Thursday, May 16, 2019

Authenticity (2013)

From the April 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

In these strange days of postmodernism, is the concept of authenticity a relevant or helpful idea? In politics, the implicit ideas all have a history that explains both context and evolution. In the tracing of this history a starting point is helpful. Can we call this point authentic or must it always be arbitrary? Certainly any subsequent variation or evolution can only be judged in the light of that original. What might be important is to have evidence that any variation will possibly violate the original concept. Sometimes the source is indisputable (living people or extant texts) but original sources can also be interpretations of other people’s work, as with Socrates, The Christ, Buddha, Mohammed, etc. Analysis of the content and internal logic of the idea itself is important since the author(s) may not be completely aware of the consequences of their own interpretation. It is entirely possible that the use of the same analysis might contradict the conclusions of the author. So we have three criteria by which to define the authenticity of an idea: Source, Idea and Evolution. I will attempt an analysis of Socialism using these criteria with special reference to the work of Karl Marx.

Socialism has a long history; some say it is as old as humanity. Many pre-historical hunter-gatherer communities seem to have been based on elements of socialism/communism. Traditionally the modern concept of socialism has its roots in the work of Winstanley, Fourier and St. Simon. Known as socialist Idealists their primary concern was the immorality of private property and the social injustice that it created. It was not until Karl Marx and Frederick Engels worked together and then with the First International that a comprehensive definition of socialism was attempted.

Marx had claimed, or more precisely others had claimed on his behalf, to have discovered the laws of both historical evolution and capital accumulation. He used the form of analysis known as dialectics which had been developed by the German philosopher Hegel. Building on the theories of the British economists, Adam Smith and Paul Ricardo he produced the paradigm of classical economics in his work Das Kapital. It might be claimed that this represented the crystallisation of three traditions: German philosophical Idealism, British economics and French Idealistic socialism. A truly international synthesis befitting the context of the world’s First International Workingman’s Association.

As a result, and in the light of, all this analysis – economic, historical and philosophical did a definition of socialism arise? ‘The common ownership and democratic control of the means of production’ is, for me, the authentic expression of what socialism is. Twentieth-century history would argue and reinterpret two key words in this definition out of all recognition – ‘common’ and ‘democratic’. In what is sometimes called ‘the century of ideology’ we are told that fascism and Soviet ‘communism’ were somehow connected to, or even resulted from, the definition and ideology of socialism. My contention is that this view is profoundly mistaken because, in part, it completely neglects the importance of authenticity in the creation of the concept of socialism. As to why this happened, and still happens, is only explainable in terms of ’political consciousness.’

Socialist consciousness is not purely the result of intellectual study. It also demands a psychological reassessment of values and paradigms. What has been called ‘false consciousness’ is caused primarily not because of a lack of intelligence but by the inability to imagine profound political alternatives. This in turn is mostly due to a political/historical context. If you do not truly understand capitalism then you can never imagine its antithesis – socialism. When the left substituted ‘state ownership’ for the original ‘common ownership’ it was because of this. For Marx state ownership could only ever be a prelude to the revolution and was never considered as a form of socialism.

The bourgeois mind could never imagine a stateless, moneyless society – state capitalism was their political limit (Lenin, Mao, Castro etc.). The same is true of their interpretation of democracy. Representative (bourgeois) democracy was replaced by something infinitely worse – centralised democracy or the rule of the elite. Socialism is democracy – the direct control of the means of production by the majority.

From the Sep 1984 Socialist Standard.
So in both respects we can state that this was not an ‘evolution’ of the idea of socialism but a ‘perversion’ of it. And we know this, in part, by reference to the ‘original’ definition based on the ‘authentic’ origins already discussed. There is also the critique that these leftist definitions are not authentic in terms of the original motivation for socialism – social justice and the freedoms this implies. The terrors of the Soviet Union were no surprise to those with authentic consciousness.  In conclusion we can say that in terms of the source (Marx), idea and evolution that the leftist version of socialism is invalid by reference to authenticity (and, of course, political history).

Some time ago I was engaged in a debate on Facebook about the definition of socialism. My opponent contended that my definition was too narrow and what’s more it did not coincide with the one given in Wikipedia! Apart from an affront to my ego (thirty years of study and activism) I was saddened by the apparent triumph of the leftist version. But I remind myself that any quest for social justice will always lead to socialist conclusions and it is up to socialists to convert this desperate need into revolutionary action based on authentic motivation and consciousness.

Once this is achieved in the majority no political elite can arise with the potential to corrupt the cause. In this, political consciousness is not dissimilar to the arts – once understood a great painting, novel, film or piece of music will enable you to discern subsequently that which is fake, misleading and superficial (inauthentic). Some time ago the Socialist Party ran ‘The Campaign for Real Socialism’ in an attempt to revive authentic socialist consciousness. As a lover of the ales from which the name was derived all I can say is: ‘I’ll have my usual – in a straight glass’.

50 Years Ago: Socialists and the Russian Revolution (1985)

The 50 Years Ago column from the August 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

We have been asked the following question:
  What was the proposal of the SPGB to the Bolshevik Government as to what should be the mode of procedure after the Bolsheviks had achieved political power?
The question is evidently based on a misunderstanding of the attitude taken up by the SPGB. It is not, and never has been, our view that the Bolshevik Government might have succeeded in establishing socialism in Russia, or might have succeeded in engineering world revolution, if only it had adopted some policy different from the one it did adopt. On the contrary, our case has been, right from the outset 18 years ago, that the backward industrial development of Russia, and the very small number of socialists both in Russia and in the rest of Europe, made it impossible for either of these two events to happen. It was not, therefore, a question of our telling the Bolsheviks what to do with power when they had achieved it. What we did tell them was that their hold on power would not bring socialism, however they used their power, and that they were deceiving themselves and the working class in claiming otherwise.

[From an Editorial Committee reply to a correspondent The SPGB and the Bolshevik Seizure of Power in 1917". Socialist Standard, August 1935.]

Everyday illusions (1985)

From the August 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

There are all sorts of illusions in the world: the sun "rising" and “setting"; railroad tracks "converging" in the distance; the horizon "descending" before our eyes as though within our approach. There are scientific explanations for these phenomena, with which not even true believers in the fantastic can quarrel. There is nothing to be gained by anyone, today, in idly debating the validity of the universally-accepted explanations. But those are illusions that have to do with the realm of physics and a general acceptance of physical, material facts in no way threatens capitalism's institutions. Even when they lay bare the nonsense taught by religion there is no acknowledgement of conflict since the purveyors of metaphysics have long since become adept at dividing the mind into watertight compartments — one for reality, the other for fantasy. Since there is no contact between the ideas in these hermetically-sealed chambers there is no conflict.

When it comes to the illusions generated by the socio-economic system operating throughout the world today, even if in somewhat varying forms, it is a horse of a different colour. Let alone finding those who may agree that some things are not what they seem, there is scant interest in even discussing the matter. For example, consider the widely held belief that capitalism is a consumer-oriented social system. Such an assessment might be understandable when one contemplates the sheer weight of hucksterism that assaults us in the print and broadcast media. There is certainly an illusion created there — an illusion of a population basking in a sort of equality of spendability. The hawking is directed at everybody and anybody who will look and/or listen, thereby bolstering the generally-held theory of the mass of the population — the working class — that "my money is as good as theirs; the only difference is that they have more of it".

And indeed, there is nothing printed on coinage or even on personal cheques to indicate the class status of any individual possessor. The fact that the money held by the overwhelming bulk of the population is received as payment for labour time expended in the interests of the capitalist class is not noted on bills or coin. In fact, the very currency and change swapped at the bank for their employers' cheques might very well have graced the wallets of their employers on previous occasions — as may well be the case in the future. Coin-of-the-realm seems to make everybody equal since virtually nobody avoids handling it throughout most of their lives. To be sure, some are more equal than most.

To grasp the mechanics, the intrinsic blueprint, of capitalism it will be helpful to temporarily shut ears and eyes to the sales pitches and try to think of oneself as not simply an individual but as a unit of an economic class. If you must restrict your purchases to the total income from wages or salaries, you are a member of the working class and the quality, as well as the quantity, of the goods and services available is governed by that station in life.

On the other hand, consider the spendability of the employers of labour — those who own the manufacturing, processing and distributing operations and so on. Members of that stratum frequently function in managerial posts and draw fat salaries but their income derives basically from profits and dividends. In fact, salaries at bloated levels could actually be unprofitable to the recipient because of tax brackets and top executives often take much of their income in company shares. Anyway, the entire capitalist class represents hardly more than ten per cent of the population so their spendable income, whatever may be the extent of their personal acquisition, would hardly make a dent in the net profits of their class after everything else that makes up surplus value has been accounted for. By far the greater part of their holdings are tied up in investments — certificates of ownership in wealth-producing property.

Palpably, then, something is wrong with that widely held assessment that capitalism is a consumer-oriented society. It goes without saying, of course, that individual capitalists may be concerned first and foremost with the life style and status that their investments can bring them. They do not pursue their careers as tycoons out of any spirit of loyalty to a cause or even to altruistic motivation — as for example, providing employment for the working class. To be sure, they sometimes go in strongly for philanthropy but that is a necessary activity in the business sense. It not only helps on that day of reckoning with their Internal Revenue Service "partners". [1]  It also serves as a stimulus to their particular endeavours by gilding possibly-tarnished reputations. But this is all neither here nor there in regard to the purpose — the unwritten law — of the capitalist system of production.

Capitalism is a producer, rather than a consumer-oriented, social system; the value of the commodities needed in production exceeds the total value of consumer commodities. Even in that segment of industry which involves itself with the production of consumer goods and services the emphasis has to be on continuous production — production for the sake of more production for profit. Much, if not most, of surplus value must be earmarked as capital (wealth used to create more wealth with view to profit through exploitation of labour). Think of the maw of a voracious animal into which everything from raw material to finished goods are shovelled. That is capitalism. Those who do the gathering, the manufacturing, processing and stuffing of the fodder into that maw are. of course, paid for their efforts according to the value of their particular types of mental and physical abilities. And the monster scatters varying amounts of wealth on those who own or control the land, the mines, the mills and all of the other workplaces. So everybody concerned with keeping that beast well fed is allegedly happy.

But there are many problems associated with this mode of production not the least of which is the fact that every so often the monster's stomach gets loaded to the gills — it is compelled to go on a diet.

There follows, naturally, a cut-back in employment and the government is forced to issue new and increasing figures on unemployment. Now if capitalism were a consumer-oriented system of society significant unemployment would be regarded by working people as a boon rather than something to be dreaded. After all. the pressing problem in enforced idleness is not the lack of work in itself but rather the lack of money with which to purchase needed commodities and pay the bills. The capitalists manage to live on in the style to which they have grown accustomed whether boom times or slack times prevail. Their loot will not run out simply because of recession or even depression — although it occasionally does vanish in the wake of unfortunate investments on Wall Street. But the reserves that workers can stash away are soon enough used up; even the inadequate unemployment insurance lasts only so long and before they know it welfare and the soup kitchens beckon.

But how quickly one forgets previous hardships and misery when new ones occur. What is the quickest way to forget the pain of a toe that has been just mashed by a boulder? Simply slam a door on a finger. What was so wonderful about those jobs, anyway? The literature of the periods of capitalist boom-time is filled with well-documented articles dealing with the mental and physical crippling of workers in all sorts of industries. The drive is, and must be, to pump surplus value from the working class at the greatest possible rates. To expect or urge that capitalism could be made to operate efficiently in any other way is to believe in the second coming (or the first one!). For woe betide any capitalist industry that instructs its workers to "take it easy". Its competition will soon enough put it out of business.

And so, when capitalism's industries boom, the monster beams with joy at the immensity of the shovellings that go into its maw. And the punch-drunk workers drag themselves to their jobs to be prodded — even spied on — by supervisory and security fellow workers — who are also prodded and spied on by their own managements — from sun-up to sun-down, in return for the pay needed to meet the notes and buy the groceries and whatever. Anyone who believes that old wives' tale about hard work never hurting anybody should take a closer look at the lined and wrinkled faces, the gnarled hands, of their fellow workers while on the way to and from capitalism’s workplaces and for that matter, at themselves in the mirror.

So the intrinsic purpose of capitalism is by no means the satisfaction of personal consumption needs of the members of the populations. Granted that those with sufficient loot can possess luxuries beyond the wildest dreams of Oriental potentates. Granted even that the working class, generally. must be able to purchase goods and services in sufficient quantity and quality to enable them to function adequately as employees. But that is all a matter of fall-out from the system. Notwithstanding the impassioned pleas of the hucksters to buy their merchandise rather than their competitors', despite the illusion of a veritable cornucopia of products lining the shelves and storage spaces of our uptown, downtown, and suburban shopping malls and emporiums, generally, the spending by the working class must be limited by the extent of their "gainful" earnings. And the continuous turnover in merchant entrepreneurism — particularly among the smaller ones — offers mute testimony to that fact.

As for the capitalists, they are so relatively few in number that goods and services of high quality — including expensive and exclusive items of luxury — must be produced in quantities far less than the potential. To be sure, much of the pleasure the wealthy feel in their possessions lies in their knowledge that most of their fellow men and women must make do with comparatively little.

Socialism will be, definitely, a consumer-oriented social system. It is unlikely that anything like ostentatious items of wealth will be produced. In a classless society it is difficult to imagine anybody wanting to outshine anybody else in personal acquisitions. Especially when the very concept of "value" will not exist, since goods and services will be produced only for use and consequently, because they will not be exchanged on a market, will neither need nor possess value.

On the other hand, the enormous wealth and energy now being expended on producing cheaply made — even shoddy — commodities for the working class will be channelled in more purposeful ways. According to the rationale of capitalism, the commodities that make up the standards of the working class must be produced ever more cheaply — and as shoddily — as is possible. Minimise labour costs and maximise surplus value. That is the logic — the philosophy — of capitalist production.
Harry Morrison
WSPUS (Boston)

Watery wastes (1985)

Book Review from the August 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

Report of the Independent Review of Disposal of Radioactive Waste in the Northeast Atlantic. Chairman: Professor F.G.T. Holliday. HMSO 1984. £4.90

The problem of the disposal of radioactive waste may seem small compared with the famines endemic throughout large parts of the globe. In one important respect, however, it is potentially worse. When socialist society is established every effort will be made to eliminate hunger and two decades would probably be a conservative estimate of the time required to effect the necessary changes. In contrast significant components of radioactive waste have half lives of 24.000 years or more — which means that at the end of this period they will still emit half as much deadly radiation. As the radioactive process is irreversible, containment requires completely indestructible containers sufficiently thick to prevent significant penetration by the emitted rays. The life of the containers used for dumping at sea is somewhat speculatively put in this document at 300 years maximum.

The committee who produced this report have the cheek to call their work an independent review. Independent of whom? They were appointed by and reported back to the present British government. They assume the continuation of capitalism, with its nuclear arms race and escalating atomic power programme based on nuclear fission. In other words a steady increase in the number of deadly dumps, vastly greater than the dissipation of radioactivity of existing stocks by natural decay. This of course covers waste products only and excludes the effects of bomb tests or accidents such as nearly occurred at Three Mile Island. let alone a nuclear Armageddon.

A large part of the scientific portion of this document is devoted to a theoretical assessment of the hazards of life inherent in dumping in deep ocean waters. It is argued that no experimental evidence is available, a weakness pointed out in a letter to the Times on 10 May. For fourteen years up to 1963. packages of waste were dumped and imploded in the Hurd Deep in the English Channel. where the sea depth is relatively shallow. The practice ceased after this date following a recommendation by the International Atomic Energy Agency that the minimum dumping depth should be 2,000 metres. The Times letter suggested that if the theoretical model had been applied to this Channel disposal, an assessment could be made against the effects now being observed on marine life in the area. This could have given the figures quoted greater credibility (or alternatively discredited them). It would be interesting to know whether contemporary calculations showed the Channel dumping to be “safe", whether they showed the opposite and were suppressed or ignored. or whether the operation went ahead without any such considerations at all.

In view of this it is difficult to accept assurances that deep ocean dumping carries very little danger. Comparisons with naturally induced radiation are made but these are misleading since natural radiation will change little whereas the man-made contribution is increasing. Having argued thus we might have expected the committee to opt firmly for a resumption of dumping in the Atlantic, which was halted in 1982. However, three relevant international reviews are due to be published this year and the committee have taken advantage of this to hedge their bets and recommend that this suspension remain until these reviews are available. This scarcely suggests confidence in the published figures.

The following quote is typical of an approach to decision making so common under modern capitalism:
  8.12 We have found that an important aspect of people's perception of the risks and benefits of waste disposal relates to the origin of the wastes. Wastes that arise from industrial and medical uses of radioactive materials which are seen as benefiting mankind raise fewer issues of concern than those arising from, for example, weapons production. We have been unable to obtain the information necessary to quantify how much of the waste dumped at the Northeast Atlantic dump site falls into these separate categories.
This appears to mean that the committee would approve of a policy involving relatively large levels of radioactive waste, but believe public support will be higher if the non-military (or not obviously military) portion of the waste is higher. They would like to put the case in these terms but don't have the necessary data. It would be surprising if this desire to inform us were maintained should the forthcoming figures point in the opposite direction. There are more than suggestions of elitism in the attitude expressed both here and in other parts of this booklet.

Such a situation is a travesty of democracy, and will arise again and again as long as the capitalist class has control of the information media. Had this committee passed on all the evidence given to them, their report might well have been classified and suppressed by the government.

In a socialist society there will be no military sources of radioactive waste, and a rapid phasing out of nuclear fission is very probable Some continued medical applications can however be anticipated. with possibly some use of nuclear fusion as an energy source. This latter process produces some radioactive waste but considerably less than the fission alternative. The most obvious difference however will be that the information media, along with all the means of life, will be controlled by society as a whole. When environmental issues arise, as they can still be expected to do from time to time, the benefits and penalties will be debated openly. All the relevant information will be freely available, in stark contrast to the selective release and biased presentation we have today.
E, C, Edge

Party News: Election Work (1985)

Party News from the August 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Socialist Party is contesting Islington South & Finsbury at the next parliamentary election and calls on members and sympathisers to assist with preparatory work now under way. If you can spare a few hours a week to distribute leaflets or address envelopes for the Freepost system, please contact Cliff Begley, c/o Islington Branch (see Directory page). Contributions to the Branch’s Election Campaign Fund are welcome, as will be any ideas that might increase the campaign’s impact. The election itself may be some years away, but serious and sustained activity must start now.
Islington Branch

Running Commentary: Union democracy (1985)

The Running Commentary Column from the August 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

Union democracy

Trade unions are important to the working class as a means of organising to protect levels of pay and working conditions from the downward pressure constantly exerted by capital. They are most effective when they reflect the wishes of their membership as registered democratically; they are least effective when professional trade union leaders fail to take account of the wishes of a majority of their members. The recent rule changes agreed by the NUM conference mark a step in the latter direction.

Under the new NUM constitution power will be concentrated at the centre and the President will be permitted to remain in office indefinitely without having to be re-elected. Formally the NUM is a federation with areas maintaining considerable local autonomy enabling them to take action without reference to the National Union. That principle seems to be under threat from the new constitution which includes the following:
  Every member of the Union shall be allocated by the NEC to an appropriate area and any member may be reallocated by the NEC at any time from one Area to another.
In theory this could mean that, for example, a Nottingham miner who did not agree with the National Union policy could be "reallocated" to an area which was more in line with national thinking so that his dissent could be silenced.

One result of these changes and of the prolonged strike has been the secession by the Nottinghamshire miners. The South Wales Area too was opposed to at least some of the proposed rule changes, especially those which took power away from the membership and concentrated it in the hands of the leadership. The present conflict within the NUM as a result of the rule changes and criticisms of the way in which the strike was conducted can only serve further to weaken the union at a time when the Coal Board is consolidating its defeat of the strikers by closing more pits. The lessons are clear: trade unions are most effective in protecting the interests of their members when they display solidarity and unity and are organised democratically.

Health and safety

The extent to which the health and safety of workers takes second place to profits is demonstrated by an amendment to the Employment Protection Act which came into force recently. Under the terms of that Act women with at least one year's employment with the same employer could not be dismissed because they were pregnant. They also had the right to be transferred to other kinds of work if their usual job put their own or their baby's health at risk. Under the terms of the amendment the qualifying period for protection under the Act has been extended to two years, which means that given the spasmodic nature of much women's work many women will lose protection. Among unskilled and semi-skilled workers it is estimated that the number covered will drop to between 20 and 33 per cent (Observer, 2 June 1985). It is those on the lowest incomes who are least likely to meet the new criteria and it is those same women who are most likely to be doing jobs which involve lifting heavy objects and contact with potentially harmful chemicals. Women in this situation will be forced to make the unhappy choice between concealing their pregnancy to maintain their income but at the same time risking their health and that of their baby, or protecting their health and losing their jobs.

Similar changes will affect women's prospects of being reinstated after giving birth. At present women with two years service up to the twenty ninth week of pregnancy may be reinstated in their old job after maternity leave. Now, unless women have worked for two years at the start of their pregnancy they could be legally dismissed.

At a time of high unemployment it is politically convenient for women to be forced out of work to make more room for male workers, reinforcing women's economic dependence. This represents yet another example of the way in which capitalism fails to meet people's needs — in this case the particular needs of pregnant women.

Embryo ethics

Enoch Powell's Bill to outlaw experiments on early human embryos has been frustrated by the "undemocratic" tactics of a small number of MPs against the wishes, so we are told, of the vast majority. This has engendered much righteous indignation, and we have been lectured on the sanctity of human life and the right of these rudiments to develop into full human beings.

Now it's a good bet that many of these protectors of the right to life will have been at the recent memorial service honouring "our boys" who gave their lives (or. more correctly, who had their lives taken away without so much as a by-your-leave) to protect this country's dubious claim to a small, strategically important island off the coast of Argentina. Although the media do. very occasionally. find a serviceman so indoctrinated that he will tell you he is prepared to "do his duty" and die to protect "his" country's interests, these are mavericks and most of those thus deprived of their right to a natural span of life do not choose to give it up.

On this basis a simple plaque in the parish church — with perhaps a minute's silence on a suitable day followed by a memorial service attended by a sprinkling of royalty and politicians — should quieten the consciences of Mr. Powell and the hypocritical supporters of his Bill.

50 Years Ago: A Message for Aldermaston Marchers (2013)

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

This might be your last Aldermaston. The March has lost its impact and become an “Easter habit.” These marches were originally organised in the belief that with mass support you would be able to force the British Government to renounce nuclear weapons. You have had the support. You have engaged in all types of activity on a vast scale. You have captured the energy and enthusiasm of tens of thousands; you have distributed leaflets and pamphlets by the million. And yet you have failed.

The past six years has seen the development and stockpiling of all types of nuclear weapons in this and other countries. Polaris submarines (and no doubt their Russian counterparts) keep their patrols day in and day out. Bombers with their loads are on round-the-clock alert. The neutron bomb—”the ultimate weapon”—is on the point of production. In fact, nuclear-wise the world is “hotter” today than ever before. Russia, alike with the other capitalist powers in her concern for expansion and supremacy, proudly tells of her multi-megaton explosions. The British Government defence estimates of £1,838 million will be passed by Parliament without any real opposition. The United States armaments bill this year will be about £19,000 million.

Your protests, both constitutional and direct action, have had no effect on the Government. The Labour Party, like the Conservatives, are committed to nuclear weapons. Your own leaders have spoken evasively and you have found yourselves wavering (…)

We can understand your desire to abolish these weapons, but the position you take is inconsistent and unrealistic. Socialists are opposed to war in all its forms. But first and foremost we are opposed to the capitalist system which gives rise to war among other social problems. You are concerned with removing evils in isolation. This cannot be done.

(From editorial, Socialist Standard, April 1963)

Action Replay: After the Ball Game (2013)

The Action Replay Column from the April 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last month we wrote about the problems encountered by athletes, including Olympians, who are less successful than they expected. But even those who achieve their goals can still find themselves in a bit of a pickle once they retire, with no obvious job to go to. Not everyone can become a coach or a media pundit. As one former hockey player said, ‘It’s really scary for some athletes, devastating. We’ve all got rent and mortgages to pay’ (BBC Online, 17 February).

So in January various sporting bodies organised the first Athletes Career Fair in Reading. It was intended to offer advice to athletes on career possibilities, financial planning and such evergreen topics as writing a CV. Prospective employers were attracted with assurances that ‘Athletes offer a wide range of transferable skills,’ including ‘the ability to perform under pressure.’ But having little or no work experience or professional qualifications was for many probably a bit of a handicap as far as employability was concerned.

One Paralympian horse-rider may well lose out as the government saves money by replacing the Disability Living Allowance with the Personal Independence Payment. But at least she was able to boast that gold medals in the London games would help to open doors for her: ‘It means I’m now able to sell myself a bit more,’ she said at the fair (Daily Telegraph, 19 January).

And sadly, selling yourself is precisely the name of the game, not just for athletes and ex-athletes but for the rest of us too. Being one of the best at running, jumping or whatever does not guarantee that anyone will want to buy your labour power once you can no longer run so fast or jump so far. You are just another member of the workforce, hoping someone will employ you, a degrading position to be in.
Paul Bennett

Cooking the Books: Big Fish Swallow Small Fish (2013)

The Cooking the Books column from the April 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Interviewed on Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4 on 3 February, Sir Terry Leahy, former chief executive of Tesco, said that ‘the death of the high street is progress’, adding that ‘the loss of some shops was a price worth paying for the lower costs at supermarkets’ (Times, 4 February).

He would say that, wouldn’t he? But the expansion of supermarkets at the expense of small high street shops confirms Marx’s view that one of the tendencies of capitalism is the concentration and centralisation of capital.

At the turn of the last century this was challenged by critics of Marx, but the whole of the last century confirmed Marx’s contention and it is no longer challenged by bourgeois economists. All sectors of the capitalist economy are now dominated by a handful of firms. Economists have even invented a new word to describe this – ‘oligopoly,’ or the domination of a market by a few sellers. Food retailing is no exception. In Britain this is dominated by just four supermarkets: Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons.

Marx put it this way:
‘The battle of commodities is fought by the cheapening of commodities. The cheapness of commodities depends, all other circumstances remaining the same, on the productivity of labour, and this in turn depends on the scale of production. Therefore the larger capitals beat the smaller.’ (Capital, Volume 1, chapter 25, section 2)
So, the supermarkets outcompete the smaller high street shops because, being bigger, they can sell more cheaply. Sir Terry is right on this point, but is he right when he says that the closure of many small shops that this results in is ‘progress’ and a ‘price worth paying’? Many disagree, especially the small shop-owners but also, on the political level, the Green Party which specialises in spearheading campaigns against the opening of new supermarkets as this conflicts with their vision of a smaller-scale capitalism.

People, however, have been voting with their feet – or their cars – and deserting the high street shops for the supermarkets. For most, this is an economic necessity, as to make ends meet they have to shop where the prices are lower.

Also, the ‘lower costs’ that Leahy mentions benefit the capitalist class generally since, in keeping the cost of living lower than it would otherwise be, they also keep down the amount employers must pay in wages to allow their employees to maintain their working skills. In other words, they lower the costs of production generally.

As long as capitalism lasts and by its very nature, supermarkets are going to triumph over high street shops. It is true that some small shops can and do survive by selling better quality goods at a higher price, but these will only ever be patronised by the higher paid. The Green Party will never be able to realise its nostalgic dream of a small-scale, more human capitalism.

Socialists take a different position. In socialism there will be neither supermarkets nor small shops, just distribution stores and centres from which people will be able to take what they need without having to pay. They will all be ‘Payless.’

Greasy Pole: Calamity . . . Calamity (2013)

Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce
The Greasy Pole column from the April 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘No more broken promises!’ bellowed Nick Clegg as the peroration to one of his contributions to the leaders’ TV debates during the 2010 general election. It sounded pretty good – a politician who could be trusted to do as he said he would. Except that it must also have started a lot of unconvinced voters asking some questions, like – ‘No More Broken Promises’? So had there been some in the past? When? Why? How many? What about? Who made them? Who broke them? And what were Clegg and his party offering to make us trust them now? Like when he was saying about Brown and Cameron that as they attacked each other ‘…the more they sound the same…I know many of you think that all politicians are just the same. I hope I’ve tried to show you that that just isn’t true.’

Well, we had some help in dealing with this last point last month, when two recently prominent providers of media-satisfying scandal in Clegg’s party were sent to prison, each for eight months, for the offence of perverting the course of justice. There was Chris Huhne, until recently the Minister for Energy and MP for the Hampshire constituency of Eastleigh. And there was Vicky Pryce who was his wife until their divorce. This distinguished couple were in court because in 2003  Chris Huhne, when he was an MEP travelling from Stansted Airport to his home, was clocked driving along a motorway above the speed limit, an offence for which his driving licence would be endorsed with three penalty points, leading to his being banned from driving. This happens to a lot of drivers, but Huhne’s problem was that his motoring performances (Pryce talked about him ‘driving like a maniac’) would undermine his ambition eventually to get into the House of Commons. At his request, Pryce agreed to sign the necessary form stating that she had been behind the wheel at the time.

The affair might have continued in this way, tense as it must have been for the participants, if the press had not heard rumours that Huhne was having an affair with Carina Trimingham who had been his press officer. Huhne decided he would be wise to tell Pryce about this, adding that he was leaving her that very day – and then dashing off to claim his place at the gym. In the circumstances it was hardly surprising that Pryce should look for revenge and approach the press about her taking Huhne’s speeding points. The rest, as they say, is history, except that in this case it is a history flavoured by some disturbing events relevant to Huhne and his drive to get to the top and to Clegg’s ravings about keeping promises.

Huhne had emerged into public attention in 2006 when he stood for election to the LibDem leadership in succession to Charles Kennedy, who had resigned because of his drink problem. The victor in that contest was Menzies Campbell, but he could not present the youthfully vigorous image the party felt it needed. So a year later he also resigned and the way was open for a contest between Clegg and Huhne. The campaign got lively with a complaint from Clegg about a press release from Huhne. After listing some criticisms, the release dubbed him ‘Calamity Clegg.’ Huhne responded that although he agreed with the content of the piece, he did not approve of the title which was the work of some ‘overzealous young researcher.’ In fact the author of the offending phrase was Huhne’s future partner Carina Trimingham.

Clegg won by 511 votes, but there were 1,300 votes which went astray in the post and which, when checked later, would probably have given victory to Huhne. In spite of such passing matters Huhne’s background as a money-making operator in the City (he is a multi-millionaire) and his triumph in the 2010 general election at Eastleigh, where he increased the LibDem majority from 568 to 3,864, made him a clear case for promotion. During his election campaign he successfully contained the affair with Trimingham, preferring to use the image of a devoted father of three, with photographs to prove it: ‘Family matters to me so much – where would we be without them?’ one of his leaflets told the local voters.

Later, in charge as Minister of Energy and Climate Change in the coalition government (reckoned to be the tenth most powerful in the Cabinet) Huhne managed to modify his former opinion that nuclear energy was a system which was ‘tried, tested and failed’ and instead argued that there were ‘issues’ (a favourite word for anyone trying to avoid an uncomfortable reality) ‘outside of the realm of nuclear safety, particularly that of the economics of it and the costs in capital to the nuclear operator.’

And in all this, where does Vicky Pryce stand? There has been a lot of sympathy for her: an article in the Sunday Times said she is ‘…for all her career success and steely public face … a surprisingly fragile soul…’ Which about covers the fact that to protect her then husband’s rocky standing she engaged in a conspiracy to condone his potential for driving dangerously. As she well knew, and as we saw in the scandals of David Laws, Lord Rennard and others, such tactics are commonly used in capitalism’s political jungles. Apart from that, Pryce is an economist, generously qualified and widely regarded for her readiness to grapple – no more effectively than the others – with capitalism’s tsunamis of crises. To some she is, as an economist, not able to claim to be entirely free of all responsibility over the present chaos, which serves as another exposure of Clegg’s clamorous assertion that the LibDems are better – more reliable and honest – than the others. And along with this, the system grinds on with its wars, poverty, disease, misery – Calamity Clegg if you like. Calamity Capitalism is more to the point. 

Mixed Media: The Arabian Nights (2013)

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

Mary Zimmerman’s 1992 play, Arabian Nights, was recently produced at the Tricycle Theatre in London. Zimmerman was motivated by the 1991 Gulf War to dramatise The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night to portray the poetic richness of Islamic and Arabic culture. The stories are Middle Eastern and South Asian folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age (c750-1258 AD) of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad when the Arab world was the intellectual  centre of science, philosophy, poetry, commerce and agriculture. The Caliph Harun Al Rashid (Denton Chikura) is even a character in the Arabian Nights.

The magical key line of Zimmerman’s Arabian Nights is ‘in our heads, my lord, we do contain all the images of the universe’: the play is a celebration of the imagination, the power of storytelling, and conjures up the earthy spirit of the souk and harem without recourse to the djinns and magic carpets of Aladdin or Ali Baba. The play is an ensemble piece with many accents beginning with the frame story of Persian King Shahayer and the Vizier’s daughter Scheherezade (Adura Onishile).  This then opens out into stories within stories like a set of Chinese boxes which look at love, lust, shame, comedy, dreams and intellectuality.

Stories dramatised include The Jester’s Wife and Her Three Lovers, a farce of marital infidelity in which the wife hides a pastry cook, greengrocer and butcher in the lavatory. Edward Gibbon saw Islam as ‘more liberal than the laws of Moses.’ The stories of Madman and Perfect Love and The Ruined Man who Became Rich Again Through a Dream have a merchant as the central character. The Arab world was a pre-industrial merchant (bazarri) capitalist society with a market economy and monetary system. In fact Muhammad was the Prophet of the Arab merchant, and Engels identified that ‘Islam is a religion adapted to townsmen engaged in trade and industry.’

The tale of Sympathy the Learned is about a female slave who outwits the greatest intellectuals of Islamic study and can be seen as feminist in its portrayal of women. The Qur’an assumes the existence of slavery and implicitly accepts it although the Islamic world did not operate a slave system of production as in classical antiquity.

Zimmerman’s Arabian Nights evoke AL Fisher’s ‘the Arabs were poets, dreamers, fighters, traders’ and the Prophet Muhammad’s affirmation that ‘the ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr.’
Steve Clayton

Fake Wheat Glut (1969)

From the May 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

"Major wheat exporting nations”, reported the April 4 Scotsman from Washington, "today opened talks here to try to solve a a crisis caused by a glut of wheat on the world market and plummeting prices”.

Surely the real crisis is that there are millions of human beings in the world who are chronically underfed, so how can there be talk of a glut of a basic food like wheat? The truth is that there is no glut when human needs are used as the measure, but this means that profits are threatened because more wheat than can be sold has been grown. It is a revealing comment on capitalism’s priorities that this is the crisis and not the fact of mass hunger.

A sanely organised community, based on the common ownership of the world’s resources, would grow wheat for use and not for sale on a market with a view to profit. Prices and profits would not enter into it and the absurd situation of starving people amidst an alleged food glut just could not arise.

'Too Many' Bricks (1969)

From the May 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

“Rising brick stocks worry makers” said the Times Business News on April 2. In February production had fallen and stocks were heading towards the record levels of 1967. No comments were recorded from the homeless and the overcrowded.

Those who are under the illusion that bricks are made to build houses will have some difficulty in understanding the absurd situation of how with a crying need for houses there can be a ‘surplus’ of bricks. To socialists the answer is simple: under capitalism bricks are not produced simply for use but for sale with a view to making a profit for the brick producer! If people cannot pay for the houses they need then houses will not be built. That is how capitalism works and must work.

Stocks of unused bricks beside slums and hostels for the homeless once again show that capitalism cannot serve human needs.

The Chinese in Britain (1969)

From the May 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

One more minority problem is developing here and seems likely to be dumped on the government’s plate should unemployment increase sufficiently to force the matter into the front rank of problems.

According to L. Wong (Overseas Chinese in Britain) there are 45,000 Chinese here; 30,000 immigrant workers from Hong Kong, with the remaining 15,000 consisting of students and nurses from other countries such as Malaysia and the West Indies, and more are coming in all the time.

They are not a homogeneous group in terms of dialect spoken, education, or country of origin, and moreover each group looks upon all others as alien. For instance, many of the Chinese here are villagers from the Hong Kong area, but are subdivided into Hakkas (the original inhabitants of the province of Canton, centuries before the Cantonese arrived) and the Cantonese. But these days the mutual hostility has greatly diminished, and intermarriage is quite common. Then again, the urbanised educated from Hong Kong find little in common with the villagers.

The Malaysian Chinese students regard Hong Kong Chinese students as ‘different’, and vice versa.

Many of the working-class Chinese find employment in the Chinese restaurants which have become quite a popular institution in Britain, enlivening our world of bricks and mortar with an exotic splash of colour, and sometimes relieving the housewife of her chores at the kitchen stove. There are about 1,000 of them, with more opening all the time, of which 200 are in London.

Some restaurant workers are resentful of the long hours they have to work and complain that employers are able to conceal this from the officials.

There are clubs and associations for each of the different groups here, including restaurant workers. Some of these clubs hold one or two religious observances during the year, but in common with workers all over the world, the Chinese are steadily dropping all mystic beliefs. On Ch’ung Yand day, one of the Chinese traditional days of mystic ritual, at the Chinese cemetery in London’s East End a few years ago only 25 people were present, Ng Kwei Choo reports in The Chinese in London.

The clubs are the battlegrounds where the Nationalists and so-called Communists compete for political loyalties.

The Nationalists are the political party who represented the capitalism of developing China before the second world war. Since last century, when China was overrun by Western capitalists, exploitation was carried on through a Chinese middleman—a compradore, a variety of capitalist peculiar to China. For instance, commercial crops were bought and collected by a compradore’s organisation in the interior of of China which also provided transport to the required treaty port where the Western merchant company took over and proceeded to clean, sort, pack, ship to the West, and finance. The compradores, though originally tied to Western enterprises, began over the years to operate in their own right and eventually with other budding capitalists formed their own political party under the leadership first of Sun Yat-sen then Chiang Kai-shek. Their policy, although phrased in pseudo-socialist terms, was to develop China largely by private enterprise for the benefit of the indigenous ruling-class. They lost the civil war with the Communist Party and retired to the island of Formosa. Here, with American aid, they act as a thorn in the side of the Chinese government on the mainland.

On the other hand, the so-called Communist Party of China, who control the Chinese government, are committed to state capitalism for the major industries, and battle for the support of the Chinese in Britain.

For instance, a visit to a Communist Party film-show in London typically starts with a playing of the national anthem, at which the audience stands to attention. Among the films is one entitled A Stroll in Peking depicting the contrast between Peking under the Nationalists’ regime and the new Peking. Another entitled Change of Circumstances depicts the Communist Chinese as saviours of the oppressed with the Nationalists and Japanese as the villains of the piece. This film works up hatred for the Japanese and helps the audience to become patriotic Chinese.

The Chinese in Britain are in many ways a miniature of the Chinese in the world at large; they have their sectarian loyalties but it is no contradiction to say that in essentials they have very much more in common with British workers than they have differences. We are all workers of the world.
Frank Offord

Capitalism — The Violent Society (1969)

Editorial from the May 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

Think about it. Violence and conflict, whether in strikes, demonstrations, crime, or war, are an accepted part of modern society. Think about it, and ask why and what can be done about it.

Every large industrial concern—and small ones as well—has its disputes over wages, hours, and conditions of work and all that goes with them—disputes often coming to a head in a strike or a demonstration, perhaps a scuffle with the police.

Every big city — and many a small town—has its gangs, whether they are the frustrated youngsters of some new town or the deadlier adult gangs who organise their rackets in places like London and Glasgow. It is the same story abroad; in some American cities, for example, people live in continual terror of violent crime.

The level of crime has been rising steadily since the war, and despite the many theories on how to deal with it, none of the experts seems to have the answer. According to the Cambridge lnstitute of Criminology, on present figures about a third of the population will be convicted of an indictable offence some time during their lifetime. In some cities crime has increased over the past fifteen years by over 300 per cent.

At no time, since peace was officially declared in 1945, has the world been free of war. Sometimes it has been a minor clash, like the battles on the Indo-Chinese borders; sometimes a bigger affair like Korea or Vietnam. Sometimes, as in the case of Berlin and Cuba, the world has stood on the brink of a nuclear war.

All of these problems—and there are many others like them—are symptoms of violence—not the violence of people or of human society but of one particular type of social system. Many people who are concerned about these problems think that they are caused by some ‘original sin’ which has left in all of us an instinct for violence and cruelty. But human beings are as ready to be kind as to be cruel, and to co-operate with each other as to fight each other. The fact is that human behaviour is largely conditioned by the environment we find ourselves in. And what sort of an environment does capitalism offer—what sort of behaviour does it encourage?

Capitalism is a society of privilege, in which one class owns the means of wealth production and employs the other class to work for it. Here is one cause of dispute, for the employing capitalists have interests opposed to those of the workers they employ. Strikes, lock-outs, and so on are the battles in a war which is continually going on between capitalists and workers over the division of the wealth which the workers produce.

Capitalism subjects its unprivileged class—the working class—to a degrading life of employment, poverty, and frustration. A worker's life is not simply a battle to make ends meet; there are also the warping influences of life in soulless new towns or neurotic suburbs, or in the slums of the big cities. Here there is little chance for human beings to grow up freely and naturally; childhood and adolescence are often times of torture. This is how a Glasgow youth leader sees the problems of the young gangs in the Easterhouse housing estate:
  They are almost totally asexual . . . This is the most overt cause of the violence; they lack the greatest outlet for human energy and emotion. (The Guardian, April 10, 1969.)
Capitalism draws some of its most hopeless and vicious ciriminals from places like these. At the same time, the system is itself a standing incentive to crime. Since it is a society of private property, it denies the vast mass of its people abundance or even security; they are reserved for a minority. But of course some people, perhaps in especially desperate circumstances, try to find a short cut out of the frustrations and humiliations of the unprivileged; they try crime in preference to the humdrum existence of the wage slave in the office or factory. That is why something like 90 per cent of crime consists of offences against property, some of which are accompanied by ruthless violence with cosh or pickaxe handle or gun.

Capitalism, in this field and in others, sets its own pattern. The same spokesmen who condemn the violent criminal have no hesitation in using force in the disputes of the capitalist class. That is why the states of capitalism keep up massive armed forces, and the few most powerful have their armouries of all-destructive nuclear weapons. This year, British arms spending will go up by £100m. to a record of nearly £2,400m.

Capitalism’s international disputes arise because it is a competitive society, whether it is competition between one firm and another in the High Street or between nations over access to markets or sources of raw materials. The Middle East, for example, is a sensitive area because of the rivalry between the capitalists of so many states for the oil there. As long as capitalism lasts war is either a threat or a reality.

Capitalism, then, is a world of violence, dispute, and frustration. It cannot provide its people with safety, or plenty, or happiness. None of its religions, none of its philosophers, none of its political parties, has any solution to its problems. They all operate on the assumption that capitalism will continue. What if we assume the opposite—that capitalism is abolished and replaced by Socialism?

Socialism is a society in which the means of wealth production are commonly owned. The wealth which is produced will not belong to any class; it will be a common pool to which all human beings will have free access. Thus Socialism will end class divisions, it will end privilege, and it will end poverty.

Socialism is a society in which all humans will have a unity of interests — to co-operate in the production of the world’s wealth. There will be no competition between one group and another for economic supremacy.

Socialism will make its wealth for use and not for sale. This will release society from the restrictions of having to turn out cheap goods for a market. Everything that is produced will be the best we are capable of—we shall not build slums, we shall not make shoddy clothes, we shall not grow sub-standard food.

Socialism is a world without nations and frontiers. It will have one people working together for the common wealth. The crimes and disputes of capitalism will fade into history.

Socialism is necessary now—and we can have it now. All that is needed is for the working class to realise the viciousness and futility of capitalism and to appreciate that it can be ended only by a fundamental social change. Socialism will come after a revolution, as the conscious, democratic act of the world working class.

Slavery's Legacy (1969)

Book Review from the May 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

Black Rage by William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs (Jonathan Cape 35s.)

Hatred of blacks and belief in white supremacy are, say the authors, built into American culture. They are well aware that this racism is the legacy of slavery:
  It was the economic usefulness of slavery in the period when cotton was king which in turn gave rise to the moral, religious, and psychological justification of the enslavement of blacks. Moral justification followed economic necessity and black Americans were viewed as sub-humans designed for labouring in the fields.
The American Negroes are of course not inferior to ‘whites’. Nor are they a ‘race’ (even in that term’s vague meaning). Some are not even black. They are a cultural group sharing a common tradition—of suffering and oppression. Brought to America as slaves to labour on the tobacco and then on the cotton plantations, when they were 'freed’ in 1865 they became unskilled agricultural labourers. Now they form a section of the working class still mainly confined, because of discrimination, to unskilled jobs.

The authors' theme is that this legacy of slavery has imposed on the Negroes a particular kind of indignity and mental cruelty. It has forced them to develop, or rather preserve, a slave mentality accepting the racist lie that they are inferior. Black rage, they suggest, is the reaction of Negroes who are beginning to realise the degrading confidence trick that has been pulled on them. Even so. what they are demanding is very modest—not that they be treated as human beings but only that they be treated as ordinary wage slaves rather than as freed chattel slaves.

The basic oppression and exploitation in America is that of the workers by the capitalists. However, as Marx pointed out, in a non-revolutionary time the ruling ideas in society are the ideas of the ruling class, shared by rulers and ruled alike. Racism was the ideology of the Southern slavocracy which has been inherited by the ruled of capitalist society long after the rulers whose idea it was have gone. Thus, the 'whites' too are the victims of racism, conned into accepting an outdated ruling-class idea.

Socialists urge Negro workers to reject the chattel-slave mentality that is imposed on them. Just as we urge white workers to cast off the outworn ideas of a former ruling class which only cause extra suffering for some of their fellow workers.
Adam Buick

Democratic or Constitutional? (1969)

Book Review from the May 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Republican Constitution in the Struggle for Socialism by E. M. S. Namboodiripad Asia Publishing House

This pamphlet is the text of a lecture given last year by the Chief Minister of Kerala, a leading member of the 'Communist Party of India (Marxist)', set up in 1964 as a breakaway from the pro-Moscow party but recently forced to expel pro-Peking elements who wanted to start a guerilla war. It is a treatise on the 'constitutional way' to state capitalism on the Russia/China model. As fits a member of a party caught in the middle, Namboodiripad skilfully sits on the fence, saying that political democracy is useful to the workers as it lets them organise but doubting whether his party could win power peacefully, at least not until India's present constitution is considerably amended. He goes on to suggest the necessary amendments.

What has this to do with Socialism? Nothing. Namboodiripad makes it clear that his party’s immediate aim is not even the State capitalism he mistakenly thinks is Socialism but only a 'people’s democratic government' of, presumably, capitalism. If that's all the ‘left-wing communists' can offer, what must the 'right wingers' be like?

The CPI(M) does not aim at Socialism, but even if it did it is not by examining paper constitutions that one can assess the chances of establishing Socialism by peaceful means. Only by looking at the way political institutions really work, and how they might work in the presence of a determined socialist majority, can this be done.

There are two aspects to this question. Can political power be won by peaceful means? And can that power be used to establish Socialism without violence? The Socialist Party of Great Britain has always answered yes to the first, and to the second, that if the opponents of Socialism use violence to resist its establishment the socialist majority have, in the state machine, the means to deal with the situation. We do not base this view on a study of constitutional law but by taking into account such real social and political factors as the effect of universal suffrage and public opinion on the behaviour of modern governments; the overwhelming numerical superiority of the working class; the complexity of the modern state; and the likely effect of a mass Socialist movement on a capitalist government and on all workers, including those in the civil service, the police, and the armed forces.

We stand for democratic political rather than strictly constitutional action. If, to take a silly example, the House of Lords tried to stand in the way of an elected Socialist majority or if the courts ruled that it was illegal to take over the capitalists’ wealth without compensation, that would not hold us up. The Socialist majority in and out of parliament would just ignore them, even if it were unconstitutional to do so.

We emphasise democracy to show we hold it essential that before Socialism can be established a majority of workers must want and understand it As long as the real political institutions more or less allow a majority to have their way we are not too concerned about the exact wording of the constitution. Certainly the opponents of Socialism will not be able to shelter behind any 'entrenched clauses' guaranteeing ‘the right to property' (that is, to exploit labour) which most constitutions—including, to Namboodiripad’s annoyance, that of India—have, in a bid to stop Socialism.
Adam Buick

Boeing: the fatal price of competition (2019)

From the May 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

Capitalism’s supporters are always telling us that competition brings out the best in human beings. It is supposed to encourage efficiency and creativity and promote innovation. We are also informed that capitalism’s drive for profit creates high quality goods that most people desire at a competitive price. However, as we have shown time and time again, the reality is rather different, and as in the two recent air crashes, the consequences can be fatal.

On 10 March, an Ethiopians Airline flight bound for Nairobi from Addis Abba crashed shortly after take-off, killing all 157 on board. This was eerily similar to the Lion Air crash that took place five months earlier in Indonesia where 189 passengers lost their lives. In both cases the pilots were unable to prevent their planes from taking a steep nosedive and both planes were of the new Boeing 737 Max 8 design. Preliminary investigations in the Ethiopian Airlines crash absolved the pilots of any blame.

Competitive pressures
Around ten years ago, Airbus developed a new range of aircraft with enhanced fuel efficiency and lower operating costs. They were able to pick up a lot of orders from airlines keen to lower their running costs. Boeing feared that they might lose out on market share to their European rival and were spurred to action when American Airlines, a longstanding customer of Boeing, purchased a large consignment of the new Airbus model. Boeing set to work to design an aircraft to compete with Airbus.

For a plane to fly successfully without stalling, that is avoiding a situation in which the angle of the plane points so far upwards it stops flying and is at risk of falling and crashing, the weight and power of the engines needs to be in balance with the wings, the cargo areas and other component parts of the plane. Therefore, if you are going to build a plane with heavier, more fuel-efficient engines you normally need to design an entirely new aircraft. Indeed, Boeing did investigate this option, but they ruled this out as it was deemed to be too expensive and just as importantly the development timescale of up to ten years was considered to be too long, as Boeing needed to deliver the new planes more quickly in order to maintain its share price. So they made the fateful decision to fit the new heavier engines onto the existing 737 design. The 737 Max 8 aircraft was introduced in 2017. The aerodynamics of the new plane were altered with the heavier engines, in certain flying conditions, potentially forcing the plane to thrust upwards raising the likelihood of stalling. To counteract this, Boeing installed anti-stalling software, known as the ‘Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System’ (MCAS). When the angle of the plane is too high, sensors on the nose would transmit signals to MCAS, which would then force the nose down. An advantage from the point of view of the manufacturer and the airlines was that this automated software obviated the need to retrain the pilots, thus saving Boeing and the airlines money.

This set up depends on the software working correctly at all times. However, It is now generally believed that in both fights incorrect signals were being transmitted from the sensors to MCAS indicating that the angle of the plane was too high when in fact it was flying normally, thus forcing it to point downwards. The only thing that the pilots knew about MCAS is that they could deactivate it and use manual controls. Unfortunately, as the sensors continued to supply incorrect signals, MCAS was reactivated after a few minutes, forcing the planes to nosedive until they crashed. Two safety measures, a so-called ‘angle of attack indicator’ and a ‘disagree light’ indicator which warn that the sensors are malfunctioning, were not installed on the planes as Boeing sold them as optional extras. Evidently, Neither Lion Air nor Ethiopian Airlines had decided to purchase them.

Largely due to budget cuts over the last ten years, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has found itself short of the qualified staff that is required to oversee the airworthiness of new aircraft and have effectively delegated regulation to airlines and manufacturers. One thousand Boeing employees had been seconded to the FAA.

In the wake of the crashes, the US flight attendants’ trade unions called for the 737 Max 8 planes to be grounded and pledged that they would support any member who refused to fly in them. Airlines around the world grounded their 737 Max 8 planes. The FAA in the United States reluctantly agreed to ground the planes a few days after the crash in Ethiopia. Boeing shares plummeted and their image has been tarnished. They are facing expensive lawsuits from victims’ families. They are desperate to restore their reputation and get their 737 Max 8 planes flying again, and are working on a fix for their MCAS software and have pledged an improved safety manual and training for pilots.

Some do see that the market has played a role in these tragedies, but do not arrive at the conclusion that capitalism should be abolished. They argue that corporate power should be reined in with tougher regulations. Will Hutton, in an article published in the Observer (7 April), says ‘The Boeing scandal is an indictment of Trump’s corporate America’, citing ‘America First nationalism, indulgent free market economics, Republican libertarianism and a political system in hock to corporate lobbying’ as the villains. It is true that Trump’s government pursues a free market capitalist agenda which is hostile to regulation, and Trump is in favour of privatising the FAA. He has representatives from the major banks and corporations in his government. Indeed, former Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan is Trump’s acting secretary of defence and it is alleged that he has tried to enhance Boeing’s contracts with the government. Boeing has spent billions on lobbyists to obtain lucrative defence contracts and has given donations to both Republican and Democrat lawmakers

When a government is said to embrace free market ideology, what this really means is that it is committed to pursuing the interests of its capitalist class ruthlessly without the impediments of workers’ rights, human safety and human welfare. This is not just the case with Trump, but also with Republican and Democrat presidents before him. Indeed it is the function of governments within capitalist society to defend and promote the profits of their capitalist class. Over recent years, governments have come under global competitive pressures to cut their costs and therefore implement more ‘free market’ policies of deregulation.

Cheating the regulations
Then there are manufacturers who try to cheat the regulations. In September 2015, the US Environment Protection Agency discovered that Volkswagen installed software in the engines of their diesel cars that was able to detect when they were being tested and give out false emission readings to enable them to pass emission tests. These cars would be pumping out more pollution into the atmosphere compromising people’s health. As with Boeing, Volkswagen shares fell and its reputation was badly damaged.

In the era before Trump and ‘indulgent free market economics’, some companies would dangerously cut corners to maintain their market share. One notable case in the 1970s was the Ford Pinto car, in which the fuel tank was placed dangerously in the rear. This meant that if another car hit it from behind, the tank was in danger of exploding. In fact this happened in one instance and the driver was killed. An investigation by the victim’s lawyers found that Ford cynically calculated that it would be more cost effective to pay out damages than remedy the design flaw. Ford was forced to pay out substantial damages.

The ex-Militant Tendency Trotskyists claim, in an article, ‘Corporate capitalism jeopardises air safety’ (Socialist, 3 April) that ‘public ownership of the aviation industry under democratic workers’ control and management’ is the solution. However, companies under public or state ownership also have to compete in markets and keep their costs down. In 1966, disaster befell a small Welsh mining village called Aberfan when a colliery spoil tip collapsed and engulfed the village, including schools, killing 116 children and 28 adults. A period of heavy rain led to a build-up of water within the tip which caused it to slide downhill as a slurry, The National Coal Board, a state-owned company, decided it was cheaper to dump the colliery waste on the mountain slope above the town. In 1987, a fire ravaged Kings Cross station killing 31 people. A shortage of staff and lack of maintenance due to budget cutbacks resulted in more people losing their lives. More recently there has been the tragedy of the Grenfell fire where the local council had the block of flats covered with cheaper but highly flammable cladding.

Not only does capitalism exploit us, it is gambling with our lives. State ownership, tighter regulations and software fixes cannot change this. We need to stop being chips on capitalism’s roulette table and organise to get rid of this pernicious economic system once and for all.
Oliver Bond