organized labour” to take the form of extra-legal militancy. Something we have pointed out consistently is that workers’ organizations need trade-union law just as much as the employers and the government. One reason is simply to protect their funds which otherwise would be vulnerable.

As an example, in 1960 (chosen as a characteristic year, not an exceptional one) the Transport and General Workers’ Union lost £3,805. 4s. Id. through defalcations by Branch collectors. The standard resolution in each case includes that “proceedings be instituted under the Trades Union or other Acts” for the recovery of the moneys.

The sum is small in relation to the huge funds of the TGWU but the need for legal protection of funds is obvious. However, it can be added that in the same year the Union donated £75,000 to the Labour Party.

From Rags to More Rags

One of the myths of capitalism is that any man can become his own master and climb above the rest. The November issue of the New Zealand transport-union paper, Wheels, which has just reached us, has something on this subject. It cites a submission made by the Wellington Union to a Labour Bills Committee hearing:
The attraction to a worker to become an owner-driver is that:—
(a) His income will be greater than if he was an employed driver.
(b) He will, by physical effort and the application of his own initiatives, be able to increase even still further his income, and
(c) He will enjoy greater freedom of living, working, etc., due to being “his own boss”.
On examination it is found that in a great many cases this attraction is more illusory than real . . . The realities of this situation are that these workers are generally more heavily exploited than “employed drivers”.

Down to the See Again

On 3rd March The Sunday People, searching diligently as ever for scandals, found them among the priesthood in Rome:
I can inform His Holiness that when it comes to La Dolce Vita, the “sweet life” of Rome, there are no sweeter-living exponents than some of these young priests — and their more experienced seniors.
Lots about wine, night clubs, and permissive nuns. It would hold no interest — except that the Catholic Church lays great store by the text “By their fruits ye shall know them”, The common condemnation of Protestantism is that Martin Luther was a debauchee.

Will Catholicism therefore consent to being known by these fruits picked up by the Sunday People? Of course not. There are none like the religious for having their fruit and eating it. But how absurd they all are — reporter, Pope and priesthood alike!
Robert Barltrop

Letter: William Morris and Parliament (1974)

Letter to the Editors from the April 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard

I refer to the book review, “Revolutionary Art & Socialism”, in the January, 1974, Socialist Standard.

The writer states that ", . . he (William Morris) never did deny that in the course of the socialist revolution the working class would have to capture political power including Parliament”. Maybe. But putting it a different way: where does Morris actually advocate the capturing of political power, including Parliament as a (the?) means of establishing socialism/communism in Britain and elsewhere in the world ?

Perhaps A.L.B. might tell us the names of the ". . . anti-parliamentarians and anarchists” in the Socialist League who advocated “violence and bomb-throwing”.

Furthermore, was Morris’ vision of socialism the same as that of the SPGB? In his article, “Communism”, he writes: “An anti-socialist will say How will you sail a ship in a socialist condition? How? Why with a captain and mates and sailing master and engineer (if it be a steamer) and ABs and stokers and so on and so on. Only there will be no 1st, 2nd and 3rd class among the passengers: the sailors and stokers will be as well fed and lodged as the captain or passengers; and the captain and the stoker will have the same pay”. (Selected Writings, p670). But under socialism, will a ship have a captain as Morris and, for that matter, Engels (see his article “On Authority”) argue ?
Peter E. Newell

For the six years from 1884 that William Morris was an active member of the Socialist League he was resolutely opposed to a Socialist organization advocating or supporting reforms of capitalism and insisted that the sole task of such an organisation was to make socialists. In 1890 he left the League (because it had fallen under anarchist control) and later became reconciled to some extent to the Social Democratic Federation, and its policy of trying to advocate both Socialism and reforms.

But even in his period as a member of the League Morris was never completely and dogmatically anti-parliamentary in the way that anarchists were and are. For instance, he wrote to Dr. J. Glasse in May 1887:
  My position to Parliament and the dealings of Socialists with it, I will now [try] to state clearly. I believe that the Socialists will certainly send members to Parliament when they are strong enough to do so: in itself I see no harm in that, so long as it is understood that they go there as rebels, and not as members of the governing body prepared by passing palliative measures to keep “Society" alive (William Morris. The Man and The Myth, by R. Page Arnot, London, 1964, p.82). 
and again in September 1887:
  Of course, it’s clearly no use talking of parliamentary action now: I admit, and always have admitted, that at some future period it may be necessary to use parliament mechanically: what I object to is depending on parliamentary agitation. There must be a great party, a great organisation outside parliament actively engaged in reconstructing society and learning administration whatever goes on in the parliament itself (Morris’ emphasis, p.86).
We would not claim that Morris’ views were always clear, but it should be remembered that Morris was a pioneer Marxian socialist in Britain and was grappling here for the first time with a very important problem: how could a Socialist party prevent itself from becoming a reformist organisation? In his day the reformists were advocating the use of parliament to get reforms. Hence Morris’ anti-reformism tended at times to express itself as anti-parliamentarism. The use of parliament for the one revolutionary purpose of dismantling capitalism and its State, such as was advocated by the Socialist Party of Great Britain when it was founded in 1904, had not yet been elaborated, but as the above quotes show Morris came very near to doing this.

Was Morris’ vision of Socialism the same as ours ? Substantially, yes, but, as we said, Morris didn’t always express himself precisely. He and Engels are entitled to their opinions as to how they think a ship should he run in Socialism.

The 1890’s was a period of anarchist bomb-throwing called “propaganda by the deed’’. Those who came to control the League’s journal, Commonweal, after Morris left in November 1890, supported this policy. As one example, on 9 December 1893 Auguste Vaillant threw a bomb into the French Chamber of Deputies. Within two months he had been tried and executed. In June 1894 another anarchist assassinated the French President, Sadi Carnot, for having refused to pardon Vaillant. In July the English anarchists were selling a pamphlet “Why Vaillant Threw the Bomb’’ defending this assassination (see Wililam Morris, His Life, Work and Friends by P. Henderson, Penguin, pp. 411-2 and also pp. 376-7). For further evidence, Peter Newell might like to consult the files of Commonweal from 1890 onwards.
Editorial Committee.

The Professor and the Dustman (1974)

From the April 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard

Professor Samuelson’s book Economics: An Introductory Analysis is 794 pages long. It is the basic textbook for students of economics at American universities. In this mass of words there are only a meagre dozen or so references to Marx and Socialist ideas. That fact alone speaks volumes about the conspiracy against Marxian economics and Socialism in the so-called centres of learning.

Bland statements in the book like “A billion people, one third of the world’s population, blindly regards Das Kapital as economic gospel” display the Professor’s ignorance. How many people (in Russia and China, presumably the main places to which he is referring) have actually read any of Marx, let alone Capital? and what has state-capitalist Russia got to do with Marx’s main thesis that capitalist society, having created by technological advancement the possibilities for satisfying all man’s physical needs, should be replaced by Socialism — that is, a world-wide system based on common ownership and production for use?

Samuelson also states the following (pages 105-6):
  His (Marx’s) assertion that the rich will become richer and the poor poorer cannot be sustained by careful historical and statistical research. In Europe and America there has definitely been a steady secular improvement in minimum standards of living, whether measured by food, clothing, housing or length of life.
It is about time the Professor came out of his academic dark-room to look at the real world round him. For the working class, that is the vast majority, a study of Socialist ideas would put them on the right lines for solving the myriad problems they face all over the globe. The first step is to analyze correctly the society that surrounds them: a step equally necessary for the intellectual and the manual worker — say, the Professor and his dustman.

Capitalism is the system of society that exists over most of the world today. Those areas of the globe that are still surviving in semi-feudal conditions are being unavoidably brought into it. What is this system of society? It is based on private (or State) property relationships. The resources necessary to create wealth of whatever form are owned by, and therefore operated in the interests of, a small minority of the population. Production of the essentials (and luxuries) of life takes place solely because the owners of the means of wealth production hope to make a profit when what is produced is sold on the world markets. The ultimate object is the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the capitalist class.

There are certain features of capitalist society which can be distinguished. The converse of the fact that the instruments of production and what is produced belong to a small minority is that the vast majority own nothing other than their ability to work. Most workers in this country do not own the houses they live in, the cars they drive nor the washing machines they use; often even the clothes they wear are on credit. The fact that most people own almost nothing is even more apparent at the factories and offices where they work. The machines, raw materials etc. that they use, and the commodities they produce, belong to others. Other features of the landscape of capitalism are buying and selling, money, prices (including of course wages), employer and employee, and production for sale (commodity production). All these are identification marks of capitalism. They are all evident in the U.K., U.S.A., Russia, China, Japan, etc. Some of these things existed in a limited form in pre-capitalist society — e.g. a limited amount of commodity production in feudal society; none of them will exist in Socialist society.

Another characteristic of capitalism is great wealth alongside great poverty. The wealth of capitalist society is evident in vast luxury items (expensive houses, cars, hotels and so on) but the poverty side is even more evident. If it wasn’t, then government statistics make it abundantly clear. A report was published on 22nd February 1974 (see The Guardian of that date) based on figures from the Central Statistical Office. ‘‘Whatever happened to the Welfare State?” by George Clarke of the City Poverty Committee argues that living standards for one British citizen in four are now worse than they were in 1937-8. The report compares what an average family could purchase in 1937-8 with 1972, and shows that (largely because of increased food prices) one in four may well be worse off.

This sort of revelation (which, by the way, is constantly coming out of official sources) is of no surprise to the Socialist. It will clearly be a surprise to the Professor. In 1849, in his series of articles which later were published as a pamphlet under the title Wage, Labour and Capital, Marx pointed out that all wants stem from a social source. Man’s expectations depend on society’s possibilities at any given stage in man’s development. He says:
  A house may be large or small; as long as the surrounding houses are equally small it satisfies all social demands for a dwelling. But let a palace arise beside the little house, and it now shrinks from a little house to a hut.
When mankind is capable of producing vast quantities of things necessary to satisfy all sorts of desires which were unthought-of even fifty years ago, man’s social desires — his requirements of society — are raised proportionately. Accordingly, whether man is a socially satisfied creature depends on what needs are met at a given stage of his development. Queen Victoria did not miss a tv; now most workers at least rent one.

Because of the restrictions capitalist society places first upon production (limiting it to what can be sold on the market) and second on the consumption of the majority (the pay-packet and salary-cheque are only forms of rationing), man’s social wants are continually unsatisfied. This is what was meant by Marx when he said that under capitalism the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Note that this does not mean, as the academic misrepresenters like our Professor seem to think, that the worker necessarily becomes worse off in absolute terms. Obviously workers now use washing machines, cars, etc., that they were never able to have the use of in the past. What it does mean is that capitalist society creates contradictions for the working class by throwing up the possibilities of ever-increasing amounts of wealth whilst restricting the workers’ access to that wealth.

By its nature this outmoded system of society creates wealth, that wealth in turn creates increased demands by the workers — and yet capitalism is totally incapable of satisfying them. And those recently-published figures show that not only in relative terms do the workers get poorer as capitalism “advances”, but that in some cases they become worse off in absolute terms as well.

Anyone want a copy of Samuelson ?
Ronnie Warrington

Voice From the Back: Hungry kids in the USA (2015)

The Voice From The Back column from the March 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

Hungry kids in the USA

Poverty is usually associated with countries in Africa and Asia not the highly developed USA, but here are the facts. ‘about 16 million kids relied on the US government supplemental nutrition assistance program according to census bureau data released Wednesday, up from 15.6 million a year earlier’ (Huffington Post, 28 January). Capitalism is a world-wide system and it has world-wide problems.

Kobani carnage

‘The Kurdish forces’ unexpected victory in this north Syrian town marked a huge strategic and propaganda loss for Isis, which once seemed unstoppable in their rampage across the region’ (Observer, 1 February). There is no sense of triumph for these troops as Kobani is completely destroyed. Thousands massacred, all that remains is a bombed-out shell. In the yawning craters left by US air strikes buildings have vanished during months of heavy shelling. One side street is blocked by the bodies of Isis fighters, rotting where they fell – a pile of bones marked only by a foul smell. This is the inevitable product of capitalism’s rivalries.

A strange communism

According to the Hurun Global Rich List 2015 the world now has a record 2,089 billionaires – and for the first time, India has more of them than Britain or Russia. ‘The list charts every dollar billionaire currently living in the world. It shows an additional 222 billionaires were created last year, almost a third of whom were in China. The US still holds the crown for most mega-wealthy residents, at 537. But China conditions are not far behind with 430, having acquired 72 new billionaires in 2014’ (Daily Telegraph, 5 February). Somewhat comically the Chinese government still claims to be communist.

A fortune in stamps

Capitalism is a crazy system that can condemn working men and women and their families to starvation for the want of a few pounds while this madness occurs. ‘a few stamps which lay together in a cigar box in a dusty attic for a century are set to fetch £250,000 when next auctioned’ (Sunday Express, 8 February). Scraps of paper worth more than human existence. Crazy.

An obvious statement

It hardly needed a high-powered business survey to tell us the following. ‘Big UK firms face a ‘crisis of trust’ and the next government must prioritise better ethics, a lobby group has said. In a survey, the Forum of Private Business (FPB) found that over three-quarters of respondents think big firms put profits before ethical standards’ (BBC News, 9 February). Tax avoidance, treatment of suppliers, and late payment were all areas of concern we can easily understand that the poll of 2,000 people found, but business putting profits before ethics? Wow, what a surprise!

Crime and capitalism

TV programmes and the national press are fond of depicting the police as dealing successfully with the problem of crime, alas that is a complete fallacy. The advent of cheap heroin in Chicago has led to an increase in crime undreamt of by Al Capone and his contemporaries. ‘In the 1920s, 227 gangsters were said to have been killed in the city in the space of four years. Last year there were 424 murders in Chicago, most of them said to be gang-related’ (Times, 9 February), an increase of almost double in a quarter of the time. Some progress.

Profit and pollution

Details released at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science show that about eight million tonnes of plastic waste find their way into the world’s oceans each year. ‘The new study is said to be the best effort yet to quantify just how much of this debris is being dumped, blown or simply washed out to sea. Eight million tonnes is like covering an area 34 times the size of New York’s Manhattan Island to ankle depth’ (BBC News, 12 February). In the battle between profit and pollution there is a clear winner.

Desperate workers

According to the UN at least 300 migrants are feared to have drowned after attempting to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa this week in rough seas. ‘UNHCT official Vincent Cochetel said it was a ‘tragedy on an enormous scale’. Survivors brought to the Italian island of Lampedusa said they were forced to risk the bad weather on ill-equipped vessels by human traffickers in Libya’ (BBC News, 11 February). Desperate workers are prepared to take enormous risks just to get a job.

Senseless slaughter (2015)

Book Review from the March 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

Barroux, Line of Fire, Phoenix Yard Books, 2014.  Ivan Petrus, The Nieuport Gathering, Lannoo, 2011. Jacques Tardi,  It Was the War of the Trenches, Fantagraphics, 2011

Those interested in the literature of the First World War may have come across other ‘graphics’ (with such gruesome contents one can hardly use the word ‘comic’) similar to Charley’s War (reviewed in the August 2014 Socialist Standard). Most of these were originally French language. France, unlike the UK, still has a thriving ‘graphic’ scene. In contrast to Charley’s War or American works, in French language publications the artist and writer are identical and the material was not originally produced as weekly or monthly part works but as a single unit. There should be, therefore, a unity that English language ‘graphics’ lack.

In Michael Morpurgo’s introduction to the Barroux book he comments about the diarist from whose notes the work is derived: “He is the unknown soldier and these are his words. Read them and weep.” Unfortunately there is little to spark such a reaction. The carrot noses are an irritating novelty.

The Nieuport Gathering is the story of a pledge of three men of different nationalities to meet after war and how those three men met their deaths. The historical treatment of the shocking events combined with saccharine Spielburgesque sentimentality means, that like the other contemporary book, it does not engage.

The War of the Trenches, on the other hand, cannot but. Originally published in 1994, this is a work burns with feeling. The senseless slaughter was still then a live issue. Particularly vivid is the contrast between priestly class cant (“Joyful are those families whose blood flows for their country”) and the feelings of a ‘real’ soldier (“Bastards, bastards, miserable fucking bastards! Fuck the army! France can kiss my arse!”). This is a non-chronological sequence of episodes, impressionistic in the best sense of the word. One may disagree with author’s view of human nature (“men are sheep . . .  victims of their own docility”) but one cannot help but be impressed by this immaculately researched and beautifully illustrated book. Tardi concludes “We are all of us, still down here, down in the trenches”: Even now the vicious warmongers are inciting hatred, not of fellow Europeans but of fellow workers, stirring up the necessary background for their oil wars. War, then and now, is about profit for the ruling class . . . and loss for the working class.
Keith Scholey

Dreams and Nightmares (2015)

Book Review from the March 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

David Goodhart: The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration. Atlantic £9.99

This is a real mixed bag of a book, a curate’s egg as you might say. It combines some interesting observations about migration with some rather unconvincing arguments.

Goodhart points out that many of the outcomes of immigration to Britain were unplanned and not those envisaged; but this after all is what happens with much government legislation under capitalism. The Salman Rushdie affair of 1989, arising from the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses, led to a boost in the authority of Muslim leaders in Britain, and ‘began to mark out Muslims as a special, and in some ways especially problematic, minority’. Satellite television has played an important role in slowing down the integration of immigrants into mainstream British culture, as it enabled people to watch news and soaps from ‘back home’ (Turkey, for instance) rather than the BBC.

Goodhart sees himself as a Labour-supporting ‘progressive’ but as one impressed by Conservative politician David Willetts’ claim that cultural diversity undermines the legitimacy of a universal welfare state. This just illustrates how little difference there is between Labour and Tory policies, and it is also part of the current attack on benefits for those at the bottom of the pile. He observes that forty percent of ethnic minority Britons (not all of whom are immigrants, of course) are poor but he has little idea of the capitalist framework within which migration and the struggle for jobs and housing occur. He refers quite often to ‘the elite’, but this seems to mean the political and media establishment rather than the capitalist class. Moreover, last year’s Sunday Times Rich List featured nine immigrant individuals or families in its top twelve, but the extent of inequality gets almost no mention here.

The two biggest sets of arrivals in the last decade are Poles and Somalis, neither of whom Goodhart regards as ‘model immigrants’ (which presumably would mean causing no problems and producing plenty of profits for the owners of industry). The Poles are mostly hard workers but (though no real evidence for this is provided) have helped to drive down wages for the unskilled. Moreover they ‘mainly have a guest worker mentality and many have no particular interest in joining British society’. As for Somalis, they are highly dependent on welfare, and as a group have retreated into themselves. So refusing to integrate (whatever that might mean exactly) is seen as a major problem. Perhaps, if they lived in grand mansions in some posh part of London and consequently had little contact with the average worker, that kind of non-integration would be acceptable.
Paul Bennett

Commercialising Water in Ireland (2015)

From the March 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

It’s a funny thing. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) contains a clause that says: ‘Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control’(Article 25). Yet this has never been given effect by the states concerned. Instead they tend to try and manage markets so that people can try to secure their standard of living by buying it. Also, curiously, although food is mentioned, water isn’t. The UDHR was adopted in 1948. It took until 2010 for the toothless United Nations to declare that water is a right too.

We can see how effective this change of heart has been, over in Ireland. Here, as the BBC notes: ‘Tap water in the Republic of Ireland until now has been free’. The government there, however, is intent on introducing water charges and water meters. As the info sheet from Irish Water explains: ‘Water is a valuable resource but it is expensive to deliver. It is costing €1.2 billion every year to run the public water system, with €1 billion of this funding coming from the Exchequer. This current funding model is no longer sustainable. In addition our infrastructure is badly in need of an overhaul’. So, water is plentiful in Ireland, but treating it costs effort and in capitalism, effort means money.

Seeking profits
Note, they do not explain why this current funding model is becoming unsustainable, or how charging households directly is more sustainable. They say that under the current system, those who pay more taxes are paying, pro-rata, more of the costs of the infrastructure and that this is unfair, and so those who have to count their pennies should be made to pay a wedge or lose their access to water. So much for the right to water in Ireland. Of course, this change is about commercialising water: ‘This transition will ensure that Ireland is well positioned to attract foreign and indigenous investment, creating real potential for new jobs within the country’. So, as a ‘semi-state’ company, it will be attracting investment and profits from the water that hitherto was in effect a necessity of life to which everybody had free access.

Of course, this is hardly uncontroversial, and there have been demonstrations tens of thousands strong on the streets of Dublin against the charges. It is doing significant damage to the Fine Gael/Labour coalition government’s popularity. There have also been reports of communities and activists blocking the installation of water meters, and sabotaging those that have been installed. Such actions are widespread, and being reported widely on social media. There are also widespread threats to boycott the charge and refuse to pay it.

Naturally, the government has tried to make concessions, giving people an uncharged allowance of 30,000 litres, and rebates in the form of a €100 water conservation grant to all households. Clearly, such concessions are designed to mitigate the transition to charging, whilst retaining the core principle that water has become a commercialised commodity in the hands of Irish Water.

There are formal campaigns at a national level as well. Right2Water is a campaign backed by Irish trade unions, and it was responsible for the main marches back in December 2014 that attracted 80,000 in Dublin marchers and around 200,000 overall across the country. As might be expected with such campaigns, the left parties, such as the Workers Party and the Communist Party are a formal part of the alliance.

Additionally, the Irish SWP has also been involved in promoting these protests, through their People Before Profit campaign, while the so-called Socialist Party (really another Trotskyist group) are engaging in their own boycott campaign. Whilst they are involved in the formal organisations, it seems clear that the real impetus on the ground is coming from the communities themselves, and all parties are running to keep up.

Stealing clothes
The far-left’s main success has been to win a by-election in Dublin South. The Anti-Austerity Alliance (which some accuse of being broadly controlled by the ‘Socialist Party’) won a by-election there in October, thanks largely to their opposition to the water charges.

This has been a strong test of the tactic of using popular discontent and campaigns for reforms in order to win support for anti-capitalist organisations. Whilst it may seem that winning a seat in parliament is a vindication of this tactic, it also illustrates its weakness. Sinn Fein had been expected to win the Dublin South seat, and were stung by the defeat. They are an opposition party in the Dáil, and one that is expected to gain significantly in the coming general election, feeding off discontent with the government and austerity.

They had previously been relatively quiet on the water charge issue, but their defeat stung them into action. They mobilised their supporters for the big protest marches, and ensured that Gerry Adams was given a significant platform. In effect, they walked up and stole the issue from the Trotskyists. This is a clear example of the way in which reforms to capitalism can be appropriated by any opposition party with sufficient freedom to manoeuvre, and the way in which they do not guarantee any advance in support for socialism in itself.

Of course, if the ‘Shinners’ win the next election, with their anti-austerity agenda, they are going to have to make good all their promises, and that means governing within capitalism. They will find that the requirement to attract funds for all activities they want the state to fund means in some sense either accommodating to the markets or international bodies. Another party will come along and capitalise on the discontent with their policies (and, again, the advantage lies with the established parties with networks of support, it is unlikely to be a swing to the left that will follow them).

Actual socialism would, of course, have to find the materials and effort to maintain a water infrastructure. Maybe all the time and effort that goes into protesting could be instead spent on real solutions. Certainly, the actual expense and effort of administering taxes and soliciting investment, collecting charges, taking people to court, and so on, could be done away with. Instead, we could, and should guarantee every man, woman and child on earth their right to clean water.
Pik Smeet