Sunday, July 21, 2019

Fitting God into the 21st Century (2013)

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

It’s not for us to advise the Pope, or the outgoing Archbishop of Cant and his successor on their image or on how to run their religions, but you do have to wonder, on what planet and in which century, do they think they are living? If they enjoy dressing up in ridiculous hats and robes to contact an invisible man in the sky and inflicting his unwanted views on us, fair enough. But expecting us to accept that their hallucinatory communications have a beneficial effect on our lives is pushing it a bit too far.

To be fair having a figment of your imagination as your boss who, by his own admission, moves in mysterious ways must make the job difficult. And having to take his ‘holy word’ seriously can only add to the confusion.

As for God, one of the problems he has as someone who doesn’t actually exist is that he was unable to write his biblical horror stories himself. He had to rely on his early followers, St Paul for example, to do it for him. And Paul by all accounts was a bit of a lad, a persecutor of Christians before his own conversion to Christianity, and probably not best known for his pro-feminist views afterwards. And this, unfortunately, has been causing problems for some believers.

‘Let your women keep silence in the churches.’ said Paul. ‘For it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.’

And while these views of Paul’s in his letter to the Corinthians have apparently been quite acceptable until recently, the trendy wing of the Church who hope to drag it out of the dark ages find them a bit inconvenient – especially now that those who take them as gospel have voted against the ordination of women bishops.

Meanwhile the Pope, who doesn’t seem to have problems with women not knowing their place in the Catholic Church, is also trying to update his image. As from 12 December he will be on Twitter to keep us updated with all the latest titbits about God.

And in November he published his new book about Jesus – The Infancy Narratives. He is now able to inform us that the stuff we had previously been told about the nativity was nonsense. Well, some of it was. The bit about the virgin birth was true of course. And about there being no room at the inn, and the three wise men, and the star that hovered above the stable was all true. But now he informs us that there were no singing angels, and probably no ox and ass in the stable either.

Some believers were disappointed at these revelations. A review of the book appeared on and comments posted below included
  ‘What purpose does Pope Benedict want to accomplish by taking the angels and the animals in the manger out of the story? After all he wasn’t there when Christ was born. I believe angels are always all around us’.
  ‘I was told that the pope was revealing secrets not revealed to the public before. Things like there was really not a crib when Jesus was born, the fact that space aliens are also children of God, and the treasures the Vatican has that the world will never see’.
Maybe getting God into the 21st century is being a bit ambitious. Try getting him into the Middle Ages first and see how it goes from there.

Religious Observations (2013)

From the January 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

SOME DOOMSDAY groups are capitalizing on the fear by spreading the Dec. 21 myth online. A Belgian amateur astronomer named Patrick Geryl has set up an online community for people who follow him and believe the world will end in three weeks. He tells followers to stockpile 15 to 20 pairs of shoes and to be in good physical shape. Geryl declined an interview request, saying over email, “No time for interviews. … Want to enjoy last weeks of our civilization.” (Link)

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A MOTHER who beat her son to death for failing to learn the Koran by heart, murdered him and burned his body to hide the evidence, a jury has found. Sara Ege, 33, treated son Yaseen, 7, like a “dog,” brutally beating him with a stick for failing to memorise religious texts. (Link)

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INMATES IN a women’s prison near the Chinese border are said to have experienced a “collective mass psychosis” so intense that their wardens summoned a priest to calm them. In a factory town east of Moscow, panicked citizens stripped shelves of matches, kerosene, sugar and candles. A huge Mayan-style archway is being built — out of ice — on Karl Marx Street in Chelyabinsk in the south. For those not schooled in New Age prophecy, there are rumours the world will end on Dec. 21, 2012, when a 5,125-year cycle known as the Long Count in the Mayan calendar supposedly comes to a close. Russia, a nation with a penchant for mystical thinking, has taken notice. (Link)

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THE REIGNING scientific consensus on sexual orientation is that it’s an inherited, biological trait, but that’s just because scientists don’t know how to party. A far sexier explanation has been offered up by Christian magazine Charisma, which conducted its own investigation into the origins of homosexuality to reveal the real culprit: sex with demons. “Can demons engage in sexual behaviors with humans?” the magazine asks. Why yes, they can! At least according to the article’s primary source, a former stripper-turned-ministry leader named Contessa Adams. (Link)

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WHEN WATER started trickling down a statue of Jesus Christ at a Catholic church in Mumbai earlier this year, locals were quick to declare a miracle. Some began collecting the holy water and the Church of Our Lady of Velankanni began to promote it as a site of pilgrimage. So when Sanal Edamaruku arrived and established that this was not holy water so much as holey plumbing, the backlash was severe. The renowned rationalist was accused of blasphemy, charged with offences that carry a three-year prison sentence and eventually, after receiving death threats, had to seek exile in Finland. (Link)

Mixed Media: ‘Albanian Art’ (2013)

Vojo Kushi by Shijaku
The Mixed Media Column from the January 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘Socialist Realism’ was the official art of the People’s Republic of Albania between 1944 and 1990. Socialist Realism originated in the state capitalist USSR and was adopted throughout Eastern Europe. When Soviet leader Khrushchev denounced Stalin in 1956, state-capitalist Albania alone opposed this ‘revisionism’ and continued to revere ‘Uncle Joe’ right up to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The Partisan War against the Germans and the Liberation of Albania in 1943-44 is a source for Socialist Realist paintings in the National Gallery in Tirane. The Victor by Haxhiu depicts a heroic partisan amidst ruins with German POWs trudging into captivity in the background, while Vojo Kushi by Shijaku heroically romanticises a partisan in a red shirt atop a Wehrmacht tank throwing a hand grenade inside.

Workers in Albanian industry are portrayed, notably in the steel works depicted in 30 July 1978 by Ceka which recalls Iron Rolling Mill (Modern Cyclopes) by Menzel. The Assembler by Kokushta is an inspiring painting of a worker on a girder with red flag flying above an industrial landscape of the building of Albania’s hydro-electric scheme in the 1970s.

Female Nude (1961) by Shijaku is beautiful and definitely not ‘socialist realism’ but it is ‘realism’ in the style of Courbet.

The enhanced status of women in Albanian society is captured by Socialist Realism in a painting of male and female engineers by Hysa in 1969, Milk Woman by Sulovari, Factory Worker by Blido, Bricklayer by Dule, and as athletes in The Relay Race by Nalbani. In the 1970s art in a Formalist style of Modernism (mainly Expressionism and Fauvism) developed operating within the official parameters of Socialist Realism.

Socialist Realism was formulated by Stalin in his 1932 On the Reconstruction of Literary and Art Organisations which decreed that art had to be unambiguous and elevate labour to heroic status. In 1934 the Soviet state instructed that art had to be ‘proletarian’, of everyday life, realistic in the representational sense, and support the aims of the Party. This effectively discouraged the avant-garde and any form of experimentation.

Socialist Realist rigidity was not encouraged by Lenin. He did not believe in a ‘year zero’ for Art: ‘proletarian culture must be the logical development of the store of knowledge mankind has accumulated’. In the years after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution experimental ‘revolutionary’ art was encouraged in the shape of Constructivism, and in the cinematic art of Vertov and Eisenstein.

Marx in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts identified the role of labour in man’s ability to reproduce ‘in accordance with the laws of beauty’. Engels wrote in The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man that ‘labour has given the human hand the high degree of perfection required to conjure into being the pictures of a Raphael’, and in Dialectics of Nature he wrote ‘Italy rose to an undreamt-of flowering of art, which seemed like a reflection of classical antiquity’.

Marx and Engels would be uncomfortable with the rigidity of ‘Socialist Realism’.
Steve Clayton

Action Replay: News Fit to Print (2013)

Andy Murray in happier times.
The Action Replay column from the January 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Sport is news of course, and the news media need sport. Showing live football matches is often credited with being the main factor behind the rise of Sky, for instance. But the media don’t just pay attention to what happens on the pitch or track or in the pool. What happens outside actual competition is also given a great deal of time and space.

This includes personal remarks, such as why tennis-player Andy Murray is so miserable-looking. And of course who’s been sleeping with who, or what ‘Brand Beckham’ (aka David) will do now his football career is winding down.

Masses of football coverage is devoted to speculation about transfer targets and managerial changes, with endless-seeming dissections of what managers or players should do. If you don’t believe us, just listen to some of the phone-ins and discussions on talkSPORT: 24 hours a day is a lot of airtime to fill.

There is plenty of reporting of such essential topics as what players say on Twitter, or whether particular players would shake hands before a match. Or what does a ‘legend’ who once played for a particular club have to say about some mundane topic? Not to mention the mind games played by certain managers.

In boxing, pre-fight publicity is used to stimulate interest in what will happen. The fight between David Haye and Dereck Chisora in July last year was widely seen as a grudge match after a brawl at a press conference where Chisora threatened to shoot Haye. Tyson Fury and Kevin Johnson exchanged insults before their fight in Belfast at the start of December: Johnson was ‘a fat pudding’, according to Tyson.

Sport would hardly make such an impact without media coverage, but the media use sport and all that surrounds it to attract readers, advertisers and hence profits.
Paul Bennett

Obituary: Robin Reid (2013)

Obituary from the January 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Robin Reid 1925 – 2012

It is with regret that Glasgow branch announce the death of one of its longest serving members Comrade Robin Reid. Robin joined the Socialist Party in 1944 as a very young man. He served his apprenticeship as a marine engineer in the Glasgow shipyards and worked all his life at that trade until his retirement. Although never a speaker or writer for the Party he was without a doubt one of the best attenders of Party activities. He could always be relied on to be at all our branch, public meetings and study classes and would always make worthwhile contributions to the discussions. It is members such as Robin that are the backbone of the Socialist Party. He will be greatly missed.

Who Gains From ‘Tax Justice’? (2013)

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

The Tax Justice Network lobbies and petitions. UK Uncut takes direct action. Both to try to get tax-dodging companies to pay more taxes to the British government. Surely this can only be good? If they pay more taxes we can pay less. Or the government could use the extra money to provide better services or at least not to cut them so much.

You have to be naïve to think that. If you believe the media, ‘we’, ‘the taxpayers’ and ‘the government’ are one and the same. Because the government has a majority shareholding in RBS and Lloyds we are told that these banks belong to us, the taxpayers. This is as silly as saying in the past that the railways and the coal mines belonged to us because they were nationalised.

Most people do pay some taxes directly or indirectly but, insofar as taxes enter into the cost of reproducing people’s working skills, they are passed on to employers, who have to pay wages that cover this cost. But even if taxes on workers were not passed on to employers it would not follow that we as taxpayers would have the same interest as the government. You could equally argue, as some do, that the government was robbing us through taxes of the fruits of our labour and is therefore our enemy.

The government is in fact our enemy but not for that reason. It is our enemy because it looks after the interest of the capitalist class whose interest is opposed to ours.

As the burden of taxations ultimately falls on the employing class and other property-owners, ending tax havens and closing tax loopholes would benefit only them while making no difference to us.

Some capitalist firms want tax loopholes closed for another reason –because these put companies that are in a position to take advantage of them in a stronger competitive position vis-à-vis those that aren’t.

The Times (15 November) reported that ‘John Lewis says it could be put out of business if foreign multinationals such as Amazon are allowed to continue paying tiny amounts of tax in Britain.’ John Lewis’s managing director, Andy Street, had told Sky News:
‘If you actually improve your business by investing, what that means is you have got less money to invest if you’re giving 27 per cent of your profits to the Exchequer than … if you’re domiciled in a tax haven and you’ve got much more. So they will out-invest and ultimately out-trade us …’
There is some substance to this argument. Capitalist firms provide a privileged, unearned income for their owners, but to be able to continue doing this they must stay in business and for this, as Street pointed out, they have to invest a part of their profits (the larger part in fact) in cost-cutting innovations to beat or keep up with their competitors. If a competitor pays less tax that means it has more profits and so can invest more in cost-cutting innovations. It has a competitive advantage over home-based firms which can’t get out of paying taxes.

No wonder home-based firms like John Lewis are complaining about there not being a level playing field and are calling for something to be done about it. The sad thing is that the no doubt sincere activists in the Tax Justice Network and UK Uncut are in effect, albeit unwittingly, campaigning on behalf of one section of the capitalist class (home-based ones) against another section (multinational ones).

50 Years Ago: ‘‘We Want Work’ (2013)

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

The sight of a demonstration marching through London demanding work is enough to shake anyone out of his complacency. For some years since the end of the Second World War, workers have regarded relatively full employment as a right, something that was here to stay. How wrong they were! Unemployment in November last topped the half million mark and was the worst figure in that month for over 20 years. And now we witness workless Merseysiders shouting slogans and waving banners. A spectre is haunting us—the spectre of the 1930s, the lean and hungry depression years.

How pathetic it is that an old problem has evoked only the same old stale and worthless ideas for its solution. If we pause for a moment and listen to the spokesmen for the marchers, we shall hear them demanding government action to stop the flow of industry southwards and to force more factories to the depressed areas. At best this will only remove the sting from the hopelessness of the unemployed Merseysider. Like most convenient cut and dried theories, it conveniently ignores the basic cause of the problem and, as we might expect, it is a stock line of the average Labour Party supporter.

In our capitalist society, industry goes where there is profit to be found. Nearness to raw materials, short lines of communication, plentiful supplies of suitable labour, easy access to markets, availability of cheap fuel and power—these are some of the main factors which decide the location of a factory and cause it perhaps to be moved elsewhere later on.

It is true, of course, that governments have also tried to move industry to fulfil political or strategic requirements, and since the end of the war firms have been encouraged to take their factories to the ‘development areas.’ During a period of boom when markets are buoyant and expanding, many companies are quite willing to operate from the more remote areas such as South Wales, Scotland and the North. They have a sellers’ market and good profit margins. But what happens when the markets are tightening, goods are no longer easy to sell, and profit margins are shrinking? Why, production is curtailed, of course, and redundancy threatens.

(from article by Jack Law, Socialist Standard, January 1963)

Voice From The Back: Owners And Non-Owners (2013)

The Voice From The Back Column from the February 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Owners And Non-Owners
The development of the oil industry in the Middle East has led to immense wealth for the ruling class there. ‘In just seven decades as a nation, Saudi Arabia has grown from an impoverished backwater of desert nomads to an economic powerhouse with an oil industry that brought in $300bn last year. Forbes magazine estimates King Abdullah’s personal fortune at $18bn, making him the world’s third-richest royal, behind the rulers of Thailand and Brunei’ (Guardian, 1 January). The report goes on to record that the Saudi government discloses little official data about its poorest citizens. But press reports and private estimates suggest that between 2 million and 4 million of the country’s native Saudis live on less than about $530 a month – about $17 a day – considered the poverty line in Saudi Arabia. So we have up to a quarter of the population living in poverty and hunger while the owning clique luxuriates in obscene wealth. This is capitalism in action.

Recession? Who’s Recessing?
We are at present living through an economic recession and we are told by the mass media that we all must share the hardships of these straitened times, but it seems that some are faring better than the rest of us. ‘The richest people on the planet got richer in 2012, adding $241 billion to their collective net worth, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, a daily ranking of the world’s 100 wealthiest individuals… Amancio Ortega, the Spaniard who founded retailer Inditex SA, was the year’s biggest gainer. The 76-year-old tycoon’s fortune increased $22.2 billion to $57.5 billion, according to the index, as shares of Inditex, operator of the Zara clothing chain, rose 66.7 per cent’ (Chicago Tribune, 2 January).

Desperation In Spain
In recent years Spain has been struggling with a dramatic economic crisis, leading to an unemployment rate of 25 per cent and massive evictions. ‘Spain’s housing market collapsed in 2008 after a housing bubble, hurting the economy and causing a homelessness epidemic. As a result, more than 50,000 delinquent Spanish homeowners were evicted in the first half of 2012 alone, and 1 million homes lie empty in Spain, according to Reuters‘ (Huffington Post, 3 January). These evictions have led to locksmiths in Pamplona refusing to carry out evictions. This move they think could essentially stop evictions in Pamplona because even if the police kick a family out of their home, the evicted can still get back in if no one has changed the locks. But it’s unlikely to work.

The Dignity Of Labour
Desperate for work, many Mexicans come to the USA and Canada and work on the farms there. Concerned about migrants settling permanently, the Canadian government has very strict rules to deal with this. Only married men are eligible for the Canadian program, preferably those with young children, and their families must remain in Mexico. Another incentive to return home: a cut of the migrants’ wages is placed in a Canadian pension fund, receivable only if they return to Mexico. ‘Once in Canada, the workers live like monks, sleeping in trailers or barracks, under contractual agreements that forbid them from drinking alcohol and having female visitors, or even socializing with other Mexican workers from different farms. Most of their time in Canada is limited to sleeping, eating and working long days that can stretch to 15 hours, without overtime pay’ (Washington Post, 5 January).

Happy Families?
Aspiring politicians like to be seen as supporting families, but the reality is far different. ‘Soaring energy bills are forcing one in four mothers to turn off their heating in the depths of winter in order to afford food for their children. Fuel poverty is resulting in thousands of families resorting to wearing extra clothes and using blankets in their homes. More than half of families turn off the heating in their houses when the children are out, while 45 per cent of adults keep warm using blankets or duvets during the day, according to a survey. ….. A shocking 23 per cent of families are already having to choose between buying food or using heating, according to a survey by the Energy Bill Revolution campaign’ (Daily Mail, 6 January). Warm shows of affection by politicians won’t heat up your kid’s bedroom.

Chinese Capitalism
It is always touching to see a father being generous to his daughter, but this takes a bit of beating. ‘Bringing new meaning to the phrase ‘happy couple,’ Chinese businessman Wu Duanbiao gave his daughter and her husband a dowry worth nearly $150 million in celebration of their wedding on Sunday, according to the South China Morning Post‘ (Shine from Yahoo!, 2 January). This generosity is all the more remarkable as China pretends to be a communist country.

The Falklands Again (2013)

From the February 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

They are back in the news following the recent disclosure, in documents released at the end of December under the thirty year rule, that Thatcher was taken by surprise, but this changes nothing and vindicates nobody. Opponents of Britain are encouraged by Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s renewed call on 3 January for the Falklands to become part of Argentina.

The Falklands (in Spanish, Islas Malvinas) are a group of small islands in the South Atlantic off the coast of Argentina. The present population can be traced back to European settlement in the nineteenth century, primarily the British approval in 1840 to form a colony there. Britain aside, many other countries have claimed them over time, but Argentina has the longest standing claim to these islands as their own territory.

In 1982, the Socialist Standard at the time described the country ‘in the grip of a severe recession. At the end of March a trade union demonstration against the effects of unemployment and rising prices brought some of the worst civil disorder … But the move against the Falklands brought a miraculous change; patriotic frenzy swamped the reality of the workers’ parlous condition’ (Doing the Bulldog Thing, May 1982). This was a description of Argentina, but one that in many respects might have equally applied to Britain at the time.

Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, then, just short of a thousand workers dead, over two thousand wounded and two months later the islands were retaken by British forces. A few days later the Argentine junta collapsed. American support was absent, the President, Ronald Reagan, had been advised the military junta led by the dictator General Galtieri was a bulwark against ‘communism’. We asked of Britain, ‘If the government was so disgusted by the Argentine junta’s record of repressively anti-working class dictatorship, why was it a major arms supplier to the Junta up until the invasion of the Falklands?’ (The War in the South Atlantic, July 1982.)  The famous left-winger Michael Foot, then Leader of the Labour Party, made a powerful speech in favour of the taskforce sent to retake the islands.

If you want to see how sincerely Britain or any ruling class protects the wishes of the islanders, look at what Britain did to the similarly populated Chagos islanders in Diego Garcia some years earlier.

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

Caring and Sharing (2013)

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

You have a pie, and you have to share part of it with someone else. The question is, how much should you offer? Logically, not much, and logically, the recipient should be happy to accept any amount, no matter how small, since it’s better than nothing. But here’s the rub. If that someone thinks you’re being stingy they might refuse your offer, in which case neither of you gets anything.

In the human version of this ‘ultimatum game’, where the pie is replaced with money, the players tend  to make roughly equal or ‘fair’ offers, showing that human concepts of fairness can override the logic of economics. Exactly why this happens is uncertain. It may be that the donor is motivated by some internalised moral framework, or it may be that the donor feels nothing of the sort but is simply responding to the fear that the recipient is fundamentally irrational and will ruin everything by throwing their proverbial toys out of the pram in response to a perceived injustice.

In studies with chimpanzees involving food, the same does not apply. The recipient is happy to get whatever they can, and the donor shows no tendency towards generosity. However a new study with chimpanzees, using tokens instead of food, has found the same tendency towards ‘fairness’ that is found in human adults and young children (‘Sharing: Chimp study reveals origins of human fair play’, BBC Online, 15 January).

One of the awkward questions in evolutionary theory is the rationale for altruism, which on the face of it contradicts the principle of selfish interest, at least outside close kinship groups. But since we know it does exist in humans there is considerable interest in establishing whether something akin to it is present in our nearest relatives, in other words whether it  is ancient and innate behaviour or modern and socially acquired.

Unfortunately the chimp test is not entirely conclusive. It only used a small number of chimps, and critics argue that with limited abstract capability the animals may not have understood the test all that well, or just had less interest in tokens than in food, hence skewing the result. One would be tempted to dismiss the study altogether were it not for the fact that other studies have suggested suites of behaviour that might be summed up as ‘ethical’ in wolves and coyotes (‘The Ethical Dog’, Scientific American, 19 March 2010). Vampire bats are known for reciprocal meal-sharing, and a type of awareness which among humans would be called empathy has been observed in many other mammals, from elephants to rats and mice.

In game theory, the tendency to cooperate or defect (cheat) depends on how many times the game is played. In one single iteration or turn the logical strategy is to defect, because there is no opportunity for the other player to ‘retaliate’ tit for tat. The same is true if there are a finite number of iterations, because the end point logically dictates a defection,  which strategy then cascades in reverse all the way back to the beginning. But where the number of iterations is infinite, that is when there is no fixed end-point, the most stable strategy is tit for tat cooperation, where defection is punished and cooperation rewarded.

Professor Martin Nowak of Harvard describes how this direct reciprocity can evolve in a number of ways, most interestingly towards indirect reciprocity, where the individual ‘pays it forward’ without immediate expectation of return (Scientific American, January 2013). This behaviour is most developed in humans, possibly because of language and the evolution of gossip and the consequent emergence of ‘reputation’. However, defection still exists. In Garrett Hardin’s classic 1968 study ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, a group of livestock owners who share common land each allow their animals to overgraze, ultimately leading to disaster for all. This ‘Tragedy’ has been offered up as a reason why socialism, based on sharing, won’t work, and real world examples of the Tragedy of the Commons abound, in particular with regard to natural resources and climate change, where humans share the world but are separately and collectively ruining it.

Nowak goes on to discuss game studies where players had to donate a portion of their money into a pool which was used to ‘save the world’. They didn’t always succeed, but cooperation was more likely to occur where the players felt properly informed, and where their acts of reciprocity were public, rather than private (the reputation factor again).

What these studies overlook is the question of private property, and how this motivates behaviour. The players failed to ‘save the world’ because their common interest in doing so was at odds with their personal interest in preserving their ‘private property’.  Here there was a clear temptation to cheat, hoping that other people would make up for the shortfall. Nowak does not describe any version of the game in which the players have no private money but only a common pool, yet it seems likely that behaviour would be quite different where no interests were in conflict.

Similarly, Hardin’s scenario is not a demonstration of why socialism won’t work because it involves livestock owners, whose interests are separate and conflicting, so even though the land is shared the animals are not, and this private ownership leads to conflicting interests resulting in the destruction of the Commons. Were they socialist farmers who shared ownership of the animals as well as the land, their interests would not be in conflict and therefore overgrazing would be a nonsensical strategy that would help none of them.

On a not unrelated note, and demonstrating that charities do fulfil a useful purpose in promoting awareness even if they don’t ultimately solve problems, Oxfam recently produced a report which pointed out in no uncertain terms what the consequences of private ownership are – massive and destructive inequality (The Cost Of Inequality: How Wealth And Income Extremes Hurt Us All, Oxfam, 2013). As they point out, the 100 richest people could abolish poverty for the world’s poorest four times over, and that during this global recession there has been ‘an explosion in extreme wealth’ (BBC Online, 19 January). As their Chief Executive states, ‘We can no longer pretend that the creation of wealth for a few will inevitably benefit the many – too often the reverse is true’. Quite so, and whether the human response to this is intellectual or animal, scientific or ethical, it would do well to look past Oxfam’s feeble and pious demands for tax reforms towards the one thing that really would be a game-changer – socialist revolution and the abolition of private property.

Film Review: Les Misérables (2013)

Film Review from the February 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables is the cinematic version of the Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boubel stage musical based on the 1862 Victor Hugo novel.  Hooper’s film comes in at 158 minutes and is a ‘sung-through’ musical comprising about fifty songs, the most popular being, I Dreamed a Dream sung by Fantine, a ‘grisette’ turned prostitute played by Anne Hathaway. Hooper had all his actors sing live on set, there is no ‘count-in’ or predetermined tempo and the piano is following the pacing of the actor which is a first for a filmed musical. Orchestral music was added post-production. The outstanding voice is Eddie Redmayne’s tenor as revolutionary student Marius, especially in the song, A Heart Full of Love.

‘Les misérables’ are the working class, ‘the wretched poor’ of nineteenth-century French capitalism in Paris, but the film glosses over the poverty, disease, crime, prostitution, exploitation of the working class, and the inequalities of wealth in capitalism. Hugo was concerned with the ‘degradation of man by poverty and the ruin of woman by starvation’.  The ‘saintly’ Valjean, played by Hugh Jackman, has served 19 years in the galleys for stealing a loaf of bread. The film is Valjean’s search for redemption, and there is a Christian theme in songs, I Have Saved your Soul for God and Why did I allow this man to touch my Soul and teach me Love?  Hugo saw his novel as ‘a progress from nothingness to God.’ Valjean’s conversion supports Marx’s statement: ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’

The characters of Monsieur and Madame Thenardier, played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, are the ‘comic relief,’ and their ‘rascally’ antics in Master of the House and Beggars at the Feast push the film into the Dickensian whimsy of Lionel Bart’s Oliver.  If the Thenardier couple are Fagin then the street urchin, Gavroche, with ‘cockney’ accent is the Artful Dodger.

The use of computer-generated imagery recreates the Parisian working-class districts of faubourgs and ‘cour des miracles,’ comprising dense streets and medieval alleyways, later destroyed by the ‘renovations’ under Haussmann which would better able the bourgeoisie to control the Parisian working class. A replica of ‘the Elephant of the Bastille’ was built in Greenwich which adds authentic historical context to the film.

The climax of the film is a futile, student-led Republican uprising, which actually took place in June 1832 against the ‘haute bourgeoisie’ monarchy of Louis Philippe and is portrayed in the songs At the Barricades and Do you hear the People Sing? Sixty million people worldwide have seen the stage musical, Les Misérables, but if going to see it could change the world then it would have been made illegal.

The 1831 working-class uprising of silk workers in Lyons who sang, ‘When our rule arrives, when your rule shall end, then we shall weave the shroud of the old world. Listen! Revolt is rumbling,” is a better subject for a ‘revolutionary’ film musical.
Steve Clayton

Material World: Roadkill (2013)

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

A massacre of 28 children and teachers at a school in Connecticut on December 15 has received weeks of intensive media coverage. And yet very little attention is paid to the roughly 100 people killed in the U.S. every day by motor vehicles. The carnage at the scene of a serious road accident is just as horrific as a battlefield, but only those directly involved – the victims and the workers whose job is to clean up the mess – are fully aware of it as an everyday reality.

Millions of animals – deer, badgers, frogs, birds, etc. – also die on the roads. They are called ‘roadkill’. That seems an apt term for the human casualties too. Worldwide human roadkill is estimated at 1.3 million a year. The injured number in the tens of millions.

Average annual human roadkill in the U.S. in recent years has been about 40,000. (Another couple of million are hurt; 250,000 of them have sufficiently bad injuries and sufficiently good health insurance to be hospitalised.) There has been a modest decline since the 1970s, when the yearly average was about 50,000.

Various reasons have been suggested for the decline, including a crackdown on drunk driving and the adoption of certain safety features, especially seat belts and eventually (in the 1990s) air bags. We owe these improvements to persistent efforts by campaigners for safer car design, Ralph Nader being the best known.

Feeling safe
This example demonstrates that campaigns for reform can sometimes achieve worthwhile results. Worthwhile, but limited and temporary. Because there has been no decisive reorientation of car design toward safety as opposed to style, power and comfort.

Thus, as Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez point out, car manufacturers prefer to make the driver feel safe rather than help him drive safely. By swaddling driver and passengers in a warm, quiet and smoothly moving cocoon, insulated from the noise and bumps of the road, they ‘prevent drivers from sensing how fast they are going or how dangerous the road conditions are’ (Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effect on our Lives, Palgrave Macmillan 2010, p. 179).

However, the biggest setback to the cause of safe design has been the rise of the monsters known as Sport Utility Vehicles. SUVs are much more prone to roll over than ordinary cars and much more lethal when they collide with other road users (Keith Bradsher, High and Mighty: The Dangerous Rise of the SUV, PublicAffairs 2002).

The decline in human roadkill is partly the result of people minimising their exposure to traffic as pedestrians, though at a high cost in the form of isolation and loss of community. In the old days, when motor vehicles were few and far between, children were free to roam around on their own and play with friends in the streets. Now they are cooped up at home. There they can prepare for their future role as drivers by playing video games like Carmageddon, where the goal is to smash up as many other cars and run down as many pedestrians as possible.

Beside direct roadkill, cars harm and kill people through the pollutants that they emit into the air we breathe. Here too campaigns for reform have had some successes. In particular, exhaust filters are now in wider use and petrol no longer contains lead additives.

Here too, however, the few successes are overshadowed by a daunting list of failures. And here too SUVs are the worst culprits. Motor vehicles still emit enormous quantities of tiny particles and poisonous compounds, including nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds that react in sunlight to form ozone. Most of these gases and particles do most harm to the respiratory system, causing such diseases as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema and lung cancer. Another pollutant, benzene, damages the bone marrow and immune system and causes leukemia and other blood cancers.

A car emits poisons into the air both inside and outside, making it hard to tell whether it is less unhealthy to ride with the windows closed or open.

Burdens on society
These are not the only burdens that the car imposes on society. It devours enormous material and labour resources and generates a vast stream of material waste, much of it hazardous and/or non-recyclable. The car and the hydrocarbon fuels that power it make a big contribution to the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases and thereby to climate change.

Cars have a huge impact on land use. Land is used to manufacture cars, sell cars (showrooms), service and repair cars (garages, filling stations), wash cars, drive cars (roads, driveways) and – no small item! – park cars (roadsides, car parks, home garages). An expanding area of arable land is being used to cultivate biofuels for cars.

These burdens grow heavier as the numbers of cars (and especially SUVs) increase. The total number of motor vehicles in the world passed the one-billion mark in 2010. It can be expected to continue rising rapidly as cheaper models open up new consumer markets in countries such as India and China.

A central issue in clarifying the general shape of a socialist society is what place cars would occupy in it. Will it be possible to provide everyone with access to car transport in some form, provided that a switch is made to electric cars? Or would it be necessary to restrict car use to a bare minimum?

Values (2013)

Book Review from the February 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Where Do My Values Come From? – And How To Attain Social Sustainability. By Thomas M.V. Hallatt & Dale M.R. Hallatt. Kindle eBook.

Instead of chasing the chimerical ‘values’ that may lurk inside the heads of private individuals, the focus of this book is human behaviour as it is shaped by and shapes the cultural referents that make up a ‘value system’. The authors undertake their investigation using an interdisciplinary approach with case studies to illustrate their argument. The focus is on four fields from the human sciences: genetics, neuroscience, physiology and environmental psychology.

Beginning with an examination of the genetic basis of behaviour, the authors correctly state that there is no evidence that genes can bypass environmental influences and directly cause a particular behaviour. However, as they point out, that is not to claim that we are born as ‘blank states’, as we are born with certain genetic predispositions, but it is the environment that determines how and in what way these will play out.

It is our genetic inheritance that gives us the neuronal equipment that enables us to experience empathy, because of the survival value of becoming a social species. It is also due to our evolved history that we have brains that are highly malleable: changes in the environment determine which propensities are strengthened and which are weakened. With this is mind it makes no sense to speak of a fixed human nature which is outside or above environmental influence. Any long-term observed patterns of human behaviour must also be squared against the fact that the problem of scarcity in the environment has never been resolved and that any changes in the environment in the future will affect behaviour. ‘We make the environment, the environment makes us’.

The concept of ‘operant conditioning’ is central to this book, the basic idea being that behaviours that are ‘reinforced’ are more likely to be repeated. Positive reinforcement takes place when a behaviour is reinforced because of a reward of some kind; negative reinforcement takes place when a behaviour is reinforced by the removal of an adverse stimulus in the environment. The strengthening of neural pathways in the brain is the reinforcing mechanism.

The penultimate chapter is largely taken up with proposals for a reform of education methods inspired by the observations of the preceding chapters. All of these could be incorporated into present system; after all science and technological innovation do require a stream of new critical thinkers. Though, under capitalism the purpose of education is not to raise healthy, free-thinking individuals but only to provide sellers of labour-power capable of operating the technological means of production. The authors do raise this point in a brief passage, but its full implications are not fully developed.

So here is the fly in the soup, the whole book is based on an analysis of culture but from the standpoint of the individual, the role of structural factors in limiting and steering behaviour is neglected: ‘society is like one big experiment, whereby the dependent variable is the behaviour emitted by a person and the independent variable is the environment that is manipulated and changed in various ways to bring out the behaviours in people’. But the fact that the control of the productive factors that shape the economic and socio-political environment is outside the reach of the majority and that the owning minority are compelled to comply to the blind logic of capital accumulation is somewhat missing from the analysis. The interdisciplinary approach that is adopted fails, as it fails to include the study of the laws of historical and economic change.

This book can be thought of as an updated version of B.F. Skinner’s Freedom and Dignity, incorporating the latest developments in the sciences. If Marx can be said to be history’s number one victim of glib criticism and misrepresentation, then perhaps Skinner is a close contender for the number two spot. Both Marx and Skinner developed coherently materialist theories of change, Marx in the area of social change with what has become known as historical materialism, and Skinner in the field of individual behavioural change with what he called behaviorology or radical behaviourism. These two concepts could be seen as complementing each other to make a coherent whole, with Marx providing analysis at the macro level and Skinner at the micro; though Skinner himself never advanced such a view (more often than not he got Marx wrong) and this claim is sure to bring resistance from Marxists. However, with that thought in mind I shall recall the words of Engels writing in the Anti-Dühring: ‘Freedom does not consist in any dreamt-of independence from natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work towards definite ends’; there is no reason to exclude the laws of behaviour from our enquiry.
Darren Poynton