Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The Communications Counter-Revolution (1997)

From the December 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard
  We face a social crisis of communication. Not only do the means of mass communication not belong to us but they are being used against us.
As global media have developed, enabling words and images to be conveyed to millions of people in a matter of seconds, the words used have become increasingly more sloganised and contrived to delude, the imagery more tranquillising in its banality and stupefying in its detachment from historical context.

As the world becomes a global village, linked by newly accessible technologies from the mobile phone to the Internet, the most powerful use of these technologies has tended to promote the envelopment of mass consciousness by corporate ideology.

As the symbols of constitutional democracy come to dominate the globe, seemingly confirmed by newly-acquired voting powers from Moscow to Soweto to West Lothian, the empowerment of the ballot is insidiously undermined by the neo-feudal absolutism of the press barons and media moguls: the new stratum of the ruling class which controls the dogma of the news agenda. Rupert Murdoch’s News International, to exemplify the point by reference to the biggest and baddest, has global assets of $15 billion and now controls the major newspapers in Britain and Australia, the biggest news broadcast network in the USA and by far the most significant private media organisation in Asia.

As global literacy rates increase, and huge hopes are placed upon the potentiality of science as a method of liberation from disease and diminished opportunities, the lexicon of the communications industry has converged with the language of the manipulative advertising industry which has denuded language of depth or integrity and prostituted speakers and writers in the service of crude market targets.

The consequence of all this is a public which is increasingly bemused by and untrusting of the channels of mass communication; which finds itself the recipient of a monological, one-way conversation, presented as communication; which has come to regard truth as being either the monopoly of a mediating elite or else so relative that nothing can be really true; which has become so soundbitten by political messages delivered to fit the crass measurements of the tabloid headline that enthusiasm for such political babble has become as perverse as commitment to a brand of baked beans or loyalty to a fast-food chain.

For most people the world of politics (for, politics seems indeed to inhabit a separate, remote and misty planet) seems terribly drab and empty and meaningless and alienating and dishonest. Politicians are never useful, except as pawns who might drive away the even more useless. Political activity is seen as an obsession for the disturbed: the rule-bound, the myopic, the ones who get their kicks from power games. Politics is an irritation or a threat, but never a resource of strength or hope.

The language of politics, as it has become compressed to the point of sounding half like gibberish and half like fraud, is not taken very seriously except by those who deal in its currency and have come to realise that it is a code of impotence reflecting the timidity of statecraft before economic powers which operate only in the global language of numbers.

Soundbite culture
Why has the culture of the soundbite arisen? Firstly, because political leaders have come to realise, albeit gradually and with a conspicuous absence of humility, that they can lead nobody nowhere. The market leads; they follow. To dance to the tune of capital entails a minimum of choreographical creativity and to sing to the tune calls less for the oratory of Cicero than the verbal banality of Saatchi or Mandelson.

Secondly, because ideas have become detached from political life. What George Bush called ‘The Vision Thing’ was a recognition of what he lacked, not what he had. The words needed to convey the contemporary political visions of the future, fantasies of myopia as they are, are few and uninspiring. “Gahd Bless America !” “New Labour; New Britain” “One Europe; one people” “The Lady’s Not for Turning” “Things Go Better With Coke”? It is a world led by second-rate advertising copywriters.

When you have nothing to say there is much to be said for saying nothing. But in order for the political mime-show to become audible, for the sake of putting background noise, however disjointed, to the increasingly dominating imagery of the photo-opportunity, something, however brief and pointless, must be uttered.

Thirdly, there is a belief amongst those who produce the media and design the news, that the public is incorrigibly stupid, happy only when offered infantile distractions from reality and capable of taking in only the most simplistic and compressed smidgeon of sound before rubbing our eyes and demanding an appointment with the Page Three girls. The public are regarded as half-baked cretins. The workers are witless and best offered football reports and Royal fairy stories: the tabloid valium for the dispossessed.

And because the news producers worry that our attention spans will collapse under the strain of more than a few minutes of political discussion, they ensure that such unmanageable bites of sustained argument never reach us. In the 1964 General Election — the first in which the major political parties prepared themselves for a TV campaign — the average excerpt from a political speech on the television news was eighty-seven seconds. These days an eighty-seven second excerpt is unheard of. By the 1979 election the median length of speech extracts on the BBC News was 45 seconds and on ITN 25 seconds. In the 1992 election the average length was heard was down to 18 seconds. In the last US presidential campaign no contender was quoted for more than 7 seconds, except during the deadly boring presidential debates in which they recited their pre-rehearsed soundbites with the conviction of a waitress in an American restaurant telling you the day’s specials on the menu.

The problem is not, of course, simply people wants to hear politicians for more than twenty seconds. Fifteen seconds of John Major felt like a lifetime in a cell with him. The media producers are quite right: too much of this makes our heads ache and we run out into the street committing road rage. Faced with such intellectual vacuity and emptiness of vision there is much to be said for the most extreme brevity. The problem is quite simply that the most extreme brevity is fine when you are contrasting Coke with Pepsi or advertising baked beans which don’t make you fart or asking if you prefer Oasis or Blur, but it is inimical to and destructive of the kind of reasoned, scientific judgement required from people who are called upon to make serious democratic choices.

No time for reason
Reason — the capacity to exercise our unique human capacity to organise our thoughts — to remember — to envisage and plan — to think and speak conceptually — to share thought through words — to use words to differentiate the self from the outer world and experience from fantasy —these hugely potent, definingly human, boundlessly creative forces which comprise reason will only wither and die if they are constrained by the inane language and crass imagery which sells jelly babies and New Labour.

To exercise reason takes time. This need for time has always been a problem for the vast majority because, under capitalism it is precisely the theft of our time which leaves us exploited and unfree and weary. So, there is a paradox: to understand why we are weary, unfree and exploited we need the time to contemplate the cause of exploitation and the hope for freedom. For the Leninists and the social-democratic reformists the problem was easily addressed: the nature of life for the majority would never permit the luxury of such reasoned contemplation, so mass socialist consciousness could never occur. The wearied workers must be led or left to rot.

For socialists, who refused to accept that authoritarian logic, the only basis for our claim that workers could and would understand the case for a new way of organising society, was that given the time to think and make sense of experience, understanding would combine with desire to create an enlightened embrace of the socialist alternative. Give people time to think and to speak and to argue and they cannot but see it as we have seen it.

But if time itself is to be sapped away by a culture of hurried messages and commercial jingles, the fascistic anthems of the marketplace, then what hope is there for reason? If language itself, in an Orwellian rape of meaning and sequential logic, becomes not a means to know more but a weapon in the armoury of those who would prefer us to know less, then reason itself falls victim to a vandalising culture which dehumanises those left to dwell in the Brave New World of the Sun and the organisation of mass stupidity. We would be abandoned to a cultural wilderness of endless Happy Hours but no happiness, punch-drunk street parties and feudal funeral processions as repositories for the deeply repressed miseries of the bewildered; elections and referendums with no issues and no discussion. This is the dystopian future of a society bereft of reason.

The threat of a slide to such an historical catastrophe is a menace to the reason which makes us human and to the socialist vision which could enable us to live humanely. And we do face such a threat. That is why we are unmistakably in the midst of a profound crisis of communication. Not only is it the case that the means of communication do not belong to us — in a world where very little that is worth much belongs to most of us that is hardly a revelation. But these channels of communication are being used against us. They are The Enemy Within, which can brand strikers as The Enemy Within and socialists as loonies, utopians and the merely irrelevant. It is as well to know our enemy, for struggle for the tools and language of communication has become in the course of the twentieth century the predominant battle-ground within which the shape of our social future will be contested.

The war waged by the ruling class to silence the majority is not a new one, even though it has too often been neglected by liberal historians who prefer to bathe in the still waters of liberal ideology. The battle to stifle the voices of the working class is a long and bloody one, and in many parts of the world it still goes on leaving the silenced, the maimed, tortured and the butchered corpses in its wake. But in Britain and the so-called capitalist democracies the war against the right of workers to speak has changed. The strategy now is to tolerate ‘free speech’ and then drown it out with the megaphones of distraction and deceit. What we are offered is a democracy in which everyone has a right to be ignored, but only the rich and powerful can insist upon being heard.

Linguistic nihilism
What kind of intellectual climate is it that is allowing the communication of hope and the vivacity of human creativity to become so neglected? The answer lies in the current mood of counter-enlightenment which has come to dominate Western thought. The arid atmosphere of what has come to be known as postmodernism is precisely the environment within which the banalities of the soundbite and the soft-focus lens can triumph over the long-learned lessons of the Age of Reason. With their disdain for rational explanations the postmodernists argue that no cause is more important in producing an effect than any other. There is no rational analysis of history; there are no social systems; there can be nothing which is reducible to the clarity of scientific transparency.

So, within this hopelessly nihilistic chain of postmodernist discourse, everything is as meaningful as it is meaningless; rationality stands on a par with irrationality; no judgement must be prioritised over any other — genocide, death camps, avoidable mass starvation, the torture of political prisoners. These, according to the postmodernists, are all merely fragmented and inexplicable phenomena which operate each in their own separate world of autonomous values. So, if nothing general can be said, language becomes diminished as a civilising force. Words can mean anything or nothing or both. The postmodernists have celebrated the so-called Death of History: the death, in short, of that fundamentally liberating Age of Reason project, to which Marx contributed so greatly, to transform history from a passive force, in which humans are mere puppets, to a creative force in which our comprehension of the process allows us to actively direct the process of social movement. For the postmodernists all of this was ultra-optimism and must now be substituted by an inert, sullen, complacent pact with the present.

This veritable revolt against the Enlightenment derides scientific logic and the quest for the dialectical interrogation of complexity and surrenders abjectly to the lunatic’s logic of the marketplace and its attendant disorders. It gives rise to a notion of politics as being essentially about slogans rather than substance. For, if you really believe that there can be no substantial intervention in the making of history, what else is there to do but stand on the sidelines and pretend that your mandate is to carry out whatever happens to be taking place already?

At its worst, this is the climate in which the dark clouds of fascism can form. But not necessarily fascism in jackboots with Nuremberg rallies. It was hard to ignore a fascistic element within the mass hysteria which followed upon the recent death of a Princess. Such mass manipulation of human feeling and well-organised collective agonising of the repressed is precisely the kind of perverse waste of human emotion and energy made permissible in a society which has come to disdain popular reason.

The politics of reasoned thought requires the capacity to distinguish between the trivial inconsequences of our enemies and the historically vital events out of which history makes us and we can make history. It requires a rejection of the linguistic nihilism of contemporary journalism which asserts like Humpty Dumpty that words can mean whatever a headline-writer wants them to mean. It requires a respect for scientific logic which considers causes and effects rather than diminishing everything to the random agenda of ‘News Just In’.

Capitalism, because it would perish by the force of mass intelligence if enough people thought about it, cannot create an environment conducive to intelligent reflection. Indeed, the more it goes on, the more it will create more elaborate and sophisticated diversions from reasoned thought. And the more socialists will need to warn against those diversions and remind their fellow human beings: Your brain is the greatest weapon you possess; your ability to communicate is your tool of liberation; thinking, speaking and organising democratically and intelligently you are a force that cannot be defeated by the babble of a worn-out social system.
Steve Coleman

Brandt, cant and the banks (1981)

From the December 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

In October Margaret Thatcher went to Cancun, there to enjoy the Mexican sunshine, attend some splendid banquets, and make pious noises about the millions who starve to death in the Third World. Reagan represented the American capitalist class; Zhuo Ziyang, the Chinese dictatorship; and assorted Arab sheiks showed up to threaten their fellow exploiters with further oil price increases. As one dignitary after another arrived at the conference centre to talk about holding future talks, the victims of the poverty trap continued to perish, oblivious that the masters of the world had convened to talk about them.

The problems of the so-called developing countries are of a magnitude not easy to comprehend. Approximately two-thirds of their populations are malnourished, receiving less than the essential 2,500 calories a day. Thirty million people die of starvation each year, which on average means that one person starves to death every second. In Africa, one fifth of all children die before their first birthday and only a quarter of the population has access to clean water. Diseases in these countries are the direct result of squalid living living conditions and lack of adequate health services. In India for one, cholera and typhoid are widespread killers. Statistics can neither describe the suffering nor express the waste which are hallmarks of nascent capitalism in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

In February 1980, the Independent Commission on International Development presented to the United Nations a report entitled, North-South: A Programme For Survival. The report is a striking indictment of the poverty of capitalist thinking about the problems engendered by their system. The Commission, chaired by Willy Brandt, and including such sterile minds as Edward Heath and Olaf Palme, was accurate only in its depiction of the plight of the poor in the developing countries. They recognised that irrigation is desperately needed; that pure water supplies and pumps are required; that more energy resources are wanted; that new educational facilities are necessary. Having highlighted these needs, the report then proposes solutions within the inhibiting structure of the world-wide profit system.

Under capitalism, investment in production is dependent upon the expectation of profit. Food is produced if it is likely to be sold: if there are no buyers, then there is no “market demands". So, even though people are starving, they do not “demand” food unless they constitute a profitable market. To the simple mind it might seem obvious that if there is enough food to satisfy the starving and according to United Nations statistics, there is a capacity to feed the world’s population several times over — then they should be given access to the food. But such a solution would be too simple for the Brandt Commissioners, who realise that the present system is geared towards the profits of the few rather than the needs of the many.

Brandt and Co. are not in the charity business; the purpose of their mission is to open up new areas of the world to be exploited for profit. It is not the poor who will be better off at the end of the day, but the bankers and the industrialists (despite all the cant about the moral righteousness of overseas aid, which anyway constitutes only a small fraction of government expenditure in comparison with such “priorities” as the armed forces). More than two-thirds of financial loans to the developing countries since 1977 have been private bank loans with onerous terms and debt-servicing burdens. Between 1979 and 1981, debt-service payments for non-oil producing developing countries stood at 120 billion dollars, on top of rising trade deficits.

From a capitalist point of view, the Brandt report is progressive; it recognises the massive, largely uncultivated wastelands of Africa, Asia and Latin America as potential areas for rapid exploitation. With world capitalism in the midst of one of its periodic crises (and not looking like coming out of it soon), such a plan offers some hope. It should not be forgotten that the minority groups who own and control the developing countries are not starving themselves. They are generally affluent dictators who have had no electoral support from the people they rule. This however will not deter the “liberal” capitalists who support the Brandt proposals from sitting round conference tables with them and engaging in trade deals. By bringing the rulers of the developing countries into the international capitalist market, the “aid” agencies are helping to strengthen their own economic system:
  They (the aid agencies) are based on the upholding of the existing international and national framework of the developing world . . . The international agencies cannot accept changes in developing countries which might endanger existing patterns of international trade, foreign private investment, the regular servicing and repayment of debts, and other more or less general concerns of the capitalist developed or creditor countries. (Teresa Hayter, Aid As Imperialism, Penguin, 1971.)
Of course, the rival imperialist superpower, Russia, has long been engaged in precisely the same “aid” business as the West. Russian state capitalism has succeeded in “liberating*’ the rulers of developing countries from one gang of creditors to another. The Brandt report is seen by some Western bankers as a way for the west to compete with the Russian Empire in the bogus liberation game.

The real losers in all of this are the world’s poor. Poverty is by no means only a problem for “under-developed” countries — it is a worldwide working class phenomenon. Every single wage slave, whether he lives in the midst of advanced “free enterprise” or the relative backwardness of Bangladesh, is never free from the threat of being one of tomorrow’s hungry. The vast majority of the world's population, who do not own or control the means of producing and distributing. wealth, are only ever entitled to have access to what they can buy. It is a dangerously insecure existence and it is madness for the workers to look to the bankers to change it for them.
Steve Coleman

A Haunting Spectre (1981)

From the December 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard
Between 1976 and 1978 our comrade Sam Leight, of the World Socialist Party of the US, broadcasted regularly on a local radio station in Tucson, Arizona. He has now selected a number of these broadcasts and published them as a 230-page paperback book entitled World Without Wages. All the basic aspects of the socialist case — capitalism, socialism, class struggle, materialist conception of history, economics, trade unions, war, religion, racism — are covered in a style easy to read and understand, even if, inevitably in a selection of this sort, there is a certain amount of repetition. To give an idea of the book’s merit and style we publish below a broadcast on the question of war.
A spectre is haunting the world. Unfortunately it is not the spectre of communism which, like its synonymous term socialism, exists only within the minds of a small minority. The spectre to which we refer is the dread of world-wide nuclear warfare. The possibility of an “international holocaust” which can threaten the survival of the human race cannot, and should not, be ignored. New evidence is available daily, through the media, showing clearly how war and capitalism are inseparable; that the potential for World War III is ominously becoming more pronounced.

It becomes the social obligation of every adult to study the situation, not superficially but in depth. One should disregard the mind bending distortions of the defenders and reformers of the system. They invariably never focus attention on prime causes but are constantly creating false enemies and bogus issues. Meanwhile the real culprit, capitalism, is protected from proper scrutiny and deserved condemnation.

It is beyond the capabilities of political parties or individual leaders, irrespective of their talents or good intentions, to properly control the system they so staunchly defend. The emergence of one crisis upon another, in an unending stream, not only proves this point but is indicative of a society whose very core performs in an anti-social manner. The basis of capitalism is large scale production of commodities for sale and profit, through the employment of wage labour by the ruling, owning class. This is the foundation that determines a complex array of insoluble social phenomena, creating an environment unmistakably hostile to the welfare of those forced to survive in the labour market. And it is precisely in the market place of the capitalist that the seeds of war are implanted, eventually to reach their ultimate maturity.

Commodities must be sold in order for profits to be realised. Markets are forever imperative, both domestic and foreign; trade routes, spheres of influence and boundaries must be protected; and new areas of investment and exploitation are always being sought. Wars occur over these material issues when negotiations between states, each representing their own ruling capitalist class, reach an impasse.

The technology of modern nuclear warfare, together with its horrendous consequences, places the whole of mankind squarely within the same arena. To a degree this occurred in World War II; but with the subsequent development of atomic warfare the destructive capabilities that can be unleashed are monumental in comparison to all previous conflicts. A government report issued in January 1978, in its assessment of the impact of a major nuclear war between the two main superpowers, finds that at a minimum the United States would have 140 million fatalities and the Soviet Union 113 million.

You do not have to search beyond this point to find adequate cause for supporting, with your every fibre, the case for socialism. For the case for socialism is the case against capitalism. How can one logically justify at this stage of so-called social progress, when the fate of millions, if not of all humanity, hovers in precipitous balance, serious questions about the practicality of socialism, the bogy-man myth of human nature objections, or the impossibility of socialist comprehension by the majority, and so forth? We will naturally continue to deal with these arguments, as and when they are put forward, just as we have done for the past 70-odd years. But when a system actually creates its own gigantic coffin, which can at any time engulf us all, and when there awaits a logical alternative — socialism — then we say our case has been vindicated on this one score alone.

We have, of course, much more to offer when we urge for the speedy elimination of capitalism — all the major social evils are spawned by the system. But the war issue alone adequately substantiates our position; all the rest, this in no way detracting from their equal importance, just adds so much more grist to the mill.

The doomsday clock keeps ticking — only the establishment of socialism will cause it to stop.

The consideration of nuclear war creates a scenario which abounds in the complexities of military technology and political evaluations that combines present reality with future speculation. We can take inventory of the gigantic nuclear stockpile; review the past, and mourn the incineration of 200,000 Japanese at the end of World War II, acknowledging that nuclear warfare is no longer an academic issue but history. We can ponder on probabilities, formulate attitudes. One important fact should be recognised. Wars, whether they be termed conventional or nuclear, cannot be prosecuted without the support of the majority of the working class. It is true that a nuclear war could be instigated without formal working class approval; but working class acceptance of capitalism is a tacit authorisation, given by them to the ruling class and their representatives, to administrate the system. The consequences, whatever they may be, must be accepted as part of the deplorable political contract initiated at the voting booths, when the workers sanction capitalism's continuation.

The manufacture of nuclear warfare, together with its allied technological implementations, has for years preoccupied the two major superpowers. As each power produces some new horror, conveniently symbolized — ICBM’s, Minuteman III, the new MK-12A, or the Soviet SS 20, SS19, successors to the SS18 and SS 19, or the contemplated US mobile MX — one power vies with the other for equality or ultimate superiority. For fiscal 1979 the Pentagon proposed a $128 billion military budget; even if this is pared to $125 billion as has been counter-suggested, either figure would be a record. And the military of the United States and Soviet Union will unceasingly offer their own brand of “plausible” reasons for the continued madness, with seemingly no slackening of tempo. The very existence of such an arsenal, notwithstanding the popular, overly-optimistic theory of mutual deterrence, provides the constant risk of the destructive instruments being utilised.

Attitudes towards nuclear warfare can vary not only within governments but between governments. For example, it can be conjectured that at some time the Soviet Union’s self-appraisal of their capabilities of “winning” a strategic nuclear war might be at variance with those held by the United States. The deterrent perceived, and hoped for, by the United States may not be sufficient to dissuade an act of aggression by the Soviet Union against the United States, or for that matter vice versa. Many factors could influence such a decision: an evaluation, either rightly or wrongly, of substantial superiority in some given military area at any particular time; a calculated acceptance of limited casualties and destruction, which for example could be offset by new territorial gains in Europe, or elsewhere: an assessment by the Soviets of their advantageous civil defence capabilities, which apparently at present far exceed those of the United States; and lastly the always prevalent temptation of a first strike. These possibilities can be expanded, amended and debated. However, the mere fact that they are available for contemplation is in itself a social tragedy.

China must also be considered a nuclear power. They have already detonated nuclear bombs, have an extensive civil defence system, and the Soviet Union’s arms race takes cognisance of their so-called communist rivals. In addition approximately 35 other nations can be expected to have nuclear capability within the next few years, not to mention increasing hazards from terrorists and other maniacal movements.

The social significance of this deplorable example of capitalism’s threat to man’s security and survival cannot be under-estimated. We find ourselves threatened by obliteration from forces potentially uncontrollable, that are rapidly increasing with an alarming magnitude. Society is at present entrapped within a volatile system capable of unthinkable human massacre. All the antagonisms that capitalism produces, inclusive of, but not limited to, war can only be removed when the working class throughout the world recognise the cause and fully understand the solution.

One does not need to search far for supporting evidence to show that under capitalism war is inevitable. War is an integral part of the system, inescapable from its function, and society is guaranteed its presence as long as capitalism continues. The unknown factor is whether the violence will become world-wide and nuclear at any particular time. Certainly the history transpired since World War II would imply that this possibility is most strong.

The director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in May 1977, stated that since September 1945 there has not been a single day in which the world was free of war. In fact, 12 wars were being fought on any average day. The casualties, he said, since the end of World War II, run into the tens of millions with the armed forces of more than 80 states fighting on the territory of more than 70 states. His summary of the war situation was based on the research of Hungarian Professor Istvanhkende, who estimated 133 wars between 1945 and 1976, elevating to the status of a war guerrilla attacks that cover a considerable part of the country in which they operate. We suggest that this information, the validity of which we have no reason to doubt, coupled with public knowledge and experience, verifies beyond dispute that war and capitalism are bonded together in an unbreakable social mould that in the modern world cannot be separated, one from the other.

In September 1977 the prestigious Stockholm International Peace Research Institute released its annual report on the possibilities of a nuclear war. The institute concluded: “The probability of a nuclear war is steadily increasing". This depressing conclusion, reported the institute, “is virtually inescapable given, given the consequences of advances in military technology and the spread of nuclear capability”.

In a lengthy report by the Bookings Institution under contract to the Pentagon’s Advanced Projects Research Agency, as reported January 1977, the United States since 1946 has made 19 conspicuous nuclear threats, flexing its military muscles in more than 215 different incidents, often with notable success, to obtain foreign policy objectives. The most serious US nuclear threat came in 1962, over the Soviet missiles in Cuba. In 1973 the US put strategic forces on alert when it believed Russia was preparing to invade Israel during the Yom Kippur war. Again, in August 1976 the US alerted a variety of forces, including B52 nuclear bombers in an incident related to North Korea.

As reported in February 1977 some US intelligence experts believe the Soviet Union is spending about $1 billion a year on civil defence — 12 times the current US budget. This they say is cause for concern because they fear the “balance of terror”, a so-called psychological deterrent to nuclear war, would be toppled if the Russian population were protected and Americans were not.

The US Defence Civil Preparedness Agency, Department of Defence, in February 1977, published a pamphlet entitled Protection In The Nuclear Age. I quote from the introduction:
  Potential aggressors can deliver nuclear warheads accurately on targets up to 8000 miles away. Despite continuing efforts to achieve and maintain peace, a nuclear attack upon the US remains a distinct possibility.
 . . . I now imagine myself huddled in a Fallout Shelter. In the distance I hear ominous explosions. Some mad, quixotic notion, over which I have no control, impels me to engage an obstinate old friend, sitting beside me, in political banter. “You wouldn't settle for socialism, would you?” As the detonations grew louder and closer I could hear his reply. “Please don’t talk to me about socialism — certainly not now. And as I’ve told you before — it's not practical. Don’t you understand — it's not practical”. And at that precise moment the lights went out!
Samuel Leight

The socialist breakfast (1981)

From the December 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard
  The King asked the Queen, and the Queen asked the Dairymaid: "Could we have some butter for the Royal slice of bread?” The Dairymaid she curtsied and went and told the Alderney: ”Don’t forget the butter for the Royal slice of bread." The Alderney said sleepily: ”You’d better tell his Majesty that many people nowadays like marmalade instead. ” The King said "Bother!” and then he said, "Oh, deary me!” The King sobbed “Oh deary me!” and went back to bed.
A. A. Milne’s king was not a typical royal. The present Queen is hardly likely to go back to bed in a sulk because there was no butter on her breakfast table, since she is one of the few people with a free choice of food and all the other material things of life. Many people in the world get no breakfast — 90 thousand die every day of starvation. The majority have a limited diet to survive on — a few mouthfuls of bread, cereal or rice. On the other hand, we in the more industrialised West are very much dependent on the availability of commodities like sliced bread or breakfast cereal and are brain-washed by advertising into wanting, say, Sugar Popsicles, regardless of their nutritional value or effect on our teeth. In a socialist society life would be very different and breakfast well illustrates how a free access society might be organised.

The key to a satisfying breakfast — as in any other area of consumption — will be communication. The consumer needs first to find out what would constitute a nutritionally satisfying meal for her or his normal daily activity and the choice of foods that could provide that balanced diet. Those caring for babies and young children will be concerned about their special dietary needs. The results of research into new foods — maybe plankton and seaweed porridge, rich in protein and minerals and with a delicious taste — will be of interest even if no one chooses to try it. Information and communication go hand in hand and the two can be achieved simultaneously.

In socialism each person will be free to choose not only what she or he consumes but how she or he registers that and gets delivery. Some may prefer to order by telephone or post and have delivery to the door. Others may like to help themselves from “shops” or “markets”. Whatever way is used, each person’s choice is detected or registered as it is made and then combined with everybody else’s. Thus the total requirement for bread, butter, marmalade, and so on is available to the food industry, so that fluctuations in demand are detected and accommodated day by day.

Having measured the demand for a particular foodstuff — and the same principles apply to other types of basic need — we encounter a further need for communication. Just as we have needs which in socialism we shall communicate directly, so each part of the productive system has its needs. The marmalade factory needs oranges and sugar, peeling and chopping machinery, glass jars, metal tops, and its share of power, water and transport. The marmalade factory’s demand for oranges, say, is added to the soft drink factory’s demand and to our demand for fresh oranges, and so on until a total demand for oranges is registered which has to be communicated to the orange growers. The same sort of merging of requirements throughout all industry forms a very complex network of information, extending world-wide. The network also extends through time since it has to accommodate planting as well as harvesting, replacement of machinery as well as its use and all the various stages of mining and processing of raw materials.

The network of requirement information is an ideal application for a computer system. The data and relationships are basically very simple while the volumes arc enormous. The network will hold a four-dimensional electronic mapping of the entire productive system with linkages established between associated data using a worldwide digitised telephone system. It will record and respond to the capacities and requirements of every unit of production factory, depot, dock, mine, farm — linking all consumption and demand through to raw materials, land and labour through every intermediate stage of distribution and processing.

The network consists physically of millions of small computers sited locally to information sources, all linked by telephone lines to form a “distributed” computer system. It is worth emphasising that this would not have a hierarchical structure with levels of control, nor would it require giant databases at administrative centres. Indeed, the function of the network would be communication and not control. It would enable people involved in production to know what needs to be done. It would not and could not instruct them to do it. So, for example, if the people at an orange plantation decided to have a week off instead of doing their estimate quota of picking and packing, the information system would register this fact and arrange for supplies to be got from some reserve stores set up for such contingencies.

The communication network would replace the money system as a means of regulating production levels. From “how many can we sell in competition with our trade rivals?” to “how many are needed?” means stability and an end to the expansion, boom, crisis, recession cycle. The saving of time and resources now wasted on administration, the law, marketing and in duplication of effort will free us all for more useful and stimulating activities. Associated with the network, and using the same hardware, would be an information system allowing anybody who was interested to see what was happening in the world. With helpful indexing and routing facilities and linked to television news and documentaries and to film archives and reference libraries, the system would provide a window on the world and unity and security for all its people.

There is nothing in this method of organising production that resembles management or government as we know it now. Having automated the routine decision-making, what remains of the planning process — the decision, for example, of where to establish a new orange plantation should it be needed — cannot be made automatically by a computer system. The information system can however make available to the people affected by the decision, or interested in it for some reason, all the relevant facts about alternative sites with suitable climate and soil, and the state of those sites at present. Then the decision would be made democratically by the people.

The ability to automate administration answers the reservations some people have about the reality of socialism. Fears that in socialism we would all be perpetually sitting on committees are groundless. Some people have argued that managers and foremen always be needed and that those people with organising ability — with analytical minds and loud voices — would have a useful contribution to but if we have reliable information about what needs to be done, everything can be organised on the basis of co-operative teamwork. Oscar Wilde in Soul of Man Under Socialism called democracy “the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people”, but in fact no bludgeoning is necessary. Democracy means freedom for the individual — freedom of choice, a say in all significant decision-making, and a secure and happy life.
  The Queen said, “There, there!” and went to the Dairymaid. The Dairymaid said, “There, there!” and went to the shed. The cow said, “There, there!” I didn’t really mean it : Here’s milk for his porringe and butter for his bread. ” 
Chris Marsh

Marxism, materialism and morality (1981)

From the December 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

Human thought is spontaneous and involuntary. We think because we are conscious and our consciousness consists of active thought. The capacity to think cannot be switched on or off. When we make statements like “I’m trying to think” or “I can’t think because of the noise”, we don’t mean what we say—we are not really complaining of being unconscious, for if we were we could not think and therefore could not say anything about our state of non-thinking. What is really meant by “I’m trying to think” is “I’m trying to think about a certain object of thought”.

The object of the thought of conscious human matter is our environment. Quite literally, we think about that which is about us. The universe which surrounds us, of which we are all a small part and each an even smaller part, existed long before there was conscious human life. According to religious thinkers, the universe was the product of a supernatural consciousness, but as they cannot tell us whose consciousness created the supernatural consciousness their argument is not a very strong one. The evolution of human life from the natural environment means that Nature bore us and consciousness is determined by it. Primitive people, the infants of Nature, were highly dependent on natural forces, but maturity — which is the cultivation of consciousness — has enabled humanity increasingly to dominate Nature. Society is the coming together of humans to satisfy our needs by producing and distributing wealth — not just crude wealth, but wealth in the sense of our fullest economic and cultural desires. Society is not simply a reflection of consciousness; on the contrary, social existence determines our consciousness. The essential conflict between materialist and idealist philosophy is over this point. The idealists put thought first and say, in the words of Descartes, that Man thinks and therefore he is. Materialists say that we are and therefore we think as we do. A slave in Ancient Greece did not think as a slave and therefore was one, but was a slave and therefore thought as one. History is like a conveyor belt and what you see around, behind and in front of you is not determined by what you want to think (so-called Free Will), but by where you happen to be placed. To the idealists, however, there are such concepts as historical absolutes, notions of right and wrong or good and bad. Throughout history human beings have only adopted such notions when it has been historically practical to do so.

Human beings have capacity to think in three ways: as themselves (sensually and emotionally), as a reflection of their society (morally or ethically) and — in a more obscure and infrequent way — as agents of history (dialectically). All of us spend much of our time thinking in the first way: as ourselves. Man is a sensual animal; we feel the objective world and it registers upon our brains in a profoundly emotional way. The richness of human feelings — which are not just nervous impulses but potential controllable forces — differentiates us from our older animal relations. It is sometimes mistakenly thought that materialists are against examining the emotional side of human activity, that we are somehow frightened of exploring that which makes humans laugh, cry, love and hate as well as what makes them hunger, thirst and seek shelter. (This view is derived from the mechanistic writings of vulgar materialists, most of whom were as much inhibited by their own emotional repression as that of the people they were writing about.) For Marxist materialists, the first law of materialism is to recognise that the real needs of humanity have a sensual and emotional origin. When we allow ourselves to be guided by our sensual and emotional needs wc are being self-interested, for we can sense only our own senses and can only speculate about other people’s.

To act morally is to reflect the needs of others in ourselves. The commonly stated moral maxim, “Thou shalt not kill" reflects the need of other humans and animals, who want to live. A conflict arises when the lamb wants to live and I want to eat it. Or when one group wants land and another occupies it. It is at such times that moralists are brought in to explain that what they really meant was “Thou shalt not kill unless . .". Since the decline of primitive communism, society has been dominated by various minority classes. Their domination has been secured by their having a virtual monopoly of the means of life. Throughout class society the ideas of the ruling minority have always been the ruling ideas in society. In short, the masters make the morals; those who pay the piper call the tune. Because all morality is class morality and because class arrangements are historically transitory, there can be no moral absolutes. What we find sensually desirable and what we are told is morally permissible are often in conflict, because what we desire is a class interest which is in antagonism with the class interest of the moral-making class. When our senses tell us that it is time to eat and the boss’s morality says that only those with sufficient money shall have access to food commodities, we experience a clear example of senses versus morals; self- interest versus the status quo.

Morality concerns values: is A better than B? Should I do C or D? We are often told that we should not lose our values. Not losing our values means not abandoning the values of the ruling class. Socialists are totally hostile to the property-based values of the capitalist system, but that does not mean that we have our own set of moral values to impose upon people in their place. Indeed, the whole idea of devising a new set of moral values is extremely problematic. Before we could begin to establish a materialist morality we would have to embark on a definition of the term “good". Philosophers have spent immense energies in defining “goodness” and it is worth considering the difficulties they have encountered. Some of them have used “good" as a descriptive term, such as “This bed is good". This is to use “good” as a first-order property, like “This bed is soft” or “big” or “green”. In this sense, the term “good” is a value which can be defined in relation to the capacity of objects to satisfy needs. The definition falls down because different people have different needs at different times and no object is intrinsically needable, regardless of the subjective perception of whoever may need it. Utilitarian philosophers say that what is “good” is what gives people pleasure, but this is hardly different from saying that what is needed is good (because it is hardly likely that things which are not needed are likely to bring people pleasure). The Utilitarians attempted to devise an objective table of what causes pleasure and what causes pain, but the exercise was doomed to failure because things which some people find pleasurable others find painful. Moral philosophers have found this problem so difficult to deal with that many of them have given up trying to define “good" descriptively and have defined it intuitively: “good" is what ought to be. This intellectual cop-out, often labelled as the naturalistic fallacy, was written about by David Hume in his Treatise on Human Nature:
  In every system of morality which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find that instead of the usual copulation of propositions, is and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought or ought not expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable is how this new relation can be a deduction from others which are entirely different from it. (Book III, part ii, section i).
Hume was quite correct in stating that it is fallacious to derive an ought from an is. If “ought" propositions could be intuitively derived from observing what is, then everyone would agree about what is “good" and the term would become redundant — as would the moral philosophers.

It was Karl Marx who first constructed a theory of value which could help to solve the problem of moral value. In Capital, Marx was writing about political economy and the economic values, but this was intended by him to be but the beginning of a mammoth philosophical investigation into the entire sphere of capitalist relationships. It is unfortunate that Marx died before his task could be completed. But it would be wrong to assume that the Marxian definition of value has no application in the field of morals. In chapter one of Capital, Marx elaborates upon two conceptions of value which were first pointed to by Aristotle in his Politics:
  The value of every possession are two, both dependent on the thing itself, but not in the same manner, the one supposing an inseparable connection with it, the other not; as a shoe, for instance, which may be either worn or exchanged for something else.
Marx, who saw value as a social relationship between people, rather than between things, pointed to the dual nature of value: for utility and for exchange. Use value is based on the descriptive definition of value referred to above: it is both desirable and desired. Our senses tell us that we need things and our senses tell us that what we need is a use value. As for exchange value, which can only exist where there is property to be bought and sold, Marx refers to this as “a form of social labour". It represents what society has put into it — the socially necessary labour time. Exchange value is more than an economic symbol: it is the reflection of the production — the social history — of an object. In economics, we quantify commodities in terms of what went into them. Does it not follow that if we want to respect “goodness" we must do it by respecting the social efforts of others while they respect ours?

Such mutual respect and proper recognition is made impossible in a capitalist society which is based on a division between passive consumption (the main role of the capitalists) and active production (the main role of the workers). To value the product of society in this sense involves a recognition by humans of what it is to have a need and also what it is to produce for the satisfaction of needs. Capitalist philosophy only views need from the alienated angle of passive consumption. Marx points out in The German Ideology that
  If you proceed from production you necessarily concern yourself with the real condition of production and the productive activity of men. But if you proceed from consumption . . . you can afford to ignore the real living conditions and the activity of men (p. 164).
Moralists spend much time talking about values — from the angle of the consumer — but are rather less eloquent or logical when it comes to the question of the relationships of value production. To understand these relationships requires us to look at them historically, as objects which did not emerge as ready-made values, but which exist due to the conscious actions of human beings on the environment. Oscar Wilde once spoke of a society where we know the price of everything and the value of nothing. How accurately this describes the ethics of capitalism, where social parasites can talk with their cheque books and get the gold they want without ever thinking about — or valuing —the sweated labour of the goldminer who has toiled to produce it. And why should the capitalists care about the workers who create values for them? They have paid us the price of our labour power (always less than the values we create) and have no more concern for us beyond our function as profit-producing wage slaves. Marx was obsessively concerned about this consumptive conception of value which he described as “the fetishism of commodities". To see any phenomenon only as it is rather than as it once was or as it could be, is to fetishise a social relationship of the present — to turn it into a thing rather than a man-made relation. Working class acceptance of capitalism is a fetishism of the historical stage we are living in, which sees it not as an historically evolved system, but as an absolute and unalterable way of life.

In a property society ethics are based on the economic structure. Capitalism’s morals, which we are taught in schools, preached about in churches, and persuaded towards by the media, political leaders and the family, are predominantly related to commodity exchange. Rights are based on commodity contracts, not inalienable liberties. But the relations of production have for many years been in conflict with the forces of production — the way we organise ourselves does not harmonise with the productive possibilities of our world of abundance. Under such conditions morals weaken. As Engels wrote in the Preface to The Poverty of Philosophy:
  If the moral consciousness of the mass declares an economic fact to be unjust, as it has done in the case of slavery or serf-labour, that is a proof that the fact itself has been outlived, that other economic facts have made their appearance, owing to which the former has become unbearable and untenable (p. 13).
Is this not what is happening now, as young workers increasingly reject the morals of their bosses? What the ruling class calls a moral crisis, socialists see as the path to the emancipation from morals. Engels fully recognised how moral indignation can represent “the future interests of the oppressed" (Anti-Duhring, p. 109). This does not mean that Marx or Engels were moralisers. In The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx says that “communists preach no morality at all”. In short, Engels is saying that moral indignation and rejection of the ethics of capitalism are important prerequisites of socialist consciousness. (There are plenty of examples in history of people who have professed a socialist consciousness, but have in fact never rejected the sickening morals of capitalism.) But Marx is arguing that moral concern — concern for others — is not enough. Once moral outrage has been converted into socialist consciousness it will cease to be either purely selfish or sensual or purely caring or moral and will become dialectical, will be seen from both directions, from the angle of the historical process. Instead of workers saying “I wish I was better off than I am” or “I wish they were better off than they are”, the dialectical understanding of social values leads one to say “I wish that they were better off, for I am one of them and I wish I could do better for myself so that they would be better off.” Dialectical materialism means seeing the whole (society) rather than the part (oneself): it is genuinely selfish, selfless mutuality. In a socialist society mutual aid would become a practicality, not an imposed moral precept. In socialism we will all cherish what we are, what we make and what we could be. Until we create that society, harmony will remain an ideal and therefore socialists cannot preach to our fellow workers about being nice to one another. In a rat race the biggest, most vicious rats win. As Marx says about communists preaching no morality:
  They do not put to people the moral demand: Love one another, be not egoists, because they know very well that egoism is under certain conditions the necessary form of the individual’s struggle for survival.
The rotten morality of the profit system which justifies the production of weapons to blow us all up; which has herded millions into gas chambers and sold their flesh as soap: which lets millions starve while food rots; which robs every worker of the fruits of their labour; which leaves even the most apparently secure of wage slaves always but a short time away from propertyless destitution —provides socialists with countless reasons to shout our message to everyone and anyone who will listen. For we must urge workers to forget about their “brotherly love” for the capitalists and steal from them the world and everything in it and on it.
Steve Coleman