Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Material World: Colour Prejudice (2019)

The Material World column from the July 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

The description of the aristocracy as blue-bloods was very much based on class where fair skin highlighted a person’s blue veins which showed that they did not toil in the outdoors in the fields like the peasants. Today the problem is confused by the idea of race which human beings impose on themselves, an issue for the working class which we must overcome in our progress to a sane, humane society. Recently, the BBC reported that some children were lightening their dark skin to avoid bullying. Coincidentally, there was also a news story on the Miss India beauty pageant and its contestants’ fair-skinned complexions. For generations, Indian women have been raised with the belief that fairness is beauty and a sign of high birth. Advertisements featuring Bollywood stars suggest that lighter skin tones will help them improve their marriage prospects and get a better job. Cynthia Sims, of Southern Illinois University, found a gap in career opportunities between dark and light-skinned women in India. While a Seattle University study by Sonora Jha and Mara Adelman found that the chances for a dark-skinned Indian woman dating online were ‘nonexistent’. This has built a vast and ever-growing skin-whitening industry. The market for such products is expected to reach 50bn rupees (£566m) by 2023. The bias has even spilled over into religion. Just as depictions of Jesus show a very Western-looking white man, ad-maker Bharadwaj Sundar explains that similarly images of the popular gods and goddesses all show them to be light-skinned despite Hindu scripture describing many as dark-skinned. Nor is this desire for lighter skin restricted to India. Decades of cultural messaging to all people of colour present darker skin tones as unacceptable, and what they should be aspiring to is a ‘superior’ white skin. The World Health Organisation a few years ago found that 77 percent of Nigerian women use bleaching cosmetics, followed by Togo with 59 percent, South Africa with 35 percent and Mali at 25 percent. They are flooded with messages — and not even subliminal ones — that tell them that white is beautiful. The numbers of males bleaching is also rising rapidly.

The ‘why’ goes back centuries, and many determine the consequences upon colonisation. When the Europeans colonised Africa and Asia, they brought with them a belief that they were racially superior, and established a class structure that still exists today, years after countries gained their independence. In many countries, at the top of that class structure, sat white expats and Western diplomats. Next in the hierarchy were the mixed-race people when the European colonists mated with locals and produced offspring, who were then deemed to be superior class. South Africa’s apartheid system went so far as to legally enshrine mixed-race people as ‘coloureds.’

In many countries, the word ‘mulatto’ does not have a negative connotation. The view that the lighter your skin, the ‘better’ you are did not leave with the Europeans, and eventually, science caught up, as skin-lightening products became available throughout the continent. Many African women who use creams that affect the tone of their complexion routinely mention ‘chocolate’ as the shade they are aiming for. Many have seen that the ‘mulattos’ are given precedence.

Studies have consistently shown that in the competitive market for jobs and marriage, lighter skin has advantages. In 2015, another study found that white interviewers regarded light-skinned black and Hispanic job applicants as more intelligent than darker-skinned interviewees with the same qualifications. A US study in 2011 found that light-skinned black women receive shorter prison sentences than dark-skinned black women.

And nor are all the skin-lightening products safe to use. In 2011, a study by the World Health Organisation exposed the dangers of bleaching with these cosmetics, many of which contain mercury, a substance that can cause kidney damage, suppress immunity, induce anxiety and depression, and even permanently destroy the nerves in the limbs and skin. Cosmetologists are making a lot of money off the bleachers even though the risks of contracting skin cancer on the long run is high. Products contains hydroquinone, an ingredient that disrupts the synthesis and production of melanin that can protect skin in the intense sunshine, and corticosteroids, which in the UK are prescription-only products still to be found on the shelves. Experts say there could be a sharp uptick in skin cancer because these products attack the skin’s natural protective melanin. When you bleach, it takes off the outer layers of your skin and in this part of the world, the sun is always on. So there’s more skin cancer.

Humanity is one race, so claims of skin tones reflecting ‘superiority’ only reveal ignorance. Fair skin won’t solve your problems. Until we can begin to discuss the class-based realities of the racism of skin colour, we will continue to be subjected to fruitless and destructive ‘quick-fixes’ to inequality.

Material World: Updates – Iran, Egypt, South China Sea, Asteroids (2012)

The Material World Column from the June 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

In January 2008, this column described preparations then underway for a US attack on Iran. It is not impossible that the long-awaited attack may finally be launched this year, either by the United States or by Israel (with or without American permission). Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, defence minister Ehud Barak and foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman all want to go ahead, and are using the “Israel lobby” in the U.S. to exert pressure on Obama.  

They may not get their way, however, because there is strong opposition to an attack from inside the Israeli and American political establishments. Former chief of the Mossad (foreign intelligence) Meir Dagan calls it “the stupidest idea I have heard in my life.” Former chief of the Shin Bet (domestic intelligence) Yuval Diskin says that Netanyahu and Barak are “incompetent” and prone to “messianic delusions” and have “a poor grasp of reality”. The current intelligence chiefs and chiefs of staff have let it be known that they agree. Less information has become public about views inside the US establishment, but Obama’s cancellation of joint military exercises with Israel is a hopeful sign. 

Iran has declared that it will draw no distinction between an American and an Israeli attack. Its immediate response in either case would be to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which Persian Gulf oil has to pass to reach the ocean. The impact on the world economy would be devastating. Only a large-scale invasion by ground troops could reopen the strait. US forces in Iraq would be vulnerable, as would Israeli territory (despite Israel’s expensive but overrated anti-missile defence systems). An attack may well fail even to achieve its ostensible goal of stopping Iran’s nuclear programme; the result might in fact be to accelerate it.

The likely outcome depends in part on the real strength of the Israel lobby. Many people think that American decision makers are so afraid of the lobby that the US is unable to pursue a Middle East policy in line with its own interests (see, e.g., John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, 2007). Norman G. Finkelstein, who has himself been persecuted by the lobby, cogently argues in his latest book (Knowing Too Much, 2012) that this is a grossly exaggerated view. The US supports Israel because it continues to view its client state as a regional asset –all the more so now that its hold over Egypt has been weakened. But the US will not jeopardize important interests of its own at the bidding of Israeli leaders. 

The political situation in Egypt
In our analysis of the democratic revolution in Egypt (March 2011), we distinguished between the Mubarak clan, which had lost power, and the military regime as such. It was unclear at that point whether the popular movement would be able to push through the transition to political democracy and civilian government.

It is now clear that behind a parliamentary façade the military regime has succeeded in consolidating its position. A major factor was the deal that the generals reached with the Moslem Brotherhood, which mobilized its supporters, especially in the countryside, to block further change. Impressive as the popular movement appeared, it was always confined to the cities.

Parliamentary elections were held in Egypt from November 2011 to January 2012. The various Islamist forces did very well, winning a clear majority of votes (65 percent) and seats (70 percent). The liberal groupings –i.e., the parties united in the Egyptian Bloc plus the Reform and Development Party — obtained 11 percent of votes and 8.5 percent of seats, while the “socialist” groups brought together in the Revolution Continues Alliance gathered merely 3 percent of votes and 1.5 percent of seats.

South China Sea
In April 2009, we surveyed conflicts between China, neighbouring states and the U.S. over the resources of the South China Sea. We suggested that an armed clash between China and the US might be more likely in this region than in connection with a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

Two recent developments support this prediction. In April a confrontation began between China and the Philippines over fishing rights around the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, which is claimed by both countries. This is one of 200 or so small islands, banks and reefs in the sea whose ownership is disputed.

This particular problem could disappear over the next few years as the sea level rises with global warming and the islands are submerged. But this will only make the issue of hegemony over the South China Sea as a whole more acute. In May, China took the assertion of its claims to a new stage by starting deep water drilling for oil in the sea. 

Mining asteroids
In May 2010, we discussed the possibility of mining Near Earth Asteroids in the context of the US space program. American capitalists have now brought this prospect one step closer by setting up the first asteroid-mining company –Planetary Resources, Inc. (Washington Post, April 24). 

We did get one thing wrong. We assumed that mineral-rich asteroids would be brought into earth orbit. It turns out, however, that planners are considering the idea of bringing them into orbit around the moon. So there is a close link between asteroid mining and the issue of control and exploitation of the moon (see Material World, December 2008).

Material World: Antics in the South China Sea (2009)

The Material World Column from the April 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

The recent incidents in the middle of the South China Sea, in which a large American ship was “harassed” by various Chinese boats, have a comical aspect. The “harassment” seems to have been mostly a matter of uncomfortably close approaches, flag waving, and beaming lights. The most violent moment was when the Americans used fire hoses to drench the sailors on a boat that had come too close, inducing them to strip to their underwear.

These antics, however, may be the prelude to more serious conflict. An armed clash between China and the US is, perhaps, more likely to occur in the South China Sea than in the context of a putative Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

A spy ship
Many reports have described the American vessel, USNS Impeccable, as a “survey ship” or “ocean surveillance ship.” This creates the misleading impression that such ships exist for the purpose of oceanographic mapping or scientific research.

In fact, although they are unarmed and have civilian crews, the “survey ships” belong to the US navy and their function is to collect military intelligence. They are really spy ships.

The main job of the survey ship deployed in the South China Sea is to track the Chinese submarines that patrol there, operating from a base at the southern tip of Hainan Island. These are nuclear submarines carrying intercontinental ballistic missiles – that is, they constitute China’s “nuclear deterrent.” The tracking is done by means of underwater sonar arrays attached to the ship by cables. There was some attempt by Chinese sailors to sever the cables and set the arrays adrift.

It is true that USNS Impeccable, lacking armaments more powerful than fire hoses, does not by itself pose a direct threat to the submarines. But the data it collects could be passed on to another vessel equipped with anti-submarine missiles. In other words, the spy ship is a key component of anti-submarine warfare capability. It is therefore no surprise that the Chinese government should want it to leave the area.   

Legalities of carve-up
It is in large part with a view to securing a sanctuary for its nuclear submarines that China asserts the right to control most of the South China Sea, an area of some 2 million square kilometres – to turn it into a “Chinese lake.” The legal case cooked up by its diplomats involves claiming the three main archipelagos in the sea as Chinese territory and then demarcating an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) 200 miles (320 km.) wide around them as well as Hainan Island and along the shore of the mainland.

Finally, China seeks to erase the distinction between territorial waters and an EEZ. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) prohibits the presence of a spy ship in territorial waters, but not in an EEZ. The US position is that USNS Impeccable did not enter China’s territorial waters – it was 75 miles (120 km.) off the coast of Hainan at the time of the incidents – so its activity is perfectly legal. 
Of course, it does not matter to us as socialists which side has the better case in terms of international law. The whole world is the common heritage of mankind, and we do not recognize the right of capitalist powers to carve it up among themselves.

Other issues
While the military issue is the direct cause of the current clash between China and the US, as it was of a similar clash involving aircraft in 1991, there are also other major issues at stake.

First, rights in the South China Sea are crucial to control over vital shipping lanes. The shortest route between the Indian and the Pacific Ocean passes through the sea. This, for instance, is the route taken by tankers transporting crude oil from the Gulf to East Asia. One rationale for the US presence is to keep the sea routes open: if China were allowed strategic dominance it could close off the Malacca Strait, which connects the South China Sea with the Indian Ocean.

There are also plenty of resources to fight about in and under the sea, including valuable fishing grounds and still unexploited oil and gas fields. This is the underlying reason why it is so difficult to unravel the complicated tangle of territorial disputes over the sea and its islands among the six coastal states: China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines. In 1974 and 1988 these disputes led to military clashes – in both cases between China and Vietnam.

Material World: Nuclear weapons are still there (2008)

The Material World Column from the  February 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Who protests against nuclear weapons nowadays? People seem to have half-forgotten them.

But they are still there, patiently lying in wait. In The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2007), Jonathan Schell even speaks of a “nuclear renaissance” in the new century.

True, there are fewer nukes than there used to be. The number of active nuclear weapons has declined from a Cold War peak of some 65,000 to below 20,000. In another decade it may fall to 10,000. But this is scant consolation, for several reasons:

  • Many decommissioned weapons are not destroyed, but only partially dismantled and placed in storage.
  • The 10,000 remaining nukes will still suffice to wipe out the human race many times over. Even the use of 100 would cause disaster on an unprecedented scale. Atmospheric scientists at UCLA and the University of Colorado modeled the climatic effects of the use of 100 Hiroshima-type bombs – just 0.03 percent of the explosive power of the global arsenal – in a nuclear war between India and Pakistan. These countries have fought four wars and now have about 75 nukes each. Direct fatalities would be comparable with WW2, while millions of tons of soot borne aloft would devastate agriculture over vast expanses of Eurasia and North America.
  • Nuclear weapons do not serve merely as status symbols or for mutual deterrence. Resort to them remains an option for the contingency of a serious setback in a conventional war, and new types of high-precision nukes, such as the so-called “bunker busters”, have been designed for that purpose. Nuclear weapons may even be used to stop a state acquiring nuclear weapons, or to suppress nuclear capacity that is in danger of falling under “terrorist” control (say, in the context of a disintegrating Pakistan).
  • Finally, the number of nuclear weapons states has increased and is likely to increase further. The nuclear nonproliferation regime is gradually losing its ability to inhibit the chain reaction. The double standard on which it is based – one rule for members of the nuclear club, another for the rest – is (as Schell argues) no longer viable. If all states with the requisite economic and technological capacity are not to acquire nuclear weapons, then they must all agree to renounce them.
The numerical decline might be cause for optimism if it could be seen as progress toward nuclear disarmament. Unfortunately, there are no grounds for such an interpretation. Nuclear weapon states are determined to maintain and upgrade their arsenals. Total numbers are falling as Russia and the US shed what they consider excess capacity, but they are restructuring their nuclear forces, not giving them up. Once this process is complete the decline in numbers will level off.

The Cold War is dead. Long live the Cold War!
So why have people half-forgotten the nuclear threat?

For one thing, it has been overshadowed by another threat to the human species – global warming.

Even before people became fully aware of this new peril, however, the end of the Cold War had largely dispelled the fear of nuclear war. A reformist at the time, I was closely involved in the peace and disarmament movements of the 1980s. With benefit of hindsight, I realize now that these movements did not perceive the nuclear threat in its broadest sense because they were too preoccupied by the specific context of the superpower nuclear confrontation of that period. This was especially true of European Nuclear Disarmament (END).

Western governments told us that “we” needed nuclear weapons to deter the Soviet threat. We anti-nuclear campaigners did not believe they were right, but we were naïve enough to believe that they believed what they told us. We drew the logical implication that they would become favorably disposed to nuclear disarmament if relations with the Soviet Union could only be sufficiently improved. So we hopefully looked forward to the new and deeper East-West détente heralded by Gorbachev.

Not only did the Cold War come to an end; the Soviet Union itself collapsed. No more “Soviet threat” to worry our rulers! But did they heave a sigh of relief and rush to dispose of their nuclear weapons? No, they started to come up with substitute rationales for keeping the things. Thus Blair, announcing renewal of the Trident program in 2006, explained that nuclear confrontation with another major power “remains possible in the decades ahead.” Schell sums it up nicely: “By reviving and refurbishing their arsenals, the nuclear powers signal that they expect that great-power rivalries will return” (p. 210).

The unpredictability of the future, they tell us, is itself a good reason to hold on to nuclear weapons. And the future is always unpredictable.

The world is dominated by a system based on conflict – conflict over resources of all kinds, conflict between competing property interests and the states that represent them. Once nuclear weapons were discovered and became tools in this conflict, they were bound to threaten human survival. The threat only seemed to have a necessary connection with the specific pattern of global power that happened to exist at the time. That pattern has started to change, there are new potential adversaries, but the conflict-based system remains. So does the nuclear threat.

Can nuclear disarmament be achieved under capitalism?
Schell calls for “action in concert by all the nations on Earth” (p. 217) to abolish nuclear weapons, halt global warming, and tackle other urgent global problems. His eloquence is moving, but his vision is only very briefly sketched and lacks substance. True, he has some technical and organizational proposals. Like IAEA director Mohammed ElBaradei, for instance, he would revive the Baruch Plan put forward by Truman in 1946 and place all nuclear fuel production under the control of an international agency. But he fails to consider what political, social and economic changes might be necessary to create and sustain the international trust and cooperation that he seeks.

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that nuclear disarmament were somehow to be achieved within the existing conflict-based system. Many states would still have the technological capacity to make nuclear weapons again if they so decided. This is known as the “breakout” problem. It is hard to imagine countries resisting this temptation when at war or even under conditions of acute military confrontation. As we need not just to achieve but maintain nuclear disarmament, we therefore also need to abolish war in general, together with all weapons that can be used to threaten war. A close reading of Schell suggests that he accepts this point, though he does not spell it out.

But take the argument a step further. Wars arise out of conflicts over the control of resources. Doesn’t this mean that an end has to be put to such conflicts? And how can this be done without placing resources under the control of a global community – that is, without establishing world socialism?

Socialists are not against nuclear (or general) disarmament within capitalism. We know that the world faces problems of the greatest urgency and we know that the global social revolution is not an immediate prospect. We have no wish to hold human survival hostage to the attainment of our ideals. Please go ahead and prove us wrong by abolishing nuclear weapons without abolishing capitalism. Nothing, apart from socialism itself, would make us happier. The trouble is that we simply don’t understand how it can be done. That is why we see no alternative to working for socialism.

Voice From The Back: Nationalist Nonsense (2013)

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

Nationalist Nonsense

Nationalism is a horrendous condition that has been used by the owning class to turn worker against worker in wars and has led to millions of death. A particularly stupid manifestation of nationalism  was displayed in Belfast recently. Because the union jack flag was only going to be displayed on designated days at the city hall so-called British patriots rioted in the streets. ‘Eight police officers have been injured and 12 people arrested following clashes between loyalists and riot police in Belfast. Six officers were injured in the Crumlin Road and Ligoneil Road area of north Belfast and two at Shaftesbury Square in the city centre.’ (BBC News, 8 December) If it wasn’t so tragic it might be called comical that workers, many of them  without a job, should take to the streets to support ‘their’ country.

Figures Do Not Lie

Newspapers are fond of depicting a Britain with a steadily improving standard of living, but occasionally even they have to confess about the realities of modern capitalism. ‘The cost of heating a home has rocketed by 63 per cent since the summer of 2008, while essentials such as potatoes and minced beef have surged by 30 per cent and 50 per cent respectively. Over the same period wages have grown by only 6.8 per cent.’ (Times, 1 December) They then go on to report that during this period wages have been corroded by a 14 percent rise in inflation.

Baby It’s Cold Inside

While major stores of High Street Santas ‘Ho, Ho, Ho’ in mock joviality the harsh realities of working class life are revealed by a website. ‘The price comparison website uSwitch.com warned that nine in ten Britons are expecting to ration their energy use this winter to save money — a frightening prospect amid warnings of sub-zero temperatures. Three quarters of households went without heating at some point last winter to keep energy costs down and 15 per cent said that this had affected their quality of life or health.’ (Times, 1 December) So, remember when you are wishing your next door neighbour a ‘Happy New Year’ keep on your gloves, scarf and thermal underwear.

Rough Sleeping In The Rough Society

Politicians like to pose as supporters of families but young people and families with children are increasingly facing homelessness, according to a study, which says rising numbers of people are finding themselves without a roof over their heads. ‘The report, by academics from Heriot-Watt University and the University of York, says all forms of homelessness are continuing to rise in England, and argues that “deepening benefit cuts are likely to have a much more dramatic impact on homelessness”. …. The report says national rough sleeper numbers rose by 23% in the year to autumn 2011, from 1,768 to 2,181 –  a more dramatic growth dynamic than anything seen since the 1990s.’ The number of families who end up asking for assistance from local authorities because they are about to lose their homes rose from 40,020 in 2009/10 to 50,290 in 2011/12. (Guardian, 4 December) This is the madness of capitalism in action – houses lying empty while people are forced to sleep in the street.

Conspicuous Consumption

The owning class are flaunting their obscene wealth but even by their excessive behaviour the following Christmas dinner menu takes a bit of beating.  ‘Costing £125,000 for four people, or £31, 250 per person, the menu for what will be the world’s most expensive Christmas dinner menu has been devised by London chef Ben Spalding, who has completed residencies at restaurants including The Fat Duck in Bray, Gordon Ramsay’s Royal Hospital Road and Per Se in New York. Among the ingredients being used are a Yubari King melon costing £2,500, in addition the £2,600 Densuke watermelon; 150-year-old balsamic vinegar costing £1,030; whole white Alba truffle costing £3,500; and gold leaf coming in at £6,000. To drink, a £37,000 bottle of Piper Heidsieck 1907 champagne will be served in diamond-studded flutes; diners who prefer spirits can sip from a £2,000 stock of DIVA vodka, described as a “diamond-sand-filtered vodka” and served in a bottle that is filled with Swarovski crystals.’ (Daily Telegraph, 7 December) All of this excess is taking place in a society where millions are trying to eke out an existence on less than $2 a day.

Material World: The Second Nuclear Age (2013)

The Material World Column from the January 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Five years ago, we reminded readers of this column that ‘nuclear weapons are still there’ (Socialist Standard, February 2008). True, many fewer of them than at the height of the Cold War. But more than enough to turn the surface of our planet into a radioactive wasteland and still have plenty left over.

In a recent book entitled The Second Nuclear Age (Henry Holt & Co., 2012), the prominent American nuclear strategist Paul Bracken argues that nuclear weapons are now regaining their relevance to statecraft. They are making a comeback. The risk of nuclear war is significantly higher now than it ever was in the past.

This is partly because more states now have nuclear weapons at their disposal. The ‘old’ nuclear powers — the USA, USSR/Russia, China, Britain and France — have been joined by Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. Iran, as we are constantly told, may get hold of nuclear weapons within a few years. If so, other Asian states may not be far behind.

Rogue states?
Coverage of the issue of nuclear proliferation in the Western media is dominated by speculation about the dangers of nuclear weapons getting into the hands of ‘rogue states’ like Iran and North Korea. These countries are selected for special attention not because their rulers are exceptionally irresponsible but because they are at loggerheads with the Western powers.

However, there are equally good reasons to worry about the possible use of nuclear weapons by Israel and Pakistan. Both of these presumed Western allies rely on rapidly growing nuclear arsenals to compensate for the potential vulnerability of their territory and conventional forces.

Recent developments in military technology increase the risk of escalation from conventional to nuclear war. The availability of much more powerful –though still ‘conventional’ in the sense of non-nuclear –weapons blurs the previous distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons, especially as both kinds can be carried by the same delivery vehicle. How can anyone tell whether an incoming Cruise missile is armed with a conventional or a tactical nuclear warhead?     

Nevertheless, the main reason why nuclear weapons pose a greater danger now than they did in the second half of the last century is the emergence of a more complicated and less stable interstate system.

A complex equation
The Cold War system was organized primarily around the bilateral US-Soviet axis. There were no territorial disputes between the two superpowers; their spheres of control in Europe were rigidly demarcated; and their rivalry in the Third World was constrained by implicitly understood ‘rules of play’.  

The newly emergent system is multilateral. There are territorial disputes even between nuclear powers, such as the continuing confrontation of India and Pakistan in Kashmir. China is striving to establish a sphere of influence in the Western Pacific, but there is no recognition of such a sphere by Japan or the United States. The result is a clear potential for armed conflict in the South and East China Seas and over Taiwan (on the South China Sea, see MW for April 2009 and June 2012). In the Middle East, Israel seeks to preserve its regional monopoly of nuclear weapons by any means necessary.

A multilateral system makes arms control and conflict management vastly more difficult. Thus, even supposing for a moment that conditions were generally conducive to a long-term relaxation of tensions between India and Pakistan, India would still be unable to reduce its conventional and nuclear forces to a level that posed no threat to Pakistan. That is because Indian strategists have also to take into account the balance of forces between India and China.

Then how about trilateral negotiations between India, Pakistan and China? But Chinese strategists have to factor yet other powers into their calculations — Russia, Japan, the United States. An attempt to settle a conflict between just two countries quickly turns into a complex equation with many variables. So it is not all that surprising that there should be no current global equivalent to the US-Soviet arms control negotiations of the Cold War era.

A world without nuclear weapons
The goal traditionally pursued by campaigners for nuclear disarmament was a world without nuclear weapons –but a world still divided into competing states and blocs, still plagued by conflicts over resources, still armed to the teeth with non-nuclear weapons. The strategy was to separate the issue of nuclear weapons from its broader military and political context and deal with it first. Then, with nuclear weapons out of the way, the next goals would be conventional disarmament, a lasting peace, perhaps a united world.

Arguably this was never a feasible plan. But under the special conditions of the Cold War era it looked as though it might be feasible. Those conditions have now changed — and not for the better. The end of the Cold War did not bring a world without nuclear weapons any closer. On the contrary, the image of that world has receded rapidly and is already well on the way to oblivion.    

This does not mean that a world without nuclear weapons is impossible. It means only that such a world must take the form of a united human community that has no use for weapons of any kind. The efforts of people who want a better world — or simply human survival — must be geared directly toward that goal, for there is no viable halfway house.

Occupy ideas (2013)

Pamphlet Review from the January 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Little Book of Ideas. By Occupy London’s Economics Working Group. 

This 60-page booklet has been produced to mark the first anniversary of the Occupy camp outside St Paul’s. It is not a manifesto nor a policy document but ‘a small handbook which explains complex economic terms and theories in simple language’ so that people can understand what’s gone on and take part in discussions about what to do. The terms are dealt with alphabetically from ‘Austerity Measures’ to ‘Tax Havens’. When it comes to proposed reforms, the case for and the case against are presented though it is generally clear which side they are on. For instance:
  ‘Supporters of the banking system say that it has been the means by which industrial development has been so successful. However others contend that reckless lending by the banks is an inevitable consequence of a financial system driven by profit at all costs, and an alternative banking and monetary system is essential to wrest power and wealth away from the banking interests which precipitated the current crisis.’
What ‘others say’ here could be seen as the underlying theme of the whole booklet, i.e., that the current economic downturn was caused by the behaviour of the banks and so offers a purely monetary explanation.

It is true that in a system ‘driven by profit at all costs’, when things are going well and it seems that this will continue, ‘reckless’ behaviour in pursuit of profits will be an inevitable consequence. But this applies to the economic system as a whole and not just to its financial sector. In such a situation banks overlend. Corporations involved in the real economy overproduce. In fact, it is this latter that causes the financial crisis and subsequent general economic downturn.

Surprisingly, in view of the efforts made by currency cranks to influence Occupy, the booklet does not reflect the views of any of these. In fact it gives a not too inaccurate description of how banks work (‘acting as financial intermediaries between sellers and buyers, asset holders and lenders, in order to guarantee payment’) and even of so-called fractional reserve banking (‘banks are forced to keep a fraction of their deposits in case depositors want their money back’).

Their argument — not so different from the conventional view — is that ‘in recent years the system has got out of control’. Which suggests that downturns like the present could be avoided if in future banks are subjected to adequate regulation. The booklet, not being a policy document, only mentions various proposed reforms: separating retail and investment banking, ‘full-reserve banking’, peer-to-peer lending, banning short selling and trading on margins.

But what if (as Marxists contend) the banks did not cause the crisis, but at most only made it worse when it broke? Then, any ‘alternative banking and monetary system’ would be irrelevant as a means of avoiding future slumps. A more radical change away from the whole economic system based on production for profit would be required.
Adam Buick

Anti-Nuclear Movement Unclear On Capitalism (2013)

From the January 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard
The 2011 Fukushima disaster exposed how energy companies sacrifice safety for profit, but the single issue anti-nuclear movement has little to say about the profit system.
As a Tokyo resident, I had a first-hand view of the anti-nuclear movement taking shape after the Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 2011. I work in the district where most of government ministries are located, not far from the Diet building and the headquarters of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), so I’ve encountered all sorts of protests, large and small.

The protests were a welcome sight to me not just because they expressed the anger felt toward that rotten outfit, TEPCO, and the elite bureaucrats who have done its bidding; but also because Japan has been sunk in a depressing mood of political apathy over the past two decades. To finally witness spirited demonstrations that brought together all sorts of people was invigorating. Particularly impressive were the festive gatherings outside the Prime Minister’s Residence every Friday last summer.

In recent months the protests have quieted down considerably, but anti-nuclear sentiment remains among much of the population, as was clear during the December general election campaign when politicians of all stripes made (usually vague) promises to eventually phase out nuclear energy.

The debate about the future of nuclear energy has taken capitalism quite for granted, however. Much of the discussion has revolved around whether it is “economically feasible” to dump nuclear power for alternative energy sources. Those in favour of the change try to bolster their case with a Keynesian claim that developing solar and wind energy will spur overall economic growth.

No plan is feasible unless it is profitable, which should already give anti-nuclear activists pause if they take the issue of human health and happiness as seriously as they claim. So far, though, the movement has shown little willingness to ponder the role of nuclear energy under capitalism, or how this profit-happy system heightens its inherent dangers.

A ‘manmade disaster’
A basic position among most opponents of nuclear energy is that it is beyond our ability to control; a technology that can never be made safe enough for human beings. The Fukushima disaster was taken as evidence of this failed technology—not the latest manifestation of a disastrous social system.

The myth that nuclear energy is safe had been propagated in Japan for decades by the energy conglomerates and their network of politicians, bureaucrats, scientists, and journalists. This myth crumbled before people’s eyes as the Fukushima disaster spun out of control. We saw the experts trotted out to insist that the accident was not as bad as it looked, or that radiation was not such a terrible thing. Scientists, government officials, and TEPCO spokesmen were still peddling the safety myth but the public wasn’t buying it.

But, in a peculiar way, turning the safety myth on its head has helped let TEPCO off the hook. That is to say, if nuclear energy is a force that defies human control, the question of the company’s responsibility becomes a secondary issue. Rather than being guilty of criminal negligence for the disaster, TEPCO could only be more generally blamed for promoting an unmanageable technology.

The underlying logic of many anti-nuclear activists is not so different from the way TEPCO tried to dodge its own responsibility by blaming the disaster solely on the ‘unimaginable’ scale of the tsunami. In either case, the emphasis is on a natural force beyond human control.

But TEPCO’s ‘who’da thunk it’ excuse did not stand up to scrutiny. The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, a parliamentary panel that carried out a six-month investigation of the disaster, stated in its report that ‘The direct causes of the accident were all foreseeable prior to March 11, 2011’; and that ‘The operator (TEPCO), the regulatory bodies (NISA and NSC) and the government body promoting the nuclear power industry (METI), all failed to correctly develop the most basic safety requirements.’

More specifically, the report points to how TEPCO overlooked various warnings over the years that had pointed to the ‘high possibility of tsunami levels reaching beyond the assumptions made at the time of [the plant’s] construction.’ Another fatal screw-up was the placement of diesel generators and other internal power equipment ‘within or nearby the plant,’ where they were soon inundated by the tsunami.

Based on its investigation, the panel concluded that the disaster must be categorized as a preventable, ‘manmade’ disaster—rather than an unavoidable result of the natural disaster. Of course, the level of safety needed to actually prevent the disaster was well above what existed at the Fukushima plant, or what exists now at many nuclear plants across this quake-prone land.

Preventable yet inevitable?
The crucial question, however, is not the technical issue of what TEPCO might have done to prevent the disaster but why it in fact did so little. This is a question that the government panel claims to answer but only arrives at a half-truth.

The panel’s report clearly states that the ‘accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators, and TEPCO, and the lack of governance by said parties’ adding that: ‘The root causes were the organizational and regulatory systems that supported faulty rationales for decisions and actions, rather than issues relating to the competency of any specific individual.’

Remove the word ‘root’ and there is little to object to as a description of the corruption at the heart of Japan’s nuclear industry. But blaming the ‘organizational and regulatory systems’ does not account for why the systems were so defective in the first place.

Reading the report, one has the impression that TEPCO is simply an organization that society happened to entrust with the purely technical matter of running nuclear power plants, and that it fell short in that responsibility because of its organizational defects and the shortcomings of regulators. All that is needed, therefore, are fundamental internal reforms and stricter oversight.

But let’s not forget that power plants exist not just to generate electricity but to generate profits for their operators as well. Couldn’t that simple fact have had something do to with the lax safety measures and ‘collusion’ with regulators?

TEPCO executives may have acted stupidly in the eyes of the company’s own scientists in neglecting safety, but at the time their decisions seemed shrewd enough to shareholders. (Although it all backfired spectacularly in the end!) What terrified the executives more than an earthquake or tsunami was the prospect of business losses.

In 2007, the company posted its first annual loss in nearly 30 years following the shut down Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant as a result of the fire and radiation leak caused by a magnitude 6.8 earthquake that same year. The plant was closed for two years, meaning huge losses for the company.

The irony is that this disaster (and earlier accidents at the Tokaimura plant), which should have alerted TEPCO to catastrophic risks, only drove it to pursue profit more relentlessly, cutting corners to make up for its losses. Clearly, even though the disaster was “preventable,” technically speaking, under the profit system accidents of some scale are a near inevitability.

The anti-nuclear movement itself has concentrated on the technical side of the issue, and only aimed to remove the ‘evil’ of nuclear power without placing any blame on capitalism. Whatever their disagreements over nuclear energy, both sides of the debate support the continuation of a profit-based system.

Out of control system
If the nuclear energy sector and its regulators were a monstrous exception to the norms of behaviour in other industries, the anti-nuclear movement’s case might be compelling. But let’s be serious. Recall that just a year before Fukushima the lax safety measures of British Petroleum and its subcontractors resulted in a three-month-long (!) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Or what about the deadly coal-mine accidents that occur every year like clockwork. Or take whatever industrial accident you like.

If the Fukushima disaster proves that nuclear power is ‘out of human’ control, as anti-nuclear activists argue, couldn’t the same argument be made regarding those and other industries? Not only for the deaths of the workers in those industries, but because of the long-term health impact from coal-burning thermal plants and the like.

This is not to argue that ‘nuclear energy isn’t so bad.’ The point is rather that an acceptable level of safety for nuclear power (if that is indeed possible) is incompatible with capitalism—just as safety is sacrificed in so many other industries in the same pursuit of profit.

What is ‘out of human control’ is not this or that technology, but the social system of production under which we live. That system is quite literally out of our hands as workers, and even the capitalists who administer it must act in accordance with the needs of Capital.

People in Japan and elsewhere are right to be deeply suspicious of the nuclear industry. But that suspicion must be extended to other industries and to the capitalist system as a whole if fundamental social change is ever to occur to bring society under conscious human control.

Much of the power of the anti-nuclear movement seems to stem from the widespread sense of powerlessness people naturally have under capitalism. Nuclear energy is almost a symbol for Capital itself: something created by human beings but with a power that eludes our control.

Capitalism is the issue
The way the Japanese leftist have rallied behind the single issue of abolishing nuclear energy, without having much if anything to say about capitalism, is characteristic of their overall approach. The politics of the Left comes down to the assortment of positions taken on the burning social problems of the day, without stopping to consider the deeper causes; this is why an air of unreality hangs about the ‘solutions’ leftists propose.

Leftists vehemently oppose nuclear energy in moralistic terms, viewing it as a social evil, but pay little attention to the role of nuclear energy within capitalism. They seem to forget what sort of world we are living in; a world in which each nation’s energy policy is ultimately dictated by the needs of Capital.

Japan rapidly developed nuclear energy in the 1970s to fuel its rapid growth amid rising oil prices. The issue of whether the technology was safe enough for human beings was not the primary concern. How can the Left bemoan this outcome without calling for an end to such an inhuman system? Don’t they recognize that the insatiable thirst for energy is linked to the thirst for profit? This economic reality is precisely why China, India, and other countries are going ahead with nuclear expansion despite the Fukushima disaster.

That is not to say that without the profit motive nuclear energy—or coal or oil for that matter—would suddenly become ‘safe.’ But human beings under socialism would finally be in a position to discuss the risks and benefits of each energy source, and rationally decide on the best choices to make.
Michael Schauerte

Greasy Pole: How Not to Spoil Your Vote. And Why (2013)

The Greasy Pole column from the January 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

The General Election of 1992. A reminiscence. Going to the local polling station after all the experts had used their surveys and samples and focus groups to let us know that our one and only choice had to be between the hysterical bluster of Neil Kinnock and the plaintive reticence of John Major. Planning to use my voting paper to state the socialist reasons to reject all of them and set out the real alternative. My six-year old son Tom agreed to come with me, probably after his own expert analyses had led him to hope for a consequent happy visit to the local Game Boy stockist; he had not then read any Upton Sinclair or George Orwell or The Communist Manifesto. The polling station was pretty busy with so many people hunched over their voting paper. Not long after I had begun my contribution, when I had barely had time to deal with the negatives of Kinnock and Major, Tom became impatient and embarrassed by my being immobile while so many others were so quickly in and out. When his muttering and sleeve tugging became too intrusive I cut short my mini-manifesto and we headed off for the Game Boy. I blamed the politicians.

This was brought to mind by the low voter turn-out in some of the recent by-elections – Corby, Manchester Central, Cardiff South – and the reasons suggested by the political pundits, who so often claim to be The Voice Of The People, that the voters were suffering from a compound of habitual apathy and election weariness. Which did not take enough account of the reports that an interesting number of those who did go to the polls completed their ballot paper not by a cross but a statement of their reasoned opposition to all the candidates and in some cases their disgust with the entire media-obsessed game of politics and its players. This was not apathy but an active statement of choice. Truly, it could have been better – more effective and encouraging – had it been driven by a conscious intention to point towards the valid alternative but it was enough to allow a tremble of optimism that as a habit it might catch on.

Meanwhile in Corby there was a notable turn-out of 42 percent to hint that the one-time steel town had shaken off its flirtation with the undeviatingly self-promoting Tory Louise Mensch. It says enough about David Cameron’s vaunted “A” List of candidates that it should throw up somebody like Mensch and it was to widespread relief that she announced her intention to resign the seat as soon as possible to spend more time with her trans-Atlantic family and her heavily prosperous pop-star manager husband. Which aroused some rumours about the reasons for Cameron failing to make himself aware of her glittering talents. And – perhaps crucially – about the evidence that had she clung on she would have been crushed in the next general election. None of this prevented her, during the by-election, praising her aspiring successor Tory Christine Emmett as “… a true local girl … she’d be a wonderful MP”, apparently unaware that this might have lost Emmett a bunch of votes.

Manchester Central
In Manchester Central, had she dared to show her face, Louise Mensch would not have received a warm welcome. This constituency’s turn-out of 18.16 percent was the lowest since the by-election in Poplar during the unusual circumstances of 1942; it is a place which has never before had a woman Labour MP. In a constituency where, according to one voter, the party could “put a rosette on a dustbin and it would win” Labour offered one Lucy Powell who, although undoubtedly a woman, was considered to be steeped enough in Labour politics – Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign manager and then Deputy Chief of Staff – to be welcomed as a “Labour Party apparatchik”. There was however one niggling doubt about her; in the neighbouring Manchester Withington in 2010 she surprised a lot of people by failing to unseat the LibDem MP John Leech. So that in the recent by-election her candidacy needed to be nourished enough for her to trot out banalities like “We have to think in terms of empowering communities to make decisions for themselves and get people involved so they feel they can aspire”. Well in the end it all went according to plan; the dustbin came out on top and Manchester Central has a new woman MP.

As the polling stations closed their doors and Louise Mensch faded away across the Atlantic attention switched to three other by-elections: Croydon North, (turn-out 26.5 percent) Middlesbrough (25.91 percent) and Rotherham (33.63 percent). The last of these contests was unusually piquant because of its similarity to Corby in the voters’ assumed anger over its MP’s behaviour. Denis MacShane was forced to resign over a succession of matters including some typically extravagant expense claims which brought his integrity into question. One example was a clutch of 19 false invoices which he submitted, described by a Parliamentary Committee as “plainly intended to deceive”. Little wonder that the Respect candidate ran a poster van publicising “Denis MacShame”. Rotherham’s reputation is as a tough town where once they dug coal and smelted steel; it has not elected a Conservative since Labour’s disaster days of 1931. And it has never before had a woman MP. Which raised some searching questions (and a walk-out of members) when the locally prominent Maroof Hussain was beaten to the nomination by a national party favourite Sarah Champion, who went on to win with a delighted UKIP in second place.

None of these elections would have caused any abstinent electors or polling booth essayists to doubt that, at the least, they had appropriate consistency on their side. If capitalism’s current crises have done nothing else they expose the impotent panic among the self-appointed experts – the economists, politicians, analysts and the like – as each of their preferred remedies is exposed as a discredited sham. It is in contrast to that feeble confusion that those who stand aside to put forward the case for a different, cohesively humane system can truly be described as the radicals.