Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Greasy Pole: The Moral Factor? (1996)

The Greasy Pole column from the December 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

At last we know. After all the time and cerebral energy expended on looking for the reasons for problems like poverty, homelessness, and crime it has become clear. As we might have expected, the politicians had the answer. At last they have told us. We are suffering from a moral deficit which undermines all the efforts by masses of people of goodwill to build a secure and prosperous society. We should all be grateful about this because it means that morality is likely to be an issue at the general election, which cannot now be long delayed. In the excitement of the hustings we shall be able to debate this desperately important issue and then, it is to be hoped—most of all, by the politicians—we shall give our leaders an overwhelming mandate to lay the foundations for a new morality.

Of course there will be some draw backs in this preoccupation with moral issues. One is that it will focus attention on individuals or groups of people who are open to be labelled as immoral. People like single mothers, who are a perpetual obsession of one prominent Cabinet minister who thinks the women deliberately arranged their pregnancy so that they would have a case for living on one of those nice estates where other immoral people sell drugs, burgle houses, steal cars . . .  People like those who fail to buy a TV licence so that they can legally watch morally sustaining shows like Blind Date. People who try to supplement their Income Support at the local Sainsbury, where Good Food Costs Nothing if you shoplift it.

And while attention is focused in these ways the real issues are overlooked. This is probably very reassuring to the politicians because it saves them from constructing those long, boring election manifestos in which they promise to eliminate all sorts of problems. Now they can narrow it down to one simple issue. It is rather like when they told us the most important thing was to win the war. Except that now the war is against immorality.

So why is there this moral deficit? We may well ask. Why, for example, is society supposed to be in such an uproar when the present government have had 17 years in which to control it? According to Norman Tebbit, the Thatcher government turned Britain from ". . . the sick country of Europe into one of the most successful and respected in the world . . . Our policies have become the standard against which others are measured" (Upwardly Mobile). But now we are told that there is something basically wrong with this successful and respected country. We are told this by Tebbit’s successors in the Tory government and by Labour leaders like Jack Straw and Tony Blair, who obviously fear the Tories have a vote-winning bandwagon, which they are desperate to clamber onto, in the morality issue.

Well the easiest resolution to this is to blame the parents and the teachers, who are now being criticised for not wearing suits (the male teachers) and not wearing shirts (the females). Parents are being condemned for an alleged preoccupation with the business of survival which cripples their influence over their children, who run riot as a consequence. If only they were all like our politicians, who are always so appropriately dressed and who never deceive or betray us.

There is, however, a question to be answered here. If the present generation of teachers and parents are so deficient in their morality that they have little of it to impart to the children, how did they get to be like that? Were their teachers and parents lacking? And if they were, what responsibility for this rests with those who taught and raised them? It does not take long for this line of questioning to bring us back to the times when, it is implied, society operated on a strong moral basis—when everyone knew their place and mostly asked for nothing more than a life in the slums and a death in the workhouse.

If this kind of question begins to make the whole issue of morality look distinctly dodgy, it can be because it is hardly the time for the Tories to produce it in the hope of winning votes. It is not necessary to go into the wearisome catalogue of sleaze for which this government is notable to conclude that we are ruled by one of the most disastrously exposed bunch of wanglers in recent history. Of course much of the exposure has been possible because of the inept way in which the sleaze has been operated—at times almost as bad as the bank robbers leaving their fingerprints on the safe door. Equally inept have been the attempts to protect the sleaze merchants which have so often had the effect of aggravating the government’s problem—and this does not say much for the supposed skill of those people who claim they can effectively run this social system.

The cover-ups and excuses are designed to protect the entire institution of governmentand political leadership. If there are too many examples of MPs and ministers breaking the rules to line their own pockets there may be a reluctance by the voters to trust them. In fact, voters trust their leaders in face of a mass of evidence which should dissuade them. For example, the recent release of government documents relatingto 1956 has finally confirmed what was obvious—but always vehemently denied—about the Suez war in that year. It has always been clear that the invasion of Egypt was justified by a series of official lies. At the time the excuse for the landings was the separation of the Israeli and Egyptian armies when in fact the Israeli attack was planned in conjunction with the British and French governments, to give them an excuse for landing in Egypt. At the time the House of Commons was assured by the British Prime Minister—elegant, handsome Old Etonian Anthony Eden—that no such collusion had taken place. Eden lied, which no MP, let alone an Old Etonian, let alone a Prime Minister, is supposed to do. So they fitted him up with a peerage and a nice house in the West Indies.

And what are we to say about the morality of the present bunch of political leaders? About John Major’s pose as the nice guy? About Tony Blair’s waffle about Britain’s future under a Labour government? About the morality of the whole, persistent deception that these people can organise capitalism so that it can exist without poverty, homelessness, crime. About the morality of them turning when they are exposed, on vulnerable groups in the hope of winning a few votes from the more bewildered and despairing among the electorate?

50 Years Ago: The Slippery Slopes of Labourism (1996)

The 50 Years Ago column from the December 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

On the home front the Labour Party is in wholesale—though, as yet, not fully recognised—retreat. As long as the Labour Party has been in existence its most prominent propagandists have given lip-service to the Socialist condemnation of the capitalist system for its “profit motive”. Now a changed line has been announced without any attempt being made first to get it endorsed by the members of the Labour Party. This line was defined by Mr. Herbert Morrison in a speech at Birmingham, reported in the Daily Herald (October 28th, 1946). “There is no need,” he said, “to abolish the profit motive,” all that is required is to rid it of abuses. Three days later the Daily Herald told its readers that one of the reasons for the Labour Government’s drive for increased production and the most economical use of labour was that these are essential “to preserve the real value of both wages and profits” (Daily Herald, 31/10/46). Many Labour voters will be astonished to learn that one of the objects of their Party is to “preserve the real value of profits.” Some may ask themselves, too, how the present policy of discouraging wage increased fits in with the pre-election promises and with the increase of M.P.s’ salaries from £600 to £ 1,000 a year in April last.
(From editorial in Socialist Standard, December 1946)

Who'll mourn the Emperor? (1996)

Bokassa's coronation in 1976.
From the December 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

In 1920, France took full control of their tiny African colony Ubangi-Shari (later the Central African Republic) and immediately leased 50 percent of it to 17 French companies, giving them freedom to exploit the indigenous population in whatever manner they saw fit.

This exploitation would take the form of forced labour, torture and hostage-taking in an attempt to force the population to collect rubber vine.

It was at the hands of the guards of one of these French companies that a certain Chief Mindogen was flogged to death for failing to provide sufficient rubber vine collectors.

Against this backdrop, Jean Bedal Bokassa, son of Chief Mindogen grew up with a superstitious fascination for French power and an obsession with French history, particularly the Napoleonic era, an obsession which led him to enlist in the French army and which played some part in his sycophantic rise to the rank of lieutenant during French campaigns of the 40s and 50s.

On leaving the army, Bokassa quickly found a position in David Dacko’s corrupt and chaotic government as Chief of Staff of the Ministry of Defence.

At this time the French were a bit uneasy about Dacko’s corrupt government, fearing for their businesses and strategic interests should a potential "Marxist"-led uprising occur and though the country was officially independent—it had been since I960—France still retained the right to interfere at their leisure.

They had in fact been planning a coup when Bokassa, catching a whiff of their intentions, out-manoeuvred them and took control of the capital with forces loyal to himself.

Although the French did not at first take too kindly to this wagon-jumping, Bokassa seemed such a pleasant enough old Francophile that it seemed a shame to oppose him, and besides, he was anything but a "communist”. So they sat back and left the affairs of the Central African Republic to the new president, confident he could fare no worse than Dacko.

However, as Ian Schott points out; "There was little to distinguish Bokassa from any other confused, violent and corrupt post-colonial regime. It was run on the simple maxim ‘to the victors—the spoils”' (World Famous Dictators, 1992, P-78).

Anything resembling democracy was trampled upon and nepotism was rampant. Those loyal to Bokassa were rewarded with promotion and huge salaries and those who upset him met an early death.

Still France backed him, to the tune of $20 million per year. Most of this, though, was bi-lateral aid which tended to increase France’s interests in the country. It was followed by the donation of French paratroopers to Bokassa’s army.

From then on the country’s budget was treated by Bokassa as his own personal bank account. He privatised state assets, had shares in every national business including the diamond industry and secured a total monopoly on foreign trade. None complained. The entire civil service had either been bribed or were too afraid to speak out.

Twelve years later the country was almost as bankrupt as it had been on 31 December 1965 when Bokassa assumed the tide of President of the Armed Forces, the Ministry of Information and Ministry for Justice.

In December 1976, Bokassa decided it was time his 2.5 million population needed an Emperor—himself. Almost 35 percent of the state’s $70 million budget was subverted to the ensuing Napoleonic-style coronation.

No expense was spared. Bokassa donned a velvet ankle-length sword. He trailed a 30-foot-long crimson velvet, gold-embroidered and ermine-trimmed mantle and was carried to his gold-trimmed throne, backed by a huge golden eagle with outstretched wings, in a gilded coach drawn by eight white Normandy horses.

Although the event was frowned upon by the British and the US, invited representatives of both countries returning their golden invitation cards—the US so infuriated they cut off aid—the French expressed their approval by donating $2.5 million to the event, in order that the 2,500 imbecilic international guests could be ferried about in a huge fleet of limousines escorted by 200 BMW motorbikes.

The world had apparently given Bokassa the legitimacy he had sought and he revelled in it. From this point his extravagance was now only to be matched by his inhumanity.

When he discovered an attempted break-in at his palace, he drove in a fury to the local prison and personally beat three innocent victims to death. When schoolchildren protested at the compulsory wearing of expensive uniforms made at a factory owned by himself, he sent the troops in who promptly massacred between 150 and 200 of them. And when teachers and students distributed leaflets condemning his personal wealth, his "Imperial Guard" rounded up hundreds who were later beaten to death. Bokassa participating fully at Ngaragbi prison—all this in the International Year of the Child!

These and other such episodes finally began to embarrass the French government As they pondered their predicament they set up a five-nation African Mission of Inquiry to investigate the many charges against Bokassa. including cannibalism, whilst at the same time desperately seeking a means of ousting him before he could be found guilty and world opinion turned against a French government that has sponsored him.

The inquiry found him guilty and. a month later, sanctions already beginning to bite, Bokassa went cap-in-hand to Libya’s Colonel Gadaffi for help.

In his absence the French launched "Operation Barracuda", a bloodless coup, brought David Dacko out of retirement and installed him in Bokassa's palace as president.

Gadaffi soon got fed up with Bokassa, just as he had with Amin years earlier. Homeless, friendless, Bokassa roamed about until settling down on the Ivory Coast to sell tropical fish. After an even more depressing spell in France, Bokassa returned to his homeland, where his death penalty had been passed in his absence. This was commuted to life imprisonment

Six years later Bokassa was released and immediately applied for the post of president. Amazingly his offer was turned down!

On 3 November 1996 Bokassa died at the age of 75, in a country where the average life expectancy is 48. There is little doubt that there will be few more delighted to see him go than the French government As long as he lived he served as a poignant reminder of France’s imperial excesses.

Bokassa’s type still exist however, in Libya, Zaire and Nigeria and a host of other African countries where the colonial experiment still reverberates down the years—stark reminders of the true nature of capitalism and how the seemingly benevolent gift of "independence" blossoms all too often into abject tyranny and terror when ill-educated dictators try to run a country in a manner in which their colonial forbears also failed. 
John Bissett

Whiff of Gold (1996)

From the December 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard
  We publish below, without comment, a translation of an article that appeared in the Belgian paper "Le Soir"on 14 November under the heading "THE GREAT LAKES WAR HAS A WHIFF OF GOLD ABOUT IT”.
One would have to be naive to believe that the motivation behind the interest currently being shown by the major powers in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa is purely humanitarian. In reality, Rwanda and Burundi are two countries which, although tiny, are of strategic geopolitical importance, located as they are on the borders of the immense state of Zaire, whose eastern provinces constitute an almost uncapped store of strategic mineral wealth.

Rwanda and Burundi are two pivotal states on the fringes of the French-speaking zone of influence which stretches from Western to Central Africa, incorporating the Zaire of President Mobutu, who, since the end of the Cold War, has skilfully exploited the French language link. Although in cultural and linguistic terms Rwanda and Burundi may be classed among the French-speaking countries, economically speaking they belong to Eastern Africa,all their exports and imports passing through the Indian Ocean ports of Tanzania and Kenya.

For several years, the centre of gravity of Kivu province has also been shifting. Most of the local companies have post office boxes in Kigali and Bujumbura, and their business operations are conducted via Eastern Africa and the Indian Ocean ports. If Kivu could elude Kinshasa's control, other eastern provinces might follow suit. In Shaba too, rebel movements are preparing to go into action.

At a recent press conference, the Zairean Minister of the Interior, Kamanda wa Kamanda, relayed soon afterwards by his colleague responsible for the Mines, stressed that "the war In Kivu has a whiff of gold about it".

And it is not just gold, although the gold mines of Southern Kivu have given the rebel movements quasi-autarky up to now. Several opposition movements had bases in the Fizi Baraka region and even signed "non-aggression pacts" with the military, each of them exploiting the region’s gold for their own account, and exporting it via trading posts in Burundi.

Apart from gold, Kivu has other mineral riches. Particularly substantial methane gas deposits lie beneath the bed of Lake Kivu, and American companies might be interested in working them. Even back in colonial times, strategic minerals were discovered in the region. Southern Kivu is rich in silver, beryl, bismuth, iron, cassiterite, tantalum and tungsten. Northern Kivu, in addition to gold, cassiterite, iron, diamonds, platinum and tantalum, also has large deposits of niobium, already worked by a German company.

Kivu’s resources are particularly important, since niobium and columbotantalite are materials used in the high-tech aeronautical and computer industries, and will be ever more highly prized in the future. Certain sources even maintain that oil has been discovered under Lake Kivu, but because of the distances involved, it is apparently unprofitable to exploit it at the present time. It must in any event be assumed that such riches, which will one day be of strategic importance, cannot be a matter of complete indifference to the industrialised countries (Canada included) currently waiting in the wings to bring humanitarian aid to this disaster zone.
(translated by MD).

Which Way To Organise? (1996)

From the December 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard
  Socialists aim at common ownership and democratic control of the world and its resources and the consequent abolition of class society. We also recognise that until this is achieved we have to organise ourselves for class struggle along the most militant and democratic lines. Mainstream trade unions increasingly fit neither of these descriptions. So is it time for a new beginning?
The leaders of the trade union movement are devoid of a class understanding of society, so lacking ideas of how to get out of their present rut that they see no alternative, indeed no other policy, than supporting the return of a Labour government.

Blair and Blunkett have left no doubts about their attitude to organised labour: the anti-union legislation must be continued. If elected a Labour government will place yet further curbs on strike action, especially in the public sector. Binding arbitration or a system whereby unions will have to re-ballot their members every time an employer makes what it terms as an improved offer will be introduced.

There was also a rumour that if a Labour government was to be faced with an outbreak of strikes in the public sector, this might result in the party balloting its members on the question of ending the link with the unions. This so-called threat, which is more like the best thing the Labour Party would have ever done for the working class, was later denied by senior party officials.

The direction mainstream trade unions are heading is very similar to that of New Labour, with an emphasis on a social partnership between unions and employers. In general the reaction of the union leaders to Blair and Blunkett’s proposals was, to say the least, muted. Official trade unionism is like a toothless tiger that when attacked has no choice but to cower in a corner.

A class issue
The need to engage in collective organisation emerges in a society which is divided into two classes, a minority class who own and control the means of wealth production and distribution and a majority class who have to sell their abilities to work for a wage or salary in order to live. On an individual basis the relationship between employer and employee is one of gross inequality to that to defend themselves against the inevitable encroachments of capital, workers have to organise collectively.

This need has nothing to do with rights, but has everything to do with economic necessity, a vital weapon for workers in the class struggle. Collective organisation and immunities from prosecution in trade disputes were conceded by the state through years of working-class struggle. In recent years these immunities only remain if workers and their organisations abide by a whole set of restraints in organising their disputes with employers.

Unions which were never exactly revolutionary organisations, are now beginning to lack any trace of being class-based organisations. The question must seriously be asked: are unions, who subscribe to the so-called “New Unionism” of the late 1990s, adequate tools for workers to rely on in their struggle with the bosses’ class?

Whether by deliberate design or not, many unions seem to have abandoned sections of the working class who are suffering from the worst aspects of modern capitalism. Many workers are employed on part-time contracts or limited to temporary or casual employment and find the comparatively high subs unions ask difficult to afford.

The unions now seem totally resigned to working within the reactionary industrial relations legislation which has developed, particularly during the last seventeen years. This acceptance makes them less effective organisations for workers in their struggles with employers.

The Liverpool dockers dispute has shown that to pursue a dispute via solidarity, and in this case international solidarity, means acting outside the channels of official unionism. After a weekend of activity in late September, it seems the TGWU threatened to end what little support it was providing to the dockers on the grounds that they had been associating with “anarchists”.

If workers are having to spend as much time fighting the union bureaucracy as they are their employers, then many may start, indeed, surely will start, to think about the need to form or join industrial organisations which are controlled by the membership and not paid officials.

Democratic struggle
What socialists support is sound collective industrial working-class organisation not particular institutions of trade unions. We have always stressed the need for workers to control their own disputes, to democratically decide when to take action, what that action should be and at what stage their dispute has been satisfactorily settled or is no longer worth pursuing.

It is workers themselves and not officials divorced from the workplace who should decide whether to make agreements with employers and what such agreements should be. Collective industrial organisation also needs to reach out beyond the workplace to include community involvement. The need for such organisation was evident in the 1984-5 miners strike and in the current Liverpool dockers dispute. Is this possible in bureaucratic-dominated unions?

Even in the defensive struggle to defend ourselves within the capitalist system, let alone an offensive one to help end it, the business-type unions which dominate in Britain at the moment offer little more than employment insurance and personal services. They are losing, or have already lost, their capacity for workers to use them as organisations of self-defence and are seemingly too bureaucratic to change. For groups of workers who have retained good militant anti-official unionism, it may be possible to build something within their existing organisations. For those who lack this base, alternative forms of industrial collective organisation may need to be built.
Ray Carr