Thursday, May 2, 2019

Cooking the Books: Income Tax or Sales Tax? (2013)

The Cooking the Books Column from the July 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Different capitalist firms operating in Britain have reacted differently to the criticism that some of them have not been paying their fair share of taxes to the British state. Some multinational corporations have defiantly replied that in choosing to pay tax on their profits in countries where the rate is lower they have broken no laws and are just pursuing the best interests of their shareholders. Others, mainly firms operating only in Britain and so not having this option, are complaining that this amounts to unfair competition against them.

Centrica, the conglomerate which owns British Gas, commissioned a consultancy to work out how much they contribute to the British economy:
  ‘The report, by Oxford Economics … claims that Centrica provides £4.2bn in “total tax payments” including its own payments to HM Revenue and Customs of £1.1bn, national insurance and PAYE contributions from its staff and tax paid by consumers on their bills’ (Sunday Telegraph, 24 February).
What is interesting here is the matter-of-fact way in which the report accepts that deductions from their staff’s wages of NI and PAYE are tax payments made by Centrica to HM Revenue and Customs, just as much as the corporation tax it pays on its profits. This goes against the carefully-cultivated mystification that wage and salary earners form a part of “the taxpayers”, but economic analysis confirms that it is correct to treat taxes on wages as a charge on employers.

Tax theorists distinguish between ‘direct’ taxes, as taxes drawn on a person’s income (income from rent, interest, dividends, wages, fees, pensions), and ‘indirect’ taxes, levied on items on which people spend their income (such as VAT, sales tax, excise duties as on tobacco and alcohol). To the extent that the market for the item can bear it (as it will in the long run), the seller passes on the tax to the buyer by charging a higher price than otherwise. In this sense shops are acting as tax collectors for the state, with the burden of the tax falling on those who buy what they are selling.

Although an income tax on wages is classified as a direct tax it has more in common with an indirect tax. Wages are a price, the price of the wage-earner’s ability to work which they are selling to their employer. The principle is no different here from any tax on something that is sold: it falls on the buyer not the seller. In other words, an income tax on wages is a sales tax on labour-power that is passed on to the buyer as higher wages than otherwise. It is the employer who is the “taxpayer” and Centrica is right to include this as part of the taxes they pay.

But aren’t workers consumers too and so have to pay indirect taxes such as VAT? On the surface, yes, but what workers buy is not a final consumption; it is raw material needed to reproduce what they are selling, i.e. their ability to work. Any increase in the cost of producing this, such as taxes on what they buy, will increase the price employers have to pay for it. So here too, in the end these taxes paid by employees are passed on to the employer.

This is why we in Socialist Party have always insisted that taxation is not a working-class issue. Let the various sections of the capitalist class argue amongst themselves over which of them should pay and how much to finance their state. As wage and salary workers we should concentrate on organising to end our status as mere bearers of a commodity used up in production.

Cooking the Books: A ‘Factual Point’ (2013)

The Cooking the Books Column from the July 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Lord Young is an adviser to David Cameron on ‘enterprise’. In a report presented to the Cabinet in May, he wrote:
  'The rise in the number of businesses in recent years shows that a recession can be an excellent time to start a business. Competitors who fall by the wayside enable well-run firms to expand and increase market share. Factors of production such as premises and labour can be cheaper and higher quality, meaning the return on investment can be greater’ (Observer, 11 May).
The TUC was outraged, but a Downing Street spokesman said that Lord Young was merely stating a ‘factual point’. We have to agree. He was merely describing what happens in a slump.

Growth under capitalism is not in a steady upward line but in fits and starts. The overall trend is upwards but through cycles of boom and slump in which booms create the conditions for the succeeding slump and slumps for the next boom.

A slump is a fall in total production due to overproduction, in relation to its market, typically in a key sector of the economy which has a knock-on effect on other sectors. The only way production will start to grow again is if the prospects for making a profit increase and spread. This is a slow process and does involve, among other things, what Lord Young describes.

Like he says, inefficient firms go to the wall. Their customers pass to the more efficient firms that survive so that the sales – and profits – of these firms grow. The assets of the inefficient firms pass cheaply to their rivals too or even to some new firm as Lord Young points out. Cheaper premises and equipment mean that, even with a smaller amount of profit, a higher rate of return can be anticipated. The downward pressure on wages exerted by increased unemployment has the same effect.

Other factors, not mentioned by Lord Young, also help the move to recovery, such as the clearance of unsold stocks and the lower rate of interest due to the supply of money-capital exceeding the demand for it.

Eventually – but there’s no telling how long it might take – all these factors together restore profit prospects and the recovery begins.

In Marxist terms, what happens in a slump is that capital is devalued; this raises the rate of profit since any profits that are made are compared to a smaller amount of capital, the rate of profit – what Lord Young calls the ‘return on investment’ – being the ratio of profits to the value of the capital invested.

In a boom the opposite occurs. The demand for money-capital, premises, equipment, materials and workers increases leading eventually to an increase in their price; this exerts a downward pressure on the rate of profit even though the amount of profit is increasing. Eventually the boom bursts and capital accumulation falls.

Quite apart from overproduction in a boom in one key sector of the economy precipitating a slump, Marx saw slumps as an inevitable part of the process of long-term capitalist growth. Slumps, by eliminating inefficient firms and by devaluing capital, restored the rate of profit which boom conditions had reduced, so allowing capital accumulation to resume.

It’s a continually repeating cycle that has gone on ever since capitalism became the dominant form of production (the first recognised slump was that of 1825) and will continue until capitalism is abolished. That’s another factual point.

Obituary: Jack Hughes (2013)

Obituary from the July 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Jack Hughes, a long-standing member of Swansea Branch, has died at the age of 86. Jack joined the Socialist Party of Great Britain in 1964 and was an active member of Swansea Branch till 1970 when he left over a disagreement about the use of parliament as an instrument for establishing the classless, stateless, moneyless society of free access advocated by the SPGB. He nevertheless retained his association with the Party and 10 years later rejoined having concluded that there was, as he put it, ‘nowhere else to go’. He resumed his socialist activity and continued to be involved until recent times when his health no longer allowed it.

Many people remarked of Jack that he was a ‘one-off’. What they meant was that he had a rare combination of attributes. He was as outspoken as they come and was never afraid to be the odd man out in an argument. He was a highly self-sufficient, independent, very ‘private’ individual loving his own company and making demands on no one. He loved walking and went everywhere on foot, considering Shanks’ pony to be the best way of engaging with life and nature. He read widely and was a keen linguist teaching himself several foreign languages and becoming quite an expert in Esperanto. His keenest passion was music and in particular the accordion. Again self-taught, he became an expert accordionist and found himself in demand professionally around local venues.    

It was always good to see Jack when he came to meetings. You always felt he would make a contribution that was unconventional, even unique – and you looked forward to it. He has left his mark on Swansea Branch and will be much missed by its members.
Swansea Branch

Unions Should End the Link With Labour (2013)

From the August 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

In a bid to stop the Tories and the media painting Labour as a ‘class-based anti-cuts party’ (which planet are they living on?) Ed Miliband has proposed to weaken the links between Labour and the unions. This has been long overdue, but from a trade union point of view.

Trade unions were originally set up by groups of workers to bargain collectively, as a single unit, with their employer over their wages and working conditions. Today, it is true, they have become bureaucratic organisations run by highly-paid full-timers but workers are still better off with them than without them. They do provide some protection against arbitrary acts by employers and they are able to push up wages in a boom and stop them falling too far in a slump. Everyone should join one. They are the only protection workers have under capitalism.

Trade union consciousness
Some early trade unionists realised that trade union action was not enough and that workers needed to take political action too, if only to press for legislation to protect them at work through health and safety laws or to provide them with some income when out of work, whether through not being able to find a job or through sickness, industrial injury or old age.

Lenin, writing about the same time, defined ‘trade union consciousness’ as ‘the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc’, adding ‘trade-unionism does not exclude ‘politics’ altogether, as some imagine.’ Despite his mistaken view that on their own workers were limited to reaching only this and not a socialist understanding, this is quite a good definition. Its expression in Britain was the Labour Party.

Following some adverse court judgements, the TUC decided in 1900 to sponsor trade union candidates for parliament at the general election of 1906. When some of these were elected they formed the Labour Party. Up until 1918 that was all the Labour Party was – a pressure group of union-sponsored MPs. It was overwhelmingly financed by a political levy which members of affiliated unions automatically paid with their dues unless they specifically ‘contracted out’.

In 1918 the Labour Party decided to transform itself into a full political party, but still linked to the unions, to rival the Tories and Liberals as a potential party of government. In other words, as a party prepared to take on the task of administering the capitalist state within the context of the capitalist production-for-profit economy.

We pointed out at the time that, since capitalism was a profit-making system that could work only in the interests of those who lived off profits, running its state would bring even a Labour government into conflict with the workers and their unions. Which it did. Every Labour government since the first in 1924 has governed against the interests of wage and salary workers, by in particular opposing strikes or imposing wage restraint (for the whole of the period of the much-vaunted 1945 Labour government strikes were illegal and workers were prosecuted for striking).

Despite this, the unions retained their links with Labour, their leaders taking the view that this was still the best way to get some concessions for their members. Most still do. Bob Crow and the RMT are the exception. They have concluded that the present Labour Party no longer serves this purpose and want to form another union-based ‘Labour’ party, a Labour Party Mark 2. They want to go back to 1900 and start all over again. But at least they have realised that the Labour Party can no longer be seen even as an expression of trade union consciousness. Len McCluskey of UNITE evidently has illusions about Labour still being this, though none about the need to set up a new Labour party. Nor have we. Why try to repeat a formula which has failed once and will fail again?

Political action needed
The view that workers should take political as well as union action is sound. Capitalism, the root cause of their problems, is upheld by the state which not only guarantees capitalist ownership and control of the means of production but is also used to actively oppose major strikes, such as the General Strike of 1926 and the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 (and many others too). So, if capitalism is to be ended, the state must be taken out of the hands of the pro-capitalists. To do this workers will have to take political action; to in fact form their own independent political party, but a revolutionary socialist party not a reformist Labour party, not even Bob Crow’s Mark 2.

Our objection to the Labour Party is not that the workers don’t need a political party but that it is the wrong type of party. This is why we have always opposed it and why we have said that the unions should not support or finance it. Our members in unions affiliated to Labour refuse to pay the ‘political levy’ to it by ‘contracting out’ of it as every union member is legally entitled to. Here we find ourselves in agreement with Miliband’s proposal that, as long as the political levy exists, union members who want to support the Labour Party financially should have to ‘contract in’ to paying it rather than automatically paying it unless they ‘contract out’.

The present system amounts to a scam with hundreds of thousands of workers paying money to a party which doesn’t represent their interests and which they wouldn’t want to join anyway. Both UNITE and the GMB have estimated that, with contracting in, only 10 percent of their members currently paying it would choose to do so. In other words, 90 percent are being conned into financing the Labour Party.

We are not saying that unions should never support a political party. We can envisage a situation in the future, when a majority of their members have become socialists, where unions might support a mass revolutionary socialist party. But we are not there yet. What we are saying is that today, when most workers have reached only a ‘trade union consciousness’, unions should not support a particular pro-capitalist party.

Not doing so makes sense from a purely union point of view too. To be effective unions need to organise workers as employees faced with the same employer or set of employers irrespective of their political opinion as well as of their religion or origin. That’s irrelevant when it comes to pressurising or standing up to an employer. To be tied to a particular party alienates workers who support some other party or don’t support any party and so undermines the basic union principle of ‘Unity is Strength’.

Union members should seize the opportunity opened up by Miliband’s proposals to distance Labour from the unions by pressing their unions to break completely with the anti-working class, capitalist reform party that Labour is.
Adam Buick

Shipwreck! (2013)

A Short Story from the August 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Tale of Desert Island Discord

There’s a cold wind blowing in the east and a roaring fire in the grate, so put a fine glass of porter in my hand, boys, and I’ll tell you a story of seafaring and adventuring.

On the ninth day of October, in the year AD —-, it happened that a fast clipper five days out of Liverpool, and a gaff-rigged schooner tacking due east from St Kitts, were caught in a big blow some miles to the west of Cape Verde. The schooner demasted and pitched over, while the clipper fought to make headway but was swept onto hidden rocks and broke up.

The schooner had two passengers, bankers by the name of Wilcox and Small, who were decanted in the ocean and found themselves clinging together for dear life onto a broken mizzen beam. Well, perhaps not for dear life, since they held on with just one hand apiece, while in the other each holding a sizable bag of gold coins, the provenance of which, whether fair or foul, was never rightly determined. Poseidon must have smiled on these men of substance, for they managed to make landfall on the west side of a small uncharted island. However, not being by nature, it seems, agreeable fellows, it wasn’t long before they discovered this plain fact for themselves, and they vowed to go their separate ways, one to the north and the other to the south.

Mr Wilcox went north, taking his money with him and announcing his intention to find a suitable spot on the beach in order to sit it out until help should arrive. It appears that Mr Wilcox remained defiant in this resolve, for he sat at his post for some weeks, until the crabs got him. Sad to tell, his money gave him no assistance whatsoever, but sat mutely beside him in the sand. It’s still there to this day, I shouldn’t wonder, and hasn’t moved a mussel since, if you’ll pardon the levity.

Mr Small, going south, had somewhat better fortune. He happened upon a party of sailors who were washed up from the wreck of the clipper and already, as sailors are wont to be, drunk as skunks on a salvaged barrel of grog. They were good-hearted souls, and once they had sobered up and taken stock they agreed readily to his suggestions, for it was clear to all that as a banker and a man of learning it was only right and proper that he should take charge of things in the matter of provisions and organisation. Now, Mr Small being a fair-minded and honest businessman, he said, and not wishing to drive the men into arduous labour for no return, he proposed to draw up a contract in order to pay the sailors from his bag of coins for their work, so much to build him a house, so much to hunt and fish, and likewise for whatever manner of other tasks he deemed appropriate. In their turn, and in proper respect for civilised trading agreements, the sailors undertook to yield to him all produce of their labours, and to buy back from him such as might be necessary for their upkeep, be it rent, vittals or any other thing covered by the contractual arrangement.

Things passed well enough for a while, until the sailors began to grumble that Mr Small seemed to have the best of it all, the best food, the best house, the best foragings, while they seemed to have very little, and all the money they earned seemed to end up right back in the banker’s pocket. Considering that it was they who were doing all the work, muttered the sailors, this did not seem altogether above board. They collected at the banker’s palatial hut one day and put the matter to him. Mr Small heard them out patiently, and then when they had finished, made his reply. See, he said, how well we have done here! We have houses, food, clothes, everything that we could reasonably wish for. And who has done all this? Why, I of course! Have I not paid you fair and square for every undertaking? Is it not the wealth that I alone brought to this island which has seen the food onto your plates and the clothes onto your backs? Do you begrudge me my small profit when it is my wealth that created all the wealth you see? Unable to fathom this, the sailors fell to arguing amongst themselves. Indeed it wasn’t long before the arguing became fighting, and Mr Small’s party being the better paid, there were quite a few dissenters strung up and others chased off. However it fell out I know not exactly, but I can tell you, as sure as I’m sitting here drinking this fine ale, there wasn’t one blessed soul of the lot of them left alive by the time the rescue ship turned up.

And how comes it that I am here to tell this tale, you may ask? Well, it’s no mystery, for I was among the third party to escape from that fateful storm, another group of sailors from the clipper who reached shore on the far side of the island. Washed up on the surf amid broken spars we were and, as luck would have it, a full barrel of grog and no officers about, so aye, first things first we too got ourselves as drunk as a box of Bilbao herring. But when we had sobered up, the next morning, we set about us to building shelters, and to hunting, fishing, and likewise acquiring all the creature comforts with our own hands, for we said to ourselves, like as not t’would be a season or two before we’d see dear old Liverpool again. In truth it wasn’t a bad old life, and not too much labour either, after we had things straight. We passed tolerably well, on the whole, and scratched our heads in amazement when one day a starved refugee reached our shore and told us of his flight from Mr Small’s village, and of the goings-on in that benighted place.

And now I’ll take another stoup of ale if you please, for there is my brief tale all but told. Rescue came in the fullness of time, and we thanked the grace of God we’d had no outbreaks of the flux while we were there. Game was in fair supply, the weather mild, and no savage indigenes intent on war and murder. T’is many a long year since last I saw that island, but not a day goes by that I don’t think of her, set in that sea of azure in the radiant light of the tropics. And I never fail to offer up a quiet prayer to the Almighty, to thank Him for not setting us ashore with a banker.

Witnessed and attested by PJS, April, AD —–

Material World: I Wannabe a Plutocrat! (2013)

The Material World Column from the August 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard
Dear Material World, 
My life’s dream is to become a fully paid-up member of the capitalist class. Do you have any advice? How much money do I need to join? I am willing to work hard, but I need some guidance. 
Greed is good! 
Wannabe Plutocrat

Dear Wannabee Plutocrat,

Your greed and ambition are commendable, but your ‘willingness to work hard’ suggests a certain naivety. What sort of attitude is that for a would-be capitalist? The so-called ‘work ethic’ is strictly for the proles. The key to becoming a capitalist – seeing that you lacked the good sense to be born to rich parents – is to get other people working hard for you!

I am sure you will understand why I cannot possibly give away specific advice on how to make money. But you happen to be in luck, because I still have a few copies left of my invaluable Swindler’s Handbook: Never Give a Sucker an Even Break ($99 plus sales tax, postage free). And you have my assurance that every technique described in the handbook is completely legal.

There is no annual charge for membership in the capitalist class. But you do need to have enough money for you and your family to live in comfort – or, better yet, luxury – without ever finding yourself in the humiliating situation of having to sell your ability to work.

For detailed information on the various strata of the capitalist class in the United States, I recommend the ‘Who Rules America?’ website maintained by Professor G. William Domhoff of the University of California at Santa Cruz ( and especially the paper contributed anonymously by an investment manager who serves wealthy clients.   

The Occupy Wall Street movement has popularised the idea of ‘the top 1 percent’. The anonymous investment manager advises that you enter the top 1 percent when your financial assets exceed $1.2 million. He warns, however, that the bottom half of the top 1 percent is full of such small fry as lawyers, physicians, upper middle managers and small business owners.

The adult population of the US is currently about 236 million (75 percent of a total population of 315 million). So there are well over two million adults in that top 1 percent – hardly a very exclusive club! If you want to be a plutocrat, you must set your sights higher than that.   

Fortunately, for just $2 million you can join the top half of the top 1 percent. For $3 million you can join the top quarter of the top 1 percent. For $5.5 million you can join the top 0.1 percent, and for $24.4 million the top 0.01 percent. At this rarefied level you will belong to a club of only 20,000 or so truly wealthy individuals. And besides being free of all financial worries you will enjoy ready access to the corridors of power, with politicians at your beck and call. You will have achieved your life’s dream, for you will be not just an ordinary capitalist but a member of the ruling circles, a real plutocrat!


Material World


It is almost half a century since the first publication of Ferdinand Lundberg’s best-selling The Rich and the Super-Rich: A Study in the Power of Money Today (Lyle Stuart, 1968). Lundberg’s basic argument remains as valid as ever. In fact, the concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny minority is considerably greater today than it was then.

Chapter 1, entitled ‘The Elect and the Damned’, starts as follows:
  “Most Americans – citizens of the wealthiest, most powerful and most ideal-swathed country in the world – by a very wide margin own nothing more than their household goods, a few glittering gadgets such as automobiles and television sets (usually purchased on the instalment plan, many at second hand) and the clothes on their backs. A horde if not a majority of Americans live in shacks, cabins, hovels, shanties, hand-me-down Victorian eyesores, rickety tenements and flaky apartment buildings… 
  At the same time, a relative handful of Americans are extravagantly endowed, like princes in the Arabian Nights tales. Their agents deafen a baffled world with a never-ceasing chant about the occult merits of private-property ownership … and the vaulting puissance of the American owners. 
  It would be difficult … for a large majority of Americans to show fewer significant possessions if the country had long laboured under a grasping dictatorship… 
  Most adult Americans in the quasi-affluent society of today … are nothing more than employees. For the most part they are precariously situated; nearly all of them are menials…”
Statements such as the foregoing on the rare occasions when they are ventured (although strictly true and by no means new) are bound to be challenged by the alert propaganda watchdogs of the established order. These propagandists, when hard pressed, offer an incantation about a mythical high American standard of living which on inspection turns out to be no more than a standard of gross consumption. The statements must therefore … be monumentally and precisely documented and re-documented. Not that this will deter the watchdogs, who have limitless resources of casuistry and dialectic to fall back upon as well as an endless supply of white paper from denuded forests.

Mixed Media: The Shame Show (2013)

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

The Shame Show – Caroline Smith and Paul Green

A ‘scratch night’ in late May at the Milton Keynes Gallery was the premiere of a ‘free and untamed’ performance of The Shame Show created by performance artist Caroline Smith in collaboration with Paul Green from Avant Gardening arts collective. Caroline’s previous performance art has been seen at the Royal Festival Hall, Tate Modern, ICA, Whitechapel Gallery and the Hayward Gallery.

Caroline’s alter ego in The Shame Show is Mertle Merman, a 1950s suburban housewife modelled after celebrity chef Elizabeth Craig. ‘Mertle Merman’ reflects petty bourgeois gentility and vaudevillian show business but with a ‘nice’ subversive touch. Mertle first appeared in Caroline’s Eating Secret which was described as ‘deliciously dark’ by The Guardian. Caroline has said that ‘Mertle is a fa├žade, from a time when our relationship with food was simpler. She is easy to talk to.’

Caroline brings this aspect of Mertle to The Shame Show where she investigates concepts of shame in our lives and bourgeois society in a participatory, interactive game/variety show which subverts ideas of what popular entertainment can be, and her old fashioned charm draws confidences from her audience. There is also an educational aspect to this ‘light entertainment’ perhaps reflecting Caroline Smith’s former job as a lecturer in creative writing, journalism and media writing at the University of Greenwich.

Mertle informed the audience that the word ‘shame’ has its origin in the Old English word ‘schamu’ which means ‘to cover’, and so we have covering oneself as an expression of shame. She informed the audience about Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals which identifies the tell-tale signs of ‘shame’; blushing, confusion, downward cast eyes, slack posture, lowered head. She spoke about sociologist Charles Cooley and his concept of the ‘looking glass self’ in Human Nature and the Social Order where he wrote ‘the thing that moves us to pride or shame is not the mere mechanical reflection of ourselves, but an imputed sentiment, the imagined effect of this reflection upon another’s mind’. Caroline Smith’s work in Eating Secret and The Shame Show concerns ‘themes that explore complicity and exchange and the inevitable disturbances that arise between Self and Other.’

Paul Green appeared as Cardinal Paul (in full Roman Catholic ecclesiastical garb) from the Vatican who had come to England to stop ‘David Cameron making everyone marry a homosexual’. Paul Green also animated the space with film of moments of shame in popular culture such as Britney Spears (her shame is releasing a new record). There is raucous rock’n’roll footage of Cher and Tina Turner singing Shame, Shame, Shame from the era which Foucault described as a ‘surge of libido modulated by the class struggle’. There are satirical swipes at Stonewall’s ‘Bigot of the Year’ Cardinal Keith O’ Brien and his ‘shame’ in having to resign recently for ‘inappropriate sexual conduct with junior clergy’. Paul Green’s subversive ‘catholic’ humour recalls defenestrating Roman Catholic bishops in Bunuel/Dali’s L’Age d’Or and John Waters ‘most overtly Catholic film’ Multiple Maniacs which covers a gamut of sex and rosary beads in church, Christ and the stations of the cross, a religious whore, and the apparition of the Infant Jesus of Prague.

Mertle related to the audience that her husband had gone to sea in the Second World War and had never returned but she confessed that she had eaten him. This was a ‘secret’ not divulged before in Eating Secret. Mertle is rather a subversive persona for the 1950s, the whole idea of eating her husband suggests an assault on perceived hetero-sexist patriarchy. Rousseau wrote ‘when the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich’, and film makers like Paul Bartel in Eating Raoul, Godard in Week End and Pasolini in Pigsty have all used what ‘anti-psychiatrist’ David Cooper called ‘cannibalism as a ritualistic practice or a direct expression of hunger.’

Mertle interviewed Austrian comedienne Alice Frick about shame and being Austrian, and names like Josef Fritzl and Adolf Hitler are mentioned. She interviewed this reviewer who appeared as ‘Steve the Bolshevik from the Socialist Review’ but this is corrected to ‘more Menshevik, a socialist writing for the Socialist Standard’ and that ‘shame is a class society construct and in socialism the free development of each will be the condition for the free development of all’. The sudden appearance of a ‘socialist’ recalls the appearance of ‘Steve the Weatherman’ in John Waters’s Multiple Maniacs.

Marxist (Gay Left) writer and academic Richard Dyer described Caroline Smith’s Spank as ‘haunting and hallucinatory’. Dyer in his writings enthuses about ‘conceptualizing radical pleasure’ and this is an apt description for The Shame Show by Caroline Smith and Paul Green.

A new Caroline Smith alter ego is Rita (The Great Crested) Grebe in her Birdwatcher’s Wives where ‘twitchers’ can ‘locate their inner bird’ in a series of workshops being held in Southend on Sea, Leigh on Sea and Wallasea Island in Essex. Paul Green continues as a ‘curatorially subversive explorer’ at where he explores the far shores of popular culture and the historical and social relationships between popular culture and LGBT communities.
Steve Clayton

Bit Rich! (2013)

From the August 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Voice From the Back: Political Posturing (2013)

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

Political Posturing
Politicians love making grandiose claims that have nothing to do with reality and the president of the USA came up with a wild notion recently. ‘President Obama used the backdrop of the Brandenburg Gate yesterday to urge Russia to leave the Cold War behind by agreeing to a one-third reduction in its nuclear arsenal’ (Times, 20 June). The USA has 7,700 nuclear warheads and Russia has 8,500, so a one-third reduction would still leave enough nuclear warheads to burn the world to a crisp. Do you still listen to politicians’ ideas or give them any credence?

A Bleak Future
The following grim findings emerged from a poll carried out for the Association of British Insurers. YouGov asked 2,506 employees questions relating to retirement and welfare. ‘One in five working people believe that they will never retire. According to a survey being published today, of those who believe they will stop working full-time, more than four out of ten reckon they will have to keep a part-time job. Two thirds of those polled said they would struggle to meet the cost of paying for long-term care as they became infirm’ (Times, 9 July). Having suffered a lifetime of exploitation workers cannot even see some relief in old age.

Child Labour
In the industrial revolution British capitalism made its fortune on the exploitation of child labour, but the advent of the trade union movement, after a long hard struggle, saw that exploitation ended. Ever ready to make profits the British capitalist class have shifted their source of child exploitation to Asia. The British sugar giant Tate & Lyle has imported large volumes of sugar from Cambodia through a supplier that is accused of using child labour. ‘Tate & Lyle – which is the EU’s largest cane producer and whose ingredients are used in a wide range of foods around the world – has used the Thai KSL group since 2011 for its supplies from Cambodia. However KSL is alleged to have been complicit along with the Cambodian government, in the eviction of people from the land, arson and theft. ….. Children as young as nine years of age work on Cambodian plantations run by KSL.’ (Guardian, 9 July)

The Uncaring Society
Carers are being forced to cut back on essentials such as food and electricity because of the so-called bedroom tax. ‘Despite Government promises to protect them from the under-occupancy charge, one in six carers forced to pay it are falling behind on their rent and face eviction, research by Carer UK shows. …. Ministers pledged £25m in discretionary payments to protect carers and disabled people when the policy was introduced in April, but campaigners warned it would be only enough to support around 40,000 of the 420,000 disabled people affected by the cuts’ (Independent, 9 July). Just one in ten cases are receiving these discretionary payments on an ongoing basis, this latest research shows. When it comes to cutting welfare payments capitalism is ruthless even if you are disabled.

A Society Of Debtors
Politicians love to paint a picture of steadily improving living standards, but it is a complete illusion as a recent newspaper article by Christian Guy, Director of the Centre for Social Justice has revealed. ‘Yesterday’s grim figures revealed that more than 800,000 households will soon spend more than half their income on debt repayments. We already know that 274 people are declared insolvent or bankrupt every day, 88 properties are repossessed and average household debt, including mortgages, is almost £55,000’ (Times, 12 July). Hardly ‘steadily improving living standards’ is it?

A Grim Choice
In the city of Asbest in Russia workers face a grim choice – work to produce asbestos, which will probably kill you or else move somewhere else. Valentin K. Zemskov, who worked in the asbestos factory and developed asbestosis, a respiratory illness caused by breathing in  asbestos fibres summed up the position of workers in Asbest. ‘Still he said the city had no other choice. ‘If we didn’t have the factory, how could we live?’ he said gasping for air as he talked in the yard of a retirement home. ‘We need to keep it open so we have jobs’ (New York Times, 13 July). Inside a socialist society no one would have to endure such a hellish dilemma.

Pathfinders: Analogy Aversion (2013)

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

Analogy Aversion
A recent study of social unrest in 170 countries over the last hundred years claims to show that political turbulence shares something in common with other types of organic contagion, like epidemics and forest fires, with key variables determining susceptibility, resistance and transmission (New Scientist, 29 June). The model shows that prolonged social stresses create the conditions for an eruption which is then often sparked by some random or even unrelated event.

You can do something similar in your kitchen, of course. If you fill a pan with water, fit a tight lid and then set it to boil, the lid will at some point blow off. Key variables like how high you’ve got the gas, how tight the lid is, how big the pot is, all affect the experiment.

If this seems logical to you, beware. What the preceding paragraph has done is to argue the validity of one analogy, a ‘bio-political’ model of contagion, via another analogy, a simple ‘thermo-political’ model.

Analogies are useful for illustrating the gist of ideas but they are notoriously misleading precisely because superficial similarities can obscure deeper inconsistencies. In short, people tend to get carried with them.

Comparing the ‘contagion’ of ideas to the contagion of germs is an example of a ‘bio-political’ analogy. The application of biological analysis to social phenomena has in the past led to the egregious excesses of sociobiology. But the temptation is understandable. Ideas do appear to spread, reproduce, mutate and trigger complex processes, just like germs. We even talk about ‘the germ of an idea’. The danger is that people begin to forget that it is an analogy and start thinking it’s real. At this point fact stops and fancy takes over.

Something like this has happened with meme ‘theory’. The term ‘meme’ is bandied about willy-nilly these days as a handy – or lazy – shorthand for any cultural element which can be transmitted and mutated. In this view a tune is a meme, especially if you sing it wrong, and socialism is a meme par excellence, considering how many deformed freakish offspring have claimed it as a parent. Meme theory, or memetics, is also a meme where, like socialism, the word itself is sometimes the only thing which survives intact. Richard Dawkins first posited the idea in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, making clear something even his most ardent supporters seem to have forgotten since, that it was not a theory per se but analogous to his main argument, that the unit of evolutionary change is not the group or the individual but the gene. The point was to show that genes act as the agents and beneficiaries of change without having any conscious intentionality about it, just the way an idea can sweep through a population if conditions are right, regardless of whether the idea is good or bad for the people holding it. As with many great works, vast confusion was the result. Dawkins later railed at those who only read the title page before criticising, but admitted he may have chosen the wrong title because some people thought he was arguing that there were genes for selfishness, or that genes acted with a selfish ‘purpose’, or that selfishness (this was during the Thatcher years) was somehow ‘a good thing’.

Memetics and the selfish gene are both heartily disliked because they seem to reduce humans to the status of a dumb and brainless ‘survival machine’ whose sole purpose is to incubate and perpetuate the evolutionary agent. This is intolerably upsetting to some people’s ego. Just like pre-Copernican Catholics, we like to think life revolves around us, not that we revolve around life. But this is not the real objection. Whereas the selfish gene argument does offer explanations not available to individual or group-based evolutionary perspectives, the selfish meme proposition as a theory is less useful and convincing. Modern telecommunications is based on the fact that you can quantise, or digitise something which is analogue in nature into discrete parcels or ‘quanta’. CD music works this way. But sound-waves are physical phenomena with properties that lend themselves to quantising algorithms, ie. you can easily cut them up into little bits. Can you really do the same thing with thought processes? What would be the properties of a cultural ‘bit’? As Dawkins expresses it, there is no limit on what you can call a meme. This means that memes have a property no gene has, namely the ability to nest themselves inside each other like infinite matryoshka dolls. So ‘reality’ is a meme which contains all other memes. To say that everything is a meme is the same as saying that nothing is, which is meaningless. Maths equations that result in infinity are also meaningless, and quantum theories of gravity – the search for a theory of everything – frequently run into the ‘infinity’ problem. But here’s the difference. A quantum theory of gravity is necessary because without it the universe is largely inexplicable. There’s no equivalent and pressing case for a quantum theory of knowledge.

Using memetics to underpin a statistical study of social unrest is therefore a deeply supercilious activity. But this is not to say that statistical studies can’t tell you anything useful.

Loss aversion
Consider the finding by another researcher that ‘most protestors worldwide are not the grindingly poor but the newly prosperous’. The argument is that people don’t protest against poverty while they’re in it, but once they have left it they will protest vigorously against a possible return to it. Thus, food and bus price increases which sparked the recent riots in Brazil can be seen as a manifestation of that well-known phenomenon, loss-aversion.

Loss-aversion bias, attested in many studies, states simply that people tend to make more effort to prevent the loss of X than they would expend to attain X in the first place. It’s not about what you haven’t got, and it’s not about what you could get, it’s about what you have got that you might lose.

To a socialist there is a clear implication here about how we approach the task of presenting our case. It’s uncontroversial to say that through the generations most workers have gained in capitalism. When it comes to contemplating major social change, therefore, the fear of losing these gains overrides every other consideration.

This suggests that what we should focus on is not what workers might gain from socialism so much as what they have gained, but might lose, by continuing to support capitalism. From jobs to houses, food to health to civil rights to the planet itself, there are no shortage of contenders.

Lenin aversion
One other observation gleaned from academic studies of unrest which may be worth noting is the perceived shift in recent protests away from top-down hierarchical organisation (aka the classical Leninist left-wing) towards leaderless self-organising networks. Much has been written on the ‘contagion’ of crowd-based action, including recently in this column (Crowd Atlas, May issue). But is it true, as one researcher has suggested, that it’s not just a question of spontaneous gatherings of the Twitterati but a general evolution away from hierarchies and towards horizontal democratic structures in broader society? Fingers crossed, we can only hope so, because that would mean society is ‘mainstreaming’ the socialist ethic without any help from us. We’ve always argued that this could and should happen, but we’ve been disappointed before. If it is happening, the capitalist elite are not going to like it one bit, and may try to reimpose top-down coercion and wipe out these democratic gains. Still, if the studies are right, that might be the point where workers’ famous loss-aversion impulse really comes into its own.
Paddy Shannon

An Unlikely Story (2013)

A Short Story from the August 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Since the date was 200 R. W. – that is to say, 200 years since the human race had decided to establish a Rational World – it was announced that a lecture was to be given at the local meeting hall. The lecture was to be about the old society, the society that had been abolished when the revolution took place.

‘I know’, the lecturer began, ‘that when our new society was fully in operation, the old way of doing things seemed so indefensible that many of its details were quickly forgotten.’ However, he added, he had been doing much research, and now wished to describe the old society. The lecturer was quite deaf, and the noise he heard from time to time from his audience he took to be sounds of agreement. When he had finished, the chairman threw the meeting open. The first speaker from the floor politely thanked the speaker for coming to share his findings, but the rest of what he said was not so respectful.

‘I have to say’, he went on, ‘that I honestly couldn’t accept what the lecturer has told us tonight.  He claims that in the old days, when capitalism was rampant, society was divided basically into two classes. One class, much the smaller, owned everything worth owning – all the factories, the mines, the offices, the transport – everything: and they lived very comfortable, or even luxurious, lives, on the rent, interest and profit they gained from the work of the rest of the population. And all the work they (a few of them) did, if you could call it work, was to make sure the rest of the population worked for them. Everyone else had to spend their lives working for the benefit of this small owning class; and their returns from all their hard labour were very much smaller, and most of them spent their lives worrying about money, one way or another. Now I ask you – is that at all likely?  I mean, they were human beings then, just like we are human beings now.  How could they have put up with such a society?  I know they were deluged with propaganda practically from the time they were born – the newspapers, the radio, the television, the pulpits, the books – virtually all of them hammered home the idea that this was the only way humans could organize themselves, that anything else which might be suggested was just an impossible dream. I know all that.  But how could almost the entire human race accept such a system?  Not only was the structure of things theoretically unjust, in that the people who did all the work got a miserably small reward, just enough to keep them alive, and mostly in just sufficient health to enable them to spend their entire working lives labouring for the benefit of other people – I say, the system was not only theoretically unjust, but unjust in practice, in everyday reality, so that the great majority of people could see that they were being short-changed every day of their lives.  Now is it likely that human beings, people just like us, would calmly and patiently accept such rank injustice?’

He paused. ‘I suppose that if this state of affairs, if this monstrously unfair division of the good things of life between those who did not work but consumed in abundance on the one hand, and those who did all the work but consumed very little, on the other, was in some way hushed up, kept secret so far as that was possible – perhaps you could say that the secrecy might go some way to explaining why this society was accepted – not only by the small class of owners, but equally by the large class of workers. But there was no secrecy, no attempt at keeping this totally inequitable system under wraps. As the workers went each day to their work on their crowded buses or trains, they could, and did, read graphic descriptions in each day’s paper about the glorious lives lived by their betters. The working people went back every night to the little boxes they called homes, reading the evening papers with their full details of the vast mansions owned by the rich – many of them indeed, owning two or three or more of these palatial establishments in the very best parts of town, or in the country, surrounded by many acres of parks. Is it likely that anyone could accept such a state of things without trying immediately to overthrow it?  And yet the lecturer has tried to persuade us that the people of the so-called democracies voted at each election for politicians who promised them more of the same – while in other countries, ruled by dictators, people accepted that they were not even allowed to vote freely for the system that kept them in subjection. I just can’t swallow the stories told by this evening’s lecturer.’

The lecturer stood to reply.  ‘I agree that it’s all very, very unlikely, and yet it happened. People have often been unable to accept the obvious facts of existence.  When the great astronomer Galileo claimed that the earth moved round the sun, he was hauled in front of the Inquisition. Everyone knew that the earth stood still, while the sun, moon and stars moved round it, because the Bible said so in about five different places. Galileo was forced to recant, but he is supposed to have said afterwards, ‘Eppur si muove’ – ‘for all that, it does move’. And, believe it or not, just as nearly everybody then knew that the earth didn’t move, people before the revolution did support the old system – however unlikely it seems to us now. Don’t forget, our present system shows that ultimately people do accept the world as it is – just as even the religious people finally had to accept that the world does move.’
Alwyn Edgar

Hidden Cameraderie (2013)

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

Traditionally, if you were the victim of a hidden camera show, then you’d find out when you heard ‘smile, you’re on Candid Camera’ or realised the officious bearded idiot who’s just crushed your car is Jeremy Beadle. But if you’re caught by Channel 4’s Eye Spy, you’ll be confronted by a film crew scrutinising the ethics of your behaviour. The programme tries to distance itself from the schadenfreude of Candid Camera and Beadle’s About by using the hidden camera format to attempt to gauge the nation’s moral fibre. Eye Spy uses set-up situations to test how the people stumbling into them will react.

Presenter Stephen Fry asks what you would do if you found money lying around, whether it’s stacked up in bundles in a holdall, or a tenner in a dropped wallet with a return address inside. Would you help a lad using a wheelchair get up a long flight of steps, or an elderly shopper in a supermarket, even if they became a bit too demanding? The answer seems to be that we’ll usually go out of our way for someone else, but we’re less likely to if we can’t relate to the person behind the need. Only the discarded wallets which contained a photo were returned, for example.

Another set-up involves a restaurant being hired by the programme, and an actor playing an obnoxiously bigoted waiter. A volunteer couple, either gay or of different ethnicities, then sit through the waiter revealing his prejudices within earshot of the other diners. Will anyone else rally round to challenge the waiter? Many of us would, although apparently we’re less quick to do so outside London.

The show generally doesn’t try to be scientific by running the tests on a large scale. This is a pity, as some of the scenarios could give us interesting conclusions about social norms and peer pressure, if we excuse the duplicity involved. Society wouldn’t function if people weren’t basically co-operative and helpful, and how this is expressed depends on society’s principles. But instead of this kind of analysis, we just get Stephen Fry making the occasional patronising remark from the back of a taxi, presumably on his way to film QI.
Mike Foster

Labor Party Advocates: On reinventing a square wheel (1995)

From issue 12 of the World Socialist Review

Organized labor has fallen on somber times in the “global village.” Capital’s erosion of working-class gains since the Great Depression has succeeded to the point where workers organized in unions now represent scarcely more than a tenth of the U.S. work force. This has been made possible partly by capitalism’s global expansion, which by the 1980s had effectively proletarianized the bulk of the world’s population; multinational capitalists have redesigned the way they invest their capital, maximizing their ability to shift it cheaply and efficiently to whatever part of the planet promises them the highest possible profit.

Global job combat
It is not hard for capital to sack workers and break unions in the U.S., with huge numbers of unemployed or underemployed workers entering the emerging labor forces of competitor economies in Asia, Latin America and Africa. As in previous periods of “primitive accumulation,” the servants of capital have engineered barbaric new forms of repression there to ensure that the path to anticipated profits would be smooth.

By the beginning of the 90s organized labor in the U.S. had been reduced to the status of a “pressure group within the Democratic Party” run by salaried officials having a vested interest in maintaining their professional niche—even to the detriment of their own organizations (according to a 1994 pamphlet put out by the Trotskyist group, Solidarity). [1]

Against this backdrop, a union-based organizing committee calling itself the Labor Party Advocates (LPA) has stepped forward with a drive to generate support for the creation of a latter-day U.S. version of a Labor Party:
 LPA represents a strategy to break out of the box we’ve been in. We hope you will consider joining with several thousand other trade unionists at every level of the Labor Movement who have committed to this new strategy and are determined to create a political party that speaks for us for a change.” [Emphasis in the original] [2]
LPA is laying its foundations carefully before proceeding to any very visible efforts to mobilize what polls show to be a “deep disillusionment with the Democratic Party” among workers. [3] The LPA’s thesis, as Nader sees it, is that the Democrats have fallen from grace and have degenerated into a “self- perpetuating club of politicians” who seek only to feather their political nests. This varies somewhat, as you might expect, from the above-cited Solidarity pamphlet’s view: Solidarity “argue[s] against participation in the Democratic or Republican parties and promote[s] the idea of an independent political party in which the agenda is set by the membership.”

Democratic control
For Solidarity, “socialism is first and foremost democratic control by the working class”— rather than both common ownership and democratic control by society—so it is not surprising they should frame the question of forming a Labor Party as merely a device for breaking capitalism of its worst habits. (A fundraiser ad for the “Eugene V. Debs Five Score Club Card” in Labor Party Advocate [Sept. 1994] announces that Debs “stood for a vibrant trade union movement with a political party organized by and for the American worker.”)

The question, however, that workers never seem to ask themselves when they discuss organizing is, what can you really do within the boundaries of capitalism that the system can’t ultimately turn to its advantage? Capitalism will never stop changing, and resisting capital will always be the number one priority for labor organizations. The role of unions will always be defensive.

Looking-glass names
LPA supporters probably do speak for most workers in believing a Labor Party would signify “a big group of common people making a plan together for the future.” But the whole concept of a “Party of Labor” makes about as much sense as would something calling itself “The Capitalist Party.” Once you get past the looking-glass names political parties usually give themselves, the vast majority of them actually are just organizations whose purpose is to coordinate, negotiate or “allow” capital accumulation.

“Labor” parties cannot manage the accumulation of capital to anyone’s advantage but a capitalist’s. Capital has to view everything through the spectacles of profit. Many people seem to believe society can humanize capitalism by inducing capitalists to arrange wealth production chiefly to meet people’s needs, relying only secondarily on the profit motive.

This is nothing if not a counsel of despair, since—if people really did come first in this world we have suffered to be created for us—society would have no use for such a narrow and irrational mechanism as the profit motive. Humanly speaking, our world does not require being divided up into the competing (and authoritarian) monopolies of human social production we call “enterprises.”

Sooner or later a labor party must either separate into hierarchical layers with conflicting interests, or else become eclipsed by or absorbed into the parties of capital. The record shows that, thus far in world history, no Labor Party—neither Britain’s nor Israel’s, nor their equivalents (e.g., Canada’s NDP, Germany’s SPD, the former Soviet Union’s “Communist” Party)—has managed to avoid the fate of turning on its own constituency and settling down, at best, to the comfortable decadence of an opposition party defending the interests of capital against those of the working class. LPA is already evincing a breathtaking disinterest in the lessons of the past—and showing a dogged determination to repeat exactly the same errors.

Capitalist virus
As workers we all need to ask ourselves whether capitalism really has anything left to offer us. We need to think instead about establishing in its place a moneyless world commonwealth in which we no longer have an interest in bombing, shooting, executing, torturing, terrorizing or victimizing each other—all at the behest of a nest of cynical parasites whose favorite sport is to divide us into warring factions. What we need is to eliminate the virus of capital, not play medic and race around scavenging for political, social anti economic hand-aids.
A. D.

Class War in Canada (2011)

Book Reviews from issue 22 of the World Socialist Review

The Impossibilists -- The Socialist Party of Canada and the One Big Union, Selected Articles 1906-1938. Revised edition with added material. Includes Ginger Goodwin's writings. Perfect bound book, 90 pages, US $14.00 

Peter E. Newell, The Impossibilists: A Brief Profile of the Socialist Party of Canada. 404 pages, US$18.95.

These two recently published books deal with our companion party in the World Socialist Movement, the Socialist Party of Canada. The SPC is the only one of the companion parties to have become a mass movement.

The articles brought together in the first of these books include reports of organizing work as well as theoretical and polemical pieces. Of particular interest are the critiques of the USSR and its Leninist followers in the “Comical” Party of Canada.

Included in this edition are the writings of Ginger Goodwin. Widely known in Canada up to his death in 1918, Goodwin was an organizer both for the SPC and for the United Mine Workers Union. For a number of years he was also vice president of the Federation of Labor of British Columbia.

Up until 1918 Goodwin was classified as unfit for military service due to lung conditions related to coal mining, but he was called up for active service after he organized several strikes in the Nanaimo coal mining region. Convinced that he had been set up, he avoided conscription by escaping to the woods outside of Cumberland, BC. On July 27, 1918, Goodwin was shot without warning by a Mountie* as he was walking to his cabin. Goodwin was and continues to be a legend among the workers of British Columbia. Since the 1980s a yearly gathering of workers has been held in Cumberland, B.C. to honor his memory.

The One Big Union (OBU) was founded in 1919 as an industrial union similar to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) but based on socialist principles. Like the SPC and Karl Marx, the OBU saw class struggle as a constant in capitalist society, but unlike the IWW it did not regard itself as prefiguring the new society.

The OBU started off with 40,000 members in Canada and another 30,000 in the US. Its creation shook the American Federation of Labor to its core. The OBU gained its members through the withdrawal of union locals from existing Canadian and American unions. In 1919 the US Western District of the International Longshoremen’s Association voted to leave the ILA and join the OBU. Similarly, there were serious moves for the Washington State and Montana State AFLs to switch to the OBU.

In 1923 the OBU led a strike of 120,000 textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Other areas where it was strong were the San Francisco Bay Area and the important mining region centered in Butte, Montana.

By 1925 the OBU was washed up in the United States, but in Canada it remained a national union until 1956, when it took its 16,000 members into the merger of the Canadian AFL and CIO federations.

The second book under review is a history of the Socialist Party of Canada by Peter E. Newell. The author is a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) – another companion party of the World Socialist Movement.

The book provides a chronological account of the SPC, both during its heyday between 1912 and 1925 and following its rebirth in the early 1930s. The research is impeccable and dispels some of the myths that have been spread about the SPC by Leninists of various stripes. This work will be of great value to labor historians as well as to socialists.

However, we still need a third book on the SPC that would provide an organizational history – an account of how the party was established and organized, how it grew, how it approached issues, and how it interacted with the OBU and other workers’ organizations. For example, although I have been researching the history of the SPC for over a dozen years, I only recently discovered that the SPC organized an unemployment movement in Toronto.
FN Brill

Under Pressure (2019)

Book Review from the May 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain’. by James Bloodworth (Atlantic £8.99)

This is a report on time spent living in various towns and working in insecure badly-paid jobs. It gives a vivid and depressing picture of what life is like for so many people who are near, if not quite at, the bottom of the social pyramid.

Bloodworth began in Rugeley, Staffordshire, working in an Amazon warehouse. Most workers there were recruited through one of two agencies, often on a zero-hours contract. The work was ‘physically exhausting’ and ‘mentally deadening’, as it involved walking around ten miles a day in the enormous warehouse, and it was particularly hard on those who were overweight or elderly. Simply walking to the canteen or queuing to have your pockets checked could take ten minutes or so, and that time was not paid for. Workers’ every move was tracked by management, and they could be told to speed up. Six disciplinary points would lead to you being sacked (‘released’ was the euphemism used), and points could be awarded for being ill or being late because Amazon’s bus had broken down. Few local workers would put up with the conditions for long, hence the high staff turnover and the many Eastern Europeans employed there. And the agencies would often pay workers late or underpay them.

Then he travelled to Blackpool, where he worked in the adult home care sector. Again there was a high staff turnover here, partly caused by the low wages but also by the fact that workers often had to rush around to complete their calls, making their working day very long and giving them barely enough time to deal with each person they visited. Many isolated elderly people just wanted a bit of a chat but there was rarely time to do more than the bare minimum of caring. The private companies to which home caring has been outsourced just saw the people being looked after as ‘first and foremost pound symbols on a balance sheet’.

In South Wales Bloodworth worked at a call centre in Swansea for the Admiral insurance company. He found working there relatively positive and tolerable, though there were still league tables for performance, and staff turnover was above the national average.

His final destination was London, where he worked as a cab driver for Uber, though strictly he was an ‘independent contractor’ in the gig economy. Industries like this are full of nice-sounding terms that mask the underlying reality: so the money earned at Deliveroo is called a fee rather than a wage. Uber benefits from having lots of drivers on call, with all the risk of going some time without a fare passed on to the drivers. The pay earned is unpredictable, and there are limits on how many trip requests can be rejected. He reckoned that his annual take-home pay would have been £15,600, about £7.50 an hour.

Besides describing the work he did, Bloodworth also says quite a bit about the towns he stayed in. Rugeley is one of several former mining areas that are now home to Amazon warehouses, but have seen little ‘economic regeneration’. Of Ebbw Vale, he says it ‘remains trapped in limbo between an industrial past and a future that has yet to arrive’. Blackpool, where the tourist trade has drastically shrunk, has some of the most deprived areas in England, a big homelessness problem and a suicide rate almost twice the national average.

He says that consumers have become used to products that are cheap because of places like the Amazon warehouse. But the blame lies in the system, not in those who are themselves victims of it.
Paul Bennett

50 Years Ago: Elitism still haunts disenchanted Bolsheviks (2019)

The 50 Years Ago column from the May 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

Socialists are active wherever workers are developing their ideas through discussion. So a few of us turned up at the weekend conference of ‘Libertarian Marxists’ in Manchester. This was organised mainly by people who had become disenchanted with Bolshevism in the shape of the so-called ‘International Socialism’ group.

It was encouraging to find a number of workers, formerly committed to the extreme centralism of the Vanguard Party, who have seen through that fraud and come out against leadership. Unfortunately it soon became clear that elitist ideas were not dead. The conference was dominated by three speakers (R. Sumner, S. James, M. Orr), who together took up 90 per cent of the time. The air was thick with talk of ‘the intellectuals’ and their relationship to ‘the workers’, and the notion that workers learnt only from personal experience whilst abstract ideas were beyond them—the usual leftist claptrap.

Among the gems were S. James’s announcement that she was a black nationalist, after she had denounced racism(!), and her revelation that ‘workers can’t read big books’. R. Sumner wanted ‘all Socialists’ to unite in bringing out a newspaper, without any ‘contentious arguments’ about what Socialism was. And M. Orr, an advocate of ‘self-management,’ when pushed, said that he was in favour of abolishing wages, but not in favour of abolishing money!

They looked to incidents like the 1956 Hungarian uprising, and the May events in France, to bring ‘Socialism.’ We should not, therefore, take them too seriously, particularly as Mrs. James’s model of a revolution without leaders was Castro’s takeover in Cuba, and Mr. Orr insisted that the socialist revolution would be carried out by a minority, while the majority of the population was passive.

(Socialist Standard, May 1969)

Dear Theresa . . . (2019)

From the May 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

Well, it’s all over bar the shouting! Except it’s not over and there seems to be even more shouting than usual. The Brexit circus bumbles along, aided and abetted by the media which hyperventilates over every twist and turn; including wheeling out obscure academics to paw over esoteric constitutional conundrums in a pathetic attempt to inject some Guardian-like discourse into the idiocy and thus further bamboozle the public. Do we even have a constitution?

I see that Boris chappy has re-entered the fray with a preposterous proposal that he will vote for your deal provided you resign; that is, your dead-as-a-Dodo-deal, which he has previously said is: ‘worse than no-deal, worse than staying in the EU and threatens the integrity of the UK.’ I think Boris needs to refresh his understanding of the meaning of integrity. When I heard about his offer I thought: there is no way in which Theresa is going to capitulate to such an insulting proposition. But then I heard that you have accepted it. You have even been wooing those your party has been denouncing as an ‘anti-Semite, terrorist apologist and all round Putin puppet’, Corbyn. Ah well, I suppose it’s no time for false pride or principles when political careers are at stake.

I’ve been rather flippant about Brexit up to now, but I’d like to acknowledge a substantial benefit of the Brexit process. The decision of the UK to leave the EU represents a momentous turning point in the fortunes of our country; where Great Britain can once more stand as a proud sovereign nation, ready to take its place in the world. ‘Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves!’ Sorry, I got a bit carried away there for a moment. No, it is not this jingoistic twaddle that I have in mind as the Brexit dividend.

I don’t know whether you have read that little book by William Morris, ‘News from Nowhere’. It’s a romantic portrayal of a socialist world. In this idyllic future society the parliament buildings have been turned into a giant dung heap – the cynic would claim they have always had this characteristic. William Morris wrote his fable over a hundred years ago but, had he been around in these more cosmopolitan times, he would have portrayed the steaming bloated edifice of the European Union HQ in Brussels in similar terms. If there were any starry-eyed individuals who imagined that, by voting for Brexit, they would rid themselves of the shackles of a feckless European plutocratic elite, in order to take back control at Westminster, it must be crystal clear to them now that they were merely voting to swap one dung heap for another. The working class needs to focus on ridding itself of the shackles of capitalism rather than taking sides in this bun-fight between different imperialist factions.

In the enormous dung-producing enterprise of Brexit you, Theresa, have been wielding the biggest shovel. In so doing you have helped to realise William Morris’s ambitious vision of a world beyond capitalism.
Tim Hart