Wednesday, October 16, 2019

What about the law of value? (1995)

Book Reviews from the February 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

Marx’s Theory of Crisis’. By Simon Clarke. Macmillan 1994, £14.99.

What About The Workers? Workers and the Transition to Capitalism in Russia’. By Simon Clarke. Macmillan 1994, £12.95.

Clarke argues that Marx gave a number of different explanations for the economic crises of capitalism. First, disproportionality between different branches of production so that one industry over-accumulates relative to the others and then faces a crisis of profitability which spreads to other industries. Second, underconsumption as workers cannot buy back what has been produced and a general crisis of profitability ensues as a result. Third, a tendency for the rate of profit to fall as a consequence of new technology and its greater cost relative to human labour power. Clarke’s view is that at one time or another Marx accepted and then rejected all three theories, and this ambiguity and inconsistency has been inherited by many of those in the Marxist tradition.

He argues that the three theories may describe contingent events in crises, but crises can actually occur for all manner of reasons. What all economic crises have in common is profitability – or rather, the lack of it. Crises are necessary and inevitable: they are a way of “purging” the economy of unprofitable businesses and raising the general rate of profit (largely at the expense of the working class, in terms of more work and less job security). This is perfectly normal for capitalism and does not mean that something has “gone wrong” with the economy. Indeed, capitalism will continue to lurch from crisis to crisis until the working class consciously organise for socialism.

Clarke is quite clear that the alleged failure of Marxism following the collapse of the Russian Empire is a myth, and that what has really failed is Leninism. This accurate insight is made all the more puzzling with the recent publication of another of his books.

As the subtitle of Clarke’s second book indicates, he labours under the illusion that Russia was something other than capitalist before the fall. His contention rests on the claim that Marx’s law of value did not apply in Russia before but does now. That the workers’ lot in Russia, as Clarke convincingly demonstrates, has gone from bad to worse in recent years does not show that bad is preferable to worse. In fact the collapse of the Russian Empire is a striking confirmation of the law of value, and it brings out a peculiar feature of his book on crises in that it ignores Marx’s theory of value. This time it is Clarke who is inconsistent.

Under the old system, the law of value (basically, the social compulsion to accumulate capital out of monetary profits) operated but was modified by state action. In Marxist terminology, the state redistributed surplus value from the profitable sector of the economy to non-profitable ends (the military in particular). But by the 1980s the “purging” effect on unprofitable businesses induced by the law of value, and delayed by state action, meant that most of the economy had become inefficient in terms of profitability and was, literally, in a state of crisis. This, together with popular opposition, is the main reason for the collapse of Russian state capitalism.
Lew Higgins

The World in your hand (1995)

CD-Rom Review from the February 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

Encarta '95 CD-ROM - The Complete Interactive Multimedia Encyclopedia (Microsoft £85.)

Technology — don't you just love it? Whatever, this is the baby that’s currently putting thousands of encyclopedia salesmen out of a job. A compact disc packed with 26,000 articles, it may not look as glorious as those bound volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, but it’s a damn sight easier to use — providing. that is, that you have access to a CD-ROM facility on a PC. It also has the advantage of colour pictures, video film and stereo sound. It will talk and sing to you if provoked.

Without doubt, it is a quite excellent reference guide with some stunning features, and even gives you the facility to print out text and pictures. The sections on social science, history and philosophy are voluminous, although the quality of the information varies according to the contributors. Even so. it is nice to see a reference under the term “socialism" to the fact that this word was initially used as a synonym for communism, a society of social or common ownership of wealth. This may be considered surprising as the entry was partly written by the late Norman Thomas, former leader of the reformist US Socialist Party.

The entries on Marx. Engels, Kautsky, Luxemburg et al are generally well written and informative and there is relatively little to complain about. As befits a US publication, the references to Daniel De Leon and Eugene Debs are also good, although the statement that De Leon was an “authoritarian socialist" will annoy some.

Much of the usual mumbo-jumbo is regurgitated in the economics section, though not more so than in other encyclopedias. In fact there is a reasonable outline of most bourgeois economic theories, and there is also a small section on Marxian economics, which is a definite advance.

Microsoft originally designed this product mainly for the US market, and this often shows, with truly huge sections on American history, politics and geography, but for 1996 a version specifically for use in Britain is promised. If such a tiny, insignificant groups as the American Labor Party can rate an entry in the US version, we can hopefully assume that a distinctive organisation like the Socialist Party of Great Britain should be assured a place on merit for the version over here.
Dave Perrin

The Class Struggle On Board The "Titanic." (1912)

From the May 1912 issue of the Socialist Standard

Once again humanity has been staggered by an appalling catastrophe, in which hundreds of human lives have been thrown away, and hundreds of homes plunged into grief and despair. Once again the wild cry of horror has vibrated through the world, and the multitude have been not only shocked, but astounded, as if the unexpected had happened. Once again the newspapers have been slobbering sentimental platitudes and unctuous hypocrisy as though this were not the best thing that has happened for them for many a long day. Once again the machinery of bogus inquiries and sanctimonious “charity” has been set in motion in order to hide awkward and incriminating facts. And finally, once again have the flouted working class, on whom the brunt of this stupendous sacrifice to Mammon has fallen, begun to forget all about it.

Well, there is nothing at all unusual in that. The workers have proverbially short memories. They have forgotten Featherstone; they have forgotten Whitehaven, they have forgotten Bolton, and in a few short days they will have forgotten the “Titanic”. Murder of workers is so common; the workers are so used to it, that they cannot even recognise it for what it is. When the murderous rifles of the soldiery shoot unarmed workers down, it is only the operation of the Law, and there’s and end on’t. When mine-owners neglect to keep their mines ventilated, and blow hundreds of miners into eternity, or brick them up in the pit to be burnt alive, it’s a lamentable occurrence but quite an accident, and again there’s an end on’t. And now that the vast “unsinkable,” the floating city, has carried its full living cargo to the bottom of the Atlantic, the workers arouse themselves in horror of it for a day or two, note with approval that the Royal Family have donated about one day’s income to the relief fund, and then slip quietly back into their sleeping sickness.

And, of course, they are to be helped to do this by a sham enquiry which will start out with the set purpose of fixing the blame on the iceberg, or at most on the dead officers who were supposed to have control of the ship. But this enquiry is a mere blind, a cunning attempt to cloak the real position and to screen from blame the real culprit.

The enquiry in America, for all its seeming fierce determination to get to the bottom of the matter, and for all the awkward evidence it has elicited, was only embarked on for the purpose of skating on the surface. If they could fix the blame on the White Star people, then so much the better for the American shipping interests. But beyond this they did not go; beyond this they never intended to go; beyond this they dared not go. All their virtuous indignation is of a piece with the “patriotism” of their grandfathers, who poisoned Washington’s soldiers with villainous provisions with an unscrupulousness even modern Chicago fails to beat.

To those who understand modern conditions no enquiry is necessary in order to apportion the blame. The starting point of this enquiry will, of course, be the hour immediately preceding the collision. They will go on the worn-out assumption that the captain had the command of the ship. No one will ask why was the “Titanic” built. No one will dream of making the designing of the ship the starting-point of the enquiry. No one will dare to suggest that the captain and his officers had not the command of the vessel.

Yet this way lies the truth. In the very designing of the “Titanic” is the first word of the tragic story, in keeping with which is every jot and tittle of evidence to the end. In the luxurious furnishings—the swimming baths, the flower gardens, the racquets courts—read the secret of the catastrophe. The ship was built to carry rich passengers across the herring-pond.

Almost the first comment that was made by the newspapers when the fatal news came to hand was that among the first class passengers aboard the vessel were millionaires who were collectively worth £30,000,000. This in itself is significant.

The fares of those six hundred first and second class passengers must have totalled an enormous sum, compared with which the passage money of the steerage was a negligible quantity. The “Titanic,” then, was essentially built for rich passengers upon whom the White Star Company depended to enable their vessel to “earn” a dividend.

The course is clear from this. The ship was on her maiden voyage; it was necessary to convince the wealthy, whose time is so extremely valuable, that she was a fast boat. So, as it is admitted, there was a general order to “smash all records”—which was duly done.

This explains why the look-out men had glasses until they reached Queenstown, but not afterwards-record smashing on the Western voyage commences at Queenstown. When records are to be smashed it is very inconvenient to have the look-out seeing too much—especially when the ship is an “unsinkable” and well-insured. It also explains why the vessel was on a wrong course at a wrong speed, and why no notice was taken of the look-out’s warning.

Much will be made of these latter facts, no doubt, and the dead officers will be blamed. It must not be forgotten, however, that capitalist companies invariably choose for responsible positions those men to do what they are paid to do. It  is all moonshine to talk of the captain being in command. They command who hold is livelihood in their hands. If we will not take risks and get the speed they want, then he must give place to one who will.

So at the bottom it is the greed for profit and the insatiable desire for speed on the part of the rich that is responsible for the disaster, whatever conclusion the Committee of Enquiry may come to. Of course, they will not give any such verdict as that, for that would be to indict the capitalist system.

The actual details of the wreck afford a further opportunity of pressing home a lesson. The evidence of the survivors and the evidence of the official figures of the saved, show that even on the decks of the sinking liner, and to the very end, the class struggle was on. Those who had clamoured for speed were the first to monopolise the boats, and the way was kept open for them by the officers’ revolvers. Even the capitalist newspapers are compelled to admit the significance of the figures. Of the first class men 34 per cent. were saved: of the steerage men only 12 per cent. Figures like those are eloquent enough without the evidence of the officer who admitted that he kept steerage passengers from a half-filled boat with shots from his revolver.

Much has been made of the fact that the cry “Women and children first” was raised, and it is not necessary to cast aspersions on the courage of any man who survives. The salient fact is that it was not a question of courage but of class. “Women and children” meant women and children of the wealthy class. Of first class women and children practically all were saved, some even with their pet dogs. Of the steerage women and children more than half perished. The “chivalry” of the ruling class does not, save in very rare instances, extend itself to the class beneath them.

We are not of those who expect any great results from this ocean tragedy. Working-class lives are very cheap, and the age that abolishes the Plimsol Line at the demand of those greedy for profit is hardly likely to insist upon the provision of proper means of life-saving or the careful navigation of passenger vessels. Murder by wholesale may be committed without doing violence to “law and order,” so long as it is committed by the capitalist class in the “legitimate” scramble for profits. The law only moves against the Crippens and the Seddons, but the murders quite commonly committed by the capitalist class are not one whit less foul, for all nobody is hanged for them.
A. E. Jacomb

Maritime Disasters (2012)

From the April 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

The movie, Titanic, was a big money-maker for Hollywood. Its plot was an unlikely melodrama between a seemingly rich girl and a poor boy. The Titanic itself was simply the backdrop to their romance. The movie grossed over $600 million dollars, placing it at number two on the all time box office lists. Here’s another list.

The sinking of the Titanic was number three in the all time list of non-military maritime disasters. At number one, with a death toll reckoned to be 4,375 people was the Philippine’s ferry MV Doña Paz. Originally it ferried passengers in Japanese waters, when its passenger capacity was 608 people.  The MV Doña Paz sank after a collision with the oil tanker MT Vector. It took eight hours before the Philippine authorities learned of the accident, because the Doña Paz had no radio. And eight more before any rescue attempt. The owners, Sulpicio Lines, claimed that 1,499 people were aboard. Later inquiries alleged that a further 2000 were not on the ship’s manifest. This was reinforced by the recovery of 21 bodies, and only one was to be found on the official manifest.

The Doña Paz was insured for a million dollars. The owners offered an indemnity for those on the official manifest of $472 each. The Vector was later revealed to be operating without a licence, with no properly qualified master, and without a lookout. The victims’ families pursued claims against both companies, but both were cleared of financial liability.

At number two is the Senegalese government-owned ferry MV Le Joola which sank off of the coast of The Gambia in September 2002. At least 1,863 people died on a ship built to carry a maximum of 580. It also had a long history of being poorly maintained. The Le Joola was built only to navigate in coastal waters but was sailing beyond its coastal limit when high winds and rough seas struck – the probable cause of the ferry’s capsizing. It’s believed that many people would have survived the sinking, but official rescue teams didn’t arrive until the following morning. 

Once again compensation was offered to the victims’ families.  In contrast to the owners of The Doña Paz, the Senegalese government decided that a human life was worth around $22,000. Several officials were dismissed including officers of the Senegal Armed Forces who it was deemed failed to respond quickly enough to the sinking. No criminal charges were ever brought against anyone for the gross overcrowding and poor maintenance of the MV Le Joola.

There’s not much in these two disasters to spark the mind of the Hollywood capitalist. What about calling it Murder on the High Seas: a story of profit, greed and inhumanity? But there’s no glamour in a movie about thousands of piss poor people drowning on vastly overcrowded, hulking ferries. That’s simply a reality of life under capitalism.


For those who’ve come across the seas

‘For those who’ve come across the seas/We’ve boundless plains to share’. These words come from the Australian national anthem. But a rider needs to be added – unless the state has decided that you’re an illegal immigrant.

In August 2001 the Australian state, headed by the Howard administration, refused permission for the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa to enter Australian waters. The Tampa had rescued 438 Afghan refugees from a distressed fishing boat. The boat was only designed for a crew of 27, and lacked any form of safety equipment. When the captain of the Tampa, Arne Rinnan, attempted to enter Australian waters he was threatened with prosecution as a people smuggler by the Australian state. The refugees were eventually transported by naval ship to the Island of Nauru to newly built detention camps. Consequentially, a new policy that sought to prevent illegal immigration by sea was to be enacted.  Polls taken by Australian Television suggested that 90% of the anthem singing population supported Howard. 

Two months later a suspected illegal entry vessel, SIEV X, entered Australian waters without permission. Over 400 asylum seekers were on board this nameless, ramshackle Indonesian fishing vessel.  On 19 October it sank in international waters; 353 human beings drowned. One of the claims the Howard administration made for its new policy was that, through the efficiency and dedicated work of the Royal Australian Navy, it would prevent people smuggling.  The Royal Australian Navy had been issued with stringent orders to monitor and intercept all SIEVs.

Three non-Australian vessels went to the aid of the SIEV X over a period of two days. There must have been considerable radio activity during this period between the rescue ships. But the Australian State claims that it was unaware of the sinking until three days after the event when the 45 survivors, including an eight-year-old boy who lost 21 members of his family, disembarked in Jakarta. 

A 2002 Australian Senate Select Committee investigation concluded that: ‘While no government department was found to be to blame for the tragedy, the Committee was surprised that there had been no internal investigations into any systemic problems which could have allowed the Australian government to prevent it from occurring’.

In 2006 the Australian Education Minister, Julie Bishop, attacked a PhD student’s study on the drowning of SIEVX’s human cargo, which was due to be taught in Australian high schools. Ms Bishop said the study “promoted a political agenda”. On the same day the government decided that a permanent memorial to the 353 drowned was not appropriate.

So for some, ‘who’ve come across the seas/We’ve boundless plains to share’.  But those without the permission of the state might find that they’re sharing a watery grave with 353 people who simply wanted a better life. The Australian national anthem, like all national anthems, is designed for the consumption of the gullible and docile wage slave and is a paradigm of the hypocrisy and bullshit that is intrinsic to capitalism.

What About the Deckchairs? (2012)

From the April 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

Everybody has heard the saying about “re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic”. It has become a stock phrase to describe some futile or pointless activity, especially in the face of some impending disaster.

Online dictionaries offer various interpretations, ranging from, “[to] illustrate the futility of concentrating on the trivial details of some enterprise that is ultimately doomed or in the midst of some serious crisis that can not be overcome,” through, “when someone tries to futilely reform the ways things are done in a failing system,” to “to do something pointless or insignificant that will soon be overtaken by events, or that contributes nothing to the solution of a current problem.”

It’s a neat way of describing what all governments of capitalism do, not just in the present economic crisis but generally. Not that capitalism is sinking –it’s not going to collapse of its own accord, even if it is no longer sea-worthy –but it is failing in that it is not properly meeting the needs of the vast majority of people. It cannot but fail to do this.

Because capitalism is a system based on profit-making on the backs of those who actually produce wealth by their work, it can only ever function in the way it does –as a profit-making system in the interests of those who live off profits. It can never be made to function in the interest of those obliged by economic necessity to work for a wage or a salary for a living.

Anyone who thinks that it can and proposes some measure to achieve this –and this includes opposition parties, single-issue groups and campaigning charities as well as governments in office –is just re-arranging the deckchairs. Much better, socialists say, to steer away from the icebergs of economic crisis, war and global pollution and head for socialism where we can lastingly arrange the deckchairs for the benefit of all.

The Titanic: A Member Writes . . . (2012)

From the April 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Titanic was a family theme in my wife’s family – her mother’s grandfather (that is, my wife’s great-grandfather) went off in 1912, having booked his passage on this marvellous new apparently unsinkable ship, to visit a daughter who had emigrated to Canada, and nothing was heard (no mobile phones then) till the news came of the sinking. So my mother-in-law went down (aged 3) with her father several days running to see the lists of the drowned and the saved in the local Post Office window. Then they found out – my wife’s great-grandfather had missed the boat, and went over safely on a later ship. So it’s not always a good idea to be punctual.

Here are some figures for numbers of people saved –
  • First class ….. 202 out of 325 62%
  • Second class ….. 118 out of 285 41%
  • Third class ….. 178 out of 706 25%
  • Crew ….. 212 out of 908 23%
  • Whole ship ….. 710 out of 2224 32%

Apparently they had iron grille doors to keep the third class passengers in their own part of the ship, and in the panic following the collision with the iceberg the stewards didn’t get round to unlocking them all. So some third-class passengers found it difficult to get to the lifeboats. Apart from that the designer had had to reduce the number of lifeboats in order to make room for more first-class cabins and their private  promenade decks. J. Bruce Ismay, head of the White Star line, was aboard, and though five other ships warned the Titanic of icebergs in the area, apparently he insisted on full steam ahead, so as to make a fast (and profitable) crossing.

But luckily Ismay found a place on the lifeboats, and was saved.

So the usual moral – don’t be poor.

The Titanic: Who Was To Blame? (2012)

From the April 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

Seven days after the Titanic settled at the bottom of the Atlantic the first of the enquiries charged with answering questions, exposing negligence and apportioning blame, got under way in New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel. Central to the enquiry would be the questioning of Bruce Ismay, Chairman and Managing Director of the White Star Line, who had been on the Titanic throughout its first and last voyage. In the chair was William Alden Smith United States Senator for the state of Michigan, whose opposition to alcohol drove him to try to prove that the Titanic’s captain and other officers had been drinking when the ship hit the iceberg. Smith’s questioning was resented by the officers for its ignorant bluster; for example his asking Fifth Officer Lowe what an iceberg was made of (“Ice, I suppose, sir” was Lowe’s answer). And again when he asked Second Officer Lightoller about the possibility of some passengers taking refuge in Titanic’s watertight compartments to be rescued later.

But in spite of what has been called his ‘raucous scapegoating,’ Smith carried on, matching his persistent pressure against Ismay’s stonewalling. Smith was, after all, a politician who had to have regard for his votes and for the “Yellow Press” of the tycoon William Randolph Hearst who nursed a long-standing personal antipathy to Ismay. For his part, Ismay had influenced the design of the Titanic in its early stages, reducing the number of lifeboats, for example, partly because the “practically unsinkable” liner was safer than any lifeboat. And when on the day of the collision the Captain, Edward Smith, gave him a vital telegram warning of ice directly ahead Ismay simply put it in his pocket instead of passing it on to the ship’s officers.

But in the chaos after the collision Ismay stayed on board to help other passengers into the boats until there were no others left there and an officer more or less ordered him to jump in. He then sat in the boat’s stern apparently in a coma until he was taken aboard the rescue ship Carpathia, when he demanded, and was given, food and a stateroom apart from the other survivors. He spent the rest of the voyage under sedation. And what of other wealthy passengers? There was Lord Duff Gordon who took over a lifeboat with just his wife and her maid, and seven crewmen to row. While Lady Duff Gordon commiserated with her maid on the loss of her “beautiful nightdress” he was giving each of the crewmen five pounds, seemingly as a bribe to either row away from the drowning people or to keep silent about the entire incident.

The given history of the Titanic is concerned largely with scapegoats, from Captain Edward Smith to the seven crewmen in the boat with Duff Gordon and the assertively influential Bruce Ismay. But there is more to it than individual culpability which takes no account of the chaos and waste endemic to capitalism with its privilege and exploitation which we still have to live with. After all, only a couple of years after the Titanic the world launched another tragedy which cost the lives of millions of its people.