Sunday, September 22, 2019

Did Lenin Admit Defeat? (1970)

Book Reviews from the April 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard

Lenin’s Last Struggle, by Moshe Lewin, Faber and Faber. 36s.
Lenin’s Last Letters and Articles, Progress Publishers, Moscow.

Lenin made his last public speech in November 1922 at the Moscow Soviet. He died in January 1924, but had been unable to speak or write since the previous March. So the letters he wrote between December 1922 and March 1923 were his last.

Moshe Lewin’s book provides an interesting and useful background to the Moscow pamphlet. The most famous of Lenin’s last writings is his “testament” in which he criticises Stalin. Some of the others are about the handling of the dispute with the Georgian Bolsheviks over the structure of the Soviet state, in which Stalin was again implicated. But those which are perhaps of most interest to Socialists concern Lenin’s attempt to justify the Bolsheviks’ position in Marxist terms. The arguments he uses are so weak as to suggest that Lenin realised that, as his opponents had predicted, the Bolsheviks were being defeated by Russia’s backwardness.

With the end of foreign intervention and the civil war in 1921 the Bolshevik government found itself in charge of a vast backward country with a predominantly small-peasant economy. This situation worried Lenin. His main concern was that the Bolsheviks should retain at least the passive acceptance of their rule by the mass of small peasants the revolution had created. To get this acceptance he was prepared to make far-reaching concessions.

Lenin should have known that if the Bolsheviks were left isolated in charge of Russia they would become the prisoner of that country’s economic backwardness. They had been warned of this by some of their opponents before they staged their November 1917 coup and Lenin obviously disliked being reminded of this.

In Marx’s view, capitalism paves the way for Socialism both by developing modern industry (so that an abundance of the things people need can be produced) and by raising the general cultural level of the people (so they can mange their own affairs in a democratic way). Capitalism, however, existed only in a few scattered parts of Russia; the bulk of its people were illiterate and ignorant peasants,

The Bolsheviks soon came up against this. Commenting on figures which showed that in 1920 only 32 per cent of the population were literate Lenin wrote:
  It shows what a vast amount of urgent spade-work we still have to do to reach the standard of an ordinary West-European country . . . We must bear in mind the semi-Asiatic ignorance from which we have not yet freed ourselves . . .
He knew that, without modern industry and without civilised people, Socialism was impossible. The only argument he could find to justify Bolshevik rule was that, now they had power, they would be able to educate the people for Socialism!
  We lack enough civilisation to enable us to pass straight to socialism, although we do have the political requirements for it. 
  Our opponents told us repeatedly that we were rash in undertaking to implant socialism in an insufficiently cultured country. But they were misled by our having started from the end opposite to that prescribed by theory (the theory of pedants of all kinds), because in our country the political and social revolution preceded the cultural revolution, that very cultural revolution which nevertheless now confronts us. 
  You say that civilisation is necessary for the building of socialism. Very good. But why could we not first create such prerequisites of civilisation in our country as the expulsion of the landowners and the Russian capitalists, and then start moving towards socialism? Where, in what books, have you read that such variations of the customary historical order of events are impermissible or impossible?
In 1917 Lenin would not have dared put forward so crude an argument, which obviously turned Marxism upside down, for seizing power. It would have been torn to pieces by those who understood anything of Marx’s views.

It was not what was written in books which said that, given the rest of the world stayed capitalist, the only way forward for Russia was capitalism, in one form or another. This was the way social evolution worked as Marx had discovered. As he pointed out in his Preface to his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859):
  New higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society,
and again in his Preface to the first German edition of Capital (1867):
  . . . even when a society has got upon the right track of the discovery of the natural laws of its movement . . . It can neither clear by bold leaps, nor remove by legal enactments, the obstacles offered by the successive phases of its normal development. But it can shorten and lessen the birth-pangs.
In saying the ‘socialist’ revolution could precede the development of modern industry and culture, Lenin was adopting the unscientific position of the pre-Marxist revolutionary communists. For an active minority seizing power first and then educating the people was the perspective of men like Blanqui. It was in opposition to these self-proclaimed ‘liberators’ that Marx insisted that the emancipation of the working class could only be achieved by the workers themselves. Lenin, however, had long abandoned (in fact he never accepted it) this part of Marxism when in 1902 he formulated his theory of the vanguard party.

The similarity between the theories that came out of the French and Russian revolutions is not accidental. Both were capitalist in nature in that they were led by minorities who used state power to clear away the obstacles to the development of large-scale commodity production, the wages system and capital accumulation. Bolshevism can in fact be seen as a theory of capitalist revolution for peasant countries.

Russia’s economic backwardness had political consequences too. Only a tiny minority had the education to man the state machine, and many of these had served in the same capacity under the Tsar. Before 1917 Lenin had laid down that the Bolsheviks must completely smash the old state machine when they seized power. In 1918 he claimed that this had actually been done:
   In Russia the bureaucratic apparatus has been completely smashed up, not a stone of it has been left unturned (The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky),
 But in 1923 he had to confess:
  With the exception of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs, our state apparatus is to a considerable extent a survival of the past, and has undergone hardly any serious change. It has only been slightly touched up on the surface, but in all other respects it is a most typical relic of our old state machine.
But this was not really a question of a “survival” from Tsarism. As Lenin noticed the new Bolshevik officials behaved in the same old bureaucratic way. What he was observing, though of course he did not realise it, was the gradual (but inevitable in view of the country’s economic backwardness) emergence of a new class structure in Russia. Lewin touches on this point in his book, though his view is heavily influenced by that of Trotsky and Isaac Deutscher.
Adam Buick

Note (1970)

From the April 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard

If the "Anti-Fascist Research Group", who have published Facts on Fascism which contains a criticism of the Socialist Party of Great Britain for putting up a socialist opposition to fascist parties, will send us their address we shall be pleased to reply to their remarks.

France – Here We Are Again (1970)

From the April 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard

The trouble at the Universities and the lycées in France is reported to be the worst since May 1968—”Revolutionaries” optimistically predict another situation like May 1968 for the spring.

It is interesting to analyse the new situation. Since the new year, there have been twelve suicides by burning, and the protesters are getting younger. A new group, who call themselves “Barricades”, has made a dynamic appearance on the scene. The majority of their numbers come from the Lycée Michelet, one of the most respected high schools of France. They claim to have a thousand followers.

Besides this trouble at the lycées, the universities are in revolt. At Nanterre, where troubles led to the events of May and June, there have been renewed clashes with Left wing and Right wing students fighting it out with result that the University was closed down for a weekend. At the Sorbonne, too, students occupied the university compound; the police came to disperse them; the students reacted and molotov cocktails were thrown at the police.

This all seems to emphasise the predictions of the so-called revolutionaries. However, if we take a close look at these groups we find there is nothing new or revolutionary about them. Reports tell us that the headquarters of “Barricades” have pictures of Che Guevera plastered on the wall and Thoughts of Mao in their pockets. Again, in the Universities there are the traditional Bolshevik varieties of Mao, Stalin, Trotsky and Che. Even the more advanced groups such as Cohn-Bendit’s March 22 Movement, who have at least rejected the traditional Bolshevik line, still cling on to the archaic and anarchistic line of the “revolutionary situation” accompanied by barricades in the streets.

Working class emancipation must be the work of the working class itself and that no “vanguard of the proletariat” can bring about. The traditional Bolshevik theory has been proven wrong. Following leadership is doomed to failure. The “revolutionary situations” or barricades in the street cannot bring about Socialism. Only when the majority of workers understand and want Socialism can it be achieved and then there is no need for barricades in the street. The task for Socialists in France is not to go out and lead or to go out and destroy; the task is to spread Socialist propaganda, to organise into groups and to form a revolutionary party as a companion to ours with one aim – Socialism.
P. C.

Law & Order or Justice (1970)

From the April 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard

Think before you act
Socialism is concerned with justice. Capitalism is concerned with law and order. They are not the same thing. Capitalism’s law is based on social injustice and its order is merely the preservation of peace or waging of war in accordance with the economic needs of the system.

Socialism is based on the assumption of the common ownership of wealth by the whole of humanity and the employment of such means to provide the basis of a full and happy life for all.

Capitalism is the assumption or ownership of all the resources of nature by a minority class, the capitalists. That ownership does not only extend over the land, the sea and the air but, also over such means for producing and distributing wealth as have been devised by the hand and brain of Labour.

All law within capitalism is firmly based on the premise of ownership and control of wealth, and the means of producing wealth, by the capitalist class. Where Law affects public order and the rights of the individual within capitalism, its purpose is still simply to maintain conditions, real or illusory, that make acceptable the capitalist condition of things and allow the system unhampered freedom to fulfil its exploitive function.

When it is otherwise, when the power or privilege of capitalism is threatened, when its property is endangered, when the ‘peace’ or ‘order’ it needs to carry out its extraction of profits from the labour of the working class, then . . . capitalism becomes our armed thug !

In such circumstances the whole power of the capitalist state can be used against the working class without compunction. The friendly “bobby” can become a club-wielding fiend; the children’s party-giving soldiers can become cold machine murderers.

You have seen this to some extent in Northern Ireland already and if you ask the friendly khaki-clad boys that roam our streets with their machine pistols at the ‘high port’ where their various regiments have been over the last decade you will find they have attended on many situations where capitalism was in bloody mood. Be warned! Those rifles are not always at the ‘high port’ position! Remember that the capitalist state will justify slaughter here with the same excuses which you accepted for Malaya, Palestine, Cyprus, Aden . . . Be warned!

All the portents of further religious strife lurk in the shadows of Belfast and Derry. Think before you act! Think about your problems—your working class problems; ask yourself whether or not the action you contemplate can ease or eradicate those problems.

As Socialists, we despise capitalism’s ‘law’ and are revulsed by the hypocrisy of its ‘order’ but, because we have no illusions about the mercy of the forces arranged against us or the strength of such forces, because we are concerned with the lives of our fellow-members of the working class, irrespective of their religion, we entreat you to refrain from any action which could ignite the bomb in our midst. Our plea is not even prompted by the thought of more working-class dead, maimed or homeless, but by the utter futility and senselessness of sectarian warfare.

You may say that such a plea is no different from that made by those new political species in our midst, the ‘moderates’. As far as it goes, this is true . . . but, we go further.

We affirm that it is you, the working class, Catholic, Protestant, atheist, or what have you, who have agreed the claim of the capitalist class to ownership of the means of wealth production. That it is you, who by giving this right, have allowed capitalism to create the political and economic conditions in which working class poverty and frustration is canalised into religious bigotry, racialism or some such area of easy identification for the priorities of misery. That it is you who have given the capitalist state the power to pass laws for the protection and maintenance of capitalism and the suppression of your political afterthoughts.

We do not, then, merely warn you not to partake in sectarian violence or any action that may lead thereto: we also warn you of the need for action now to revoke your mandate to capitalism and of the need for you to actively participate in building a real Socialist organisation that will wrest control of the State machine, by the majority action of a Socialist-conscious working class, in order to create a Socialist system of production for use— a system of society in which the material conditions for bigotry and violence could not arise.

— from the World Socialist Party of Ireland Bulletin.

50 Years Ago: Freedom of the Press in 1920 (1970)

The 50 Years Ago column from the April 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard

For our March issue we prepared and had put into type, an article dealing with the late atrocities in the Punjab. This article was based entirely on the published report of the commission which was appointed to put the whitewash brush over the bloodstains. But putting it into type was as far as we could get with the business, for at that point there came into operation that vaunted prop and pillar of the British Empire, the “Freedom of the Press”, to wit.

* * *

The firm which machines our paper declined to proceed with the printing of the issue, and we had to have the ‘wind up’ article removed and another substituted for it before we could get the paper published.

Of course we are not blaming the printer. It is only logical to suppose that there is some element of risk attaching to the printing of a revolutionary paper. Our hypocritical bosses, who of late years have traded so much on the word ‘democracy’, have taken great care, while mouthing the magic phrase “Freedom of the Press”, to manufacture such an atmosphere of fear as effectually strangles any shred of literary freedom that may have been left to the working class of this country.

(From an unsigned Editorial in the Socialist Standard, April 1920)

Voice From the Back: The Control Of Ideas (2012)

The Voice From the Back column from the August 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Control Of Ideas

The New Yorker magazine (7 June) asked a worthwhile question recently. “Last week, Gallup announced the results of their latest survey on Americans and evolution. The numbers were a stark blow to high-school science teachers everywhere: forty-six per cent of adults said they believed that ‘God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years.’ Only fifteen per cent agreed with the statement that humans had evolved without the guidance of a divine power. …. Such poll data raises questions: Why are some scientific ideas hard to believe in? What makes the human mind so resistant to certain kinds of facts, even when these facts are buttressed by vast amounts of evidence?” We would suggest that one of the factors that stops the flow of scientific ideas to the minds of workers is the control that religious and political factions have over the education and communication facilities. The owning class in the USA spend billions of dollars ensuring that their workers don’t understand the society they live in.

The Realities Of War 

We are all aware of the Hollywood depiction of wartime bravery and noble sacrifice in battle, but one aspect of war is never dealt with by the cinema. “Suicides are surging among America’s troops, averaging nearly one a day this year — the fastest pace in the nation’s decade of war. The 154 suicides for active-duty troops in the first 155 days of the year far outdistance the U.S. forces killed in action in Afghanistan — about 50 per cent more — according to Pentagon statistics obtained by The Associated Press” (Associated Press, 8 June). More suicides than those killed by the enemy! No wonder those portraying war as something admirable keep quiet about the suicide rate.

Hard Work

One of the myths espoused by supporters of capitalism is that the present economic downturn is caused by the laziness of the working class. Far from this being the case thousands of workers are desperate for a job as can be seen by the following statistics. “Leading companies are being flooded by 73 applications for each graduate vacancy, a major report reveals today. That figure is an average and the number is even higher in some sectors, with 154 chasing each post in retail and 142 vying for a single job in investment banking. The report says that it is even harder to find work this year as openings are down on 2011 amid the economic uncertainty worsened by the eurozone crisis” (Daily Mail, 4 July).

Desperate Workers

In their desperate struggle to survive, many workers from Africa try to get to Europe by any means possible. “The only survivor of 54 Africans who tried to cross to Italy in an inflatable boat has described throwing overboard the bodies of fellow passengers who died during the voyage. Abbes Settou, from Eritrea, who was rescued by Tunisian fishermen, said the migrants, including three members of his family, and ten women, slowly died of hunger, thirst and exhaustion” (Times, 12 July). According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) some 170 migrants have died attempting the Mediterranean crossing this year. Capitalism’s hellish conditions force workers into unbearable situations.

Spend, Spend, Spend

All over the world capitalism is experiencing an economic recession. Even formerly booming Japan is feeling the pinch with markets in free-fall. Amidst this period of uncertainty and fear there is of course one section of the population that continues to spend, spend, spend as usual. “An apartment that is believed to be the most expensive one-bedroom property in the world is on sale in Tokyo with a price tag of a cool Y1.8 billion (£14.72 million). …. The price means that 1 square foot of the property costs £3,320.33. The owner of the penthouse apartment – whom Sotheby’s would only identify as a successful and married businessman – spent 18 months completely refurbishing the property from a four-bedroom family home” (Daily Telegraph, 13 July). The owning class continue to indulge themselves no matter the economic world climate.

Debt, Money and Marx (2012)

Book Review from the August 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard
  David Graeber’s much talked of Debt: The First 5,000 Years is what the title suggests –a history of debt since ancient times. Debt, that is, in the broadest sense, since Graeber discusses theological conceptions of debt as something humans owe to gods or to God or to society, which is rather remote from the more usual sense of owing money.
The myth of barter
Graeber sets out to refute the idea put forward by Adam Smith and followed by others that money arose out of barter. Smith argued that all humans had a “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another”and so that barter would have been the original way in which they exchanged the products of their different trades. As barter has the inconvenience that those wanting to exchange have to have what each wants, at some stage money is invented as something that can be exchanged for anything.

As an anthropologist, Graeber is able to show that there never have been any economies based on barter. It’s a myth, but the founding myth of conventional economics and still adhered to in modern economics textbooks. In a footnote (p. 395) Graeber suggests that “the idea of a historical sequence from barter to money to credit…reappears at least in tacit form in Marx”. This is fair enough to an extent, as in his ‘critique of political economy’ (the subtitle of Capital) Marx did accept some of the historical facts as perceived by Adam Smith and others whose ideological conclusions he was critiquing.

One of these historical assumptions was that barter preceded money. The theory of money that Marx expounds in the opening chapters of Capital, however, is that money is a commodity that can be exchanged for any other commodity, i.e. it is what he called a ‘general equivalent’. This is not a theory of money as an invention or social convention to overcome the inconveniences of barter. It is, rather, a theory of the way in which the social relationship that links separate commodity producers appears externally as a thing.

Marx’s analysis of money was not a historical description of how money evolved but a theory of what money is, irrespective of how it evolved. It is therefore not affected by later researches such as Graeber’s which suggest that money as a general equivalent did not in fact evolve out of barter. This said, Marx is very much with the money-as-commodity school as opposed to the money-as-credit theorists with whom Graeber seems to have more sympathy.

Social currencies
But if money didn’t arise from barter, how did it arise? In fact, what is money? Most would say that money is something that can be exchanged for anything else, i.e. that it is a means of exchange, typically (but not exclusively) coins and, these days, notes. Graeber accepts that this is one aspect of money, but emphasises another: its function as a general unit of account allowing different products to be compared. Once again as an anthropologist, he is able to show that money in this form existed before coins.

The first example he gives is of human groups where dowries and compensation for killing or injuring someone or impugning their honour are quantified. The general unit in which these are measured can be anything and has varied from cowrie shells to cattle. As these items do circulate (pass from one person to another) he calls them “social currencies”and the groups which practice this he calls “human economies”. But these cowrie shells, etc were not used to acquire items of everyday use:
  “All of this, it is important to emphasize, can happen in places where markets in ordinary, everyday goods –clothing, tools, foodstuffs –do not even exist. In fact, in most human economies, one’s most important possessions could never be bought and sold for the same reasons that people can’t: they are unique objects, caught up in a web of relationships with human beings”(p. 208).
But if they are not used, and cannot be used to buy things are they really money?

Shekels and the State
Graeber’s second example is of the states that existed in the Middle East from 3500 to 800 BC, especially Sumer (the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, now part of modern Iraq). Here there were both taxes (debts to the state) and commercial and personal loans to acquire things. These were also expressed in a common unit (a shekel which was a weight of silver) but this rarely changed hands as debts and taxes were settled in kind with such useful things as wheat, whose quantity was determined by its silver equivalent. There were no coins, but was there nevertheless money? Can money be said to exist if there is just a general unit of account without the circulation of the material which is its substance? In any event, Graeber proves his point that before there were coins there wasn’t just barter.

Coins, i.e. uniform pieces of metal stamped according to their weight by the rulers of a state, are generally accepted to have first come into existence in the kingdom of Lydia (in what is now Turkey) around 600 BC. Graeber makes a good case for saying that this was to pay the soldiers the state employed. The use of coins, he says, then spread to Miletus, a Greek city and port on the Ionian coast of the Aegean Sea:
  “It was Ionia, too, that provided the bulk of the Greek mercenaries active in the Mediterranean at the time, with Miletus their effective headquarters. Miletus was also the commercial center of the region, and, perhaps, the first city in the world where everyday transactions came to be carried out primarily in coins instead of credit”(p. 245).
Thus states (not barter) were at the origin of money. Graeber goes further and argues that markets too, as places where everyday things can be acquired in exchange for coins, were also the creation of states. In other words, markets were dependent on states from the start. This allows him to refute the free-marketeer idea that government-free markets have existed or could exist (which in fact is part of the barter myth).

Commercial credit
Commerce (merchant’s capital) existed long before industrial capital (capital invested in production) and many of the arrangements for paying for goods that were traded over long distances were developed in pre-capitalist societies: arrangements for clearing payments at mediaeval fairs in Europe, for instance, and ‘paper money’ (actually, paper trade bills: credit given to merchants till they sold their goods) in China in the 10th century AD. Cheques, Graeber points out, were in use in the Islamic world in mediaeval times, the Arabic word saqq being the origin of the English word ‘cheque’.

These are all credit arrangements which Graeber uses to back up the thesis advanced in his book that there is a historical cycle of periods during which trade is based on credit and when it is based on bullion. According to him, after the USA finally went off the Gold Standard in 1971, we may have entered another age in which the credit will come to be regulated, as it was in previous credit ages.  During these times debts were periodically cancelled (the original meaning of the word “jubilee”) and the charging of interest on loans for consumption was banned.

What is capitalism?
When discussing relatively modern times (1450 to 1971) Graeber asks “So, what is capitalism anyway?” Socialists in the Marxist tradition define capitalism as an economic system based on the production of surplus value by wage workers. These are employed by capitalists or capitalist corporations that have invested money in producing things for sale on a market with a view to profit. Graeber challenges this definition. Marxists, he says,
  “still tend to assume that free wage labor is the basis of capitalism. And the dominant image in the history of capitalism is the English workingman toiling in the factories of the industrial revolution, and this image can be traced forward to Silicon Valley, with a straight line in between. All those millions of slaves and serfs and coolies and debt peons disappear, or if we must speak of them, we write them off as temporary bumps along the road”(p. 351).
Graeber should read the chapter in Capital on “The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist”. In it Marx deals with how the capital to launch the industrial revolution was originally acquired: “so-called primitive accumulation”(but which is better translated as “original accumulation”). He lists “colonialism, the national debt, the modern mode of taxation, and the protectionist system”as methods employed by the state in Spain, Portugal, Holland, France and England “to hasten, hothouse fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition”. That Marx fully realised what a brutal process this was can be seen from the concluding words of the chapter where he wrote that capital came into the world “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” This is hardly ignoring the sufferings of pre-industrial producers.

Graeber sees capitalism as this rather than as the investment of money capital in production with a view to extract surplus value from wage-labour. He has confused what states did to hasten capitalism’s coming in being with capitalism. He wasn’t the first, as Marx notes in the same chapter:
  “The great part that the public debt, and the fiscal system corresponding to it, has played in the capitalisation of wealth and the expropriation of the masses, has led many writers, like Cobbett, Doubleday and others, to seek in this, incorrectly, the fundamental cause of the misery of the modern peoples.”
People are not exploited today because they are the debt-slaves of the financial system but because they are the wage-slaves of capitalist corporations.

Graeber’s view of capitalism as the exploitation of the real economy by some military-financial complex gives credence to those who see the way forward in abolishing the supposed power of banks to create credit out of nothing (a mistaken view Graeber seems to share). Outside his profession as an anthropologist, Graeber is an anarchist and a member of the IWW and so wants to go to a society in which there will be no wage-labour. However, his inadequate theory of capitalism could lead to any growing anti-capitalist movement getting diverted into mere banking and monetary reform.
Adam Buick

Blogger's Note:
David Graeber replied to this review in the October 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard.

Pathfinders: Higgs Story in the Making (2012)

The Pathfinders Column from the August 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

Higgs Story in the Making

Last month’s big science news, perhaps the news of the decade, was the Higgs discovery, or rather the discovery of a new particle of some sort which may or may not be the Higgs or some relative, close friend, neighbour or chat-room acquaintance thereof. Ask anyone on the street what the significance of this is and they will cheerfully tell you they’ve no idea. The physicists are none too sure either. Their jubilation is due to a twofold success story, the one of theory, the other of experimental ingenuity. Theorists can dream up all sorts of exotic ideas, but testing them is quite another matter. The Large Hadron Collider and its two detectors CMS and ATLAS are probably the most complex machines ever built by humans. They would be a triumph of engineering even if they hadn’t found anything. The discovery doesn’t push back the boundaries of the unknown, nor even positively confirm what is known. Like a man found at a crime scene holding the murder weapon, the particle may look guilty as hell, but so far the evidence is all circumstantial and other interpretations are possible. Even if it cries ‘Fair cop, guv, I’m the one wot done it’, it’s just one gangland boss in a whole shadowy organisation, behind which lurk the elusive grandmasters gravity, supersymmetry (maybe) and who knows what else? The Higgs does not so much expand our collective knowledge as confirm the majestic scale of our ignorance.

Socialists spend a lot of time talking about what capitalism does badly, but it behoves us to acknowledge too when capitalism does something well. Science has been a galloping success and its expansion shows no sign of slowing down but instead is accelerating. It is sobering to reflect that Einstein in his prime had no idea that galaxies existed. The fact that the universe itself, like science, is also expanding and that this expansion is accelerating is a fact now probably known to most schoolchildren, yet it was not known when Tony Blair’s New Labour came to power, and the Nobel prize for this discovery was awarded just last year.

This is one of the most contradictory and confusing aspects of capitalism. It is not just averagely good or bad at doing things, it is amazingly good and bad at doing things. When the history of this epoch comes to be written, perhaps by future socialist scholars, people will scratch their heads over the triumphant success of experimental high energy physics on the one hand, and the utter failure of society to make any progress over climate change on the other. How is it that we could explore, with an unprecedented level of cooperation, cost, accuracy and dedication, the fundamental nature of matter, while managing to overlook the fact that our collective laboratory was burning down around us? Why did we pour such ingenuity into, say, fat research while ignoring mass starvation, or epidemiology while doing nothing to stop the epidemics of easily preventable diseases?

It’s all about the money, obviously. Some might wonder why 111 states, with their eye always on the accounts, ever came to pay £6bn for an experiment which shows no obvious prospect of producing a financial return, especially when these same states show no similar cooperation over climate control. But that is to forget the casino nature of the system. Capitalism backs science like a gambler backs horses, expecting losses but hoping for a few big wins. Nobody has any idea whether or how the Higgs might represent a win in money terms. It may do or it may not. The Caderache fusion reactor (Pathfinders, May 2012) will probably cost three or four times this amount, and may produce nothing. Roughly $150bn has so far been lofted into orbit in support of the International Space Station, with again no certainty of a payoff.

What is certain is that poor people don’t pay, no matter how much research you put in, no matter what experiments you do. Putting food in a hungry child’s mouth is never going to make any sense in capitalism. That horse simply won’t run. Climate control, similarly, is a loser. Collective rationality just doesn’t come into it. Expecting capitalist states to agree to climate control is like expecting trees in a forest not to try to outgrow each other. Whoever cheats will gain an advantage, so everyone must cheat. Even though everyone ultimately exhausts themselves in the effort, nobody can afford to be left behind in the race.

So while we should acknowledge the amazing success of science within capitalism we have to recognise its political context. Its achievements are those which capitalism wants, its agenda that which capitalism writes. Those who support science can sometimes fall into the habit of reifying it as an ideal, as a ‘value-free’ quest for knowledge which transcends all other considerations. For them, the portrait of the astronomer peering through his telescope and writing his notes can never be anything other than a noble vision.  But we are not living in a noble vision and science does not exist in a bubble. Outside the quiet observatory the world is immersed in chaos and murder. For all its monumental achievements, science can never really be true science while it is forced to flow down the channels money cuts for it. And human society will never be truly scientific, no matter how far it pursues the secret facts of nature, while it continues to ignore the salient facts of life.


Users: 1 –  Software Mafia: 0

Ongoing tribulations with capitalism’s attempts to commodify the unquantifiable: knowledge. Now in a major blow to the software industry the European Union has ruled that software companies have no right to prevent customers from reselling old second-hand titles (New Scientist, 14 July). Up to now the software mafia have insisted that knowledge is a hitherto unique type of commodity, where you don’t buy the thing itself but instead buy a licence to use it. Since this militates against most people’s conception of common sense in capitalism, it was widely misunderstood or disregarded. How, people wondered, could you pay for something and still not own it? The new ruling throws out this bizarre anomaly, but it does more than that, for who is to say who’s bought what from whom in the second-hand market? The worst fears of the industry will now be realised, to the delight of users, as we all go around ‘selling’ each other our software for a notional penny. Which we may never get round to paying. It’s nice to see, for a change, capitalism’s efforts to create artificial scarcity being given the bum’s rush.
Paddy Shannon

99 Problems and the Rich Are One (2012)

From the August 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is nice to see Occupy London explain its general ideological direction at greater length than we’ve seen in its meetings and previous writings in the June issue of The Occupied Times of London. (The Occupied Times is produced by an ‘autonomous working group of Occupy London general assembly.’) The initial statement on 16 October 2011 agreed by a ‘gathering of Occupy London’ leaves a little to be desired, and though Global Occupy Manifesto (May 2012) did consult international Occupy groups, Occupy London was not consulted to publish. The Occupied Times describes itself as ‘self-funded’ and states that it “does not operate an open-door policy like most other working groups, instead taking the form of an affinity group”.

Issue 14 carries a debate on whether capitalism can be ethical. This is written comprehensibly and well. Capitalism’s defender can barely be bothered to defend capitalism at all, calling instead for ethical consumerism. Its critic gives Marx a mention and writes well but sprawlingly and concludes his piece with a call for a sustainable economy or, seemingly, for a zero-growth economy. Though it’s easy to read, it’s not so easy to understand the detail of the author’s alternative proposal.

The issue also carries a correction of media reports on the verifiability of vacant tents, criticism of specific corporations and specific directors, criticism of the Olympics, pieces on the transatlantic slave trade Gullah/Geechee culture, the Medieval Icelandic Althing, and a Venezuelan documentary, Hip Hop Revolution, an irreverent look at tax resistance (more interesting than it sounds), various international reports and a free plug for London Chapter of the International Organisation for Participatory Society (IOPS). There is also a critical report on an autonomous group, Occupy Faith UK, which is rightly suspicious about co-option by faiths promising not to proselytise. An editor comments: “you can’t get much more hierarchical than gods”.

Transcending Liberalism by Steven MacLean is by far the best article about liberalism in the Occupy movement.  He writes:
  while the occupation at St Paul’s outlived most in the us, the movement here remains in the shadow of Occupy Wall Street. For OWS, the eviction of the camps turned out to be a blessing. Instead of focusing on site management and internal politics, occupiers were given an opportunity to shift tactics and look outwards, focusing on new directions for the movement. Meanwhile, the occupations in London rumbled on defiantly, but vital energy was expended on their upkeep. The occupation of physical space increasingly divided ‘occupiers’ from sympathetic members of the public, resulting in an exclusive lifestyle. we had created a ‘social’ without the ‘movement’, while in the us, Occupy remained an accessible wave of public outrage.
Although the Occupy Movement is still a work in progress, the Occupied Times of London seems relatively editorially free from attachment to some of the dubious ideas in Occupy. In any case, irrational or inaccurate ideas might tend to be undermined in a relatively open publication. A letters page would probably be redundant in the internet-minded Occupy movement, and Occupied Times of London do call for contributions – so seem committed to participation. If the content and commitment of Occupied Times is anything to go by, and the Occupy Movement can resist co-option by hierarchies and defend horizontalism, it will probably sustain the momentum to continue into another year.

An Open Letter to The Chairman of the Bank of England (2012)

Mervyn King
From the August 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Sir Mervyn

Having heard on the BBC news channel on the evening of the 29th June your condemnations and exhortations concerning the practices of your fellow-bankers I am taking the liberty of writing to you to register my surprise at your remarks. It is not my purpose to be offensive but I find it difficult to accept that a man of your knowledge and experience can view the current crisis of capitalism in moral terms or, indeed, as aberrational.

I am an eighty-seven year old man and a great-grandfather which gives me a particular concern for the future. I was born four years before the awful world economic slump of 1929 and I have lived through some eight or nine ‘recessions’ –as they are euphemistically referred to today. I have witnessed life under the system of capitalism when it was largely unregulated –capitalists had discovered earlier that they required some sort of Queensbury Rules to protect themselves from one another.

Post-1945, when government adopted the war-time National government’s commitment to the Beveridge Report, I experienced Maynard Keynes’ antidote to the caprice of the system, via ‘demand management’: the exchange of bonds for shares and –in recognition that working-class poverty was an endemic feature of capitalism – the institution of a complex scheme of nationalised poverty.

It would be churlish to deny that there was some improvement in social conditions for the producing class: improvement, it has to be said, greatly assisted by the need to make good the awful destruction of the late world war –while frenetically preparing for yet another possible war against our late ‘glorious Russian allies’ and their Leninist philosophy of trying (vainly, as it turned out) to rationalise commodity production through central state planning.

While knowledge was constrained by the cash nexus, science in all fields of human endeavour has brought about a geometrical increase in our potential to create the material conditions of a full and happy life for every human being on the planet. Unfortunately much of our fantastically expanded wisdom and wealth has been siphoned into military establishments which are today a vital indigenous segment of the world economy; a segment which often manifests an independent and dangerous threat to human freedom.

The world of my lifetime has seen the economic murder of some eight billion people through starvation, lack of clean water and necessary medication. The food and medication to keep these people alive was available but the men, women and children concerned did not represent a viable market that would yield profit. They died because they were poor.

In the same period I have seen World War Two –the awful sequel to World War One –that brought homes onto battlefields. Now, since the end of WW2, there is at least one major conflict occurring every single day. In fact, the industrialised killing of human beings that arises from the endemic conflicts of capitalism has itself created investment opportunities effectively making international concord a serious economic threat.

Rich list
It is surely legitimate, Sir Mervyn, to ask such as your good self how you think people in what we hope will be a more enlightened future will see the current phase of what we are told is civilisation. How, for example, would a future economic historian see the current Sunday Times ‘Rich List’ which shows that the wealth of the one thousand richest people in the UK –a mere 0.003% of the adult population –increased by an incredible £155 billion over the last three years? This in a period when wages and social security benefits were, and are, being slashed and the vision and disagreements of the three political parties, marketing the same political product, is confined to the duration, in years, the working class will have to endure the appalling increase in its miseries.

Moral aphorisms appealing to those who have purloined the means whereby the rest of us live have never restrained the appetites of an owning class. It is said that Jesus got his comeuppance for suggesting the meek –by definition, the poor –should inherit the land. Centuries later, in the dying years of the nineteenth century, when Pope Leo mildly admonished the capitalism of his day, opining that “…the wages of the working man ought not be insufficient to support a frugal and well-conducted wage-earner…” (Encyclical: Rerum Novarum, May 1891) public criticism was raised by Italian businessmen who suggested that the promulgation of the document might cause social unrest.

Poverty and riches are two sides of the same coin –almost literally so, for as Shelley put it, “Paper coin, [is] that forgery of the title deeds which we hold to something of the worth of the inheritance of earth”. You cannot be ignorant of the mechanism by which a small minority class dispossesses the creators of all real wealth of the fruits of their labour and rations their access to their needs through a wages-money system.

Whatever the form of society, real wealth is produced, and can only be produced, by the application of human labour power to nature-given materials. Capitalism adds a third element to this simple equation: investment on foot of the promise of profit. The shareholder, whether s/he is a billionaire or a plumber in a pension scheme, seeks a return on their investment and is rarely persuaded by the needs of ‘the nation’ or their perception of morality. Only the threat in the aforesaid ‘Queensberry Rules’ of the system curbs the pecuniary enthusiasm of the more predatory captains of capital and that, as we are currently learning, is not always the case.

Capital on strike
The labour power that provided the fervid productive activity of, say six years ago, when the system was in relative ‘boom’, is still available as are the natural resources of that period. The missing element is capital; effectively, capital is on strike, holding the nation up to ransom as the pensioned editors of their newspapers proclaim when some group of low-paid workers withdraws their labour. Surely the fact that a small minority of satiated money shufflers can visit such overwhelming hardship on the populace in general (as it does periodically) must bring the entire system into question.

Whatever of the past, when the owner of the local factory lived in the big house on the periphery of the town or village and occasionally visited the local hostelry and even bought the lads a pint, capitalism today is a curse on the lives of the world’s billions. Technology has given it a mobility to seek the cheapest labour, circumvent health and safety standards that might impinge on profits or capital on-costs and to force the hand of allegedly democratic authority.

The implications in the current crop of chastisements against bankers and those of their ilk is that capitalism is an efficient, humane economic system that offers the human family the best of all possible worlds except when, as now, it falls victim to the ineptitude or greed of some of its functionaries. That is a lie told in defence of the system. Of course there has been abuse, and even absurdity, in the administration of banks and businesses but it was the uncontrollable greed that fuels the system that gave rise to the activities of bankers and speculators. Nor should we forget that it was the approbation of millionaire and billionaire shareholders that justified the fabulous salaries and bonuses so lately enjoyed by now-discredited servants of capital.

The widespread clarion for a public enquiry might expose some of the greedy swindlers whose dishonest activities have added misery to capitalism’s cyclic trade crisis as well as the self-interested manoeuvrings of politicians in all the three main parties. For a while these scoundrels might suffer in comfort the embarrassment of being publicly pilloried. But the system itself, the vile, anachronistic system that brings dire poverty or mere want to most of the people on the planet, will be off the hook.

What we will not have is an incisive enquiry into the question of capitalism’s suitability for purpose and whether socialism, in a clearly defined sense, offers a better way of life for the whole of humanity. That would be much too democratic.

Such are my thoughts. I confess, Sir Mervyn, that I am a ridiculous optimist who thinks human concern and human honesty might occasionally rise superior to the exigencies of office. Additionally, of course, in submitting this to the Editors of the Socialist Standard, I would stipulate that publication guarantees your right of reply.

Richard Montague

Party News (2012)

Party News from the August 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

Summer School

Thirty-five attended the annual Socialist Party Summer School in Birmingham over the weekend of 6-8 July. The theme of the school was Protest. Janet Surman opened with a talk on the Arab Spring as seen from her ring-side seat in nearby Turkey. She observed that, despite employing some violence, the dictatorships in

Egypt and Tunisia had not been able to maintain themselves in the face of mass and essentially peaceful popular opposition.

Mike Foster described the increased, and increasing, powers that the police in this country have been given in recent years to deal with demonstrations including infiltrating protest groups. A discussion arose out of his description of last year’s riots as “mindless”. Some challenged this on the grounds that, whereas the riots certainly had no theoretical content or political programme, they were nevertheless a practical criticism of present-day society.

A similar theme came up in the discussion after Ian Barker, of Occupy Norwich, had described what happened there. Occupy, he said, had deliberately avoided making specific policy proposals; in Norwich they had merely drawn up a list of agreed general principles which an alternative society should embody. In his talk, Stair, from our East Anglia branch, said that the list though largely unobjectionable was far too vague, but at least a space for discussions had been provided; these were continuing at regular meetings at an indoor venue to which branch members were contributing.

Bill Martin spoke on the crowd scenes in Shakespeare’s Corialanus. Although Shakespeare’s depiction of the crowd as a fickle mob reflected the views of the propertied classes of the time, he had been obliged to put the opposing view if only to knock it down. Shakespeare owned land in Warwickshire and so must have been aware of the protests there in his day against enclosure of common land with crowds levelling the fences and digging the land.

In his talk Glenn Morris argued that, while protests against the pollution of the land, sea and air were justified, they would not get very far if they assumed that a solution could be found within the profit-driven capitalist system.

Meeting with Zeitgeist

On 22 July 40 people attended a meeting in Hammersmith, London, between the Socialist Party, as part of the World Socialist Movement, and the Zeitgeist Movement.

There was agreement that the only framework within which the main problems facing humanity could be solved was one where the resources of the Earth had become the common heritage of all and so wealth could be produced and distributed without the need for money.

We call it “world socialism”. ZM call it a “resource-based economy”. In the first session, on what was wrong with the present economic system, both speakers agreed that it had a built-in tendency to uncontrolled “growth” which was having a detrimental effect on the environment. Dick Field, for the Party, explained this tendency as being due to the competitive struggle for profits between capitalist firms leading to the accumulation of more and more capital out of the profits they extracted from the workforce. Franceso, for ZM, argued that it was due to the need to pay interest to banks on money they had created, the money to pay which could only be found by borrowing more from the banks; so we were debt-slaves. Although ZM did not advocate monetary reform to mitigate this, he personally was in favour of it as a transitional measure towards a money-free society.

In the discussion Party members challenged the view that banks had the power to create money out of thin air. In the second session, on how to get from here to there, Adam Buick, for the Party, said that a gradual evolution was not possible; there had to be a decisive and more or less rapid break with capitalism, to be brought about by the political action of the majority in society acting in their own  interest. Steve Duffield, for ZM, said that ZM saw its role as to inform people of the situation, confident that they would see what the solution was. ZM was not a political party and did not  advocate reformism or electoral action. People could begin to change things now by changing their lifestyle to rely less on money and consumerism.

In the discussion, ZM members challenged the view that the new society could be voted in. Party members replied that what was important was to have a majority in favour and that it would be foolish to try to change society while leaving political power in the hands of the minority who benefited from capitalism. The vote was merely a tool to use to win political control.

“Soyez réalistes, demandez l’impossible” (2012)

From the August 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard
Be realistic, demand the impossible” (Situationist graffiti, Paris, May 1968)
Marseilles in June: the French legislative elections and Euro 2012 on TV; a street market; the smell of tree blossom; voices in French and Arabic; the aroma of Provençal cookery or Maghrebi cuisine; and the anise flavour of pastis.

It is 25 years since my last visit to France when, as a student, the important things in life were “French”: the ‘Cinema du look’ of ‘Diva’, ‘Betty Blue’ and ‘Subway,’ which focused on alienated, marginalised young people in Mitterrand’s France; the Existentialist philosophy of Sartre in La Nausée and of Camus in L’Etranger; Tom Vague articles on Situationism, and the May 1968 ‘événements’; and being fascinated by ‘action directe’ political violence.

Marseilles’ population is one-quarter French, one-third Italian, and one-quarter Maghrebi (Algerian, Tunisian, Moroccan) and there are also Africans from the former French colonies such as Mali. During a visit to an Algerian café for a mint tea, I watch the Euro 2012 match France v England on TV and France equalise; the scorer is Samir Nasri, a Marseilles born player of Algerian ancestry.

Algeria gained independence from France in 1962 after a guerrilla war waged by the National Liberation Front (FLN) (dramatised by Gillo Pontecorvo in his 1966 film La bataille d‘Alger). An unstable bourgeois democracy exists in Algeria after a long civil war in the 1990s and a state of emergency that lasted twenty years. A poster on a wall in Marseilles calls on “Les citoyens algériens, résidents en France” to boycott the Algerian legislative elections in May 2012.

Marcel Pagnols’s plays of the 1930s were set in the docks and bars of Marseilles. The docks are now gentrified and known as ‘Vieux Port’, and the adjacent district known as ‘Le Panier’ has been prettified, which is a long way from its notorious reputation in the 1970s as a major heroin den. The local transport infrastructure is impressive, with its municipal-run Metro/Tram/Bus networks which are inexpensive to use. Post-war, Marseilles witnessed a large housing programme and this is symbolized by Le Corbusier’s ‘La Cité Radieuse’ which showed “another world is possible”. This experiment inspired imitations and concrete went up everywhere on the outskirts of Marseilles and other French cities. These became known as ‘les banlieues’, rent-controlled housing estates for the working class and beyond the pale for bourgeois society. In 2005, les banlieues were gripped by civil unrest for three weeks.

The emergency services sirens may be more subdued here but the state in the shape of the CRS riot police is in evidence. The CRS is notorious for its brutality towards young people, protesters and the Maghrebi and African populations. In the centre of an Algerian/African market, a CRS armoured truck is provocatively and obtrusively parked up.

On late night French TV talking heads discuss, “Qui était vraiment Mohammed Merah?” the man who was shot dead by the police in Toulouse on March after shooting seven people. France, unlike Britain, does not emphasise ‘multiculturalism’ but instead is a country proud of its secularism, expecting its ‘citizens’ to identify with the capitalist Nation-State of the Republic. The French capitalist state certainly does not want the working class to identify with its own class interests as it had done in history such as in 1871 and 1968.

Capitalism in France appears to be doing no so badly considering the world economic recession and the eurozone crisis (GDP growth was 1.7 percent in 2011). Just 45 minutes up country from Marseilles is the bourgeois town of Aix-en-France which is saturated by tourism and consumerism. France is still operating a mixed-economy of state-run industries, and a private sector. There is considerable rail infrastructure; trains and trams are built by Bombardier and Alsthom, the cars are Renault, Peugeot and Citroen, and there is a 35-hour working week.

As soon as Hollande was elected President in May he was summoned to Berlin to answer to the financial capitalists in charge in Europe. Recently the German Chancellor criticised Hollande for allowing the French economy to stall, and his plans to increase the cost to companies of laying off workers does not go down well with capitalist interests.

The ‘Parti Socialiste’ (PS) won a majority in the parliamentary elections in June. The main issue on French TV was Olivier Forlani of the ‘Divers Gauche’ standing against PS luminary Segolène Royal and eventually defeating her in the second round. Yet even this was overshadowed by the Feydeau farce that was Hollande’s new partner tweeting she wanted Forlani to win rather than Royal, the President’s ex-partner and mother of his four children. The deep sexism in French life was evident when female commentators asked: “How can Hollande run France if he can’t control his girlfriend?”

These events are a long way from ‘Les événements’ of May 1968 when a student strike developed into the largest general strike in history involving 11 million workers (2/3 of the workforce). The country came to a standstill, De Gaulle left the country for Germany to confirm he had the support of the French Army there and workers occupied the means of production. It ended with some concessions but with capitalism and capitalist political control intact.

The abolition of capitalism and the transformation to a socialist society is the only solution to France’s many problems. The capitalist class say that socialism is impossible because it is in their class interests to say so. All the ‘socialist’ parties, Leftist and Trotskyite groups in France offer policies to patch up capitalism and do not offer real socialism and can be described as ‘possibilists’. The Socialist Party of Great Britain’s sole aim is to achieve the goal of socialism and this has been described as ‘impossibilism’. In 1968 in Paris the cry was “Soyez réalistes, demandez l’impossible” and there can be no other way forward for human society but socialism.
Steve Clayton

Exhibition Review: Bauhaus (2012)

Exhibition Review from the August 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard
  “To create a new guild of craftsman, without the class distinctions which raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist” – Walter Gropius
It is apt for an exhibition about the Bauhaus, the Modernist architecture and design school to be taking place at the Barbican (till 12 August), that icon of brutalist architecture.

Architect Walter Gropius, inspired by William Morris, established the Bauhaus in Weimar in Germany in 1919 where he aimed to challenge the hierarchy between fine and applied arts, by creating art for the people, fashioning functional artistic products, and creating an aesthetic to counter bourgeois furbelows. Klee wrote it was “a community to which each one of us gave what he had.” The exhibition features paintings such as Kandinsky’s ‘Small worlds’ and Feininger’s ‘expressionist’ ‘Studio window’ and ‘Cathedral’.

The working class in Berlin went on general strike in the Spartacist uprising of January 1919 and armed struggle ensued. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) government (akin to the Labour Party) brought in Freikorps soldiers to crush the revolutionary uprising, and socialists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were brutally murdered. A year later, when threatened by the right-wing Kapp putsch, the SPD felt no shame in calling on workers to strike to save them. Gropius designed an ‘expressionist’ Monument to the March Fallen in honour of workers killed in the putsch.

The Bauhaus was part of a cultural renaissance that took place in Weimar Germany which included cinema like ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’, the theatre of Brecht, paintings by Grosz, the Frankfurt School of Fromm and Marcuse, Hirschfeld’s struggle for sexual law reform, and Reich’s ‘SexPol’ clinics for the working class.

The Bauhaus exhibition features products from its workshops such as the Wagenfeld table lamp, Brandt tea services, Albers’ tables and Breuer chairs. Gropius drew up designs for the ‘total theatre’ of Brecht-producer Erwin Piscator. The workshops were ultimately making exclusive products for the affluent and not for large-scale manufacture. Gropius had not solved the dilemma that Morris had faced.

In 1928 Marxist architect Hannes Meyer was appointed Bauhaus director and moved away from aesthetics and artistic intuition towards functionality and building theory. He believed buildings should be low-cost and fulfil social needs: “the people’s needs instead of the need for luxury”. Meyer expanded the workshops on a co-operative basis to meet the requirements of industry: his aim, the “harmonious organisation of our society”, and interestingly the Bauhaus made its first profit in 1929. The photography workshop was established; Maholy-Nagy made his trippy film ‘A Light Play’; there was the Warholian Metal Party; and the Bauhaus students moved towards Marxism. Gropius had built workers houses for the Torten-Dessau estate, which Meyer extended by building balcony access apartment houses. Meyer also designed the ADGB Trade Union School in Bernau.

Meyer was sacked in 1930 because of the politics and went to Moscow as an architecture professor. Eventually he ended up in Mexico. In the 1930s he was an active participant in the discourse about suppressing the bourgeois concept in architecture.

The Bauhaus was closed in 1933 by the Nazis who deemed its concept as “degenerate”.
Steve Clayton

Cooking the Books: Overproduction (2012)

The Cooking the Books column from the August 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

According to Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian (5 July), “Marxism is on the rise again”. One of the reasons he gives for this is “its analysis of economic crises”. But what is this analysis?

The problem with trying to describe Marx’s own theory is that he never published a final, worked-out version. In Volume 1 of Capital there are some passing references to capitalist production going in cycles “of average activity, production at high pressure, crisis and stagnation”. Apart from that, all we have are drafts and notes on the subject which Engels, Kautsky and Moscow later published as Volumes 2 and 3 of Capital, Theories of Surplus Value and the Grundrisse, but these drafts are not always entirely consistent with each other.

This has led to a number of different Marxist theories. The explanation we have favoured is that crises are caused during the phase of “production at high pressure” by one key industry (it could be any).  This industry, in its anarchic pursuit of profits, comes to overproduce in the market for its products, and this partial overproduction then has a knock-on effect on the rest of the economy.   

Others interpret “overproduction”in a different sense, to mean that capitalism has a tendency for total capitalist production to outstrip total market demand. An example can be found in the January-February issue of Lalkar (a publication of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), but it’s a theory put forward by others who don’t share this party’s policy). The present crisis, it claims:
  “is at heart a classic crisis of overproduction, this being the design fault that is built into the capitalist system. As the masses of workers –who make up the bulk of consumers –are, in the interests of profit, paid as little as possible, they are increasingly unable to buy all the increasing mass of commodities that the capitalist enterprises bring to market. This in turn bankrupts the least ‘efficient’ of the capitalist enterprises, causing further job losses and downward pressure on wages caused by an excess of the supply of labour power over the demand for the same. Bankruptcies start to escalate, while economic activity stagnates.”
This is a theory of “underconsumption” rather than of “overproduction”. It ignores the fact that the total capitalist market is not made up just of what workers can afford to buy, not even if capitalist spending on consumer luxuries is added; it also includes what capitalist enterprises re-invest in production, i.e. spend on producer goods.

Lalkar offers the following explanation as to why the present crisis didn’t break out earlier:
  “However, this process can be, and is, retarded by the simple expedient of the capitalists, who would otherwise find it difficult in the circumstances to invest profitably, lending money to workers to enable them to continue as consumers despite their relative poverty.”
This doesn’t make sense. The capitalist class lend the working class money to buy their goods, but how would they make a profit out of doing this? They would only get their money back.

Working-class borrowing did increase in the period up to the present crisis but this wasn’t done deliberately to prevent production spiralling downwards. It was the other way round: because production was expanding, banks and other lenders made loans to workers on the assumption that production would continue to expand and so workers would be able to repay out of their future wages both what they had borrowed and the added interest.

A crisis is not caused by working-class consumption going down but by capitalists cutting back their investment in production.  It is investment, not consumption, that drives the capitalist economy.  This is the essence of Marx’s theory of capitalism, whatever might have been his considered theory of crises had he got round to formulating it.

Hands off Wadiya! (2012)

Film Review from the August 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Dictator. Directed by Larry Charles
  “Nationalism of one kind or another was the cause of most of the genocide of the twentieth century. Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s brains and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.” Arundhati Roy
The Dictator (2012) stars Sacha Baron-Cohen as Admiral General Aladeen, dictator of the fictional country called the Republic of Wadiya. The story is loosely inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s character Adenoid Hynkel, dictator of the fictional country called Tomainia in The Great Dictator (1940).  Baron-Cohen’s character is based on Colonel Gaddafi.

Sacha Baron-Cohen built his career on satirising superficial identity politics and testing the limits of tolerance of those identifying with groups who express offensive opinions. In an early appearance he defended the right to be lazy against a rattled Tony Benn’s fantasy of full employment.

Admiral General Aladeen is described as anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist. These are often the main claims made by real-world countries who find support from groups calling themselves socialist. Even in Britain, where most people do not get beyond the position of support for the country they are born in, some calling themselves ‘socialists’ get little further than ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’.

The Communist Party of Britain (Morning Star) has been known to use Marx and Lenin’s support for national liberation movements (a position which Rosa Luxemburg demolished), as the basis of their opposition to wars waged by some countries but not others.

Trotskyist opponents of war, such as the Socialist Party of England and Wales (SPEW), although more critical than Stalinists, are also selective, and support ‘the lesser of two evils’, depending on which countries are waging war. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) claims to come from the unorthodox Trotskyist tradition and does not automatically or uncritically defend all so-called anti-imperialist countries. Smaller groups such as the Alliance for Workers Liberty claim a ‘Third-Camp’ position and have had a supporter who has been known to fly both an Israeli and Palestinian flag on a demonstration. So all represent a nationalism of sorts, but a nationalism nonetheless. The delusion is that powerful states can be condemned as imperialist but less powerful states murdering workers can be (critically or otherwise) supported as anti-imperialist. When this is couched in anti-interventionist terms, the socialist answer should be to intervene by promoting socialism everywhere, workers have no country.

At the end, even Aladeen’s final speech manages to distinguish between real democracy and a situation where both states are milked for oil by local dictators or by states with more powerful militaries. For this reason it is unlikely to be reviewed widely on the British left.

Where Baron-Cohen’s efforts to include romance and politics in his film fall flat, the more talented Chaplin succeeded in including both and was able to sum up his message of social freedom most eloquently – even better than most groups calling themselves socialist:
  “You the people have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness. You the people have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy let us use that power – let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power, but they lie. They do not fulfil their promise, they never will. Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people. Now let us fight to fulfil that promise. Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness.”

Undercover Under the Covers (2012)

The Proper Gander column from the August 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

You’ve started to notice the tell-tale signs that your partner might be having an affair – their emotional distance from you, their ‘working late at the office’ excuses, their ruffled appearance when they finally return home. What do you do? Talk with them about your concerns? Question why we live in a society which makes people feel trapped in failing relationships? Or hire a camera crew to follow your partner and secretly film them cavorting with their lover, and then allow all this and the resulting messy confrontation to be broadcast worldwide? The last option seems to have been the most attractive to those appearing on Cheaters (UKTV Really, Sky 248, Freeview 20).

Slimy host Joey Greco guides us through each ‘case’. One half of a couple talks about their suspicions that their partner is being unfaithful, accompanied by twinkly keyboard music for extra poignancy. Then we cut to what Greco’s team of detectives has filmed: shaky undercover footage of the partner’s furtive meetings with their new lover. This is narrated with lines like “agents are on active duty waiting for movement from the target”. The spurned spouse is shown this footage at the same time that their partner has been spied gallivanting elsewhere. Fired up with anger, they are then taken by Greco and his camera crew straight to where their partner is canoodling. If it looks like the ensuing confrontation won’t be as violent as he’s hoping for, Greco stokes the fire with a few smug comments.

The producers of this vile show try to justify themselves by saying “this program is both dedicated to the faithful and presented to the false-hearted to encourage their renewal of temperance and virtue”. ‘Virtue’ isn’t the most obvious word to associate with this show, especially as it has been accused of staging some of its salacious set-ups. If anything, Cheaters would be less repellent if it was faked. At least then, its voyeuristic viewers would only be watching desperate actors rather than desperate people clinging on to whatever relationships they can find. Cheaters represents television sinking to a new low in presenting alienation as entertainment. Scrub your eyes clean after watching.
Mike Foster

Action Replay: The Beautiful Game (2012)

The Action Replay Column from the August 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

Much was made of the political symbolism of the European Football Championships. Germany overwhelmed Greece and was then themselves taken apart by Italy (this is in football, not the eurozone economy). But Spain won, earning claims that they are the greatest team ever.

Back home in Spain, though, all is not well, with the recession hitting even harder than in Britain. Perhaps a quarter of the workforce is unemployed, while the figure rises to a scarcely-credible one-half of those under twenty-five.

Yet for one night, on 1 July after victory in the final, Spanish people were celebrating. ‘We’ll forget all the bad things that are happening. Even if it’s just for one day,’ said a nurse who had just finished her first day’s work in eleven months (BBC News website, 2 July).

Being on the dole gives you plenty of time to celebrate but, of course, less money to enjoy yourself. No doubt there were plenty of hangovers on the morning of 2 July, though there was no change in the unemployment situation. It would be silly to claim that it’s just a matter of bread and circuses, that sporting success helps reconcile workers to their downtrodden position. But it is certainly very handy for the rulers.

However many Spaniards do not need to worry about getting paid or scraping by on benefits. There are a number of billionaires, but by far the richest person in the country is Amancio Ortega, owner of the chain of Zara clothes shops, and worth a cool $37bn. Spain may have ‘taken football to a new level’ but some of the population occupy their very own level of wealth and exploitation,