Monday, June 3, 2019

Flogging a Dead Horse (2013)

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

‘The bread I eat in London is a deleterious paste, mixed up with chalk, alum and bone ashes, insipid to the taste and destructive to the constitution’ (Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Henry Clinker, 1771). Food adulteration and poisoning have probably been with us for as long as food has been a market commodity, and like many other commodities in capitalism, the quality of food is a permanent battleground between profit and regulation. It is not too long since the Chinese melamine scandal, which killed 6 children in 2008 and resulted in the executions of those deemed responsible by the Chinese state. But what is really responsible goes unpunished, because even the Chinese state can’t execute the profit motive, and instead is becoming one of its most ruthless admirers.

More recently, in 2012, the Food Safety Standards Authority of India found that of 1,791 random samples of milk from 33 states only 31.5 percent conformed to quality standards while 68.4 percent were adulterated with glucose, skimmed milk, detergent, fat and urea (Times of India, 10 January 2012).

Across the world, any type of processed food or drink may at any time contain one or more adulterants, usually cheaper ingredients to increase weight, improve appearance or lengthen shelf life. The most adulterated products are ‘extra virgin’ olive oil, milk and honey (‘Food Fraud: The 10 most adulterated foods,’, 26 April 2012). Coffee is routinely adulterated with chicory, and chicory itself with peas, beans or wheat. Butter is mixed with lard, wine with diethylene glycol, honey with corn syrup, rice noodles with bleach, and meat, fish and even tofu with formaldehyde. Fish substitution is particularly rife, with recent studies showing that 39 percent of seafood sales in New York were not as claimed on the label, while 94 percent of ‘white tuna’ was in fact escolar, the consumption of more than 100 grams of which leads to violent diarrhoea (New Scientist, 16 February). An indication of how much worse things would be without regulation is given by studies of illicit drugs such as hashish, which has been found to contain a wide range of adulterants including heavy metals, the horse tranquiliser ketamine, shoe polish and human faeces.

So it is with some bemusement that socialists consider all the hysteria about horsemeat being used in cheap burgers. People seem to possess an almost indestructible faith in capitalism’s ability to give them a fair deal at any level. As if the clues aren’t already big enough. At the risk of sounding like old nags, we have to say again that capitalism is about making money and nothing else. This means saving on costs. Regulations do exist but kudos to anyone who can get over or round them and pass off crud as caviar. British workers may be aghast that they have been scoffing My Little Pony all these years but really they don’t have any reason to be surprised. Don’t they know or care that the world is awash with counterfeits in everything from designer jeans to prescription drugs?

Money corrupts in a poverty system. One of many pathetic and preventable disgraces to reach the small news columns recently was the story that over 11,000 African forest elephants in Gabon have been wiped out by poachers since 2004, threatening the very existence of elephants in Africa. But there’s our old friend capitalism at work again, with a booming Asian market driving up the price of pink ivory and making poaching the occupation of choice for many poor people with few other options and no time for animal welfare. And it’s not just poor people. As the World Wildlife Fund pointed out ‘Such a high value commodity is corrupting governance on all levels – when arrests are made, they are often obstructed by government people who have a stake in the trade as well’ (BBC Online, 6 February). Perhaps if the elephants were turning up in local burgers the media might have made more of a fuss about it.

Corruption isn’t just a matter of venal motivations, but of incompetent systems, as with the story of the ‘horse passports’ in Ireland. Mild concern that horses were cantering into the catering turned into galloping paranoia that their phenylbutazone medications might be, too, with the news that Irish horses seemed to have more dodgy passports than a Colombian drugs baron, at least one to record their true medication and a clean one to show the abattoir inspectors who could then pass them fit for consumption. It didn’t take much to fiddle these passports, as it only involved the child’s play of putting a piece of sticky tape over bits of it, or even better, just phoning it in as lost and getting an instant replacement. Whether blind eyes were being turned or blinkers worn we don’t know, but the regulatory process can only be described as spectacularly inept.

The fact that the food industry is really a profit industry with no real interest in food may be lost on workers but it is not lost on the world’s richest speculator, Warren Buffett, who has just bought Heinz for $28bn, making him one of the world’s biggest grocers. So now Beanz Meanz Buffett, but does he actually know anything about food, or what goes on in the food producing process? Probably not. Does he care? Probably not. His money goes where the profit is biggest, that’s all. Perhaps he could have bought a pharmaceutical firm instead and started cranking out cheap or free medical supplies for the world’s poor, but business is business and philanthropy is, let’s face it, a hobby for the weekend.

The falling price of DNA testing means that regulators will be better able to spot Roger Rabbit or Roland Rat climbing into the burger mix in future, however manufacturers have every incentive to look for ways around the testing. One tried and tested tactic is ‘pay the fine, promise change and then carry on regardless,’ a viable strategy because even where regulation is not just voluntary, states are reluctant to penalise their own industries to the point of damaging their ability to be competitive in international markets. Meanwhile, pig farms in largely regulation-free China are releasing a ‘tsunami of antibiotic-resistant bacteria’ in meat that contains up to 149 genes resistant to all classes of antibiotic, and there are predictions that a million Americans will get salmonella poisoning this year, and some hundreds may die, because poultry farms are refusing to invest in the vaccine – ‘it doesn’t hurt the birds, so there’s no profit in prevention’ (New Scientist, same issue).

Regulation, like reformism, fights a perpetually losing battle on an ever-expanding frontline in capitalism because money and how to get it are the only things that matter and anyone who gets in the way becomes just another casualty. The fact is that there is no ‘decent’ capitalism, no ‘fair’ way to play the money game, no honest buck or ethical dollar, and anyone who insists that there is, against all the evidence, is just flogging the same old dead horse.
Paddy Shannon

Mixed Media: Julius Caesar (2013)

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

Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy Julius Caesar was recently staged by the RSC at the Noel Coward Theatre in London. Director Gregory Doran has used an all-black British cast and transposed the plays setting to a modern African state. This play in particular had political resonance for imprisoned ANC leader Nelson Mandela. In 1937 the Mercury Theatre production by Orson Welles drew a specific analogy between Caesar and Fascist dictator Mussolini. The new RSC version makes subtle references to African dictators Mugabe, Mobutu and Amin, and also the recent ‘Arab Spring’.

The central theme of the play is the conflict between republicanism and tyranny, and the political necessity of assassinating a dictator (‘an emerging adder’). Caesar, played with a superior dignity by Jeffrey Kissoon, is a demagogue who is arrogant (‘immortal Caesar’) and posturing, speaks of himself in the third person, compares himself to the northern star, and whose political hubris means he will not ‘beware the ides of March.’

The tragic protagonist of the play is really Plutarch’s ‘angel,’ Brutus, ‘the noblest Roman of them all,’ played with humanity by Paterson Joseph. It is Brutus’s inner conflict between his love for Caesar, and his love for Rome and its republican ideals that form the psychological drama of the play. Brutus is full of personal integrity; he commands trust, friendship, love and devotion in others; he is gracious with friends, guards, servants and has a tender relationship with his wife Portia. The funeral oration by Brutus is rational: ‘not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.’

In contrast to Brutus, Mark Antony, played with a beguiling Machiavellianism by Ray Fearon, is all emotional political opportunism. The political mistakes by Brutus of not killing Antony and also allowing Antony’s funeral oration (‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’) clearly highlight Brutus’s lack of political guile, and are the cause of his ultimate defeat, death and the end of republican Rome.

Shakespeare based his play on Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, but an interesting source that Gregory Doran could have used is Suetonius Lives of the Caesars which identified Julius Caesar as ‘every woman’s husband and every man’s wife.’ Caesar’s rival triumvir, Crassus is portrayed in a homoerotic vein in Spartacus by Kubrick.

Shakespeare rejects ‘deus ex machina’ and portrays humans in charge of their destiny (‘Men at some time are masters of their fates’) which recalls Marx in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte; ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please.’
Steve Clayton

Night Of The Living Tweet (2013)

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

Sometimes, when channel-hopping through the desert of reality TV and costume dramas, you can still find a rewarding oasis of originality. Charlie Brooker’s sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror (Channel  4) has returned to challenge and unnerve the viewer. Although its stories are set in the future, Black Mirror itself also reflects the past. In the 60s and 70s, sombre one-off plays exploring the implications  of science appeared on our screens as often as kipper ties did. Now, programme makers prefer to play safer than this kind of speculative drama. The future’s not what it used to be.

We’re introduced to Martha and Ash, a happy couple living in a few years’ time. When Ash is killed in an accident, Martha is distraught. A friend suggests ‘something that helps’, and signs Martha up to an online service for the bereaved. Its software gathers up all Ash’s Facebook updates, tweets and website postings, and uses them to recreate a virtual version of his personality. ‘The more it has, the more it’s him’. Martha cautiously starts swapping online messages with the artificial Ash. By uploading his private messages and voicemails, she can even talk with the software as it mimics his speech. Then, ‘Ash’ suggests the next level, which ‘might sound a bit creepy’. Martha’s soon taking delivery of a mannequin, waiting to be brought to simulated life by data from Ash’s appearance on any saved videos. And their relationship resumes, until she realises that ‘he’ can’t take Ash’s place.

Like Martha, the viewer is drawn in by what initially sounds like plausible technology. Surely, software which can analyse our online footprint and use it to mimic what we could say isn’t too far off? We’re already halfway there with Facebook timelines and targeted online adverts which use our internet history to guess what we might want to buy. Lured in, the drama makes us accept this software as the thin end  of an increasingly unsettling wedge. But despite our doubts, how many of us would be tempted to bring back something of a lost loved one?

Brooker’s drama makes us think about how much we share our identities using technology. He doesn’t dwell on the potential threats to our already-restricted liberties which come with our online presence. Instead, he makes us question how accurate are the personas we create through our tweets, texts and Facebook updates. If anything, though, Ash’s resurrected persona is more level-headed than how many of us portray ourselves online!
Mike Foster

The Lovely Horrible Stuff (2013)

Book Review from the March 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Lovely Horrible Stuff’, by Eddie Campbell (ISBN-13: 9780861661749)

This is not so much a graphic novel as a graphic essay. Using sequential art, the comic book author/artist Eddie Campbell delves into the emotional and familial effects of money. It is apparently autobiographical, showing how money has intruded on his work and into his personal life, detailing, in particular, a long-running family feud with his father in law.

It then segues into a discussion of the stone money of Yapp, and how it has come to be used (perhaps, it suggests, erroneously) in economics lectures and theory. This leads him to a sufficiently weighty image upon which to close his meditations.

Its narrative and art help to illustrate the hold that the ‘lovely horrible stuff’ has on our lives, and perhaps it has more reach than any number of detailed textbooks on economics. It doesn’t draw any conclusions.
Pik Smeet

The SWP: An Undemocratic, Leninist Organisation (2013)

Via Soviet Goon Boy blog.
From the March 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard
In view of the undemocratic nature of the SWP, which has recently been exposed, we reproduce below part of an education document we produced about them in 1995.
At the beginning of 1968 the IS (International Socialists) group was organised on relatively democratic lines. There were branches; there was an annual conference of branch delegates which debated and voted on motions proposed by branches; there was an executive committee elected by the branches and responsible for the week-to-week administration of the group’s affairs and for the implementation of conference decisions.

Within the framework of the group’s overall political position, branches were free to choose which line of activity to engage in; some chose to concentrate on the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign; others on tenants’ associations; others on combating racism; others on students, and so on. In the light of the various momentous events of 1968, which had led to a tripling of the size of his organisation, Cliff decided that this was not good enough and inaugurated a campaign to rein in branch autonomy. He proposed a more centralised structure which would allow the group’s interventions in the various struggles that were going on at any time to be organised in a more co-ordinated way; the body that would co-ordinate and to a certain extent direct the activities of the branches was to be the executive committee.

Since some degree of centralism is compatible with democracy, indeed is necessary to make it effective, this seemed a reasonable proposal and it was eventually accepted. In Cliff’s mind, however, this change was not seen as a move to make democracy function more effectively but as a step towards changing the IS group into an organisation based on Leninist ‘democratic centralist’ lines in which the executive committee would become a policy-making leadership.

IS entered the 70s with a constitution which was still recognisably democratic, similar in fact to the rulebook of a typical trade union. The annual conference remained the body which made the major policy decisions; its purpose remained to discuss the report of the executive committee and to debate and vote on motions proposed by branches. A given number of weeks before the conference branches were invited to submit motions; these were included in a provisional agenda that was sent to branches to allow them to submit amendments, which were then circulated in the form of a finished agenda for branches to vote and mandate their Conference delegates on. To take account of the increase in membership a new body was established between the Conference and the EC – the National Committee. The members of this large committee (of some 40 members) were elected by the conference from nominations made by branches and in turn they elected the EC from amongst their number; they met on a regular basis in between conferences to hear reports from the EC.

Cliff, however, was still not satisfied with this structure. The main problem for him was that it didn’t give the EC as the leadership a free enough hand since, at least on paper, it was still subject to some degree of control by the National Committee which elected it. Various ways were found round this: the composition of the EC was changed; its members were all made full-time officials; the EC arrogated to itself greater powers. In the end, however, the group’s constitution was changed to end the EC’s formal status as an emanation of the National Committee. In l975 the EC was given the more Leninist-sounding name of ‘central committee’ and was to be elected by the Conference rather than the National Committee; this latter was reduced to the role of a purely advisory body to the new Central Committee.

It was with this structure that the IS became the SWP at the beginning of 1977. But, as the experience of all trade unions (and, according to the partisans of the so-called ‘iron law of oligarchy’, of all large organisations) shows, there is a difference between an organisation’s formal constitution and the way it actually functions. On paper, the SWP’s statutes still allow some degree of democratic control by the membership: the branches could still decide policy and could still control the Central Committee through electing to it only those who carried out their will as decided at the annual Conference; the National Committee could check in between Conferences that the Central Committee was implementing Conference decisions. But this is not the way the SWP works in practice; nor is it the way it is supposed to work since such control from below, by the membership, has no place in the theory of ‘democratic centralism’ as laid down by Lenin.

David Lane has provided an objective and neutral description of what Lenin meant by this term:
‘By ‘democratic’ Lenin understood that decisions should be resolved according to majority vote of the central committee (of the executive) of the Party and that all Party members had the right to participate in general Party policy-making. The Party Congress was to be supreme over policy. There were to be periodic elections of the leading officers of the Party (. . .). By ‘centralism’, Lenin meant that once general policy was agreed, the day-to-day operation of the Party had to be decided centrally, where all information and the Party leadership are located, and the decisions of central bodies were absolutely binding on lower bodies. In Lenin’s view, democratic centralism was a synthesis between democracy and central control: it gave members the right to participation and it gave a creative role for the leadership’ (Leninism: A Sociological Interpretation, 1981, p 48).
Such a structure institutionalises the principle of leadership. Most existing political parties and trade unions do operate on this basis, where those at the top make all the keys decisions and generally control the organisation. Normally, however, this is not how these organisations are supposed to function; they are supposed to be controlled by their members. In this sense the practice of leadership is a departure from their formal constitutions and rulebooks. Leninism makes a virtue of this by not accepting that it is desirable that a political organisation of the sort they want should be organised on the basis of democratic control, and maximum participation in decision-making, by the membership. They are not afraid of the ‘iron law of oligarchy’. They like it and want to facilitate its operation, indeed to institutionalise it.

The SWP is unashamedly a leadership organisation, not just in the sense that it seeks to lead the working class but also in the sense that it is organised internally on a leadership basis; in fact on a hierarchical basis where each layer of leadership has power over the levels below it, with the party’s national leadership – the members of its central committee – at the top.

The national leadership decides everything important and then seeks to get the membership to follow their lead. This is not necessarily a difficult task since the membership, who also believe in the organisational principle of ‘democratic centralism’, accept the leading role of the leadership and are generally prepared to follow. So Lenin’s ‘democratic centralism’ places an enormous power in the hands of the leaders and in practice reduces the rank-and-file members to a mere consultative role.

Conference procedure
In Lenin’s scheme, as described by Lane, the supreme policy-making body is the Party Congress; this decides the general line which the Central Committee has to follow until the next Congress. This is the theory; the practice is that the Central Committee completely dominates the Congress (or Conference, as in one concession to the more normal usage in Britain, the SWP’s Congress is called).

The main item on the agenda is a report by the Central Committee on the political ‘perspectives’ which is usually a document of pamphlet-length. The Central Committee also submits other reports – on work in special areas of activity (industry, students, women), internal organisation, finance – for the Conference to discuss. In the SWP, branches still have the formal right to submit motions, but they are strongly discouraged from doing so. As an explanatory note intended for new members, accompanying documents submitted for the party’s 1983 Conference put it:
‘Branches can submit resolutions if they wish and these may [sic] be voted on. But in recent years the practice of sending resolutions to conference has virtually ceased’ (Socialist Review, September 1983).
What this means is that it is the Central Committee – the leadership – which quite literally sets the agenda for the Conference. The branch delegates meet, therefore, to discuss only what is put before them by the Central Committee. Not that the delegates are delegates in the proper sense of the term as instructed representatives of the branches sending them:
‘Delegates should not be mandated . . . Mandating is a trade union practice, with no place in a revolutionary party.’
Since voting on motions submitted by branches is dismissed as a ‘trade union practice’, another procedure, more open to manipulation by the leadership, is operated:
‘At the end of each session of conference commissions are elected to draw up a report on the session detailing the points made. In the event of disagreement two or more commissions can be elected by the opposing delegates. The reports are submitted to conference and delegates then vote in favour of one of the commissions. The advantage of this procedure is that conference does not have to proceed by resolution like a trade union conference.’
No branch motions, no mandated delegates, what else? No ballots of the entire membership either. In the first volume of his political biography of Lenin, Cliff records in shocked terms that ‘in January 1907 Lenin went so far as to argue for the institution of a referendum of all party members on the issues facing the party’, commenting ‘certainly a suggestion which ran counter to the whole idea of democratic centralism’ (Lenin, Building the Party, p. 280).

In fact no official of the SWP above branch level is directly elected by a vote of the members. One power that the branches do retain is the right to nominate members for election, by the Conference delegates, to the National Committee, but, as over presenting motions, they are discouraged from nominating people who do not accept the “perspectives” espoused by the Central Committee. So elections do take place to the National Committee but on the basis of personalities rather than politics. However, it is the way that the Central Committee is elected that is really novel: the nominations for election to new central committee are proposed not by branches but . . . by the outgoing central committee! Once again, in theory, branches can present other names but they never do.

It is easy to see how this means that the central committee – the supreme leadership of the organisation – is a self-perpetuating body renewed in effect only by co-optation. This is justified on the grounds of continuity and efficiency – it takes time to gain the experience necessary to become a good leader, so that it would be a waste of the experience gained if some leader were to be voted off by the vagaries of a democratic vote. Choosing the leadership by a competitive vote is evidently something else ‘with no place in a revolutionary party’ any more than in an army.

The full education document can be found here

 How the SWP Central Committee is selected
The CC consists of members elected by Conference according to the following procedure:
  The outgoing Central Committee selects and circulates a provisional slate for the new CC at the beginning of the period of pre-Conference discussion. This is then discussed at the district aggregates where comrades can propose alternative slates.
  At the Conference the outgoing CC proposes a final slate (which may have been changed as a result of the pre-Conference discussion). This slate, along with any other that is supported by a minimum of five delegates, is discussed and voted on by Conference. ((Rule 5 SWP Constitution)

Mixed Media: Philip Glass at 75: Koyaanisqatsi (2013)

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

To celebrate the 75th birthday of Philip Glass, the Barbican screened the 1982 Godfrey Reggio film Koyaanisqatsi, accompanied by ‘minimalist’ composer Philip Glass and his Ensemble, the Britten Sinfonia, and the Trinity Laban Chamber Choir performing a newly expanded orchestral version of his score for the film. Glass worked with Ravi Shankar in 1966 on music for the film, Chappaqua, but Koyaanisqatsi was his first film score and was followed by scores for Mishima and Kundun. Glass wrote it is ‘music with repetitive structures.’

Koyaanisqatsi was inspired by Marxist ‘Situationist’ Guy Debord, and David Monongye, Hopi Native American traditional leader. It is memorable for the acceleration of time lapse photography and slow motion filming.

The film opens with the pictographs of paleo-indian rock art at Horseshoe Canyon in Utah, and Glass uses a basso profundo vocal reciting ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ over a sombre four-bar organ bass line; then the image changes to the launching of a Saturn V rocket. Organic is haunting woodwind, cellos and horns over film of the desert landscape of Monument Valley. Resource is a looping organ over images of the rock formations in Mono Lake in California then film of mining operations, oil pipelines, electricity pylons and the Glen Canyon Dam. It concludes with an atomic bomb explosion and the ominous mushroom cloud. Vessels is choral and organ looping with images of sunbathers on a beach in the shadow of a nuclear generating plant, a long take of Boeing 747 jumbo jets taxiing in the heat haze, and concludes with strafe bombing in Vietnam. Pruitt-Igoe is cellos and choral looping with images of Harlem during the two day electricity blackout in New York City in 1977 which was notorious for looting, arson, vandalism, theft and 4,500 arrests. This is followed by footage of the demolition in 1975 of the modernist Pruitt-Igoe housing estate in St Louis.

Slow-Mo People features portraits of people, notably the bouffant hair of Las Vegas croupiers. The Grid is horns, organ, choral looping, gradually accelerating to a frenetic pace. At its fastest a synthesizer plays the bass line ostinato. The music accompanies film of factory production lines, traffic on freeways, video games, and rush hour pedestrians. The combined music and film evokes alienation and exploitation in modern capitalist society. Prophecies is a quiet reflection on victims of capitalism such as street drinkers, beggars, and homeless people. The film closes with the launch and explosion of the Atlas Centaur rocket in 1962.

Koyaanisqatsi is Hopi language for ‘life out of balance’ or ‘a state of life that calls for another way of living’.
Steve Clayton

Silence in Church (2013)

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

In February, Kepari Leniata, a 20 year old mother from Papua New Guinea, was stripped, tortured, doused in petrol and burned alive. Hundreds of bystanders were in attendance, some even taking photographs of the events. She was suspected of being a witch (Guardian, 8 February 2013).

And in Zimbabwe in January, a sorceress who survived a massive explosion in her home explained that it occurred when her partner, a witchdoctor, was beheading a goblin. A customer who had paid $15,000 dollars to have the goblin dealt with and the witchdoctor were both killed. The explosion occurred during a ‘lightning manufacturing process’ involving petrol and electricity which was required for the operation (

Meanwhile in London on 4th February, Justin Portal Welby, another man who believes in the resurrection of the dead, a ‘holy ghost’ and other spiritual hogwash was sworn in as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. As part of the proceedings he promised to ‘promote unity, peace and love among all Christian people,’ and to guide the Church away from ‘error.’

He may have his work cut out since ‘unity, peace and love’ are in short supply in the Anglican Church at the moment, but at least there is plenty of ‘error,’ so perhaps he can get stuck into that.

One of the most dangerous examples of religious error (admittedly, more associated with the independent happy-clappy churches than with Justin’s lot) is the apparently growing belief here too in witchcraft, exorcisms and the casting out of evil spirits, etc. particularly from children: Kristy Bamu, for example, who in 2010 was tortured to death by his sister and her partner who had convinced themselves that he was a witch.

And should any would-be witch doctor for Jesus need instruction in performing an exorcism, the internet is awash with them – complete with handy lists of biblical passages to study. (, for example.)

According to the Guardian (1 March 2012), ‘More than 650 Pentecostal churches opened in the UK between 2005 and 2010, taking the total to 3900. Many feature exorcisms and sell lucrative ‘cures’ for possession.’ And in August last year, Tim Loughton, the government’s children’s minister, complained of the ‘wall of silence’ that surrounded the problem (Guardian, 14 August 2012).

So, if the new Archbishop of Cant wants to do something about the ‘error’ of the faithful, given that belief in biblical teachings is part of it, he now has the perfect opportunity to break the ‘wall of silence’ and come clean about the dangers that lie in wait for the gullible in religion.

However, we do like a happy ending in the Halo, Halo column, so here’s a piece from the Guardian (29 January) to show that silence from the Church can sometimes be golden – or rather, worth its weight in gold.

When the vicar of St Peter’s in East Blachington, Sussex described his church as having ‘a wonderful quality of silence,’ one of the flock hit on the idea of recording, and flogging it. And apparently they’ve sold out of their first pressing and are now taking orders from as far away as Ghana.

Well, Christianity has been selling nothing for 2,000 years, but how long it will take for the customers of these CDs to realise that you need perfect silence before you can listen to them is anyone’s guess. Witchcraft is obviously not the only scam the faithful fall for.

Upon My Pontiff! (2013)

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

Once the tabloids had their teeth sunk into that nice, juicy horsemeat scandal story that had been dominating the headlines it needed something of global importance to knock it off the front pages. But on 11th February the prayers of the meat industry were answered. The fact that they’d been feeding us minced nag labelled as beef for ages and that no-one had a clue about its origin, or what equine drugs had been injected into it were forgotten, temporarily at least.

The tired and confused 85 year old Pope Benedict XVI had jacked in his job and until a successor could be appointed the world was without its direct link to God. This was almost unprecedented. Popes are supposed to go on until they die. They are infallible.

Pope Benedict became infallible in a puff of white smoke eight years ago and his resignation raised an important question. You may remember that episode of ‘Father Ted’ where a visiting bishop had a Grade Two holy relic, ‘the holy stone of Clonrichert’ rammed up his backside by Father Jack, and Father Ted asked ‘will it still be a Grade Two when it’s removed?’ The question now applies to the ex-Pope’s infallibility. Is he still infallible now?

It’s not a question we’ve had to consider recently. The last  Pope to resign was Gregory XII in 1415, and before that in 1045 Pope Benedict IX resigned after being accused of ‘feasting on immorality’, committing ‘many vile adulteries and murders’ and of being ‘So vile, so foul’ and ‘so execrable’. He then sold the papacy to his godfather who became Pope Gregory VI, and himself resigned the following

But at least it’s not bad news for all the doomsday theorists out there. The 12th century St Malachy, an Irish archbishop prophesied that there would only be 112 more Popes before the Last Judgment and Benedict XVI was the 111th. Watch this space.

Theatre Review: The Accrington Pals (2013)

Theatre Review from the March 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Accrington Pals by Peter Whelan (The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 17 Jan to 16 Feb 2013)

This captivating production of Peter Whelan’s play is set during the First World War on the setts of Accrington, the smallest town to raise its own pals’ battalion. These army units were so-called to reflect their deliberate composition of friends and neighbours. In this staging, life is lived by hurricane lamp and moonlight, and clogs and army boots tramp across the tramlines as the rain pours down, the lighting picking out life in all it brightness and triumph against a dark background of defeat and death. The acting is superb, drawing us deeply into the lives of the women of the town and through them into unbearable intimacy with the fate of their men who have joined the battalion. This heart-rending drama is all the more poignant for eschewing and indeed bitterly condemning sentimentality.

The drama hangs broadly on the affection and tension between the women such as Eva who embrace life with all its risk of loss and those such as her acerbic landlady May who flinch from it and deny it. At the heart of the play is the tormented relationship between May and her second cousin, the idealistic Tom, contrasted with the generosity of the love between Eva and her man Ralph. May behaves like a tartar towards Tom, but in secret she tries to get the sergeant major, CSM Rivers, to release him after he has enlisted. Rivers refuses but promises to look after him like a father.

Amongst the soldiers, the theme of hope against despair is echoed in the Baptist, Arthur who declares that we have failed to build the new Jerusalem and that the war is a second flood, this time of steel, to punish us; here is an oblique reference to the inability of the international working class to stand by one another and prevent the war. Indeed, Tom puts his hope in socialism as both he and this journal understand it, and which he believes he encounters in action in the regiment, the very body which is the engine of the slaughter, but in which no money changes hands, skills are exchanged voluntarily and with a will, and the good of one is the good of all. It is this cohesion and mutuality of the men from the same small mill town which Rivers touchingly believes will dismay the enemy. He shares this belief with the cold and remote authority which oversees the lives of soldiery and civilians alike, and which is unseen and untouchable but ever-present.

Tom and Ralph are together at the front when the fatal whistle blows, Ralph frantically tightening and loosening the straps of his pack, and Tom with staring eyes repeating his socialist belief as if in a trance.

As the play darkens, May meets Rivers for a second time and in a terrible and merciless speech he smashes her illusions and his own. But illusions are the enemy of hope, which we see renewed in the women finding a way of getting to grips with remote authority and, in Tom’s words, joining the ‘particular’ with the ‘general’.
Peter Rigg

The Libertarian Myth (2019)

John Locke (1632-1704)
The Cooking the Books column from the June 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

There is a school of thought, calling itself ‘Libertarian’, that asserts that individuals have a right to the whole money income earned by their labour and that taxation is, therefore ‘the government staking a claim to the income the individual has worked to secure’ and that this undermines ‘the right of private individuals to their property, i.e. their wealth.’

This is the defence of private property put forward by John Locke in the seventeenth century (in opposition to the then dominant Christian doctrine that God had given the Earth to everyone to enjoy in common). He argued that what a person mixed their labour with was by right theirs, their private property that could be exchanged for money. This assumes a society and an economic system made up of independent, self-employed artisans and farmers each producing a particular commodity for sale on a market, i.e. for exchange, via money, for the products of other independent producers. Such an economic system has never existed. It certainly didn’t in the England of Locke’s day.

Such a system implies that there are no hired labourers, no wage workers; but there were. Far from saying that they were entitled to the product of their labour, Locke explicitly argued that employers were entitled to the product of the labour of their employees (‘the turfs my servant has cut… become my property’ (Second Treatise of Civil Government, ch. 5). This was a fatal flaw in his defence of private ownership, which became even more glaring as the capitalist mode of production for profit developed, expanding the number of wage workers (many from the ranks of the self-employed artisans and farmers), so that today the income of most people who work is derived from a wage paid by an employer.

At the same time, employers have ceased to be private individuals with servants and have become ‘limited companies’ as government-created fictitious individuals with employees. Today, we are living in a society made up of companies, large and small, employing wage workers to produce wealth and aiming to make a profit by selling what these employees produce. It makes nonsense of the theory Libertarians have taken over from Locke.

It is still the case today, as Libertarians argue, that as governments produce nothing, whatever they spend must first have been taken from those with wealth. But the property-owners of today are no longer those of Locke’s theory. They are the fictitious individuals that companies are, whose wealth is derived from the labour of those they employ. Those whose actual labour has produced wealth have already been deprived of a part of it by their employer, as profit. In fact, as far as they are concerned, there is not much the government can take from them, as to recreate their ability to work they need to maintain a given standard of living. If taxes, whether direct or indirect, increase the cost of this, then this increase will tend to be passed on to their employers as higher money wages.

There is another implication of Locke’s theory. In the changed conditions since his day, it makes a case for socialism. Given that production today is the collective effort of all those who work, if work is the entitlement to wealth, then the entire workforce are collectively entitled to what it produces. If that happened, there would be no question of money incomes. The socialist principle of ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’ comes into its own.

To the Delegates to the 'Second International Congress' (1969)

From the June 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

The 'Socialist International’, which likes to trace back its roots to the body which was formed with the backing of Frederick Engels in 1889, is holding its three-yearly congress at Eastbourne this month. Over 50 parties are represented, from mass organisations like the British Labour party and the Scandinavian social democratic parties to tiny groups of exiles from Eastern Europe — all that remains of once powerful movements.

What is it that causes these widely different parties still to pay lip service to a shadowy ‘International’, which has no real existence outside its periodic congresses? The answer they would give is that they are all 'democratic socialist' parties, as opposed to the ‘communist' parties. To which we could add that there are other features which they all display — a commitment to capitalism and a contempt for political theory.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain has something to say to the delegates to the congress — because we are part of an international organisation which is working to establish world socialism. But first let us make it clear whom we are addressing. Men like Harold Wilson and other leading members of the anti-working-class Labour government (and of other anti-working-class governments) will be in Eastbourne for part of the time. Naturally we are not wasting our breath on these characters. But we do think that among the delegations there will be some men with a sincere wish to go forward to a better world. It is to these we are talking.

We share your concern for democracy. We think that democracy is of vital importance to the working class and that only a democratic organisation can be used to establish Socialism. That is why our party is organised without leaders or hierarchy. But we also say that political democracy as it exists in Britain and elsewhere is not enough, since it is constantly threatened by the encroachments of the capitalist state and is maintained only by working class pressure. We want to see a social democracy—and this will be achieved only when society owns the means of production and operates them democratically. In other words, only Socialism can be a thoroughly democratic society.

The countries of Eastern Europe are dictatorships—not because of the ideologies of their ruling parties but because they are state capitalist and because the workers in this area (especially in Russia) have not yet strengthened themselves sufficiently to gain the democratic concessions which workers in the West have secured.

Since we are working for world Socialism we do not have a reform programme, unlike your parties. This is not because we are opposed to all reforms but because we say that the job of a socialist party is to get rid of capitalism and that it can do this only by recruiting members and seeking support for a socialist programme. This means that we advance slogans such as 'Abolition of the Wages System’ as our immediate demands.

We also think that Socialism must be world wide and that it can be set up only when a majority of working men and women (at least in the advanced industrial parts of the world) understand what is entailed, and are prepared to take conscious action, first to establish it and then to run it from top to bottom.

If you agree with these ideas we want to hear from you — so that we can help each other to strengthen the world movement for Socialism. But if you are a careerist or if you believe that capitalism can be made to work in the interests of the working class then perhaps you would be better off sticking with Harold Wilson.

50 Years Ago: Land Nationalisation and the Workers (1969)

The 50 Years Ago column from the June 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

A new organisation has been formed called ‘The Commonwealth League’, having for its object:
  The foundation of a Commonwealth based on the establishment of the common right of the land by the payment by each landholder of the economic rent, which is the commercial value of the site he holds.
The economic rent of any piece of land is the difference between the natural properties of that piece, either in fertility or situation, and that of the poorest piece in demand. How is the amount of this difference arrived at? By competition. To quote the words of one of the Commonwealth League’s leaflets, "He, (the landholder) will pay what another would be willing to pay for the privilege of using the piece of common property he holds’’. (The Vision and the Realisation).

We are told that this method "will throw the land open to all”. Quite true if we add "who are able to pay for it” as it will be the highest bidder who will hold the land, exactly as he does now.

But, it will be objected, at present this price goes into the pockets of private individuals, whereas under the League’s scheme it would go into the ‘common fund'. Yes, but what common fund? To this the answer is: the fund required to meet the social expenses of the community. But how are these met now? By the rates and taxes. Thus the final result of the appropriation of 'economic rent' or 'land values’ is to reduce the amount paid for rates and taxes from other sources.

As a class the workers are not concerned with taxation under capitalism. Out of the total wealth, which they produce by applying their labour power to the materials given by nature, they receive on an average about enough to keep them in the working condition that the masters’ interests demand. Obviously they have no margin left over out of which to pay either taxes or economic rent.

The method might not please the section of the master class who are solely, or mainly, landholders, but it would undoubtedly be beneficial to the industrial or commercial capitalists, and is really the ideal capitalist form of taxation.

[From an article ‘Nationalisation —its Futility Exposed' by J. Fitzgerald, Socialist Standard, June 1919].

Who Rules in Ulster? (1969)

From the June 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

The landlords rule in Ulster, according to Bernadette Devlin, Mid-Ulster’s new Westminster MP. In her maiden speech in parliament on April 22 she spoke of “the ruling minority of landlords who, for generations, have claimed to represent one section of the people and, in order to maintain their claim, divide the people into two sections”.

"There is no place for us," she declared, "in the society of landlords because we are the ’have-nots' and they are the ’haves'”.

She attacked "the bigoted and sectarian Unionist Party, which uses a deliberate policy of dividing the people in order to keep the ruling minority in power and to keep the oppressed people of Ulster oppressed".

The rest of her speech had asides about "hyphenated names" and "a fine gentleman known among ordinary Irish people as the Squire of Ahoghill" (O'Neill) and vague talk about "social justice" and "the needs of the people".

This old-fashioned, radical speech seemed to go down well with the assembled MPs, but disclosed a certain confusion of thought. How her views came to be described as 'Marxist' is difficult to understand.

She is right to see class, rather than religion, as the important factor —only she has got the classes wrong. It is not true that those who own the land and live off the rent are the ruling class in Northern Ireland. The bulk of the population live and work under capitalist conditions. Excluded from owning the means of production, they have to sell their mental and physical energies for a wage to those who own the factories, the offices, the mills, and the docks and shipyards of Ulster.

Those who own the land, “by ancient Charter of Charles II” as Devlin put it, are now only a subordinate section of the ruling capitalist class. Indeed, now that they have turned their land-owning into a profit-making business they too are capitalists living off profit rather than rent. The capitalists, not the landlords, are the ruling minority in Northern Ireland.

To see the issue as ’the people versus the landlords' it to obscure the real class struggle between workers and capitalists. Historically this slogan, and the use of the word ‘people’ to include everybody save the land-owning nobility, was used by the rising middle class (which later became the ruling capitalist class). It has always served as a stand-by for unscrupulous demagogues like Cobden, Bright, Joseph Chamberlain, and Lloyd George to divert the workers' attention from capitalist exploitation.

Of course we are not suggesting that this is Bernadette Devlin’s aim too. Far from it —she obviously thinks that what she is doing and saying is right. We are just pointing out that her anti-landlordism is not only irrelevant to the real situation in Northern Ireland but could also be seriously misleading and dangerous to the interests of the working class.
Richard Montague

Down With Parasites! (1969)

From the June 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

It was the Major who brought the subject of parasites to our notice. The Major is, of course, Major James Dawson Chichester-Clark, the new Prime Minister. Nothing daunted by the fate of his cousin and predecessor in office, Terence O’Neill, the Major has been blathering away since he took office. Up to now he has been kind in bis utterances; not only is he going to give us all new houses and freedom to do what we're told, but he's also cutting the jail sentences that his judges imposed on those who entered into the spirit of the rumpus started by his colleague, the late Minister of Home Affair, Mr Craig, last October. It is because the Major has been showing such deferences to all shades of opinion in an effort to get us, in his own words, "back to business" and churning out a little profit that we looked twice at his ‘attack’ on ‘parasites' reported in the Belfast Telegraph of May 7.
  The social parasites of the present day could make their noisy protests, in comparative comfort because other people provided them with a livelihood, said the Prime Minister, Major James D. Chichester-Clark, last night.
  Addressing the Mid-Ulster Scout Council in Cookstown, Major Chichester-Clark said the only reason a minority were able to ‘opt out’ of responsibility was that a majority continued to ‘opt in'.
Well, of course, there is nothing much in this statement that a socialist could quarrel with—after all, we have always said that there are two classes in society, a class that produces everything and owns nothing and a class that owns everything and produces nothing. And to encourage our readers to support the campaign against parasitism we will recount the history of a group typical in the species.

Some four hundred years ago James I, in acknowledgement of services rendered, gave his royal assent to one Sir Arthur Chichester, soldier of fortune, to steal vast parcels of land in the Irish province of Ulster. Sir Arthur helped himself to all the lands of Inishowen in Donegal, creating the property basis for the Royal title, Lord Donegall, and areas of County Derry and County Antrim including all that land on which Belfast, is now built.

The Chichesters never looked back, economically speaking, after this initial display of enterprise. Marital mergers and further services to the English monarchy continually increased the family fortunes. Charles II, with the usual generosity of monarchs for giving away what they do not own, gave the Chichesters ownership of the largest lake in the British Isles, Lough Neagh. The Clark name and property was absorbed and the estate and family name of the ancient O’Neills merged by an economically fortuitous marriage.

Lord Brookeborough’s son, Captain John Brooke, married into the clan, as did Dame Dehra Parker, one-time Minister of Education in Brookeborough’s government. She is credited with responsibility for persuading Brookeborough to bring cousin Terence O’Neill into the government in the late 40s. Terence, in turn, reciprocated the favour when he became Prime Minister by bringing Major James Dawson Chichester-Clark into the Cabinet. ’Jimmy’, now Prime Minister, repays by bringing Brookeborough’s son, the talentless Captain John Brooke, tipped by some political commentators as future PM. into the Government.

As we have said, Major James Dawson Chichester-Clark has talked a lot since he became PM. We might disagree with much of what be has said but we cannot challenge his qualifications to speak authoritatively on the subject of parasites.
Richard Montague