Wednesday, January 8, 2020

An Economist Misses Her Marx (1944)

Book Review from the January 1944 issue of the Socialist Standard

An Essay on Marxian Economics," Joan Robinson (McMillan, 7s. 6d)

Those who have read Robert Tressell’s sketch of working-class existence, "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists," will remember the chapter entitled “The Oblong,” in which Owen, the house painter, tried to explain to his mates the division of wealth among the classes in modern society. Although nicknamed "the Professor,” Owen would hardly have passed first-class in an examination in Marxian economics. None the less, he expressed the gist of the matter fairly clearly in the remark, "As the money they get in wages is not equal in value to the things they produce, they find that they are only able to buy back a very-small part.” (P. 177.)

It is noteworthy that he used the idea of value. Though his two dozen fellow-workers made no pretence of culture, they were not so simple as to imagine that they were reconditioning and re-decorating that most desirable residence, "The Cave,” for the accommodation of any working-class family. So many ceilings sloshed with whitewash, so many walls stripped of old paper, so many rotten floorboards replaced by new ones, new fire-grates for old—all these things had to be brought into relation to the items of subsistence of those who could hardly aspire to a council house in the days of which Tressell wrote. In spite of their obvious differences push-bikes have something in common with Rolls-Royces. Shoddy is akin to broadcloth and black-puddings can be expressed in the same terms as the best grills at the Savoy, i.e., coin of the realm; for all have value. All have occupied a certain portion of the labour-time of society. In this respect they differ only in the quantity of value, in the amount of time which is necessary to produce them. The workers spend more time in producing for their masters than they spend in producing for themselves. This simple fact is hidden by wage-contracts. Like Owen's mates, the majority of the workers think that they are paid for their labour. The "great money trick,” as Owen called it, has to be analysed before the fallacy of their ideas can be grasped.

Any student of Marx knows that he based his analysis of Capitalism upon his analysis of value. Incredible though it may seem, an economist has "discovered" that “none of the important ideas which he [Marx] expresses in terms of the concept of value cannot be better expressed without it.” An Essay on Marxian Economics," Joan Robinson (McMillan, 7s. 6d.; page 24). 'Again, "No point of substance in Marx's argument depends upon the labour theory of value” (p. 27). Once more, "The concept of value has no more application in the economics of Socialism than it has in the economics of the capitalist system” (p. 33). Readers of Marx may well wonder why such an insult is offered to them, .loan Robinson offers the following explanation: "The chief difficulty in learning from him [Marx] arises from the peculiar language and the crabbed method of argument which he used, and my purpose is to explain what I understand Marx to have been saying in language intelligible to the academic economist” (pp. v and vi), "Foreword.” The result is that, in spite of 114 references to "Capital” (Vols. I, II and III). "as a gauge of good faith” (p. vii), she manages to falsify Marx's meaning on his most fundamental points. Marx, of course, did not write specifically for academic economists. He merely presupposed "a reader who is willing to learn something new and therefore to think for himself” (p. xvi. Author's Preface, "Capital,” Vol. I, Sonnenschein Edition). He had therefore no use for the slick professional jargon current among the above-mentioned gentry, but preferred to express his meaning in terms which he was careful to define. Joan Robinson is equally careful not to define the terms which she coolly substitutes for those of Marx. One can only infer the sense in which she uses a term from the conclusions at which she arrives. Thus she persists in using the term "capital” to refer to what Marx defines as "constant capital," i.e., the money invested in the factors of production (other than human labour-power); such as machinery, raw material, etc.; and has the cool impudence to put forward the following travesty of Marx’s views: "Land and capital produce no value, for value is the product of labour-time” (p. 20). Marx sub-entitled his first volume "A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production.” The second chapter of volume II is entitled "The Rotation of Productive Capital.” Lastly, in volume I (p. 383), he wrote: ”Machinery, like every other component of constant capital, creates no new value, but yields up its own value to the product that it serves to beget.”

Marx went to considerable pains to make it clear that before the worker can indulge in labour-time he must sell his labour-power to the capitalist; whereupon it becomes just as much a part of productive capital as the machinery, raw materials, etc. Under Capitalism, therefore, production, that is, the labour-process, is a function of capital. It is capital's means of self-expansion.

Money makes money only because labour-power, fraught and sold for money, creates a value greater than its own. It does this by transforming the raw materials, by means of the machinery provided, into articles of consumption; thus preserving their value and adding further value to them at the same time. The process does not end with the bare re-production of their wages by the workers. It goes on in order that they may produce profit. Hence, the struggle between the workers (who are not interested in the production of profit) and their masters (who are) arises from the conditions of production under Capitalism.

Joan Robinson misconceives capital as a material thing. On p. 22 she attempts to distinguish between "capital” and “ownership of capital”; but: what is capital if not a particular form of ownership?

Machinery is not, in itself, capital, any more than is labour-power. Both productive factors have to be purchased by the capitalist and set in motion with a view to the production of profit. We may readily agree that "capital is necessary to make labour productive ” (p. 21) beyond a certain point; but only in the sense that the whip is necessary in order to make the chattel-slave produce. When the means of production have been converted into the common property of society they will have lost their capitalistic character. They will be used for the common good instead of being instruments of exploitation.

A glaring example of Joan Robinson's failure to present Marx's views correctly occurs on p. 27. Quoting two sentences from Vol. III, p. 221, she omits a most important bracket and thus manages to make Marx appear to suggest that "the exchange, or sale, of commodities” will continue under Socialism in spite of the fact that the plain meaning of the first sentence is contrary to any such assumption. When society establishes "a direct relation between the quantity of social labour-time employed in the production of definite articles and the quantity of demand of society for them," it will by that very act abolish the production and exchange of commodities, i.e., of articles of sale. Exchange is manifestly an indirect way of regulating the relationship between the labour-time spent and social demand.
On this flimsy basis our. authoress proceeds to juggle with alleged "problems of Socialism." These have been neatly exposed by Mr. T. A. Jackson in his criticism of her work (see “Plebs," May, 1943),, though it is to be regretted that even he lapses, however momentarily,' into her jargon when he refers to " increases in capital" in a socialist community,

To the present writer it appears that Joan Robinson's crowning audacity consists of her assertion on p. 42 that “Marx can only demonstrate a falling tendency in profits" (she means rate of profit) “by abandoning his argument that real wages tend to be constant."

This is on the strength of Marx's “assumption" of a constant rate of exploitation in his illustration on p. 247 of vol. III. An examination of this page shows clearly that Marx's purpose here is simply to demonstrate that a given rate of surplus value will express itself in different rates of profit according to the different volumes of constant capital.

As one goes through the chapter one finds that Marx gives illustrations which completely refute Joan Robinson's contention. On p. 253 Marx devotes half the page to showing that a higher rate of exploitation is consistent with a lower rate of profit. Instead of analysing Marx's figures and showing wherein they are wrong, our academic guide trots out some hotch-potch of her own from which her bugbear, the concept of value, has been completely eliminated. This prevents her from showing even what the rate of profit actually is, but she is not to be deterred by mere trifles like that. She proceeds to assert that if (as a result of an increase in productivity) a 10 per cent. increase in constant capital leads to an equal increase in the mass of profit (in terms of “product" as distinct from value) then "the rate of profit on capital would be constant" (p. 44).

A consideration of the following figures should show the falsity of this remark. It will be observed that a principle which applies to a 10 per cent. increase applies equally to an increase of 200 per cent. in capital and profit in terms of “ product," to avoid awkward fractions.

  1. Constant Capital £100. Variable Capital £50. Surplus value £50.
  2. Constant Capital £300. Variable Capital £25.  Surplus value £75.
In (1) the rate of exploitation is 100 per cent., that of profit 33-1/3 per cent.
In (2) the rate of exploitation is 300 per cent., that of profit 23-1/13 per cent.
In (2) productivity is assumed to have doubled, while real wages (in terms of "product") have remained constant, falling in value by half. The capitalist's share (whether expressed in terms of "product" or value) is now three times us large as that of the worker's, just as the constant capital is three times as large as in the first instance. None the less the rate of profit (as distinct from its mass) has fallen by 10 per cent.

This illustration is not intended to do anything more than to show the unreliability of "the more precise and refined methods of modern analysis " (Joan Robinson's “ Foreword." p. vi), and to point the suggestion that even academic economists might do worse than to read Marx for themselves.

This brief review does not profess to have dealt exhaustively with Joan Robinson's misconceptions. It may be noted, however, that her unreliability is not confined to purely theoretical points. On p. 38 she says, “Marx's argument requires modification if it is to be brought into line with the rise in real wages which has actually occurred in modern times." Here is a magnificent opportunity for her to produce some practical evidence in support of a statement. One looks for it in vain, as we are merely referred to certain unnamed "conservative trade-anion leaders, who look back to their own ragged and barefoot childhood and count up the blessings which Capitalism has brought to the workers." (Footnote to p. 39.)

In his small volume, “The Worker's Share” (Allen A Unwin), Mr. A. W. Humphrey showed in 1930 that, " accepting the estimate of Dr. Bowley and Sir Josiah Stamp, we may say that a problematical 5 per cent. was the only improvement in the average income of working-class households between 1914 and 1929 " (p. 80). Has Joan Robinson forgotten the posters on the hoardings in the winter of 1928-9: " A million of your fellow countrymen are in need of food and clothing"? This referred, moreover, only to the miners, at one time among the highest-paid workers. The fact that some of the lower-paid workers have risen towards the average level in living memory by no means offsets the lot which has overtaken others who were above the average; particularly noticeable being those in the export trades (such as the textiles), shipbuilding, etc. Increases in wage-rates by no means guarantees employment at those rates.

In spite of her academic outlook it must be conceded that Joan Robinson admits the exploitation of the workers, and here and there hints at expropriation of the capitalists as the remedy. She even credits Marx with penetrating insight. Her attempts to criticise his theories, however, fail just as effectively as those of her predecessors.
Eric Boden

Working-Class Wives (1944)

From the January 1944 issue of the Socialist Standard

A recent Court of Appeal decided that housekeeping savings belong to the husband.. This decision aroused indignation amongst many women; but why? The judge was right. A worker's wife is little better than a chattel-slave, though it is perhaps true that love enters into marriage more to-day than it did in the past.. Yet the economic bondage of women remains fundamentally the same.

We live under a system of society known as Capitalism, which is made up of property relationships, one of which is marriage. In order to live, a working-class woman must either sell her labour-power to an employer, secure a husband or resort to prostitution. If she chooses marriage, as nearly all women do, she will receive in return for her services food, clothing and shelter according to her husband's means.

As the majority of men are propertyless, they are compelled to .sell their labour-power to the capitalist class, who in return provide them with the means to keep themselves in a state of efficiency and also to maintain a wife and family. Most work is regarded as unskilled, therefore the means which the majority of men receive are simply for the necessities of life.

So women who marry these men are forced to live in poverty, and the very idea of saving any of their housekeeping money is ludicrous. In view of this we can conclude that for these women to enjoy equality in this state of poverty is impossible, for they are dependent on the goodwill of their husbands. The end of the exploitation of women will only come when they unite with men to abolish capitalism, which enslaves them both, and substitute it by socialism,, under which no one will be economically dependent on another and all will enjoy complete freedom and equality.
D. M.

Notes By The Way: Acton by-election (1944)

The Notes By The Way column from the January 1944 issue of the Socialist Standard

Acton by-election

The recent by-election at Acton, London, provided some piquant details to liven up our somewhat depressing war days.

Eight candidates started. The Government candidate was a golf champion (amateur—of course).

One "Independent” told reporters that he was “fighting for more potatoes and nurses for old-age pensioners." He walked about Acton wearing a tin-hat on which he balanced a box bearing his slogans ("Star," 24/11/43). Another Independent Liberal withdrew "so as not to split the I.L.P. vote," showing that he has no illusions about the Liberal, non-Socialist, I.L.P. The cream of the joke, as usual, was supplied by the Communist Party. According to the Press, the C.P. advised Acton electors NOT to vote at all—for any of the four candidates—on the grounds that the Government nominee supported the release of Sir Oswald Mosley. It is a bit awkward—after all—when you’ve been shouting your head off in Trafalgar Square the week before for the imprisonment of Mosley to urge workers to vote for a candidate who favours his release. But if you oppose, or abstain from voting for the Government candidate, you are NOT supporting the war —or the Government.

A classic example of the inevitable results of unprincipled compromise. The C.P., "using Churchill"-(? !), having in twenty-three years advised the workers to vote for each other party in turn. Labour, I.L.P., Liberal, then Conservative, and finally, Coalition, has "united” itself into nothing. It now advises workers not to vote for anybody, and has no intention of running its own candidate.

Its history might well be entitled "Unity Through Everybody—to Nowhere." Small wonder that the "Evening News,” quite unintentionally, probably sub-consciously, when giving the list of guests at a Labour M.P.'s wedding recently, placed, after Tommy Trinder, Bud Flanagan and Miss Evelyn Laye—Mr. William Gallacher, M.P.

The Socialist Party also advises electors NOT to vote for any of the candidates. They are ALL (including the I.L.P,) anti-socialist. But only until such time as the Socialist Party has sufficient support to run socialist candidates.

Beveridge Be-bunked

"1794 AND ALL THAT."
In October, 1943, the Glasgow Fabian Society held a Conference on Full Employment.

At: this meeting Sir P. J. Dollan stated that —
  "Full employment is not a new issue. Tom Paine suggested that there should be full employment in 1794. There is nothing in the Beveridge Report, except the amounts. which was not foreshadowed by Tom Paine in "The Rights of Man.” ("Forward," October 30, 1943.) 
Which is just what the Socialist Party proves in its new pamphlet, "Beveridge Reorganises Poverty."

The difference between the Fabian Society, Labour Party, I.L.P., Communists, Sir Patrick Dollan, etc., and the S.P.G.B., is that the Socialist Party concludes that— .
  "The Beveridge proposals will not solve the problem of the working class. They will level the workers' position as a whole, reducing the more favourably placed to a lower level and putting the worst paid on a less evil level. This is not a 'new world' of hope, but a re-distribution of misery.” (Page 20.) 
  The outstanding social problem of the age is "the poverty of the working class, and not just the additional burdens borne in times of unemployment, old age and sickness, burdens which incidentally Beveridge does little to lift. The poverty of the working class is due to the private ownership by the capitalists of the means of production and distribution. Socialism alone can end that poverty.” (Page 20.)
The social reformers urge the workers to continue chasing the will o' the wisps which have been suggested since 1794, with various amounts, without appreciable result.

This little pamphlet will go far towards de-bunking the Beveridge and other "Plans" as solutions of the poverty problem of the workers.

("Beveridge Reorganises Poverty" is obtainable from S.P.G.B., Rugby Chambers, 2, Rugby Street, W.C.1. Price 3d. Post free 4d.)

Kindersley Lawsuit

Dublin High Court has recently considered an action by Lord Kindersley to direct Lady Aronmore to deliver his grand son Gay to him, so that said offspring may attend Eton.

We wonder if the noble Lord, whose appeals to the rather more modest mass of the people of Britain to go without things they need and invest the money in War Savings ("Give till it hurts"), would be very deeply hurt if it were suggested that he might have saved all those heavy lawyers' and school fees—and put them in his own War Savings!

Or can't a Kindersley attend a Council School?

See Naples—and Die!

The "Evening Standard” for Wednesday, November 3. reports that the Allied Military Authorities evacuated the whole population of Naples, four hundred thousand of them, before they turned the electric current on, as they feared mines connected to the circuit.

"These were Naples’ poorest folk, the little shopkeepers, labourers, factory hands, fishermen and their families," and —here’s the point—"among them were old folk to whom, after years in dingy lanes, Naples’ superb harbour was almost n discovery.” (Our italics.)

In other words, thousunds of people in Naples are so poor—that is, are so pre-occupied with scraping an existence in Naples' slums—that they did not even KNOW' they lived in one of the world’s most beautiful harbours.

The beauty is reserved for those who can AFFORD it. Poverty is the mortal enemy of leisure—which is. the prerequisite for the appreciation of beauty.

A magnificent social vista extends before the eyes of those workers who raise themselves out of the mental slums and trudge the heights of socialist knowledge. By their own efforts they can apprehend, "see" Socialism—and LIVE.

The "Independent” Trader

Mr. Lynch, the President of the National Union of Small Shopkeepers, has sent Mr. Bevin a telegram “pointing out that 100,000 traders have had their businesses closed down during the war.” The telegram states “that traders over forty . . . have been told to sell their concerns and go down the pit.”—(“News Chronicle,” November 4.)

Mr. Lynch might have saved himself the telegraph charges. One of the effects of modern war is the acceleration of the process of the Concentration of Capital. Commerce as well as Industry is being trustified. It has become well-nigh impossible for any appreciable number of working men to achieve “independence” from employers by opening a small shop.

What this “independence” is worth, when obtained, the Hardships Tribunals (representatives of the capitalist class), who instructed small traders to “sell up and go down the pit” have shown.

Nothing can prevent the small traders from being always on the verge of "going down the pit” into the ranks of the wage-working class. Socialism—not small shops—is the way.

Crime After the War

The London evening press has published official reports of important conferences being held now by London police to make plans to deal with the wave of violent crime which is confidently anticipated after the war.

And surely, alongside the other post-war plans to consolidate Capitalism, with the Beveridge Report and the new Plan of London—Scotland Yard's Post-War Reconstruction deserves an important place.

What the police chiefs are mainly concerned with, quite naturally, is the advent of thousands of unemployed desperate men, some even perhaps in possession of arms, highly trained in all the most effective means of violent assault and killing, and inured to bloody violence.

A leading article in the Atlantion, the Atlanta Penitentiary convicts' paper, quotes Lord Wavell:
  "Field-Marshal Wavell is said to have described the modern soldier in these terms—a good soldier must be part burglar, part footpad, part athlete, part gunman, and all guts.”
  "If this is on the level, General Eisenhower is overlooking a lot of good material—and we don't mean at Harvard either.” (The Star, quoted in Forward, 16th October, 1943.)
His commanding officer claimed that Ruby Sparkes was the best soldier in his company.

The London police chiefs are probably right. Alongside of Unemployment, Disease, Invalids, Poverty and Prostitution there will probably appear their bed-fellow—Violent Crimes. Whatever they plan may catch criminals—but will not abolish the cause which makes them—Capitalism.

1,250 Cigars for Cairo Talks
  "Five hundred native servants were engaged to assist five officers and 17 other ranks of the British Army in catering for the delegates attending the Cairo conferences.

  “Three hundred lb. of tea, 37,500 eggs, 400 lb. of coffee, 7,500 lb. of bread, 500,000 cigarettes, 1,250 cigars and 2,000 tins of milk were ordered for the conference by the supervising officer, Major N. P. Jeffery, of the Army Catering Corps, who was in charge of catering services for the Eighth Army in the Western Desert. 
  “A.T.S. sergeants and corporals were brought from all parts of the Middle East to act as housekeepers for the delegations. One A.T.S. sergeant had a full-time job as personal attendant to Mine. Chiang Kai-shek.”—(“Evening Standard,” December 8, 1943.)
The banquet at Cairo was, however, exceeded by the colossal spread at Teheran, where Stalin, as usual, drank over twenty toasts in rare wines.

Well! It seems to be a pretty good instalment of “freedom from want,” if you happen to be one of the “chiefs.”

Austerity at Home

The ”News Chronicle” (December 11, 1943) reported a sale at Christie's on December 13 of fine wines, spirits and liqueurs from the Kentish home of the Countess of Limerick who died some months ago. “Among the top prices were £46 for a dozen bottles of champagne, £60 for a dozen bottles of brandy, and £48 for twelve bottles of German wine.”

“A box of 92 Corona cigars went for £39, or over 8s. each.”

Probably over-paid miners, of course, who don't know what to do with the high wages they're not used to!

Destruction Unlimited

Recently the Press has made much of the accounts by an R.A.F. pilot of the destruction of the Ruhr dams. He describes how a scientist instructed him for months—scientific experiments were made on a dam due for destruction in the Midlands. A picked team trained incessantly to fly at exactly the right height—to ensure complete demolition.

When the dams were burst the damage by flooding was colossal. Millions went down the drain.

Again, as the Allied forces pressed on into Italy the Germans decided to open the flood-gates and flood the Pontine marshes, the reclamation of which (by draining) was claimed as a major triumph of Fascism. In this case the military reason was the opposite one—defence, not attack.

Again the destruction of wealth was incalculable. In a further case, the mighty Dnieper dam, in the Ukraine, was blown up by the Russians themselves to prevent its use by the Germans. The Dnieper dam was the crowning achievement of the Soviet Government; its loss, immense.

In all these cases we see one thing clearly apparent— the destruction of what man has toiled to create by war is staggering. Why is this? The Socialist Party, learning, from Marx, pointed out years ago that Capitalism is in the daft and senile stage now.

Productivity of labour has now become so great that man can harness the rivers to his purpose.

But so long as these great works are privately owned (as they are under Capitalism, even if State controlled) their very ability to increase the supply of wealth becomes the cause of wars, for the shrinking market.

The war solves the crisis, for the time being only, by destruction.

After having converted swamps into fertile lands, or diverted rivers to assist navigation, man blows them all up, so as to start all over again.

In the same way as he digs gold out of the earth, under Capitalism, to put it down there again.

So long as humanity is divided into warring cliques (inevitable under Capitalism) we shall never get much further than making wonderful things, and blowing 'em up.

Socialism, by making the great achievements of modern engineering science the common property of all, will abolish war and the senseless destruction of what should be great boons to humanity, because crises will go with capitalist production.

Shaw on Beveridge (1944)

From the January 1944 issue of the Socialist Standard
  "Capitalism will be very lucky if it gets off as cheaply as Mr. Beveridge proposes." 
George Bernard Shaw, "World Review," November 1943.)

The Beveridge Plan (1944)

From the January 1944 issue of the Socialist Standard

In an interview with Maurice Webb of The Daily Herald (July 22nd, 1943), Sir William Beveridge says: " I would not make any important change in my Social Insurance plan, and I am hoping the Government will go ahead with it.”

This was in answer to Webb's query whether, in the light of seven months' public debate on his report, he still stood by its essential principles.

He went on to say that if the plan has any defect it is that it costs the Treasury too little in the early stages, and not too much, as some people allege.

“I do not think any Chancellor of the Exchequer will ever again have the chance to do the same thing so cheaply as now,” said Beveridge.

What an indictment out of the Capitalists' own mouths. Simply thinking in terms of HOW CHEAPLY THEY can try to patch up their old outworn system of society which is as full of holes as a sieve. No thought of human happiness at all.

Sir William said he regarded the operation of his plan as a quite simple and easy matter which ought not to embarrass us or present any insuperable difficulties. “I would like this problem of Social Insurance GOT OUT OF THE WAY,” he said, "so that we can get on to the much more difficult problems of reconstruction which call for attention." 

When asked what he thought the chances were of the Government proceeding to operate his plan, he said he was confident it would do so. And so are we. At any rate it is certain that the Government would not have commissioned Sir William to investigate these matters had they thought he would do it unfavourably to the system to which they so tenaciously cling.

Sir William is now about to begin (as a private venture?) his investigation of Unemployment. He does not expect the Government to be unfriendly to his own personal efforts. Nor do we. For if his findings equal those of his security plan, the Government have nothing to be afraid of at all.

He emphasised that the provision he would make for social security is contingent on avoiding MASS unemployment after the war. "But maintenance of employment doesn’t mean the elimination of all unemployment.” he said.

"In a free society industrial changes and development are bound to cause a small amount of unemployment for which adequate insurance provisions should be made.” But he is quite convinced that given proper direction of resources it will be possible to avoid the grave mass unemployment we had between the wars.

According to Beveridge, then, no real solution has ever been bothered about before to reduce unemployment to the minimum. And even he, the new Saviour of Mankind, openly admits that under Capitalism unemployment must remain, while so many millions are without the means of making life comfortable for those who produce everything and own nothing.

When he talks about adequate insurance provisions, we can be sure that they will be well below what a worker will earn when at work, and for the majority of workers, even in these piping times, that only amounts to subsistence.

Then again, his glib phrase, "proper direction of resources.” And who is going to give proper direction to the resources of the other countries which are bound up with our daily life? And does he think that his family allowances will induce young working-class couples to raise families of cannon fodder “BETWEEN THE WARS" just in time to be old enough to fight those wars?

To Mr. Webb he said it will take about six months to complete his enquiry; at the end of which he will issue a report to the public (on his own private responsibility) setting forth such proposals as seem adequate after a completely objective examination of the whole problem.

Socialists can save him that six months’ enquiry. We can tell him the cause of unemployment. We can also tell him that, short of SOCIALISM, involving as it does the abolition of Capitalism and the Wages System, he will never find the solution.
Samuel Phillips

Voice From The Back: Don’t tell it like it is (1999)

The Voice From The Back Column from the January 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Don’t tell it like it is

Freedom of the press is regularly made a mockery of in Turkey, with the connivance of the authorities, states the journalists’ defence organisation, Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), in a report made public Thursday October 22. “Between January and August 1998 two journalists have been killed as a result of police operations, five have been tortured, fifty-eight attacked, menaced or harassed, and forty-five others have been interrogated” states the report, which adds: “At least six journalists were in prison for press offences at the end of September 1998.” Le Monde, 24 October.

Onward Christian brokers

Christian workers have always felt out of step reconciling their beliefs with the “hard sell” and “bonus envy” culture of the City. But now, according to the Centre for Marketplace Theology, an independent Christian initiative to bring the principles of God to the Square Mile, more Christian and non-Christian traders, bankers accountants and lawyers are looking for an alternative to the City’s prevailing ethos of greed . . . Malcolm Matson, an entrepreneur . . . says, “It only takes a couple of institutions to fail for people to start to take stock . . .” But Matson is well aware of the City’s resistance to a Christian message. In 1993 he was elected as a City alderman on a platform of Christian reform but was “blackballed” by the Corporation of London. “I ended up in the courts where I won a judgement to show they were acting illegally.” Independent on Sunday, 1 November.

Give that man a prize

“If food were distributed equally, the aggregate food availability would indeed determine how much food each person could get. But obviously this does not happen in any actual society. To decide whether a person will in fact be able to acquire enough food, we have to see what he owns, what he can produce with what he owns, what he can get in exchange, and so on. Starvation will result if a person is not able to establish ownership through these means. Starvation is a social outcome reflecting an entitlement failure. Availability of food is only one influence among many affecting that outcome.” So stated Amartya Sen in a BBC Radio 3 broadcast on 21 March 1989, expressing a view that famines are not caused by a collapse in food production but by a collapse in (some) people’s legal access to food, whether through money to buy it or through direct access to land to grow it, which he had already expressed in his 1982 book Poverty and Deprivation: An Essay in Economic Entitlement and Deprivation. Sen has just been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for Economics. So, for once, the prize has gone to someone who has had something relevant—and—true—to say.


It’s official! We no longer have any unemployed people in the EU. This, at least, appeared to be the conclusion of a commission report on employment rates published last week. According to the document, the Union’s 18 million jobless are not out of work, unemployed or even on the dole. They are merely “Unused labour stock”. So now you know. European Voice, 22-28 October 1998. Marx had a more expressive phrase: “industrial reserve army”.

Body snatchers

Kidnap is the big concern for large companies, says Paul Slaughter, managing director of London-based Task International, which provides bodyguards for big businesses. “Ransom demands worth millions of pounds go through Lloyd’s insurance market every year,” he says, “but it is not common knowledge because companies and insurers do not want to admit there is kidnap and extortion.” During the last two years there have been more than 12,500 known kidnaps. The average ransom demand is about $1 million (£600,000). Financial Mail on Sunday, 1 November 1998.

What a gas!

"The controversial police use of CS gas spray has come under fresh attack after a detective had a heart attack in training . . . The detective constable, who is in his early forties and has not been named was last night in a critical but stable condition in hospital after the incident on Thursday. He had voluntarily walked through a cloud of CS gas to experience its effects as part of a one-day training programme which all police are require to take". Mail on Sunday, 25 October 1998.

Fin de capitalisme?

Pre-millennial tension is not, as is commonly thought, a fear of the unknown. Instead, it’s a fear of the known—the dreadful, sinking suspicion that the alien invasion won’t come. This idea—that nothing will change—is as potent and horrendous as any fin de siècle fantasy of cultural implosion. It means we’ll be marooned in the nineties. Imagine that! An eternity of pointless, non-committal cultural air-kissing . . . We long for something to happen so badly that we don’t care what it is. Guardian, 19 November 1998.

The Transcendental Power of Drama (1999)

Theatre Review from the January 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Touring.

The first time I saw Our Country’s Good, when it was premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 1988, I found it difficult to speak for some time afterwards. Fortunately most of the audience, including my partner and our friends, were similarly placed. The occasion has been so redemptive and affirmative, so full of the possibilities of transforming change, that we could only wait in our seats until our emotions quietened. Later we saw the play again, this time with our two children and their partners, and the impact was the same. No surprise then that at the end of the year Timberlake Wertenbaker won the Play of the Year Award for her thrilling, transcendent drama.

Now ten years later, Out of Joint are touring with the play. We caught it at Bury St Edmunds, from where it was going on to Blackpool and Eastbourne. I would advise anyone who is sympathetic to the ideas of freedom, equality, and democracy, to make a special effort to see this marvellous production, played with total conviction by a wonderful cast. With most of the media seemingly intent on dumbing-down—the better to enslave, coerce and imprison compliant minds—here is a tale of blazing vitality which affirms that people can free themselves from both their physical and ideological prisons, and emerge with confidence and a sense of purpose determined to manage their own lives.

Our Country’s Good is based on Thomas Keneally’s novel, The Playmaker. This tells the story of a group of criminals who were amongst the first to be transported to Australia. It describes how the 736 convicts aged between 9 and 82 travelled 16,000 miles and “endured eight months of unbearable hardship. Amazingly 690 survived the voyage. Chained up in the hold of the ship, they were deprived of light, and during bad weather, of air. The hold was cramped: 4 people shared a space 6 foot by 7 foot which was only 5 foot 5 inches high. After three months at sea their clothes had worn bare and they were given sacks instead”. This is the condition in which we see the convicts at the beginning of the play.

The First Governor of Australia, Captain Phillips, is surprisingly sympathetic to Enlightenment ideas, but he is surrounded by officers whose opinions evidence a full complement of alternative views of the world; people very like those we are familiar with today. Collins, the pragmatic Advocate General intent on doing what the law bids, especially if this carries the support of the Governor; the cynical Captain Tench who believes criminality is innate; Major Ross, bigot and sadist; the Reverend Johnson worrying lest he might offend the scriptures; and so on.

But Phillips is a realist who recognises that when the convicts are released at the end of their sentences, they will help to determine the new society being built in the colony. Advised by Tench that once a criminal always a criminal, he quotes Rousseau, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”; and wonders whether if the prisoners are criminals “we might have made them that way?”. Eventually, with the aid of Collins, he persuades his colleagues, to allow one of the junior officers to direct the prisoners in a play. “We belong to a country which has spawned great playwrights: Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, and in our time, Sheridan. The convicts will be speaking a refined, literate language and expressing sentiments of a delicacy they are not used to. It may remind them that there is more to life than crime and punishment. And we, this colony of a few hundred will be watching this together, for a few hours we will no longer be despised prisoners and hated gaolers. We will laugh, we may be moved, we may even think a little.”

And, slowly, painstakingly, notwithstanding the difficulties—and the sadistic bullying of some of the guards—some of the convicts begin to respond. Playing other parts, and finding the resources in themselves to do so, they begin to see the possibilities of growth and change both for themselves and others. Finally, against all the odds they succeed triumphantly.

Wertenbaker’s play is an eloquent and passionate statement about the transcendent power of theatre. But more than this it is also about the thrilling possibilities of change for us all. At the end of the play the audience continued to clap for almost a minute after the cast had left the stage. As well as applauding the actors and the wonderful script, it was easy to image that they might also have been reacting to the chance of exercising choice for themselves. The air seemed heady with intoxicating possibilities.
Michael Gill

Climate change – Capitalism can’t cope (1999)

From the January 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard
  Representatives of all the world’s capitalist states meeting in Buenos Aires in November failed to agree on any effective action to cut back the emission of greenhouse gases—because the required measures would have undermined the competitiveness of some to the advantage of others. Capitalism simply does not provide a framework for the rational solution of the probl,em of threatened climate change.
On a long-term geological scale, climatic fluctuations have always occurred with cycles of cold (glacial) and warm (interglacial) periods. In the shorter term, fluctuations often occur on a regional basis and last only decades. For example, the south side of the Sahara has been experiencing drought since the 1960s causing Lake Chad to shrink from 23,500 to only 2,000 square kilometres.

The human cost of such climatic fluctuations is considerable. In the USA in the 1930s continuous high temperatures and low rainfall led to depleted vegetation cover, dust storms and a greatly reduced harvest which left many people hungry and destitute. Like most disasters, however, the human cost need not have been so great, the profit system playing its part. An increase in wheat prices in the 1920s and a rise in agricultural technology had led to short-sighted, profit-led agriculture which left topsoil exposed and made such a disaster all the more likely. Also, like all food “shortages”, it was not a lack of food (US stocks being easily enough to feed all in need) that people suffered from but a lack of money to pay for it.

The 20th century has seen a general warming, attributed by most to the greenhouse effect, which if it continues, would make such disasters, or at least extreme weather events, more commonplace. The century has seen across-the-globe average surface temperatures rise by between 0.3 percent and 0.6 percent, with the 1980s and 1990s being considerably the warmest on record. However, any changes in the vastly more important natural factors—solar activity, volcanic activity, natural carbon dioxide levels—would contribute to climate change more dramatically than would greenhouse gases.

There is still some uncertainty about what is causing global warming:
  “The spasmodic character of the observed warming . . . , is difficult to explain and it will be many years before any clear signal of greenhouse global warming emerges . . . Opponents of the theory of the enhanced greenhouse effect point to the fact that at least half of the warming that has taken place over the last hundred years occurred before two-thirds of the enhancement of the major greenhouse gases took place” (Andrew Goudie, Future of Climate, p.23).
Nonetheless, the profit motive, mainly through cause the unrestricted burning of fossil fuels and deforestation since the industrial revolution and particularly in the late 20th century, has led to an increase in greenhouse gases and so to the real possibility of an increase in global temperature.

A massive global increase in carbon dioxide emissions has occurred from 1,620 million tons in 1950 to 6,056 million tons in 1995, with the US the main contributor but with China fast catching up with a rise of 13 percent between 1990 and 1994. As well as carbon dioxide greenhouse gases include nitrous oxide and methane (now 2.5 times its natural level) which are produced by certain types of agriculture (paddy cultivation and cattle ranching for example), waste disposal and fossil fuel burning. Human-made CFCs, a greenhouse gas, have also been released into the atmosphere with the added result of ozone layer destruction.

Such increases in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, it seems increasingly likely, will result in increased atmospheric heat retention which will in turn result in an increased average global surface temperature.

On the other hand, another impact of industrial output comes from sulphate aerosols from burnt fossil fuels which could reduce temperature by reflecting solar radiation and modifying clouds. As a worse-case scenario, nuclear war, apart from killing instant millions, could result in a massive global temperature drop below freezing, effectively making the planet uninhabitable.

Global warming, however, appears to be here now, and a very pressing issue it is too with figures for 1998 showing record global temperatures for every month, with increases above previous levels being between 0.1°C and 0.2°C. The Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) projects a global increase in surface temperature of between 1°C and 3.5°C by the year 2100.

The impact of such a warming would be particularly important for coastal systems, with more erosion, increased salinity of water supplies, changes in tidal ranges and deposition, and increased coastal flooding. Sea levels could rise as much as 0.5 metres over the next 100 years with potentially disastrous consequences in low lying, heavily populated regions such as Bangladesh. Extreme weather could become more severe and tropical diseases such as malaria could move North and South. According to the IPCC 1996 report, “coastal ecosystems are particularly at risk, including salt water marshes, mangrove ecosystems, coastal wetlands, coral reefs, coral atolls, and river deltas”.

Ineffectual responses
Possible responses would most obviously be to cut down the vast production of greenhouse gases and to establish an effective response to the most likely effects of climate change.

The two major attempts made by world governments to respond to this issue have been ineffectual in the extreme. As one would expect, this was due to the impact that any effective response would have on profits and “international competitiveness”. These two attempts were the proposed European Union carbon tax and the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC), both of which aimed at reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

The EU discussed the adoption of a carbon tax but did not adopt it because of the fear that if other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries did not adopt similar policies, the international competitiveness of EU members, or at least of particular industries within it, would be affected.

The FCCC, consisting of 166 governments signing mostly non-binding agreements, was established in 1992 at the Rio summit with the aim of reducing greenhouse emissions to 1990 levels by 2000. Despite the agreement of all governments in the FCCC, few have done anything meaningful to meet the targets that were set. With production costs set to rise if the FCCC were applied, business lobbies were established to prevent any changes from being adopted. In the USA, for example, the Global Climate Convention was set up in 1989 with the task of representing the interests of the fossil fuel-based industries.

In such a situation, as the failure of the FCCC Conference in Buenos Aires in November confirming it is as near to impossible to achieve any action to reduce future emissions, let alone to produce any framework for combating any rise in temperatures.

Attempts to halt the massive output of greenhouse gases in the hope of preventing a possible global warming have resulted in negligible success, mainly due to capitalism’s higher priority—profit. Judging by capitalism’s lack of response to human need in the face of other vast human tragedies that could easily have been solved without the restraints of the profit system, it seems highly unlikely that flooding or the other consequences of warming would be dealt with in anything other way than as a panic effort at providing vastly inadequate aid after the event.

The issue of climate change is just one of a vast range of problems which capitalism is hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with. Human and environmental needs come a poor second whenever the needs of capital dictate. The history of sincere but failed attempts to correct a system which cannot meet needs leads to the conclusion that a new social system should be tried. A system without money and the profit motive in which the interests and needs of all are paramount. In such a system the challenge of the human impact on the environment can be seriously addressed for the first time. People, and not money, will control their lives and the direction of social progress.
Colin Skelly

Capitalism fails again (1999)

Book Review from January 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Tigers in Trouble. Ed. Jomo K.S. Zed Books. £14.95.

The current crisis in Asia is usually said to have begun with the forced devaluation of Thailand’s currency, the baht, in July 1997. It then spread to the other countries of the region, in particular Indonesia, Malaysia and South Korea which also had to devalue their currencies as outside banks and financial institutions stampeded to withdraw their money.

It would, however, be a mistake to see this as just a financial crisis. As most of the contributors to this book make clear, the financial crisis was a reflection of the situation that had arisen in the real economy where, spurred on by rising export sales which they expected to continue, private capitalist firms had expanded productive capacity beyond what could profitably be sold on world markets. As various different contributors put it:
  “In Japan the post-Plaza recovery [i.e. after 1985] was based on a very strong investment boom, but only to result in excess capacity subsequently. Again, the current difficulties in East Asia are traced back to excessive investment in the region since the beginning of the decade” (p. 42). 
  “Alternatively, it may be termed an over-investment crisis which, in a way similar to Japan, has caused massive over-investment and over-capacity which will produce downward pressure on the prices of traded goods and thus deteriorate the terms of trade of these countries” (p. 57). 
  “Insofar as it is possible to isolate the original sin in this particular Asian drama it must lie in the deceleration of export growth experienced by the entire region from about the middle of 1995” (p. 66). 
  “[In Korea] Lack of investment co-ordination led to overcapacity, which resulted in falling export prices, falling profitability due to low capacity utilisation, and the accumulation of non-performing loans in a number of leading industries, including semi-conductors, automobiles, petrochemicals and shipbuilding” (p. 228).
This became a financial and currency crisis because much of the investment in productive capacity that proved to be excessive in relation to markets had been financed by loans from local banks which in turn had borrowed the money from financial institutions in the industrialised world (US, Europe, Japan) where interest rates were.

Contrary to what some claim, banks do not make profits by “creating credit” by the stroke of a pen but are, as this crisis has again confirmed, intermediaries who make profits—or not—out of the difference between the rate at which they lend out money and the rate they pay those they themselves borrow the money from.

When exports began to slow down some of these loans became “non-performing”, i.e. the interest on them was not being paid. Which meant that the local banks were not going to be able to pay interest to those they had borrowed from. When these international lenders got wind off this they decided to get out. This put pressure on the dollar exchange rate of the local currencies which eventually collapsed, so making the situation of local banks worse as they had in effect borrowed in dollars which now became more expensive. This “credit crunch” meant that they were unable to lend so much to local businesses, even those which were still profitable, so obliging them too to cut back on production and lay off workers.

The slump in production which always follows over-investment and overproduction set in, with countries which had enjoyed in the decade 1985-1995 sustained annual growth rates of over 7 percent returning negative figures and seeing unemployment more than double.

In time—after the excess capacity in relation to the market has been destroyed (capitalism’s solution to the problem of poverty amidst potential plenty)—growth will resume but two contributors (Chandrasekhar and Ghosh) doubt that this will be at the same rate as previously. These countries’ growth has been based on “export-oriented industrialisation”, but “the fundamental problem of insufficient world markets for very rapidly increasing exports still remains” (p. 82). Another, Kregel, is even more pessimistic. He thinks this situation could lead to a rise in protectionism which “is precisely the scenario which was the prelude to the global crisis of the 1930s” (p. 66). We shall see.
Adam Buick

Bring Back The Test Card (1999)

TV Review from the January 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

They say it is a sign of getting older when policeman look like precocious sixth-formers, when you start bemoaning the lack of professionalism in modern sport and when you go around saying that music is “not what it was like in my day”. But however things may change and standards may decline, good old British TV is the one thing that will stay the same—the best in the world, and nobody can dispute it. Well here’s someone who’s about to. Frankly, anybody who believes British TV is unsurpassed in its professionalism and quality can’t have their eyes properly attached to their brain.

British television over the years has become the most noticeable expression (and exponent) of the dumbing-down of society. True, television everywhere since its invention and widespread application has been an instrument of ruling class propaganda and subtle conditioning. Something watched by people on average for about 30 hours a week is likely to have some influence on those who indulge, and TV’s influence has been huge. But what has changed over the years, as it has expanded as a medium and helped magnify the inanities of a decadent society, has been the quality of its output.

It did indeed used to be stated with tiresome regularity that British television was the best in the world. Look at America, its detractors would say, and be grateful for what you’ve got. Even if this view was complacent, there was almost certainly a grain of truth in it. It would be interesting, however, to ask the self-same TV executives who were putting this argument forward some years ago why, if British TV was so good and American TV so awful, the former has become just like the latter rather than the other way around. Could it possibly be something to do with the globalisation of culture around the modern metaphoric icon of the McDonald’s hamburger? And that America’s cut-throat values of competition, individualism and more competition flavoured with added piety have now triumphed?

Smash the Mac
Of course, the good thing about modern TV in Britain is that, just as in America, there is more choice. Or at least there appears to be more choice. The problem is that even though there are far more cans of televisual baked beans on offer down at the analogue and digital supermarkets, there is nothing to choose between them— they are all essentially the same. The appearance of more choice is just that—an appearance, or even an apparition, that is soon dispelled when reality starts to kick-in. British TV is no longer a serious, quality, entertainment medium. It was never reliable, unless reliably Establishment in orientation, but it had its good points. These have now been drowned under a welter of monotonous crime programmes, tired and repetitive soap operas, moronic game shows and third-rate sitcoms which would have never seen the Commissioning Editor’s desk in the 1970s, let alone had the chance to progress from there into the waste-paper basket.

As in the States, there is more viewer participation than there used to be, and this is one ray of light. In the old days, viewer participation on the BBC constituted having an extraordinarily tall man with an improbably short Auntie appear on the Generation Game so they could be patronised by Bruce Forsyth. Naturally enough, this sort of thing still goes on (after all, why change a winning formula?) But there are now plenty of programmes whereby Jo(e) Public can appear to have his or her say. The problem this time is that these programmes are rarely if ever concerned with serious issues, and when they are (typically on alcoholism, family break-up, etc) the entire debate is framed in tabloid newspaper terms and thereby rendered all but meaningless.

Christmas TV has offered little if any respite from this dumbing-down process. Never exactly a hot-bed of intellectual pursuit, it now appears to be in league with the breweries in a last-ditch attempt to drive people out of the house on wintry nights.

But if you are sitting down reading this after another dose of meaningless and patronising Christmas crud, don’t just wallow in your armchair and complain. Get up and go and do something less boring instead. This journal, for one, is full of relevant suggestions.
Dave Perrin