Saturday, March 30, 2019

Pathfinders: Getting Twitchy about copyright (2019)

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

It’s a well-known fact that a new TV or fridge doesn’t spring fully-formed from a hole in the ground but is usually produced in stages, from ore extraction to delivery, with different parts constructed by different people, often on different sites at different times. Thus the UK jobs impact of the recent Airbus decision to stop producing the underselling A380 superjumbo, whose wings (but not the rest of it) are made in Britain.

When describing how capitalism works, Marxists talk about the value of products as containing embodied or ‘dead’ labour which has to be accounted for in the final price. For instance, so much for resource extraction, refinement, power, distribution, parts manufacture and shipping, and so forth. Socialists don’t pretend that you can separate and cost out all these elements of dead labour from the finished product. That would be like trying to unbake a cake back into its starting ingredients. The argument only stipulates that the final price has to reflect all this labour otherwise the continued production and sale of this good, at this price, will not be viable.

Where this gets interesting is new developments in EU copyright law, which is in the process of being revised because of the internet revolution, and specifically the impact of hosting sites like YouTube and the various social media giants.

One element of the proposed EU Copyright Directive, Article 13, has Google positively gargling in horror: ‘Article 13 of the EU Copyright Directive states services such as YouTube could be held responsible if their users upload copyright-protected movies and music’ (BBC Online, 14 February). Think how many times (come on, admit it) you’ve wasted hours watching old excerpts of Monty Python, The Good Life, Citizen Smith, Yes Minister and Fawlty Towers on YouTube. All of that stuff, and a billion other things, are of course copyrighted, but so far nobody has raised too much of a stink about it. Article 13 could scupper all that.

But here’s the twister. What if someone films themselves playing a computer game and then uploads the film to YouTube or Twitch as an original publication for others to watch? Yes, people really do that, and they have millions of followers. They own the copyright on their film, but what about the copyright belonging to the game owners? That is embedded or ‘dead’ labour which the EU Directive is expecting to ‘unbake’ and price up, which as we’ve seen above, is going to give EU policy-makers a severe headache.

Technology has so far superseded European law that currently there exists only a state of unofficial consensus whereby copyright is not enforced in cases of what’s considered ‘fair use’ (eg for criticism, reviews, satire etc). But this consensus has no legal status in Europe, unlike in the USA, and so far there have been no court cases to establish a precedent. Hosting companies could be in the situation of having to buy licences for any copyrighted content their users upload, perhaps as well as any other copyrighted material contained within it. No wonder they’re horrified.

The point of all this? Not only is property society a terrible arrangement from the perspective of the 99 percent who don’t own any, it’s sometimes damnably difficult to apply its rules to figure out exactly who owns what and who should be paying whom. That at least is one arcane and intractable problem that socialism could laughingly throw to the winds.

Cause and effect
A recent meta-study has shown a significant link between depression and teenage cannabis use, with ‘robust’ evidence showing that ‘using the drug in adolescence increased the risk of developing depression in adulthood by 37%’ (BBC Online, 13 February). The wording here is, unusually for the BBC, careless and misleading, because it states baldly that the one directly causes the other, which is not shown by the evidence at all, as the article goes on to admit. Tabloid journalists in particular ought to be dragged outside and beaten with the mantra ‘correlation is not causation’. Instead the line should have read ‘using the drug in adolescence is associated with an increased risk of developing depression…’

Anyone alive today in capitalism has multiple reasons to get depressed without even reaching for the Rizlas, and that probably goes double for young people, who generally have a worse time of it economically, socially, psychologically and sexually than older people with settled lives and paid-for houses. Maybe that’s why they say life begins at 40 – because it’s mostly sheer hell until that point, if not after as well.

It certainly could be that cannabis has a deleterious effect on young developing brains. It could also be that depression-prone teens are more likely to resort to cannabis in the first place. Perhaps heavy cannabis use among teens is associated with a raft of other, depression-inducing social behaviours and circumstances. Anyone with long experience of poverty and unemployment knows that skinning up a spliff with mates is a lot cheaper than almost any other social option. Far from causing depression in this situation, cannabis may be the only silver lining in an otherwise black cloud. Ganja-bashing continues to make good headlines, but that doesn’t mean journalists should let their critical faculties go up in smoke.

A recent article in the webzine Dissident Voice also plays fast and loose with causation, when it claims that our serotonin system fuels aggression and so means that a socialist or anarchist non-hierarchical society is impossible. Despite pronouncing in impressively sciencey terms about the metabolic biochemistry of the monoamine neurotransmitter, the author Denis Rancourt (who by the way is not a neurobiologist but a retired physicist) offers not a shred of evidence for his argument that the hormone ‘locks’ humans into either dominant or subservient roles, and indeed his example of dominant social climbers who ‘kiss ass’ to get up the corporate ladder seems to flatly contradict his own case. Too much is wrong with his discussion of serotonin to go into here, but in a nutshell it comes down to correlation and causation again. He cites several academic studies in support of his case, but if you read what they say they don’t support his claim either. In fact one luminary, Robert Sapolsky, is scathing of such thinking in a fascinating YouTube lecture, where he says within the first few minutes that because genetically humans are almost identical with all other animals even including fruit flies, ‘Genetics and neurotransmitters etc tell us nothing about what makes humans humans’. He then drives home the point that we are not genetically fixed by citing his own study of a troop of baboons who, after all the aggressive males accidentally died of TB, exhibited an astonishing change in behaviour, becoming socially friendlier and more affectionate, with males even grooming each other – unheard of for wild baboons. One wonders if Sapolsky and the other cited authorities realise they are being cited in support of an argument they would heartily oppose.
Paddy Shannon

Profit crisis? (2019)

Book Review from the March 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

World In Crisis: a global analysis of Marx’s law of profitability’. Edited by Guglielmo Carchedi and Michael Roberts (Haymarket books. 2018)

The stated purpose of this collection of essays is to advance the theory that the tendency of the rate of profit is to fall within the capitalist mode of production, according to Marx. More specifically, that the fall of the rate of profit is an observable long-term trend, and that the rate of profit is the key factor in economic crises. Roberts notes that there is disagreement within Marxian economics as to whether the declining rate of profit can be empirically observed. This book is premised on the fact that it can be.

For Marx the rate of profit is the excess of value of a commodity over its cost price, which he expresses as the formula s/(c+v) (‘s’ is surplus value, ‘c’ is constant capital, the cost of machinery and components, ‘v’ is variable capital, the wages of workers whose labour adds value to the product).

Competition between capitalists tends towards equalising this rate of profit, as each capitalist seeks to invest in those branches of industry that are generating the highest returns. Technological improvement gives a competitive edge to capitalists, so there is a tendency to increase the ‘c’ part of that formula. In the long run this means that the total capital will rise in proportion to the surplus value being produced, and the rate of profit will tend to fall.

What Roberts, Carchedi and their contributors observe in their data is that this is precisely what is happening. There are problems, though, as many of the data tables/graphs are attributed to ‘author’s calculation’ and there are no links given to data sets or any indication of how these representations were derived.

It is difficult to observe the working of these Marxian formulas in the real world, because, even leaving aside any political incentive to misrepresent the reality of the situation, the categories Marx described may not correspond with any specific data set. For example, some surplus value manifests itself as inflated salaries for directors, and ‘profit sharing’ schemes would manifest as profit, rather than being part of wages, as they really are.

This is not necessarily fatal, so long as the data used is consistent, and then at least it is showing some real world trends from which the Marxian categories can emerge as shadows. An observable, consistent decline in the empirical rate of profit, though, does not necessarily mean that Marx’s tendency is observed in action. Other factors may be in play (which these essays sometimes mention, without exploring).

There is little or no discussion of primary accumulation — what the Marxist geographer David Harvey describes as accumulation by dispossession. That is, wealth that is acquired not by market rules, but by fraud or force (the great historical example being slavery). This gap is puzzling, especially as the central plank of the crisis theory presented is that the fire sale of the capital of bankrupts is necessary to restart profitability and accumulation. The nearest any articles come to addressing this matter is by hand-waving mentions of ‘imperialism’. The point is, though, that the logical effects of falling profitability would be for capitalists to abandon market accumulation and resort to other forces, rather than continue to let profits fall through the floor.

One other force is rent seeking. Incredibly, rent is not even mentioned in the index of this book. Carchedi does partially address rent, discussing monopolies as a potential response of capitalists to falling profitability. He correctly notes that the underlying effect of technical compositions of capital (the ratios of capital to labour) means that real surplus profit rates will vary among monopolies. What he misses, however, is that such differential surplus profits will be often invisible, and that the monopolists would lack the means to observe different rates of profit, or to pursue improved ones. This was essentially one of the significant problems historically encountered by Eastern Bloc state capitalism.

The power of the idea of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall lies not in the observed phenomena of declining profitability, but, like the dog that didn’t bark in the night, in the steps the ruling class may take to avoid its effects. Rather than simply pointing to periodic crises of capitalism, we are in some ways better pointing to the inevitable need to periodically disrupt society and dismantle existing social relations in order to engage in a new spurt of profitability for one faction or another of capitalists.

Notwithstanding this, there are useful chapters on derivatives and algorithmic trading which do some useful work in dismantling the idea that crises are caused by bankers and spivs in the city. It also provides a useful overview of the state of worldwide capitalism.
Pik Smeet

Letter: A Writer Writes . . . (2019)

Letter to the Editors from the March 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

1. First, I never argue (book review of Cleaver’s Rupturing the Dialectic – the Struggle Against Work, Money and Financialization in January Socialist Standard) that capitalists are not interested in profits, on the contrary precisely because I argue their system is based on putting people to work, profits are essential to maintaining and expanding the imposition of work. Second, writing ‘It’s a point of view but not that of Marx’ is simple assertion but makes no argument to convince the reader. It also smacks of sectarianism: all Marxists whose interpretations differ from mine are not Marxists at all.

2. First, the superficiality of the reading is apparent in ascribing to me the ‘classic error’ of underconsumptionism (i.e., ‘workers not being able to buy back all they produce as the cause of crises’) given that the inadequacy of consumption demand is clearly treated as only one of many causes of ruptures in the circuits of capital, not ‘the’ cause of crises. Second, saying that I make the mistake of seeing taxes as simply a burden on workers, while ignoring the discussion in the book of how some of what taxes pay for is not only of use to workers but are programs and services we have fought for, is another misrepresentation.

3. First, it’s odd that you seem to accept the idea that getting rid of money and markets are essential elements in getting rid of capitalism, but dismiss efforts to marginalize money. In the absence of an actual argument against ‘marginalizing money’ I’m left with the impression that the dismissal is based on the oh-so-revolutionary rejection of ‘reformism’. Second, leaving aside evaluation of your list of reforms as accurate representation of the struggles I discuss in the book, I must say that simply dismissing struggles for reforms of use to workers with no rationale hardly constitutes an argument. At least Weston – mentioned on page 235 of the book, in the section on ‘Reform or Revolution’, made a case for dismissing struggles for higher wages – a case that Marx refuted with counterarguments as to why such struggles were important. Arguments with which I agree in the book – one of those many moments that you would have to counter to make a convincing argument that what I have written is ‘not Marx’. Third, there’s no ‘paradox’ in supporting both lower costs of living and higher wages, they are complementary and both buy time (and energy) for struggle.

4. First, the assertion that success in lowering consumer prices or making some goods and services free automatically implies that wages will fall just doesn’t hold water. This assertion ignores how both the value of labor power and the level of wages/income are determined by struggle. I do not ‘assume’ workers ‘could successfully resist’ efforts to lower wages, only that they generally try to resist. There are plenty of historical examples in the book of workers failing to resist as well as of successful resistance. Second, the last line about one idea of autonomist Marxists contains, once again, only pure assertions with no demonstration or argument that might lead the reader to take them seriously, ie, the assertion about what they think/imagine and the assertion about the idea being a  ‘mistake’.

Had I been editor of your newsletter, I would have sent the published text back when still a draft along with comments like the above – and suggestions about how to do the job in a more convincing manner.
Harry Cleaver

1. We never said you argued that the capitalists weren’t interested in profits, only that you said that they were more interested in controlling workers and that making profits was a means towards this end. The particular passages we had in mind were these: ‘… socially and politically speaking, profit making is merely the capitalist means to its social aim of controlling us by forcing us to work’ (p. 83) and ‘Marx focussed on the dialectical character of the struggle within capitalism between those who impose work and those who resist’ (p. 72). There is no evidence that this was Marx’s view on what the struggle was and who it was between, and there is nothing ‘sectarian’ about pointing this out. It’s a question of fact, not opinion.

2. On p.55 you do indeed use the workers-can’t-buy-back argument, which can’t be an explanation of crises since it is the case that the workers cannot buy back out of their wages what they produce all the time, even during a boom. And how can it be ‘misrepresentation’ when we didn’t represent anything about the conclusion you draw from the notion you accept that taxes are a burden on workers as well as on capitalists? We willingly grant though that you draw the logical conclusion from this mistaken premise that workers should get involved in disputes within the capitalist class over which section of them should bear more or less the burden of taxation.

3. You seem to have missed our point completely. While free services and free access to use-values even under capitalism show that people adapt to this by only taking what they need (rather than grabbing and hoarding), under capitalism these measures have the economic effect of reducing the cost of reproducing labour-power and so exercise a downward pressure on money wages. Our view is that the best way to combat this is the trade-union struggle. We don’t accept the view of ‘Citizen Weston’, which Marx refuted in his talk to British trade unionists in 1865 later published as Value, Price and Profit, that struggles to increase wages are pointless as they merely lead to a rise in prices leaving workers no better off. That is a fallacy. For us, the struggle to get the highest price possible (what the labour market will bear) while not revolutionary is not ‘reformist’. We say workers should wage this struggle and our members take part in it, even if it is purely defensive and never-ending.

4. We always thought that so-called ‘autonomist Marxists’ criticised what they imagined was the ‘economic determinist’ position of those who argue that there are narrow limits to what workers can achieve under capitalism by their struggles. Are we wrong about their/your ‘voluntarist’ position on this question, not dissimilar to that of common or garden reformists, that this is not the case and that your disagreement with them is instead only over method (direct action rather than parliamentary action)?
– Editors

Not Changing the world (2019)

Book Review from the March 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World’. By Anand Giridharadas. (Alfred A. Knopf, 2018)

The Ideas Industry’. By Daniel W. Drezner. (Oxford University Press, 2017)

The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age’. By David Callahan. (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017)

The capitalist class controls not only the means of production but also many other important spheres of social life. The authors of these books give us close-up views of how capitalists, aided by servitors of various kinds, control two of these spheres: the formulation and dissemination of ‘new’ ideas and the activity that goes by the name of philanthropy (from the Greek words for ‘love’ and ‘human’). Drezner examines the ‘ideas industry’ and Callahan philanthropy; Giridharadas provides an overview of both.

By and large, these authors focus on just one of the two wings of today’s capitalist class – the so-called ‘globalists’ – cosmopolitans who constantly move around the world, believe in open borders and the free movement of goods, capital and labor and profess liberal views on issues like race, gender and religion. For corresponding portrayals of the other – nationalist, protectionist or ‘conservative’ – wing it is necessary to look elsewhere.

The ‘globalist’ plutocrats and their sidekicks inhabit an ‘intellectual cocoon’ that Giridharadas dubs MarketWorld. In MarketWorld there is endless and mostly vacuous chatter about ‘changing the world’ that never contemplates changing the world (at least not in any very significant way). ‘You can talk about our common problems, but don’t be political, don’t focus on root causes, don’t go after bogeymen’ (i.e., don’t blame anything on anyone in particular). For instance, you can talk about poverty but not about inequality.

MarketWorld elevates to stardom charismatic ‘thought leaders’ whose superficial mantras supplant the debates of public intellectuals. Their ‘charade’ fills a space that might otherwise be infected with systemic criticism. At the same time, it salves the consciences of the ‘winners’, encouraging them to ‘feel that they are change agents, solutions rather than the problem’. MarketWorld also provides a few jobs to young careerists who want not just to make money but to feel good about themselves while doing so.

The image that emerges of the capitalist is decidedly one of dual-identity, with abrupt alternation between Dr. Jekyll the benevolent philanthropist and Mr. Hyde the ruthless and rapacious tycoon. The theoretical basis of this mental disorder was first presented by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie in his 1889 essay The Gospel of Wealth. According to Carnegie, the ideal capitalist accumulates as much wealth as he can, using whatever means may be necessary, but he accumulates that wealth not for his own benefit – he himself lives modestly – but rather in order to redistribute it in the best interests of society – interests that he is uniquely equipped to judge (after all, he has proven himself a brilliant organiser). That is why Carnegie made his workers toil such long hours at such low pay in the heat of his steel mills – in order to fund public libraries.

Capitalists evidently do not mind being told to do more good. What they do not like is being told to do less harm. Some of the most celebrated philanthropists do the most harm in their role as businesspeople. One example is the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, whose highly profitable painkillers allegedly fueled the opioid addiction crisis (they also stand to profit from addiction treatment).

Perhaps, however, these authors place too much blame on capitalists as individuals and focus too little on capitalism as a system. As Giridharadas points out, a company that is not run solely in the interests of shareholders risks lawsuits from its investors. Even in the handful of jurisdictions where new corporate laws have been passed to permit the creation of ‘socially responsible’ firms (B companies), such firms have difficulty in attracting and retaining capital and remain few and far between.

Sanctions: Waging war without bullets (2019)

From the March 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Western powers promote sanctions as an alternative to war, holding that if sanctions can impose costs that exceed the benefits of objectionable policies of another country, there will be a change of those policies and if the targeted government declines to change, the affected population will protest, forcing their government to change. Economic sanctions are viewed as a useful tool to apply pressure on another country to mend its ways or as a punitive measure for its behaviour which avoids outright war. No matter how devastating the detrimental effects on the economy and the civilian population, sanctions are not as successful as claimed in achieving its objectives.

Who now recalls the cost on ordinary people of the UN-imposed sanctions against Saddam’s Iraq? Who remembers when the then US Ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright, was asked, ‘We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?’ Albright answered, ‘we think the price is worth it’. The half million figure has since been judged as inflated but at the time it was seen as a credible figure.

Denis Halliday, United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator, resigned after a 34-year career explaining he no longer wished ‘to be identified with a United Nations that is… maintaining a sanctions programme …which kills and maims people through chronic malnutrition… and continues this programme knowingly’, saying ‘I don’t want to administer a programme that satisfies the definition of genocide’. Halliday’s successor, Hans von Sponeck, subsequently also resigned in protest, calling the effects of the sanctions a ‘true human tragedy’. The resignation of Jutta Burghardt, head of the World Food Program in Iraq, soon followed, stating, ‘I fully support what Mr von Sponeck was saying. It is a true humanitarian tragedy what is happening here and I believe any human being who looks at the facts and the impact of the sanctions on the population will not deny that he is right.’ Agam Hasmy, Malaysia’s UN Ambassador, remarked at the UN Security Council in 2000 ‘How ironic is it that the same policy that is supposed to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction has itself become a weapon of mass destruction!’ Throughout history, starvation and disease have killed more people than all other weapons of war.

Too often sanctions are applied to soften up a foe and is a precursor of war. Sanctions can even be used as a justification for war such as when Tony Blair, in his testimony to the Chilcot Inquiry, argued that ending the sanctions was one of the benefits of the war.

Economic warfare has been part and parcel of conflicts since time immemorial with city sieges and naval blockades. We can date economic sanctions back at least to the Megarian decree of Athens in 435 BC, before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. But later we had the Napoleonic Wars, the World Wars, the American long-enforced trade embargo on Cuba and the anti-apartheid boycott of South Africa. Presently there are sanctions against North Korea, Iran and Venezuela. This article is not concerned about bans on financial transactions of named individuals but those that inflict suffering on the general population. Sanctions are viewed as an instrument of diplomacy, designed to pressure and to undermine a ruling regime. The purpose of sanctions is to cause a breakdown in the fabric of civil society.

On 23 March 2018, the Human Rights Council condemned unilateral coercive measures by a vote of 28 in favour, 15 against and 3 abstentions, because economic sanctions created economic crises, disrupted the production and distribution of food and medicine, and resulted in refugees.

Alfred De Zayas, a former secretary of the UN Human Rights Council, has said ‘Sanctions kill’ and that they fall most heavily on the poorest people. ‘Modern-day economic sanctions and blockades are comparable with medieval sieges of towns with the intention of forcing them to surrender. Twenty-first-century sanctions attempt to bring not just a town, but sovereign countries to their knees. A difference, perhaps, is that twenty-first-century sanctions are accompanied by the manipulation of public opinion through “fake news”, aggressive public relations and a pseudo-human rights rhetoric so as to give the impression that a human rights “end” justifies the criminal means’ (LINK).

Siege economy
John Pilger’s conclusion was that the sanctions were ‘One of the greatest acts of aggression: the medieval siege of Iraq.’

Patrick Cockburn wrote on the sanctions affecting Syria: ‘Economic sanctions are like a medieval siege but with a modern PR apparatus attached to justify what is being done. A difference is that such sieges used to be directed at starving out a single town or city while now they are aimed at squeezing whole countries into submission. An attraction for politicians is that sanctions can be sold to the public, though of course not to people at the receiving end, as more humane than military action. There is usually a pretence that foodstuffs and medical equipment are being allowed through freely and no mention is made of the financial and other regulatory obstacles making it impossible to deliver them’ (LINK).

The difficulty in processing SWIFT transactions, the banking system’s clearing house for international money transfers, has hindered the import of medicines and other necessities so many of the biggest pharmaceutical companies refuse to do business with the country.

The Spanish economist Alfredo Serrano, head of the Centro Estratégico Latinoamericano de Geopolítica, drew attention to the reluctance of banks to process Venezuelan international transactions, creating an obstacle in obtaining insulin and other medicines such as anti-retroviral and anti-malaria drugs.

The Lancet medical journal reported in July 2018 that sanctions against Iran jeopardised cancer patients and cancer research.

Sanctions have a snowballing effect. Foreign businesses, fearing they might unknowingly cross a line into impermissible activities, prefer to shy away even from authorised trade. Transaction costs particularly related to food and medicine escalate, while access to foreign currency to trade has diminished. Sanctions lead to unprecedented levels of inflation and spikes in the price of basic goods like milk and vegetable oil.

Sanctions can and do kill the innocent. Sanctions rarely harm the decision-makers but have caused extreme hardship to those who are the weakest, the most vulnerable and the least political. Members of the elite with greatest access to government privileges are best positioned to survive and can even thrive. Under the sanctions, there are those who are savvy enough to exploit others’ deprivation for a profit. They function as middlemen and brokers becoming wealthy. Smuggling and clandestine networks arise and result in a shadow economy in which corrupt officials are fully complicit.

Between 1945 and 1990, the UN had imposed sanctions only twice but now sanctions are being imposed with increasing frequency, with the United States either the key player in instigating them or taking the initiative by imposing its own sanctions unilaterally. The United States uses its global economic power as leverage to pressure other nations into compliance with its sanction policies. The United States has the sovereign right to refuse to enter into commerce with other states, but not to exercise pressure on third-party states in order to harm their targets, and attempting to do this is a violation of the United Nations Charter. But as always ‘might is right.’

Obvious Vengeyi from the University of Zimbabwe makes a direct comparison with siege warfare:
  ‘The desperate conditions that the besieged populations of Samaria and Jerusalem were exposed to are similar to what Zimbabweans experienced as a result of sanctions… Similar to the sieges of Samaria and Jerusalem therefore, the Western siege of Zimbabwe through economic sanctions affected the ordinary people more than the so-called targeted individuals… As the military siege on Samaria and Jerusalem, Western sanctions were imposed on the ordinary people of Zimbabwe. The intention was to starve the ordinary people of Zimbabwe in order for them to vote out the ruling party… The logic was to incapacitate the state to provide basic services to the ordinary people in order to instigate a revolt against the government… As observed with ancient Near Eastern military strategy of siege, this is usually the intention of the besieging aggressor; to create tensions in the besieged society in order to weaken it’.
Collective sanctions
There exists a glaring anomaly. It is illegal in war-time, a violation of the Geneva Convention e.g. the 1977 Additional Protocols to the 1949 Geneva Conventions prohibit any wartime measure that has the effect of depriving a civilian population of objects indispensable to its survival; Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians in wartime, for example, prohibits ‘collective penalties’. Yet under peace-time conditions economic sanctions are perfectly valid. Economic sanctions inflict collective punishment upon ordinary people when they have no connection to or control over the actions of the government whose actions have led to them being punished. Sanctions are inherently anti-humanitarian. As in siege warfare, it is the population and those least responsible for the state’s action – children, the elderly, the sick – who bear the worst consequences. When countries are called ‘rogue states’ or ‘the axis of evil’, Western countries proceed to put economic sanctions on them. But the victims are invariably the common people and not the ruling dictator they have been complaining about – whether it was Saddam Hussein then or Assad or Kim Jong-Un now.

Economic sanctions imposed on authoritarian regimes often fail to bring about the political change they are meant to create even though the people had to bear the pain of sanctions.

Lee Jones, a senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, stated that according to the accepted figure, sanctions succeed in about one third of instances. But a political scientist, Robert Pape, looked at these figures and argued that often the outcome was not caused by sanctions; it was caused instead by domestic insurgencies or by military threats, and if you take away those cases, then sanctions only succeed in fewer than 5 percent of cases. The ‘success’ story of South Africa is often cited to show that sanctions can work yet many commentators have suggested that the end of apartheid was due to internal political movements as much as to international sanctions. Politicians employ economic sanctions despite the evidence that they do not work – simply because the cost of military action is too high a price to pay. Cheaper to incite the civil population to revolt by driving them to take desperate measures.

It is generally accepted that you should not be a judge in your own case; that the law must be clearly stated, and consistently applied; that individuals can only be punished for their acts, not their nature or their potential acts. However, states interpret and impose the law as they wish, without restraint. This means that a whole population is harmed with the approval of ‘international law’. Sanctions imposed on a whole nation share all the characteristics of siege warfare such as blurring the distinction between the battlefield and by-standers, engulfing civilians in the violence of war through the destruction of society’s infrastructure. Those who defend sanctions share the same belief as a kidnapper who refuses food and water to his victim because the victim’s family declines to pay the ransom demand. The siege tactic  deliberately targets a civilian population with fatal consequences by withholding supplies and starving them yet it is a form of warfare which is considered legal and acceptable.

Away with capitalism! (1983)

From the November 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

To hell with poverty! No, not just that poverty which affects the poor, but the poverty which faces every single member of the working class: the poverty which says that the world and its resources do not belong to you; your role in life is to sell your mental and physical energies as a wage slave.

We don’t want humanised poverty — poverty with Ford Fiestas and Sony Hi-Fis. Welfare indignity, with state-apportioned crumbs is no alternative to the public charity of the last century. If you have no alternative than to work hard to make someone else rich you are a worker.

Let’s end the working class. The answer is not to make it more comfortable in its slavery: to buy it a suit, give it a mortgage and promise it a pension when it gets too old to milk for profit. Instead of the miserable plea for “fair wages", how about abolishing wages? Why spend your lives in the service of capital when, instead of being legally robbed, the means are at hand to end the robbery of class by class. Why put up with a class-divided society? Let’s decide to live as equals.

For how much longer will men and women have to struggle to survive in a society of potential abundance? Struggle to pay the rent, to buy cheap food and shoddy clothes, to go on cut price holidays for a fortnight, to live in homes built on the cheap. Why devote resources to the machinery of killing and the bureaucracy of commerce when the productive forces have reached the point where life could be made happy for us all?

When will the majority say no to the merchants of deception who sit in the parliaments and pick at the scabs of capitalism? Whether they are the Thatcherite louts, with their three-piece smiles and smooth-tongued social vandalism, or the trendy traitors who declare their concern for “the poor" while climbing the greasy pole to the House of Lords, the workers must learn to reject their poisonous promises with all the force that hostility to capitalism requires.

We do not want “decent Leaders": heroes, vanguards. Führers, Saints, Iron Ladies, benevolent reformers. Above all, beware of the smiling reformist: the leader who is going to remove the symptoms of the capitalist malady while leaving the disease intact. Watch out for their oh-so-sincere leaflets in which they borrow workers’ tears to build their careers. Neither leaders nor followers are required — to end the system we must know where we're going and we must know how to get there.

What we want is a society of human equality and how we get it will involve more than just desire. We must take the forces of power — the parliaments, the councils, the guns — from the minority who control them at present. And once we, the conscious working class majority, are in political control — once the parasites have been disarmed, we must disarm them economically. The capitalist minority must be dispossessed — in short, they must be stripped of their ownership and control of the means of living, which they now monopolise. Dispossession does not mean nationalisation whereby the state runs capitalism on behalf of the ruling class, but the complete abolition of all property rights and the establishment of common ownership and democratic control.

No longer should the majority be deceived by the capitalists’ conception of socialism. Their “socialism” is a variant of capitalism: either it is distorted to mean the kind of dictatorial police states where workers are exploited under banners proclaiming Marxist slogans or to mean Labour-administered wage slavery. Socialism is not a humane brand of capitalism; it cannot exist within the social confines of the present system. We shall have either capitalism or socialism — and if we have socialism, then the entire structure of this hateful, impoverishing, anti-social jungle will have to go.

Don’t be afraid to take the leap into the future. Too many workers have been intimidated by the conditioning of wage slavery to accept the abject misery (or the semi-detached semi-misery) of the capitalist system. Without bosses, without governments, without armies and bombs and borders and price tags they believe that the world will stop. A world freed from the fetters of the market is viewed by some as a chaotic prospect where humanity will destroy itself as a result of our own inherent greed and aggression and competitiveness. What sickening pictures capitalism teaches us to have of ourselves.

Human behaviour, liberated from the commercial jungle of privilege versus poverty, will adapt as it has adapted before. It is capitalism, with its need to condition workers to kill without cause, that tests our natural desire to co-operate. Socialism, a society of equal human co-operation, is the only way in which we can live in peace and allow our human desires to develop fully.

So, the task before us is to make history: not to make it like our ancestors did, by falling victims to the evolving requirements of voracious property interests. Let us not make history that children in the future can ridicule as the foolish antics of deranged primitive beings of class society. For the children of tomorrow will most certainly laugh at what they see now: the loony generals and the beef mountains and the wasteful toil and the pompous leaders and the exploited, politically conditioned millions who are enchained by the price tags on their labour power. They will laugh — or, perhaps, in the society of the socialist future, they will have the respect for victims of capitalism to feel politely sorry for the silly old fools.

The history to be made by the socialist majority is the history of human emancipation. We must create a society where production is solely for need: where houses are built to live in and food to eat and clothes to wear. For, let it never be forgotten. until we have a world society where no person goes short of what can be produced to satisfy their needs, it is fraudulent to claim that we live in a civilisation. A world where millions starve — a world where even a single old person is forced to shiver in the cold because it costs too much to switch on a heater — is not civilised, but fit for nothing but the scrapheap of history.

Who are these respectable advocates of the status quo who dare to tell us that capitalism is good for us? Some of them are members of the parasite class themselves — scrounging robbers who live off the fruits of our labours and expect us to be grateful when they build us hospitals and council estates and offer us a few quid for a death grant. The foul-mouthed Victorian values brigade who look into the gutters of their imperial past to find recipes for a profitable future. But even worse than the self-defending vultures are the paid prostitutes who seduce the workers in return for a fat salary and a country estate.

Who is advocating socialism? Judge that not by what people and parties say, but by what they do. Do they talk of socialism and then advocate “patriotism” — do they support "socialist" nuclear bombs, as does Mitterrand, or “socialist" bans on trade unions. as does Jaruzclski, or "socialist" political prisons, as does Andropov? A party which stands for socialism must have an Object and must have clear, unequivocal principles — and at the back of this journal you will find them.

Fellow workers, capitalism exploits and oppresses and destroys. To permit its continuation is an act of folly. But to end it requires activity — that of the Socialist Party and the millions who have yet to become aware of the need for socialism. The millions do not speak with one voice, but you can think with one mind and now you are being urged to think hard about where your political allegiance lies: to the perpetuation of the present or to the creation of a socialist future. How far off that wonderful future is depends in no small way on you.
Steve Coleman

A Bang or a whimper (1971)

From the March 1971 issue of the Socialist Standard

Robert Carr — controversial figure. Tory M.P. for Mitcham; head of the Department of Employment and Productivity; supposed to solve strikes; responsible for getting the Industrial Relations Bill through Parliament. A controversial figure but also, according to those who know him, a Very Nice Man (Tom Jackson, leader of the Union of Postal Workers, said that Carr was “very decent indeed” about the postal strike.) Also the man whose expensive Georgian home in a posh London suburb was damaged by two bombs, planted by someone so impressed by Carr’s actions that they disregarded his personality.

The panic which followed the bomb attack, with armed guards for Ministers and the police visiting known “militants”, prompts the question: what next? According to Carr “We always imagine in Britain we would be free from this sort of thing” and although it is true that actual attempts on politicians’ lives are rare in this country recent events may mean that he was being rather optimistic. In the last few months there have been bomb attacks on the homes of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and of the Attorney General; the Department of Employment and Productivity’s building has had another attack and Carr’s deputy, Dudley Smith, has received a threat to his life. Then there was the incident when the M.P.s, who are responsible for the use of C.S. gas in, among other places, Ulster, were treated to a dose of it from a man in the public gallery. Apparently they acted under this assault with rather less than the sort of reckless courage they are continually urging in others.

A perceptible element in protest nowadays is a lack of respect for our political leaders. Ministers, whoever they are, are not always listened to reverently. Some politicians are actually assaulted when they go to certain university towns; men like Ronald Bell must be getting quite hardened to it by now. This is not a novel situation, even in Britain; the Suffragettes, for example, were much more violent, much more original, much more persistent.

Yet with all that British politicians have remained relatively safe and we have to go back some time for an example of an assassination. In May 1812 Spencer Percival, the Prime Minister, was shot dead in the lobby of the House of Commons. The man who did it was a bankrupt merchant who blamed Perceval’s policies for his ruin (Perceval had also been Chancellor of the Exchequer) but this was no isolated act of violence in a placid age.

Perceval’s ministry was a time of Enclosures, of 16 hour child labour in factories and of the Combination Acts. Poverty was at its cruellest; in the House of Lords a few weeks before Perceval’s death Byron lamented: “. . . never under the most despotic of infidel governments did I behold such squalid wretchedness” as he had seen in England. Most notably it was the time when workers who had been displaced by the new machines and factories hit back in the only way they knew, writing the name Luddite into the language.

It was during Perceval’s premiership that the Luddites began breaking machines to a systematic plan of action. The ruling class hit back, in no gentle fashion, raising the penalty for frame breaking from 14 year’s transportation (which was terrible enough) to death. Thereafter it was not unusual for multiple hangings to follow an attack on a factory. In April 1812 Cartwright’s mill at Rawfolds was attacked. There were soldiers waiting (one who refused to fire got 300 lashes) and the Luddites were beaten off. Two of them who were mortally wounded would not reveal the names of their comrades but in the end many were caught and four of them hanged.

A century later there was the killing of Field Marshall Wilson who was shot by two Irishmen outside his home in London in June 1921. Officially Wilson was described as a soldier but his activities during the first world war and in the struggle between the British government and the Irish nationalists made him more a politician. He was killed (the nationalists said “executed”) on the orders of Michael Collins, although it was not clear when the order had been issued. By the time it was carried out Collins may have preferred to forget it; he was then a respectable member of the Irish government, fighting a civil war against some of his old friends. He was himself killed in an ambush a couple of months after Wilson was shot down.

Here again, then, we were in violent times. The struggle in Ireland was a bloody, ruthless affair. After 1918 the British used battle-hardened soldiers, many of whom held life cheap. They were embittered by unemployment and the fear that they could not exist outside the Army. They were not gentle and their methods were matched by the other side. In one incident the Irish took a couple of Black and Tans hostage for an elderly woman held by the British as a suspected IRA supporter. Nobody seemed to expect that any of the three would be seen alive again and it was not clear whether the British shot the woman, or the Irish threw the Black and Tans into a furnace, first. The civil war which followed the treaty between the British and some sections of the Irish was no less ugly.

Compared to then (and to other countries now) England is peaceful, secure. Heath does not suffer the claustrophobic guard which surrounds Nixon. No British politician endures anything like the threats which became almost routine (and sometimes nearly reality) with De Gaulle. Yet poor, nice, Robert Carr is bombed and all he has done is try to restrict the unions and help control wages.

He might think that in this he is doing no more than any other politician; he is only doing his job of protecting the interests of British capitalism. This is hardly a reason for killing him, especially as his Labour predecessor tried to do the same job in almost exactly the same way. Carr might also argue that, whatever a militant minority might think, most British workers support his Bill. After all, most of them voted either Labour or Tory and both parties stand for new curbs on the unions. In fact one militant minority of workers showed what they thought of the attack on Carr’s home by working round the clock to repair it in record time.

But Carr can complain only so far. He said he refused to believe that “. . . this is going to be the way British life and society conducts itself” when he should know perfectly well that capitalism here and all over the world is a society of violence. A lot of this violence, like the massive social effort to manufacture weapons of obliteration, is legal and respectable but nevertheless must have the effect of conditioning us all to accept other violence which may not be legalised. In a world clouded with hydrogen missiles, how serious is a gelignite attack which damaged a couple of doors and some windows? And when political leaders exist (as they must) by cynicism (for example the Tories fought the election on a promise to hold prices; the pound of last June is now worth 97p.) can they wonder, or protest, when the extreme cynicism of violence is turned against them?

This is not to say that any socialist will be found planting gelignite. If the attack on Carr’s home stimulated anything among the workers it was sympathy for the man and his family. If it had killed Carr the sympathy would have been overwhelming, which would have been a useful mood for the new head of the department to come in on and start pushing the Bill through. In other words, Carr would have been replaced by another capitalist politician for the workers to vote for at the next election.

In the meantime the fumes of the bombs obscured the real issue. The legislation of capitalism is not dreamed up by politicians. It arises from the needs of the system and the system is kept in being by the support of the working class. These workers are ignorant in the sense that they are unaware of their own interests and it is that ignorance, not the results of it, which must he attacked. Are we recommending, then, bombs at all working class homes? In fact violence does not attack ignorance — it may stimulate it and sometimes produce it in its ugliest form. For the purpose of establishing Socialism, of making a better world for people to live in, violence is an obstacle.

If they ever catch the people responsible for the bomb they will charge them with all sorts of offences; the bombers will probably be convicted and get the sort of sentences which are supposed to teach us all a healthy respect for the morals of capitalism. Their real crime — confusing and delaying the revolution for a peaceful, humane society — will go unnoticed.