Tuesday, December 10, 2019

These Foolish Things: Progress (1996)

The Scavenger column from the December 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard


In 1886, the bottom 10 percent of manual workers earned 69 percent of the median manual wage, while the top 10 percent earned 143 percent. Despite the huge shifts in manufacturing over the next 90 years—the growth of new' industries, the rise of trade unionism, the impact of two world wars—the relative position remained virtually unchanged. But since 1977 the relative position has worsened for the bottom 10 percent of manual workers who now get just 61 percent of the median against 161 percent for the top 10 percent. 
Guardian, 10 October.

Oh God!

The Reverend Stanley Mast, of the LaGrave Avenue Christian Reform Church, offered an invocation that should become the official fund-raising prayer of both parties. “O God. as we gather together tonight to honour important people in our country', we pause to acknowledge that you are master of the universe and Lord of the nations.” the Reverend prayed. “As we focus on finances and politics, we give you thanks for the gift of wealth, we thank you for the privilege of living in America, this great land of freedom, a land that not only allows but even encourages the individual pursuit of wealth. We thank you, O God, for the success so many of us have had in that pursuit. . . . Bless our guests of honour. May their generosity and faith inspire us all. Bless these upcoming elections. May the right people be elected. And God bless America. Amen.” 
New Yorker, 5 August.

The City Editor says . . .

Much more hot air, and some acute cases of handwringing have been prompted by a United Nations report that the combined wealth of the world’s 358 billionaires equals the combined incomes of the world population’s poorest 45 percent, or 2.3 billion. Leaving aside the mismatch between wealth and income in that comparison, so what? It is not ownership that is important so much as what the owners or controllers of wealth do with it.
William Kay, Financial Mail on Sunday, 28 July.

Twice kicked

A Midland care assistant was unceremoniously sacked by health chiefs after being injured in an attack at work, it was claimed today. Jenny Jennings, of Solihull Lodge, said she was so badly kicked in the knee by a resident at a Chemsley Wood home that she was unable to do her job . . . Mrs Jennings said it was the second time a member of staff had been badly injured by the resident but the trust management had not acted to prevent it happening again . . .  Solihull’s Healthcare’s director of personnel Mr Nick Gillard said the resident’s care would have been addressed following the first attack. “Having gone through channels and followed policy to the letter Mrs Jennings’ employment was terminated due to ill health,” he said. 
Evening Mail, 16 August.

Now you see it . . .

The Saudi government has tightened its controls on satellite TV, forcing viewers to dismantle dishes and subscribe to its own TV network. On offer is a mixture of Arabic and international programming selected by the Ministry of Information. A five-minute delay has been introduced on foreign channels so that “unsuitable material” can be censored.
           What Satellite TV, 13 October.

      The Scavenger

Miracle in Mornington Crescent (1996)

The A Word in Your Ear column from the December 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

The number 24 bus is not known in the records of classical legend as the site of miracles. Nobody on the number 24 bus route has ever turned water into wine (although later at night cans of4X have been seen to turn to urine) and rarely have moving statues been seen occupying the seats reserved for the elderly and pregnant women. No, it was certainly no miracle which happened last Monday morning; teams of Vatican investigators will not be treading their way from Rome to Mornington Crescent (for it was there that it happened) to record the mysterious happening. There are no miracles; it was no miracle. It was simply a slightly extraordinary event. When I say extraordinary I am not alluding to those strange and semi-credible happenings so frequently found within the dull, unwanted pages of Readers Digest (publisher: the CIA). There you will find stories of women who didn’t know they were pregnant and then one day, while enjoying a casual game of beach volleyball, gave birth to triplets, each of a different ethnic background. Or men who fell from fifty-storey skyscrapers on to a passing bus in which was sitting their long-lost twin. Extraordinary! Incredible is the concept which springs to mind. Presumably the CIA use Readers Digest as a sort of testing ground for human gullibility. The theory must be that if they believe it in the Readers Digest, why not try it out on the suckers in the rigged Latin American election? So let’s be clear about this: we are talking neither of miracles nor stories of the strange and mysterious. All that happened on the 24 bus last Monday was a mildly noteworthy set of circumstances.

I had just returned from a weekend speaking trip to Glasgow. The exhaustion of overnight travel and the joyful memory of a fraternal visit fought in my mind as I made my weary way to the job. Robotically, from shower to letterbox, right shoe on and then left shoe, up the street to the bus stop, the drill was performed and the miserable queue of job-seekers who had sought, found and were fed up was waiting as usual. The bus came. And then . . . 

It began when a woman in the bus queue, carrying a particularly bulky suitcase, stooped to lift it only to find herself pounced upon by two men who insisted upon helping her carry it on. That was kind. Then came a boy who discovered that he was ten pence short on the fare. The woman with the case took out ten pence and paid it. “I’ll pay you back, missus,’’ said the boy. “Pay me when you win the lottery, love,” she replied. The boy’s fumbling for his coin had made the bus a few seconds late and, as it moved off, along ran a man clearly anxious to get on. The driver stopped, opened the doors and smiled at the latecomer. “That was decent of you,” said the man. “You’re more than welcome, mate,’’ said the driver. “I hope you’d do the same for me.” It was at that point that the blind man asked the best stop to get off for University College Hospital. A debate occurred. Passengers vied with one another to be more helpful. “Look,” said the girl in a leather jacket who had recently been reading the Sun, “don’t you worry about the best stop; I work only a few streets from there and it won’t take me five minutes to walk you to exactly where you want to go.” The passengers approved. The woman with the suitcase passed around wine gums. We only took as many as we needed. (I took none.) A couple of Dutch tourists got on and discovered they were going the wrong way for Camden market. But an old man suggested another market where things were cheaper and you could get musical Christmas cards at half price. Whatever musical Christmas cards are, the Dutch couple seemed happy and were soon sharing in the wine gums. The boy offered to show them round his school (they were teachers it turned out) and the blind man told a story of how he had once taken the day off school to go to a Beatles concert. At which point the bus driver asked if anyone would mind if he played an old Beatles tape which his friend had made for him. We all assented. Quite a few sang. It felt like a trip to the seaside. It felt like every day and every journey and every destination should be like this, or, at least, less like it usually is. It felt as if we were a convoy of travelling pups having a lick at our own humanity. It tasted good.

So no miracle occurred. It was probably hardly worthy of note. But it happened and probably it happens much more often than is recorded. People were decent. For the few minutes of that journey on that bus we all overcame the tremendous temptations of this system to push and shove and trample upon one another and act inhumanly, all of which happens daily in the name of “healthy competition”. And then that competitive indecency is paraded before us in the name of “human nature”, as if we are not pups but rotweilers. And so humans are taught to hate themselves—to put muzzles upon themselves lest they bite. But in truth we are happier co-operating than biting or fighting. It was co-operation which allowed the species to survive, after all. And alienated as the profit system makes us from the reality of our species, there are moments which are not miracles—moments when mothers feed their babies and children play in the park and the elderly are crossed over busy roads and one person simply smiles at another without a sinister motive—when humanity triumphs over capitalism. These are not miracles or incredible events. They are merely spectres of what could be if we were to live as we might live.
Steve Coleman

Letters: Just dealing with one of the effects (1996)

Letters to the Editors from the December 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Just dealing with one of the effects

Dear Editors,

In his recent article ("Class, Micropolitics and Solidarity", October Socialist Standard), Jonathan Clay talks about the action in which four of us disarmed a Hawk attack plane destined for Indonesia. He states that this action was "inspired, but ultimately doomed”, and says that no doubt we realised this all along. I object most strongly to what was one of the most successful anti-arms trade actions ever being dismissed as "doomed”. Nine months after we disarmed that particular plane, it is still in England. It was due to be sent months ago to a counter-insurgency squadron in Indonesia from where it would have been used against civilians in East Timor. The many East Timorese who have written to thank us for our action certainly don’t think it was doomed.

Jonathan Clay goes on to say that our action was undertaken to publicise the situation in East Timor, and that the jury ignored the law in acquitting us. Had he taken the slighted trouble to get his facts right, he would have found that we had a defence in law—that of using reasonable force to prevent crime, a defence under the Criminal Law Act 1967. We did not undertake this action as a publicity stunt—who would risk ten years in prison for publicity? The judge allowed our defence to be put to the jury, who acquitted us on that basis. To suggest that the jury ignored the law is insulting to them and does nothing to help people understand that this kind of action can in certain circumstances be legal. I wonder what actions Jonathan Clay has undertaken to uphold justice and international law—or is he just an armchair activist whose only contribution is to make ill-founded criticisms of other people’s actions?
Seeds of Hope—East Timor Ploughshares

When we said that your action was “ultimately doomed" we meant that it would fail to prevent the Indonesian military getting their attack planes in the end (that's what ultimately means). The most that you could achieve was what you did achieve—to delay delivery and to gain publicity for your cause. We assumed you realised this but if you really expected to stop delivery altogether we misjudged your level of understanding of existing political realities.

Are you holier than us? Probably, but then we don’t share your belief in the efficacy of the law to improve things. In fact, for us, the law is a reflection of private property and profit-motivated society and exists to uphold it. But it is precisely this society—capitalism—with its built-in competitive struggle between states for sources of raw materials, investment outlets, trade routes, markets and strategic positions to control these, which is the root cause of situations like that in East Timor.

Such situations will go on occurring, in some part of the world, as long as capitalism continues to exist. What are you doing to speed the end of capitalism? Or are you just a single-issue activist concentrating exclusively on trying to deal with just one of its many nefarious effects?

A good thing

Dear Editors,

Jonathan Clay’s article. "Class, Micropolitics and Solidarity" in October’s Socialist Standard was a very welcome and timely one in that it warned against taking a dismissive attitude to defensive class struggle.

Only working class solidarity can get rid of capitalism and achieve world socialism and any expression of such solidarity is a good thing, whether at work, in communities fighting to protect their local environment, or in the various getting-togethers to resist the bosses' latest laws. At least it shows that people will never roll over and die, as the ruling class so dearly wants us to. Obviously none of the above will do much at present to bring about a free society because the required mass class consciousness isn’t there.

However, now more than ever, people involved in defensive struggles are likely to approach the only conclusion there is: that the money system as a whole is the problem. Attacks on the working class are getting more savage by the day, every way of running capitalism has been tried and discredited and there is widespread rejection of the parties of capitalism (including the lefties and their sorry antics). Life itself is an education and the Socialist Party exists to spread the socialist case as widely as possible.

Socialists are all for working class solidarity, but are "under no illusions" that it is mass solidarity for the abolition of capitalism that is so desperately needed.
Ben Malcolm, 

Merciless capitalist class (1996)

Edward Bond
Theatre Review from the December 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the Company of Men by Edward Bond 
The Pit Theatre
, Barbican.

The playwright Edward Bond has a formidable reputation as a critic of capitalism. But is it a deserved reputation?

In his latest play In the Company of Men he re-visits some familiar territory. He is concerned to document the merciless competitiveness which is at the heart of big business; to examine the way in which the search for economic power, with its seemingly inevitable deviousness and deception, bullying and lying, spills over into the rest of life and corrupts human relationships; and to catalogue the connections between competitiveness, power, bullying and physical violence.

Adopted son, Leonard, tries to displace his bullying father as the head of an arms manufacturing company. He is aided and abetted in his endeavours by the company secretary, only to discover that he has put himself in the thrall of a rival entrepreneur, Hammond, who is in cahoots with the devious company secretary. What should Leonard do? Hand over the controlling interest in his father's business, or kill his bullying father before Hammond can gain advantage?

Bond is very good when characterising the inanity, the madness and the malevolence which lie at the heart of corporate capitalism, and the hypocrisies which its apologists mouth in its, and their, defence. Hammond is intent on amalgamations which will allow him to sell not butter or guns to the nations of the world, but rather both butter and guns. He says he trusts no none "not even myself'. And Leonard's father rejects the charge that he is ambitious, claiming only to be "a leader wanting to serve".

In the Company of Men is a wordy, verbose play. On its first night it ran for nearly four hours, but when I saw the production some days later it had been trimmed to a mere three-and-a-half hours. Probably Bond shouldn't have directed the play himself. A more objective director would, even now, likely demand more cuts. The play's dense language is often compelling but occasionally it gets in the way of meaning and impact; no matter that it is delivered with conviction and gusto by a talented cast.

A friend remarked as we came out of the theatre that "somewhere in all that there is a play waiting to get out." I know what he meant, but l don't think it’s just a matter of deletions. revisions and amendments. Bond's insights may have been compelling but, to my ears, they were incomplete. Certainly capitalists behave like monsters but Bond never asks why. Is it a matter of choice or does entrepreneurial activity attract those who, for whatever reasons, are inclined to be thrustful, competitive and merciless? Or is it, as the socialist would claim, principally that the mechanics of capitalism demand ruthless, merciless competition because that’s the way the system works?

Bond’s account of the mordant, merciless world of corporate capitalism is powerful and revealing, and it certainly makes for an enjoyable evening. But finally it is an unsatisfactory account, because it is incomplete. Bond describes the behaviour of those caught up in capitalist enterprises very well, but he doesn't help us to understand why his characters behave in the way that they do. And descriptions of the world are not enough. If we want to change things we must engage in more analytical activity. We need to know not only "how" the economic system works and the way it brutalises its combatants, but also "why" it works in the way that it does. In the Company of Men doesn’t really consider such matters.
Michael Gill