Friday, April 26, 2019

Voice From The Back: The Day To Day Struggle (2013)

The Voice From The Back column from the September 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Day To Day Struggle
Politicians are always claiming that because of their endeavours we are all better off financially than we have ever been, but the facts disprove this fantasy. ‘More than half of UK adults are struggling to keep up with bills and debt repayments, a major survey of people’s finances has suggested. Some 52% of the 5,000 people questioned said they were struggling, compared with just 35% in a similar study in 2006, the Money Advice Service said. In Northern Ireland, some 66% said they were struggling’ (BBC News, 2 August).

No Old Bangers Here
The present economic crisis in the UK has been so severe that many workers face unemployment, wage freezes and in some severe cases repossession of their houses. No such problems exist for the owning class. ‘Wealthy Britons have spent £91 million buying new Ferraris this year, making Great Britain the biggest European market for the Italian car company. According to Ferrari’s global sales figures for the first six months, 415 models have been sold in the UK, an increase of 6 percent, with the average purchase price standing at £220,000’ (Times, 2 August).

If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It
At a time when many workers are desperately trying to get together enough money for the deposit on a house the owning class are continuing in their usual spendthrift fashion. ‘Britain’s most expensive parking place has gone on the market for £300,000, almost twice the price of the average home. The open-air spot is 11ft by 21ft and is in Hyde Park Gardens, London, where many houses cost millions of pounds’ (Times, 8 August). If you think that was unusually expensive the same report mentions an underground parking space near Harrods that was priced at £200,000 in 2011.

Politics And Poverty
Despite the Coalition government’s claim to be a family-orientated organisation families are suffering at their hands. Food banks across Britain are being inundated with requests for emergency meals as families struggle to feed their children through the school holidays. The Trussell Trust, which runs the country’s largest network of food banks, says this is the busiest summer it has ever experienced, with some of its branches seeing double the number of requests for emergency parcels since the start of the holidays. ‘Parents whose children ordinarily receive free school lunches are among those struggling the most, as they now have to find an extra meal every day. The trust says the situation is worse than last summer because of rising food prices – which despite falling slightly in the latest Government figures are more than 4 per cent higher than last year – and the impact of the Coalition’s welfare changes that were launched in April’ (Independent, 9 August).

Morality And Money
The British government likes to portray itself as an organisation of the highest moral principles and absolutely opposed to brutality. Except of course when it threatens their master’s profits. ‘Britain is in talks to sell 12 Typhoon fighter jets to Bahrain, despite the Gulf state’s controversial human rights record. The proposed deal with the Gulf monarchy rocked by protests in 2011 is thought to be worth more than £1 billion and is part of a concerted effort by Gulf countries to strengthen military ties with Britain. ……….. Amnesty International claimed the arms negotiations showed human rights worries were once again playing second fiddle to British business deals’ (Daily Telegraph, 10 August). The deal was one of the main agenda items in a recent Downing Street meeting between David Cameron and King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa. Bahrain’s government faced condemnation and accusations of brutality for its repression of protests led by the island’s Shia majority in early 2011.

Misplaced Loyalty
The ideas of nationalism are repugnant to socialists. Which country you are born in is an accident, in fact your birth itself was probably an accident. Despite this many workers sing national anthems, wave flags and identify themselves with ‘their country’. Britain like every other country is owned by a tiny handful of the population and recent figures have shown the British working class are becoming even poorer. ‘British workers have suffered one of the biggest falls in real wages among European countries over the past three years, with only crisis-hit Greece, Portugal and the Netherlands doing worse. New figures collated by the House of Commons Library show a 5.5 per cent drop in wages after inflation since 2010’ (Independent, 11 August).

Pathfinders: Birthday Wishes (2013)

The Pathfinders Column from the September 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Birthday Wishes

The UK and other governments have been stepping up efforts to block access to file-sharing torrent sites – those sites which allegedly are responsible for all the evil in the world – but like the game Whac-a-Mole, the legal mallet can’t keep up with the elusive pop-up heads, and many of these sites have now been around so long they are starting to look like permanent fixtures. Two of them, Isohunt and Pirate Bay, have been celebrating 10th birthdays recently, and have things to say which socialists will find particularly interesting. First, Isohunt:  ‘Ideals of the Free Software movement and Creative Commons will face new challenges with 3D printed copies of physical objects, replicated from copyrightable digital designs. We are moving into the world of science fiction. Will copyright or even money be relics like in Star Trek, where all material scarcity and wants are gone, replicators can make anything needed, and holodecks can create any world imaginable?’ (

Utopian? The writer thinks so, but adds ‘if someone from 100 years ago is to look at technologies we have now, a lot of it may be construed as magic too.’

Tobias Andersson, co-founder of Pirate Bay, is clearly reading the same book, if not on the same page: ‘The 3D-printing revolution hits us any minute – and the sharing of things.  Suddenly, not only music and movie industries will feel threatened, but clothing, weapon and car industries as well – along with nations that depend on them. Everything will change and it’ll be fast.’

Overrating the capacity of 3D printers, perhaps, but the principle of the thing is what counts: ‘Future copy-fights will no longer be about sharing a tune or a movie, but ultimately about defining who will have the right to produce and if ideas are to be owned and sold or commonly shared. Everyone will be affected by these fights and too much will be at stake’ (‘The Pirate Bay: BitTorrent site sails to its 10th birthday’, BBC News Online, 9 August).

Of course the industry defenders retort that, call it what you like, theft is theft, but the fact that they keep asserting this shows that it is really the point in question. Is theft always theft? To understand the question, consider how people regard ‘fair’ ownership in capitalism. I own something, I sell it to you, so now you own it and I don’t. That’s fair exchange, people think. But in the world of computers, I own something, I sell it to you, I still own it and you don’t. There has been no exchange. Is this fair? Yes, say software manufacturers, we are selling you a licence to use our product. No, say software users, you are granting yourself a licence to print money. Ownership creates bottlenecks, and piracy is the result. If it’s wrong to own, it can’t be wrong to steal.

Socialists are not keen on moral arguments, because morality is a game anyone can play. Our best bet as a species is to treat the ownership question as a scientific problem. We are on stronger ground trying to show that ownership is socially unnecessary, rather than that it is wrong.

But the digerati’s challenge to ownership is more than just moral, they’ve democratised the information systems in a physical sense. Traditional computer networks, known as client-server systems, can be thought of as planets orbiting a sun. All the information, the energy, derives from a single central source. Control the source and you control the network. Napster, the first file-sharing site, used a central server which in time the authorities were able to locate and shut down. But it wasn’t long before a new system was devised in which the planets could all exchange packets of ‘energy’ directly between each other, simultaneously and at great speed, without the need for a sun. In this system, peer-to-peer or P2P, there is no central server for the authorities to control or shut down. Packets of information stream in torrents from anywhere, to anywhere. It’s efficient, fast, and non-hierarchical, in fact a revolutionary socialist model of data transfer. Surely the thought can’t be far away, if you can run a network like this, why not a society?


Not all nodes are equal

Computer networks are often represented by symmetrical physical objects such as chicken wire, with each junction or node of equal size and equidistant from its neighbours. While this may be true of molecular lattice structures, it’s not generally the case in ‘organic’ networks, whether digital, social or neurological. There are minor nodes with few connections, like reclusive people with few friends, while there are grand central stations, equivalent to busy socialites. This organic composition of networks implies that the human ‘sociability’ gradient is not merely some transient product of unequal social relations in a property-bound society, like distortions in a power grid. This leads to a further speculation about socialism.

It may be that some people are just more sociable than others. This may be worth noting, because a new study has shown that Facebook may actually be bad for you (‘Facebook use ‘makes people feel worse about themselves’’, BBC News Online, 15 August). The problem, it seems, is the FOMO factor – the Fear of Missing Out, a feeling that you ought to try harder to be sociable even if you don’t really want to, because of all the fun everyone else seems to be having.

If human sociability lies along a natural genetic gradient, then in socialism we would see a similar asymmetric gradient in social grouping, some people being highly gregarious and connected, some people introverted and troglodytic. Would this affect the functioning of socialism? Yes, because the connected individuals would tend to exert more influence. Their words would carry more weight with more people. Would this necessarily matter? Yes, to people who don’t understand socialism, and who would call this a form of ‘power’. To see influential people in socialism as somehow problematical, as if they embody a contradiction to the principle of egalitarianism, is to look at socialism through capitalist eyes. They may influence more people but so what? They also listen to and are influenced by more people, making them more reliable sources of the prevailing consensus.

These questions matter because they affect how we represent egalitarian social relations. Just as our opposition to leadership can be misunderstood as an absurd objection to anyone ever taking the initiative, so our conception of equality can be mistaken for a grey mediocrity in which nobody really shines at anything.

This misunderstanding gives rise to the caricature of socialism as perpetual meetings and votings, where everything is discussed and nothing is done. The likely reality can be guessed, once again, by looking at how science operates. Science doesn’t and couldn’t work like this. There is simply too much information. Scientists have areas of expertise, and for the rest, rely on the word of others. The system is not invulnerable, but it is robust and self-correcting. Occasionally a fraud is perpetrated, but the scientific method always uncovers it sooner or later. If anything, without capitalist inducements to ‘game’ the system, socialism will be even more robust than present-day science.
Paddy Shannon

Actually existing capitalism (2013)

Book Review from the September 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Disassembly Required. A Field Guide to Actually Existing Capitalism. By Geoff Mann. AK Press. £9.95

This book succeeds well enough as a description of the way capitalism has functioned in recent years, except that the author subscribes to the view that a bank does not have to have the funds it lends, not even in digital form. This is unfortunate as he gives as one of the defining features of capitalism ‘a monetary system based on the production of bank-credit money.’

Banks are certainly central to capitalism in practice but for collecting unused funds and savings and channelling them to capitalist enterprises as money-capital. Revealingly, when it comes to describing the events that led to the sub-prime mortgage bubble, he does not appeal to the theory that banks create money out of nothing to explain the source of funding for this. He says it came from savers in East Asia. In other words, from previously existing funds.

In the final chapter on what to do about capitalism he reveals that ‘for a long time I was convinced that we could never get beyond capitalism without getting rid of money’ but that ‘I am no longer so sure.’ He still knows, though, that there is no way out under capitalism, not even if a left-wing government comes to power in Greece or Spain and takes the country out of the EU. But even though he knows this won’t improve things (and says it may even make them worse) he still supports this, on the grounds that it is better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all. Perhaps, but why not try something that has some chance of succeeding rather than setting yourself up to fail?

Mann ends up advocating that what anti-capitalists can best do today is trying to encourage non-money relations between people (which he says does not include LETS or local currencies). So he doesn’t seem to have entirely abandoned his previous view.
Adam Buick

Mixed Media: The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution (2013)

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

The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution by Caryl Churchill

Earlier this year the Finborough Theatre in London staged the world première of Caryl Churchill's 1972 play The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution.

Churchill's play is partly based on the chapter, Colonial War and Mental Disorders in Frantz Fanon's study of the Algerian war of independence, The Wretched of the Earth, described by Sartre as 'the Third World finds itself and speaks to itself' '. Fanon's title is taken from the opening lyrics of The Internationale. Fanon was a Martinique-born psychiatrist, philosopher, self-styled Marxist, revolutionary and writer who was head of the Psychiatric Department at Blida-Joinville Hospital, Algiers in French Algeria. He resigned to work with the FLN, Algerian National Liberation Front in their guerrilla war for independence.

Churchill's play portrays Fanon treating the schizophrenic teenage daughter of a French civil servant (involved in 'interrogations' of Algerian rebels), and a French police inspector hearing screams in his head who has been beating his wife and children as a result of his 'work' torturing captured Algerian rebels. We also see three Algerian 'patients' in the hospital who are paranoid, delusional, suicidal, or catatonic as a result of the colonial war in Algeria. The bloody conflict for Algerian independence claimed the lives of 100,000 French soldiers and 'colons' and probably 1 million Algerians. The war is vividly brought to life in the 1966 Gillo Pontecorvo film The Battle of Algiers.

Churchill uses ideas from RD Laing's Sanity, Madness and the Family in her portrayal of the French couple and the schizophrenic daughter where a child is subject to the 'double bind' of contradictory commands that places a child in an existential checkmate of an 'untenable position' in the closed family nexus thereby causing madness.

Churchill wrote this year about the play; 'unfortunately it feels more relevant now than for a long time' which is true considering the American use of 'extraordinary rendition' of 'terror suspects' to countries that use torture, not forgetting the torture of 'terror suspects' by the USA at Guantanamo Bay, torture and abuse of Iraqis by the US military at Abu Ghraib prison and the British Army torture and abuse of Iraqis in Basra.

Churchill has explored issues of power since Owners, her critique of capitalism through to the sexual politics and colonialism of Cloud Nine to her 1987 attack on financial capitalism in Serious Money. From The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution to her 2009 Seven Jewish Children, a charity piece for the Palestinian people of Gaza, Churchill is evidently sympathetic to the struggles of oppressed peoples under colonialism.
Steve Clayton

Marxian economics (2013)

Book Review from the September 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Value of Radical Theory. An Anarchist Introduction to Marx’s Critique of Political Economy. By Wayne Price. AK Press. 190 pages. £8.95.

We often joke that anarchists know very little about economics and that what little they do know they got from Marx. US class-struggle communist anarchist Wayne Price seems to agree and has written  a short book to explain Marxian economics to his fellow anarchists.

He does an excellent job in explaining the labour theory of value in chapter 1 and state capitalism in chapter 6. The views he expresses in the other chapters, while certainly held by some in the Marxist tradition, are controversial. For instance, that crises are caused by the fall in the rate of profit due to a rise in the organic composition of capital and that this will eventually lead to capitalism’s demise; and that capitalism has been in a state of decline and decay since 1900 and has only been kept going by arms spending, wars and reconstruction after them, and the creation of fictitious capital (a couple of ICC pamphlets figure in the bibliography).

There is a peculiar attempt to include the 17th and 18th century witch-hunts as part of the primitive accumulation of capital; and also a passage (p. 122) which seems to suggest that ‘supervisors’ are not part of the working class (which would exclude a large chunk of those forced by economic necessity to work for a wage or salary).

On the other hand, Price recognises that Marx regarded the terms ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ as referring to the same society and that he stood (like Price and us) for a classless, stateless, moneyless society of common ownership and democratic and production for use not profit.  His discussion of the differences between Marx and anarchism is intelligent and fair: that Marx tried to ignore morality in presenting the case for socialism; that he envisaged a higher degree of centralisation than anarchists; and that he was not opposed to elections either under capitalism or in socialism.

So, a book that can be useful both for socialists and anarchists.
Adam Buick