Thursday, August 15, 2019

Material World: Nobody should own the Earth (2019)

The Material World Column from the August 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

Our Euroelection leaflet came to the attention of Lesley Docksey who referred to it in an article on ‘Why Do We Think We Own the World?’:
  ‘Most political parties (barring the alt-right) will claim some desire to help protect the environment, by which they mean ‘manage’. Take this example from a Socialist Party’s leaflet, with the headline ‘There is only one world’: “… the world’s natural and industrial resources must become the common heritage of all humanity so that they can be used to directly meet the needs of the world’s population…” How did ancient man arrive at this attitude, this arrogance that became the rule so precisely displayed in Genesis?’ (London Progressive Journal, 8 June ).
Is the Socialist Party as guilty as accused in that we share the same beliefs as Old Testament fundamentalists that God gave the Earth to humans to dominate?

If Docksey looked deeper into our case she would have found that we advocate common ownership, which can be defined as a situation in which no person or group has the right to exclusively control productive resources. The word ‘ownership’ can be misleading in that when we transfer to all members of the society the power to control the production of wealth, where no one is excluded from the opportunity of controlling and benefiting from the access and use of the means of production, then the very concept of property is redundant, the sense of exclusive possession has become meaningless.

This is exactly what she seeks when she later says in her article ‘…Is it too late to ditch our rigid world view, our superiority, our belief in our ‘right’ to own and control our world?’ She then asserts ‘…There is only one thing that makes humanity truly exceptional; our desire to own and control everything, partnered by our horrible ability to destroy what we try to control…’

We don’t share her pessimism. The species homo sapiens, unlike other animals, possesses the ability to change its needs, technologies and social relations. Culture allows humans to adapt to a new or changing environment much, much more rapidly than any evolutionary biological adaptation through natural selection ever could. The behavior of other animals cannot develop in the same way that humans can. This cultural change is one of the distinguishing features of our humankind.

However, there is another aspect to her article when she declares that ‘… For far too long, humanity has regarded itself as ‘outside’ Nature…’  She certainly never learned that belief from socialists. Here are the views of a couple of nineteenth-century socialists.

Marx pointed out that capitalist farming is unsustainable because it inevitably starves the soil of nutrients. It is nothing less than ‘an art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil’ (Capital, Vol 1, chapter 15). And he wrote bitterly that: ‘In London they can find no better use for the excretion of four and a half million human beings than to contaminate the Thames with it at heavy expense’ (Capital, Vol 3, chapter 5).

Engels issued this ecological warning: ‘Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first.’

He added: ‘At every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside of nature.’ And went on to explain, ‘…but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other beings of being able to know and correctly apply its laws’ (Dialectics of Nature, chapter 9).

Yes, humans can manage – be stewards of – our environment’s ecosystem just as well as some of our antecedents did. We have the knowledge to do that. It is the profit system, not some trait of human nature, that prevents us doing this.

Marx recognised too that humans are part of nature: ‘Man lives from nature, ie, nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.’ He said that socialism would bring ‘the unity of being of man with nature’ (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844).

So, no, socialists do not see communal property as conferring any right to rape the land and ravage natural resources. Here’s Marx again:
  ‘…Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and, like boni patres familias, [good heads of the household] they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition’ (Capital, Vol.3, chapter 46).

Eye Witnesses (2019)

Book Review from the August 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

Peterloo: Witnesses to a Massacre, Polyp, Eva Schlunke and Robert Poole:  New Internationalist £11.99.

On 16 August 1819, around 60,000 workers gathered in St Peter’s Fields in Manchester to demand an extension of the franchise. They came, men, women and children, from all over Manchester and surrounding areas. Many joined up in contingents of local people who then marched together several miles to the centre of the city. Part of a much wider reform movement, they had come to hear ‘Orator’ Henry Hunt give a speech, but primarily to support a wider franchise and to have an enjoyable day out with their friends and neighbours.

The ruling class, who resisted any reforms, had of course made preparations for the meeting. The local yeomanry, a private militia of the wealthy, were there, also the 15th Hussars. Under instructions from the magistrates, the police attempted to arrest Hunt, but when they were unsuccessful, the mounted yeomanry were sent to help. Not properly trained, in many cases drunk, and with freshly-sharpened sabres, they rode into the crowd, attacking people at will. The Hussars then arrived, in some cases restraining the yeomanry but in others adding to the confusion and crushing. At least fifteen people were killed, perhaps eighteen, and over seven hundred injured. The authorities arrested many of the organisers, including Hunt, who was sentenced to sixteen months in prison.

This book, with illustrations by Polyp, was edited by Schlunke on the basis of evidence and information assembled by Poole. There are some narrative captions by the authors, but the majority of the text is taken verbatim from reports by direct witnesses, whether reformers, journalists or establishment figures. This lends the story a vividness that is added to by the graphics; not everyone likes graphic novels or histories, but here the format does provide an impression of a continuing series of events that brings home to the reader the violence and desperation of the day. A major of the Hussars is quoted as saying, ‘I was very much amused to see the way in which the volunteer cavalry knocked the people about’, while a reporter stated, ‘There were individuals in the yeomanry whose political rancour approached absolute insanity.’ Shortly before he died as a result of being beaten, one ex-soldier said, ‘At Waterloo there was man to man, but at Manchester it was downright murder.’

The authorities reacted not just by prison sentences but also by terming the events a ‘riot’ and blaming the crowd for what happened, as they had supposedly attacked the yeomanry. Yet journalists such as John Tyas of The Times, who was no supporter of reform, agreed that no stones or whatever were thrown at the yeomanry, so there was no justification or provocation for their violence. The Six Acts passed later in 1819 were intended to clamp down on further mass protest. The propaganda war continues today, such as in arguments that not enough people were killed for it to really constitute a massacre. An appalling article by Dominic Sandbrook (Mail Online 24 August 2018) played down Peterloo’s significance and claimed that, compared to the violence of the French Revolution, it ‘was not even a sideshow’. Moreover, it was ‘almost certainly an accident’. But, while it is arguable to what extent there was an advance government plan to attack the demonstrators, the events of 16 August have to be seen in the context of both previous and subsequent state repression aimed at keeping workers in their place.

The bicentenary of Peterloo is being marked by a number of events and exhibitions in Manchester (see This book provides an excellent account of what happened and why it remains important.
Paul Bennett

Same Difference? (2019)

The Wood for the Trees Column from the August 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

One of the less used items from within the dialectical toolbox is the sameness/difference duality. Its paradoxical nature is highlighted in the much used retort: ‘but that’s like comparing apples with oranges’; a phrase often used to emphasize the inappropriateness of a particular analogy. This kind of critique always insists on difference rather than similarity, a familiar feature of contemporary ideology, but sometimes what is important about apples and oranges is that they are both fruits.

During a discussion about narrative structures within literature and films I found myself more interested in the idea of the ‘meta-structure’ of the quest storyline. From The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey through The Morte D’Arthur to The Big Lebowski , Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter stories we see many similarities. Indeed the rise of ‘genre’ entertainment has led to an expectation of formulaic similarities within the modern audience. An objection to this approach to understanding narratives is that it can overwhelm the subtle aesthetic differences that make the telling of the tale meaningful to a contemporary audience. So a balance is needed to produce an insightful and relevant critique of any art form; or, for that matter, of just about any experience.

Consumer capitalism attempts to surround us with novelty; it continually proclaims to have reinvented the wheel. On the supermarket shelves we see what appears to be an endless variety when in fact beneath the bright packaging we find much the same ingredients. The ability to see hidden realities beneath superficial facades has always been celebrated as one of the highest human intellectual achievements – with the scientific adventure being the supreme example. 

A great danger of being surrounded by hyperbole is that the truly new and important can be overlooked. This is where a dialectical approach can be a powerful help. Political ideologies come and go with great rapidity: ‘monetarism’, ‘neo-liberalism’, ‘the third way’, ‘Leninism’, ‘Trotskyism’, ‘populism’ etc, all proclaim to be something new and different but for a socialist they are just a tired repackaging of capitalism.

Hence we emphasize the sameness of such ideologies and not whatever subtle differences may or may not exist. Our perspective is purely pragmatic – will these ‘new’ ideologies substantially change the lives of working people? Upon consideration, using the methods explained above, we have reached the conclusion that such minor variations of the capitalist system cannot and will not change the lives of the majority for the better – and, thus far, we have been proven correct in our conclusions.

It might be surprising to some that, given the bitter and destructive nature of the class struggle, we do not emphasize any substantial difference between the vast majority and the tiny parasitic minority in terms of their humanity. The Left love to demonize the individual capitalist as evil and greedy – which he or she might be – but what is important here is to emphasize that they are trapped in their role just as the working class are trapped into making the lives of the rich possible. Obviously the economic concerns of the rich are very different from those of us who have to sell our labour power to them in order to exist but as human beings they also share many of our anxieties albeit in a different form. Life and death, physical and psychological well-being and human relationships dominate their lives as much as they do ours.

Given the social nature of our species the rich can suffer loneliness (the continual doubt about the possible monetary motivation of friends and loved ones) and the alienation born of privileged social exclusion and the continual quest for more wealth and power that provides status within their peer group. With this in mind we focus our critique on capitalism and not on individual capitalists. We stress the difference in economic and political terms and emphasize sameness in relation to our shared humanity and its deepest needs – a dialectical insight and balance is achieved.

The decision whether or not to emphasize one or other of these elements present in all political ideas is wholly dependent on historical development; for instance given the dominant mode of production in Russia in 1917 (agrarian and feudal) the sameness of the political and economic interests of the minority bourgeoisie (immanent) and the working class (future) at that moment in history made it imperative that both these minority classes worked together to overthrow the autocracy of the Czarist regime.

Had the Mensheviks the wisdom to reject participation in the then raging First World War the Bolshevik coup d’├ętat would most likely never have happened and Russia would probably have progressed to a more traditional form of capitalism. The Bolshevik insistence that their regime was a form of socialism, and the acceptance of this by many intellectuals, is testament to the dangers inherent in wrongly emphasizing the difference of the social origins of a new elite and their confused statist economic experiment rather than insisting on the sameness of authoritarian structures inherent in all forms of capitalism from the perspective of the overwhelming majority.

Not what it used to be (1962)

From the November 1962 issue of the Socialist Standard

The rich are always sensitive about the sufferings of the poor; not, of course, to the point of being willing to get off their backs, but at least to the point of being glad to be told from time to time that the poor are not as poor as they used to be and that if any are it is their own fault. Such assurance is a great comfort to the rich. It carried them safely through the miseries of a dozen slumps and made them (and still makes them) genuinely indignant whenever the workers come out on strike, because, as the newspapers always inform them, strikes were justified in the bad old days but not now when everything is so nearly perfect. How are they to know that the newspapers were saying exactly the same in the “bad old days," twenty, forty, a hundred years ago?

About a hundred years ago Marx and others were commenting on the great inequality of income and property between the workers and the property owners. Already the defenders of capitalism were at work suggesting that it used to be even more unequal and that things were improving daily. Ever since then there has been a continuous stream of that kind of propaganda. It was flowing strongly in the depression between the wars, as the following samples show:
  It appears safe to say that the distribution of capital is less unequal than it was before the war. (Manchester Guardian, 12 March 1936). 
  . . . the great re-distribution of wealth and income that has happened in this country since the war. . . . (Times Literary Supplement, 7 March 1936. 
  The gap between rich and poor in this country shows every sign of continuing to grow smaller. (Star, 9 April 1936).
The line has changed since then; not that it has been given up, but the dates have been altered and the great improvement is now supposed to have taken place since 1936. not before. In truth, apart from the continued post-war conditions of very low unemployment (which does not look so secure now) the main features of ownership of capital and division and of national income appear to have altered very little over a long period. Which explains why the stream of propaganda about alleged growing equality gets interrupted from time to time by statistical inquiries showing how little, if any, change there actually has been.

We have just had such an inquiry in Professor Titmuss’ Income Distribution and Social Change (Allen and Unwin, 25s.). He refers to the widespread opinion among politicians and economists that this country had become more a much more equal society than it was before the war and sets out to examine again the statistical material on which this opinion has rested. He makes many criticisms of the material on national income distribution and the way it has been interpreted (and also some criticisms of statistics of ownership of wealth). He holds that the earlier studies may have reached wrong conclusions: there is, he claims, need for a re-examination because the belief in greater equality of income distribution may be seriously in error.

But no matter what Professor Titmuss writes about it, the propaganda claiming that things are better than they were will persist.

Among other reasons, it always suits the political party in power to argue that its policies have had or will have a beneficial effect in the direction of diminishing poverty and it can be taken as certain that there will be an almost universal agreement in the Press and elsewhere not to consider doing anything that matters about the fundamental social issue of the means of production and distribution, land, factories, etc., being owned by a small minority of the population. A case in point is the review of Titmuss' book by Samuel Brittan in the Observer (Sept, 30th, 1962). He recognises, as does Titmuss, that distribution of income cannot be considered apart from the ownership of wealth, and actually remarks that "the whole subject of inequality is largely discussed without hypocrisy. The basic question is the ownership of personal wealth.” Yet this promising opening leads on to the pettifogging and irrelevant proposal that there should be “a moderate and graduated annual tax on personal wealth in the upper incomes.”

Just how this is supposed to alter the basic situation is not explained.
Edgar Hardcastle

What is value? (1962)

From the November 1962 issue of the Socialist Standard

Private property, commodities and value are a troublesome trinity unless we understand them. There are three important aspects of value. The first is its purely social character which shows itself in buying and selling. The second is abstract human labour as the social substance of value. The third is the quantity of social labour which determines the magnitude of value. Buying and selling is the mode of exchanging wealth today. It involves careful weighing, measuring and counting against price to ensure that equal amounts of values change hands.

Exchange is a social act in which value is measured. In order to do this, a commodity must be related to some other commodity, different in kind, in which it can express its value. The value of the article, is, at all times, the chief concern of its owner. But it must be a use value to people other than its owner. In all equations, the article on the relative side expresses its value in the one on the equivalent side.

As an imaginary example of the elementary form of relative value we can equate a coat to a pair of shoes. In this case, the coat, occupying the relative side, is expressing its value in the material form of shoes. If we invert the equation we then express the value of the shoes. However, provided that each person sees, in the other’s useful article, a value content equal to that of his own, exchange takes place. Equal amounts of value are realised in the useful form of each other’s goods. As property owners both are satisfied.

In such equations it appears, on the surface, that value is an inherent, an intrinsic or material part of the commodities. This is an illusion. All value equations are social relations between men in society in which the legal transfer of ownership of property is determined on the basis of equal amounts of value being exchanged. It should be obvious that such acts can only take place in private property based societies.

The question now is—how is the ratio of exchange accurately determined? All useful articles differ greatly. Take coats and shoes, for example; they differ in material, form and purpose. The concrete (or producers’) labour in them is also very different. We have spinning, weaving, tailoring, tanning and shoemaking. It is productive labour which creates use values; both the labour and the articles are material in character and are different in quantity and quality. They cannot be measured in these forms.

If we disregard the specific type of the work (engineers, bakers, etc.) we reduce it all to the expenditure of human skill and energy in wealth production. The common denominator is therefore, abstract human labour. This is common to all commodities and is our measuring rod. Concrete labour produces use value whereas abstract labour creates values. It is important to note that value-creating labour must be useful, socially necessary, and of average skill and intensity. Irrespective of all differences in their material form or usefulness, all commodities are embodiments of the social substance abstract human labour. Social labour measures, in time, from the smallest fractions upwards simple or complex labour.

The magnitude of the value of any commodity is easily determined. In making this abstraction we are merely following the general practice in science. For example, we have steam, petrol, gas and diesel engines, etc.; all different forms of energy. In abstraction we reduce all of them to power and express it in units of horse power. If we now look at our equation (one coat equals one pair of shoes) we see that as embodiments of human labour the coat and the shoes are similar in quality and, as units containing x hours of social labour, they are equal in quantity. Equal amounts of labour time will always produce equal amounts of value.

Commodity production and exchange extended and developed from the elementary form of value, through expanded relative forms and general forms, to the present money form. This latter is its fully developed form and it works efficiently in expressing value. As Marx said, gold is not by nature money, though money is by nature gold. Gold functions socially, as a universal equivalent, as a measure of value, a standard of price, means of payment and al medium of exchange and circulation. In this capacity it functions as money and becomes the social form of value.

In this, its social function, it assumes an independent form of value because it measures value in its own bodily form and is socially accepted as the material form of value. It stands on one side of the relationship, the equivalent side, as value, opposed to all other commodities on the relative side. In this dazzling role gold appears as a sort of king amongst commodities. However, as a humble commodity, gold is no different from salt, oil or coal. Its value is determined in precisely the same way as all other merchandise. One coat equals one pair of shoes, or one ton of coal, or ten pounds sterling—all of these are different forms of the products of social labour and contain equal amounts of it, are in quality and quantity equal as values.

The exalted position which gold in its money capacity occupies is due primarily to its being a commodity and secondly to its nature as a metal, which renders it eminently suitable for its job. It contains great value in small bulk, is readily coinable and measures value from the smallest fraction upwards. In addition, it enables large quantities of accumulated wealth to be easily stored. As money it is the universally accepted social form of value. It represents the incarnation of abstract human labour and is the materialised form of value. It crosses all international frontiers and encounters no barriers. As a consequence of all this it also serves as universal social use value. The owners of money have immediate access to anything in the world of commodities, in proportion to the amount they have. The owners of all other articles for sale are constantly striving to attract money from the pockets of its owners.

While value is not a physical or material property of any article it is nevertheless a social reality of great importance. It finds its fully developed form in capitalism, in general commodity production. Men, women and children are converted into buyers and sellers whose major social relationships are value relationships. We socialists have abolished the spiritual trinity and impatiently await the workers organising to abolish the social trinities of private property commodities and value, and, with them rent, profit and interest.
John Higgins