Wednesday, November 6, 2019

50 years ago: The Common Market — the Real Issue (2012)

The 50 Years Ago column from the January 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Common Market has become front-page news. Papers that could hardly spare it a thought a few short months ago now give it headlines. Special features set out to explain things in simple terms for “the man in the street.” On radio and TV it is the same. Even ITV did a series and got criticised for slanting the programme too heavily in favour of Britain going in.

There is plenty of such criticism, of course. Dire warnings of what will happen to us if Britain goes into the Common Market are matched by equally dreadful ones about our fate if she stays out.

We are told of other possible consequences. Of how the Government is thinking of going over to decimal currency—after hesitation on the part of its predecessors for close on a hundred and fi fty years. And of the way Mr. Marples is apparently making preparations just in case we have eventually to drive on the right hand side of the road! How much keener can British capitalism’s representatives show themselves than that?

But, more seriously, why this sudden about-turn? Why, after resolutely refusing to have anything to do with the Common Market for years, is the British Government desperately trying to get in? Even in 1958, when the writing was pretty plainly on the wall, they still preferred to set up the rival firm EFTA (the Seven) rather than come to terms with the Six. They had the chance of joining then and turned it down. (…)

The reason, then, for British capitalism’s change of front is the one we should always seek when we wish to discover the motive for the really important activities of capitalist nations and their political spokesmen—the motive of harsh, real, cold economic interest.

Plain and inescapable is the fact that if British capitalism does not go into the Common Market, it is going to be left isolated in a world increasingly under the sway of the economic power of the Six. This isolation will become more and more pronounced as the Market’s internal tariffs fall and its duties on imported products increase. Eventually, if the avowed aims of the Common Market were to be achieved, British capitalism would be left high and dry. The Tory Government has, belatedly, woken to the danger and is now fighting a desperate last-minute battle to avert it.

(Editorial, Socialist Standard, January 1962)

Letter: The Policy of the Half-Loaf is Unworkable (1936)

Letter to the Editors from the April 1936 issue of the Socialist Standard
A reader of The Socialist Standard puts the following criticism of our propaganda : —
I am afraid that while admiring the principles of the S.P.G.B., I do not approve of the split in the Left Movement, which the S.P.G.B.’s denunciations of every other Left-wing group would undoubtedly open if ever they attained the position of putting up candidates for Parliament. I cannot really believe that the S.P.G.B. is the only party in step. If my opinion is wrong, then it can only be because I am not truly a Socialist; anyway, I stand for the half-a-loaf the Labour Party may give us soon, rather than the no bread which a series of antagonistic factions on the Left will give us. Solid achievements in Social Reform will, I think, bring us nearer to Socialism than theoretical propaganda, if carried out by a Labour Government pledged to revolutionary Socialism.

The three points in our correspondent’s letter are (1) the desire for unity, (2) the value of “solid achievements in Social Reform,” and (3) the Labour Party as an instrument for gaining Socialism.

The desire for unity is one which arises naturally among workers who have begun to appreciate that the working class have interests in common. “One interest, why not one organisation?” But this vague conception of the identity of interests of the workers is not a sufficient basis for unity. Organisations with, broadly, the same aim of improving the conditions of the workers may be, and often are, seriously divided about objects and methods. In these circumstances real unity is impossible, and where two such organisations amalgamate or associate the friction is only transferred from the outside to the inside, without any advantage to the workers. The S.P.G.B. holds that democratic methods are the only methods by which Socialism can be achieved. How could we suspend pur condemnation of organisations which advocate other methods which we know will cause nothing but loss and suffering to the workers? During war-time, various so-called workers’ organisations are found actively supporting war. How can the S.P.G.B. refrain from denouncing them? The fact that. some organisations have working class members and claim to be aiming at improving the condition of the workers does not rule out the possibility that their programmes may be useless, their methods dangerous and their activities harmful to the workers.

The phrase, “solid achievements in social reform,” is a mistaken one. It does not fit the facts. The idea of the Labour Party is that on the firm basis of the workers’ existing standard of living a “solid achievement” of reforms can be built up, so that the workers will get better and better off, and be freed from one after another of the evils resulting from capitalism. This conception is wholly wrong. There is, under capitalism, no solid basis on which to build, and there is no means by which the workers under capitalism can be saved from the evils of capitalism. The workers cannot be protected from permanent unemployment, or from the catastrophic effects of capitalist crises, except by abolishing capitalism. In this year 1936, over thirty years since the Labour Party began its work, there is not one major problem solved or on the way to solution. The workers are still poor and miserably housed, while the number unemployed or directly threatened with unemployment is larger than ever. Neither the slum problem nor the “low-wage” problem has been solved. The danger of war has not been removed or lessened. Where, then, are the solid achievements which our correspondent fancies are preferable to Socialism? No such choice exists. For the workers now, as in 1900, the only chance is between the capitalism that is and the Socialism that might be.

The next point we are asked to consider is the likelihood of Socialism being advanced by “a Labour Government pledged to revolutionary Socialism.” We cannot admit our correspondent’s case, because there is not and cannot be such a thing as a Labour Government "pledged to revolutionary Socialism.” The whole essence of Labourism (as indeed is emphasised by our correspondent earlier in his letter) is that it works not for “revolutionary Socialism” but by seeking social reforms. Before it will be possible to have the political machinery controlled by an organised majority "pledged to revolutionary Socialism,” the theoretical propaganda which our correspondent rejects will have had to be carried to the mass of the workers. How else can they come to understand and want Socialism?

The S.P.G.B. holds that there is only one problem and only one solution. The means of production and distribution must be made the common property of society. Articles must be produced simply for use, freely, by the members of society. The Labour Party does not seek this solution. On the contrary, in theory as well as in practice, it rejects it. The Labour Party does not contemplate even the possibility of the destruction of the whole mechanism of buying and selling, of profit making, of incomes from property. While the Socialist works only for a social system in which the necessities of life will be provided freely for all and the work of production will be organised on a co-operative basis without employers and employed, the Labour Party dismisses all that as visionary and Utopian, and builds its schemes on the continuance of the wages system, buying and selling, banking and credit operations, etc. The S.P.G.B. says that there is no solution except common ownership, with all its implications mentioned above. All the rest are indeed out of step with us. Our correspondent wants unity, but wants it by bringing us into step with the Labour Parties. The only unity worth having is unity for Socialism. It can only come about when the workers who now march with the Labour army break step with them and fall into line with us.
Ed. Comm.

#    #    #    #

Leatherhead, Mickleham, Ranmore Common, etc., on Monday, April 13th. Meet at London Bridge (Findlaters Corner), 10 a.m. (or at Epsom Stn. at 11 a.m.). Fare and tea, approximately 3/6.

Letter: Socialists and the Labour Party (1936)

Letter to the Editors from the April 1936 issue of the Socialist Standard
The various points in the following letter are replied to below.

Dear Sir,

I was much interested in December copy of Socialist Standard, which a member of S.P.G.B. lent me. In one article questions were invited, and I wish to take advantage of this invitation. I understand that the viewpoint of the S.P.G.B. is that palliatives only retard, and in the article on “Justice to Miners” it appears that the S.P.G.B. are not in favour of the miners getting 2s. per shift rise in wages, but consider that the miners should go all out for the control of industry. Do you consider that the miners would get sufficient backing from the general public? In explaining the attitude of S.P.G.B. toward the Labour Party, it appears that the S.P.G.B. consider that harm is done to Socialism by Labour’s efforts to reform Capitalism. Do you seriously think that Socialism can come in one lump, and need not be brought in piecemeal, as in the Labour Party’s policy? I have read the S.P.G.B. manifesto as set out in “Socialism and Religion,” and am quite in agreement with this in general, but I think the attitude toward other parties is rather too severe. Remembering that the S.P.G.B. is probably the smallest party which is striving for Socialism, do you think that all other parties could be brought to the same way of thinking, and Socialism brought in quicker than, say, by a Communist uprising ? I am a member of the Labour Party, and am by no-means satisfied with the slow and steady policy of that party. I should like to join the S.P.G.B., but I want to feel that I am in entire agreement with the policy. Many votes were lost to Labour at the last Election because Socialists of other parties would not vote for Labour, and by not voting they only strengthened the Tories. Surely some working agreement could be arrived at between the various Socialist Parties, so that we were able to defeat the Capitalists, and we could afterwards settle our own little differences. I think if we were all to work together many members of the Labour Party would join the ranks of the S.P.G.B.
Yours in the Cause of Socialism,
W. J. Last.

Our correspondent has not properly understood the case of the S.P.G.B. against Labourism.

We do not condemn palliatives because they retard progress to Socialism but because the arguments put forward in support of them retard that progress. The Labour Party argues that the workers' conditions can be gradually improved and improved until, imperceptibly, we shall be living under Socialism. If that were true there would be no need for the S.P.G.B. As it is wholly untrue the Labour party, by propagating that view, hinders our propaganda, which is of a fundamentally different kind. We say that the destruction of the basis of capitalism—the private ownership and control of the means of production and distribution—has not begun and cannot begin until after an organised Socialist majority has gained control of the political machinery.

There is the further point that most “palliatives” do not “palliate," and the consequent disappointment of the workers makes for apathy and thus further retards Socialism.

It is not true that the S.P.G.B. are “not in favour of the miners getting 2s. per shift rise in wages," nor do we advocate so-called miners' control of the mining industry. We always support the efforts of the workers to resist the encroachments of the employers and to improve their conditions under capitalism to the limited extent possible. What we add is that no efforts on the industrial field can ever go beyond the narrow limits set by capitalism. To go beyond that and achieve Socialism there must be an organised Socialist majority in control of the machinery of Government.

We reject the slogan, “The mines for the miners," because we are Socialists, not syndicalists. We work for ownership and control by the whole community.

The question at issue between Socialists and the Labour Party is not whether Socialism can come “in one lump" or “piecemeal," but whether the Labour Party seeks Socialism at all. Socialism means a system of society based on common ownership of the means of production and distribution, and involves the complete abolition of buying and selling, rent, interest and profit, and the rest of the monetary institutions of capitalism. That is the only solution to the problem before us and it is a solution which most Labour Party supporters have not considered and which the rest reject. The aim of the Labour Party is a State-controlled capitalism retaining all of the things which Socialism will abolish, except that the direct control of capitalist companies would, under Labour rule, be replaced by so-called public utility corporations. Socialists are absolutely opposed to the establishment of this slightly modified form of capitalism. This disposes of our correspondent's argument that there are only “little differences" between the S.P.G.B. and the Labour Party. The difference is as wide and deep as that between capitalism and Socialism.

The only remaining point is the reference to a “Communist uprising." No uprising by a minority against the stupendous forces of the State could in any circumstances achieve Socialism. It could only serve to set back still further the progress to Socialism.
Ed. Comm.

True Levellers (2019)

Pamphlet Review from the November 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

Stand Up Now, Diggers All! The 1649 'True Levellers' Commune at St George's Hill (Past Tense Publishers, London, 2019.)

One simplistic vision of the English civil war has been that it was an early version of the proletarian struggle against the bourgeoisie. It’s an idea that has been especially popular with Leninists. Romantic as it may seem, and intensely brave and admirable as many of those were who opposed that ‘man of blood’ Charles I, it is, unfortunately perhaps, not the case.

Levellers did not want to level, to make everyone equal. As stated in the Leveller document An Agreement of the People (1649): ‘We therefore agree and declare, That it shall not be in the power of any Representative … to render up … nor level mens Estates, destroy Propriety, or make all things Common.’

In the same way that, for example, a term for an Irish outlaw – Tory – was applied to the group that became the British Conservative Party, the Levellers were given that title by their enemies. William Walwyn, considered to be one of the more radical of the Levellers, nevertheless advocated free trade to the Committee for Trade and Common Affairs, opposing monopolies such as the Levant Company (naturally, the government sided with the Company at the expense of small enterprises). This is not to say that their motivation had no class interests, but there was a strong interest of the ‘freeborn’, that is, men (only men) with some property; their platform included a property qualification to have the franchise.

But it was different with the True Levellers, or Diggers. Parts of their manifesto, The True Levellers’ Standard Advanced, ring clear to socialists across three and a half centuries. Once the earth returns to being a common treasury,
  ‘Then this Enmity in all Lands will cease, for none shall dare to seek a Dominion over others, neither shall any dare to kill another, nor desire more of the Earth then another.’
This Past Tense pamphlet takes in the events of 1649-1650, principally around the attempts to cultivate the common land at St George’s Hill. It starts with the first attempts to dig there on 1 April 1649 and finishes the following April with the death threats and final burnings of the dwellings and crops there and in the neighbouring Cobham Heath commune. It details the events between, and includes not only the threats, legal judgements and violence perpetrated against them, but also some extraordinary published critiques. For example, from the royalist publication Mercurius Pragmaticus quoted in the pamphlet:
  ‘What this fanatical insurrection may grow into cannot be conceived for Mahomet had as small and despicable a beginning whose damnable infections have spread themselves many hundreds years since over the face of half the Universe.’
In the end, the attempt at holding property in common was defeated.

The pamphlet is interesting and informative. One criticism is that, although it mentions the religious dimension of the Diggers, it does not reflect how central their religion was to them. These were people in a time when many thought that Christ’s second coming was imminent.

It would also have been interesting to have looked at, in particular, Winstanley’s subsequent writings. The Wigan-born cloth merchant Gerrard Winstanley, one of the movement’s main writers, wrote a piece in 1652, The Law of Freedom in a Platform, addressed to Cromwell, containing ideas not unfamiliar to socialists:
  ‘Shall we have no Lawyers? There is no need of them, for there is to be no buying and selling; neither any need to expound Laws.’ 
  ‘If any say, This will bring poverty; surely they mistake: for there will be plenty of all Earthly Commodities, with less labor and trouble then now it is under Monarchy. There will be no want, for every man may keep as plentiful a house as he will, and never run into debt, for common stock pays for all. ‘ 
  ‘If you say, Some will live idle; I answer, No: It will make idle persons to become workers… There shall be neither beggar nor idle person.’ 
  ‘True Freedom lies in the free enjoyment of the Earth.’
A historic twist: St George’s Hill, just outside Weybridge, is now a gated community. The place where the True Levellers planted their crops is now where a local estate agent can proudly announce:
  ‘From music legend to sporting royalty, St George’s Hill has an impressive list of celebrity residents such as: John Lennon, Tom Jones, Elton John, Cliff Richard, Ringo Starr, Jenson Button, Sue Baker, John Terry’
and applaud the high prices of the properties therein.

Notwithstanding the zeal of the estate agent, the pamphlet begins with the first line of the song The World Turned Upside Down by Leon Rosselson: “In 1649… at St George’s Hill”. The existence of the Socialist Party demonstrates the truth of another line from the song “They were dispersed, but still the vision lingers on”: an egalitarian society of common ownership.
Vincent Jones 

The Barrier: Ex XR Member Gets Real (2019)

From the November 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard
Article that originally appeared on Extinction Rebellion’s blog in March from someone who no longer supports them
UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated, ‘we are in trouble. We are in deep trouble with climate change,’ and that, ‘It is hard to overstate the urgency of our situation… we are still not doing enough, nor moving fast enough, to prevent irreversible and catastrophic climate disruption.’ This statement came alongside the news that emissions had risen to a new high in 2018 after 30 years of supposedly attempting to cut them.

Can we adapt to the inevitable effects of ‘catastrophic climate disruption’ under the capitalist system? Or, is it a barrier to a sustainable future fit for the good of all?

We need three basic elements to sustain life: food, water and shelter. When our species emerged around 300,000 years ago we maintained ourselves as hunter-gatherers. This period lasted for 90 percent of human history. Co-operation was crucial for our survival.

Chattel slavery and the concept of private property emerged before written history with basic agriculture and the production of surpluses. People became property, and the state evolved to defend property rights through the use of coercion. Between the ninth and fifteenth century in medieval Europe, the shackles of slavery gave way to feudal society and the legalised bondage of serfdom wherein the three basics for life were exchanged for service and labour on the land.

Capitalism arguably dates from the sixteenth century and flourished at the expense of feudalism’s inability to adapt. The central characteristics of capitalism are: private ownership of the means of production, profit, waged labour, the accumulation of capital, prices, and competitive markets.

As elites arose in slavery and feudalism, so too did the unequal division of food, water, and shelter for the vast majority of its people. Capitalism has mirrored that, as Oxfam reports that the ‘World’s 26 richest people own as much as the poorest 50 percent’. Whereas, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation revealed that the food system fails to properly nourish billions of people: ‘More than 820 million people went hungry last year, while a third of all people did not get enough vitamins. Approximately 9 million people die of hunger globally each year’. 

And water? ‘At least 2 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with faeces… Nearly two million children a year die for want of clean water and proper sanitation… The UN Development Programme argues that 1.1 billion people do not have safe water and 2.6 billion suffer from inadequate sewerage. This is not because of water scarcity but poverty, inequality and government failure.’

And shelter? Globally, ‘one in eight people live in slums. In total, around a billion people live in slum conditions today’. In 2005, the last time a global survey was attempted by the UN, ‘an estimated 100 million people were homeless worldwide. As many as 1.6 billion people lacked adequate housing’.

These are symptoms of a cancer called poverty. A sickness intrinsic to capitalism. The question to ask yourself here is: are these people likely to be joined by millions more given what we know, at present, about the effects of ‘catastrophic climate disruption’ under capitalism?

Politicians, the media, and entrepreneurs scrabble around for quick fixes. All of them involve market solutions. But the logic of the capitalist market is to make money. Thus, catastrophe can also be seen as an opportunity to turn a profit.

Bloomberg reports that, ‘A top JP Morgan Asset Management strategist advised clients that sea-level rise was so inevitable that there was likely a lot of opportunity for investing in sea-wall construction’. And speculating on insurance policies, Barney Schauble, of Nephila Advisors LLC believes that, ‘the broader public’s failure to appreciate the risks of climate change is part of what makes it such a good area for investing’. Moreover, ‘there is evidence that many players in the corporate-military-security industrial nexus are already seeing climate change not just as a threat but an opportunity… climate change promises another financial boon to add to the ongoing War on Terror.’

Technology we are told will eventually provide solutions to climate change. This is a crude phantasm of an ideology that seeks to forego any alternative thinking and to ‘kick the can down the road.’

The ‘green new deal’ appears in several shades of grey. Whether the so-called, ‘war-time mobilisation’ some people call for could be realised in one country is debatable. But globally? That would take cooperation on a scale inconceivable given that in the twentieth century The League of Nations, and later the UN, were implemented to maintain peace. Nevertheless, countless millions were slaughtered in capitalism’s wars.

And now? Consider the debacle that is Brexit. And the farce of climate change conferences.

Co-operatives and similar types of enterprises are argued for as solutions. But as long as markets exist they too have to conform to their iron laws. Co-operatives will have to compete with each other to buy raw materials and inputs, and then sell its commodities on the market with every other seller of an equal product. Thus, if a cooperative produces goods to sell on the market, to obtain money, to pay wages via profit, then it has to conform to all of the economic laws of capitalism.

Profit is capitalism’s raison d’être, and growth its imperative.

The quote, ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,’ becomes credible with the knowledge that, ‘just 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of global emissions,’ many of which are state entities and the residue potent friends of state actors. Likewise, ‘the U.S. Military is the World’s Biggest Polluter.’ All powerful adversaries of anyone who wants to oppose the status quo.

But those who think this barrier can be overcome have one great advantage. Imagination. The ability to envision a different world. One that’s fit for the good of all. To imagine it, clarify it, and start to build it. And those that believe the barrier could be breached should begin by inscribing on their banners the dictum – ‘Toward One World.’
Andy Matthews

Cooking the Books: Lenders and Borrowers (2019)

The Cooking the Books column from the November 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘Peer-to-peer lenders given last warning’ was the headline in the Times (20 September) referring to a circular from the Financial Conduct Authority. Apparently, some of them have been pursuing ‘risky practices’. According to an earlier report in the Times (17 September), the regulator ‘believes this is being driven by pressure on many to reach profitability, resulting in them taking ‘additional opportunistic risks’ in areas beyond their expertise.’ Two, with the unoriginal names of ‘Lendy’ and ‘Collateral’, have failed.

But what are they? The Times explains: ‘Peer-to-peer platforms are websites which link retail and institutional investors with consumers, small businesses and property developers who want credit’. (‘Retail’ investors are individuals with money to lend).

A business or individual seeking money for some project applies to a P2P platform for a loan; the platform, after checking their credit-worthiness, contacts potential lenders who, individually or as group, put up the money at an agreed rate of interest. P2P platforms make money from fees for putting the borrowers and lenders in touch and for checking the borrower’s credit-worthiness. The more loans they arrange, the more their income; hence the temptation to take on ‘risky’ borrowers that the FCA criticised. They are relatively new financial institutions, the first one in Britain being established only in 2005.

P2P platforms are, then, financial intermediaries which put those with money to lend and those who want to borrow money in touch with each other. To call them ‘lenders’ is, strictly speaking, incorrect as they don’t actually lend money themselves. Even so, both for lenders and borrowers they are an alternative to banks and, at one point, were encouraged by the government precisely because of this, with the government lending to small businesses via some of them. They do directly compete with banks for the custom of those with money to lend.

Banks in fact are not all that different from P2P platforms. They, too, are financial intermediaries between lenders and borrowers. When someone or some institution deposits money in a bank, what they are doing is lending to the bank, even if they are more usually called ‘depositors’ or ‘savers’. What, basically, the bank does with such loans to it is to pool the money and then use most of it to make loans out of this pool to borrowers. Although there is no direct link between particular lenders and particular borrowers, banks still channel funds from lenders to borrowers. It’s their economic role within capitalism. Their income derives from the difference between the rate of interest they pay those who lend them money and the higher rate they charge those who borrow money from them.

Because of the way P2P platforms operate no one dares claim that the money for the loans they arrange has been conjured up out of thin air; it clearly has to already exist. Many people mistakenly think that banks can simply ‘create’ the money they lend. But this is an illusion or, in the case of currency cranks, a delusion. Banks can’t do this any more than P2P platforms can. It is just that, in their case, this is not so transparent. However, on closer examination, this can be seen to be the case. If nobody lent them money they wouldn’t be able to lend any. Banks, like P2P platforms, are financial intermediaries, not money or credit creators.