Friday, May 3, 2019

Voice From the Back: Empty Rhetoric (2013)

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

Empty Rhetoric
Politicians always emphasise the importance of new legislation and of course their own importance. 'The Child Poverty Act of 2010 holds the government accountable for reducing child poverty. On Wednesday, new figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies show that not only are they failing to do so, the numbers of children living in poverty will actually rise, from 2.4 million to 3.4 million by 2020 – the date that was set for the elimination of child poverty in the UK' (Guardian, 8 May). So after all that pompous talk and so-called erudition what is the result? More kids are living in poverty than before the brilliant legislation.

It's A Mad, Mad World
Many opponents of the world socialist movement think we are a little mad. A world based on production for use? No profits? No Money? Crazy! But what of present day society? 'A racing pigeon named Bolt officially became the most expensive pigeon in the world earlier this week when a Chinese businessman bought him at auction for $400,000' (Business Insider, 22 May). We live in a society wherein millions of people try to exist on less than $2 a day and yet a member of the capitalist class can spend $400,000 on a pigeon. Who are the mad people?

A Greek Tragedy
David Smith in an otherwise critical review of the book The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills praises the authors for this piece of information. 'Take Greece, the worst-hit of Europe's crisis economies, which is now in its sixth year of recession. With unemployment at 27 per cent, the suicide rate has soared. Deep cuts in health spending have led to not only to a severe rationing of basic treatments and medicines, but also to an increase in suicides, malaria and HIV' (Sunday Times, 26 May). An increase in suicides, malaria and HIV – isn't capitalism wonderful.

The Killer Society
There are many reasons to abolish capitalism. War, poverty, racialism and nationalism, to mention but a few, but here’s another powerful reason. 'Malnutrition is responsible for 45 per cent of the global deaths of children under the age of five, research published in the Lancet medical journal suggests. Poor nutrition leads to the death of about 3.1 million under-fives, annually, it says' (BBC News, 6 June). Capitalism is a baby killer – we must get rid of it.

Cause for Celebration?
We can understand workers celebrating joyous occasions like a birthday or a wedding but this commemoration astounds us. 'Britain is to mark the centenary of the First World War with cultural events and an act of reconciliation with Germany on the battlefield. Maria Miller, the culture secretary, will announce the appointment of one of the leaders of the £20m programme tomorrow' (Sunday Times, 9 June). They are spending £20 million to commemorate a war that annihilated 16 million lives. Truly capitalism is a sick society.

Progressing Backwards
The illusion nurtured by supporters of capitalism that workers are constantly improving their financial position is shattered by another study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Wages have fallen more in real terms in the current economic downturn than ever before, according to their recent report. 'On top of rising cost of living, one third of workers who stayed in the same job saw a wage cut or freeze between 2010 and 2011, said the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). ……. In 2009, the average public sector worker earned about £16.60 per hour, which dropped to about £15.80 in 2011, the IFS said. Meanwhile, hourly pay for private sector workers in 2009 was just over £15.10 and dropped to £13.60 in 2011' (BBC News, 12 June). Even the capitalist class institutions like the IFS know that the worker’s position is getting worse off.

A Prince And A Pauper
Prince Charles as a future king of England is forced to attend all sorts of press shows and say all sorts of nonsense to all sorts of cringing, sycophantic journalists but even he must have felt a little sick at this utterance. 'The Prince, known in Scotland as the Duke of Rothesay, met recovering servicemen and women at the Edinburgh House personnel recovery centre. …. Among those he met was Paul Lambert, 32, who lost both legs in Afghanistan in 2009. The Prince praised him as a "great example"' (Times, 14 June). You own absolutely nothing. You go into a conflict that has nothing to do with you. You have both your legs blown off. Your life is ruined. A ‘great example’ of working class stupidity is what we would call it.

Is Europe to Blame? (2013)

Book Review from the July 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

James Heartfield’s new book The European Union and the End of Politics (Zero Books) is about the evolving relationship between the European Union and its constituent member countries. It is a mix of political science, recent European history and a call for agitation from the people of the continent.

Conventional consensus
The basic premise is that across Europe, over the last 30 years or so, there has been a decline in active, popular participation in national politics and that in most countries the mass mainstream parties of right and left are in real decline as meaningful movements. This is reflected in the great reduction in party membership and in public interest and involvement in policy debate and formulation. According to Heartfield, the fundamental reason behind this phenomenon is that most conventional political parties no longer have any major ideological divisions between each other and generally have adopted a consensual position on the desirability of having a regulated but free market as the basis of the economy accompanied by a modest investment in the welfare state. For the parties of the Left, even talk of an aspirational nature of aiming for a major transformation to the basis of society has long since evaporated. Hence the debate in national parliaments is mostly ritualised and meaningless and the coverage of politics by the mainstream media generally focuses on personalities, scandals, government cock-ups and associated ‘stories’. Into this vacuum of real politics have stepped the institutions of the European Union. The lives of the people of Europe are increasingly determined by policies emanating from Brussels.

Heartfield points out, though, that in many cases this reduction in national decision-making has a cynical origin. Governments are relieved to use the official need to conform to EU rules and directives to explain and justify the necessity of implementing reforms (in the areas of the economy, environment, immigration etc.) that are electorally unpopular but necessary for the smooth functioning of capitalism across the continent. As an example, writing as a socialist based in Ireland, where the power of the European Union is clear particularly since the economic meltdown of 2009 and the need for the country’s finances to be ‘rescued’ by the EU and IMF, all budget cuts and increases in taxation are said to be inevitable for Ireland to remain part of the system. However even before that it was obvious how much decision-making had been transferred to Brussels. Government ministers from most Departments make very regular visits to Brussels to consult with EU officials and their fellow ministers to return and announce a policy which is then rubber-stamped by parliament.

Recent European history
Much of the book is taken up with an analysis of issues that have concerned the European Union since its inception: the legacy of World War Two, the influence of the Cold War on its formation and development, growing integration between the member states, the increase in the number of member countries, the relationship with the United States, the global positioning of the EU, the stresses resulting from the adoption of a common currency by some of its constituent entities, etc. Like much analysis of recent history, the reader is free to agree or disagree with the author’s interpretations on any particular issue. Some of the material in the book will be of interest to any person concerned with contemporary politics though other sections (particularly Chapters 7 and 8 where the ‘theory’ of European integration is examined from a variety of perspectives) will only probably only excite those with a professional remit in this field.

One small criticism is that when the author discusses the antagonistic relationship between some individual countries and the European Union, it is not clear what is precisely meant by the latter term. Is it the institutions and bureaucracy in Brussels or is it the governments of the major states, principally Germany? Heartfield’s own opinion on Europe is divulged in the final, Conclusions chapter of the book. Although throughout the book, the reader is given the impression that he regards the nation-state as the superior basis for political organisation and decision-making, it seems that he is not a nationalist but is in favour of a pan-European framework for the continent. However he feels the current European Union can have no place in such a project given its complete lack of popular democracy or genuine sovereignty. To implement a new type of Europe firstly requires the regeneration of popular politics and mass mobilisation in the national arena of its people.

Shallow debate
The socialist objective transcends the issues discussed in the book. As socialists we seek the replacement of the current basis of society, capitalism, by a new fundamentally different basis, socialism. This will be a world-wide society not based on countries or continents or superpowers. So we are not concerned as to whether capitalism is organised on a national or trans-national basis. The EU is clearly a capitalist construct where the dominant elements of the capitalist class in Europe see an advantage in organising the politics and economy of Europe on a continent-wide basis. The reason the existence of the EU generates political heat is that such an artifice brings no advantages to some elements of the capitalist class within each country, yet they feel they must bear a proportion of the costs, so they oppose it.

The issue of the relationship between member states and the EU is probably most controversial in the UK. However the shallowness of this debate can be quickly exposed. In 2014 there will be a referendum on Scottish Independence from the UK while in 2017 or so there may be a referendum on British ‘Independence’ from the EU. Does anyone really believe the day to day lives of ordinary people in Scotland or England will be significantly affected by the outcome of these referenda? Of course, as with the ebb and flow of capitalist politics, there will be temporary winners and losers amongst the working people of Britain. Those British workers who live and work or are retired in Europe, gain some minor benefits from British membership of the EU. It’s much easier to travel to another member country without the need to change currency (Eurozone only), obtain visas, satisfy custom requirements, organise emergency health care, etc. As against that, other sections of the working class in Britain may benefit from an exit from the Union; those employed in sectors where they are competing with migrants from Europe to sell their labour power. However the basic position of the vast majority of the people in Britain will be unaffected by the manoeuvring of politicians on either side of these campaigns. Ultimately only the transformation of the economic basis of society and the scrapping of national and supra-national based identities can do that.
Kevin Cronin

Mixed Media: ‘Edwin Butler Bayliss‘ (2013)

Tipping the Slag
The Mixed Media column from the July 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Wolverhampton Art Gallery recently showed the industrial landscapes of Edwin Butler Bayliss (1874-1950), ‘poet painter of the Black Country’ (Birmingham Gazette 1918) who was prolific in the early twentieth century. Bayliss was the son of industrial capitalist Samuel Bayliss who owned iron foundries in the Black Country which Bayliss painted along with the blast furnaces, steel works and coal mines owned by Tory MP and baronet Sir Alfred Hickman.

Tipping the Slag portrays a grey industrial landscape with smouldering slag heaps and smoking chimneys. Slag was the impurities from smelting iron drained from the molten iron during the smelting process and is painted in vivid orange against the grey wasteland. Blast Furnaces, Night is a black and grey industrial landscape with blast furnaces and chimneys and flecks of orange flame against the black and grey sky.

The Black Country is defined by geology; a 30 foot coal seam plus seams of coal, iron, limestone and clay which supported the development of coal mines, coking plants, iron foundries, and steel mills in the towns of Sandwell, Dudley, Walsall and Wolverhampton. In the Victorian period   it was the beating heart of   industrial capitalism, the industries of iron-making, steel production and coalmining forming the bedrock for the ‘workshop of the world’ showcased at the Great Exhibition of 1851. In 1866 Queen Victoria visited Wolverhampton and knighted the Mayor Sir John Morris.

Charles Dickens wrote in 1841 that the industries ‘poured out their plague of smoke, obscured the light, and made foul the melancholy air’ while the US consul visiting in 1862 wrote that the area was ‘black by day and red by night’. By 1860 within five miles of Dudley there were 441 pits, 181 blast furnaces, 118 iron works, 79 rolling mills and 1,500 puddling furnaces. Blast Furnaces, Bilston, Hickman’s from the Canal and In the Gin Pit (coal mined near to the surface) portray the ‘beauty in the Black Country’.

In the Black Country depicts a black and grey industrial landscape of blast furnaces and chimneys against a smoky sky with a worker struggling across the landscape. Evening in the Black Country shows three workers trudging up a dirt track between areas of dirty green vegetation towards industrial buildings and smoking chimneys.

The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 by Friedrich Engels details ‘an industrial revolution, a revolution which at the same time changed the whole of civil society’. This industrial capitalism meant the working class endured ‘filth, ruin and uninhabitableness’ in ‘the frightful condition of this Hell upon Earth’.
Steve Clayton

Pathfinders: Symptoms of Anachronitis (2013)

The Pathfinders column from the July 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

A revolutionary change is currently sending shockwaves through the US Navy, to wit, the announcement that they are dropping the requirement for all official communications to be issued in capital letters (BBC News Technology, 13 June). A message sent to all commands (in capitals, naturally) has advised that in future signals may use a mixture of upper and lower cases. This is part of a cost-cutting initiative to move much of the Navy’s information traffic to common-or-garden email systems. A wag at a London-based think tank observes sardonically ‘The US Navy has made up its mind that not everything is a crisis and some messages are just normal,’ but then, clearly unable to resist outright sarcasm, ‘This will introduce a degree of literary criticism into military communication… many senior officers think that the younger ones don’t know how to use capitals anyway, which is to say they either use far too many or not at all.’

Email users know very well that ALL CAPS FEELS LIKE SHOUTING, so US sailors must be a browbeaten lot, but the real reason behind the traditional use of capitals was simply that the original 19th century teletype machines did not have lower case letters. It’s what they call a legacy system. By a curious coincidence, the world is only now about to see its last telegram, as the India state telegraph service finally shuts down its operations this month.

Legacy is a funny thing. One of the innovations introduced by Steve Jobs at Apple was to make computer icons resemble real world objects in order for their functions to be more intuitive, a device known as skeuomorphism. Thus a delete function was represented by a wastepaper basket, a recording facility by a microphone and so on. Often the icons were somewhat whimsically old-fashioned, so that a word processing program could be represented by a quill pen, for example, or a show desktop function by, mysteriously, an ink blotter. This skeuomorphic principle is currently in the process of being jettisoned at Apple, where mandarins are keen on a post-Jobsworth design reboot partly because, they say, the younger generation is failing to recognise what the icons represent as their real world counterparts fall into disuse.

Not everyone is convinced that people under the age of forty have no idea what a reel-to-reel tape recorder looks like, or are unable to recognise an old-fashioned Bakelite telephone icon in the era of smartphones. Young people watch old movies, don’t they? But what rings true in principle is not only the fact that things become obsolete and we fail to recognise them as such, but that when we do recognise things as obsolete we perversely love them all the more for it. The old and knackered are reborn as sentimental icons, antiques and shabby chic, and not just material goods. Our civilisation is marinated in the obsolete, rotten with it, in language, law, logic and tradition, a kind of social anachronitis.

Why else do graduates ponce around in absurd Batman capes with silly hats, holding ‘scrolls’? Why else, in an age of digital photography, would the physicist Peter Higgs be ‘honoured’ recently by having his portrait painted? Why do judges, in an effort to be taken seriously, wear 18th century-style fancy dress? Our most atavistic impulses seem to lurk in the deepest parts of our brain, right down in the reptilian cortex, where our conscious rational minds have no dominion.

Can you see where this argument is going yet? Chief reptile David Cameron has lately struck a limp blow for frontal lobe thinking by announcing a £1m ‘grand innovation prize’ to solve the ‘biggest problem of our time’ (BBC News Politics, 14 June). And just what might that problem be, the pundits ask? That, declares the Prime Minister, is a matter ‘to be identified by the public’. Well, trust a millionaire not to know.

The ‘biggest problem of our time’ and the ‘grand innovation’ to solve it? Let’s see…

Ok, you know what’s coming next, don’t you? Of course you do. Capitalism itself, an economic system based on competitive selfishness in a world that can’t afford it any more, an anachronistic legacy of scarcity and the age of steam, that’s the ‘biggest problem’ by far. An economy that sets human against human and country against country to create a few gilded sultans amid a sea of squalor, that is the problemo numero uno that the public should identify. And the innovation? It follows naturally enough – the abolition of the private property basis of this economy, and with it trading, markets, money, banks, hierarchical nation states, and all the rest of it.

That’s what we would say, isn’t it?

But summon our arguments how we may, we’re not going to win that prize money, no sirree. And why? Because it’s an unfair contest and Cameron’s Cast of Clowns hates socialists? Nope, because we’re wrong.

Capitalism isn’t the biggest problem of our time, because there’s an even bigger problem, and it’s already been alluded to. We are addicted to the past. We stand before the past like an actor against a backdrop and think that it defines us and determines what we are. We think we need the past and that we can’t be anything without it. We don’t see the world for what it is because we are obsessed with what it was. People say our civilisation is backward but that’s not right. It’s pathologically backwardly compatible.

There is a saying that the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, but that’s not always true. Sometimes there’s an obstacle in front of you. What’s required then is not a step, but a jump. The single greatest difficulty, and also the greatest virtue, of the socialist case is that it demands a leap to clear the entanglements of the legacy-strewn present. But to make the leap, unless it’s some blind and mad leap of faith, requires looking ahead into the future, coolly and clearly, and gauging the distance and the necessary run-up.

That’s what science aims to do, and that’s just what society isn’t doing. That’s why reformists are on a treadmill of sameness, forever in motion but never moving. That’s why we are buried up to our necks in useless legacy. Capitalism is not the biggest problem, because that could be overthrown tomorrow. How to make people look forward instead of back, that’s the real challenge of our times.
Paddy Shannon

Failure and Success (2013)

Book Review from the July 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Why Nations Fail: the Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. Profile, £10.99

Why do some countries have a higher standard of living for most of their population than others have? The authors’ answer relies on a distinction between inclusive and extractive institutions at both the political and economic level. For further discussion of the book and replies to reviews, see

Politically, inclusive institutions are both centralised and pluralistic. This means, firstly, that they involve sufficient power of coercion in state hands to defend law and order and enforce property rights; this is in contrast to chaotic countries such as Somalia, which lack any true government power (they are sometimes called anocracies). Secondly, power is spread around to some extent rather than being concentrated in the hands of a few, whether a monarch and aristocracy or a dictator and his cronies. Extractive political institutions are either non-pluralistic or non-centralised. Economically, inclusive institutions foster productive activity and innovation rather than (as extractive institutions do) siphoning off wealth for the benefit of a small clique and stifling new ideas and developments as a challenge to the status quo.

There is claimed to be a ‘synergy’ between economics and politics in that inclusive and extractive types tend to go together. But ‘it is politics and political institutions that determine what economic institutions a country has.’ Economic growth is more likely under inclusive institutions; it is possible under extractive ones but is likely to be short-lived, as in the former ‘Soviet’ Union and today’s China (where the authors predict that either the country will become more pluralistic or the growth will peter out). The richer countries nowadays are those that began industrialisation in the nineteenth century, while the poorer ones did not.

The book contains a number of instructive case studies, which we cannot discuss properly here. Let’s just look at a couple. In 1945 the two parts of Korea were pretty similar, but then extractive institutions in the North led to stagnation and starvation, while South Korea adopted inclusive institutions and became an economic powerhouse, home to global corporations such as Samsung. Acemoglu and Robinson accept that the South was not a democracy and had ‘authoritarian presidents’, but they massively understate the extent of the dictatorship there (such as torturing strikers and firing on demonstrators) and also the amount of US support and investment. So there is little evidence from South Korea for the determining force of politics.

The Industrial Revolution is always a crucial issue in such broad-scope histories. In 1589 Elizabeth I refused a patent for a kind of knitting machine on the grounds that the introduction of such technology would lead to wide-scale impoverishment; in fact, she was probably afraid of any resulting instability and its threat to her status. But the Glorious Revolution of 1688 ended this concentration of monarchical power and gave much more say to the rising merchant and capitalist classes. From the middle of the eighteenth century many technological innovations were introduced in Britain as the Industrial Revolution took off. As the authors see it, the events of 1688 created inclusive political institutions, and these underpinned the inclusive economic institutions of property rights and efficient financial markets. But they are well aware that even the forms of democracy were very limited at the time, and that the capitalist class were able to use their new power to have textile imports from India banned. As this last example shows, inclusive institutions can be used to defend the interests of a small class of factory owners and to constrain production elsewhere.

In fact the whole idea of the institution types is not as straightforward as the authors seem to think. It is argued that inclusive economic institutions ‘allow and encourage participation by the great mass of people in economic activities that make best use of their talents and skills and that enable individuals to make the choices they wish’. It is hard to see how this fits any version of capitalism, since most people are forced to take dead-end or menial jobs (if they can find them) that make scant use of their skills, and so they have little choice in how they live their lives. Inclusive institutions benefit the capitalist class in general, not those who perform the labour that makes the owners wealthy.
Paul Bennett

Quizzing the Whizzkids (2013)

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

Could you talk in sentences when you were only eight months old? Or perhaps you had written four novels by the age of ten? If not, then you wouldn’t have fitted in with the brainy bairns appearing on Channel 4’s Child Genius, two of whom boast these achievements.

The show follows some of the seven to eleven year-olds who have qualified for Mensa’s ‘child genius of the year’ competition. Of course, these clever-clog kids didn’t get this far by themselves. Eight year-old Josh’s mother makes him play chess for fifty hours a week so he can be a grand master before he reaches thirteen. And little Longyin’s father has put together a strict timetable of sport and studies in half-hour instalments, including ‘controlled failure situations’ to motivate his son to succeed. The less pushy parents seem slightly bewildered and drained by their offsprings’ abilities and never-ending energy.

At the competition, maths and logic questions are fired at each whizzkid while they stand at a podium, watched tensely by the cameras, their parents and the other contestants. The pressure gets to some of the miniature masterminds, raising questions about what effects the label ‘IQ in the top 0.1% of the population’ has on people so young. For example, many of the children face difficulties in relating to others because of their intellect.

Most of the child geniuses (genii?) come from families wealthy enough to afford extras like the weekly private tuition with a chess master which Josh enjoys. And good luck to them; of course parents should encourage their spawns’ strengths. But this gets you wondering why few of the competing prodigies have emerged from more humble backgrounds. As a rule, the less money you have, the fewer opportunities you get. So, the contest isn’t really just testing innate abilities. It’s also a competition between families and how much they can afford to invest in their kids. Regardless of their IQs, will the children think about their good fortune in this way?
Mike Foster

Letter: Postcard from the Peaks (2013)

Letter to the Editors from the July 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Editors

We never said (Socialist Standard, June) that using ropes or oxygen is like walking. Using ropes is part of climbing, it keeps us alive, and we use them all the time. I’m also not sure that I ever said that I despised any restrictions. There are no restrictions on the mountain so saying that I despise them is a bit over the top if they don’t even exist? Also the Nepalese Govt never intervened. No one was ever arrested, I never saw a single policeman. The ringleader sherpas were back working on the mountain almost straight away!

Jon Griffith (by email)

Accounts differ. Jon Griffith was one of three European mountaineers who in late April were at some 21,000 feet up Mount Everest, working to establish a new route to the summit unassisted by ropes or oxygen, when they were attacked by a group of Sherpas who were laying some fixed ropes nearby. The incident was reported by, among others, Oliver Thring in the Sunday Times of 5 May. In that report Griffith was quoted as saying ‘For people like us the normal route to climb Everest is just like walking.’ He was also reported as expressing negative feelings about those he called ‘commercial climbers’ – presumably referring to people who pay a lot of money to be luxuriously accommodated before being respectfully guided up the mountain. And then there were his thoughts on the restrictions which arise from such arrangements: ‘Being told not to climb on a certain day just because other people are there is against the freedom of the hills.’

Jon Griffith also questions the statement in the article that the Nepalese government had intervened. But a report by Ed Douglas in the Guardian on 1 May stated that the Nepalese authorities had intervened, by trying to involve all parties to concede that mistakes had been made and that there would be no more violence. But the Europeans rejected the offer and returned home with Griffith saying that he no longer felt safe above base camp on the mountain. In addition the Nepalese police arrested three Sherpas.

In its entirety the piece was intended to set out one of many examples of how Mount Everest, once regarded on one side as holy ground side and on the other as a supreme test of moral fortitude, has deteriorated into just another sideshow in capitalism’s commodity culture. – Editors

From proletarian to prat (2013)

Book Review from the July 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

This Boy: A Memoir of a Childhood by Alan Johnson. Bantham Press, 2013.

When former Home Secretary Alan Johnson told Prime Minister Tony Blair that he was married with three children before he was twenty years old, Blair replied ‘You really are working class’. Alan Johnson is one of those rare things, a member of the proletariat who climbed the greasy pole to reach high political office.

This Boy tells of his childhood in the 1950s and 60s, growing up in North Kensington in London W10 in ‘a street whose buildings had been condemned in the 1930s’. The Johnson family were abandoned by their father, and their lives were filled with a ‘grinding poverty’ which comprised second hand clothes from ‘the Lane’ (Petticoat Lane market), debts, outside lavatories, no television or labour-saving devices, buying groceries ‘on the tick’, hiding from the ‘tally man’, and free school meals. In 1959 Macmillan said the working class had ‘never had it so good’.

1950s North Kensington was captured in the photographs of Roger Mayne who portrayed the ‘squalor and vibrancy of life there’ and also the arrival of immigrants from the West Indies who would be exploited by Rachman landlordism. Johnson recalls the ‘Teddy Boy’ riots in Notting Hill, the unsolved murder (Johnson says he knows the culprit) of West Indian Kelso Cochrane in 1959, and Oswald Mosley as Fascist candidate for North Kensington at the 1959 General Election.

Johnson’s book features a portrait of his mother who died when he was thirteen. She was a Liverpudlian who admired Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, Liberal leader Jo Grimond, disliked Churchill, and worked as a ‘charlady in the posh houses of South Kensington’. His mother and elder sister kept the family going in a period of the Welfare State when benefit entitlements were administered through the head of a family (ie. the man).

Johnson describes his passion for Queens Park Rangers who had a golden era in the 1960s which culminated in winning the football League Cup in 1967. Music was a passion from the skiffle of Lonnie Donegan to the Beatles and Stones and discovering Chicago blues. Johnson details the influential books and authors in his life which included Shane by Jack Schaefer, Mark Twain, HG Wells, Arnold Bennett and George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

Johnson passed his 11-plus and went to grammar school in Chelsea but left school at 15 eventually becoming a postman. He joined the Labour Party in 1971 although he considered himself a ‘Marxist in the CPGB style’. He also joined his trade union becoming the CWU General Secretary in 1992. He was the only senior trade unionist to support the New Labour abolition of Clause IV, and a safe parliamentary seat was found for him in 1997. He held various cabinet posts under Blair and then Brown. As Education Minister he introduced differential university tuition fees, and as Home Secretary he sacked Professor David Nutt, Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs who had accused the government of ‘distorting’ and ‘devaluing’ research evidence in the debates about Ecstasy and cannabis.
Steve Clayton

Stereotypes (2013)

From the July 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

On countless occasions I have been asked a question like: ‘Do you like children?’ or ‘Do you like dogs?’ Each time my answer has invariably been greeted by a sigh of frustration as if, somehow, I’m avoiding the question. My reply is that I like some children and not others (the same with dogs). Because I do not care to generalise my questioner cannot designate me as a ‘dog lover’ or someone who gets on with children. The need to generalise or ‘stereotype’ a person seems to be at the very heart of a popular conception of identity. Although these examples are trivial, unfortunately this need sometimes transfers itself to cultural, racial or gender descriptions. If people have personal trouble with a racial or cultural minority this is quite likely to affect their view of the whole group or culture. A woman once complained bitterly about the noise generated by the ‘Nigerians’ next door, forgetting that indigenous people can also be bad neighbours. My contention has always been that there exists ‘the Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ in all cultures and races.

The same cannot readily be said about politics – it is hard to find some redeeming feature in Fascism and its adherents since, in most part, the whole ideology is based on racial stereotypes. Perhaps this represents the ultimate ideological destination for anyone who persists in seeing others in this simplistic way? Another side effect of this kind of relationship with people is what is sometimes called ‘internalisation.’ A person comes to believe his or her own stereotype. If you are a male of a big build you must be ‘tough’ and ‘macho’; if you are a ‘pretty’ woman you must be delicate and feminine, etc. One of the most pernicious examples of this is when someone is persistently referred to as ‘thick’ or unintelligent, resulting in an intellectual insecurity, where they come to believe it themselves and so cease to develop.

The working class have always been told that they do not understand the complexities of the world and so need leaders to tell them what to do – and many have come to believe this nonsense. The reader may have noticed the use of a generalisation in that last statement – the term ‘working class’. Is this a meaningless stereotype used by socialists in their propaganda? Indeed, is it ever productive to make such a designation of a group of people in society?

The cult of ‘individualism’ would seem to ‘personify’ the opposite perspective to the stereotyping I have just been condemning. Paradoxically, when I speak with most people, who nearly all think of themselves as individuals, they articulate the very same stereotyping, as outlined earlier, in their political thoughts. If you consider this in any depth it becomes obvious that what individualism really means in a capitalist context is usually merely consumerism. So-called individualism is simply political conformism and any rejection of it makes you truly individual!

So by emphasising what we all have in common rather than what divides us socialists advocate a society where true individualism is really possible. The revolution will forever end the class struggle and humanity will no longer be divided into the parasites and the exploited (the ultimate stereotypes). The primary motivation for the propaganda of individualism is to weaken class consciousness within the majority. There is no such lack within the ruling class who always act together against any threat to their wealth and power (one reason for the existence of the Tory party). How is this propagation of conformity masquerading as individualism achieved? One of its main vehicles, unsurprisingly, is the media. Drama especially, on TV, radio and movies almost always contains stereotyped characters – the ’soap operas’ being a supreme example.

As we have seen, many people characterise others in terms of stereotypes but themselves as individuals. Emotional alliances with people are mainly achieved by their identification with the ego – partners, children, parents etc. In other words people are seen primarily as extensions of the self. If their appearance or values and behaviour are very different from the self, they become the ‘other’ which invariably leads to suspicion and competition. These alliances and the inevitable betrayals are the fodder of soap operas. We use the term ’inevitable betrayals’ because if you only identify with another in terms of your own needs then a tension will be caused by the expression of the other person’s needs.

This is a basic contradiction within capitalist culture – your individualism depends on other peoples’ suppression of their own. This is a reflection of consumerism since your choices condemn others and yourself to the unending quest for fulfilment through the products of alienated labour. Relationships become commodities with labels on them like ‘love’, ‘security’, ‘status’ and ‘success’. Within such dramas this endless cycle of the quest for relationships, money and power –and the inevitable failure, is repeated again and again. This, by implication, is the human condition with seemingly no consciousness of the use of stereotypes to emphasise capitalist values let alone the possibility of an alternative. So this is the model that many use to understand themselves. Depressing in the extreme, but fortunately some drama does exist that, at least partially, is conscious of these contradictions.

Recently I watched a film about a ‘whistle blower’ within the tobacco industry. He was aware that nicotine had been added to make the cigarettes more addictive. What followed was a drama about the security of his family versus his need to produce something of value (a definition of our humanity). This was an extreme example because cigarettes can and do kill people but the basic stereotypes of family man, loyal employee and citizen were examined.

There is a tradition in Hollywood movies of the ‘David and Goliath’ narratives where the persecuted underdog is successful in taking on the big bad corporations –something that rarely, if ever, happens in real life. But the majority in America desperately need to believe in justice and, given its absence in their everyday life, Hollywood provides it. This is, of course, the need that socialists depend on for the majority to get off their knees and make it a reality. Stereotyping others helps to prevent the consciousness of what all of us need – respect and comradeship.  Without that we can never be truly human.

Material World: Big Pharma – Pushing Harmful Drugs (2013)

The Material World column from the July 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last January Material World wrote about the rebellious teenagers ‘diagnosed’ with the newly invented Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and the highly profitable industry that has grown up to ‘treat’ – that is, abuse – them. The American Psychiatric Association has included ODD in the latest edition of its authoritative handbook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), together with Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder, for people who get angry too often, and Hoarding Disorder, for people who don’t like to throw things away.

The biomedical model
In early May the Division of Clinical Psychology of the British Psychological Society called for a halt in the process of defining all sorts of deviant or inconvenient behaviours as physical illnesses that can be treated using drugs. In the view of many psychologists and other critics of psychiatry, one important reason for the prevalence of this ‘biomedical model’ of mental distress is that psychiatrists and their associations are financially dependent on – in other words, bribed and corrupted by – the big pharmaceutical companies (see Jamie Doward in the Guardian Weekly, 24 May). Plus, of course, it is much easier for psychiatrists to scribble a prescription than try to get to the bottom of the troubles of some obnoxious stranger – and they still get paid very handsomely for their time. 

The British doctor Ben Goldacre levels a similar accusation against the medical profession as a whole in his book Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients (Faber and Faber, 2012). He clearly documents the control that the drug companies exercise – sometimes openly, often secretly – over the testing of their drugs and over the flow of drug-related information. Various devices, some quite ingenious, are used to rig clinical trials. If, as sometimes happens, the rigging fails and results are still different from those desired, then they are simply suppressed. Companies have extensive rights over data that are, after all, recognised as their property.  

Easy prey
Even the most conscientious doctors are therefore in no position to form balanced judgments about the relative advantages and disadvantages of the various drugs on offer for a given medical condition. They are easy prey for the orchestrated and persistent sales efforts of Big Pharma and its hordes of hired drug pushers, more widely known as ‘drug reps’ – perhaps as many as one drug rep for every three doctors. ‘Drug rep’, by the way, is one of those wasteful occupations that will not be needed in socialism.

Suppressed data often includes information sent in by doctors about dangerous or even fatal side effects suffered by patients taking a drug. True, such information eventually leaks out and becomes public knowledge. At that point the company adopts the pose of a ‘responsible corporate citizen’ and dramatically withdraws the drug from the market, pretending that it has only just become aware of the danger and is taking prompt action. 

In Tom Nesi’s Poison Pills: The Untold Story of the Vioxx Drug Scandal (St. Martin’s Press, 2008), a writer with long experience in the pharmaceuticals industry tells the inside story of Vioxx, a painkiller used at the height of its success by tens of millions of people in a score of countries. Vioxx was launched by Merck with great fanfare in May 1999. Over time evidence accumulated to the effect that while Vioxx might do less harm to the stomach than competing painkillers – a major selling point – it did entail increased risks of heart and kidney disease and stroke. After years of doing everything possible to conceal these dangers, including vicious smear campaigns against whistleblowers, Merck finally acknowledged the evidence and took Vioxx off the market in September 2004.

A business expense
A company that continues promoting and selling a drug after it is known to be dangerous may well end up being sued and paying out hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. However, this has no discernible deterrent effect because a really successful drug – a ‘blockbuster’ like Vioxx or Pfizer’s anticonvulsant Neurontin – makes profits reckoned not in the hundreds of millions but in the billions of dollars annually. Payment of damages can be calmly contemplated as one business expense among others.

So can the fines that companies routinely pay for breaking the law. The Danish professor Peter Gotzsche recently published an article in the British Medical Journal (December 14, 2012) entitled ‘Big Pharma often commits corporate crime, and this must be stopped’. Gotzsche easily collected information on numerous crimes by googling the names of each of the ten largest drug companies in combination with the word ‘fraud’. The most common crimes, he tells us, are ‘illegal marketing by recommending drugs for non-approved (off-label) uses, misrepresentation of research results, hiding data on harms, and Medicaid and Medicare fraud’. Crimes are ‘widespread and repetitive [and] probably committed deliberately – because crime pays’. Fines are large, but profits are larger.

Evidence-based medicine
Dr. Goldacre calls for ‘evidence-based medicine’ – a system in which medical decisions are systematically based on all the knowledge currently in existence. Such a system would require free, rapid and universal access to widely pooled information. The development of computerised systems makes this goal increasingly feasible in technical terms. What blocks its achievement is capitalist property relations, which inevitably encompass information as well as material commodities.

Thus, only a socialist society can create the basic conditions under which evidence-based medicine can flourish. Scientists and physicians will be able to cooperate freely to develop drugs and treatments that are safe, comfortable and effective.

Mixed Media: ‘The Low Road’ (2013)

The Mixed Media column from the July 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Low Road’ by Bruce Norris

The Low Road by American playwright Bruce Norris was recently produced by Dominic Cooke at the Royal Court Theatre in London. The play seems inspired by 18th century picaresque novels such as Candide by Voltaire, Tom Jones by Henry Fielding or more probably Thackeray’s work The Luck of Barry Lyndon.

The Low Road is the low road of profitability rather than the high road of principle, and the amoral anti-hero Jim Trumpet played with viciousness and without any charm by Johnny Flynn follows the former course in pre-revolutionary America. Jim expounds the economic individualism of Scottish political economist Adam Smith. Smith is himself the narrator and part character in the play and is played with relish and Brechtian flourishes by Bill Paterson.

Jim quotes Adam Smith from his seminal work of bourgeois political economy The Wealth of Nations: ‘every individual endeavours as much as he can to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry. He neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, led by an invisible hand to promote an end that was never part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it’. To which Norris adds ‘and once his prosperity is thus achieved, the rest of the damnable world can stick it up their fucking arsehole’. Marx identified that to Adam Smith ‘the means of production are to him from the outset ‘capital’, labour is from the outset wage-labour’.

Jim is forced to avail himself of the ‘christian communism’ of the New Light of Zion Colony where he engages in arguments with the congregants; ‘for if one’s coins sit idle there can be no growth, and without growth there can never be profit’ to which Constance replies that ‘all profit is theft’ and ‘to take from each, according to his ability’ is the mantra of the colony. Constance sees Jim’s financial dealings as ‘usury, money-lending and Jesus drove the moneylenders from the Temple’ but Jim believes ’tis speculation, finance and Jesus was an asshole’.

Constance says of capitalist society; ‘there never was justice in this world. There was only ever violence and gold’. The Low Road is witty, perceptive, indeed it is a rip-roaring blast and a very clever take on the nature of capitalism. Constance’s parting words to the capitalist ideology of Adam Smith personified by Jim Trumpet are ‘Damned be your soul and damned your fucking lies’.
Steve Clayton

Capitalism and its Demons (2013)

The Halo Halo! column from the July 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

The new Pope is certainly keen. He’d hardly been in the job five minutes before his wave of attacks on greedy bankers etc came blasting forth. He seems to be determined to abolish the problems of capitalism – by himself if necessary. We were warned that he intended to hit the ground running during his first months in office, and he has done –-like a panic stricken choirboy being chased by a randy priest. Unfortunately his efforts have had no effect on the system yet, but he hasn’t given up.

He’s attacked the ‘tyranny’ of ‘unbridled capitalism’, and the ‘heartless’ ‘cult of money’, and told politicians to be bold in tackling the root causes of the economic crisis. And now he’s announced his long-term plan. ‘There is a need for financial reform along ethical lines that would produce in its turn an economic reform to benefit everyone’ he says. Exactly what this reform is, and how it will work he hasn’t told us yet. Maybe a bit of praying is needed first.

What he needs, in fact, if he thinks capitalism can be made to ‘benefit everyone’ is a bloody miracle. But perhaps that’s what he has in mind. He is the Pope after all.

There have been signs, though, that in some matters at least, his judgement is not always automatically accepted, even in the Vatican. There were gasps of disbelief and alarm amongst the faithful recently when he announced that the act of doing good wasn’t just confined to believers. Even atheists, despite their views, he said, were able to do good. And, he seemed to imply, atheists could even go to heaven.

Much to everyone’s relief though, this turned out not to be the case. Following the Pope’s message, a Vatican spokesman hurriedly clarified the issue with an ‘Explanatory note on the meaning of salvation’. Contrary to the Pope’s view, it now appears, being ‘good’ alone is not enough to be saved. People who know about the Catholic Church, said the spokesman, cannot be saved if they ‘refuse to enter her or remain in her’.

Confusion also surrounds an incident in St Peter’s Square where, according to various priests and a Catholic television channel, the Pope carried out an exorcism on a pilgrim live on TV. After putting together a panel of exorcism experts they reported, ‘Exorcists who have seen the footage have no doubt – this was a prayer for liberation from Evil’. But the Vatican, conscious of their already wacky image tried to downplay the incident. Their spokesman said, rather ambiguously, ‘The Holy Father did not intend to carry out any exorcism’.

But if it was a kosher, Vatican approved exorcism, it wasn’t a very good one. According to the Christian Post website (31 May) the subject of the exorcism claims, ‘I still have the demons inside me, they have not gone away’. (This is after thirty exorcism attempts by ten different exorcists).In fact one of them, Father Gabriel Amorth, says the man is possessed by four separate demons.

Father Amorth is no stranger to the Halo, Halo column. (See the Socialist Standard, January 2012). Back then he was claiming to have carried out 70,000 exorcisms. He now claims, according to the Mail Online (27 May) to have rid us of 160,000 demons.

Where do these little buggers all come from? Exorcising demons is obviously about as effective as trying to make capitalism work in everyone’s interest. It’s an exorcise in lunacy.

50 Years Ago: The Pope is Dead (2013)

The 50 Years Ago column from the July 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Pope John died when, just before the Profumo scandal burst, news was in short supply. Especially the juicy ‘human interest’ sort of news on which the popular press thrives. On thin rations, the papers made the most of the drawn out death agonies. Some of the headlines were almost ghoulish.

This gave us a peep at one of the nastiest sides of capitalism—the side which works for a profit out of human suffering, even when it is the suffering of one of the great upholders of property society.

Not only reporters rushed to say nice things about John XXIII. Bertrand Russell, a professed non-believer, echoed the popular estimation of the dead Pontiff as a man of peace:
‘The Pope used his office and his energy to bring peace and to oppose policies which lead to war and mass murder. His encyclical is a magnificent statement of the deepest wishes and hopes of all men of decency … I mourn his death.’
There is, indeed, some rather tenuous evidence that the dead Pope was prepared to act as some sort of a go-between in a new world carve-up by the United States and Russia. This is the soil of diplomatic dabbling which often qualifies all sorts of people for the description of ‘peace loving.’

But this holds good only in peacetime. We know that, just like his predecessors, the Pope would have done nothing to oppose a future war and that in such a war there could well be Catholics in both sides, killing each other.

Thus does capitalism make warriors of them all.

In any case, modern war has nothing to do with a supposed lack of men of peace among the world's leaders. Capitalism itself causes war and the leaders always go along on the tide of destruction.

And let all peace lovers remember that capitalism has always done well out of the servile ignorance of the religious, and especially of the Church of which John XXIII was so briefly the Vicar Supreme.

(From ‘The News in Review’, Socialist Standard, July 1963)

The Deep Blue Sea (2013)

From the July 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

If you look at a map of the world from a few generations ago, you will see vast swathes of pink marking the territories of the British Empire, on which the sun supposedly never set. Land-based empires are generally less prevalent now, but one hangover of those old imperial days is possession of tiny islands in the midst of vast areas of ocean.

These areas are known as exclusive economic zones (EEZs); they were described in a useful article by Peter Nolan in a recent edition of New Left Review (no 80, March–April). An EEZ extends two hundred nautical miles from the coastline, and provides special rights over the exploration and use of marine resources. This includes energy production from water and wind power, as well as fish stocks and mineral resources.

Often an EEZ will be the property of the colonial power that occupied an island in past centuries. For instance, the UK itself has an EEZ of just under three hundred thousand square miles (this includes that arising from a 20-meter-high rock in the North Atlantic, Rockall, the ownership of which is disputed). But its total EEZ is well over two and half million square miles, including 212,000 square miles by dint of the Falklands and 560,000 square miles from South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. These are all claimed by Argentina, of course, and access to oceanic resources was a consideration in the Falklands War.

Bermuda, a British Overseas Territory, has an EEZ of 174,000 square miles, while in the case of Pitcairn Island the zone is 323,000 square miles. Pitcairn, famous as the destination of the mutineers from the Bounty, became a British colony in 1838, and today has a population of a few dozen. The surrounding seas abound in fish but, more importantly, contain mineral reserves such as iron, copper and gold.

Great Britain, however, has by no means the largest EEZ, coming only fifth in the league table. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the United States has the biggest, over four and a half million square miles. This includes the sizeable zones around Alaska and Hawaii, but also three quarters of a million square miles around uninhabited Pacific islands. France is not far behind, though, given all its overseas departments and territories. French Polynesia alone, acquired in 1842, has an EEZ of 1.8 million square miles. Australia is third, with many former parts of the British Empire having been transferred to Australian control. Just three South Pacific Islands contribute over half a million square miles to its EEZ, though the country's mainland is the biggest source. Fourth is Russia, where colonial expansion into Siberia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries led to its enormously-long coastline and consequently large EEZ.

Part of the impetus behind Nolan's paper is to point out the hypocrisy that marks concerns in the Western media over China’s claims in the South and East China Seas. These include the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, which are currently disputed with Japan, and the Spratley Islands, variously claimed also by Vietnam and Brunei, among others. China’s undisputed EEZ is 350,000 square miles, less than that of Denmark or the Seychelles. Yet the Western media have kicked up a fuss over supposed Chinese ambitions while saying little about how the other powers acquired their far larger zones. Potential Chinese EEZs are certainly worrying some: as a recent US Congressional report stated, recognising some of these ‘could permit China to expand the EEZ zone within which China claims a right to regulate foreign military activities’ (ie. whether US ships and aircraft can operate there).

A country’s territorial waters used to be limited to three nautical miles (the supposed reach of a cannon fired from land). In 1945 the US claimed control over the whole of its continental shelf, and similar claims by other states led eventually to various treaties and then to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was agreed in 1982 and came into force in 1994. This introduced EEZs, to limit clashes over fishing rights (such as the Cod War between Britain and Iceland in the 1970s) and resources such as oil.

Empires such as the British and French ones were conquered in the interests of land-based raw materials and cheap labour power, not of oceanic property zones. Nevertheless, they are proving very fruitful as sources of fish, minerals and energy. Capitalism carves up the world for its own ends, and protects and defends any serendipitous discoveries that are made.
Paul Bennett

Action Replay: Ups and Downs (2013)

The Action Replay column from the July 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

You might think that promotion and relegation in a league system would be essentially based on sporting criteria. But, professional sport being primarily a business, other considerations, especially financial ones, often play a part.

Doncaster Rovers Belles are one of the longest-established clubs in women’s football, with a fairly illustrious history. In 2011, the FA set up the Women’s Super League (WSL), with games played in summer. Donny did not fare too well, finishing second from bottom in the first two seasons. But, after one match of the current season, the FA have announced that the Belles will be relegated to the second division of the Super League in 2014. Their place will be taken by Manchester City Ladies, who only finished fourth in the confusingly-named Premier League (which has been the league below the Super League but will be re-named WSL 2). Sunderland have won the Premier League for three consecutive years, yet will not get promoted to WSL 1.

It’s not hard to discover the reasons for these shenanigans. The new WSL team are part of Manchester City, a would-be global brand with a lot of oil money behind them. Poor old Donny can hardly compete at that level. The manager of another WSL team described the FA’s actions as ‘morally scandalous’, but that will hardly get them to change their minds.

When the Indian company Venky’s bought Blackburn Rovers in 2010, it seems that the owners did not realise there was such as thing as relegation in English football. Presumably they thought the (men’s) Premier League ran on something like the US franchise system, whereby new teams can only enter if existing members vote them in. Many leagues in various sports operate a system of checking whether a team eligible for promotion has an appropriate stadium, for instance.

In rugby league, acceptance into Super League is via a licensing system, with clubs granted a three-year licence which makes them exempt from relegation during that period. There are current proposals to change this with effect from 2015, with promotion and relegation being reintroduced. As one rugby pundit commented (BBC Online, 13 May), ‘Sport has to have a meaning, otherwise what’s the point? A system based on individual or team achievement is the essence of the British sporting DNA.’

Except, of course, when it’s the money that really counts.
Paul Bennett