Thursday, April 25, 2019

Smoking Woodbines In The Outside Lav (2013)

The Proper Gander column from the September 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Class politics are all over the TV schedules like a rash, from news updates on the economic downturn to Downton Abbey. But like an embarrassing rash, the concept of ‘class’ is usually kept covered up by programme-makers. Would Paul O’Grady’s Working Britain (BBC1) be a much-needed exception? Probably not, considering that the title was changed from ‘Paul O’Grady’s Working Class’ by executives nervous about using the c-word. The show gives us a history of the British working class, told through the jobs held by presenter Paul O’Grady’s Birkenhead family. He adds that his onetime alter-ego Lily Savage was working class because ‘she’s had an outside lav’.

Unfortunately, it’s too much to ask for the programme to give an economic definition of class. Instead, the 20th century working class is described patronisingly and stereotypically as being proud, hard-working, woodbine-smoking racists who went to work for the camaraderie. The show often refers to ‘working class pride’, but without any economic analysis the question of why someone should feel proud to be exploited isn’t raised.

There’s some insight in the discussions of the Jarrow march, 1963 Bristol bus boycott and 1984 miners’ strike, rightly shown as examples of people taking action against the powers-that-be. But mostly, this is social history as a pick-n-mix of roles to act out. So, we see O’Grady playing at being a domestic servant and a clippie, and then going down a coal mine. As many of the trades mentioned have dwindled, he then visits a Glasgow call centre as a modern-day equivalent. After being shown the brightly bland office, he speaks to some of its employees about class. As the show has described the working class in the context of tin baths and mangles, it’s not surprising that these call centre staff don’t regard themselves as working class. For them, class is in the eye of the beholder – you’re not working class if you don’t define yourself as such, which is a bit like saying the Earth is flat if you believe it is. In lieu of class consciousness, there are some vague misconceptions about everyone being treated equally these days.

The show’s final disappointment comes after the end credits, when we learn that this is an Open University production. Two academics involved in research withdrew their names from the credits, understandably unhappy with the result. As a useful primer for students, this programme definitely lacks class.
Mike Foster

Cooking the Books: A Reply to the New Economics Foundation (2013)

The Cooking the Books column from the September 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard
Reply sent to a letter from the Green-leaning think-tank asking for a financial donation.
Thank you for your letter of 18 July addressing me ‘as an owner of the Royal Bank of Scotland …’  I am afraid there has been a misunderstanding. I don’t own any shares in RBS.

I expect you have addressed me in this way because at the moment RBS is majority-owned by the government and because you have been taken in by media propaganda that, as the government is financed by taxes and as we are all ‘taxpayers’ even if only nominally, what is owned by the government belongs to us all. It does not take much thought to see through this fallacy. Or will your begging letter next year begin ‘As an owner of the British war fleet …’?

The basis of the fallacy that what belongs to the government belongs to everybody is the illusion that the government represents all the people, when this is clearly not the case. Governments represent the interest of some ‘taxpayers,’ only, of those on whom the burden of taxation ultimately falls – the owners of property and the employers of labour. The taxes nominally paid by most ‘taxpayers’ are passed on to their employers in the form of higher than otherwise wages and salaries. So most of us are not really ‘the taxpayers’ in any meaningful sense.

This is recognised by an article on, of all places, the UKIP website (LINK). Discussing ‘income tax (and NI) extracted from wages through the PAYE system’, the anonymous author says:
  Like VAT there is a general failure to distinguish the mechanics of the tax’s calculation from its incidence (who actually bears it).  Tax under PAYE is calculated by reference to a purely notional figure called ‘gross pay’, which no employed person in history has ever seen, let alone touched or spent.  The employee’s real income is of course the net pay; and that amount of tax which has been ‘deducted’ is always the employer’s liability, to be remitted by the employer to HMRC in full, every month.  As with VAT, the employers are the de facto tax-collectors.  In this case they are also the tax-payers!
And it explains how this comes about:
  This phenomenon was clearly set out 220 years ago in Adam Smith’s illustration of an employee earning £100.  If the state imposes a tax of 20% his pay must rise by 25% in order to re-instate the employee’s former purchasing power (£100).  He must now be paid £125 so that the 20% tax leaves him with disposable earnings of £100.  In practice there may be a time-lag over which purchasing power (or the basic standard of living) is restored …
He ends up proposing that, instead, corporations should be directly taxed on a part of their profits on the grounds that ‘taxable capacity is a corporate, not an individual, concept.  The employed individual has no taxable capacity.’

It seems that not all UKIP members are the know-nothings they present themselves as. At least one has a better understanding of taxation than those you call your ‘brilliant banking team.’

I am not advocating that the tax system should be reformed so that only corporations pay taxes (how the rich and powerful distribute the burden of taxation amongst themselves is a problem for them to settle). But at least this would make the situation clearer and in future you ought to address your ‘as an owner of the RBS’ letters to capitalist corporations. Because it is they who are the ultimate ‘taxpayers’ and the collective owners of what the government owns, not people like me.

Film Review: Searching for Sugar Man (2013)

Film Review from the September 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Searching for Sugar Man (2012). Directed by Malik Bendjelloul.

The American Dream is that anyone can succeed if they try hard enough. That didn’t happen for Sixto Rodriguez, a 1970s Detroit singer-songwriter combining the voice of James Taylor with the lyrical ability of Bob Dylan. Firmly in the American folk-music revival counterculture, his songs spoke of working class struggles, hardship and inner city poverty. Maybe it was his Hispanic name, maybe (and unlike Dylan) it was the humility so uncommon for a performer of extraordinary talent.

A mere six sales of two albums meant he was dropped from his label two weeks before Christmas 1971. As Rodriguez returned to poverty working various construction and labouring jobs, his albums took off in South Africa. There he was bigger than the Rolling Stones and his song’s anti-establishment sentiments helped provide the soundtrack for the end of apartheid.

The music industry cheated him of royalties for a reputed half a million sales in South Africa. Unaware of his success abroad, and still living in poverty, Rodriguez made an unsuccessful attempt to become Detroit city mayor, his name was even spelt wrongly on the ballot. Rumours of his on-stage suicide prompted two South African fans to investigate what happened to him. This Academy award winning and Sundance festival winning documentary doesn’t tell the whole story, but it is beautifully presented and what a story.

Religion for Fun and Amusement (2013)

The Halo Halo! Column from the September 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Taunting those born-again bible-bashers who infest out town centres and High Streets by firing awkward questions at them is probably not as anti-social as bear-baiting or cock-fighting and, if you have the time to spare, can provide hours of harmless fun. Supporters of fox-hunting claim that the fox actually enjoys being tortured, and the same is probably true of those who devote their lives to telling us about Jesus; at least they come back every week for more.

One of the problems the amateur evangelists have is that they tend to make it up as they go along and often end up arguing amongst themselves as they attempt to answer questions such as – why, if this all-knowing god who, we assume, had at least a rough idea of what he was doing wanted us to be good, did he insist that we are all born in sin? Why did he go to the trouble of creating Lucifer, a fallen angel, when he knew perfectly well that he was going to turn into the devil and lead us astray? Why, when he knew that Eve was going to be tempted by that bloody serpent, didn’t he create her with a bit more will-power? And why, if he’s all-knowing and therefore fully aware of just how wicked we were all going to be, didn’t he make us as he wanted us?

‘Ah’ the bible-thumper smirks triumphantly, ‘He didn’t want us to be like robots, so he gave us free will, and one day he is going to judge us’.

A slight lack of logic there surely. If this god, who is all-knowing, knows that I am going to be evil next Wednesday, for example, can I, then, exercise my free will and be good instead – and thereby prove him wrong? Watch the bible-thumpers faces as they wrestle with that one. As I said, hours of fun and amusement and unlike other blood sports, there are no laws against it.

It’s not just the amateur Holy Joes who struggle with the idea of an all-knowing and unchanging god though. After centuries of institutionalised sexism and homophobia it’s just beginning to dawn on the Roman Catholic Church that these ideas are no longer acceptable in the modern world, and God’s previous views, therefore, need to be drastically amended.

‘If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him’ asked Pope Francis recently, trying to get to grips with this about-turn in God’s thinking, and conveniently forgetting the Church’s previous position. Not wishing to alienate those who prefer God’s original plan though, he then insisted that homosexual acts are still sinful, but homosexual orientation was not.

Desmond Tutu, the former Archbishop of Cape Town and anti-apartheid and gay rights supporter, had no such difficulties with God’s new politically correct image.

‘I would not worship a god who is homophobic’ he insisted. ‘I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place’.

He’s certainly sticking his neck out there. See you in hell, Desmond.

Mixed Media: Ice Age Art (2013)

The Mixed Media Column from the September 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

The recent exhibition Ice Age Art at the British Museum demonstrates what Marx called 'the vitality of primitive communities' in the Upper Palaeolithic era 12,000 to 50,000 years ago. It is widely believed that human beings in this period lived in 'primitive communism' where women were held in high esteem, sexual relationships were unregulated, and society was based on the maternal clan. Upper Palaeolithic Art includes carving, engraving, and sculpture in baked clay, bone, stone, reindeer antler, and mammoth ivory.

There are many depictions of the female form which as Evelyn Reed describes in Woman's Evolution: From Matriarchal Clan to Patriarchal Family, in the matrilineal clan system of hunter gatherer communistic households there was a belief in women having superior magic, demonstrated by their ability to produce children, men were kept well away from child birth and may not even have known where babies came from. Bertell Ollman wrote 'for the greater part of human history the link between sexual intercourse and paternity was not even known'.

Woman of Willendorf is a 24,000 years old limestone statuette tinted with red ochre with large breasts and abdomen and a detailed vulva. Woman of Dolni Vestonice is a 30,000 years old baked clay (ceramic) statuette with large pendulous breasts, large abdomen and wide hips. Woman of Hohle Fels known as the 'Schwabian Eve' is made of mammoth tusk ivory and because of a perforated protrusion was probably an amulet. At 40,000 years old it is arguably the oldest discovered piece of figurative art.

Hohle Fels Flute is a 35,000 years old musical instrument perforated with five holes and made from the wing-bone of a griffon vulture. Lion Human of the Hohlenstein Stadel is a mammoth ivory lion-headed figurine 40,000 years old and in a modern experiment using the stone tools available then it took 400 hours to create this highly skilled carving. Swimming Reindeer, 13,000 years old, is carved from the tip of a mammoth tusk and depicts two reindeer swimming nose to tail probably on their way to mating grounds or winter pastures. Head of a Musk Ox is a rare limestone three dimensional sculpture 18,000 years old. Hooked Spear Throwers are 13,000 years old hunting implements to increase speed and the force of the throw, carved from reindeer antler in the form of a mammoth.

Ice Age Art is a fascinating glimpse into a period of early human history which ended with what Engels called 'the overthrow of mother-right [and] the world historical defeat of the female sex' and the rise of the patriarchal family, private property and the state.
Steve Clayton