Saturday, May 11, 2019

Party News — Debate with “International Socialism Group” (1970)

Party News from the July 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard

Edinburgh Branch have sent the following report of a debate “Which Way Socialism – International Socialism or the Socialist Party of Great Britain?” held in the Free Gardeners Hall, Edinburgh, before an audience of 70. (The local IS branch have seen the report and raised no objections to it.)

The chairman was Alan McLean, a journalist.

Speaking on behalf of the SPGB were Jim Fleming and Vic Vanni from Glasgow branch, and on behalf of IS S. Jeffries and B. Lavery .

Comrade Fleming opened for the SPGB by pointing out that the SPGB was an international organisation that was democratically controlled by all its members; that it was opposed to leadership and the idea of an elite or vanguard leading the working class to Socialism . The muddled policies of the IS and other romantic left-wing groups only confused the working class.

S. Jeffries opened for the IS by saying that he agreed with the SPGB’s Marxist theory but that there was a failure to link up theory with practice. He went on to quote Engels on the need to build the revolutionary movement within the trade unions . It was stupid to rely on the vote . He preferred the overthrow of the system by non-parliamentary means, and said that Marxists should always be prepared for the revolutionary situation when this overthrow would be possible.

Comrade Vanni replied that revolutionary phrase-mongering did not make a socialist and invited the floor to look at the dismal history of the IS. Using back numbers of the Labour Worker (now Socialist Worker) he drew attention to their lack of socialist understanding giving instances such as IS having urged workers to vote for the Labour Party in the 1964 and 1966 elections instead of fighting the real enemy – capitalism . It was not a Leninist elite that would bring about the revolution but capitalism itself by the contradictions inherent in it. IS far from being a vanguard, were in reality politically backward .They considered the workers too dull to learn from history but instead that they have to be taken through the struggles and learn from strikes. He went into some detail on the bankruptcy of their political theory, such as the permanent arms economy and their belief in the collapse of capitalism. IS did not understand what Socialism was, as they saw a need for money banks and the like, saying that instead of being sacked by a boss you would be made redundant by a “Workers Council”. In reality, it all boiled down to a sophisticated state capitalism.

B. Lavery (IS) said the SPGB had made few mistakes, but this was only because they had always stood to one side of the real struggles . The SPGB’s ideas were grossly over simple and he could not see that how, when Labour MPs inevitably became corrupted by parliament, socialist representatives would not also become corrupted . There were not only two classes in society today but many, one of them being the peasant class. Whole areas of the world, Africa, Asia and South America were predominantly peasant. The peasants outnumbered workers on a world wide basis and the SPGB was wrong in not taking this into account. He realised the IS support of the Labour Party was a mistake but at least it had raised the consciousness of some workers.

Then followed a five minute break and a collection.

The first question from the floor was to the IS asking how soon after Socialism was established, money could be done away with.

The reply from IS was: only when we had eventually gone through the transitional stages and reached Communism.

The next question to the platform was asking for a definition of Socialism.

Comrade Fleming answered and first pointed out what the “revolutionary” demands of the IS were (again quoting the Socialist Worker) i.e. bringing the British forces back from overseas bases and five days work or five days pay in the car industry. This had nothing to do with Socialism. In contrast, the SPGB did not concern itself with petty reforms. The SPGB wanted the whole world, everything in it and on it, to be the common property of all mankind regardless of colour or sex; all people would take according to their needs and give according to their ability.

The IS then said that a utopian vision was pointless; what was needed to get the workers on your side was a realistic demand.

The next question was about the class structure of society, especially as regards the small shopkeeper.

Comrade Vanni pointed out that in modern society there were two basic economic classes, the capitalist class and the working class. Most small shopkeepers were of the working class as they had to work for a living. The small fringe of people who could not be definitely placed as workers or capitalists was diminishing all the time due to mergers and was relatively unimportant.

B. Lavery (IS) pointed out again that the SPGB was forgetting the peasant class, who were in a majority in Africa and Asia. Although small shopkeepers may be workers they usually supported capitalism. You cannot afford to ignore the people who come between capitalist and workers.

The next question regarded the role of parliament in the revolution.

Comrade Vanni started by quoting Engels on Parliament and the vote, about universal suffrage being one of the sharpest weapons of the working class had. (Introduction to Class Struggles in France). If universal suffrage allowed nothing else at least you knew how many workers were politically conscious. This would prevent the likelihood of the revolution coming about when socialists were in a minority.

The next question referred to Lenin’s role in the Russian Revolution.

The IS began by saying that the revolution depended on smashing the state machine. It was crucial that workers should set up soviets and workers councils The real power was in the factories and once the workers got control of them they would easily smash the state machine. A lot depended on the conditions prevailing e.g. whether sections of the army would desert to fight on the workers side.

Comrade Fleming said it was a grave mistake to think that the working class was capable of smashing the state machine. It was ludicrous to assume that because the workers had occupied factories they would be capable of resisting tanks and bombs. It was essential to make sure the state machine was in the hands of the working class and not leave it in the control of the capitalist class. He concluded by stressing that parliament had tremendous power.

The next question was about the danger of fascism and what were the to parties doing about it.

Jeffries for the IS said the SPGB were not interested in the real problems facing the working class. Socialists should concern themselves with things such as incomes policy and productivity deals.

Comrade Fleming replied by saying that capitalism had played its historic role in solving the problem of production. Now that an abundance of wealth was capable of being produced the only meaningful struggle was for the overthrow of capitalism, which would result in the major problems being solved.

The summing up then followed with Jeffries (IS) saying that only the middle class and small businessmen were interested in parliament. The power of the big capitalists was concentrated in the factories, boardrooms and monopolies; they did not bother with parliament. Working within the Labour Party had produced some results such as the political strike against the government’s white paper on Trade Unions. The IS had left the Labour Party along with the politically conscious workers. The revolutionary party must always be where the workers were and must try to generalize their struggles. It was essential to fight for reforms while pointing out that capitalism was the real enemy. He concluded by saying that it was essential to fight within the labour movement because that was where the action was.

Comrade Vanni wound up for the SPGB saying that it was essential to take parliament into account as there was no doubt as to the power it had over the state machine. Their [IS] meaningless activities centred round demonstrations outside embassies and other buildings usually only succeeded in frightening the caretaker out of his wits. The history of the IS showed their lack of revolutionary understanding; they always tackled the effects and never got to the root of the problems. The IS might call the SPGB’s vision of the future society a dream but it was much more preferable to the nightmare of the IS with wages and banks and all the paraphernalia of state capitalism. It was the job of revolutionaries not to reform capitalism but to leave that to the people who run capitalism like the so-called Communist Party, Labour Party and Conservatives. The real task to organise and agitate amongst fellow workers for the overthrow of capitalism by the majority of the world’s population using democratic processes if available. 'Peacefully if possible, violently if necessary' was the SPGB’s viewpoint. Instead of fighting for such reforms as “five day’s work for five day’s pay”, one should remember Marx when he said “away with the conservative motto, a fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage and inscribe on your banner the revolutionary watchword ABOLITION OF THE WAGES SYSTEM”.

General Election — Comments (1970)

From the July 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard

There is a lot more to this election result than the overturn of smug opinion pollsters. Until a few short months ago, the record of the Wilson government seemed to have finished Labour off. They had tried to freeze wages, had introduced the first anti-trade union laws for some forty years. They had openly attacked working class living standards, had connived at the slaughter in Vietnam. Biafra and other places. They had presided over the highest stable level of unemployment since the war. Wilson was exposed as a tawdry trickster, whose deft hands had grown cranky through overuse, as the salesman nobody would buy a used bicycle from.

Then came one or two gimmicks, some of them — for example the sudden announcement of higher social security benefits — quite openly heralding the approach of the general election. The brakes came off wages — officially. There was an abrupt, strange solution of the foreign trade problems of British capitalism. Labour suddenly stopped talking about our spendthrift ways and started talking again about ideals and good living.

For some reason which they have yet to explain, the polls began at the same time to record equally sudden rises in support for the Labour Party and it was this, it seems, which persuaded Wilson to try for another term of office and to run the election campaign as if it was no more than a formal interlude between one Labour government and another.

This contradicted a trend which has been discernible in recent general elections. that a governing party’s fate is scaled a couple of years before polling. If there is any encouragement in this trend, it is that at any rate it makes it appear that workers judge a government on something like its record. If Labour had at the last minute pulled back all those lost votes, it might have been a sign that empty gimmicks and lies were crucially effective in an election. And, in terms of working class political awareness, that would have been especially depressing.

In the event, the working class have shown that once again they are disillusioned with Labour government. Wilson’s dream of turning his party from one which supplied administrations for British capitalism at times of risky, experimental interludes between the even running of Tory governments, is shattered. For Labour, now, the inquests, the recriminations — and the soft sound of knives being buried between someone’s shoulder blades. This is no time for Wilson to allow his back to get too far away from the wall.

This scene would probably have been witnessed in the Conservative Party, had they lost the election. The political parties of capitalism, whatever their protestations, exist with the object of winning power over capitalism, by any means they deem necessary. Failure to win power brings dire consequences for the party leaders. If Heath had lost, when so recently he seemed set to win. and at a time when he is under such pressure from Powell, it would have probably provoked one of the Tory Party’s historic crises.

The history of the Tory Party is spotted with such crises — and at each one it has been clear that the gentleman’s party is no stranger to vicious, ruthless infighting when the occasion demands it. Even after the victory, Heath cannot be safe; the power-hungry politicians of capitalism never give up their struggle. When Heath was first elected Tory leader, it was Iain Macleod who was reported to have said that this was not the end of the fight for the leadership, but the beginning.

After every election there is a period of honeymoon. We can expect the government to tell us that they have discovered a truly shocking mess left by the Labour men, like an absent landlord coming home after a long, riotous party in his house. They too will issue stern warnings about the state of the economy and about the need for the working class to tighten their belts to put the situation to rights. It will not be very long before the honeymoon sours and disillusionment settles in. After a time this will reach the pitch when the voters decide to experiment once again with another party in government — and if the Labour Party have not torn themselves to pieces by then they may come back to power.

The background to all this is the continued existence of capitalism. And capitalism carries with it the essential poverty of the vast mass of its people; the basic inability to control the anarchy of its market economy: the unavoidable continuum of its rivalry of interests which lead to war. The parties of capitalism promise to abolish the system’s problems, ignoring the fact that they are part of the system and will always defeat the reformers.

In this election the Conservatives, who wailed about Wilson’s patent dishonesty, produced a manifesto which overflowed with glowing promises to put right all our wrongs. So abundant, so extravagant, were these pledges (Edward Heath's word for them) that at times they read almost hysterically. But here is one short passage from the manifesto, which did something to summarise some of the wilder ones:
  A better tomorrow for all: for the families that are homeless today, for the unemployed, for the children still in poverty, and for the old and lonely.
There is no reason to think the Tories will be any more successful than their predecessors, of either party, at honouring their pledges. The phrase A Better Tomorrow, so hopefully bandied about now, will soon take its place among the embarrassing memories which the politicians would rather forget.

Each time a government changes, the working class are casting their votes in deception that new faces at Whitehall will have an effect on their problems and will bring them a better life. But each time they turn their faces against a fundamental assessment of their interests and their standing in society. They ignore the facts of capitalism and the record of futility and failure which accompanies Labour, Tory, Liberal and the rest. In 1970, as before, the workers voted in their millions for capitalism. On this particular occasion they fell for the promise of a better tomorrow. They could have—and should be working for now — the best possible today, tomorrow and always.

New Engels Translation (1970)

From the July 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard

The February 1970 issue of Marxism Today, the theoretical journal of the Communist Party, publishes in full for the first time in English Frederick Engels' Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Programme. This document, translated by Jack Cohen, is Engels' comment on the programme the German Social Democrats were to discuss at their conference in Erfurt in 1891. It is mainly a criticism of those Social Democrats who believed that the working class would be able to come to power peacefully in the undemocratic German Empire. A peaceful capture of power may be possible, says Engels, in countries “where the representative parliamentary body concentrates all power in its hands, where you can do what you please constitutionally as soon as you have the majority of the people behind you” but certainly not in Germany where the Reichstag does not control the government.

Another passage clearly explains Marx’s Theory of Increasing Misery and answers those who say it means that the workers will be reduced to paupers as capitalism progresses. Engels quotes “the numbers and the poverty of the proletariat constantly increase” from the draft programme and comments:
  Put in such an absolute and categorical way, this is not correct. The organisation of the workers, their constantly increasing resistance, will most probably act as a certain barrier against the increase of poverty. But what certainly is increasing is the uncertainty of existence. That. I would put in (Engels' emphasis).
Marxism Today can be had from the C.P.G.B, 16 King Street, London, W.C.2.

Robots (2013)

Book Review from the March 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Robots Will Steal Your Job, But That’s OK: How to Survive the Economic Collapse and Be Happy’, by Federico Pistono. (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012)

Imagine a world in which supermarkets are replaced by giant robotic vending machines; in which cars drive themselves; and in which journalists are replaced by computer generated reportage. Only, you don’t need to imagine such a world: it’s ours. The technology for all these things exists now (at the very least, at the developmental stage). This book invites us to imagine the impact of the roll-out of these technologies. It’s a sobering thought to realise that hundreds of thousands worldwide work in supermarkets, whose jobs could be extinguished in very short order by this technology.

The centrepiece of the book is an examination of the implications of Moore’s law, which is, roughly, that computer processing capacity doubles every two years. A great deal of the book is spent explaining the implications of this exponential growth. In short, it means the advent of machines which can replicate human-like thought processes. Pistono notes that whether these processes are ‘intelligent’ is unimportant: it’s the work they can do, and the processes they can reproduce that counts. He gives the example of radiographers: computers now have the capacity to ‘look at’ medical images and recognise a variety of conditions. This removes the need for a skilled human, trained over many years, to make the examination. As the book notes, though, as with the automated supermarkets, the machines will also displace unskilled labour.

The book is limited in its exposition, beyond telling us these bare facts. Pistono notes that he has not heard any good counter-arguments against the idea of technological unemployment, but his failure to rebut them in detail does not help build his argument. Luckily for us, Marx did address them in his book Capital:
‘The instrument of labour, when it takes the form of a machine, immediately becomes a competitor of the workman himself. (…) When machinery seizes on an industry by degrees, it produces chronic misery among the operatives who compete with it’ (Capital v. 1, LINK).
Marx addressed the ‘theory of compensation’: ‘that all machinery that displaces workmen, simultaneously and necessarily sets free an amount of capital adequate to employ the same identical workmen.’ His rebuttal was:
‘The labourers that are thrown out of work in any branch of industry can no doubt seek for employment in some other branch. If they find it, and thus renew the bond between them and the means of subsistence, this takes place only by the intermediary of a new and additional capital that is seeking investment; not at all by the intermediary of the capital that formerly employed them and was afterwards converted into machinery.’ (LINK)
Marx realises that technological unemployment is off-set, in part, by the increased demand this will create in the branches of industry that supply the newly mechanised fields of production. The extent to which these will soak up some of the workers made redundant by machinery, however, ‘depends, given the length of the working-day and the intensity of labour, on the composition of the capital employed, i.e., on the ratio of its constant to its variable component’ (a ratio Marx termed the Organic Composition of Capital). Marx also identified a growth in luxury production and of the servants (what we would now call ‘service industries’) as a result of the improved productiveness of the factory system.

These off-sets would be of little help, however, if all industries were simultaneously and continuously subject to more and more technological innovation.

Pistono’s book is of little help in addressing these problems. The solutions put forward are frankly laughable: we all will have to learn to get by with less and be happy with it. Drive less; insulate your house; grow your own food: these are the suggestions put forward. These are all well and good if you own a patch of land (or even your own house) but absolutely useless for the millions of propertyless semi-skilled and unskilled workers of the world. Millions in mega-slums are already showing us how to make do with less.

At best, this book is a useful primer to introduce people to the concept of incoming and widespread technological unemployment. It is hampered by its lack of detail in explaining the debates around the issue and its abject failure to present anything like a sensible response. At its best, it is a heartfelt tract, with some useful facts and bibliography.
Pik Smeet

Will Robots Cause Capitalism to Collapse? (2013)

From the June 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

In March the Socialist Party debated with Federico Pistono, the author of a book entitled Robots Will Steal Your Job, But That’s OK: How to Survive the Economic Collapse and Be Happy (reviewed in the March Socialist Standard). His argument is typical of many who think that the market-money-wages system we call capitalism is going to soon collapse as a result of the increasing pace of technological innovation leading to constantly growing mass unemployment. Peter Joseph, the founder of the Zeitgeist Movement, put it more dramatically in a TV interview the same month:
‘unemployment is a consequence of technology, entirely. The entire reason we have unemployment in America and across the world is explicitly based on the application of technology for cost efficiency. And this is not going to stop. And this will lead to what has been called by theorists the ‘contradiction of capitalism’, to the ultimate instability of our social system: the ability to produce more with less people and cheaper rates. It’s a complete clash of the system.’ (LINK).
A computer whizz-kid himself, Pistono describes various already-existing inventions that can displace humans in production, particularly due to advances in computer technology. Two he discusses in detail, because of their impact on relatively unskilled labour, are automatic vending machines (which would replace shop assistants) and driverless road vehicles (which would replace van and lorry drivers). He then asks why, if this is all possible, we are not seeing it:
 ‘Sounds futuristic? Every piece of technology needed for making this happen already exists, and has existed for many years. Then why is it not in place already?’
Good question. Why indeed?

Why machines are (and aren’t) introduced
When a machine is introduced in a particular production unit this reduces the number of workers (living labour) required there to produce the same goods or provide the same service. But, since the machine had to be produced by living labour, extra workers must have been taken on somewhere else to build it, so the question arises of whether the two effects on employment cancel each other out at the level of the economy as a whole.

At first, economists tried to argue that this was so but they soon recognised that they were mistaken and conceded that there would be a net reduction in the total level of employment, not as great as the number of workers displaced in the productive units affected but to a level less than previously. In other words, machines sack more workers than they take on.

Writing in 1821 not long after the Luddites had been smashing knitting machinery, David Ricardo concluded:
  ‘That the opinion entertained by the labouring class, that the employment of machinery is frequently detrimental to their interests, is not founded on prejudice and error, but is conformable to the correct principles of political economy’(Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, third edition, Ch. 31).
He added that this reduction in total employment could, and normally would, be offset if the economy expanded as a result of new capital investment in some other field of activity. Marx, writing nearly fifty years later, agreed. This – the expansion of capitalist production – is the reason why the introduction of machinery in the past has not resulted in steadily increasing mass unemployment.

Marx made a further point about the introduction of machinery: for a machine to be genuinely ‘labour saving’ in the sense of reducing the total labour-time required to produce something from start to finish, ‘less labour must be expended in producing the machinery than is displaced by the employment of that machinery.’ (Capital, Vol 1, Ch. 15, section 2). By ‘labour’ Marx meant not simply ‘living labour’ or its immediate product but also the ‘dead labour’, the product of previous living labour, incorporated in the raw materials, energy, buildings and machinery used in production.

In a rationally-organised society based on the common ownership of productive resources so that production can be carried on to produce directly to satisfy human needs instead of for profit whether or not a machine did this would be the main criterion for deciding whether to apply it to production. Not all inventions of machines do displace more labour than would be required to produce them but, in a rationally-organised society, even machines falling into this category could be introduced if it was considered that the specific labour that would be replaced was considered dangerous, unhealthy or boring.

But this is not what happens under capitalism. Built-in to the capitalist system is a drag on the use of machines. As Marx went on to explain:
  ‘For the capitalist, however, there is a further limit on its use. Instead of paying for the labour, he pays only the value of the labour-power employed; the limit to his using a machine is therefore fixed by the difference between the value of the machine and the value of the labour-power replaced by it.’
Under capitalism the immediate product of living labour is divided into a part that the capitalist firm has to pay for (wages) and a part that it doesn’t pay for (surplus value, the source of profit). This means that under capitalism a machine that would genuinely save labour – the time society has to spend to produce something – would only be introduced if it also reduced the total labour that the capitalist firm had to pay for, i.e. the dead labour incorporated in the machine and materials plus the living labour it employs. If this is not the case, then the labour-saving machine will not be introduced, as to do so would reduce the amount of unpaid labour that the firm extracts, i.e. the source of its profits. In fact, the lower wages are, the less the incentive to apply labour-saving inventions, and vice versa.

Marx gave some concrete examples to illustrate that under capitalism there is a difference between invention and application:
  ‘Hence, the invention nowadays in England of machines that are employed only in North America, just as in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries machines were invented in Germany for use exclusively in Holland, and just as many French inventions of the eighteenth century were exploited only in England … The Yankees have invented a stone-breaking machine. The English do not make use of it because the ‘wretch’ who does this work gets paid such a small portion of his labour that machinery would increase the cost of production to the capitalist.’
This is the answer to Pistono’s question as to why the futuristic labour-saving inventions he describes have not been used on a wide scale: capitalist firms are only interested in using machinery if it will reduce their costs of production, i.e. the labour (living and dead) that they have to pay for. They will not and do not introduce machines that will increase their costs of production, even if their use would reduce the total amount of labour required to produce them.

This is why, as long as capitalism lasts, the rate of the actual application of machinery to production will always be less than the rate at which labour-saving machines are invented. In this sense speculations such as Pistono’s about the rate at which inventions will increase (he claims, somewhat hyperbolically, that this will become exponential in the coming decades) is irrelevant. It is not this that will determine the rate at which inventions will be applied to production as the rate at which ‘robots will steal our jobs.’ That will depend on the rate at which they reduce the labour that a capitalist firm has to pay for, which will be considerably slower than the rate at which labour-saving machines are invented.

Under capitalism invention is one thing, application another. The mere invention of some labour-saving machine does not destroy jobs; only its application does.

Will history repeat itself?
The trouble with many theories of economic collapse is that, if they were true, they need to explain why capitalism has not already collapsed a long time ago. Pistono’s argument is no exception. He is aware of this, as he quotes one critic as exclaiming:
  ‘Have you ever heard of this discipline called history? We’ve gone through the same crap 150 years ago, and none of what you say has happened!’
It’s actually a good question. Mechanisation has been going on since the Industrial Revolution started in the eighteenth century (in fact, that’s what this was) but it has not resulted in steadily increasing unemployment. Pistono’s reply is that it will be different this time as in the past the pace of labour-saving technological inventions has never been as fast as it is today.

We have just seen that Pistono commits the fallacy of confusing technological invention with the application of inventions to production. Even so, as in the past mechanisation has not resulted in growing technological unemployment, since the capitalist system expanded to absorb this, a weaker version of Pistono’s contention might still be valid: that the rate at which machines are introduced (despite the restrictions on this under capitalism) might still be faster than capitalism can expand. In this case unemployment would still grow.

While capitalism does expand in the long run it does not expand, as everyone is agreed nowadays, in a straight upward-sloping line. It goes in fits and starts, booms and slumps, with each succeeding boom reaching a higher level of production and employment than the previous one.

Because capitalism grows in this way, it needs a pool of unemployed workers, which Marx called ‘the industrial reserve army of labour’, that capitalist firms can draw on quickly in a period of boom and who become unemployed again when the slump comes. So, unemployment rises and falls with the capitalist business cycle.

Pistono does not go as far as Peter Joseph and claim that all unemployment today is technological, but he does advance the increase in unemployment since 2007 as proof of his contention that the increasing application of modern technology is causing unemployment to grow.

Some of today’s unemployment will indeed be technological in the sense of being living labour displaced by machines and unable to find new employment because capitalism is not expanding (Ricardo’s worst case scenario), but most is cyclical, the result of capitalism currently being in one of its periods of slump. It is the industrial reserve army of labour returning to its slump level. Also, capitalist economists talk cynically about a ‘natural’ level of unemployment (the rate below which they say a rise in price level would result). So, by no means all unemployment today is technological; in fact, only a relatively small proportion will be.

Predictions of a continual increase in mass unemployment will only turn out to be true if capitalism does not recover from the present slump, and even then wouldn’t increase at the rate this hypothesis suggests. If it does recover then unemployment will fall.

So the question can be reformulated as: Will capitalism recover from the slump or will unemployment go on increasing until the system collapses? Both past experience and the theory of how capitalism works based on this suggest that capitalism will eventually recover, however long it takes and however hard workers have to be squeezed. There is no way of knowing, though, exactly how long it will take.

In any event, capitalism will have to be ended by the conscious action of people who want to replace it by a system where the resources of the planet have become the common heritage of all. Then, there will no longer be any barrier to the robotisation of repetitive and boring jobs. Then, robots will ‘steal our jobs’ much more quickly than today and that will be OK, as there will be no harmful side-effects since access to what people need to live and enjoy life won’t be tied to working for a wage or salary. As Marx put it, ‘the field of application for machinery would therefore be entirely different in a communist society from what it is in bourgeois society.’
Adam Buick

Mount Everest: Top of Whose World? (2013)

From the June 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘Because it is there’ was the unbending response of mountaineer George Mallory when he was asked why anyone would want to climb Mount Everest. In that sense Everest had been ‘there’ since the 1850s, when it was first identified in the Great British Trigonometric Survey of India as ‘singularly shy and retiring.’ The fact that this was something extraordinary – the highest in the world, then measured at 29,002 feet – was acknowledged in 1856 when it was considered proper to name it after the retiring Surveyor General of India. Not that Sir George Everest, infamous for his volcanic temperament, was especially impressed. And Mallory? His body was left on the mountain in 1924, tantalisingly close to the summit. Thereafter Everest was inviolate until June 1953, when Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay allowed themselves to spend just fifteen minutes there, burying in the snow some small tokens of their achievement. The news of their triumph was delayed so as to arrive here on the same day as the coronation of queen Elizabeth, resulting in coinciding sixtieth anniversaries which may be used by crazier patriots in a campaign of delusion to play down the fact that neither of those two pioneering climbers was British.

It was some time after Everest had been noted and measured that the prospect of climbing it, which involved first crossing the formidable surrounding landscape, was seriously discussed. And when there was such a discussion, it originated among an expensively exclusive elite that prided itself on being driven by what was known as a ‘mystic patriotism’ – but which in reality had notably less exalted motives. This was a cause enjoying the passionate support of Lord Curzon, supremely imperialist Viceroy of India: ‘It has always seemed to me a reproach … that we, mountaineers and pioneers par excellence of the universe, make no sustained and scientific attempt to climb to the top…’ In 1906 the proposal was taken on by the Alpine Club on the assumption that the cost would be borne by its more prosperous members who in return would qualify for a place on the expedition. In the event, the entire concept was swamped by the outbreak of war in 1914, when many of the aspiring conquerors of Everest – including Mallory – were persuaded by what they regarded as their obligation as Englishmen to the essential idealism of the human spirit to take their place in the trenches, where they witnessed such horrors as would prepare them for the worst that Everest could offer.

The foredoomed peace of 1918 allowed the surviving climbers to turn their obsessive attention to the detailed organisation of an Everest expedition. One immediate problem was to ensure that a party would be allowed by the surrounding countries to get at the mountain. This was complicated by the question of whether the British would send arms to Tibet for that country’s continuing dispute with China. There were also religious objections to the invasion of sacred ground. An influential figure in settling this problem was Charles Bell, the British political officer at Sikkim, whose knowledge of Tibet, its people and their traditions was impressively extensive. He reported: ‘…there are several sacred places in the vicinity of Mount Everest…Tibetans would not like Europeans moving about those places…(and) do not believe that explorations are carried on only in the interests of geographical knowledge and science… Until the Tibetan question is settled with China these expeditions to Mount Everest should not be allowed.’ Eventually Bell’s considerable influence persuaded the British government to supply arms, ammunition and the necessary training and technical advice to the Tibetan army. In December 1920, as part of a more complex initiative in diplomacy, this brought Tibetan agreement to a British Mount Everest expedition.

The plan was to send a party in 1921 to assess whether it would be possible to climb Everest and get down again safely and to settle on the most likely route for doing so. This would be followed by yearly expeditions from 1922, setting up a chain of camps from which a select pair of climbers could strike out for the summit and quickly return. Among the most urgent matters for the Committee was to select the mountaineers. Arthur Hinks, one of the joint secretaries, was responsible for this although his temperament was not the most promising for so delicate a task. Among an ocean of volcanic eccentrics he was a sarcastic, intolerant, vituperous bully contemptuous of anything he considered ‘modern’ such as a telephone in his home. There was a strict requirement for all members of the expedition to be British, which allowed Hinks to compose a response to an ex-officer of the German Army: ‘I have hitherto put straight into the wastepaper basket all applications from ex-enemies.’ Not that all cases were judged on climbing ability: in 1923, Richard Graham who offered pretty well everything needed to commend him and who had a number of influential supporters – including Mallory – was at first accepted but then quietly rejected when an anonymous Committee member objected to him on the grounds that during the war, as a Quaker, he had been a conscientious objector.

When the mammoth task of organisation was completed the expedition arrived at its base camp early in May 1921. Among the matters to be settled was whether the use of oxygen should be allowed or whether it would be ‘unsporting.’ Especially keen on oxygen, making himself somewhat unpopular in the process, was George Finch, an accomplished climber who in the next expedition in 1922 reached to a record 27,300 feet – during which he saved the life of his partner. A party led by Mallory then failed to improve on this and as they were descending they were hit by a massive avalanche in which Mallory narrowly escaped death but seven native porters were killed. A lack of money prevented another effort in 1923, but on the following year two climbers – Norton and Somervell without using oxygen – reached 28,126 feet, less than 1,000 from the summit. But they were in a very bad state, with Norton snow blind and Somervell fearing he was on the point of death. They both survived and Mallory prepared himself with Andrew Irvine for his third attempt on 8 June, leaving the geologist Noel Odell at Camp V to keep observation.

Early on 9 June as the mist cleared Odell saw, on a ridge near the base of the final peak, what he later described as ‘two black spots.’ As he watched, the two figures surmounted a great rock step before the mist clamped down again and they were lost to sight. ‘There was but one explanation,’ he later wrote, ‘It was Mallory and his companion moving, as I could see even at that great distance, with considerable alacrity…’ He kept watching and hoping for some hours before he gave up. But Mallory and Irvine were never seen again, and the climbers assembled below had to face the agonising truth that they had perished somewhere on the slopes. In effect it was the end of the expedition. But a great deal, in several senses, had been invested in its result, which stimulated some reluctance to admit to failure. So Odell was subjected to strong pressure to refashion his memory of what he had observed, even to supply evidence that the climb had been successful. But what concession he made on this was no more than vague and conditional. Subsequent events offered nothing more: for example when Hilary and Tenzing got to the top they did not find anything to suggest that anyone had been there before.

With the return of the expedition the angry frustration at the failure did not prevent an awareness that this was a potentially profitable situation. Odell was promoted as a rising star, soon speaking at as many as three lectures a day, which yielded him some £700. A lot was expected of the film The Epic Of Everest, made by the official photographer John Noel, on which rode an investment of £8000. Noel was not optimistic about the prospects for the film and questioned whether these might have been more promising had there been a female star to inject a romantic interest. Already it featured a type of carnival including dancing and seven performing Buddhist monks, which caused the Dalai Lama to ban Noel from Tibet and forbid any more plans to climb Mount Everest.

In what are known as these more enlightened times the travel industry has expanded into mountaineering, with offers to conduct willing tourists to the summit – at a suitable price. One agency promises to provide ‘…the very best leadership, equipment, oxygen systems, comfort, food and Sherpa support…’ for some £35,000; another charges $65,000 because it claims to be better than cheaper companies. One effect of this is to create serious congestion on the route up the mountain; recently one experienced climber took a photograph of a huge queue standing for hours on the slopes, waiting its turn. In all he summarised the situation as ‘mass hysteria.’ There have been accounts of the mountain being disfigured by masses of litter including empty oxygen cylinders and of hurrying climbers in the Death Zone stepping around others who have been overcome. And crime flourished in a setting where it would once have been inconceivable. In his book High Crimes Michael Kodas, who had climbed the mountain twice, listed a series of thefts from the tents of climbers, in many cases involving equipment which was life-preserving, later to be found hidden among other team members’ property: ‘…some of my own teammates… in their efforts to stand on top of the world and make money doing it, behaved more like mobsters than mountaineers.’

It was consistent with these events that in 1999 a party from the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition should find, at 27,000 feet, Mallory’s frozen body. Photographs were then on sale for considerable sums of money; at one stage the price for a single shot reached $40,000. As Mallory’s body was hacked and levered out of the ice the clothing was torn, yielding artefacts which were later catalogued as rare specimens. From the diggers could be heard comments such as, ‘There’s still some more shit here’ and ‘This is something…I think it’s fucking closed.’ One vastly experienced climber who gave vent to his feelings at this was Chris Bonington: ‘Words can’t express how disgusted I am. These people don’t deserve to be called climbers.’

After the failure of the 1924 expedition, leaving its bodies out on the frozen slopes, there was a suspension of any more such ventures until 1933. In the meantime there was the preoccupation with glorifying it all as an historic example of purely British endeavour. At the memorial service in St. Paul’s cathedral the bishop of Chester intoned about ‘…the last ascent, with the beautiful mystery of the great enigma… stands for more than an heroic effort to climb a mountain.’ These words may have defiantly soothed some ruffled patriots but said nothing about the essentials of what had happened. The drive to climb Everest was at first energised by the pressure to compensate for the failure of British expeditions to be the first to reach either of the Earth’s poles. And then, in what was called, after 1918, The Silence as the world was in preparation for another great war, there was the need to assuage the grief over senseless disasters such as the Somme, Passchendaele, Gallipoli… Behind it all the political and military urgency of the tensions in the area sprouted from the priority to assert the British rule of India and stifle any potential threat from Russia. These matters were not unrelated to the fact that marketing the opportunity for people to climb Everest emerged as another investment, essentially no different from all the other degrading examples of the commodity demands of capitalism. In face of that, no human being, no mountain, can stand free.

Climbing All The Way To The Bank (2013)

From the June 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard
A recent incident has brutally illustrated the fact that even when it concerns Mount Everest the profit motive counts above everything.
Towards the end of April three European climbers – Ueli Steck, Simone Moro and Jon Griffith, all-well hardened on the slopes – were at Everest Camp Two, at about 21,000 feet, working to find a new route to the summit. They were not using ropes or oxygen – they regard climbing with these aids ‘like walking.’ However, on the same slope there was a party of Sherpas laying out fixed lines – permanent ropes for the ‘commercial climbers’ who are not planning to ‘walk’ up Everest. It is usual to leave Sherpas free to do this work, but on this occasion the three European climbers crossed the Sherpa lines. They said they did this in order to reach their tent but Griffith despised the restriction as against the ‘freedom of the hills.’ The Sherpas objected and there was a fight in which rocks, a knife and an ice axe were used, and later some 100 Sherpas came to attack the three men at their tent. The dispute was settled at least for the present, when the Europeans fled back to the Base Camp.

Since then the Nepalese government have intervened, mindful of the financial importance of the Everest climbing trade. Along the trail to the Base Camp, tourists have spent tens of millions of dollars. The accommodation at the Camp can be luxurious with hot tubs and bedding and food flown in from the rest of the world to order; there is also a helicopter champagne breakfast for those with the right appetite and money. This is no longer sacred ground, protected from the rest: now the tourism authority collects a £6,450 fee for every climber and the normal basic cost of a climb is £22,500, but for the right person this can reach as high as £65,000, even for those who, according to Tenzing Norgay's son, need instruction to put on crampons. The average annual wage in Nepal is around £128, which is known to be a cause of some resentment among the locals who work to keep those snugly wealthy people happy. All this in the interests of keeping the mountain earning the profits. Which raises the question, unlikely to be asked let alone answered among the celebrations this year: Who Owns Everest?

Pathfinders: Wooster sauce (2013)

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

Wooster sauce

Well, we finally made it. The human race has pushed through the CO2 400 parts per million ceiling for the first time in five million years (‘Scientists call for action to tackle CO2 levels’, BBC Online, 11 May). This was the symbolic threshold above which climatologists stated global warming would be inevitable. Predictably, scientists are once again leading the demand for governments to do something.

In the UK, the Tory government has been keen to trumpet its ‘global leadership’ in reducing emissions, a claim somewhat undermined by April’s report from its own Climate Change Committee which pointed out that the UK’s net emissions have gone up, not down, because it has been importing more goods with ‘embodied’ emissions (‘UK CO2 emissions rising, government advisers warn,’ BBC Online, 24 April).

Most of Europe is engaged in similar card-sharpery, hoping to look squeaky clean while getting other countries to do their dirty work. China, though, says it has a new five year plan aimed at reversing the effects of thirty years of smog-filled coal-fired industrialisation, a claim that indicates, if nothing else, that it has now caught up with the West in the game of post-industrial piety. Perhaps the plan is to install Tibetans on all their power-station chimneys and make them inhale the smoke.

A dispassionate observer would surely conclude by now that the argument over climate change has been comprehensively won by the climatologists, even if no genuine action has been taken or is even likely. But not everyone is on board. There is still a crusty rearguard in the fetid armpit of the right wing which persists in denying the bleeding obvious. Around the time of the last general election in 2010, the Guardian assembled an inquisition of famous scientists and put the politicians in the dock over their policies on funding, climate change and energy, pharmaceutical research data, drug policy, public health, science and libel laws, and alternative medicine (‘If science had a vote, which party would it vote for?’ Guardian, 5 May, 2010).

While the major parties mostly reflected the prevailing scientific consensus on most of these areas, an encouraging result given that the politicians were red-hot for votes and therefore a good barometer of public opinion at the time, not all interviewees were on-message. UKIP’s Viscount Monckton gave a wonderful performance, from a comedy point of view, with Bertie Wooster-like responses that were riddled with howlers even after UKIP’s press office had hurriedly reworked his answers in a specially-demanded ‘phone a friend’ concession. According to the Drones Club spokesman, UKIP would appoint a Royal Commission to investigate climate scientists’ ‘imagined’ consequences of global warming and how far they had ‘exaggerated them.’ To demonstrate that this would be a show trial with only one possible outcome, UKIP would not even wait for the Commission’s report before acting. UKIP would in the meantime close down all climate-related funding and research, cancel the UK’s commitment to EU carbon-trading agreements, repeal the Climate Change Act and close the government’s Climate Change Department, commission new fossil and nuclear power stations, end renewable subsidies, threaten to cut Met Office funding if they gave inaccurate forecasts (references to global warming presumably also qualifying as an ‘inaccuracy’) and ban Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Question from all schools.

Perhaps one could expect no better, given that UKIP is really a pressure-group with no policies, recently grown temporarily large like a pus-filled boil. Its views on climate change as a ‘now-disproven hypothesis,’ public health campaigns over food as ‘unjustifiable’ or stem-cell research as involving ‘the killing of very small children’ are pretty much what you’d expect from privileged right-wing yahoos who own enough not to have to know anything.

Bones of Contention

A fuss has apparently broken out over where to rebury the newly disinterred remains of Richard III, the last Plantagenet king, who has been failing to push up daisies under a crypt and then a concrete car park in Leicester for 500 years until his recent sensational rediscovery. Plans to stick the semi-fossilised ex-sponger in Leicester Cathedral are being challenged by his avowed relatives who prefer York Minster. But what relatives would these be after 500 years, given that Richard had no children and was not famous for even liking them? A BBC Radio 4 programme on mathematics (More or Less, 10 May) has estimated that if Richard’s near kin produced 2 children each, and this output continued at a steady rate, there would be a million relatives by now. However if they had bred at the average rate for the period, at 2.3 children, this number would jump to 17 million. The programme went on to cite a respected 1970s study which suggested that everyone in the UK not from foreign extraction was probably descended from Edward III, Richard’s own ancestor. So what gives these ‘relatives’ the right to start arguing the toss over where to bury the bones, the programme wanted to know? Well quite. But then, what gives any of these royals or privileged poseurs the right to anything based on inheritance? Any given set of genes has a half-life of one generation, so genetically speaking, their connection to their distant forebears is at homeopathic levels anyway. You, dear reader, are probably just as ‘royal’ as they are. But that’s capitalism for you, fetishising utter silliness in the service of the elitist rich.

Trigger happy

What if, this column wondered darkly back in Sept 2011, workers start using 3D printing technology to print their own guns and ammunition? Well, who knew it would happen so fast? After gun manufacturers lined up to reassure everyone that printed plastic guns were impossible, a YouTube video was posted in early May showing a ‘crypto-anarchist’ developer, Cody Wilson, firing the world’s first printed gun. Within days there were 100,000 downloads of his print design and utter panic in the halls of the mighty, who will now be feverishly trying to put a stop to their worst nightmare, an armed workforce in a recession. Pathfinders now awaits, with an uncanny perspicacity borne out by events, the world’s first bank robbery using a 3D gun, followed by the first rocket-propelled grenade launcher, followed by the first uprising. Socialists argue for revolution ‘peacefully if we can, by force if we must,’ so we can hardly contemplate such a development with enthusiasm. On the other hand, it’s gratifying to consider how the fat cats will be shitting themselves over this.
Paddy Shannon

Hoard Today, Gone Tomorrow (2013)

The Proper Gander Column from the June 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Like school kids cheating in maths class by copying the person next to them, TV producers are always on the lookout for a formula which someone else has made work. The BBC’s response to the popularity of ITV’s Downton Abbey was an already-forgotten re-commissioning of Upstairs Downstairs, whose original run was itself the template for Downton. And hot on the heels of The Hoarder Next Door (Channel 4) comes BBC1’s Britain’s Biggest Hoarders – a title which implies it’s a competition. Why should hoarding, of all things, be the subject of two near-identical primetime programmes?

Both shows state that compulsive hoarding is a growing problem. The Hoarder Next Door says that 1.2 million people in the UK hoard, while Britain’s Biggest Hoarders more than doubles this to 3 million. Whatever the true figure, hoarding has TV appeal not because of its prevalence, but because it’s a mental health condition more visual than, say, depression. The symptoms of hoarding are there in the piles of rusting car parts, unopened boxes of trinkets and bags of tin cans. The sight of a hoarder’s packed home gives the kind of voyeuristic jolt documentary makers want. Although, as presenter Jasmine Harman says, ‘you live with it all around you and you stop seeing it.’

The programmes focus more on the gradual tackling of the stockpiles than they do with counselling, giving the simplistic impression that the mental health issue is cured when the hoard is tidied away. Clearing out the clutter also gives the producers the opportunity to resurrect the genre of home makeover shows, defunct since the recession. This kind of programme wouldn’t be complete without an emotional reveal of the renewed house underneath. The formulaic approach in both shows gives the uneasy feeling that a mental health condition and its treatment are being moulded to fit a TV programme’s format. Hoarding is more complicated and personal than that, although the condition is shaped by the society we live in. In a world which makes commodities both scarce and fetishised, it’s understandable that some people will find a kind of security in stockpiling as many as they can, even to the extent of it taking over their lives. A programme looking at hoarding from this angle would be more revealing.
Mike Foster

Voice From The Back: A Grim Forecast (2013)

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

A Grim Forecast                     
Politicians and media ‘experts’ are always telling us that although times may prove economically fraught at the moment the future will prove much better. Occasionally however the truth leaks out. 'Recession in the eurozone will be deeper than expected this year, the European Commission said yesterday in spring forecasts that predicted continuing record unemployment and a sluggish economic rebound next year' (Times, 4 May). Capitalism by its very nature is based on booms and slumps and no ‘expert’ has ever managed to solve that basic flaw of the system.

Colonial Hypocrisy                    
The British ruling class have always pretended that they behave in a moral fashion. This fallacy has now been exposed as nonsense. The British government is negotiating payments to thousands of Kenyans who were detained and severely mistreated during the 1950s Mau Mau insurgency. 'In a development that could pave the way for many other claims from around the world, government lawyers embarked upon the historic talks after suffering a series of defeats in their attempts to prevent elderly survivors of the prison camps from seeking redress through the British courts. Those defeats followed the discovery of a vast archive of colonial-era documents which the Foreign Office (FCO) had kept hidden for decades, and which shed new and stark light on the dying days of British rule, not only in Kenya but around the empire' (Guardian, 5 May). In the case of the Mau Mau conflict, the secret papers showed that senior colonial officials authorised appalling abuses of inmates held at the prison camps established during the bloody conflict, and that ministers and officials in London were aware of a brutal detention regime in which men and women were tortured and killed.

Another Promise Bites The Dust            
When the government closed Remploy factories that employed disabled workers their boast was that the closures would lead to more of them getting jobs in mainstream employment. Like most government promises this turned out to be untrue. 'Up to two thirds of the disabled workers who lost their jobs when the nationwide network of Remploy factories began to be shut down last autumn are still out of work' (Sunday Express, 5 May). Being unemployed is tough but being unemployed and disabled must be hellish.

Lots To Smile About               
Accompanying a photograph of the two billionaires smiling broadly at a Berkshire Hathaway's shareholders meeting in the USA was the following piece of information. 'Super-rich Bill Gates and Warren Buffett obviously know how to take it easy. It can't be too hard when Microsoft chairman Gates, 57, is worth $67 billion and Berkshire Hathaway chief executive Buffett, 82, has been valued at $53.5 billion' (Sunday Express, 5 May).

Growing Old Disgracefully                 
Readers of the popular press are aware of world hunger as a pressing problem, but they are probably unaware that this is not just a problem that affects people abroad. 'Most people think of the condition as a ‘third world problem’, but one in ten older people in the UK are malnourished, the British Dietetic Association and the Malnutrition Task Force said. ’For far too long, malnutrition and dehydration has been thought of as a third world problem,’ said Helen Davidson, honorary chair of the British Dietetic Association – the professional body for UK dieticians. ‘The reality is, malnutrition and dehydration is a very big problem here in the UK’ (Daily Express, 9 May). Malnutrition Task Force task force chair Dianne Jeffrey claimed that one in ten older people are malnourished and estimates put the figure at about three million. That is capitalism for you. Even in an advanced country like the UK old folk are malnourished.

Artful Dodgers                       
Workers are constantly being reprimanded by politicians and journalists for being ‘benefit fraudsters’ but in fact whatever dodges they may get up to it’s as nothing compared to the tax evasion of the owning class. 'More than 100 of Britain's richest people have been caught hiding billions of pounds in secretive offshore havens, sparking an unprecedented global tax evasion investigation. George Osborne, the chancellor, warned the alleged tax evaders, and a further 200 accountants and advisers accused of helping them cheat the taxman: ‘The message is simple: if you evade tax, we're coming after you’ (Guardian, 9 May). Despite Osborne's threat this is a constant running battle between the government and the owning class's armies of accountants and financial advisers devising new and better methods of evasion.